Here's the latest anti-Obama ad from Karl Rove & Co. The actual policy content is short and pro forma, so no need to pay attention to that. Mainly, it's just a reminder that Obama is awfully, um, hip. He's, you know, young and savvy....in an....urban kind of way. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

I assume this is all just part of the mud-against-the-wall phase of the campaign, as the Rovesters try to get a bead on exactly which message makes Obama the least palatable to their heartland target audience. Unfortunately for them, this one makes Obama look a little too much like Will Smith, and I don't think the heartland really has anything against Will Smith. But I'm sure they'll learn from this and do better by the time summer rolls around.

In Do Not Ask What Good We Do, Robert Draper reports on a long dinner in which Republicans mapped out their campaign strategy against President Obama:

The dinner lasted nearly four hours. They parted company almost giddily. The Republicans had agreed on a way forward:

Go after Geithner.....Show united and unyielding opposition to the president’s economic policies....Begin attacking vulnerable Democrats on the airwaves.

This sounds unremarkable except for one thing: it took place on Inauguration Day, 2009. That's how long the Obama honeymoon lasted: zero days. Most of the Republican leadership was dead set against compromising in any way from the very first day.

By now that's not exactly news. But it certainly belies the Republican claim that they were willing to work with Obama but he simply never made the effort. They weren't.

Hooray! Today the Senate passed a bipartisan bill to save the postal service. After plowing through half a dozen separate reports about what the bill does, I've compiled a comprehensive list. Take a deep breath:

  • Allows USPS to recoup more than $11 billion that it had overpaid into one of its pension funds. 
  • Provides early retirement incentives for nearly 100,000 USPS workers.
  • Restructures payments to a health benefits fund for future retirees.
  • Frees up USPS to offer a broader range of services like delivering beer and wine for retailers.
  • Creates a USPS chief innovation officer.
  • Halts the immediate closing of up to 252 mail-processing centers and 3,700 post offices.
  • Forces USPS to preserve overnight delivery of mail sent to nearby communities.
  • Forbids USPS from closing a rural post office unless the next-nearest location is no more than 10 miles away.
  • Places a one-year moratorium on closing rural post offices and then requires the mail agency to take rural issues into special consideration.
  • Prevents USPS from cutting Saturday delivery for two years, until the agency can prove such a cut is needed as a "last resort."
  • Transitions from door-to-door delivery to curbside delivery in some areas, such as suburban neighborhoods.
  • Strengthens the appeals process for customers opposed to closing a post office.
  • Caps bonuses and pay for USPS executives.
  • Forces USPS to wait until after Election Day to close postal facilities in states that permit voting by mail.
  • Permits USPS to co-locate post offices in government-owned buildings.

Hmmm. Do you notice anything missing? Let me think.

Oh yeah: there's nothing in there about allowing the postal service to increase postal rates. This is crazy. Take a look at countries around the world that have smaller volumes of mail than us: they all charge higher postage rates. They have to. And as volumes keep declining in America, we're going to need higher rates here too. Right now, a first-class equivalent stamp runs 75¢ in Germany, 72¢ in Britain, 82¢ in France, 98¢ in Switzerland, 97¢ in Belgium, and 63¢ in the Netherlands. There's no way that we can stay at 45¢ as volumes decline and pretend that somehow everything will be hunky-dory.

But allowing the price of a stamp to go up is apparently even more of a political taboo than closing rural post offices. I suppose Democrats are afraid of annoying granny and Republicans are so intent on busting the postal carriers union that they don't like the idea of anything that brings in more revenue. We are ruled by idiots.

This is strange. Just the other day, for no apparent reason, it occurred to me that no one ever has their tonsils removed anymore. It seems like that used to be a pretty common procedure, and then it just fell off the map.

But I was thinking about adults, and that was a big mistake. Sarah Kliff reports today that I wasn't just wrong about this, but wildly, totally, 180 degrees wrong:

It turns out we’re in the middle of an epidemic — a tonsillectomy epidemic, to be more specific. Tonsillectomies are the most common procedure, for children, requiring anesthesia. And we’re doing more of them: The number of tonsillectomies performed spiked by 74 percent between 1996 and 2006. In 2006 alone, more than a half-million children in the United States got their tonsils removed. The only problem is there’s no evidence they work for most children.

The procedure does show some benefits for those with really serious symptoms — very sore throats, fevers and other symptoms at least seven times in the past year — but no improvement for those whose indications are milder.

So why do we keep doing them? Tonsillectomies aren't big moneymakers. Parents aren't demanding them. There are no government guidelines that encourage them. Apparently it's basically just inertia. Doctors have been doing tonsillectomies for a long time, so they just keep on doing them even though there's little evidence that they work in most cases. It's much like life itself.

After listening to Mitt Romney's victory speech last night, Paul Waldman channels one of my pet peeves:

Can we just put aside the "only in America" schtick?....Let's be honest about this. America does indeed offer enormous opportunities for all kinds of people, despite our huge and growing inequality. The attraction it has always held for immigrants made this country what it is. For a long time, the kinds of opportunities available here were a rarity among nations, when in so many places class lines were much more rigid. But that's not true anymore. There are lots of places where somebody can come from modest circumstances and achieve wealth and/or power.

This whole routine usually just makes me laugh. To listen to America's politicians, you'd think that we live in the only country in the world where you can listen to whatever music you want, work in whatever job you want, eat whatever food you want, go to a hospital whenever you get sick, root for any sports team you want to, and elect the nitwit of your choice to high office. What really gets me, though, is how often this isn't just a mindless trope, but based instead on the apparent belief that Western Europe is some kind of impoverished, dystopian hellhole filled with sallow-faced drones who live lives of misery and angst.

