‐ He pounds his chest, he roars, he perches on high-profile Manhattan real estate, and he can only be tamed by a clever blonde lady: Who could have seen this King Kong reboot coming?
‐ Recently, President Trump leveled a bombshell accusation: that his predecessor in the Oval Office ordered that the phones at Trump Tower be “tapped” shortly before the general election. Trump seems to have tweeted without having the foggiest idea whether his specific allegation had any factual basis, and by doing so he needlessly created a sense of crisis within his own government and forced his aides to scramble for some justification after the fact. They have pointed to press reports of surveillance requests by the Obama Justice Department prior to the election. These reports are from outlets of varying levels of credibility, but they suggest that the Obama administration used the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court to surveil some of Trump’s associates in the final weeks of the campaign — although the reasons for the surveillance are unknown. None of these reports in the press, which themselves fall short of Trump’s accusation, has been independently confirmed, and Obama-administration officials have denied any wrongdoing. If there were legitimate fears that associates of the now-president were foreign agents, the president and the public deserve to know. Likewise, if that fear was simply a pretext for surveillance of Barack Obama’s political opponents, the president and the public deserve to know. That Trump’s aides in the White House seem determined to memory-hole the accusation suggests that the desire to know is limited.
‐ President Trump’s address to a joint session of Congress was indeed, as has been widely remarked, presidential. Sticking firmly to script, the president laid out a broad center-right agenda while striking a tone of relative sobriety and optimism. Trump argued that government policies had badly served working- and middle-class Americans — had even lost sight of their needs — and called for a reorientation of the federal government’s agenda to include an enforcement-first immigration policy, a repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act, and tax reform and regulatory rollback. No one will have mistaken this for a limited-government speech. After a paean to protectionist economic policies, Trump suggested that $1 trillion, from a combination of public and private sources, be invested in a “national rebuilding” and proposed a federal paid-maternity-leave policy that could end up, depending on the specifics, tilting the playing field against families with stay-at-home parents. His proposed $54 billion increase to defense spending is more welcome, but it’s clear that any tendency toward fiscal responsibility will have to be supplied by congressional Republicans. He did himself and the party a lot of good, though, by presenting all of this in a manner worthy of a president of the United States.
‐ Congressional Democrats are calling on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign following reports that he was in touch with Russia’s ambassador twice during last year’s presidential campaign, contradicting his confirmation testimony. The former Alabama senator met briefly with a group of ambassadors amid the Republican National Convention and with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak on Capitol Hill in September. Meetings between senators and diplomatic officials are, of course, common: Missouri senator Claire McCaskill, who attacked Sessions on Twitter for the sit-down, has in the past publicized multiple visits of her own with the Russian ambassador. But during his confirmation hearings, Sessions told Democratic Minnesota senator Al Franken that he was “not aware” of “anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign” communicating with the Russian government. Sessions’s answer was inaccurate, and the whole episode could have been avoided had Sessions been clearer up front. The context nonetheless makes it defensibly clear that Sessions was denying coordination with the Russians about the presidential election. Sessions has rightly recused himself from any Justice Department investigations into the Trump team’s links to Moscow, and his contacts with the Russian ambassador ought to be a part of Congress’s ongoing probe into the Trump campaign’s connections, possibly inadvertent, to the Kremlin. This is a political matter, and it is incumbent upon the people’s representatives to investigate.
‐ After seeing its original executive order on refugees halted by the Ninth Circuit, the White House has wisely retreated from a battle at the Supreme Court and refashioned a narrower, clearer travel ban explicitly designed to pass muster with the judiciary. Some of the key elements are still in place, including a 120-day suspension of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program and an annual refugee cap of 50,000. But Iraq has been removed from the list of countries from which travel is temporarily suspended (applicants from Iraq will be treated on a case-by-case basis), and the indefinite halt of Syrian refugees has been rescinded and placed on the same timeline as that for refugees from elsewhere. Additionally, the administration has supplied a list of exceptions, among whom are green-card holders and foreign nationals traveling on diplomatic visas. The order also includes more-detailed justifications for the temporary travel bans on the six remaining countries, provides the sources of the president’s legal authority for the order, and expressly rejects the idea that the order discriminates against Muslims. The clarity of the order was reflected in its rollout, which included a ten-day delay on implementation to give the appropriate agencies time to prepare. Despite the woolly reasoning of the Ninth Circuit, there was never any question of the president’s legal authority to issue his original travel ban. The problems were political — and self-inflicted. This new ban has been crafted with more care, and its implementation suggests a welcome preference for deliberation over haste.
