Monday, November 28, 2016

Social Security Helps Reduce Poverty, and Your Point Is.....?

Social Security is one of those policies that can be politically difficult to criticize without being hit with some argument of "you don't care about the elderly." Not only do many Americans receive these benefits, but many on the Left laud it as the American government's most successfully anti-poverty program (see here, here, here). Most recent is the Left-leaning Center for Budget and Policy Priorities' study that breaks down state-by-state the levels of poverty reduction. Essentially, the CBPP researchers calculated the number of households that would have been below the poverty line without it, and compare it to the number that are below it with Social Security. By using Census data in that fashion, they found that Social Security saves 22 million Americans from poverty. This is not to say the finding is wrong per se, but it could use a little more contextualizing, instead of being used as a non-starter for Social Security reform:

  1. Even with Social Security, 10 percent of the elderly are still in poverty, which is unsurprising given how low Social Security benefits are in the first place. 
  2. Many elderly depend on this as a sole source of income. This is going to be all the more pronounced when the Social Security Trust Fund runs out of money and the current protocol of reducing benefits by 21 percent sets in. This is worrisome for the elderly because for 33 percent of elderly beneficiaries, nearly 90 percent of cash income comes from Social Security. 61 percent of elderly beneficiaries depend on it for most of their cash income. 
  3. This problem framing assumes a false dilemma between Social Security and elderly people dying on the streets because they have no money in their savings. It makes the all-too common erroneous assumption that a lack of government intervention means that the only alternative is inaction. If Social Security were to go by the wayside, the question is whether individuals are able to procure alternative sources of income when they retire. This is coupled by the fact that removing Social Security would also remove a significant portion of the payroll tax, which would mean higher wages for employees. Given the substitution effects, the poverty reduction effect of Social Security is overstated. 
  4. This false dilemma assumes there is not a better option for those saving for retirement. Considering that Social Security functions both as a retirement plan and and an anti-poverty measure, the primary metric of Social Security is rate of return. As I pointed out a while back, there are better ways to invest for a better rate of return, such as stocks or AAA-corporate bonds. Even voluntarily investing in government bonds yields a higher rate of return. Being able to invest your payroll tax into capital assets is all the more important, especially when Social Security's annuitized benefits are not inheritable. 

According the Social Security Administration, the Trust Fund is expected to run out in 2034. I'm sure that Americans are more interested in the here and now, especially with President-Elect Trump. However, if we want to help the poor out and make sure their retirement savings are solid enough where poverty is a minimal-to-non-existent issue, then we need to think differently about the issue. Because of the superior rates of return on private investments, I am for keeping retirement benefit accounts in the private sector. I know there are some out there who think that "privatization" is the "p-word," which is why next-best alternatives include President Bush's idea of putting part of one's payroll tax in a personal retirement account (PRA) or New Zealand's approach of having the Social Security Administration pay a flat dollar benefit with the intent of helping lift seniors out of poverty, the latter of which would help Social Security return to its anti-poverty roots. We need better ideas than raising payroll taxes, raising payroll tax caps, lowering benefits, or increasing the retirement age. It might be easy to kick the can down the road because the Trust Fund expiration date is so easy, but if we don't find innovative and effective ways to deal with Social Security, we could very well see social unrest on our hands because at that point, the poverty reduction effects of Social Security will be ever diminished.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Parsha Chayei Sarah: The True Meaning of Thanksgiving

Former athlete Carl Lewis said that life is about timing, and I think that is applicable considering this week's Torah portion of Chayei Sarah (literally meaning "the life of Sarah"), which covers the Book of Genesis, chapters 23 to 25. Timing plays an even bigger factor when death rears its ugly head. The beginning of this week's Torah portion with the death of Sarah. Aside from saying how old Sarah was and where she died, the Torah does not mention Sarah further (23:1-2). Abraham weeps (23:2), and then proceeds to buy a burial plot for Sarah (23:3-20). American writer Mary Catherine Bateson said that "the timing of death, like the ending of a story, gives a changed meaning to it." This insight can help us solve another quandary in the Torah. After the burial takes place, the Torah says the following at the beginning of chapter 24:

ואברבם זקן, בא בימים. והשם ברך את אברהם בכל.
Abraham was old, well stricken in age; and G-d blessed Abraham in all things. -Genesis 24:1

