Eugene Robinson Live

Feb 18, 2014

Chat with Post columnist Eugene Robinson about his latest columns and political news.

Greetings, everyone, and welcome to our weekly session around the campfire, in which we spend an hour singing "Kumbaya." Okay, not quite. We sit at our keyboards and solve the problems of the world, hopefully with as little snarling as possible. Same-old-same-old is the feeling in Washington these days. There doesn't seem to be much in the offing except more bickering, for the next while at least. President Obama and the Democrats say we need to do x, y and z. Republicans say no. Repeat ad nauseam. The problem is that there really are things that need to be done -- 1.7 million people have had their unemployment benefits cut off, for example. I know it's an election year, but can't we agree to do anything? Don't all speak at once; I think I know the answer. Let's get started.

The Obama administration has shown that they can't be trusted to tell the truth about sign-ups to the Affordable Care Act. Their previous numbers have been shown to be wildly exaggerated. Your own paper has given them all kinds of Pinocchio ratings over this. And there have been other reports showing that a very tiny percentage of people enrolling (as low as 11%) were getting first-time coverage; most of the others were likely forced onto the exchanges after this law blew their individual coverage plans into smithereens. Obamacare is not working. The law's death spiral is coming. The republicans' plan to campaign on dumping this law and replacing it will most likely give them both houses of Congress. Bank on it.

You'd be so much smarter to bank the opposite way, but it's your money. If the situation were as dire as you fantasize (with not a smidgeon of data to back up your claims), you'd be hearing a mighty roar from the insurance industry. I'm afraid your hopes of failure are being dashed. As for the GOP's prospects, polls show clearly that people don't like the law (although they love its elements, if asked separately) and don't want it repealed. They want it fixed. Which is the Democrats' position.

I read your column this am. The one thing that never seems to be discussed is that the votes would be there if the vast majority of the voting public wanted immigration reform, extended benefits and the like. Yes, they may poll well but most are not going to sway anyones vote. It's been a Wall Street recovery not a middle class one. Only when the rest of us feel financially safe will issues beyond jobs and real income move to the front of the line. I doubt you'll see democrats put ads on the air about these issues. Maybe immigration reform in some markets but that will be it. It doesn't serve the public well to dodge the reason the issue you write about don't move.

That's a good point about what polls well versus what actually influences the way people vote. So why aren't Republicans running on jobs and real income? I've said consistently that the party that comes up with a message on the economy that connects with voters is going to clean up. Seems worth a try.

Previously you argued that no one wants to stay unemployed and people want to work. Then after the CBO report that people would rather take free money than put in hours in the workforce, the Dems spun this as saying it was good because people could spend more time with their families. It appears you have a contradiction here. You can't argue multiple year unemployment benefits do not discourage work and then admit in the CBO example that by handing out stipends to those with less income they will have less motivation to work.

You set up a contrast between something that I argued and something that "Dems spun." Not really the way we play around here. Nonetheless, even if you compare something I said with something I didn't say, you're still wrong. I assume you're talking about the CBO finding that some people would work fewer hours to ensure they qualify for Obamacare subsidies. If working five or six fewer hours a week get you a substantial break on health insurance -- worth more than the wages from those five or six hours -- that's a rational economic decision. There is nothing rational about deciding to take unemployment benefits rather than work in the field for which you've been trained. Just ask the long-term unemployed. I have.

Please explain how Senator Cruz's position on the debt ceiling is any different than Senator Obama's. You seem to have forgotten that Senator Obama said: "The fact that we are here today to debate raising America's debt limit is a sign of leadership failure. It is a sign that the US Government can not pay its own bills. It is a sign that we now depend on ongoing financial assistance from foreign countries to finance our Government's reckless fiscal policies. Increasing America's debt weakens us domestically and internationally. Leadership means that "the buck stops here." Instead, Washington is shifting the burden of bad choices today onto the backs of our children and grandchildren. America has a debt problem and a failure of leadership. Americans deserve better."

As President Obama has said, Senator Obama was wrong when he said that. There is a difference, though. When Obama was in the Senate, there was zero chance that the debt ceiling would actually not be raised. When Cruz made his self-aggrandizing claim, the danger was quite real. As you doubtless realize.