‐ Illegal border crossings from Mexico have dropped 36 percent as of February from the year before. Crossings also fell between January and February, when typically they increase as the weather gets warmer. The reduction is a sign that Trump’s message of actual enforcement has been sent and received. Open-borders advocates often argue that illegal immigration is inevitable. To the contrary, February shows that the migrant flow responds to incentives, and that enforcement changes them.
‐ The Trump Justice Department asked 46 United States attorneys to resign — standard procedure at the beginning of a new administration. Preet Bharara, attorney for the Southern District of New York, refused and was fired. Bharara had the vices of a prosecutor — headline-grabbing, throwing the government’s weight around. He subpoenaed Reason magazine for information about commenters on its website, then gagged them from discussing the matter; he threw the book at Dinesh D’Souza for making straw donations to a friend’s political campaign. But Bharara also had the virtues of a prosecutor. He was the only equivalent of a two-party system in New York State, himself vs. the crooks, who were virtually the entire political class, of both parties. He toppled corrupt legislators and was sniffing around Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio. No doubt he will run for some office, and no doubt he will espouse liberal views. As a bloodhound he will be missed.
‐ Charles Murray was invited by campus conservatives at Middlebury College to discuss Coming Apart, his 2012 book on white-lower-class disarray. Leftists in the auditorium greeted him with 20 minutes of organized jeering. He and Allison Stanger, a professor who was to have questioned him, then left for a secure room to broadcast their discussion. But riotous thugs banged on their car, threw a cement-anchored sign in its path, and assaulted Professor Stanger, grabbing her hair and twisting her neck (she went to an ER and received a neck brace). Numerous liberals — Frank Bruni, Danielle Allen, John McWhorter — deplored these Red Guard tactics. The students who sabotaged the meeting should be suspended or expelled; the violent among them should be criminally charged. But those are reactive measures. On campus, the authoritarian future has arrived. Middlebury and hundreds of other schools have gone destructively astray. Until they reexamine their mission and their standards, they should be considered centers of bigotry as much as learning.
‐ Michael T. Flynn’s tumultuous stint as national-security adviser continues to throw off aftershocks. He belatedly registered as a lobbyist for a company owned by a Turkish businessman who is friendly with Turkey’s President Erdogan. Flynn was on the firm’s payroll during the Trump transition and wrote an op-ed in The Hill slamming the exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, once an Erdogan ally, now a hate figure. Outsiders such as Trump prize outsiders such as Flynn for their fresh perspectives and their very orneriness. But outsiderdom no more guarantees wisdom and discretion than does a lifetime of toeing the line. Flynn is now free to advocate his policy preferences and pursue his business interests — on the outside.
‐ President Trump recently told Planned Parenthood that its federal funding might continue if it agrees to cease performing abortion procedures. The group refused the deal, simultaneously arguing that its provision of abortion isn’t funded by taxpayers and insisting that to discontinue abortion services would constitute abandoning its patients. Although federal Medicaid and family-planning dollars are not supposed to pay for abortions, the fungibility of money means that any funds Planned Parenthood receives facilitate abortions. Defunding the abortion group has long been a goal of Republicans, and a provision to do so is part of the House GOP’s draft health-care bill. Trump’s offer was one that the nation’s largest abortion provider was bound to refuse.
‐ In April 2016, the Trump Organization applied for 38 trademarks to businesses in China. This month they were all approved. What could have happened between last April and now? The trademarks cover everything from hotels and golf courses to massage parlors, bodyguards, and escort services. Clearly the Chinese intend this approval as a favor, and a bid for payback. Trump has put his assets into a trust run by his son Donald Jr. and a Trump Organization executive; he is the sole beneficiary, and he can replace the trustees at will. He should have put his assets into a blind trust instead. Foreign boodle flowing to an organization managed by a son and an employee is unseemly in a president. It’s hard to be a swamp-drainer if you’re standing in the marsh.
