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Rick Perry Is One Lucky Dude

| Thu Dec. 18, 2014 2:00 PM EST

From James Pethokoukis:

The energy sector gives, and the energy sector takes. The stunning drop in oil prices looks like bad news for the “Texas Miracle.” (Texas is responsible for 40% of all US oil production — vs. 25% five years ago — and all of the net US job growth since 2007.) This from JPMorgan economist Michael Feroli: “As we weigh the evidence, we think Texas will, at the least, have a rough 2015 ahead, and is at risk of slipping into a regional recession.”

Man, Rick Perry is one lucky guy, isn't he? It's true that the "Texas Miracle" may not be quite the miracle Perry would like us to believe. As the chart below shows in a nutshell, the Texas unemployment rate has fared only slightly better than the average of all its surrounding states.

Still, Texas has certainly had strong absolute job growth. However, this is mostly due to (a) population growth; (b) the shale oil boom; and (c) surprisingly strict mortgage loan regulations combined with loose land use rules, which allowed Texas to escape the worst of the housing bubble. Perry had nothing to do with any of this. And now that oil is collapsing and might bring the miracle to a sudden end, Perry is leaving office and can avoid all blame for what happens next.

One lucky guy indeed.

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Yeah, Democrats Are Pretty Pro-Corporate Too

| Thu Dec. 18, 2014 12:39 PM EST

A couple of days ago I poured cold water on the idea that tea partiers might join up with the Elizabeth Warren wing of the Democratic Party to form some kind of populist anti-corporate coalition. "Every once in a while they'll get themselves exercised over some trivial issue of 'crony capitalism' like reauthorizing the Export-Import bank," I said, but the truth is that the tea partiers have no real devotion to anti-corporatism. They just want to cut taxes and slash welfare.

Over at National Review, Veronique de Rugy tries to make the case that ExIm is more important than I'm giving it credit for, but I'm not buying it. Sorry. It's just a shiny object of the moment that's both small and costs virtually nothing. On the other hand, I'm entirely willing to buy de Rugy's suggestion that Democrats aren't especially anti-corporate either:

Please. They talk the talk, but when it’s time to vote, they rarely walk the walk. In the end, not unlike a number of Republicans, Democrats rarely miss an opportunity to support big businesses. They support the Department of Energy’s 1705 loans, which mostly go to wealthy energy companies, and they never fail to join Republicans in saving other corporate energy subsidies; they support the reauthorization of OPIC, which mostly benefits large corporations; they support farm subsidies, which mostly benefit large agro-businesses at the expenses of small farms; they support Obamacare, which among other things amounts to a huge giveaway to the insurance industry; they support auto and bank bailouts; and for all their complaints about Wall Street, they managed to write a law, Dodd-Frank, that in some ways protects the big financial institutions that they claim to despise.

I'd quibble with some of this. Obamacare is indeed good for the insurance industry, but it's not that good. And anyway, this is mostly due to the fact that the structure of American health care is historically dependent on private insurance, and it's just not possible to completely overhaul that overnight. In this case, Democrats caved in to special interests as much because they had to as because they wanted to.

Still, it's true that most Democrats are pretty cozy with corporate America. There's a smallish anti-corporate wing of the party, but it rarely has much influence because (a) it's usually outnumbered in the Democratic caucus and (b) there's essentially no anti-corporate wing of the Republican Party to team up with. Being pro-corporate is one of the few bipartisan issues left in Congress. There are lots of fights over small stuff, but it's mostly just window dressing that hides widespread agreement over the big stuff.

Is Vladimir Putin Ready to Make a Deal?

| Thu Dec. 18, 2014 11:53 AM EST

In his yearly press conference, Vladimir Putin appeared to be trying to cool down the rhetoric over Ukraine:

Mr. Putin recognized the efforts of President Petro O. Poroshenko of Ukraine in ending the conflict in the southeast of that country, but he suggested that others in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, may be trying to prolong the conflict....“We hear a lot of militant statements; I believe President Poroshenko is seeking a settlement, but there is a need for practical action,” Mr. Putin added. “There is a need to observe the Minsk agreements” calling for a cease-fire and a withdrawal of forces.

