Zach Carter and Ryan Grim have a long but terrific piece in the Huffington Post today about the fight over debit card fees. It's a case study in the lobbying industry and the not-so-secret priorities of Congress:

The swipe fee spat is generating huge business for K Street: A full 118 ex-government officials and aides are currently registered to lobby on behalf of banks in the fee fight, according to data compiled for this story by the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan research group. Retailers have signed up at least 124 revolving-door lobbyists.

....“Oh man, this is unbelievable. You’ve got the banking community, the financial community, pitted against the retail community,” says Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.). “They’ve both been in my office and I’m a clear yes vote on this ... so you can only imagine those who are trying to figure this out or are still on the fence. They must be getting flooded.”

....“Every time we go in to an office and tell them we’re here to talk about interchange, they cringe,” says Dennis Lane, who makes regular lobbying trips to Washington and has owned a Massachusetts 7-Eleven for 37 years. “I think there’s been more lobbying -- there’s been more hours and minutes spent on Capitol Hill discussing interchange reform -- than there has been talking about a shutdown of the government.”

....While cable news was recently overwhelmed by coverage of budget negotiations and a possible government shutdown, many of the nation’s most powerful political players were focused instead on the Tester amendment -- and on a lobbying scrum that even boggles the minds of seasoned politicians. “It’s the biggest issue in Washington right now,” says a senior Treasury official who’s grateful it doesn’t fall within his scope of responsibility.

This is such a classic case of how things work on Capitol Hill. The issue itself is (a) pretty much unknown to the average voter and (b) worth absolute mountains of money to a very small, very influential segment of American industry, namely big banks and big retailers. This makes it the perfect lobbying issue: banks and retailers are highly motivated to spend mind-boggling sums of money on this, while voters barely even know this fight is going on.

The whole piece is worth a read when you have a few free minutes. When you're done (or maybe before you start), you should also read this short post from Adam Levitin that explains the actual technical issue with swipe fees aside from the fact that one group of millionaires is fighting a different group of millionaires over how to split up billions of dollars. It explains the policy piece of the story that Carter and Grim don't.

The New York Times ran a report yesterday about New Jersey residents who are outraged by new solar panels on utility poles that are ruining the bucolic splendor of their neighborhoods. Matt Yglesias takes a look at the accompanying photo and finds himself underwhelmed:

This is not a pastoral view disrupted by solar panels. It’s a view of utility polls, street lights, and overhead electrical wires—now with solar panels! It would be interesting to see if people actually preferred a pastoral view free of the accoutrements of electrification but I doubt anyone actually prefers that. Instead, the customary interjections of technology into the suburban landscape are normalized while any deviation from the postwar pattern is anathematized. Had people 100 years ago had this attitude, I suppose nobody would have telephone service or electricity at all.

A few years ago I remember reading about a local outcry over a cell phone company that wanted to put their transmitters on existing light poles instead of building a bunch of new towers. It was over in a neighborhood called Turtle Rock, which is one of Irvine's most upscale "villages" (yes, we really call them that). I got curious, and since it wasn't far away I drove over to take a look. And I looked and looked. Finally I found the offending light pole and looked some more. And there it was! I didn't see it at first, but sure enough, there was a small round doohickey attached to the pole about 20 feet up.

All I could do was shake my head. It was a light pole! And the transmitter was barely even visible. And it was 20 feet off the ground. How could anyone possibly care? But they did.

I'm perpetually astonished by the level of NIMBYism pretty much everywhere. I mean, objecting to a toxic waste dump or something, that I get. But people who live in 100% built environments are remarkably resistant to even the most innocuous changes in that built environment, let alone things that might potentially have a minor but real impact. It's just a huge battle every time.

And in the non-built environment this is becoming a huge problem too. We need solar power and wind farms. But solar is no good if it's built in the sunny Mojave Desert because it might impact tortoise breeding grounds. Wind farms are no good if they mar the view off Hyannis Port or kill too many migrating birds. Everybody wants change, but nobody wants that change to occur anywhere that might affect their own backyard or their own pet cause. This is hardly breaking news, I know, but one of these days we're going to have to decide which is more important: marring our views a bit or preventing the planet from baking to death. I vote for the latter.

Front page image: Colin Smith/

The chart on the right comes from the Kaiser Family Foundation, and it shows the growth in healthcare expenditures in five selected countries over the past 40 years. The United States, of course, has the highest spending, but it also has the highest growth rate. An accompanying table shows spending in 15 OECD countries, and in 1970, the U.S. spent 58% more than average. In 1990 we spent 86% more. In 2008 we spent 91% more.

There are individual countries that have had higher growth rates than us, but all of them started from a much lower base. And even at that, nobody beats us by much. Even though our spending is already the highest in the world, our growth rate is still one of the highest too. No matter how much we pay our doctors, pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, and insurance carriers — and we pay them far more than any other country — it's never enough. They always want more.

I don't really know much about music, but Mike Mechanic's interview with violin superstar Joshua Bell was pretty interesting. For example:

MJ: What's the most technically difficult piece you've ever performed?