‐ WikiLeaks published thousands of documents leaked from the Central Intelligence Agency. It may be the most extensive trove of unlawfully disclosed classified information ever. Worse, it provides lavish details of top-secret intelligence-gathering methods the disclosure of which could do incalculable damage to ongoing operations and that are guaranteed to make anti-American regimes harden their defenses, rendering national security more vulnerable. It is a commonplace when such information leaks for critics to jump from the existence of capabilities to their widespread abuse. Our security, particularly in an age of covert transnational terror networks, requires that our spooks’ tools be as creative and effective as our military arsenal. Notwithstanding the occasional rogue agent, remedies for whom are provided, having technically capable intelligence services will not inevitably lead to “domestic spying” on Americans. It is the antithesis of a coup for civil liberties when the forces that protect us from those who would destroy them are undermined by their supposed protection. In this instance, the Trump administration should note that WikiLeaks, the undermining agent, is a tool of the Putin regime.
‐ Scott Gottlieb, President Trump’s nominee to run the Food and Drug Administration, has been a high official at the agency before. More important, he has thought deeply about the legislative, organizational, and cultural changes that need to take place so that the agency may better serve an intended function that it currently does not serve: getting medical innovations to market. Everyone at the FDA knows that the agency will have more trouble if it approves a drug that kills one person than if it fails to approve a drug that saves two, or a hundred. Gottlieb is mindful of the problem, and is therefore an excellent choice.
Restoring Work and Wages
Employment in the U.S. has been inching back up from its low following the financial crisis. Even a slow and disappointing pace can eventually get you close to your destination. To be sure, the headline unemployment rate has not ventured above 5 percent for the year. But as my colleague Nicholas Eberstadt documented in his recent book, Men without Work: America’s Invisible Crisis, the low unemployment rate fails to capture the fact that the work rate has also been falling. Eberstadt argues that with one in six prime-working-age men not in the work force, the U.S. faces a crisis.
This shows the sense in which the unemployment rate can be misleading. Between 1990 and the financial crisis, around 63 percent of the population had a job. This percentage, as measured by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, dropped to around 58 percent during the crisis and remains at about 60 percent today. That means that fully 3 percent less of the population is gainfully employed today than in 1990.
A byproduct of the weak labor market has been very slow wage growth. Historically, tight labor markets have been the best news for the middle class. When unemployment is low, blue-collar wages rise. It’s possible that this time around, wages have not risen much as unemployment has dropped because discouraged workers who were out of the labor force have jumped back in. So it could be that, as the measured unemployment rate gets lower, wages will not advance as they have in the past.
It’s debatable when the labor market is “tight,” but just to pick a number, the attached chart defines the “unemployment gap” as the difference between the unemployment rate and 5 percent. I plotted the unemployment gap alongside wage growth. The civilian-unemployment rate comes from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis’s FRED databank and is seasonally adjusted to account for predictable variation. Meanwhile, the wage-growth rates are as estimated by the Atlanta Federal Reserve Bank, using the Current Population Survey, and are smoothed out using a three-month average.
A pattern can be seen in the graph suggesting that this rough measure of the unemployment gap is inversely related to wage growth. When the unemployment gap falls, wages grow, and when unemployment spikes, as during the financial crisis, wage growth declines. At the end of the chart, wage growth appears to be picking up.
Given the large army of reserve workers who are on the sidelines, one can hope that the wage growth that has begun to be evident will encourage citizens to re-enter the labor force. If they do, then continued wage momentum may well require policy changes such as a corporate-tax reform to kick the economy into a higher gear.
