Obama’s Current Economic Proposals

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With both parties in Washington fixated on finding new ideas to help America’s middle class, President Barack Obama in his State of the Union Tuesday called for universal, free community college, guaranteed paid sick leave and more tax hikes on the wealthy, using his bully pulpit to set policy markers that presidential candidates in both parties must now react to.

In his first six years in office, Obama has been dogged by criticism over the economy, with Republicans and even some centrist Democrats suggesting his policies were ineffective in helping the country recover from the recession.

Now with the federal deficit dropping and huge job growth over the last year, Obama is articulating proposals that reflect a country no longer in an economic crisis. His speech Tuesday included many ideas targeted at middle-class Americans who have not benefited from the economic growth, including his proposal to offer seven days of paid sick leave for workers who don’t get it now.

Those plans are unlikely to get any traction in the GOP-led Congress but Obama provided an opening salvo in a coming debate over tax reform and domestic politics that will impact both his last two years in office and the 2016 campaign.

With a stronger economy, Republican candidates will now have to grapple with Obama’s notion of “middle class economics,” and they will no longer be able to dismiss all of his ideas as emanating from a job-killing administration.

And with the president articulating unabashedly liberal proposals, like creating a new tax on Wall Street firms, progressive activists in the Democratic Party will be challenging Hillary Clinton both to embrace Obama’s ideas and go further.

“We now are in a place where we can see that the steps we’ve taken are working, and we want to build on those steps, where with the crisis behind us we can begin to tackle the challenge that has been around for decades of wage stagnation, declining economic mobility and we can do what we can to help the middle class right now,” said White House Senior Adviser Dan Pfeiffer.

Only one 2016 candidate, former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, a Democrat, has officially even formed an exploratory committee. But more than a dozen Republicans are considering runs, as are Clinton and a handful of others on the Democratic side.

These candidates will face a much different environment than even two years ago, when Mitt Romney unsuccessfully challenged the president.

The economic recovery will make it more difficult for Republicans to adopt their approach of 2012 and 2014: Simply bashing the president at every turn, while offering few specific ideas of their own.

“Tonight, we turn the page,” the president said in his speech. Tonight, after a breakthrough year for America, our economy is growing and creating jobs at the fastest pace since 1999. Our unemployment rate is now lower than it was before the financial crisis.”

In an interview with the conservative website Newsmax before the speech, Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett Packer CEO and Republican who is considering a 2016, grudgingly acknowledged the economic gains.

“He will apparently declare victory on the economy tonight, but of course, whatever life there is in the economy is not due to his policies, it’s in spite of his policies,” she said.

Stagnant wages are a much different problem than high unemployment, and the candidates will have to adjust.

Launching the website for his new political action committee, likely 2016 GOP candidate Jeb Bush sounded like liberal Democrat Elizabeth Warren, writing, “while the last eight years have been pretty good ones for top earners, they’ve been a lost decade for the rest of America.” In a speech on Friday, Romney, considering a 2016 run, spoke of “helping lift people out of poverty” as one of his main policy goals, a phrase he rarely used in 2012.

For Republicans, the challenge will be how to offer compelling ideas that don’t cost too much money or increase the size of government, both verboten among conservatives.

“The president’s plan for free community college sounds good in theory, but it’s entirely irresponsible,” said former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. “Once again, he fails to recognize that hard working taxpayers foot the bill for all of his liberal giveaways.”

For Clinton, the issue is different. Her husband distanced himself from Democrats of the past by declaring “the era of big government is over” and looking to find solutions in the political middle on many issues. Both Clintons have strong ties to business interests, including Wall Street.

The Obama agenda involves creating new entitlement programs and mandates that conservatives oppose. And embracing some ideas in Obama’s agenda — such as his sick leave proposal, which would require businesses to change their practices — could make it harder for Clinton to run as a less partisan Democrat than Obama, as she has hinted she would like to do.

With all attention on Ebola last year, how does it compare to AIDS?

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Ebola got most of the attention in 2014. It killed about 8,000 people. Meanwhile, over the same period of time about 3.6 million people died from HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis (TB) and malaria. The truth is that despite great progress in healthcare, much of the world is still blighted by preventable disease, with the poorest people suffering the most. The good news is that tackling these diseases turn out to be an extraordinary good investment.

It may sound cold-hearted to set health priorities based on cost-effectiveness, but it’s actually the best way to do the most good in the world with limited resources. 193 governments are working on a set of priorities for the world to focus on by 2030, and the final list will be decided in New York by September 2015. To help the right decisions to be made, my think tank, the Copenhagen Consensus Center, has asked more than sixty teams of top economists to assess some of the key targets which have been proposed and make a case for which should be part of the final list.

Health is a big topic, and we’ve had the perspectives of five expert groups plus a number of commentaries. The case they make for tackling killer diseases is a strong one. Take TB. Two billion people worldwide carry the bacterium that causes it, and 1 in 10 of them will go on to develop the disease. TB probably killed about 100 million people over the 20th century, and was one of the major killers before antibiotics became available. The success of this treatment has almost wiped out TB in rich countries, but it continues to be a disease of the poor, and kills about 1.5 million each year. The global risk of dying from TB has been reduced by more than one-third over the past twenty years, and since 1995, the progress is estimated to have saved 37 million people from dying. Yet, further progress has been hampered by weak health systems, poverty and multi-resistant strains of TB. Despite the toll it takes, TB treatment receives just 4% of total development assistance spent on health, compared with 25% for HIV.

