Ezra Klein complains that tax jihadism is ruining us. Our inability to properly fund roads and highways is Exhibit A:

We used to have a straightforward way to fund infrastructure in this country: the federal gas tax. In 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower raised the tax from 1.5 cents a gallon to 3 cents to help pay for the creation of the interstate highway system. In 1959, he increased it from 3 cents to 4 cents. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan raised the gas tax to 9 cents. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush raised it to 14 cents, with half of the increase going to reduce the deficit. In 1993, President Bill Clinton raised it to 18.4 cents.

In other words, from 1956 to 1993, there was a bipartisan consensus on the federal gasoline tax: Both parties agreed that it occasionally needed to be raised in order to help pay for the nation’s infrastructure. But since 2000, there has been a bipartisan consensus against raising the federal gasoline tax.

In 2005, the Bush administration joined with congressional Republicans to support a big transportation bill. But rather than raise the gas tax, the law just exhausted the Highway Trust Fund. In 2009, that law expired. Since then, Republicans and Democrats have failed to pass nine — nine! — short-term extensions, in large part because they can’t agree on how to fund infrastructure. But they do agree on one thing: Neither party intends to raise the gas tax.

Actually, as bad as Ezra makes this sound, he still doesn't do it justice. It's not that we used to have a bipartisan consenus to occasionally raise the gasoline tax. We used to have a bipartisan consensus to keep it at the same level. The chart on the right shows the evolution of the gasoline tax adjusted for inflation: back in 1956 Eisenhower set it at 25 cents in current dollars. Since then it's bounced around within a few cents of that level all the way through the end of the 90s. And then it didn't. Adjusting for inflation now counts as "raising" taxes, so the gasoline tax has steadily drifted down to 18 cents. And there's no end in sight.

Recently, of course, this has been made even more acute by the fact that we're driving less, which means we have both less gasoline to tax and a lower tax rate. Thanks to the tax jihadists, we're not even willing to spend the same amount on infrastructure that we've spent for the past half century — through administrations both Republican and Democratic. We'd rather watch our country crumble away instead.

Baffled by Sleep

Have you noticed that I've been posting a little earlier than usual for the past few weeks? For the past few months, even. Well, I have, and it's deeply, deeply weird. For over 30 years, I've been the world's biggest baby about waking up early. I get up naturally at 8 am, and being forced to wake up even an hour earlier has always felt like being dragged into the fourth circle of Hell.

But for the past year, I've been waking up occasionally at 7:30, or even 7:00, without anyone forcing me to. Then a few months ago that became routine. And a few weeks ago I started waking up way earlier. Yesterday I was up at 5 am. Today I was up at 6 am. And the really weird part is that it hasn't had much effect on me. Maybe a tiny bit more tiredness in the late afternoon, but that's it. I'm my usual low-energy self, but no lower than before, and I still fall asleep at midnight, same as always.

I've heard that sleep patterns get disrupted as you age, but I'm only 53. So what's going on? How could I require eight hours of sleep for my entire adult life, and then, within a matter of months, transition to seven or six or even five and not feel a difference? I'm baffled. I wonder if it will last?

A friend emails today to say that he sympathizes with my desire to avoid blogging too obsessively about the media's unending infatuation with shiny objects, but uses the Hilary Rosen flap as an example of the harm this stuff does:

Rosen's comments gave the opening, faux outrage was generated at extremely high levels, wallpaper on Fox. Apologies, explanations, distancing, Presidential condemnation, etc. — all ineffective.

Then the golden nugget, the reward the right was seeking lands today in an article in the WaPo by Tumulty. Regardless of the content of the article, the web-only headline was the power: "Firestorm over Stay At Home Moms Gives GOP Edge in War on Women." Then the article goes on to give one the impression that a careless remark has eliminated the ill will towards women caused by Republican and conservative commentator conduct. It's not hard to see that Tumulty was fed a lot of the conclusions, but this is their pocket victory. They'll take it, boil it to a soundbite and move forward.

It's frustrating because, I'm sure like you, I ignored this because I believed it would pass fairly quickly. But the call by the refs today tell me that this stupid event landed a punch. Sure it will pass, but these do add up. This is just the first in the general.

First Read says today that manufactured controversies are nothing new, but: "What is new, however, is how much faster and professionalized — due to Twitter and the drive to make something go viral — these manufactured controversies have become. Indeed, we’ve now seen three of them in the past 30 days: Etch A Sketch, hot mic, and Hilary Rosen."