‐ Samuel Girod is an Amish snake-oil salesman from Kentucky who peddled nostrums made from chickweed, bloodroot, and the like under claims that these would, among other things, cure skin cancer. He was convicted on a dozen charges ranging from introducing mislabeled drugs into interstate commerce to attempted witness-tampering to violating 18 U.S.C. § 372 in “conspiring to prevent by force, intimidation, and threat, certain FDA officers from discharging their duties.” He has been jailed and faces up to 68 years in prison. The fact that Girod was making medical claims for his products put him on the FDA’s radar, though the agency may fairly be said to be reacting overzealously in this matter: If we imprisoned everyone who, say, claimed that turmeric fights cancer, we would have to cancel half the cooking shows on television and raid every hipster café in Brooklyn selling “golden lattes.” While Amish horse-and-buggy operations may sometimes cross state lines, Girod’s operation does not seem to rise quite to the level of “interstate commerce” that should command the interest of the FDA. Giving the credulous the opportunity to pay good money for the privilege of rubbing smelly weed paste into their own faces need not necessarily be a federal crime, whatever the technicalities. No one seems to have been hurt. The case deserves careful review, preferably by a judge with a keen eye for the absurd.
‐ The goals of “A Day without a Woman,” held on International Women’s Day in March, were diverse. The general idea was for women to protest President Trump and various real and imagined injustices by refusing to work or shop for a day, or by wearing the color red. Some of its organizers wrote in an op-ed that they hoped it would be “a day of striking, marching, blocking roads, bridges, and squares, abstaining from domestic care and sex work, boycotting, calling out misogynistic politicians and companies, striking in educational institutions.” The strike did succeed in closing down a few affluent public-school districts surrounding Washington, D.C., where many teachers took the day off, causing a minor headache for working parents. Even in liberal strongholds, though, participation was limited. It turned out to be a day with most women going about their business.
‐ Samantha Bee, queen of unfunny political comedy, stepped in it recently when she inadvertently mocked a man with cancer for his short hair. Her show, Full Frontal, had a video segment from the Conservative Political Action Conference that contained little more than footage of attendees with the addition of insulting commentary, and the man with cancer received the epithet “Nazi Hair.” Bee has since apologized and donated to his treatment, but having cancer is not the only good reason not to be called a Nazi. Purveyors of news comedy have sunk so far into left-wing agitprop that nobody on Bee’s team thought twice about imputing Hitlerian tendencies to random strangers at CPAC. Unfortunately, mocking people for things they don’t even believe has a long pedigree in late-night political satire. Jon Stewart and others used deceptively edited footage to smear people, and those of the new generation, such as Bee, are following in their footsteps without the freshness or wit. Managing to avoid insulting people with cancer would do little to make this kind of deceitful mockery less despicable.
‐ Employers will be able to penalize workers for not telling them about Dad’s heart condition or Grandma’s macular degeneration unless a bill before the House is revised or defeated. A federal law enacted in 2008 protects individuals from such employer requests for information, but the new bill explicitly contradicts the prior law. The penalty for an employee who declines to comply with the new law would be up to 30 percent of his insurance cost. On average, that would be more than $5,000 a year. The stated intent of the bill is to encourage employee-wellness programs. The stipulations violating protections of privacy are misguided, however, both in principle and politically. H.R. 1313, introduced by Virginia Foxx (R., N.C.), passed one House committee on a party-line vote and is under review by others, where Republicans should either revise it or join Democrats in voting it down.
‐ Détente looks to be off. An AP report suggests that President Trump believes he can’t pursue a rapprochement with Vladimir Putin in the current atmosphere of suspicion over his campaign team’s links with Russia. Trump has also surrounded himself with foreign-policy hands such as James Mattis and H. R. McMaster, who are not dewy-eyed about Putin (or anyone else), and his policy so far has been reassuringly conventional. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently told the Ukrainian foreign minister that the U.S. supports the continuation of sanctions for as long as Russia occupies Ukrainian territory. Since a re-reset with Moscow would be doomed to fail, it makes sense to skip a couple of years of pointless naïveté and simply adopt a tough, realistic posture from the beginning.
‐ The picture was worth a thousand words. A line of Stryker armored vehicles was caught driving across the Syrian countryside and flying American flags. This deployment — both in support of rebels advancing on Raqqa, ISIS’s de facto capital, and designed to separate warring rebel factions — demonstrated an important and necessary increase in American commitment to the war against jihadists. The Trump administration is indeed ramping up the offensive in Syria, and it’s using American troops, including artillery and special forces, to aid our allies on the ground. This means a greater likelihood of a decisive victory. It means a greater ability to shape the final outcome of the Syrian conflict. But it also may mean yet another long-term military commitment in yet another Middle Eastern country. The Syrian engagement is a test: Trump seems ready to win a battle, but will he have the staying power necessary to win the war?