Russia has toned down its talk on the Ukraine crisis in the past month, and some of its most incendiary language, like “junta” and “Novorossiya,” a blanket term used for the separatist territories, is no longer used on state-run television news. Mr. Putin also notably omitted those terms, which he had used in other public appearances, on Thursday.

So does this mean Putin is adopting a more conciliatory attitude toward the West? You be the judge:

In general, he blamed “external factors, first and foremost” for creating Russia’s situation — accusing the West of intentionally trying to weaken Russia. “No matter what we do they are always against us,” Putin said, one of a series of observations directed at how he said the West has been treating Russia.

Putin attributed Western sanctions that have targeted Russia’s defense, oil and gas and banking sectors for about “25 percent” of Russia’s current difficulties.

But Putin stood firm over the actions that brought on the Western backlash, including Russia’s annexation of the Crimea peninsula after pro-Moscow rebels in eastern Ukraine began an uprising earlier this year....“Taking Texas from Mexico is fair, but whatever we are doing is not fair?” he said, in comments seemingly directed at the United States.

Putin also suggested that the West was demanding too many concessions from Russia, including further nuclear disarmament. Likening Russia to a bear — a longtime symbol of the country — he chided the West for insisting the Russian bear “just eat honey instead of hunting animals.”

“They are trying to chain the bear. And when they manage to chain the bear, they will take out his fangs and claws,” Putin said. “This is how nuclear deterrence is working at the moment.”

For what it's worth, I'd say Putin is probably right about sanctions being responsible for around 25 percent of Russia's economic problems. As for his guess that those problems will last two years before Russia returns to growth? That might not be far off either, though I suspect growth will be pretty slow for longer than that.

It's hard to render a real judgment here without being fluent in Russian and watching the press conference in real time, but based on press reports I'd say Putin's anti-Western comments were milder than they could have been. My guess is that events in Ukraine really haven't worked out the way he hoped, and he'd be willing to go ahead and disengage if he could do so without admitting that he's conceding anything. The anti-Western bluster is just part of that. (Of course, the bluster is also partly genuine: Putin really does believe, with some justification, that the West wants to hem in Russia.)

Oddly, then, I'd take all this as a mildly positive sign. The rhetoric seemed fairly pro forma; Putin obviously knows that sanctions are hurting him; and there were no serious provocations over Ukraine. I'll bet there's a deal to be made with Putin as long as it's done quietly.

The First Person Jeb Bush Followed on Twitter Was Karl Rove

| Thu Dec. 18, 2014 11:23 AM EST

Former Florida Republican Gov. Jeb Bush is running for president. (Maybe.) But just how much does he have in common with his brother, George W.? His Twitter page might offer a clue. The first human Jeb followed on Twitter was none other than his brother's former deputy chief of staff—Fox News analyst Karl Rove. So is the Oracle of Ohio going to be back in the fold come 2016? We can only hold our breath. Or perhaps Jeb just likes Rove's engaging Twitter personality. (Full disclosure: the first person I followed on Twitter was Chuck Grassley.)

Listen to the Real Stephen Colbert Explain How He Maintained His Flawless Character for 9 Years

| Thu Dec. 18, 2014 11:03 AM EST

The curtain comes down on The Colbert Report Thursday night after a spectacular nine-year run on Comedy Central. But a big question remains: How on Earth did Colbert stay in character for so long?

"Stephen Colbert," the character, is indisputably a brilliant creation. I watched every week because "Stephen Colbert" attacked right-wing media by embodying its most outlandish traits; the more sincere he was, the more searing and audacious the satire. He was sophisticated and simple at the same time. He gave viewers an amazing gift: temporary relief from the political divide by skewering idiocy at its source. (My colleague Inae Oh has compiled some of his best segments today).

It was a wildly impressive formula, in part for the stamina it required from Stephen Colbert, the comic. As fellow performer Jimmy Fallon told the New York Times this week: "I was one of those who said, 'He'll do it for six months and then he'll move on.'…It's gets old. But not this. He's a genius."

That's what makes the above podcast, Working, With David Plotz, so fascinating: It's Colbert, in his own words, out of character, describing his daily routine of getting into character; a real craftsman. It also reveals the vulnerable human performer within; a real artist.

Broadcaster and media critic Brooke Gladstone said back in April that Colbert "seems to be a modest man, too modest perhaps, to see that by lightly shedding the cap of his creation, he's depriving us all of a national treasure."