Here's what I'd like to know: how much effect do these things really have? One of my personal touchstones for not worrying too much about them is my wife. Almost every time, if I happen to mention one of these nano-kerfuffles to Marian, she's never heard of it. Neither has my sister or my mother. In other words, non-political junkies simply don't hear about this stuff unless they stay up late to hear Leno or Jon Stewart making fun of it.

That doesn't mean they're harmless, of course. There are other avenues for influence besides direct contact. In fact, it's an article of faith among the politerati that high-attention voters have a big impact on their low-attention friends. And maybe so. But the high-attention folks are mostly pretty hardened partisans already, so I have my doubts that the constant stream of shiny objects really affects them very much in the first place, which in turn means the indirect effect of shiny objects on everyone else can't be all that high either. This is doubly true because, as First Read points out, these things have such microscopic lifespans these days. Just a couple of weeks ago we were all being assured that L'Affaire Etch A Sketch was no passing fancy, but would have a permanent effect on Mitt Romney's campaign. Then the Supreme Court heard oral argument on Obamacare, Romney won big victories in the April 3 primaries, Rick Santorum dropped out of the race, and Hilary Rosen provided everyone with a brand new shiny object. Sadly for the Ohio Art Company, Etch A Sketch is now just a dim memory.

Some of this stuff matters. The Al Gore internet meme ended up mattering. The Swift Boating of John Kerry mattered. But my guess is that about 98% of it has no material effect at all. It just gives writers something to write about, talking heads something to talk about, and the chattering class something to chatter about.

Yesterday the Obama administration told gay rights advocates that it wouldn't be signing an executive order to ban LGBT discrimination among federal contractors. Today press secretary Jay Carney was peppered with questions about this, and eventually settled into an awkward set of rote talking points about Obama preferring to address LGBT discrimination via legislation rather than executive order. The Washington Post reports:

The dispute opened up an unexpected election-year rift between the president and a loyal political constituency that has scored historic victories from his White House — namely the repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and the administration’s decision to stop advocating for the Defense of Marriage Act.

....In recent weeks activists began to worry that the White House might opt against approval. Democratic strategists are wary of any new policies that could be attacked by conservatives as anti-business, and stepping out on gay rights in the heat of an election campaign risks handing likely Republican nominee Mitt Romney a rallying point to energize the evangelicals he has thus far struggled to inspire.

Advocates were informed of Obama’s decision in a tense private meeting Wednesday with top aides Valerie Jarrett and Cecilia Munoz. The officials said the president would not sign the order “at this time” but was instead focused on pushing for passage of the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act, according to several attendees.

This is hard to make sense of. The administration's excuses for not signing the executive order are pretty transparently preposterous. They know perfectly well there's no chance of passing ENDA with Republicans in control of the House, so a legislative solution is off the table. And it's not likely they're seriously worried about lawsuits either.

This leaves only craven political calculation as an explanation. And that's puzzling too. Sure, it's an election year, and everyone gets craven during election years. But really, how many evangelicals are there who are (a) likely to get energized by an executive order banning LGBT discrimination but (b) haven't already been energized by Obama's repeal of DADT and his refusal to defend the Defense of Marriage Act? I guess there might be a few, but it's got to be damn few. If hating the gay is your hot button, you probably already loathe Obama about as much as you're ever going to.

So not just craven, but really, really craven. Obama probably risked losing literally dozens of votes over this. What a wuss.

Mild-mannered physics professor Chad Orzel writes this warning to his commenters at the end of a post today:

Make sure to keep a civil tone, though. I know that tempers run high on this issue, so choose your words carefully.

Holy cats! What was that post about? Israel's treatment of Palestinians? Whether the tea party is full of racists? President Obama's socialist tendencies?

No. He was writing about the Justice Department settlement yesterday with book publishers over their price collusion with Apple on e-books. Apparently this is a touchy subject. Which reminds me: I'm late to this because I wasn't paying attention, but today I finally stirred myself to read up on the actual terms of the settlement. Apparently DOJ isn't requiring publishers to abandon the agency model, where they set the retail price and simply pay retailers a percentage, but they are insisting that retailers be allowed to discount prices if they want:

This doesn’t kill the agency model outright, but does modify it well beyond what’s widely recognized today. Suppose a publisher prices a book at $10 list price, and a retailer agrees to a 30 percent commission, or $3 on a full list sale. Under these conditions, those retailers would be permitted to sell the book below list price, presumably taking the discount out of their own $3 commission. The publisher would still net $7, but lose its ability to maintain prices.