‐ In South Korea, the National Assembly impeached the president, Park Geun-hye (a woman, by the way). The Constitutional Court upheld the impeachment. President Park left office. This may seem somewhat ordinary, but remember: Many people said that democracy was incompatible with “Asian values.” Remember, too, that the other half of Korea, North Korea, is a ghastly dictatorship. Political systems matter, and DNA is not destiny. Finally, consider the part that America has played in South Korea. Whatever our mistakes, we have done good in the world, a fact that should be recognized and defended now and then.
‐ The North Korean dictatorship launched four ballistic missiles into the sea. The United States sent missile defense to South Korea — specifically, THAAD, or Terminal High Altitude Area Defense. Dr. Teller used to say, “Better a shield than a sword.” Both, of course, are desirable, as he knew. To the deployment of our shield, China reacted furiously. It retaliated against South Korea economically, and threatened more. Many South Koreans are nervous, of course, wanting to be protected from North Korea but also wanting to be protected from China’s wrath. Ultimately, the likes of Kim Jong-un cannot be trusted with their nukes. Dr. Teller’s shield is a must.
‐ The U.N. says the world is at risk of its worst bout of famine since the end of World War II. But, like the great majority of the famines of the latter half of the 20th century, the famines of the 21st century do not have a great deal to do with food. There is hunger and the threat of famine in Somalia, where Salafist militants are fighting a war against the Somali government, such as it is; in Yemen, there is a proxy war between Saudi Arabia, which backs the government, and Iran, which backs Houthi rebels, with both sides interfering with the delivery of food and medical supplies; in northeastern Nigeria, the Boko Haram insurgency has disrupted agriculture and turned thousands into refugees; in South Sudan, a complicated and partly ethnic civil war has raged since a purported attempt at a coup d’état. Islamic supremacism is a major factor in each of those conflicts with the exception of the one in South Sudan, a young and fragile state formed after a long civil war between the largely Christian south of Sudan and the Muslim north. There also has been a food crisis in Ethiopia — but no deaths from famine there. Ethiopia, once the byword for famine, has built up its infrastructure, largely through foreign investment, and has set aside emergency funds, which means that food gets delivered to remote villages. The world has enough rice and wheat. It does not have enough peace and railroads.
‐ The Sardar Daud Khan medical complex is in the administrative center of Kabul. At nine o’clock of a busy morning, nobody took much notice of four men in white coats making their way in. When another terrorist in the team threw a grenade to the rear of the hospital, the four began firing weapons they had concealed under the white coats. The shooting lasted till four in the afternoon, by which time the terrorists were dead, but so were 30 patients and staff, with something like twice that number wounded. As one survivor put it, “Everywhere was full of blood.” ISIS was quick to claim responsibility. Perhaps this is another in the chain of barbarities that ISIS will always be remembered by; and perhaps it is a forewarning of how ISIS will regroup after it has been driven out of Mosul.
‐ We are unused to hearing the term “Swedish-troop movements,” but Sweden has moved troops back to Gotland, its island in the Baltic Sea. It has also reinstated the draft. Why? Because of Putin, who has rehearsed the invasion of the Baltic countries, the Scandinavian countries, and Finland. His forces simulated a nuclear attack on Bornholm, the Danish island in the Baltic Sea. They chose the day of the island’s annual festival, when the entire Danish political leadership is gathered. Scandinavians may have a reputation for pacifism, but Sweden has not reinstated the draft for fun.
‐Charging Bull, the bronze sculpture on Wall Street, has been a symbol since 1989. It was created by Arturo Di Modica, who wanted the bull to represent “the strength and power of the American people” following the 1987 crash. (He is a bull, not a bear.) On the recent International Women’s Day, a sculpture was placed in front of the bull. She, the new sculpture, is known as “Fearless Girl,” and she is supposed to be making a statement about gender equality in the financial sector. She is standing up to the bull, you see. She is defiant. The sculpture was commissioned by State Street Global Advisors, an investment firm. She is a neat-looking little girl — indeed, fearless. And a lot of people want her to be a permanent fixture. But she ought to go, after a decent interval, so that the meaning — the inspiring meaning — of Charging Bull can be maintained.