It's not just the timing of Sarah's death that makes me wonder, but also the timing of this verse. Abraham just lost the love of his life, and the Torah says that "Abraham was blessed in everything?!" Without further context, it seems like the Torah is being insensitive to Abraham's loss, or that Sarah did not mean anything to Abraham, G-d forbid. Fortunately, the sages over the ages can provide some insight as to this conspicuously timed verse:
  • One idea is based on commentary from Chasidic leader Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, which is that a righteous person wants nothing for himself, and is focused on helping others. Being blessed in all things (בכל) is that everyone around Avraham became blessed.  
  • Per R. Yaakov Yitzchak of Lublin (Seer of Lublin), the idea of being blessed in all things (בכל) is that you are able to serve G-d "with all your heart, with all your soul, and all your might (Deuteronomy 6:5)."
  • The Hebrew word זקן does not only mean old, but wise. Having experienced the death of his wife and the burial process, Avraham gained a new sense of wisdom that allowed him to be a master of time instead of being a slave to it, i.e., בא בימים or to "come into days" (Avraham Aryeh Trugman). 
  • Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon opined that Abraham was blessed in all, in both good times and bad. From Spurgeon's point of view, the blessing was G-d giving Abraham to have the resilience to get through the rough times, whether it was when G-d commanded Abraham to slay his son or the loss of his wife.
  •  Being blessed "in all things" meant that Abraham never lacked anything (Ohr La-Yesharim). This idea of satisfaction is encapsulated in the Pirke Avot (4:1) that says "Who is rich? The one who is satisfied with their own lot."
  • R. Zelig Pliskin comes with an alluring interpretation. To "come with his days" means to come with all of his days. We are not meant to waste a single moment of our lives. Going off this interpretation, I would say that is why commentators such as Ramban and Radak view that Abraham was blessed in all things, except for Isaac having a wife. Even with wealth, honor, progeny, and a strong sense of purpose, Abraham still had more to do with his life. 
Let us be thankful for the blessings that we once had, the ones we do have, and the ones we, along with G-d, may create in the future!

Monday, November 21, 2016

No Point in Advocating for Congressional Term Limits

President-Elect Trump continues to turn heads with how he is going to make America great again. One of those proposals is that of Congressional term limits. The argument goes something along the lines of "even with low approval ratings, incumbents have a high reelection rate, which means we have a problem with entrenched politicians." It sounds like a "common-sense" policy against politicians amassing too much power. As simple or neat as it might sound, it really is not.

Let's start off with the political feasibility. Back in 1995, 23 states tried imposing term limits for their Congressional delegations. In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court ruled term limits to be unconstitutional. The Court ruled that term limits would need to come in existence through a constitutional amendment. Per Article V of the Constitution, a constitutional amendment requires two-thirds approval from the House and the Senate. For whom are you trying to enact term limits? The House and Senate, the very same people that would need to approve the constitutional amendment. You see how Congress might not want to pass this amendment, especially with the number of "yea" votes required? Granted, the Seventeenth Amendment, which allows for Senators to be voted by popular vote, was adopted in 1913, but it's hardly considered politically viable.

But let's assume you have passed that major hurdle, and can somehow convince two-thirds of the legislators to curtail their power and influence in office. There is an assumption that term limits work, which is not necessarily the case. Many political scientists actually think that term limits are a bad idea. The state of California found that term limits really did not have an effect on incumbency. The study from the Public Policy Institute of California found that politicians largely behave the same, regardless of term limits. The Council of State Governments also found that term-limited legislatures "report more general chaos, a decline in civility, reduced influence of legislative leaders and communities, and in some states, a shift in power relationships....[but still] continue to function efficiently under term limits (Bowser, 2005)." A 2006 study from National Conference of State Legislatures shows that term limits do little to improve the diversity of chamber participants. It doesn't even seem that term limits have much of an impact on spending patterns. This is not me arguing for term limits, but pointing out that congressional term limits would not have the desired outcome.

There is a certain desire for professionalism, for legislators to develop their craft. If not, they end up being not as well-informed, as is observed in states such as Arizona, because they have neither the time nor the incentive to develop expertise on a number of issues. This lack of knowledge ironically leads to greater dependency on lobbyists, who would not be subject to term limits. Let's think about this: in order to stop corruption, we would limit legislators' power while expanding lobbyists' power (e.g., Sarbaugh-Thompson, 2010). Because that doesn't sound like a recipe for more corruption at all. Term limits also increase the power of the executive branch (Miller et al., 2011Carey et al., 2006), as well as bureaucracy, and given how expansive executive power has been over the years on the federal level, do we really want to weaken the legislative branch?

Imposing congressional term limits might sound like dandy on the campaign trail, but it does not hold up to scrutiny. If we are worried about federal-level legislators, we can focus on other issues. There is a call from Republican legislators to re-introduce congressional earmarks, which would make it more difficult to stop corruption, so how about making sure that doesn't happen. Congress can also work on developing long-term staff instead of relying so heavily on lobbyists. I have another idea that would be even better: addressing gerrymandering. Not that it is within the scope of this blog entry, but in summation, it would be a better approach, and one I hope Trump ends up taking in lieu of the tenuous and politically inviable congressional term limits.

1-24-2018 Addendum: The Brookings Institution just came out with a list of five reasons to oppose term limits.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Does the Electoral College Strengthen or Hinder American Politics?