Like most pet peeves, this one is basically innocuous, just a lazy way of demonstrating that you think America is great. No harm done, really. But it does grate now and then.

It's spring, so here's a picture of a blooming yellow rose from our garden. I don't really need an excuse to post this, do I?

And speaking of yellow roses, did you know that most of Emily Dickinson's poems can be sung to the tune of "The Yellow Rose of Texas"? It's true! Go ahead and give it a try.

We're probably all tired of arguments about whether the individual mandate is constitutional, right? I mean, the arguments have been made and someone on the Supreme Court is already busily at work writing a majority opinion telling us whether it is or isn't. But Andrew Sprung hasn't given up talking about it, and today he riffs off a song that contains the line, "But the car that you are driving doesn't really belong to you." And that reminds me of something.

Andrew uses this to segue into a discussion of the nature of insurance mandates, but I've long thought that cars can teach us a different lesson about the power of the federal government to make us buy things even if we don't want them. When I bought my last car, for example, I was forced by federal law to also buy seat belts and air bags — and as far as I know, no court has ever suggested the federal government lacks this power. Why?

Technically, of course, the government isn't forcing me to buy these things. I could, if I wanted, forego the purchase of a car. This isn't very practical where I live, serviced as I am by a single bus line that comes by once an hour, but I could do it. I could also move someplace with better transit. I'm not absolutely mandated to own seat belts and airbags.

But in real life, the fact is that most of us need a car. It's only an option in the most hyperlegalistic sense, which means that for all practical purposes the federal government has mandated that I buy seat belts and airbags. And they've done that on the theory that even if I don't care about my own safety, other people might ride in my car and they deserve protection. What's more, taxpayers could end up on the hook for medical care if I injure myself and my passengers. So seat belts and airbags are the law.

Practically speaking, then, what's the difference between this and an insurance mandate? In both cases the federal government is forcing me to buy something I might not want. The cost of complying with both mandates is substantial. You can be fined for disabling airbags or removing seat belts, just as Obamacare fines you for not buying health insurance. They're pretty damn similar.

I understand that it's possible to draw a distinction between airbag mandates and health insurance mandates. It's possible to draw a distinction between anything if you put your mind to it. But in real-life terms, what's really the difference? Not much, it seems to me. Unless you live the life of a hermit, Congress already regulates inactivity heavily and extensively. There's stuff you have to buy whether you like it or not. Welcome to the modern world.

Stories about problems in the eurozone often compare the "industrious" north to the "carefree" south. Or maybe the "easy-going" south. Or the "sun-drenched" south. The word lazy is seldom actually used, but it's almost always implied. They're just a bunch of sluggards down in Italy and Spain and Greece and Portugal!

As it happens, this isn't true. According to OECD figures, Italians average about 34 hours of work per week. Portugal clocks in at 33 and Spain at 32. The industrious French, by contrast, work an average of only 30 hours per week. Germans punch in 27 hours per week and the Dutch 26.

The problem isn't laziness, it's lack of productivity. Italians simply don't produce as much per hour as Germans, which means that in order to be competitive they have to be paid less. But over the past decade, thanks to hot currency flows into the south, inflation in Europe's periphery has been high and wages have risen. A currency devaluation could take care of this, but since Germans and Italians all use the euro these days, that's not possible. Nonetheless, one way or another, labor costs need to go up in Germany and France and down in Italy and Spain.

Unfortunately, as Paul Krugman points out this morning, that's just not happening. Not nearly fast enough anyway. Labor costs in Italy have actually risen more than in Germany, and even in Spain and Portugal, which have risen less, the difference is tiny. Spain has made up less than one percentage point on Germany and only about three percentage points on France. At that rate, relative labor costs won't get to where they need to be for decades.

"You can argue that adjustment is happening here," says Krugman, "but it’s painfully slow — and not remotely fast enough to avert catastrophe on the current course." This is true. At the same time, it's also true, as Tyler Cowen points out, that "There does not exist any coherent, workable, political incentive-compatible plan whereby [periphery] governments borrow more, spend more, and 'invest for growth.'" Something along the lines of Jay Shambaugh's plan might work, but nothing along those lines is yet on offer, and Europe simply doesn't have decades before something gives and the eurozone collapses. The question is, how long do they have?

Following his razor-thin 29-point loss to Mitt Romney in Delaware last night — along with his somewhat, um, larger losses in other states — Newt Gingrich is thinking seriously about reassessing his position:

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is expected to suspend his presidential campaign within the next week, according to a Republican operative familiar with the decision....“Over the next few days we're going to look realistically at where we're at,” Gingrich said in a speech in Concord Tuesday night. He said he would assess the race “as somebody who's a unifier and somebody who's realistic.”

That's our Newt: a realist and a unifier. So maybe in a week or so he'll announce that, you know, he could have won, but for the good of the party he's dropping out. Because that's just the kind of selfless, big-hearted guy that he is. Yeesh.

Here's the latest from Speaker of the House John Boehner:

Steve Benen does a fine job of explaining why this is so ridiculous. But on the bright side, at least Boehner — or the intern who tweeted this for him — called the 2007 Congress "Democratic-controlled" rather than "Democrat-controlled." Thanks, Mr. Speaker!

As for the substance of the student loan issue, I'll confess to feelings of extreme ambivalence about it. I'm feeling less and less confident over time that increases in federal student aid actually end up aiding students, rather than simply giving universities and trade schools more headroom to raise their fees. But I think I need to study up on this further before I take sides.