‐ Robert Kelly, a professor of political science at Pusan National University, got more than he bargained for when he agreed to a live-TV interview on the impeachment of South Korean president Park Geun-hye: Internet glory. Halfway through the BBC interview, conducted from Kelly’s home office via Skype, Kelly’s daughter Marion, a pint-sized toddler in a bright yellow sweater, opens the door and comes marching in. “And what will it mean for the wider region . . . I think one of your children just walked in,” the BBC presenter continues without missing a beat, as four-year-old Marion stumbles into a table, knocking over books. “Do you think relations with the North may change?” As Professor Kelly attempts to answer, eight-month-old James (in a baby walker, no less) follows his sister through the now-open door, quickly followed by Kelly’s wife, coming to the rescue. Mom grabs the kids and yanks them out of the live shot before reaching back to close the door and end 30 seconds of spontaneous comedy gold. The video has been watched tens of millions of times online. A few feminist killjoys responded with overwrought think pieces on how the father–mother roles of Mr. and Mrs. Kelly demonstrated the pervasiveness of the patriarchy; we think it was a wonderful example of the joy of family and the (sometimes messy) reality of kids. “Is this the kinda thing that goes ‘viral’?” Professor Kelly tweeted after the interview. Yes, professor, it is. We recommend you save this world-class blackmail for your kids’ high-school-graduation montages.
‐ Among the foundations of Western civilization that the ancient Greeks bequeathed to us are democracy, philosophy, and hoop earrings. According to one source, “Gold, silver, and bronze hoop earrings were prevalent in the Minoan Civilization (2000–1600 b.c.e.) and examples can be seen on frescoes on the Aegean island of Santorini.” Nonetheless, students at California’s Pitzer College were recently confronted with spray-painted graffiti reading “White Girl, take off your hoops,” followed by e-mails from a pair of students who explained that hoop earrings come from a “historical background of oppression and exclusion” and are worn by African-American and Latina women as “an everyday act of resistance,” no thanks to any white woman, all of whom have arrogantly “exploited the culture and made it into fashion.” Turned it into fashion? What do they think it was for the Minoans?
‐ Colin Kaepernick reportedly will stand during the national anthem before games next season. He opted out of his contract with the San Francisco 49ers and is now a free agent looking for work. All last season he refused to stand as a protest against perceived social injustice, often following up with awkward post-game commentary on the meaning of his sitting or kneeling while teammates and fans rose, as is the custom. A cynic might conclude that he was showboating and that now, under the pressure of applying for a new job, he has discovered the value of discretion. Or it may be that his feelings about social justice were always heartfelt but he came to recognize that his manner of expressing them was operatic and embarrassing to himself and the NFL. If the mockery he endured has had its effect, good. But enough. He has apparently moved on. So should his critics.
‐ “You don’t even think about it until it’s not there,” Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr said of the constant high-octane music, video, and in-game entertainment that accompanies NBA games and most other professional-sports contests. His team and the New York Knicks had just played two quarters at Madison Square Garden a cappella, as in olden times — the Knicks were commemorating their 70th anniversary. Kerr said that it “felt like church.” Steph Curry called it “different.” Other players offered less polite adjectives: “pathetic,” “ridiculous.” Fans were divided. Old-school purists praised the experiment. ABC’s Jeff Van Gundy welcomed the relief from the usual “assault on your senses.” But the withdrawal of so much adrenal-gland-draining sensory stimulation was a shock to the system of those who have grown up with the understanding that a pro game by definition comes wrapped in showbiz production values. Teams should lower the volume, no question, but they should continue to provide some soundtrack for the wandering minds of grown-ups as well as kids. A baseball game, for example, cries out for a little organ music exactly because it’s “like church”: So many attend, so few understand.