Long live Colbert.

Rape Is Way Down Over the Past Two Decades — But So Is All Violent Crime

| Thu Dec. 18, 2014 10:51 AM EST

Keith Humphreys passes along some positive news about rape:

Twenty years ago, the National Crime Victimization Survey was redesigned to do a better job detecting sexual assault....In the space of one generation, the raw number of rapes has dropped by 45% and the population-adjusted rate of rape has dropped 55%.

I started my career working with and advocating for rape victims, and no one needs to convince me that the only acceptable goal for society is to have no rapes at all. But that doesn’t change the fact that we have experienced an astonishingly positive change that should lead us to (1) Figure out how it was achieved so that we can build on it (personally, I credit the feminist movement, but there may be other variables) and (2) Never give up hope that we can push back dramatically against even the most horrific social problems.

I have to call foul on this. The starting point for this statistic is 1992, the absolute peak of the violent crime wave in America that started during the 60s and continued rising for a generation. Since that peak, all violent crime as measured by the NCVS has declined by well over half. The decline in rape is simply part of this overall trend, not a bright spot in an otherwise grim crime picture.

In fact, it's just the opposite: the decline in the reported rape rate has lagged the overall drop in reported violent crime. It's plausible that the feminist movement has something to do with this, since it's encouraged more women to report rapes and pushed the criminal justice system into taking rape more seriously. But the raw decline in rape itself? That's almost certainly due not to feminism, but to the same factors that have been responsible for the stunning decline in all violent crime over the past two decades. My hypothesis about this is pretty well known, so I won't repeat it here. But whatever it is, it's something pretty broad based.

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Bid Farewell to "The Colbert Report" with Some of the Show's Most Genius Moments

| Thu Dec. 18, 2014 6:17 AM EST

Tonight, Stephen Colbert will close the curtain on the ludicrous, yet wholly enjoyable persona he created as the conservative host of "The Colbert Report." 

As the nation prepares to say goodbye, Mother Jones pays tribute to everyone's favorite right-wing blowhard with a round-up of some of our favorite moments from the show's stellar nine year run. 

1. In which Colbert takes on Mitt Romney's infamous 47 percent video by throwing shrimp at poor people: "We job creators know there is no such thing as a free lunch. Lunch is $50,000 a plate!"

2. In which Colbert becomes a migrant worker for a day: "Are there any beans that are in the shade?"

3. In which Colbert cites our study on income disparity to propose the rich starting their own country, America Plus: "We already live in gated communities, I say we just connect them all with really long driveways. To visit, you just need a green card!"

4. In which Colbert repeatedly stabs his Karl Rove substitute, "Ham Rove," with a large knife, a segment that prompted the political operative to question Colbert's mental state: "Ham Rove, my salted and trusted advisor."

5. In which Colbert and Buddy Cole take on Russia's anti-gay laws through the lens of the U.S. speed skating team: "Is speed skating a choice or were you born a speed skater?"

6. In which Colbert hypnotically dances with Bryan Cranston, Jeff Bridges, and even Henry Kissinger to "Get Lucky": "This is Colbchella goddammit!"

7. In which Colbert breaks character to pay a moving tribute to his mother, Lorna Colbert: "If you also like me, that's because of my mom." 

 

How a 20-Minute Conversation Can Convince Someone With Anti-Gay Views to Change Their Minds

| Thu Dec. 18, 2014 6:00 AM EST

A recent study suggests that a single conversation between a gay person and a same-sex marriage opponent may have the power to change the person's mind on the issue. 

The study, published last week in the journal Science, analyzed data collected by the Los Angeles LGBT Center after it sent pro-gay marriage canvassers to areas of southern California that had voted overwhelmingly in favor of Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in California in 2008 until the Supreme Court overturned it in 2013. Starting in 2009, canvassers—both gay and straight—engaged in over 12,000 brief one-on-one conversations with those precincts' registered voters about either gay marriage or, with a placebo group, recycling. The survey found that respondents who had discussed gay marriage showed less prejudice towards gay people following their chat with the canvasser than those who had discussed recycling.

But these conversations weren't equally effective across the board: At a certain point in the initial conversation, the gay canvassers had been instructed to reveal that they were gay and hoping to get married, but that the law prohibited it, whereas the straight canvassers spoke of a "friend" or "relative."