What are your thoughts about the failure to unionize autoworkers. It seems like they do not serve a purpose except for workplace safety (which are now also covered by OSHA). Places like VW, Costco and Wegamans are not unionized but achieve high success by treating their workers with respect and paying them well. Unions have to be able to address the real complaint that workers (in places that currently reward productivity) do not care as much about results. The best workers, the ones a company needs are held back by unions. Also since pensions are non-existent virtually everywhere and the ACA makes premium healthcare benefits very costly to the employee, the benefits are almost non-existent. Worse it can lead to plants closing and moving to other countries. We need middle class jobs, but unions seem to do nothing more than cannibalize the money of their workers.

I'm a big supporter of unions -- as is Costco, by the way, where many employees are unionized. You say we need middle-class jobs? Then is it a coincidence that the middle-class expanded in this country in the years when unions were expanding? I don't think so. Fair pay and decent benefits are noble goals. Unions can give workers the power to pursue them.

"There is nothing rational about deciding to take unemployment benefits rather than work in the field for which you've been trained." But there is something rational about not working and taking unemployment that amounts to, say, $40k/year (some percentage of your "field" salary) and taking a job outside your field that pays, say $35k, or even $45k. I pray my experience is not normal, but of the few people I've met that collect unemployment, none have bothered to really look for work until near the end of their benefits, and have turned down jobs that pay around their benefits, b/c why work when you can get the same for free? One lady even bragged over dinner of how cheaply she was living, while banking her unemployment checks to pay for a plane ticket to Mongolia! (so she could find herself, of course).

Your experience is certainly not mine. The long-term unemployed men and women I've met would be thrilled to take a job for less pay or a job for which they're overqualified. And they're not trying to save for vacations in Mongolia.

I ask this very respectfully, as a lifelong lib and Dem, but what is the point of having a debt ceiling if we just raise it whenever we like?

There's absolutely no point to having a debt ceiling. The whole concept is ridiculous. Congress has already spent the money; whenever we get near the ceiling, the question is simply whether we will pay our bills or default. If Congress doesn't want to spend so much, it can simply refuse to appropriate the money. But it can't refuse to honor the nation's obligations. The whole exercise of setting and resetting the ceiling should be eliminated.

Gene, At what point does someone stop being unemployed and is basically on welfare. Unemployment was not designed to be such a long term program and after two years of not having employment, its safe a long term solution needs to be found. That solution however is not to just give people permanent unemployment.

And nobody is arguing that it should be permanent. How long is too long? Two years, you say? I don't know the answer, but I do know that we're emerging from the worst economic slump since the Great Depression -- and recovering slowly, at that. Meanwhile, interest rates are at historic lows, meaning that if the government chooses to extend benefits and give people a bit more time to get on their feet, the cost of doing so is modest. So what would you do? The choice seems obvious to me.

That is most emphatically not at all what the CBO report said, even though certain clueless media oversimplified the results to report that.

I know. Not my profession's finest hour, in my opinion. 





40K/year unemployment? Wow am I in the wrong place! In Tx, Salary $100K + gets $453/week.

Thanks for picking up on that; I was going to, but let it slip. I'd like to know where such generous benefits are being bestowed.

Good afternoon, and thank you for taking the time to respond to this issue. My question deals with members of Congress having a minimum standard of competence in their assignments to committees, specifically, the appointment of Paul Broun (R-GA) to the United States House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. Paul Broun stated publicly in 2013 that the planet earth cannot be more than 9,000 years old, and as a member of the United States House Committee on Science, Space and Technology and the Chairman of the United States House Science Subcommittee on Oversight, Rep. Broun is also a voting member of the other subcommittees, which are: The United States House Science Subcommittee on Energy The United States House Science Subcommittee on Research and Technology The United States House Science Subcommittee on Space The United States House Science Subcommittee on Environment. I do not have a problem with people believing what they choose to believe, including the rejection of science, as long as their decisions do not affect the lives of those that choose to live in a reality-based world. Is there any way to require that those assigned to committees have an understanding of the subject matter of their committee? Many thanks, A concerned scientist from Arlington

It would be great if there were some kind of qualifying test for committee membership, but unfortunately that's not going to happen. I'd like to believe that the leaders of both parties in both houses of Congress would see the need to exercise care with their committee assignments, taking aptitude as well as interest (and political obligations) in mind. I'd also like to believe that the scales will fall from Congressional eyes about climate change and gun control, but I'm not holding my breath.