We experienced a rarity in American electoral politics: a presidential candidate won the electoral votes, but not the popular vote. We had this happen with four other presidential candidates: John Quincy Adams, Rutherford B. Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, and George W. Bush in 2000. After the election, I saw the topic of the Electoral College popping up. I saw views from it is wonderful to it being undemocratic to "let's hope electors override the popular vote in their state and vote for Hillary," the latter of which probably won't happen. Those against the Electoral College argue that the United States should simply have a popular vote. Senator Barbara Boxer is arguing that in her long-shot attempt to introduce legislation to end the Electoral College. I even get annoyed sometimes by the Electoral College because I live in such a blue state that my vote doesn't really count. However, that is not the system in which we live. We do not live in a direct democracy. We live in a representative republic, and part of that is the Electoral College.

The Electoral College is written in the Constitution: "Each State shall appoint in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress (Article II, 1)." This Article was later modified via the Twelfth Amendment.  Some portray the Electoral College as a way for slavery to have been preserved at the time. However, the more probable explanation is that of balance of power: balance between branches of government, balance between federal and state governments, and in this case, balance between big and small states. It is a system to make sure the vote is not only popular, but that the consensus is transregional, i.e., cannot win with isolated support. It can help mitigate regional tensions as a result. Think of the Electoral College in a similar way as you would the World Series. In order to win the World Series, you need to win more games (states), not runs (people). In a way, it's like having 51 micro-elections within one greater election.

Also, President John F. Kennedy said that if one were to upend the Electoral College, it would undo other aspects, mainly the Senate. Finally, if there was not an Electoral College, could you imagine the nightmare behind recounting votes and court challenges for 50 states? Plus, it helps avoid run-off elections in which there is no clear majority, much like Nixon in 1968 or Clinton in 1996. With this in mind, let us remember that the Constitution (Article V) requires that two-thirds of the House and Senate need to approve this modification. It's no wonder that there only have been 17 amendments added since the Bill of Rights was signed.

There are certain advantages to direct democracy, aside from the obvious appeal of giving everyone an equal say in the election. For one, the system is winner-take-all in all but Maine and Nebraska, which can be a problem because the minority in a certain state is not represented. The Electoral College gives more power to swing states, such as Ohio and Florida. It makes it more difficult for third-party candidates to get electoral votes. These reasons can very well help explain why the United States has such low voter turnout.

When talking about the Electoral College, Alexander Hamilton said, "It may not be perfect, but it is excellent." While there are pros and cons to each system (see here), I'm not so sure I agree with Hamilton. A part of me prefers a multi-party parliamentary system in which various parties can better represent peoples' views. Granted, it does run the risk of appeasing to fringe political parties in order to make coalition governments, like in Israel or the United Kingdom. The question of a bi-party versus multi-party system takes a slight tangent, which is why I come back to the question of "Can we reform the Electoral College?" Some ideas (see Congressional Research Service report here): If we have Congress vote for President, or even state assemblies vote for the President, it would feel more undemocratic, even though we, the people, vote for the representatives. The status quo can be replaced with the Congressional District method, in which the Electoral College voters select a candidate based on the popular vote in their district, as well as statewide votes. One could also have a proportional system in which the electoral votes allotted can be proportionate to the popular vote, which would cause some of the smaller states to lose some power. I hesitate to say that the Electoral College is a good system simply because it perpetuates a bi-party system. Given how this past election went, I am tempted to advocate for something to undo a two-party system, even if that is the Electoral College. As reluctant as I am to say this,  until some well-thought plan is proposed that is superior to the status quo, I begrudgingly support the Electoral College.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Why Is the U.S. Still Guarding the Korean Border?

The election of the current President-Elect Donald Trump has caused quite the ripple effect throughout the world. South Korea is already worried about whether Trump feels like renegotiating the bilateral trade deal between the United States and South Korea. Even the Korean stock market adversely reacted with his victory. However, that is not South Korea's only concern with regards to what could be renegotiated. Throughout the campaign, Trump had said that South Korea was not paying their fair share for the American troops on the 38th parallel. He also said that "we practically get nothing compared to the cost" of keeping those troops there. Two days after being elected, Trump changed his mind and affirmed that the United States should maintain a strong defense for South Korea. While Trump's motives on this change are unclear, it makes me wonder what U.S. troops are still doing on the Korean border.

The traditional answer given for the United States' presence is that it "deters North Korea from attacking South Korea, stabilizes the region politically, socially, and economically, and gives the United States bases from which it can project military power throughout the western Pacific." If the United States left Korea, it would somehow create a "vacuum of power," and we all know how nature abhors a vacuum (I have a problem with that argument, but more on that in a moment). My take on it is that the United States' alliance with South Korea made more sense in the aftermath of the Korean War, and even through the end of the Cold War. The problem is that we have not lived in that world for about 25 years. Even if North Korea is "the same enemy from the 1950s," they are not going to have China's backing like they did when they tried for a more conventional military attack. Plus, I don't see how removing American troops from the 38th parallel would cause World War Three. The fact that an international relations analyst over at National Interest, a Right-leaning publication in favor of a more globalist intervention with the United States army, cannot point to a case of the U.S. military deterring North Korea since before the end of the Cold War is telling to this point.

