Thursday Morning Open Thread: CLAANNNNNNG

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(Ballard Street via

That raccoon is my spirit animal for the new year.

What’s on the agenda for the day and/or Amateur Night New Year’s Eve?

The Income Defense Industry

The grotesquely wealthy are just like you and me, only with fuck-tons more money. Their fat stacks don’t just buy them freedom from want and the little extras like insider stock tips, fabulous toys, exotic vacations, top-drawer educations, get-out-of-jail-free cards, etc.; it turns out they get their very own tax system too! Or so says a special report in today’s NYT:

With inequality at its highest levels in nearly a century and public debate rising over whether the government should respond to it through higher taxes on the wealthy, the very richest Americans have financed a sophisticated and astonishingly effective apparatus for shielding their fortunes. Some call it the “income defense industry,” consisting of a high-priced phalanx of lawyers, estate planners, lobbyists and anti-tax activists who exploit and defend a dizzying array of tax maneuvers, virtually none of them available to taxpayers of more modest means.


The impact on their own fortunes has been stark. Two decades ago, when Bill Clinton was elected president, the 400 highest-earning taxpayers in America paid nearly 27 percent of their income in federal taxes, according to I.R.S. data. By 2012, when President Obama was re-elected, that figure had fallen to less than 17 percent, which is just slightly more than the typical family making $100,000 annually, when payroll taxes are included for both groups.


In the heat of the presidential race, the influence of wealthy donors is being tested. At stake are the Obama administration’s limited 2013 tax increase on high earners — the first in two decades — and an I.R.S. initiative to ensure that, in effect, the higher rate sticks by cracking down on tax avoidance by the wealthy.

While Democrats like Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have pledged to raise taxes on these voters, virtually every Republican has advanced policies that would vastly reduce their tax bills, sometimes to as little as 10 percent of their income.

The New York Times seems to have committed an act of journalism here; the whole article is worth a read. It delved into a phenomenon with which I had fleeting experience once: the existence of the “family office” — organizations staffed with clever, industrious people that exist solely to protect the vast wealth of a single family or group of mega-rich individuals. (I wasn’t one of the clever, industrious people — just a lowly scribe serving an insignificant vassal.)

The article also mentions how crippling the IRS by slashing its budget 15% and engaging in absurd congressional witch hunts, etc., has coincidentally improved the fortunes of these indolent parasites so greatly. It’s almost as if that were the entire purpose of the Republicans’ anti-IRS jihad rather than an unfortunate side effect of standing up for fiscal responsibility and freedom…

Gas Up Your Tumbrels

I think that this has already been discussed in a comment thread or two, but today (a) The New York Times reminded us that it can do essential, truly top-notch journalism and (b) exposed truly grotesque practices within a “justice” system that offers scant justice to anyone that doesn’t sport “Inc.” as a last name:

Encore and rival debt buyers are using the courts to sue consumers and collect debt, then preventing those same consumers from using the courts to challenge the companies’ tactics. Consumer lawyers said this strategy was the legal equivalent of debt collectors having their cake and eating it, too.

The use of arbitration by the companies is the latest frontier in a legal strategy orchestrated by corporations in recent years. By insertingarbitration clauses into the fine print of consumer contracts, they have found a way to block access to the courts and ban class-action lawsuits, the only realistic way to bring a case against a deep-pocketed corporation.

Their strategy traces to a pair of Supreme Court decisions in 2011 and 2013 that enshrined the use of class-action bans in arbitration clauses.

The result, The New York Times found in an investigation last month, is that banks, car dealers, online retailers, cellphone service providers and scores of other companies have insulated themselves from challenges to illegal or deceptive business practices. Once a class action was dismantled, court and arbitration records showed, few if any of the individual plaintiffs pursued arbitration.

Bottom feeders buy old debt.  They sue to collect.  Doesn’t matter if the debt is too old legally to collect.  Doesn’t matter if the sharks don’t have proper documentation. Doesn’t matter if they string up little old ladies by their big toes.  (Hyperbole alert).

Rembrandt_Christ_Driving_the_Money_Changers_from_the_Temple (1)

Crappy judges at the trial court level, insulated — guided — by crappy justices with robes, lifetime appointments, and no moral compasses whatsoever, make sure the Man gets his cash:

In the cases that The Times examined, judges routinely sided with debt collectors on forcing the disputes into arbitration.

