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Wonkbook: A Christmas present from Obamacare

Welcome to Wonkbook, Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas's morning policy news primer. To subscribe by e-mail, click here. Send comments, criticism, or ideas to Wonkbook at Gmail dot com. To read more by Ezra and his team, go to Wonkblog.

Wonkbook's Number of the Day: 49 percent. That's the share of Americans who said they understood basic insurance terms, like "premium" or "coinsurance." Less than a quarter of the uninsured were that confident. 

Wonkbook's Graph of the Day: How "Silent Night" came to dominate Christmas.

Wonkbook's Top 5 Stories: (1) A Christmas present from Obamacare; (2) it may never get better for the unemployed; (3) pick your energy, pick your poison; (4) gay marriage looks unstoppable; and (5) NSA reform won't be easy.

1. Top story: A Christmas present from Obamacare

Administration extends enrollment deadline once again. Kinda. "The Obama administration provided a few details Tuesday about a special enrollment period for Americans who sought to sign up through the online federal health insurance marketplace for coverage starting Jan. 1 but failed to obtain it. In a blog post under the heading, "Couldn't enroll by December 23? We can still help you get covered," the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid explained that individuals could reach out to a network of federally-sponsored call centers around the country any day this week besides Christmas Day to try to complete their health insurance applications." Juliet Eilperin in The Washington Post.

Read CMS's blog post:

@ddiamond: Big Obamacare numbers this week. Sign-ups in private plans on Monday: • 25,000 in Calif. • 20,000 in NY • 10,000 in Wash.

Deadlines keep slipping. "Many of the states running their own exchanges have announced similar delays. California set a new deadline of Friday at 8 p.m. local time for people who didn't finish filling out their applications, telling them to contact a call center. Massachusetts, Minnesota and Rhode Island said residents could sign up as late as New Year's Eve for coverage starting the next day. The changes put more pressure on health insurers to get paperwork in order so people who have signed up for coverage can actually use it.... Other states reported a similar rush. Nearly a third of the 65,472 people who signed up for private health plans in Washington state through Monday did so in the final four days. Connecticut recorded 6,700 enrollees on Monday, double the previous single-day high. received two million visits on Monday, federal officials said." Peter Landers in The Wall Street Journal. 

Many counties lack affordable plans for unsubsidized. "More than half of the counties in 34 states using the federal health insurance exchange lack even a bronze plan that's affordable — by the government's own definition — for 40-year-old couples who make just a little too much for financial assistance, a USA TODAY analysis shows.... The USA TODAY analysis looked at whether premiums for the least expensive plan in any of the metal levels was more than 8% of household income." Jayne O'Donnell and Paul Overberg in USA Today.

@JimPethokoukis: 2014 politics: Obamacare vs. best economy in nearly a decade

Shopping for health insurance is hard. Understanding it is even harder. "Fewer than one in four uninsured Americans felt confident they understood nine basic insurance terms, like "premium," "coinsurance" and "maximum out-of-pocket" charges. For those who currently have coverage, that number hovered around 49 percent, with just fewer than half of those holding policies right now feeling like they had a good handle on these nine terms." Sarah Kliff in The Washington Post.

Is knee surgery useless? "A popular surgical procedure worked no better than fake operations in helping people with one type of common knee problem, suggesting that thousands of people may be undergoing unnecessary surgery, a new study in The New England Journal of Medicine reports.... [E]xperts, including some orthopedic surgeons, said the study added to other recent research suggesting that meniscal surgery should be aimed at a narrower group of patients; that for many, options like physical therapy may be as good." Pam Belluck in The New York Times.

COCHRANE: What to do when Obamacare unravels. "This fall's website fiasco and policy cancellations are only the beginning. Next spring the individual mandate is likely to unravel when we see how sick the people are who signed up on exchanges, and if our government really is going to penalize voters for not buying health insurance. The employer mandate and "accountable care organizations" will take their turns in the news. There will be scandals. There will be fraud. This will go on for years." John H. Cochrane in The Wall Street Journal.