As the Cato Institute points out, South Korea outmatches North Korea on every metric of national power, except military. From 2002 to 2012, North Korea spent $4 billion annually, or 25 percent of its GDP, on military expenditures. In 2015, South Korea was spending $36.4 billion, or 9 times the amount that North Korea has been spending. What's even better is that the $36.4 billion was only 2.6 percent of South Korea's GDP. If South Korea feels that it needs to spend more money and outspend North Korea, it can afford to do so. The Global Firepower Index has South Korea ranked above North Korea. And although North Korea technically has more troops, they are underfed and lack updated technology. South Korea comes with many advantages, including a higher population, a GDP that is 40 times that of North Korea, an industrial base, and more resilient infrastructure. Even if North Korea tried to invade, South Korea would have little to no issues fending off North Korea. Let's assume that your fear is not troops crossing over the Parallel, but North Korea firing nuclear missiles into South Korea. If the leader of North Korea is already that unhinged, wouldn't it be better for South Korea to bolster its defense system (e.g., THAAD missile system) by purchasing an anti-ballistic missile system, aircraft, or some other firepower to counter North Korea's nuclear threat? And how about China exerting some pressure on North Korea so that it is less inclined to attack South Korea? How about stronger economic sanctions on North Korea?

According to a recent study from the Right-leaning American Action Forum that covers burden-sharing with allies, the United States spent $1.1 billion last year to protect South Korea, and it's easy to see how South Korea benefits by not having to cough up an extra billion dollars per annum. Granted, this $1.1 billion is only 0.1 percent of the United States' $596 billion defense budget. However, a lot could be done with a billion dollars, such as help pay off the national debt. None of this counts the creation, upkeep, or manpower required for other regional military bases created in Asia Pacific. I worry because United States debt is the highest is has been post-WWII, and has no signs of slowing down. When looking back in history, part of what brings great empires down is too vast of a military expansion. Couple that with America's burgeoning welfare system, and we have crippling debt that isn't going to help anyone. Trump was right that South Korea should be willing to pay for its "fair share" of its own defense, which quite frankly, is 100 percent. This is a point that Trump made, which happens to be similarly true with NATO. Other NATO members don't mind when the United States is footing the bill. Neither does South Korea. The United States can ill-afford to perpetuate some anachronistic, antiquated form of international welfare that provides no real benefit to United States security, and does not help South Korea truly develop its own defense and national security. I wish that Trump didn't change his mind on this one, but maybe he'll go back to his initial proposal by the time he is inaugurated.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Interfaith Marriage in the American Jewish Community: Where Can We Go From Here?

There are few topics that seem to be at odds with my libertarianism and Judaism, but interfaith marriage is one of them. This hits home not simply because I read a recently published op-ed from Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, but more so because I personally know Jews who are part of interfaith families. As a libertarian, I believe in a free society in which consenting adults should be allowed to make their own choices, provided they are not harming anyone. On the other hand, I am of the opinion that a Jewish home is strongest when both of the partners are Jewish, and that interfaith marriage is statistically more likely to weaken that foundation. What exactly is at the core of the discussion of interfaith marriages in Judaism? To what extent are the challenges to interfaith marriages insurmountable? What are the arguments for and against interfaith marriage? There is a lot to cover, and it is not necessarily easy for it all to coalesce, so bear with me as I attempt to express all my thoughts on the topic.

First, the religious arguments. Deuteronomy 7:3-4 prohibits marriage between the seven nations that were occupying the land of Israel at the time. The reason (7:4) is because the Israelites might come to worship the deities of the non-Israelites. The Talmud takes this passage to mean that any marriage with a non-Jew was prohibited (Avodah Zara 36b). On the other hand, Deuteronomy [23:4-9] potentially implies that interfaith marriage was permissible because the grandchildren of Edomites or Egyptians that were in interfaith marriages with Jews were considered to be Jewish. Traditional commentators, such as Maimonides (Mishneh Torah, Issurei Biah, 12:17-25), interpreted this passage to mean that the grandchildren were grandchildren of converts. There seems to have been a couple of interfaith marriages in the later biblical text, such as King David marrying the daughter of the King of Geshur (II Samuel 3:3), or Bathsheba marrying Uriah the Hittite (II Samuel 11:3). However, the later prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures are explicitly against interfaith marriage (Malachi 2:11, Ezra 10:10-11, Nehemiah 10:31), and goes as far as excommunicating those that refuse to divorce their non-Jewish spouses (Nehemiah 10:31). One could debate whether these prohibitions were on marrying all non-Jews or simply against the seven tribes mentioned in Deuteronomy 7:3-4 since they had a particular reputation for being idolatrous and immoral. In either case, the Talmud applies the prohibition on interfaith marriage for all non-Jews (Kiddushin 68b). The Shulchan Aruch also gets into which prohibitions are biblical, and which are rabbinic. Traditional Judaism assumes that a Jewish marriage can be between two Jews, regardless of whether they were born Jewish or converted.