In Mr. Cain’s case, Midland Funding, the unit of Encore Capital, persevered despite originally lacking a copy of a Citibank arbitration agreement they said he signed in 2003. Instead, the debt collector presented as evidence a Citibank contract that one of Encore’s lawyers signed when he opened an account.

In Mississippi, Midland Funding won a court judgment to compel Wanda Thompson to pay more than $4,700 on a debt that was too old to be collected under state law, court records show.

When Ms. Thompson filed a class-action suit on behalf of other state residents, Encore invoked an arbitration clause to have the lawsuit dismissed. Ms. Thompson’s lawyers argued that the company had clearly chosen court over arbitration when it sued her to collect the debt. By going to court, the lawyers said, Encore waived its right to compel arbitration.

Unpersuaded, the judge ruled that Encore’s lawsuit to collect the debt was separate from Ms. Thompson’s case accusing the company of violating the law.

I can’t put into words my revulsion for the people who steal from the weakest in our system, except to note that my loathing of those who enable these pen-armed robbers is far greater.  The GOP  hopes most people will be too scared of Syrians, gun-grabbers, and the Kenyan in the White House to notice who’s doing what to whom.  There’s an opening here for our side — and an obligation to take it.

Image:  Rembrandt van Rijn, Christ driving the money changers from the temple, 1626.

Open Thread: GOP Hair Catches Fire

… to match GOP pants. Steve Benen, at MSNBC:

Based on the latest, overall national averages, Trump isn’t just the leading Republican candidate, he’s actually dominating by more than 20 points. These same overall averages show the frontrunner, at least for now, with more support than Cruz and Rubio combined.

When was the last time a Republican presidential candidate led by more than 20 points in late December and failed to win his party’s nomination? Never. It just hasn’t happened…

Am I saying Trump is going to win the nomination? Not exactly. I am saying we’re looking at a dynamic in which we’ll either see (a) the biggest Republican collapse in modern American history; or (b) the first Republican nominee since 1940 with no experience in public office…

Meanwhile, at a rally for Trump’s mini-me….

Beware of bad maps

Insurers routinely discontinue plans.  For instance Mayhew Insurance filed five distinct networks for the Exchanges.  We had a network/plan design combination which we sold literally dozens of policies.  It was overpriced for a relatively narrow and restrictive product.  So we dumped that combination for 2016.  The dozens of people were told at least ninety days before open enrollment that their plan was being dropped and that a similar, slightly broader network and less restrictive  Mayhew Insurance product would be their default auto-enrollment option.

This is common.  Insurers are allowed to map their members to similar products if the original policy is being dropped.  This is also a point of awareness as some times the mapping leads to extremely painful default outcomes.  There was a recent article with a good example of this problem:

The 60-year-old Southmont man discovered that his current plan, the Highmark Shared Cost Blue PPO 1000, which was eligible for premium tax credits on the Health Insurance Marketplace, was being discontinued — and that he automatically would be enrolled in another plan not on the marketplace if he didn’t take action before Dec. 15….

The company is “mapping” some customers on plans that are being discontinued into new plans, he said.

Factoring in the tax credit, the new plan would have cost Ross $481.02 more a month. It didn’t come close to offering similar coverage, Ross said.

“It’s not even comparable,” he said.

“It’s vastly inferior.”

The new plan to offer family coverage for Ross and his wife, he said, included higher deductibles — $5,000 more per individual and $10,000 more for family — thousands higher in maximum out of pocket in-network, triple his current copays for primary care physician visits and 40 percent coinsurance.

Ross said he’s shocked that he wasn’t at least being rolled into another marketplace plan, where he could have taken advantage of premium tax credits [my emphasis]

The original plan looks to be a narrow network Gold plan.  Given the $6,000 deductible and even higher out of pocket maximum, the mapped plan probably is a Bronze plan.

And since the plan is listed as an Off-Exchange plan, the plan does not have any advanced premium tax credits to reduce the high monthly premiums.

This is a travesty.

CMS, the federal regulating entity needs to improve the regulation on how mapping can occur.  The principle should be the mapped default auto-renewal plan option should be substantially similar to the current plan.  The following criteria should be met as substantially similar:

  1. If On exchange, the mappped plan must be on-exchange if any On-exchange plan is available.
  2. If Off-exchange, the mapped plan should be on-exchange if possible
  3. The same actuarial value band shall be chosen if possible.
  4. If not possible, the default shall be one band higher unless platinum, and then it shall be gold.
  5. Network shall be no smaller if possible.  If all remaining mappable networks are smaller, then choose the broadest remaining network that meet the above criteria.
  6. Members shall be notified in writing of the significant changes in plans
  7. Members who are mapped to plans that fail to meet the above criteria shall have their information passed to CMS/ for targeted outreach and navigation assistance.