@ByronYork: So the one thing public hates most is the one thing Obamacare can't do without. For adm, voting against mandate equals repeal…

FLAVELLE: Obamacare, hated today, will soon get boost. "[A]t some point early in 2014, two things will happen to boost people's views about Obamacare. First, some people covered by exchange plans will find that the coverage is better than they expected. Second, an even larger group of people will realize that the worst disarray caused by Obamacare doesn't apply to their own coverage." Christopher Flavelle in Bloomberg.

Music recommendations interlude: Pretty Much Amazing's 13 best mixtapes of 2013.

Top opinion

KLEIN: An economist’s guide to gift-giving. "In January 1993, Joel Waldfogel asked 86 undergraduate students whether they liked their Christmas gifts. But Waldfogel is an economist, so he phrased the question more precisely, asking them how much they would have paid to buy those items for themselves. The results were grim, at least for the gift-givers: The students estimated that their gifts had cost $438.20 -- but they said the most they would have been willing to pay for them was $313.40. Two months later, Waldfogel rounded up 58 more students and asked them how much cash it would have taken to make them “indifferent between the gift and the cash.” These students estimated that their holiday gifts had cost $508.90 on average. But they would have been just as happy with $462.10 in cash." Ezra Klein in The Washington Post.

PORTER: Rethinking how to split the costs of carbon. "The “good” news is that under the standard accounting of carbon emissions bandied about at climate talks, it’s not, mostly, Americans’ fault. About three-quarters of the carbon dioxide is considered the responsibility of other people — in places like China and Taiwan, South Korea and Inner Mongolia — where the phone and its parts were made. The bad news is not just that the effort to curb global warming is as stuck as ever, but that, whether we like it or not, we’re all in this together." Eduardo Porter in The New York Times.

MAYHEW: The least productive Congress? "Is the current Congress the least productive in history, as many are alleging? The question calls for a yardstick. One current answer tracks the numbers of “public laws enacted” or “bills passed” by each Congress going back to World War II. By that measure, the 113th Congress has passed just 58 laws so far, the lowest since 1947...[S]omething is wrong with our yardstick. There is a weighting problem. In fact, some congressional enactments are vastly more important than others. And there is a bundling problem." David R. Mayhew in Politico.

MATTHEW C. KLEIN: Is inflation about to make a comeback? "If companies are only willing to hire people who are employed, they may soon have to compete with each other for workers. That means bidding up wages. The good news is that those with jobs may be about to enjoy years of real income gains as bargaining power shifts from capital to labor. The corollary is relatively faster consumer price inflation and lower corporate profit margins -- unless the Fed decides to lean against the incipient economic recovery." Matthew C. Klein in Bloomberg.

FRANKEL: Send Fischer to the Fed. "Fischer himself expressed greater optimism at the conference that monetary policy can work, even under current conditions. Quantitative easing and forward guidance can push down the long-term interest rate. And there are other channels besides the real interest rate: the exchange rate, equity prices, the real-estate market, and the credit channel." Jeffrey Frankel in Project Syndicate.

Fun interlude: The year in political cartoons.

2. Economy improves but leaves many behind

Benefits to end Saturday for long-term jobless. "The ranks of the long-term unemployed peaked at more than 6.7 million in the spring of 2010, according to government data. The number has since declined to about 4 million, but they still account for more than a third of those who are out of work. It takes the average job hunter almost eight months to get hired, data show, compared to less than five months before the recession. Ending the benefits could encourage some workers to take part-time work or lower-paying jobs than they would have otherwise, economists say. But many are expected to give up looking for work altogether. Some may even apply for disability benefits instead." Ylan Q. Mui in The Washington Post.

Durable-goods orders jump 3.5 percent. "Nonmilitary capital goods orders excluding aircraft, a closely watched proxy for business spending plans, surged 4.5 percent. The increases in these so-called core capital goods orders and in durable goods orders over all suggested strength in manufacturing and were further evidence of a firming economic growth outlook. They narrow the gap with sentiment surveys that have offered a more upbeat view of manufacturing than government data." Reuters.