The DOJ’s proposed terms expressly permit publishers to set a soft floor on discounts, but not a hard floor. Publishers can enter into one-year agency agreements that stipulate that the retailer can sell individual titles at a loss, but must show a profit overall for all the books it sells from that publisher’s catalogue.

That's interesting. So Amazon can take a loss on specific e-books if it wants, but it can't take a loss on its entire e-book business with a particular publisher. Here's the wording from the DOJ description of the settlement:

[Retailers] would be permitted to discount [] individual e-book titles by varying amounts (for example, some could be “buy one get one free,” some could be half off, and others could have no discount), as long as the total dollar amount spent on discounts or other promotions did not exceed in the aggregate the retailer’s full commission from the Settling Defendant over a one-year period. This provision [allows publishers] to prevent a retailer selling its entire catalogue at a sustained loss.

If I'm reading this right, this sounds like a big win for Amazon. Under the old wholesale model, Amazon was taking an actual loss on all those $9.99 e-books. Under the modified agency model here, Amazon could discount every single title by 30% and still break even.

Most likely, this means the end of the agency model in the e-book market. Nobody wants to make life easier for Amazon, after all. The question then is how long Amazon is willing to sustain losses on its e-book business. A long time probably. But if publishers go back to a standard wholesale model, and Amazon goes back to its loss-making $9.99 price point and regains the 90% market share it had previously, I wonder if, at some point, they open themselves up to a DOJ investigation for predatory pricing? That's a tough case to make, but not necessarily an impossible one.

Or, alternatively, some completely new distribution model takes over. I won't speculate about that since I'm sure anything I could dream up has already been discussed to death elsewhere. But there are plenty of fairly obvious ideas, since e-books simply don't require the kind of distribution channel that physical books do — and if Amazon does end up in a monopoly position for e-books, I imagine DOJ will eventually force them to open up the Kindle platform so that others can download e-books to Kindles.

Interesting days ahead for book publishers. I'm sure glad I'm not one.

From Newt Gingrich, blaming Fox News for his dismal campaign showing this year:

I think Fox has been for Romney all the way through. In our experience, Callista and I both believe CNN is less biased than Fox this year. We are more likely to get neutral coverage out of CNN than we are of Fox, and we’re more likely to get distortion out of Fox....I assume it’s because Murdoch at some point said, "I want Romney," and so "fair and balanced" became "Romney."

So that's that. I guess Rupert Murdoch really does make all the important coverage decisions at Fox News. And "fair and balanced" is just a cynical joke. It's good to hear this kind of straight talk from a movement conservative star.

Anyway, two interesting tidbits here. First, note that Gingrich blamed Murdoch, not Roger Ailes, who really runs Fox News. Apparently, even in the middle of an epic whine, Gingrich realized that it would be unwise to go after Ailes.

Second, "Callista and I both believe." I think it's interesting that Callista Gingrich got so little attention this year. (Unless I just missed it somehow.) I've long been convinced that she's been hugely influential on Newt in a whole bunch of ways, and that he most likely wouldn't have run this year if not for her. I have no evidence of this, of course. It's just my sense. But why was there never one of those definitive, everyone's-talking-about-it election-year profiles of Newt and Callista and how she's affected him?

This exact thing happened to me too last night. I left my desk for a while to have dinner, and when I got back my Twitter feed had exploded into a frenzy of faux outrage that I was completely baffled about. Luckily for me, Ed Kilgore sums it up nicely. Click the link if you want to find out what happened.

Alternatively, resist the temptation and save your precious brain cells for something that actually matters.

UPDATE: More on the almost unbearable lightness of this "controversy" from Dave Weigel and Tim Murphy.

Zack Beauchamp links today to yet another person whining about Microsoft Word, and when I clicked the link I was primed to get annoyed all over again at this never-ending meme. Yeah, yeah, Clippy. Who cares? Just disable him. Ditto for grammar check and autocorrect and a few other things. It's not that big a deal. Word has plenty of things to dislike, especially once you get down in the weeds, but if you just want to write something it basically works fine. Get a life, folks.

But it turns out that Tom Scocca is actually complaining about something else entirely:

What makes Word unbearable is the output. Like the fax machine, Word was designed to put things on paper…That's great if you're making a lot of church bulletins or lost-dog fliers. Keep on using Word.