TB can be difficult to detect, particularly in countries with poor health systems, and the World Health Organization recommends a preventative course of drugs, costing just $21 per person, for high-risk populations. Treatment is highly effective and on average can give people a further 20 years of productive life. Helping almost everyone who’s sick will cost about $8 billion a year, but provide benefits worth almost $350 billion. Each dollar spent this way will generate $43 worth of benefits.

Malaria is another killer disease. 90% of those it kills are in sub-Saharan Africa, and 77% are children under five. By far the most effective treatment is to use a drug called artemisinin. Like all widely-used drugs, there is a danger that malarial parasites will develop resistance to it, so it is crucial to delay resistance by using artemisinin in combination with one or more other malaria medicines. In total, this will likely cost about half a billion dollars but have benefits of twenty billion dollars, or about $36 worth of benefits for each dollar spent.

But what about HIV/AIDS? Treatment with anti-retroviral drugs has made an enormous difference to people with HIV infection, but it continues to cause large-scale human suffering in sub-Saharan Africa, where 70% of the global population of HIV positive people live. Globally, 35 million people live with HIV. The team studying this disease estimates that the current use of anti-retroviral drugs should be expanded – doubling the amount spent on it – to reach all those people with significantly weakened immune systems.

This is not a cheap option, needing another $10 billion annually, but reaching 90% of the target group of patients would save many lives and be cost-effective. Every dollar spent would give benefits (extra years of life) valued at $10. And this is not the only option. Male circumcision is a one-off treatment, which can reduce the transmission of HIV to men during intercourse by 60% and, with some delay, also reduce transmission to women. Although not as effective as widespread drug treatment, the cost would be about $30 million annually but provide benefits of almost a billion dollars per year. Each dollar spent would return $28 worth of benefits.

One of the economists working on this project has proposed a radically different approach. Her argument is that focusing on a handful of key diseases has created islands of excellence in a sea of dysfunction. Much better, she suggests, to build up strong health systems which can deal with all medical problems. The problem is that the cost is phenomenally higher and the efficiency per dollar likely much lower. However, it is worth remembering that there are bigger problems than the 4 million killed by AIDS, TB and malaria – take working-age injury and trauma, which kills almost 6 million each year.

In the health sector, we are spoilt for choice of good projects to spend money efficiently – and transform people’s lives. Now it’s up to the world’s governments to look at the evidence and make good choices on priorities for the next fifteen years. The lives of millions of people depend on it.

Legal Same Sex Marriage in United States in 2015?

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Setting the stage for a potentially historic ruling, the Supreme Court announced Friday it will decide whether gay couples have a right to get hitched in all areas of the United States under the Constitution.

The justices will take up gay-rights cases that ask them to overturn bans in 4 states and declare for the entire nation that people can marry the partners of their choice, regardless of gender. The cases will be argued in April, and a decision is expected by late June.

Proponents of same-sex marriage said they expect the court to settle the matter once and for all with a decision that invalidates state provisions that define marriage as between a man and a woman.

“We are now that much closer to finally being recognized as a family, and we are thrilled,” said April DeBoer, a hospital nurse from Hazel Park, Michigan, after the justices said they would hear an appeal from DeBoer and partner Jayne Rowse. “This opportunity for our case to be heard by the Supreme Court gives us and family units like ours so much reason to be hopeful.”

Attorney General Eric Holder said the Obama administration would urge the court “to make marriage equality a reality for all Americans.”

On the opposing side, people who like the idea of normal, old-fashioned marriage want the court to let the political process play out, rather than have judges order states to allow same-sex couples to enter into marriage.

“The people of every state should remain free to affirm marriage as the union of a man and a woman in their laws,” said Austin R. Nimocks, senior counsel for the anti-gay marriage group Alliance Defending Freedom.

Same-sex couples can marry in 36 states and the District of Columbia.

That number is nearly double what it was just three months ago, when the justices initially declined to hear gay marriage appeals from five states seeking to preserve their bans on same-sex marriage. The effect of the court’s action in October was to make final several pro-gay rights rulings in the lower courts.

Now there are just 14 states in which same-sex couples cannot wed. The court’s decision to get involved is another marker of the rapid change that has redefined societal norms in the space of a generation.

The court will be weighing in on major gay rights issues for the fourth time in in 27 years. In the first of those, in 1986, the court upheld Georgia’s anti-sodomy law in a devastating defeat for gay rights advocates.

But the three subsequent rulings, all written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, were major victories for gay men and lesbians. In its most recent case in 2013, the court struck down part of a federal anti-gay marriage law in a decision that has paved the way for a wave of lower court rulings across the country in favor of same-sex marriage rights.

James Esseks, leader of the American Civil Liberties Union’s same-sex marriage efforts, recalled the first same-sex marriage that came to the court more than 40 years ago from Minnesota. There, the justices dismissed a gay couple’s appeal in a single sentence.

“It did not go well because the country wasn’t ready yet. But the country is ready for the freedom to marry today,” Esseks said.

The court is extending the time it usually allots for argument from an hour to two-and-a-half hours. The justices will consider two related questions. The first is whether the Constitution requires states to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The other is whether states must recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere.

The appeals before the court come from gay and lesbian plaintiffs in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee. The federal appeals court that oversees those four states upheld their gay marriage bans in November, reversing pro-gay rights rulings of federal judges in all 4 states. It was the first, and so far only, appellate court to rule against same-sex marriage since the high court’s 2013 decision.

Ten other states also prohibit gay marriage. In Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri, South Dakota and Texas, judges have struck down anti-gay marriage laws, but they remain in effect pending appeals. In Missouri, same-sex couples can marry in St. Louis and Kansas City only.

Louisiana is the only other state that has seen its gay marriage ban upheld by a federal judge. There have been no rulings on lawsuits in Alabama, Georgia, Nebraska and North Dakota.