Unions are known to be notoriously inflexible, especially when it comes to reductions in workstaff. While understandable what can they do to allow management the flexibility it needs. The reality is unless unions become more business friendly their are other options across the globe that don't present these issues. In taking a hard line to protect their workers, many of them go from well paying jobs, to no jobs at all. Also while a fair wage is admirable goal, it also needs to be recognized by unions that these manufacturing jobs often require little skill.

This is nothing more than an urban legend at this point. The fact is that most unions have been quite flexible. Giving management everything it demands has not been enough to keep manufacturing jobs from disappearing; even China-level wages and working conditions are more expensive than robots. And you're wrong about the nature of manufacturing jobs. These days, they require a lot of skill -- but there aren't many of them. Manufacturing jobs basically entail tending to a bunch of robots.

I don't get it. Many years ago I was laid off from a job, and my recollection was that if I couldn't show that I had been actively looking for work, I'd lose my benefits. I think I even had to name companies where I applied (sent a resume). It doesn't work that way?

Yes, it works that way. As I've pointed out many times in the past: Those receiving unemployment benefits, by definition, are people accustomed to working, not idling, and are able to prove that they are actively looking for jobs.

Like you, I am hopeful that the changes brought about by the PPACA will lead to more people insured and greater access to health care services. But I think it's a little premature to say that it's succeeded. An article that appeared in the Post yesterday ( contained this little nugget - "Signing up younger, healthier enrollees is seen as more difficult, but crucial to keeping future insurance rates from increasing. The administration said those age groups may put off enrolling until closer to the March 31 deadline." Isn't that being awfully optimistic--that young, healthier people are all ready to sign up, but are just going to wait until a month from now to actually do so?

In Massachusetts, that was what happened to Romneycare -- young people tended to wait until late in the enrollment period to sign up. In January, young people constituted 27 percent of enrolees, according to the administration, up from an average of 24 percent in the period October-December. The goal is to have 40 percent of enrolees be young people; that may be a stretch, but even at current levels and trends, any threat that the ACA would enter some kind of actuarial "death spiral" is over. Done with. Not gonna happen.

Shouldn't that be extended to those who are nominated to be ambassadors? It would be nice if the nominated person had been to the country in question or, if not, was enough of an "expert" that would otherwise qualify that person for the position.

As a former foreign correspondent, I know how much of a difference an ambassador can make. Most of the ambassadors I've met who came up through the State Department ranks have been superb; a couple have been duds. Most of those who were political appointees -- rewarded for their fundraising prowess or whatever -- have been less impressive, although a few have been terrific. The former politicians have tended to be quite good, too. But basically I agree: If you're going to be appointed ambassador to Freedonia because you bundled tons of money for the president, at least pay the Freedonians a visit and read a few books beforehand.

Which sport are you enjoying watching most on the Winter Olympics?

I've spent an inordinate amount of time watching CNBC, which apparently stands for Carries Nothing But Curling. It's certainly not an exciting sport, but I find it visually mesmerizing. I can't say that's the one I enjoy most, though. I'm digging the cross-country skiing, for some reason, and even the biathlon. What a weird sport -- skiing and shooting. Can't look away.


Speaking of Sochi, there's a pretty exciting hockey game on right now between the Czechs and the Slovaks. We'll have to discuss it next week -- I'm out of time. Thanks for tuning in, and I'll see you again next week!

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Eugene Robinson
Eugene Robinson is an Associate Editor and twice-weekly columnist for The Washington Post. His column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. In a 25-year career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper's award-winning Style section. In 2005, he started writing a column for the Op-Ed page. He is the author of "Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race" (1999) and "Last Dance in Havana" (2004). Robinson is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and has received numerous journalism awards.
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