2012 - %3, January

Your Daily Newt: Legalize It

| Tue Jan. 3, 2012 2:00 PM EST

As a service to our readers, every day we are delivering a classic moment from the political life of Newt Gingrich—until he either clinches the nomination or bows out.

Newt Gingrich occasionally smoked marijuana as a graduate student at Tulane. As he explained later, "that was a sign we were alive and in graduate school in that era." Hey, it was the '60s. So it made a certain amount of sense that as a back-bench congressman, he penned a letter to the editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association calling for the drug to be legalized for medicinal purposes:

We believe licensed physicians are competent to employ marijuana, and patients have a right to obtain marijuana legally, under medical supervision, from a regulated source. The medical prohibition does not prevent seriously ill patients from employing marijuana; it simply deprives them of medical supervision and denies them access to a regulated medical substance. Physicians are often forced to choose between their ethical responsibilities to the patient and their legal liabilities to federal bureaucrats.

Fast-forward to the present:

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Goldman Sachs Is Bearish on Oil

| Tue Jan. 3, 2012 1:09 PM EST

Feeling a little bullish about the economy? Settle down! I don't know if this forecast is new, or if it's the same one I wrote about last year, but the oil analysts at Goldman Sachs think we're very close to reaching our maximum oil pumping capacity again after a few years of looseness caused by the recession. Via Jared Bernstein, Goldman's chart is on the right. So what does it mean when oil demand starts to bump up against supply? This:

High prices, as bad as they are for an economy addicted to cheap oil, aren't the worst prospect facing us. The real problem is spare capacity....Twenty years ago, OPEC had spare production capacity of about 15 million bpd. A decade ago that had dropped to 5.5 million bpd. [Today], spare capacity has dropped almost to zero.

....In other words, it's likely that we're now in a permanent state of near zero spare capacity, which in turn will lead to an increasingly unstable world. As we enter an era in which even Saudi Arabia has no spare capacity to smooth out supply disruptions elsewhere in the world, any blip in supply, whether from political unrest, terrorism, or merely unforeseen natural events, will cause prices to carom wildly. A world with $100 per barrel oil is bad enough, but a world in which a single pipeline meltdown could cause prices to skyrocket to $300 per barrel for a few months and then back down is far worse.

More here. This was all written back in 2005, when $100 oil seemed shockingly high. Today it's the new normal. What's worse, though, is that when the global economy expands, we hit our maximum pumping capacity and prices start to oscillate quickly upwards. Result: a global recession, which reduces oil consumption a bit. A few years later, we repeat the process. More on that here.

Plus, as Jared points out, we also have Europe to worry about, as well as persistently low labor force participation at home. 2012 may be a good year compared to 2011, but that's grading on a curve. Thanks to a combination of really hard problems and really stupid politicians, our recovery is likely to remain sluggish for a long time.

Quote of the Day: How Many Ways Can You Say "Crazy"?

| Tue Jan. 3, 2012 12:10 PM EST

From George Packer, explaining why politics is covered as spectacle these days:

How many times and ways can you say that the Republican Party has descended into unreality and extremism before you lose your viewers and readers?

In my case, I imagine the answer is "several thousand." And if I kept up Friday Catblogging, I'd probably keep a fair chunk of my audience even at that.

Still, Packer has a point. Hell, it actually makes my blogging life sort of miserable. Nearly every day I face the same decision: do I pretend to take Republican crankery seriously and write a few chart-laden posts about why they're wrong, or should I instead write a couple of rants about how lunacy has become mainstream and can hardly be fought with yet more wonkery and tedious empirical evidence?

Obviously, I usually opt for the former. But not without qualms just about every single day.

Iowa Holding Nation's First Primary Tonight

| Tue Jan. 3, 2012 11:48 AM EST

Steve Benen linked today to a Des Moines Register piece about how the Iowa caucuses work, and when I clicked through I found this graphic:

And there you have it. In one unintentionally funny graphic, the difference between Democrats and Republicans.

On a more serious note, I see that the Republican caucus really doesn't work the same way as it does on the Democratic side. Here's the Republican version:

  1. Show up at your precinct.
  2. Elect a caucus chairman, take care of "general business."
  3. Mark a ballot.
  4. Leave.

So aside from having to listen to a bit of dull throat clearing and possible electioneering before voting, is there really anything left that makes this a caucus and not just a primary? It sure doesn't sound like it.

The Media's Dwindling Role in Iowa

| Tue Jan. 3, 2012 11:09 AM EST

Brendan Nyhan cautions journalists about their role in the Iowa caucuses:

Unfortunately, the “meaning” of the caucus results is not always clear. These rough edges are typically sanded away in post-Iowa reporting and commentary, [] which tends to emphasize the order of the finish (even when the margins between candidates are small) as well as unexpectedly weak or strong results.

