State insurance commissioner on state insurance exchange: It sucks!

Montana State Auditor and Insurance Commissioner Matt Rosendale

Sorry to use this unflattering photo of Matt Rosendale, apparently taken at the moment a bat flew into the room, but I ran into legal problems. I wanted to use this one, but I couldn’t get the rights from Dick Tracey. Anyway, we all know from civics class that the Montana State Auditor and Insurance Commissioner is in charge of the state’s insurance exchange. And we all know from Rosendale that Montana’s exchange sucks. The premiums are too high! My own personal insurer, Montana Health Co-Op, raised the rates on its silver plan 24% going into 2018, on account of Trump took away federal CSR payments. That’s bullshit, though, because when they submitted rates back in June, they specifically told Rosendale they’d be fine with or without CSRs. I quote the commissioner:

My department was advised by both companies just months ago, that with or without [cost-sharing reduction] payments, they would be able to honor the rates they provided to us and the public. Today, by their actions, they inform me that was not true.

What a screwjob! If only we had some sort of state official whose job it was to regulate the behavior of insurance companies. The commissioner insists he has no legal authority to hold them to their previously submitted rates, even though A) there was a deadline, and B) they specifically agreed not to do this. It’s no secret that Rosendale, a Republican, opposes the Affordable Care Act that created the exchange in the first place. It’s almost as though letting insurers raise rates and then publicly complaining about it serves three of his interests: his interest in friendly relations with the companies he regulates, his interest in watching Obamacare blow up, and his interest in harnessing the outrage of the ordinary voter.

But does it serve his interest in getting elected to the US Senate? Rosendale is currently the only Republican candidate for Jon Tester’s seat who holds statewide office. The exchange is his identity. Will voters respond to his bold message of “just look at this failed system I’m running?” You can read all about it in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent. We’ll be back tomorrow with Friday links, maybe. I’m doing so much work, you guys.

Friday links! Grifters in a gilded age edition

A turn-of-the century cartoon published by the American Federation of Labor

The big historical misconception of the Gilded Age is that it was an age of great wealth, when really it was an age of widespread poverty. Between 1870 and 1900, growing industrialization and the sudden interconnection of markets by rail made a small number of American industrialists insanely rich. The Gilded Age produced the Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, and Carnegie fortunes. It also impoverished millions of ordinary Americans, who went from self-employment as small farmers and independent craftsmen to working in mills and on railroads—often for sprawling trusts, usually with little control over hours or conditions, and invariably for low wages in an economy driven by industrial-strength inflation. The Gilded Age made a few people rich at the expense of everyone else. It is named for the 1873 novel by Mark Twain, and the whole point of “gilded” is that the gold only covered the surface. Beneath it lay something base that the wealthy wanted to cover up. Anyway, I don’t know why I’m thinking about this in the 21st century, during our second industrial revolution. I guess I’m just savoring the fact that nothing like that could happen now. Today is Friday, and our age remains totally un-gilded. Won’t you insist that everything is fine with me?

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Crimes are forgiven. Debt is forever

Fake news

My advice to you, sir or madam or whatever, is to never read the comments section of anything. It’s depressing. When we read the comments section, we imagine we are getting a cross-section of the general public, when in fact we are getting a cross-section of people who leave internet comments. This sampling error distorts our perception and convinces us that ordinary folks are even dumber than they actually are. I should know; I broke my own rule and have been reading comments on my Indy column all week, because such are the joys of satire. Here is the winner—this guy who believes Ben Jacobs wrote my column and is “a complete moron”:

“You just can’t fix stupid,” he says to the woman who tries to correct his spectacular misreading. This brings us to a rule even more ironclad than “don’t read the comments.” The people who call other people stupid are invariably really, really smart.

Anyway, this sort of thing amuses me, so I wrote another satirical column this week. It’s about Montana’s policy of revoking the driver’s licenses of people who have unpaid fines or court fees, and the class-action suit filed against it by the DC nonprofit Equal Justice Under Law. Their plaintiff is Michael DiFrancesco, who got a ticket for possessing alcohol when he was 14 and couldn’t pay his $185 fine, plus the fee for a mandatory substance abuse education course. As a result, he has never been eligible for a driver’s license. That would prevent him from getting a job—especially here in Montana, where everything is far apart and public transportation is poor—if he weren’t willing to drive without a license, which he has been. The ensuing citations have increased the amount he owes the state to just under $4,000.

If you read the comments on this article about his case in the Helena Independent Record, you will find the consensus view is that he shouldn’t have gotten a ticket in the first place. Among internet commenters, this passes as a penetrating insight. If you read their quote-unquote arguments, though, you will find few people arguing that the punishment for minor-in-possession-of-alcohol should be a $4,000 fine and suspension of driving privileges for ten years. Their position is not that minors who drink deserve whatever they get, but that minors who drink and don’t pay the fine deserve whatever they get.

What we are looking at here is a two-tier system of infractions. The punishment for MIP if you have $185 is a $185 fine. The punishment for MIP if you don’t have $185—or, in most cases, if your parents don’t have $185—is lifetime suspension of driving privileges, intermittent homelessness, and financial penalties that mount beyond 20 times the statutory fine. Compare what DiFrancesco has suffered as a result of drinking beer when he was 14 to what Greg Gianforte suffered for punching a reporter when he was 56. The difference in how these two people were punished comes down to how much money they had when they committed their crimes. You can read all about it in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent, in which I cite Gianforte as a paragon of civic responsibility and argue that the poor are getting a sweet deal. Perhaps the commenters will finally agree with me.

Why is there a Confederate monument in Helena, Montana?