Housing sales rise to highest level since 2008. "New-home sales in November hit an annualized rate of 464,000, which is 16.6 percent higher than a year ago. The figure slipped 2.1 percent from October, but the rate of sales is still just below a five-year high...[A]nalysts said the latest numbers point to positive trends that are likely to pick up more steam in the new year, helping to buttress the U.S. economy even further as it slowly picks up momentum." Jia Lynn Yang in The Washington Post.

...But is the housing recovery running out of steam? "Banks are likely to tighten lending standards once new rules come into place. Rising interest rates may drive down home loan volume, too...[D]emand for mortgages is likely to shrink, too. That’s because long-term interest rates are on the verge of rising after years of the Federal Reserve holding them artificially low." Daniel Indiviglio in The New York Times.

Underwater homeowners could face extra tax burden in 2014. "A law that spared people who owe more than their homes are worth from being saddled with extra taxes when their banks provide mortgage relief is expiring next week. Congress hasn’t extended it...At the federal level, there are three bills — two in the House and one in the Senate — that call for the law’s extension. One of the House bills enjoys strong bipartisan support, with 29 Democrats and 23 Republicans on board. The Senate bill — which would extend relief through 2015 — is sponsored by Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Dean Heller (R-Nev.)." Amrita Jayakumar in The Washington Post.

Economists are looking for robust growth in 2014. "The pair of reports showed renewed optimism by businesses and prospective homeowners, two of the biggest drivers of the economy, and led Macroeconomic Advisers to raise its estimate for fourth-quarter growth. It now forecasts gross domestic product to expand at an annualized rate of 2.6% in the final three months of the year, up three-tenths of a percentage point from an earlier estimate." Sarah Portlock and Josh Mitchell in The Wall Street Journal.

Through trade treaty, U.S. hopes rules that favor its companies will become the norm. "[T]he more significant fights — and the reason why the Obama administration has placed such a priority on the agreement — are over issues such as the regulation of the Internet and e-commerce, the rules for the patent and sale of biopharmaceuticals, and the oversight of logistics, consulting, energy management and other service industries where the U.S. holds an edge...For many emerging technology and other industries, the global rules for trading and investment have yet to be set, and “the goal here is to have more U.S.-based policies” rather than ones more typically found in countries such as China that try to force companies to invest locally or turn over technology to local partners." Howard Schneider in The Washington Post.

On the lighter side: How the econblogs would cover Christmas, a satireJohn Carney in CNBC.

Detroit agrees to new bankruptcy terms. "Under pressure from a federal judge, the bankrupt city of Detroit said Tuesday it had reached new terms with some of its secured lenders, yielding approximately $55 million in additional savings...The deal announced by the city Tuesday reduced the termination amount to $165 million, increasing the city's estimated savings to $128 million." Matthew Dolan in The Wall Street Journal.

For your reference interlude: 17 questions Jews are tired of being asked about Christmas.

3. Pick your energy, pick your poison

As its natural gas boom ends, Wyoming seeks to plug its wells. "The companies that once operated the wells have all but vanished into the prairie, many seeking bankruptcy protection and unable to pay the cost of reclaiming the land they leased. Recent estimates have put the number of abandoned drilling operations in Wyoming at more than 1,200, and state officials said several thousand more might soon be orphaned by their operators. Wyoming officials are now trying to address the problem amid concerns from landowners that the wells could contaminate groundwater and are a blight on the land. This month, Gov. Matt Mead proposed allocating $3 million to pay for plugging the wells and reclaiming the land around them." Dan Frosch in The New York Times.

Wind power rushes to secure its subsidy. "Developers are signing deals, ordering equipment and lurching ahead with construction starts to qualify for a tax credit that is worth 2.3 cents a kilowatt-hour for the first 10 years of production...In previous years, the projects had to be in commercial operation by New Year’s Eve. This year, they need only have begun...Under the current rules, a lapse in the credit will not have much immediate effect, since many projects are now in the early stages of development." Diane Cardwell and Matthew L. Wald in The New York Times.

