Paul Krugman channels Simon Wren-Lewis today to complain about the economic triumphalism of British Prime Minister David Cameron, who has been crowing that his austerity policies are finally paying off. In reality, both men say, Cameron implemented austerity policies in 2010 and 2011, but then eased up. And now that he's eased up, the economy is starting to improve. Austerity had nothing to do with it.

I want to use this as a springboard to make two random-but-connected points:

  • Politically, message consistency is key. Ronald Reagan never varied from his insistence that tax cuts would supercharge the economy, so when the economy finally did pick up in 1983, tax cuts got the credit even though they almost certainly played only a small role. Likewise, austerity is getting the credit in Britain because Cameron has never varied from his insistence that it would work. Liberals tend to be much worse at this kind of economic message discipline. When the economy improves, they get a lot less credit because they haven't relentlessly prepared the public with a very simple message about what they've been doing.
  • On a related note, Wren-Lewis points out that Britain's central government deficit in 2013 was 7.5 percent of GDP. Cameron touts this as evidence of his fiscal stinginess. In America, the federal deficit in 2013 was 4.1 percent of GDP. Conventional wisdom ignores this and continues to wail that we need ever more spending cuts in order to reduce our still-unconscionable deficits. One again, note the difference that message discipline makes.

My point is not that message discipline is everything. The real world matters more. But it does matter. If you want credit for good things, you have to make up a simple, plausible story about what you're doing and then stick to it like glue until things finally turn up. It worked for Reagan and it's working for Cameron. Obama, on the other hand, never had a consistent story, so he's not getting any credit as the economy improves.

POSTSCRIPT: Needless to say, Obama also had much less control over the economy than Cameron, who doesn't have to put up with a fractious Congress. So from a message point of view, maybe he was just screwed. Still, I suspect Obama could have done better than he did.

A couple of days ago I wrote that 2013 had been a rough year for President Obama:

It started with the fiscal cliff showdown and then barreled straight into Scandalmania (Benghazi+IRS+AP subpoenas); Edward Snowden and the NSA leaks; the Syria U-turn; the government shutdown; and finally the Obamacare website debacle.

Steve Benen takes a look at these same events and pushes back:

Twice congressional Republicans threatened debt-ceiling default; twice Obama stood his ground....Congressional Republicans shut down the government to extract White House concessions. Obama and congressional Democrats stood firm and the GOP backed down....forged an international agreement to rid Syria of chemical weapons....The “scandals” the media hyped relentlessly in the spring proved to be largely meaningless.

Nice try! And there's something to this. Obama did manage to squeeze out "victories" in the fiscal cliff and government shutdown fights, Scandalmania mostly turned into a nothingburger, and Syria and Iran may yet turn out to be foreign policy wins.

But at best, that's for the future. For now, 2013 just looks a year that Obama barely survived, bruised and bloody. It's possible that the other guy looks even worse, of course, and after watching John Boehner's press conference a couple of days ago, I'd say it's fair to think so.

The good news, such as it is, is that all this stuff might set up Obama for a decent 2014. If Republicans realize it's pointless to pick more debt ceiling fights; if Obamacare starts working smoothly; if we strike a decent deal with Iran; and if the economy picks up—if all those things happen, then 2014 will look pretty good. It probably can't look much worse.

Today brings ever more stories of rate shock from people signing up for Obamacare:

Sue Spanke of Missoula, Mont., was highly displeased this fall when she learned her health insurance had been canceled....After angrily calling her state auditor's office, Spanke, a self-employed artist in her 50s, found she was eligible for a federal subsidy. Her new insurance will cover her for a mere $30 to $40 a month with a deductible of only $500. She had been paying $350 a month for a Blue Cross policy with a $5,000 deductible. "I went from a horrible policy that didn't cover anything, that was breaking me, to the best policy at the best price I've had since I was in my 20s," she said.

....In Lancaster, Pa., Lori Lapman, 58, learned her health plan was being canceled in September—by October things were looking up. Per The Sunday News: "Sitting at a laptop with a certified health law helper, Lapman went to, found it running smoothly, and bought a subsidized Highmark plan that allows her to keep her doctors while saving her money. Her canceled plan cost her $520 a month. Her new coverage? Only $111.73."

....In a letter to the editor in The Santa Maria Times, Allan Pacela told the story of how after his wife lost her insurance this fall, she found much better coverage under Obamacare. The couple is now saving $8,000 per year for a "much better plan."

There's more at the link, and all from doing a quick Nexis search of newspapers across the country. Just imagine what we might find out with a little bit of old-school shoe-leather reporting.

Yesterday, a friend emailed to complain about this headline at NBC News: 

Climate change expert's fraud was 'crime of massive proportion,' say feds

Technically, this headline is correct. It's about a guy who's a climate change expert. And he did perpetrate a fraud. The thing is, his fraud had nothing to do with the fact that he's a climate change expert. So why make it sound that way in the headline? Is it just clickbait for the fever swamp denier crowd?

And yet! You really, really ought to click the link and read the story anyway. Just ignore the ridiculous headline and dig in. This really is one of the more remarkable fraud stories of the year. I guarantee your mouth will be hanging open by the time you finish it.

Via the Wall Street Journal, here's how inflation has been doing over the past year. Long story short, it's been declining steadily since the end of 2012 and is now running at about a 1 percent annual rate. Bottom line: we should be worried about unemployment, not inflation. Until the labor market gets tighter, inflation just isn't likely to be any kind of serious problem.