The Confederate Memorial Fountain in Helena—photo by Thom Bridge

The state of Montana did not participate in the US civil war. Montana didn’t become a state until decades later, in 1889, and even then it was about as far north of the Mason-Dixon line as states get. Although somebody in the Montana territory probably traveled south to fight on the side of the Confederacy, the war is only a part of this region’s history indirectly, in the same way as, say, the Boston Tea Party. There’s no statue of Sam Adams in Helena. Yet there is a memorial to Confederate soldiers, given to the city by The Daughters of the Confederacy in 1915.

In a letter to city commissioners, eight members of the state legislature’s American Indian Caucus recently asked that the fountain be removed. Helena Mayor Jim Smith opposes this idea. In his own letter, reported by Holly Michels in the Helena Independent-Record, he writes, “Fundamentally, I believe we ought to be very careful before we start obliterating history. That is what totalitarian regimes do.”

Let’s talk about what constitutes history, then. The notion that statues and fountains somehow stand between us and the “obliteration” of history is fatuous. I defy you to show me someone who only knows about the Civil War from a statue. And what information about history does the fountain in Hill Park convey? If you did not know anything about the past, all this monument would tell you is that there once existed a group called The Daughters of the Confederacy, and it dedicated a fountain in 1915.

That fountain is less a piece of history than a monument to one group’s understanding of it. The distinction is  important. The D of the C built this monument 50 years after the Civil War ended. That’s an astonishingly short time, like erecting a monument to the Wehrmacht in Paris in 1995. But it is still two generations after the Confederacy ceased to exist, and the fountain cannot meaningfully be called a relic of Civil War history. Instead, it is a monument to the City of Helena’s endorsement of the Daughters of the Confederacy in 1915.

That moment is also part of history, but it is not important in the same way as the Civil War. I don’t think anyone considers it a significant part of the story of Helena. It has purely symbolic importance, and what it symbolizes—then and now—is not something the city should support, even if only by inaction.

The Daughters of the Confederacy was founded to sponsor burials of Confederate veterans, erect monuments to them, and influence schools to teach Civil War history in ways that reflected favorably on the South. Its membership increased dramatically during the first two decades of the 20th century, going from 17,000 in 1900 to almost 100,000 by the outbreak of World War I. The fountain in Hill Park reflects the height of the Daughters’ influence. It also reflects a sympathy to their cause completely divorced from history.

Again, Montana played no part in the Civil War. If it had existed as a state, it would have almost certainly fought for the North. It had no historical ties to the Confederacy, in 1863 or in 1915. The fountain therefore suggests an affinity for some other aspect of the Daughters’ mission. It is hard to say what that could be other than white supremacy.

Many historians, including Princeton professor and Pulitzer Prize winner James McPherson, consider the Daughters of the Confederacy a stalking horse for white supremacy. It’s not inconceivable that some of the Daughters are lineal descendants of Confederates who only want to memorialize their ancestors, but that argument breaks down in Montana. The further we get, geographically and chronologically, from the Confederacy itself, the more structures like this fountain become monuments to the idea and not the history.

That idea is repugnant. Confederate soldiers fought a war of treason against the United States in defense of slavery. There are a lot of good reasons to study that war and remember it, to literally memorialize the history. But there are only two reasons to memorialize the ideas: either you like the notion of exploiting and disenfranchising black people by force, or you like the notion of betraying the United States and killing its citizens.

There is a third reason, of course: you recognize that Confederate monuments have some vague appeal to disgruntled white people, and you’re pandering. I hope that’s what Mayor Smith is up to. I would hate to think he is a slavemonger or seditionist. He has probably just performed the same calculus the city fathers did in 1915. Most of Helena is white, and saying yes to some cracker nonsense will alienate fewer voters than saying no. The next step in this process, probably, is to prove him wrong.

Even after hot mic snafu, PSC regulates solar out of business

I’ve been thinking about this joke for 20 years, and it’s the word “yearned.”

Let’s say you run a state regulatory agency tasked with setting rates and contracts for utility companies, such as the Montana Public Service Commission. Let us also say part of your mandate is to promote renewable energy. This isn’t just your general sense of what the public wants you do to; it’s federal law, mandated by the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act of 1978. Anyway, let’s say that despite this mandate, you secretly plan to use your regulatory power to increase profits for established utility companies and keep stuff like solar power out of the market. People have accused you of pursing this agenda before, but you denied it. Then, a hot mic accidentally records you talking about how to set rates so low it puts solar farms out of business.

You cannot go ahead and do it, right? You got caught planning to do something deeply unethical and federally illegal, and the only thing to do now is abort the plan. You certainly cannot set rates for solar farms so far below market that they cease to be viable businesses. People are on to you. And yet Commissioner Bob Lake did exactly that. In June, a hot mic caught him talking to rate analyst Neil Templeton about the threat of solar power. Templeton opines that “just dropping the rate probably took care of the whole thing.” Lake replies, “Well, the 10-year might do it if the price doesn’t. And at this low price, I can’t imagine anyone getting into it.”

That’s it! You made a recording of your criminal conspiracy, and now it is over. Yet somehow, last month, the PSC set the rates for the proposed MTSUN solar farm outside Billings at $20 per megawatt-hour over a ten-year contract. Compare to the residential supply rate the commission set for NorthWestern Energy: $62 per megawatt-hour over the next 25 years. MTSUN developer Mark Klein confirmed that his solar project would be unworkable under those terms.

I applaud this bold act of regulatory capture and welcome the PSC to our long war against the sun. My only concern is that it will come up again somehow. Still, I praise Lake and his colleagues for sheer brazenness. Montana ratepayers could have no stauncher ally in the fight against cheap electricity from dubious sources. You can read all about it in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent. We’ll be back tomorrow with Friday links!