…For most people now, though, publishing means putting things on the Web. Desktop publishing has given way to laptop or smartphone publishing. And Microsoft Word is an atrocious tool for Web writing. Its document-formatting mission means that every piece of text it creates is thickly wrapped in metadata, layer on layer of invisible, unnecessary instructions about how the words should look on paper. I just went into Word and created a file that read, to the naked eye, as follows:

[Immense amount of formatting crap follows.]

The whole sprawling thing runs to 16,224 characters. When I dumped it back into Word, it was an eight-page document. Online publishing systems gag on this stuff; gremlins breed in the hidden spaces. Some publishing platforms have a built-in button especially for pasting text from Word, to clear away the worst of it, but they don't work very well. Beyond the invisible code, there are those annoying typographical flourishes—the ordinal superscripts, the directional quotation marks, the automatic em dashes—that will create their own headaches in translation. Multiple websites exist simply to unmangle Word text and turn it into plain text or readable HTML.

Okay, this is totally true. And inexplicable. When I complain about sometimes losing blog posts, for example, a common bit of advice is to write offline in, say, Word, and then paste the text into the blog editor. If it crashes, I still have the original in Word. Plus I get Word's built-in spell-check.

Luckily I'm a good speller, so I don't really need spell-check. I say luckily, because Scocca is right: Composing in Word and then pasting the text into something like a blog editor is all but impossible. I have no idea why. However, this has generated something that I consider a pretty amusing irony. I've spent my entire life moving to more and more powerful word processing technology: typewriter to Wang to Scripsit (!) to MASS-11 on a VAX to Ami Pro to Word 3, then Word 4, then Word whatever. So what do I use today? About 98 percent of my writing is done in a primitive text editor that provides me with the ability to indent, make bullet lists, and format my words with simple bold and italic. That's about it. In other words, approximately the same level of technology as a crude text editor from 1978.

And it works fine. I still use Word when I'm drafting long-form articles, but not for much else. For the online world, it's a dinosaur.

In my review of Drift yesterday, I mentioned Rachel Maddow's contention that going to war used to be hard, but over the past 30 years it's become much easier. Over at TalkLeft, Armando comments:

That is not historically accurate in my view. The times getting into war was not easy was after wars that had been very costly and not particularly successful from the US point of view. Think World War I and Vietnam. Otherwise, going to war has been one of the great American pasttimes. I'm all for making going to war hard, but the history does not demonstrate that, except for isolated periods, that was ever really the case in the United States.

Jonathan Bernstein says something similar: "US-sponsored interventions of one form or another are hardly unusual, even before Maddow's apparent jumping off point in the Reagan Administration. Perhaps the idea is that there was a golden age of sorts after Vietnam, but if so it lasted less than a decade. I'm not really sure it's become easier to deploy troops for controversial missions or to begin interventions in other nations. Maybe, but I'm not sure."

I think these are good points, and if there's a weakness in Drift, it's not addressing this as completely as it should — both the longstanding fact of periodic war and the longstanding fact of congressional acquiescence. Because it's true that the United States has prosecuted lots and lots of small-scale foreign wars over the past century, and has generally done so without congressional approval. Conversely, it's also true that big wars, even recent ones, have gotten congressional approval. George H.W. Bush may have hated the idea of getting Congress's blessing for the Gulf War, but in the end he did. And like it or not, George W. Bush also got congressional approval for Afghanistan and Iraq. In fact, extremely strong congressional approval.

So what's different? I'd say this: it's one thing to periodically wage brief, smallish military actions. The Dominican Republic occupation of 1965 falls into that category. So do Grenada and Panama. Without getting into the merits of any of these actions, you can at least say that they were limited and isolated.

But the last couple of decades seem quite different. The Gulf War, followed by Somalia, followed by Haiti, followed by Kosovo, followed by Afghanistan, followed by Iraq, followed by Libya and Yemen, and all against a background of drone warfare that now seems all but perpetual, feels very different. It feels like we're simply in a constant state of military action. In the last 20 years, there have only been three or four in which the U.S. military wasn't at war. (And I'm not even sure about the three or four.)

So I think that's a real difference, and the policy drift that Maddow talks about in her book bears a big part of the blame for this.