Over at The Atlantic, a former prosecutor named Bobby Constantino has a piece called "I Got Myself Arrested So I Could Look Inside the Justice System." It's oddly riveting. It starts with a description of his former career:

In between the important cases, I found myself spending most of my time prosecuting people of color for things we white kids did with impunity growing up in the suburbs. As our office handed down arrest records and probation terms for riding dirt bikes in the street, cutting through a neighbor’s yard, hosting loud parties, fighting, or smoking weed — shenanigans that had rarely earned my own classmates anything more than raised eyebrows and scoldings — I often wondered if there was a side of the justice system that we never saw in the suburbs. Last year, I got myself arrested in New York City and found out.

In a nutshell, this guy desperately tried to get himself arrested for walking around New York City with a stencil and a spray can (a class B misdemeanor) and had no luck. So he tagged City Hall. With a surveillance camera recording him. Still no luck. He turned himself in. They turned him away. He literally found it impossible to get arrested.

He finally succeeded, spent a night in jail, and went to court. And then just the opposite happened. He was initially sentenced to five days community service until the prosecutor suddenly realized the case file was flagged "no deal." So he went back to court, and this time they insisted on throwing the book at him. The judge was so pissed off at him that he then doubled the book.

There's more, and it's worth a read. A white guy in a suit, it turns out, is practically invulnerable to being arrested. But when he uses this fact to embarrass the judicial system, the judicial system suddenly turns on him with a fury. Welcome to America.

National Review is being sued by climate scientist Michael Mann for defamation. In a blog post at The Corner last year, Mark Steyn quoted Rand Simberg calling Mann the "Jerry Sandusky of climate science" (both are from Penn State); wrote that Mann was "the man behind the fraudulent climate-change 'hockey-stick' graph"; and concluded that "his 'investigation' by a deeply corrupt administration was a joke." (The "investigation" cleared Mann of any wrongdoing.)

A judge recently ruled that Mann's suit could go forward. I'm personally a little uneasy about this, since I'd normally think of Steyn's post as hyperbolic and stupid, but still fair comment on a public figure. It's a close call, though. I suspect Mann will lose his case, but that's for a jury to decide now.

Today, though, I read this blog post over at NRO asking for money to help them with their defense:

One readers supports NRO with $50 and this note:

I have followed the catastrophic global warming argument since I retired in 2007. In a few years it will be seen as the greatest “scientific” scam of all time. Best wishes on your court case, and glad to help.

....And another reader, sends $200 in support and this:

Have tried in past to support, fully agree with your efforts here. As a chemical engineer, I have been looking at “global warming” for over a decade. Such nonsense.

Questioning climate science is one thing, and National Review has done plenty of that. But I'm still a little surprised that apparently they aren't embarrassed at having readers who believe that global warming is "the greatest scientific scam of all time." Or, as the chemical engineer puts it, "nonsense." In fact, NR is so far from being embarrassed that they put these letters front and center on their website as a call to arms.

Wasn't there a time when a serious publication would quietly bury correspondence like this? Sure, every magazine has some lunatic readers, but you generally want your public face to be a little more serious. The stuff you publish should at least have the veneer of respectability.

Either that's hopelessly old-fashioned thinking, or else National Review really does believe that climate change is just flatly a scientific scam. I guess I don't read them closely enough to know which. But I was still a little taken aback that they seem actively proud to trumpet stuff like this. Shouldn't they be leaving this kind of thing in Glenn Beck's capable hands?

Neil Irwin praises Goldman Sachs for a year-end report in which it revisited its forecasts from last January:

In this case, the Goldman team did pretty well. Of 10 predictions, they were correct on seven, accurately forecasting, for example, that the economy would not tip into recession in 2013, that the housing market would continue its recovery, that corporate profit margins would stay fat and that inflation would remain low.

Their most clear-cut mistakes were in expecting capital spending to accelerate (it didn't, rising only about 2 percent, not the 6 percent Goldman economists forecast) and in expecting the unemployment rate to fall only slightly (it fell much more than they expected, because people left the labor force surprisingly fast).

This is a good practice, but I'd add a couple of comments. First, it's only a good practice if they commit themselves to doing it every year, not just in years when their track record is good. Second, not all forecasts are created equal. Predicting that the economy wouldn't fall back into recession, for example, isn't that impressive. There were certainly people last January who predicted slow growth, but there was virtually nobody who thought we were headed back to recession.

But those quibbles aside, this is a worthwhile thing to do. I might even do it myself except that I don't think I ever made any numeric forecasts that I could check. But maybe I should re-read my January archives and see.

From the latest Washington Post poll:

President Obama is ending his fifth year in office matching the worst public approval ratings of his presidency, with record numbers of Americans saying they disapprove of his job performance....His position is all the more striking when compared with his standing a year ago, as he was preparing for his second inauguration after a solid reelection victory. That high note proved fleeting as the president faced a series of setbacks, culminating in the botched rollout of his Affordable Care Act two months ago.

It's been a rough year, all right. It started with the fiscal cliff showdown and then barreled straight into Scandalmania (Benghazi+IRS+AP subpoenas); Edward Snowden and the NSA leaks; the Syria U-turn; the government shutdown; and finally the Obamacare website debacle. That's enough to tank anyone's approval ratings.

On the bright side, even now half of all Americans still blame George Bush for the lousy economy. Plus there's this: in my wife's family, tradition says that even-numbered years are good ones. So maybe things will turn up in 2014.

I realize that nobody cares about this, but for some reason I got curious about how many fast food chains were founded in Southern California. McDonald's, obviously, but how many others? Then my OCD took over, and I ended up with an Excel spreadsheet of the top 50 fast food chains in America along with the states they were founded in. And since I wasted a bunch of time on this, I'm going to share it with you.

California, it turns out, accounts for 10 out of the 50—all of them in Southern California.1 We really are the fast food capital of the world. Texas and Georgia come in second with four each. However, the top city turns out to be Denver, home of Chipotle, Quiznos, and Qdoba. Who knew? The full list is below.

1Assuming Wikipedia is accurate, that is.