JB: It's not always what seems hard. The Beethoven violin concerto is technically maybe the hardest because it's so exposed. The Tchaikovsky is more technically difficult; it's got more acrobatics, yet you can get away with more.

MJ: What do you mean, exposed?

JB: If you mess up the tiniest little thing in the Beethoven concerto, or the phrasing isn't just exactly perfectly executed—Beethoven brings out the worst in the best violinist. You almost never hear a satisfying performance, because it doesn't play itself. The Tchaikovsky is technically bombastic, but it kind of plays itself.

Interesting! And although I know all about million-dollar Stradivariuses, I'd never heard of Tourte bows. They go for a hundred grand, and just like the Strads, no one can make their equal anymore. Also interesting!

You remember "Fear the Boom and Bust," don't you, the rap throwdown between John Maynard Keynes and F.A. Hayek produced last year for It was great, and now its creators are back with "Fight of the Century: Keynes vs. Hayek Round Two":

At the risk of being a little meanspirited over a nonprofit labor of love, I'm wondering if I'm the only one who didn't really care much for this sequel? I was put off from the very beginning, which uses the exact same joke as the first video, except even more extreme. I was reminded of movie sequels that figure the only way to top the original is to feature even more car chases and even bigger explosions. Meh.

Beyond that, though, the actual content of the video just isn't as sharp as the first one. The production values are great, but the lyrics are kind of flat and there's not really any sustained economic argument from either of the characters. In the end, I think the producers just didn't have anything new to say. But they've got a ton of talent, and I hope that for their next video they ditch the Keynes vs. Hayek conceit and just do something completely new.

Paying for Medicare

Bill Galston says upper-middle-class baby boomers are being selfish in our refusal to pay more for retirement medical care:

There’s an obvious rejoinder: Haven’t my wife and I already paid into the [Medicare] system for the benefits we’ll receive over the next two or three decades? Answer: Yes, but not enough. A few months ago, Eugene Steuerle and Stephanie Renanne of the Urban Institute put out a very useful summary, “Social Security and Medicare Taxes and Benefits Over a Lifetime,” calculated for different retirement cohorts. While I’m no methodologist, their assumptions seem straightforward and plausible. Applying them to our own case suggests that the value of my contributions falls short of the actuarial value of our benefits by at least $100,000. And if my wife and I were younger professionals scheduled to retire in 2030, the gap would be far greater.

So who’s going to make up the difference? Answer: today’s workers, many of whom are already struggling to raise their children, pay the mortgage, and save for college.

Yep. Here are Steuerle and Renanne's estimates for a single male retiring last year. Note that this has all been adjusted for inflation:

Given that current and soon-to-be retirees have gotten such a sweet deal, there are several things you can say about Medicare reform. First, if Medicare benefits are going to be reduced, they should be reduced even for current retirees, not just future retirees. Second, if taxes are going to be raised, they should be raised on everyone under 65. There's no reason that those who are between 55 and 65 should get a free pass. Third, some kind of means testing might be appropriate for Medicare. For a variety of reasons I don't think means testing is a great idea for Social Security (one of the reasons is here), but for Medicare it might make some sense. As Galston says, for a lot of upper-middle-class boomers like him, the main value of Medicare is guaranteed issue. Everyone over 65 needs that because everyone over 65 has preexisting conditions, but as long as that stays intact a pretty fair chunk of retirees could afford to pay premiums that more accurately reflect the actual cost of their coverage. Something like that would have to be phased in, and it would also have to constructed carefully, but it definitely ought to be on the table when we discuss reforming Medicare. Elderly well-off retirees are still well-off, after all, and there's not much reason their healthcare should be subsidized by everyone else if they can afford to pay for it themselves.

Alex Massie is tired of people complaining about all the coverage of the royal wedding:

You could be forgiven for thinking that, at best, the show is being put on for elderly wurzels, corn chandlers and backwoodsmen none of whom could be said to be much "in touch" with what modern Britain is supposed to stand for....And yet actually and quietly and gallingly for some, the people are interested in the wedding. A Guardian poll this week, published with some misgivings one likes to think, tries to spin this interest away but is forced to concede that 47% of the British population plan to watch at least some of the television coverage of the wedding on Friday. That is, by any measure, a strikingly large percentage of the population.

....This being so, it's daft to complain about too much coverage. The public is interested in this. To complain about the coverage is, in some sense, to make the case that journalism should only be concerned with matters that are in the public interest. But unless journalism also panders to — that is, serves — the things in which the public is actually interested there will be no "public interest" journalism at all.

Despite the fact that I don't myself care all that much about the royal wedding, I agree. Here's how I look at things: all of us1 have cheesy crap that we happen to enjoy. For me it's Survivor. For you maybe it's romance novels. Or the Academy Awards. Or the CMAs. For other people it's royal gossip.