One thing that she doesn't talk about at any length, though, is the War Powers Act. That's too bad, because its toothlessness is a key reason for our current state of affairs. The problem with the Act isn't just that presidents have historically never accepted it. It's that it fundamentally doesn't work. It allows presidents to deploy troops for 60 days, after which they're required to get congressional approval. But even in theory that's just not tenable. Without some kind of acute provocation — Vietnam is the only example in recent memory — no Congress will ever withdraw troops once they're in the field. They'll hem and haw and mug for the cameras, but they won't pull troops out of a hot battlezone. It's just never going to happen.

Is there a better way? One possibility, if it could be codified properly, is to simply make de jure the current de facto distinction between big and small wars. In reality, presidents have always had the power to unilaterally launch small wars. So maybe it would be best to go ahead and let them continue doing it. But in return, big wars don't get launched at all unless Congress approves. That way there's no question of pulling troops out of a fight. They don't even get into one unless Congress OKs it.

In practice, I don't know how you'd do this. How do you define a "big" war? By number of troops? Cost? Some other metric? And how do you define the exceptions? I'm not sure it's possible. But it would be interesting to hear some smart people toss this around to see if they could come up with something. Even if nothing gets changed, it's a topic that's at least worth talking about again. The nature of war has changed a lot since the War Powers Act was passed in 1973, after all.

The New York Times writes today about the NRA's efforts to pass laws, like Florida's Stand Your Ground legislation, that give gun owners ever-expanding rights:

The laws, which expand beyond the home the places where a person does not have a duty to retreat when threatened and increases protection from criminal prosecution and civil liability, vary in their specifics and in their scope. But all contain elements of the 2005 Florida statute that made it difficult to immediately arrest Mr. Zimmerman, who has claimed he shot Mr. Martin, who was unarmed, in self-defense.

Critics see the laws as part of a national campaign by the National Rifle Association, which began gathering on Thursday for its annual meeting in St. Louis, to push back against limits on gun ownership and use....The success of the campaign is reflected in the rapid spread of expanded self-defense laws as well as laws that legalize the carrying of concealed weapons — only one state, Illinois, and the District of Columbia now ban that practice, compared with 19 states in 1981. Bills pending in several states that would allow concealed weapons to be carried on college campuses, in churches, in bars or other at sites would further weaken restrictions, as would either of two federal bills, now in the Senate, that would require that a concealed carry permit granted by any state be honored in all other states.

Guns are not one of my hot buttons. I'm neither especially pro-gun nor anti-gun. On the one hand, I believe that (like it or not) the Second Amendment does provide a personal right to gun ownership. I've also long thought it would be interesting to learn how to handle and shoot a handgun. Maybe someday I will. On the other hand, I'm 53 and I haven't done it yet, which suggests a pretty low level of interest.

That said, the NRA sure seems bound and determined to make me more anti-gun with every passing day. After the Supreme Court decisions in Heller and McDonald, which upheld a personal, constitutional right to bear arms, I thought maybe the gun wars would settle down a bit. They wouldn't go away, since plenty of people still opposed Heller and lots of local municipalities were still determined to regulate handgun use tightly. But I figured this is where the fight would turn: to court cases between city councils and the NRA over how to implement Heller at a local level. The old hysteria about the government coming to take away your guns would go away because the Supreme Court had very firmly said that they couldn't.

Needless to say, that's not what happened. Over the past decade, and accelerating after the Heller decision was handed down, the NRA has gotten almost insanely aggressive. The government is still coming to take away your guns. (Aided by the UN, natch.) And gun owners, not satisfied that the Supreme Court has upheld their basic Second Amendment rights, have gone on a tear, fighting even modest registration and safety requirements and insisting on the expansion of shall-issue laws, concealed carry laws, unconcealed carry laws, stand your ground laws, and a bevy of laws that would all but remove the right of private property owners to ban guns on their own premises. I mean, guns in bars! WTF? Can you even imagine a worse place for guns than a bar?

So....I feel like I'm slowly but surely becoming more anti-gun over time. I still don't want to take away anybody's guns. I hope you handle them safely, but that's about the extent of my concern.

But do I really want squadlets of NRA zealots with chips on their shoulder pretending that we live in the Old West and parading around the mall with guns in shoulder holsters just to prove that they can? Not really. And I'm pretty sure I'm not alone. We don't live in the Old West. Keep your guns at home or at the range. Shoot only as a last resort, and don't feel like the law should protect you if you gun someone down just because he took a swing at you on your front lawn. Enough's enough, folks. It's time to declare victory and go home.