....The result is a refraction effect in which journalists help make Iowa influential and then report on its “effects” without acknowledging their role in the process or the often arbitrary nature of the distinctions that are made among the candidates. This is a recurring problem—the norms of journalism demand that reporters exclude themselves from the stories they write, creating a troubling lack of self-consciousness about their own role in the process....These incentives are especially problematic in campaigns since journalists have a strong rooting interest in continued conflict and dramatic storylines.

For what it's worth, the Republican race has been so chaotic this year that I think the media's role has been less than usual. In fact, I'm hard put to give the press much credit for any of the ups and downs we've seen over the past few months, largely because they've simply happened too fast. They've been more the result of tea party litmus tests, serious gaffes from the candidates, and immense amounts of super-PAC spending.

As for reporters most likely emphasizing the order of finish after tonight's caucuses — well, what else would they do? Close or not, the order of finish is what everyone cares about. The media can hardly be blamed for that.

For the most part, I suspect the media reflects more than it refracts. That is, it mostly operates as a pretty reliable mirror of what party elites and Beltway thought leaders believe. This year, you can add intra-party feuding to that list. You may or may not think this is a good thing, but overall I think there's been less independent role for reporters this year than usual. Candidates just don't need the press as much as they used to, and that's shrunk both the media's role and its influence.

And one last thing: the idea that reporters are "rooting" for conflict and dramatic storylines is so common that it's practically conventional wisdom. It's true, of course, that reporters are drawn to news, which is frequently rooted in conflict of some kind. But are they actively hyping otherwise banal events because they don't want the campaign to end? That's what people mean when they say this. And it sounds good! But is there any actual rigorous evidence for it? I've never seen any.

Ron Paul's Wildcard: Iowa Progressives?

| Tue Jan. 3, 2012 6:00 AM EST
Young Ron Paul supporters in Des Moines, Iowa

With a New Year's Day poll showing Ron Paul in a three-way tie with Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum going into Tuesday's Iowa caucuses, who will emerge victorious is anyone's guess. If it's Paul, the conventional wisdom goes, he will owe much of his success to a weak Republican field and an adoring flock of disillusioned youth, hundreds of whom have traveled from out of state to work behind the scenes. But there's one other wild card: Paul's crossover appeal to liberals attracted to his anti-war platform.

On Monday morning, Ron Paul, introduced by his son, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, spoke briefly at a downtown Des Moines hotel. Afterward, several Paul supporters told me that they supported the candidate for opposing the National Defense Authorization Act, recently signed into law by Obama, which codified the indefinite detention of terrorist suspects arrested in the United States. Joe Scarborough, host of MSNBC's Morning Joe, was in town for the Paul event. Later, at his nearby hotel where the Democratic National Committee houses its caucus-prep "war room," he watched occupy protesters echo many of the same complaints about the NDAA. "The only people in America who understand NDAA—I think it's fascinating—are Occupy Wall Street and Ron Paul supporters," Scarborough told me. "But you want to talk about the 99 percent—99 percent of Americans have no idea what this is all about."

Francis Thicke, an organic farmer from Fairfield, Iowa, who ran for secretary of agriculture on the state's Democratic ticket in 2010, announced that he would caucus for Paul on Tuesday "to keep his voice for peace and his voice to reduce the military in the debate, because he will challenge the other Republican candidates." Thicke told me that although a Democratic county chairman responded by telling him that he was "stabbing them in the back" by supporting a Republican, he would vote for Obama over Paul without a doubt, because he doesn't support dismantling the government. "This is a tactical thing" to expand voters' awareness, Thicke said.

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Book Review: Pity the Billionaire

| Tue Jan. 3, 2012 6:00 AM EST

Pity the Billionaire

By Thomas Frank

METROPOLITAN BOOKS

Depression-era populists invoked the Boston Tea Party as a rallying cry against corporate greed. Here, Thomas Frank (What's the Matter With Kansas?) lays out with biting wit how today's conservatives co-opted that symbol and forged a pseudopopulist front to defend the enablers of market failure. The enemy of the 99 percent, he contends, is more the intellectual than the robber baron. "Erasing class distinctions," Frank writes, "is one of the conservative revival's great recurring techniques." Perhaps the Occupy movement is his unmentioned antidote, and his timely book a guide to help real populists elude their saboteurs.

The Newtification of Mitt Romney

| Tue Jan. 3, 2012 4:01 AM EST
2012 GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney

Mitt Romney has a habit of posing for applause before it begins, a quirk that's made only slightly less awkward by the fact that over the last five years he's become pretty good at guessing when the applause will come. When he's just delivered a jab, such as—seizing on President Obama's suggestion that he'd be a one-term president if he didn't turn things around—"we've come to collect!" there's a brief moment, before the hands start coming together, where Romney stops, smiles in an "Oh boy, I really said it, didn't I?" kind of way, drops both arms to his side, and rotates 90 degrees to receive the adulation. The energy isn't infectious, but his message is sinking in with Iowans—perhaps because he's gotten a rhetorical makeover from an unlikely source.