With the religious texts out of the way for a moment, let's point out another reality: most Jews in America are not Orthodox and are not religious (Pew Research, 2013NJPS, 2001). Given the lack of religiosity among American Jews, the religious arguments are not going to have much sway over most American Jews. Most American Jews do not necessarily want their children to be Torah observant, but there is a general desire for non-Orthodox Jews for their children to remain Jewish. Even in the non-Orthodox world, there is a desire to keep Judaism and the Jewish people going.

However, there is another reality to point out: most Jews marry outside the faith. As the Pew Research Center results from 2013 show, about six out of ten Jews married outside the faith. This is significantly higher than it was before 1970, when it was only 17 percent. What was once considered taboo has now become commonplace in the Jewish community.

Those in interfaith marriages argue that they make it work. Like all marriages, they have their unique challenges, and for interfaith couples, religion is a big one. Enough Jewish partners in these marriages enter it hoping that they can both have Jewish children while not coercing their partner to convert to Judaism. How well does that work?

Before I continue, I would like to state that I am not here to overgeneralize by saying that interfaith marriages are all failures. I have seen interfaith couples that have made it work, and I have seen Jewish couples where the marriage ends in bitter divorce. Heck, I have even met non-Jewish partners that were more engaged in synagogue life than their Jewish partner. That being said, there is enough to be said about how interfaith couples statistically fare in comparison to Jewish couples.

Intermarriage is virtually nonexistent in the Orthodox world, and still uncommon in the Conservative movement. Intermarriage is most common among Reform and unaffiliated Jews (Pew Research). While the Pew Research survey doesn't explicitly show practice or belief among intermarried Jews, Pew shows that Reform and unaffiliated Jews are less likely to believe in and practice Judaism. Findings from the National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) in 2000 are more to the point by saying that children of intermarried Jews are much less likely to have Jewish connections than those of in-married Jews (see below). The NJPS from 1990 has similar results. There is also some research to suggest that interfaith marriages in America are more likely to end in divorce (e.g., Sherkat, 2004), as well as a British study to show that interfaith marriages are twice as likely to end than marriages with two Jewish partners (Graham, 2016).

Even if a certain couple is interfaith, I am willing that many would admit that it is much easier to keep the home Jewish if the home is a single-religion home. If not, there will come a time where parents will have to provide answers about religion, one's understating of it, and how to approach spirituality. Otherwise, it is confusing for the child because the child cannot answer questions such as "Who am I," "What do I believe in," or "What is the meaning of life?" When both parents celebrate Jewish holidays and maintain a Jewish household, there child has more than a fighting chance to maintain Jewish identity and clarity, and all the more so when both parents are Jewish and are greatly invested in a Jewish home. As a side question, how can you expect the child to be engaged when you can't even convince the non-Jewish spouse to be Jewish? And it doesn't just limit the children of intermarried couples. It affects the spouses, as well. The Jewish spouse who is married to the non-Jewish spouse makes compromises to the point where it is significantly more difficult to live an engaging Jewish life. Unless the non-Jewish spouse makes a sincere conversion, as opposed to the perfunctory type simply to please the future in-laws, then observing Shabbat or any other ritual is not going to be as meaningful, in no small part because the non-Jewish spouse is not invested in Judaism the same way. Nurturing a Jewish family starts, continues, and ends in the home, and that works better when both parties are invested in Judaism and have common ground, especially with something as vital and central as religion.

This is not a matter of anecdotal evidence or my personal opinion that is based on being part of Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox communities. Professionally administered censuses and surveys confirm that intermarriage makes it much less likely that an individual maintains their Jewish identity than those who are part of a home with two Jewish spouses.

This then leads to a follow-up question: should we make the best of it since it is already here? Pew Research found that out of the religious groups out there, Americans have the most positive feelings towards Jews. As long as Americans have an overall positive view of Jews, intermarriage is not going anywhere. Because of that, some are of the opinion that we should genuinely welcome interfaith couples and do whatever we can to make sure that the children have reason to stay Jewish. Inclusion is a value, but only to a certain point. The Reform movement actually took steps in making sure that interfaith couples are included. Reform Judaism was the denomination to adopt patrilineal descent in 1983 precisely because it wanted to include interfaith families. As Pew Research found, half of all couples in Reform Judaism are now interfaith. This permissibility unquestionably helped precipitate in the spike of interfaith couples.