‐ Jump balls in basketball exemplify the conservative verity that life is unfair: A player with the luck to be four inches taller than his opponent will win the tap two-thirds of the time, which means most players under six feet can only dream of winning one. But during one recent Celtics–Suns contest, the matchup was Isaiah Thomas vs. Tyler Ulis — five-foot-nine and five-foot-ten respectively. It amounted to a microcosm of 2016: Neither one seemed a plausible winner, but they couldn’t both lose. In this case the loser was Ulis, whom Thomas outleapt before neatly tapping the ball to a teammate. A routine play under most circumstances, to be sure; but when you’re five-nine, it’s highlight-reel material.
‐ The radical lawyer Lynne Stewart succumbed to cancer at 77, just two weeks after her most infamous client, the “Blind Sheikh” (Omar Abdel Rahman), died in federal prison while serving his life sentence for terrorism crimes. Stewart was home when she died, on compassionate release from the sentence imposed on her for providing material support to Rahman’s terrorism — specifically, helping him communicate messages from the penitentiary to his jihadist organization in Egypt. This is the same organization, Gama’at al Islamia, that murdered scores of Western tourists in attempting to extort his release. Also like Rahman, Stewart died as she had lived: an unrepentant enemy of the United States, the nation that provided her with every opportunity, including a ready soapbox for her knee-jerk anti-Americanism. R.I.P.
A Disappointing Start
Obamacare should be repealed and replaced with policies that enable Americans to make their own decisions about what sort of health insurance to buy, and their options should include low-premium coverage that protects them against the risk of major financial setbacks resulting from health care.
Achieving these goals requires undoing a lot of Obamacare regulations. But the legislation House Republican leaders are urging largely leaves the regulations in place, because Republicans fear that Senate rules would allow Democrats to filibuster any bill that attempted to alter them. The legislation is said to be part of a “three prong” plan. The second prong will be a relaxation of the regulations, to be implemented by the Trump administration, and the third a bipartisan bill to enact the rest of a replacement.
Enacting the first prong does not guarantee enactment of the others, and legislators should consider whether that prong makes sense as a stand-alone measure. It must be said that its potential is severely limited. Keeping the regulations means that premiums cannot fall as much as they would under a more thorough replacement bill. As a result, buying insurance will be attractive to fewer people, and the number of people who are uninsured will rise.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that 14 million fewer Americans will have health insurance next year if the bill passes, mostly because it eliminates the fines that Obamacare imposes on people without insurance. That number is probably much too large: The CBO has long held an inflated view of the individual mandate’s power, which is an important reason the mandate made it into Obamacare in the first place. But the CBO agrees that deregulation would reduce the number.
We have recommended that Republicans defang the regulations by replacing Obamacare’s subsidies with a simple new tax credit that people could use to buy insurance under a new, lighter regulatory regime. That way Obamacare’s regulations would stay on the books but no longer hinder consumer choice. Republicans shrank from this option, too.
We disagree with their tactical decision, which places Senate parliamentary rules — or, rather, places guesses about how those rules would operate — ahead of good health policy and making good on longstanding party promises. It also seems to us that Republicans would be better off rallying behind a bill in which they really believe, even if Democrats kill it with a filibuster, than trying and failing to enact a bill that they support only tepidly. That second outcome may now take place.
Moreover, the legislation has some serious flaws even as a first step toward full repeal and replacement. In place of the fines, it creates a new surcharge for people who let their insurance lapse and then try to purchase a new policy. The goal is to keep healthy people from leaving the insurance rolls and thus destabilizing insurance markets. The surcharge is a heavy-handed instrument: Insurers would be obligated to impose it regardless of their preferences. Yet the surcharge might not even achieve its goal. A lot of healthy people might well decide to go without insurance and run the risk of paying a surcharge if they get sick later. The surcharge even undermines its own goal, since it would discourage healthy people who had already left the insurance rolls from getting back on them.
The bill has its good points. If the surcharge works, the deregulation in the bill should lower premiums. Many of Obamacare’s taxes would be repealed. Obamacare’s tax credits create high effective marginal tax rates for people in the lower middle class; the bill’s replacement tax credits would avoid this problem. Permissible contributions to and limits on health-savings accounts would be loosened. Federal contributions to Medicaid would be capped, ending the perverse incentives that have for decades enabled the growth of the program. All in all, though, the bill is a disappointment. And it is not too late to get a second opinion.