Only the gay canvassers' effectiveness proved enduring.

"Those who discussed same-sex marriage with straight canvassers," write the study's authors, Michael J. LaCour and Donald P. Green, "quickly reverted to their pretreatment baseline opinions, and 90% of the initial treatment effect dissipated a month after the conversation with canvassers."

Meanwhile, the respondents who spoke to gay canvassers remained just as enlightened nine months later.

"The data show that in 20 minutes, the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s volunteer canvassers accomplished what would have otherwise taken five years at the current rate of social change," the center's David Fleischer said in a statement. "How did we do it? Our team had heartfelt, reciprocal and vulnerable conversations on the doorsteps of those who opposed marriage for same-sex couples, and volunteers who were LGBT came out during their conversations."

Researchers are hopeful their persuasion methods can produce similar results in reducing prejudices on other social issues as well. 

Russia Has Already Blown Up the Global Economy Once. Will It Do It Again?

| Thu Dec. 18, 2014 12:47 AM EST

Just in case you're thinking that Russia's economic problems are little more than a fitting karmic payback for Vladimir Putin, you might want to think twice. When the global economy is fragile, sometimes even small events can send the whole system into cardiac arrest, and that affects everyone, not just Putin and his cronies. So in case you've forgotten, here's a brief refresher on the events of August 1998:

  1. Russia devalues its currency and defaults on its sovereign debt.
  2. Markets that are already jittery thanks to the East Asian financial crisis go into full-blown frenzy mode.
  3. Money pours out of low-quality emerging market investments and into high-quality US, Japanese, and European bonds.
  4. As a result, yield spreads between low-quality and high-quality bonds widen sharply.
  5. Long Term Capital Management, which had made large bets on spreads narrowing as the East Asian crisis receded, is blindsided, suffering huge losses.
  6. As LTCM gets close to insolvency, Bear Stearns stops clearing their trades. Death is imminent.
  7. Because LTCM is so highly leveraged, its debts exceed $100 billion and its collapse thus threatens every bank on Wall Street. Amid growing panic over a systemic meltdown, the Fed finally steps in and arranges a bailout package. Crisis over—for now.

This is not going to happen again. The world is not the same now as it was in 1998. It's just meant as an example of how an otherwise limited financial crisis can have a global impact. The fact that it begins with a Russian currency crisis is merely a felicitous coincidence.

But also a bit of an unnerving coincidence. More than likely, Russia's problems will be contained to Russia. But they might not be, so we should all be careful what we wish for.

Obama's Had a Helluva Good Month Since the Midterms

| Wed Dec. 17, 2014 3:37 PM EST

So how have things been going for our bored, exhausted, and disengaged president? He's been acting pretty enthusiastic, energized, and absorbed with his job, I'd say. Let us count the things he's done since the November 4th midterm elections:

  • November 10: Surprised everyone by announcing his support for strong net neutrality.
  • November 11: Concluded a climate deal with China that was not only important in its own right, but has since been widely credited with jumpstarting progress at the Lima talks last week.
  • November 20: Issued an executive order protecting millions of undocumented workers from the threat of deportation.
  • November 26: Signed off on an important new EPA rule significantly limiting ozone emissions.
  • December 15: Took a quiet victory lap as Western financial sanctions considerably sharpened the pain of Vladimir Putin's imploding economy.
  • December 16: Got nearly everything he wanted during the lame duck congressional session, and more. Democrats confirmed all important pending nominees, and then got Republican consent to several dozen lesser ones as well.
  • December 17: Announced a historic renormalization of relations with Cuba.

I guess you can add to that a non-event: In its second year, Obamacare signups are going smoothly and ahead of target. Am I missing anything beyond that? Maybe. It's been quite the whirlwind month for our bored, exhausted, disengaged president, hasn't it?

All of these things are worthwhile in their own right, of course, but there's a political angle to all of them as well: they seriously mess with Republican heads. GOP leaders had plans for January, but now they may or may not be able to do much about them. Instead, they're going to have to deal with enraged tea partiers insisting that they spend time trying to repeal Obama's actions. They can't, of course, but they have to show that they're trying. So there's a good chance that they'll spend their first few months in semi-chaos, responding to Obama's provocations instead of working on their own agenda.

Was that part of the plan? Beats me. But it seems to be working pretty well so far.