Even assuming interfaith marriage isn't going anywhere and regardless of how individual marriages may or may not work out, what we can see is that in the big picture, interfaith marriage does not help to ensure Jewish continuity. What's more is that the intermarriage rate doesn't need to be this high. Using the United Kingdom as an example, the interfaith marriage rate is only 26 percent, which is around half what it is in the United States. And there needs to be a sense of urgency because there are significantly less Jews than there are Christians in this country, or even the world. Judaism is a beautiful religion with centuries-old traditions and teachings that I would hate to see go by the wayside.

Regarding the Ha'aretz article, it doesn't see interfaith as a problem. It simply dismisses the naysayers of "ethnopolitical entrepreneurs" without even providing a single benefit of interfaith marriage. Even so, it does bring up a good point, which is that there there are barriers to maintaining a Jewish life. I believe that for Jews to want to live an active Jewish life, they need to feel engaged. Especially with all the freedoms we have, Judaism has to be able to compete in the marketplace of ideas and life choices. We can no longer lean on the explanation of "this is the way our ancestors did it." Whether it sounds more egocentric, the truth is that we need to make sure that the synagogue is fulfilling its congregants' needs. It is difficult to envision that goal when there are barriers to that engagement.

The Ha'aretz article focuses on the cost aspect, which has truth to it. Raising children is expensive enough these days as is. Throw on the additional costs associated with the Jewish day school tuition crisis. For those who observe Shabbat, housing is limited, and thus more expensive, since one is required to live within walking distance of the synagogue. There is also the cost of kosher food, the extra time one has to take off for the holidays, the list goes on. But it is not just cost. That unintended consequence of the Reform movement adopting patrilineal descent is that it tore further divide in the question of "Who is a Jew?" According to the Conservative and Orthodox movements, a Jew is one either born to a Jewish mother or one that goes through a valid conversion. The children whose only Jewish parent is the father run into issues if they want to interact with the greater Jewish world because the other major denominations don't consider them Jewish. This not only messes with the psyche of this individual that wants to become Jewish, but it further divides the denominations. There is no easy answer as to how to bridge that gap, and I can't pretend to know how to do so. And if that weren't enough, Jewish observance has become more strict in the past century, and even within the past decade. For those who want to become observant, the increasing stringencies can become so stifling that people who might want to observe more might be turned off by the excessiveness. I'm Modern Orthodox, and even I think there are aspects of Orthodox Judaism that go too far. It is less attractive for non-Orthodox Jews who otherwise would want to bring in more Jewish tradition in their lives. On the other hand, it doesn't mean you still can't live a meaningful, engaged Jewish life with a higher level of observance. And it doesn't mean that it is impossible to surpass these barriers. Orthodox Jews are case in point. I know that experience first-hand. Sure, it involves taking those extra days off of work for the holidays, not going out Friday night, and making a whole series of commitments. This is not saying that I expect every single non-Orthodox Jew to become Orthodox because I know that is not realistic. Conversely, if you want to live a Jewish life, you'll put in the time and effort to do it.

For more Jews to be engaged in Jewish life, it takes two to tango. The individual Jew has to be willing to make something of it. Although we live in a society of instant gratification, spirituality and religion are processes that take time to foster and grow. Again, the individual Jew has to want it. With that being said, the Jewish institution, whether that is the synagogue or local JCC, needs to better engage Jews into becoming Jewish. We have to go beyond a practice that merely pays homage to the past. This is a marketing problem. We need Jews to be excited about Judaism, and I mean all Jews, even the ones that are presently not engaged. Even if Jews are not practicing every single last mitzvah, having them be excited about a few mitzvahs is better than total disconnect. That being said, I am aware of the challenges that would ahead for such a lofty vision. As much as I am not thrilled about the high levels of interfaith marriage, I also concede that interfaith marriage is not going anywhere. It should be discouraged in the Jewish world. We are such a small people that we cannot afford to thin our ranks further. The whole point is to insure that Judaism lives on for generations to come. Faith cannot suffer too much dilution lest Judaism becomes something completely foreign to what it traditionally and historically has been. If possible, we should encourage Jews to marry other Jews, or at least to encourage that the non-Jewish partner convert. But the issue is more than simply discouraging the practice of interfaith marriage that erodes Jewish engagement.