Is frozen natural gas the future of energy? "Shale has the spotlight for now. But there’s another, lesser-known substance with the potential to yield even greater quantities of natural gas: methane hydrate. + Hydrates consist of a lattice-like structure of frozen water molecules and methane. On the surface, they look like an ordinary block of ice. But when you hold a match to them, they burn—a visual cue signaling methane release.... EIA also reports that these ice-like structures could hold anywhere from 10,000 trillion to more than 100,000 trillion cubic feet of natural gas." Clare Foran in NationalJournal and Quartz.

Judge blocks BP from avoiding payments on Gulf spill. "BP has sought to cut down on payments for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster by asking that local businesses prove the link between their economic losses and the oil spill. A federal judge halted BP’s effort to skip payments on Tuesday, ruling that BP cannot reverse its interpretation of the settlement simply because the cost is higher than what the oil giant once estimated. BP wanted the rules of a class action settlement to be rewritten to require “proof of causation” or to throw out the entire multi-billion dollar agreement. U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier disagreed, writing that BP’s argument is “not only clearly inconsistent with its previous position, it directly contradicts what it has told this court.”" Rebecca Leber in ThinkProgress.

Music everywhere interlude: 'Battle of the Saxes' on the NYC subway.

4. Gay marriage looks unstoppable

State courts are gay marriage's last frontier. "In the six months since the decision, the number of states allowing gay marriage has jumped from 12 to 18, a trend that started before the high court ruling that's been reinforced since. Judges in New Mexico, Ohio and, most surprisingly, conservative, Mormon-heavy Utah all ruled in favor of same-sex marriage in just the past week. Both Utah's case and another in Nevada will next be heard by federal appeals courts, putting them on the path toward the high court. Ohio's case, which recognized same-sex death certificates, also will likely be appealed." Brady McCombs and Mark Sherman in The Associated Press.

Indiana finds it's not so easy to buck the gay-marriage trend. "Indiana, where lawmakers in the coming weeks are expected to call for the second vote needed to put a ban before voters in the fall elections, is now in a far more tense, unpredictable and closely watched spot than anyone here had imagined — a test case in whether a state will impose new limits on same-sex marriage in this fast-moving political and legal environment." Monica Davey in The New York Times.

Holiday interlude: Christmas is winning the War on Christmas.

5. NSA reform won't be easy

If not the NSA, who should store the phone data? "Obama last week suggested that he was open to the idea of requiring phone companies to store the records and allowing the government to search them under strict guidelines. Currently, the agency stores those records itself, part of a sprawling collection program that came to light through documents shared by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. But now, industry officials, privacy advocates and congressional officials are expressing resistance to any alternatives that involve mandating phone companies to hold the data for longer periods. And other possible scenarios, including having a private third party store the records, also raise concerns, they say." Ellen Nakashima in The Washington Post.

Edward Snowden wishes you a merry Christmas. "“A child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all,” Mr. Snowden said in a Christmas Day message shown by Channel 4. “They’ll never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves — an unrecorded, unanalyzed thought.” “Privacy matters; privacy is what allows us to determine who we are and who we want to be,” he said." Stephen Castle in The New York Times.

A new twist in international relations, courtesy of the NSA. "Some companies are apparently so concerned about the NSA snooping on their data that they're requiring -- in writing -- that their technology suppliers store their data outside the U.S.... U.S.-based technology companies face a serious threat. The NSA disclosures may reduce U.S. technology sales overseas by as much as $180 billion, or 25 percent of information technology services, by 2016, according to Forrester Research Inc., a group in Cambridge, Massachusetts." Jordan Robertson in Bloomberg.

Reading material interlude: The best sentences Wonkblog read today.

Wonkblog Roundup

An economist’s guide to gift-givingEzra Klein.

Do ambassadors matterLydia DePillis.

Shopping for health insurance is hard. Understanding it is even harderSarah Kliff.

Et Cetera

Colleges to trim bloat in administrative staffsDouglas Belkin in The Wall Street Journal.

Boeing is on many wish lists, but economists say states should rethink their big tax breaksJim Tankersley in The Washington Post.

Republicans are looking to rebrand themselves as the party of business, not the party of severe conservatismNeil King Jr. and Patrick O'Connor in The Wall Street Journal.

Got tips, additions, or comments? E-mail me.

Wonkbook is produced with help from Michelle Williams.