And really, who cares? The royal wedding is a harmless pastime, there's lots of great fashion to ogle over, there's gossip galore, and it's a fun diversion from whatever dreary stuff is consuming the chattering classes in our nation's capital (or in Great Britain's capital) at the moment. It's not my cup of tea, but the fact that I don't personally like it2 doesn't instantly fill me with snobbish outrage over the fact that other people do.

So: those of you who are filled with snobbish outrage, get off your high horse. It's all just a bit of glamour and spectacle that does no one any harm3. And really, admit it: you're just mad that you didn't get an invite, aren't you?

1Well, maybe you don't. Maybe you're the second coming of Thomas Jefferson. If so, keep it to yourself, OK?

2My sister very decidedly does, however, and so do my cats — and they'll prove it tomorrow. You can't wait, can you?

3Actually, that's not entirely true. The royal tsotchke industry is certainly getting a boost, but the government has declared tomorrow a holiday in Britain, and according to the LA Times, "Every bank holiday costs Britain as much as nearly $10 billion in lost productivity." That "as much as nearly" formulation sounds a bit dodgy to me, but still, I guess the economy will take a minor hit.

Plus, let's just go ahead and concede that Richard Quest is really, really annoying. His constant appearances on my TV have made my life that much poorer. I'll be very happy when he finally goes away.

Well, it looks like Macroeconomic Advisors was right:

The American economy slowed to a crawl in the first quarter, but economists are hopeful that the setback will be temporary. Total output grew at an annual pace of 1.8 percent from January through March, the Commerce Department said Thursday, after having expanded at an annual rate of 3.1 percent in the fourth quarter of 2010.

It's a little hard to know what to say about this aside from the usual: our big problem right now is sluggish growth and high unemployment, but no one seems to care about that anymore. It's all inflation and deficits and the weak dollar. Paul Krugman will undoubtedly write a few blistering columns about this, everyone will shrug because it's just Krugman being Krugman, and then we'll go back to our usual right-wing kabuki show over inflation and deficits and the weak dollar.

And growth will remain lousy and unemployment will stay high and we'll all pretend there was nothing we could have done about it.

Yesterday President Obama announced a reshuffling of his national security portfolio, moving Leon Panetta from CIA to Defense, Gen. David Petraeus from Afghanistan to the CIA, Gen. John Allen from Centcom to Afghanistan, and Ryan Crocker from retirement to active duty as ambassador to Kabul. Fred Kaplan says "it's hard to imagine a shrewder set of moves, both politically and substantively." And maybe so. But then there's this:

What's glaringly obvious about this list is that [...] it's a game of musical chairs. No fresh talent has been brought into the circle. And one reason for this is that the bench of fresh major-league talent is remarkably thin.

There are plenty of smart, capable analysts and bureaucrats in the Pentagon's second tier or in the think-tank community—but very few, arguably none, who possess the worldliness, gravitas, intramural hard-headedness, and credibility on Capitol Hill that a president, especially a Democratic president, would like to have in a defense secretary during a time of two wars and ferocious budget fights....In the past few weeks, I've asked a couple dozen veteran observers—officials, analysts, Hill staffers, other reporters—who they think would be a suitable replacement, from either party's roster. Nobody could think of anybody. This in itself is a bit disturbing.

Yes, that is disturbing. If it's true, that is. And it might not be: it's common to think of second stringers as perpetually second stringers until you actually promote one of them. Then all that gravitas you thought was missing is suddenly there. That might be all that's going on here.

Still, this would be an interesting topic to hear from other national security folks about. Is it really true that the bench of big-league talent in the top tier of the national security world is as thin as all that? And if it is, why?

Manufacturing Outrage

According to Bloomberg, Republicans are complaining that town hall protests against the Ryan Medicare plan are basically phony:

U.S. House Republicans pushing to overhaul Medicare dismiss the vocal opposition some have encountered from constituents as orchestrated by political foes.

They’re blaming much of the criticism voiced at town-hall meetings, which sometimes turned raucous, on activists dispatched by and other Democratic allies, even as some of the lawmakers have taken measures to control the tone of forums. “This is not genuine anger over Medicare; it’s manufactured political anger that’s causing the disturbances,” said Representative Lou Barletta, a freshman Republican from Pennsylvania.

You know what? Barletta is mostly right. But that's not really the problem. After all, a lot of the tea party town hall protests in 2009 were pretty much orchestrated too. Here's the problem: liberals are lousy at pretending that their protests are organic. Ever since the Ryan plan has come out, I've been reading endless tweets and blog posts about how liberals need to create a ruckus at congressional town halls. Or, alternatively, complaining that liberals aren't doing a good enough job of creating a ruckus at congressional town halls. Or wondering when liberals are going to rise up in wrath. Or something.

As a result, even I haven't really taken any of these various ruckuses very seriously. They're just too obviously contrived to be our equivalent of the tea party protests. And my guess is that the press is yawning for the same reason. You can't make protest plans in public for a couple of weeks and then turn around and try to convince reporters that this is all a grass roots effort.

The left has always been pretty good at organizing large-scale marches and protests. But fake grass roots uprisings? Not so good. The right has us beat hollow on that kind of thing.