Interfaith marriage in the Jewish world is a very intertwined issue facing the Jewish community. It brings up the question of whether interfaith marriage caused Jewish disengagement. I think the disengagement is a result of the increased level of acceptance of Jews in American society, which made it easier to assimilate, but I also think that interfaith marriage exacerbates the disengagement. An overall lack of Jewish education in the non-Orthodox world does not help with any of this. Interfaith marriage also interplays with lower birth rates in the non-Orthodox community, among other disconcerting factors. I don't necessarily fear the downright extinction of Judaism, but given demographic factors (e.g., birth rate, levels of engagement), it wouldn't surprise me if the majority of Jews in America within the next generation or two are Orthodox. I am Modern Orthodox, mind you. While I think that Orthodoxy is much closer to how Judaism should be practiced, I still think that there are some valid criticisms that would need to be addressed, and I do think that a more pluralistic American Jewry is healthier for all sides to keep each other honest. But getting back on the main track, the question is how to have proper educational interventions and strong social networks that instill a sense of Jewishness of all Jews, including the children of interfaith marriages. There are no easy answers to this one, but what I can say is that if we don't address greater Jewish engagement, we will see a decline in Jews, especially in the non-Orthodox world. The Lubavitcher Rebbe didn't care about denominational affiliation. He cared about the people of Israel, and he cared about keeping Judaism alive and well in this world. Whatever the answer(s) may be, they need to focus on engaging Jews and making sure that we have that connectedness of being one people.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Colorado, Please Don't Pass the Single-Payer Healthcare Amendment

I'm finding this election cycle to not only be unusual because of the presidential election, but also because of some of the peculiar ballots that states are proposing. One that caught my eye was Amendment 69: Colorado Creation of the ColoradoCare System. Essentially, ColoradoCare would be America's first implementation of a single-payer healthcare system. The ColoradoCare YES campaign published a 43-page publication here that outlines how it would work. The ColoradoCare system would aim to comprehensively cover all state residents, including pharmaceuticals, hospital visits, medical equipment, mental health services, and chronic disease management. This universal healthcare would be paid for by the Coloradan taxpayers by an additional 10 percent income tax in which two thirds of the burden would fall on the employer for payroll income. For proponents, Colorado would set the example of how single-payer healthcare could look across the rest of the country.

I don't have a problem with single-payer healthcare solely because it does not make for good economic theory. After looking at Bernie Sanders' single-payer proposal along with three case studies earlier this year, I found that in practice, single-payer healthcare increases costs, increases waiting times, stymies healthcare research and development, and has the real possibility of rationing healthcare. Even the liberal state of Vermont, home of Bernie Sanders, could not even pass single-payer healthcare, in large part due to high costs. In spite of mainstream economic theory and the failures of current single-payer healthcare systems, perhaps ColoradoCare would be different. While looking at the past does have predictive power, it doesn't necessarily dictate the future. Perhaps the Coloradan plan will be different from other attempts at successfully implementing single-payer healthcare.

Back in August, the non-partisan Colorado Health Institute (CHI) released its independent financial analysis of ColoradoCare. You know something is awry when both proponents and opponents laud the study. The "good news, bad news" portion is best summarized in the analysis' conclusion (CHI, p. 14). The good news is that ColoradoCare would provide universal healthcare without increasing healthcare spending in the economy. The bad news is that it would lack the revenue to sustain itself (see chart below).

The inability to afford single-payer healthcare is unsurprising. It is a system where you provide excessively comprehensive coverage, have the intended goal of not turning anyone down, and do not provide the ability for people to have awareness of healthcare costs, all of which increase costs. Because of these unaffordable costs, the CHI provides options for covering the deficit, including cutting benefits, raising taxes, reducing provider rates, and shutting down ColoradoCare. As this article from Bloomberg points out, have fun trying to raise taxes when you just increased taxes by a ridiculous amount. Since you have made the citizens of Colorado dependent on ColoradoCare, it would also be difficult to cut benefits. Local provider groups (e.g., hospitals, doctors) can be gouged, but they're politically well-connected. Going after out-of-state providers would disincentivize them from coming to Colorado in the first place. That would lead repealing the Amendment, which would not politically be an easy task, either. Also, it would be even more complicated to implement on a state level because during times of recession, states are even more pressed to balance the budget, which means that if single-payer were a reality, it would put significant pressure on other programs.

But let's delve a little deeper because creating budget deficits is not the Amendment's only issue:
  1. Remember the income tax increase I mentioned earlier, the one that would make Colorado have the highest state income tax in the country? That additional income tax would bring in $38 billion, which is larger than the current $27 billion state budget. That would mean that single-payer healthcare would more than double the budget. 
  2. There would be a 21-member Board of Trustees that would not have oversight, and would have the authority to increase taxes as frequently as annually because the Board would be able to circumvent the state legislature and the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR). Although the Amendment states some general categories of what is to be covered, the Amendment does not lay out any specifics. What exactly is covered would be at total discretion of the Board. Do you really want your personal, private healthcare decisions, not to mention price control for healthcare-related prices, to be at the whim of a Board of Trustees? 
  3. Medicare, TRICARE, and federally regulated plans would still be in effect, and will actually be  a secondary fund source for ColoradoCare. For those on federally-run healthcare programs, ColoradoCare would be a secondary payer, which means that potential administrative benefits under a true single-payer healthcare program would not be realized
  4. Why does this need to be an amendment in the state constitution? In the likelihood of failure, it would be difficult to undo ColoradoCare. 
If passed, Colorado would be the guinea pigs for an initiative that is both unclear with specific coverage and has been untested in the United States. With what we do know, the Amendment would run up significant deficits in Colorado, and would be unsustainable in Colorado. While proponents laud the universal coverage that would come with ColoradoCare, universal coverage does little to no good if ColoradoCare cannot sustain funding to provide all that healthcare. When all is said and done, ColoradoCare is another example of the false promises that come with the single-payer healthcare system. Fortunately, I'm not too worried because the latest polling shows that Coloradans are not in favor of Amendment 69. However, I will conclude with this: If you live in Colorado and care about the future of Colorado, vote No on Amendment 69 this November.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