Do that and the mapping effort won’t be an attempt to drive sick people off of high actuarial value coverage plans.

Trans-Plutocratic Plunder

Have you read the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal yet? You can read it right here, as no less a personage than President Obama himself informed me via email the other day. I’ve only made it to Chapter 2 so far (there are 30 chapters). It kicks insomnia’s ass.

As CP Pierce points out, Columbia economist Jeffrey Sachs says it’s a lousy deal that should be voted down. According to Sachs, TPP’s provisions “enshrine the power of corporate capital above all other parts of society, including labor and even governments,” and while it gives lip service to social fairness and sustainability goals, “the agreements are thin, unenforceable, and generally unimaginative.”

Climate change isn’t even mentioned, according to Sachs. Senator Warren also gives the proposal a frowny face.

Pierce concludes that this deal, along with education policy, “is going to be one of the only acts of [Obama’s] presidency with which the president justifies the criticisms levelled at him from the left.” Sounds about right.

If these analyses are accurate, I’m glad the Democratic candidates are fleeing the TPP like workers running toward daylight from a collapsing mine. But if the pessimists among us are to be believed, some version of a shitty deal is inevitable because Global Economy.

Maybe President Obama is among those pessimists and that’s why he supports this particular shitty deal. I’ve quoted my old co-blogger StrangeAppar8us on this topic before because he was so right about the declining influence of national sovereignty and rising power of multinational corporations:

In truth, nations have been obsolete as sovereign organizational units for some time. There are sovereign corporations and sovereign piles of capital, but nations are basically accounting entries associated with a particular profile of a) indigenous resources, b) comparative labor costs, c) relative social stability, d) relative currency strength and e) relative weakness of business taxation and regulatory controls. Local military power still matters, and some nations still command a certain reflexive residual deference to their post-WWII/Cold War primacy. However, in an age of cheap intercontinental shipping and wire transfers, nations are basically cultural theme parks competing for ticket sales.

One of my cousins once played “Goofy” at Disney World, wearing a hot, stuffy costume in the 90-degree heat for minimum wage while toddlers kicked him in the shins and older children whacked him in the nuts with replica light sabers. Welcome to the New Economy, fellow characters.

Open Thread: I {Heart} Repubs in Disarray!

The standing “leadership” fustercluck has been a rich gift to snarkists, but seriously: The more energy these mopes expend scheming to destroy each other, the less they have to devote to destroying the American commonwealth for the rest of us.

I’m hoping this show runs longer than The Mousetrap in London. But with a higher body count!

(Complete with surprise twist, at the very end of this thread.)

Elspeth Reeve, “The Republican House Today Was More Melodramatic Than High School“:

… “Be­fore John Boehner stepped down, I said if John Boehner steps down, the same people who were try­ing to take John Boehner down, will try to frag the next guy. … Well, that is just what happened,” Representative Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania told National Journal. Fragging is when soldiers kill one of their own. It is a rather intense metaphor for guys walking around in Brooks Brothers suits. A more apt metaphor might be high school—it’s like prom, except conservative House Republicans dumped pig blood all over the prom queen…

The way the news broke was emblematic of the chaos that took hold today: The press found out about McCarthy’s withdrawal when Representative Ryan Costello bumbled out of this morning’s caucus meeting. “Apparently I broke the news about McCarthy; blame it on being a Freshman and going out the wrong door,” he tweeted…

Mr. McCarthy’s shocking move echoed the stunning events of December 1998, when another Republican speaker-in-waiting, Representative Robert L. Livingston of Louisiana, was forced to withdraw because of marital infidelities. Republicans scrambled to find an acceptable consensus pick, and J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois was plucked from out of almost nowhere to become speaker of the House.

Blindsided by the McCarthy withdrawal, Republicans were assessing their options Thursday even as Mr. Boehner sought to calm nerves by declaring that he would stay in the job until a replacement was found. But in 1998, House Republicans had a strongman in their majority whip, Tom DeLay of Texas, to rally the rank and file behind his choice. No such figure exists today…

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