Even as his allied super-PAC spent $3.5 million hammering Newt Gingrich on the Iowa airwaves, Romney himself is channeling the former House speaker's bombast. Belying his reputation as a lily-livered moderate, he packs his speeches with red meat. In Council Bluffs on Sunday, he said that President Obama has no jobs plan (let me Google that for you), and that Obama will create a society that "substitutes envy for ambition." At one point, he told the crowd about a little old song he's quite fond of:

Miscellany

| Tue Jan. 3, 2012 1:37 AM EST

President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act this weekend, along with a signing statement. Adam Serwer has a good rundown of how this all turned out here.

Wondering what to watch for in the Middle East in 2012? Juan Cole has a Top 5 list here.

The Iowa caucuses will be held on Tuesday. Based on the latest polling, Nate Silver has Mitt Romney ahead with 21.8% of the vote and Ron Paul in second place with 21.0% of the vote. Full projections here.

Crackpots Do Not Make Good Messengers

| Mon Jan. 2, 2012 10:11 PM EST

So then: Ron Paul. Should we lefties be happy he's in the presidential race, giving noninterventionism a voice, even if he has other beliefs we find less agreeable? Should we be happy that his nonmainstream positions are finally getting a public hearing? This is a depressingly common view. For example:

Can we talk? Ron Paul is not a charming oddball with a few peculiar notions. He's not merely "out of the mainstream." Ron Paul is a full-bore crank. In fact he's practically the dictionary definition of a crank: a person who has a single obsessive, all-encompassing idea for how the world should work and is utterly blinded to the value of any competing ideas or competing interests.

This obsessive idea has, at various times in his career, led him to: denounce the Civil Rights Act because it infringed the free-market right of a monolithic white establishment to immiserate blacks; dabble in gold buggery and advocate the elimination of the Federal Reserve, apparently because the global economy worked so well back in the era before central banks; suggest that the border fence is being built to keep Americans from leaving the country; claim that Social Security and Medicare are unconstitutional and should be dismantled; mount repeated warnings that hyperinflation is right around the corner; insist that global warming is a gigantic hoax; hint that maybe the CIA helped to coordinate the 9/11 attacks; oppose government-sponsored flu shots; and allege that the UN wants to confiscate our guns.

This isn't the biography of a person with one or two unusual hobbyhorses. It's not something you can pretend doesn't matter. This is Grade A crankery, and all by itself it's reason enough to want nothing to do with Ron Paul. But of course, that's not all. As we've all known for the past four years, you can layer on top of this Paul's now infamous newsletters, in which he condoned a political strategy consciously designed to appeal to the worst strains of American homophobia, racial paranoia, militia hucksterism, and new-world-order fear-mongering. And on top of that, you can layer on the fact that Paul is plainly lying about these newsletters and his role in them.

Now, balanced against that you have the fact that Paul opposes the War on Drugs and supports a non-interventionist foreign policy. But guess what? Even there, he's a crank. Even if you're a hard-core non-interventionist yourself, you probably think World War II was a war worth fighting. But not Ron Paul. He thinks we should have just minded our own damn business. And even if you're a hardcore opponent of our current drug policy—if you think not just that marijuana should be legalized, not just that hard drugs should be decriminalized, but that all illicit drugs should be fully legalized—I'll bet you still think that maybe we should retain some regulations on a few of the worst drugs. They're pretty dangerous, after all, and no matter how much you hate the War on Drugs you might have a few qualms about a global marketing behemoth like RJ Reynolds having free rein to advertise and sell anything it wants, anywhere it wants, in any way it wants. But not Ron Paul. As near as I can tell, he just wants everything legalized, full stop.

Bottom line: Ron Paul is not merely a "flawed messenger" for these views. He's an absolutely toxic, far-right, crackpot messenger for these views. This is, granted, not Mussolini-made-the-trains-run-on-time levels of toxic, but still: If you truly support civil liberties at home and noninterventionism abroad, you should run, not walk, as fast as you can to keep your distance from Ron Paul. He's not the first or only person opposed to preemptive wars, after all, and his occasional denouncements of interventionism are hardly making this a hot topic of conversation among the masses. In fact, to the extent that his foreign policy views aren't simply being ignored, I'd guess that the only thing he's accomplishing is to make noninterventionism even more of a fringe view in American politics than it already is. Crackpots don't make good messengers.

Now, if you literally think that Ron Paul's views on drugs and national security are so important that they outweigh all of this—multiple decades of unmitigated crackpottery, cynical fear-mongering, and attitudes toward social welfare so retrograde they make Rick Perry look progressive—and if you've somehow convinced yourself that noninterventionism has no other significant voices except Ron Paul—well, if that's the case, then maybe you should be happy to count Paul as an ally. But the truth is that you don't need to. Ron Paul is not a major candidate for president. He's never even been a significant presence as a congressman. In a couple of months he'll disappear back into the obscurity he so richly deserves. So why get in bed with him? All you'll do is wake up in March with a mountain of fleas. Find other allies. Make your arguments without bothering to mention him. And remember: Ron Paul has never once done any of his causes any good. There's a good reason for that.