What Will the 2017 Skyrocketing Obamacare Premiums Unleash on the American People?

It wasn't as if this election cycle wasn't fun enough with Clinton's email scandal or Trump saying the darnedest things. Last week, we find out that the premiums for Obamacare are expected by an average of a whopping 22 percent in 2017. No, these figures do not come from some right-wing, anti-Obama conspiracy. That projection comes straight from a report from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). A 22 percent increase sounds terrible, but the HHS downplays that finding by saying that the subsidies will counter that hike, and that more than 70 percent of enrollees in the Market can find a plan for $75 or less. Does this put your mind at ease? I would hope not, and let me explain why:
  • Most states are going to experience a decline in the number of exchange insurers (HHS, p. 27) and the average number of plans offered (HHS, p. 29). This continues the downward trend that we have seen with such providers as Aetna and United Healthcare pulling out of the exchanges. 
  • There will also be less choice of providers. The percent of consumers in the exchange that will have 3 or more providers is going to drop from 88 percent to 56 percent in 2017 (HHS, p. 38). One in five market participants are expected to only have one provider as an option. Here is an example of Obama breaking another promise, this time with regards to there being more choices and competition in the healthcare marketplace as a result of Obamacare. 
  • The best-case scenario is that the subsidies will keep the exchanges afloat. But where does the money for the subsidies come from? That's right, the American taxpayers. Just look at Table 12 (HHS, p. 31) to see how much the plan has to be subsidized to be "affordable."
  • Obamacare proponent Sarah Kliff even admits that the subsidies would still mean a real possibility of having to accept a lower-tier plan. That makes even more sense considering how deductibles have also increased under Obamacare, as a recent report from HealthPocket discovered.
  • Even if the underpricing of premiums were intentional and the 2017 premium hike is a one-time deal, like proponents are opining, it still doesn't negate that healthcare costs have been increasing more substantially since Obamacare came into fruition.

If it were premiums unto itself, then it wouldn't seem so disastrous. But when is one that lucky? And it is not just the spillover effect that it has on the 7 percent of Americans who are in the individual market for health insurance. Sarah Kliff is dismayed by the lower-than-expected enrollment rate, as if she were genuinely surprised that Obamacare would attract the sicker, higher-need individuals, as well as "have the growing pains of a smaller insurance pool." I'm not at all surprised since shortly after the exchanges took into effect, I figured this would end up being an issue. Advocates of Obamacare want to blame it on risk insurance ending, but how about blaming it that insurance companies were making their initial premium estimates based on the initial estimates that there would be about twice the amount of enrollees than there actually are? All of this leads me to be unsurprised by the fact that enrollment for 2017 will only be around 11.4 million, which is slightly up from the 10 million enrollees. While an increase, it is still nowhere near the 27 million figure that the Congressional Budget Office was projecting back in 2013.

We already see how federal subsidies for college loans continue to drive up the costs for a postsecondary education. I don't have a crystal ball or clairvoyance, but if I had to make an educated guess, the premium hikes are not going to be a one-time deal because the subsidies do nothing to address the underlying dynamics causing the premium hikes in the first place. The premium hike is most probably going to make Obamacare even less attractive, especially for those who are younger and/or those who are near the phaseout level. And let's not forget the 10 million who will get letters in the mail about how their premiums are going to go up or how their current coverage will discontinue because their current provider is dropping out of the Obamacare exchanges. Unless we get a particularly Republican government in power, this travesty is not going to go anywhere for at least a few years. The two most probable options are to raise taxes to pay for the subsidies or increase the individual mandate penalty. Neither option would solve the fact that Obamacare is financially insolvent. Repealing and replacing Obamacare would be the best path to get us out of this rut. Since we are not going to get that anytime soon, all the American people get is higher taxes and greater socialization of healthcare because "surprise, surprise," the Democrats were unable to deliver the dream of offering middle-class at low prices. Just goes to show what sort of misnomer the "Affordable" Care Act can really be.