Rolling Stone's latest interview with President Obama was pretty dull, and in any case I nearly became ill just from reading the cloying, self-congratulatory introduction by (of course) Jann Wenner. I made it up to "Having complimented me during our last interview on my brightly colored socks...." and had to get up and take a break.

But David Roberts reminds me that although Obama made no news, he did make a worthwhile point about the Republican electorate:

Given all we've heard about and learned during the GOP primaries, what's your take on the state of the Republican Party, and what do you think they stand for?

First of all, I think it's important to distinguish between Republican politicians and people around the country who consider themselves Republicans. I don't think there's been a huge change in the country. If you talk to a lot of Republicans, they'd like to see us balance the budget, but in a balanced way.

....But what's happened, I think, in the Republican caucus in Congress, and what clearly happened with respect to Republican candidates, was a shift to an agenda that is far out of the mainstream — and, in fact, is contrary to a lot of Republican precepts. I said recently that Ronald Reagan couldn't get through a Republican primary today, and I genuinely think that's true. You have every candidate onstage during one of the primary debates rejecting a deficit-reduction plan that involved $10 in cuts for every $1 of revenue increases. You have a Republican front-runner who rejects the Dream Act, which would help young people who, through no fault of their own, are undocumented, but who have, for all intents and purposes, been raised as Americans. You've got a Republican Congress whose centerpiece, when it comes to economic development, is getting rid of the Environmental Protection Agency.

....I think it's fair to say that this has become the way that the Republican political class and activists define themselves.

This isn't the biggest insight in the world, or anything, but it's something I try to keep firmly in mind. Mostly I fail, but it's still worth keeping in mind: lots of conservatives may very well be true believers who inhale Drudge and Rush and Fox News, but lots of them aren't. They're just ordinary, non-fire-breathing folks who happen to be a little more conservative than me. This presents an opportunity for liberals, of course, and David suggests that one area ripe for wedge making is clean energy:

Obama’s contention is that the GOP political class and activist base have worked themselves into a blind ideological fury, but most people who identify as Republican do not share their rigidity. They are more likely to lean in the direction of Independents and moderates.

If this is true, it identifies a political vulnerability. Democrats ought to be able to exploit the differences between the masses and the ideologues, to set them at odds with one another.

I’m not sure how many genuine “wedge issues” there are, actually, but one that shows up in the polls over and over again is clean energy. As I wrote back in January, clean energy is a wedge issue that favors Democrats.

Read the whole thing to get the details of David's argument. My guess is that this is unlikely to become a major campaign issue on its own, but you never know. If the right event comes along, it could push this into the spotlight and force Romney to take some unpopular hardline positions. Ideally, I suppose we'd discover a huge shale deposit in Yosemite National Park and then demand that Romney disown all the folks on the right who would immediately pop up to insist that the Obama administration is anti-growth for opposing a drilling rig on top of Half Dome. That might do it.

It's pretty hard to keep up with the faux outrage these days. Just this morning I read that Darrell Issa is getting ready to hold Eric Holder in contempt over the right's favorite endless whipping boy of the past year, Fast & Furious, but I guess this is already old news. Yawn. Apparently the latest ginned-up outrage comes from a video in which an EPA official recaps a pep talk he gave to his team two years ago:

It was kind of like how the Romans used to conquer little villages in the Mediterranean. They'd go into a little Turkish town somewhere, they'd find the first five guys they saw and they would crucify them. And then you know that town was really easy to manage for the next few years.

Ouch. Maybe not the best analogy to use. But let's hear the rest:

And so you make examples out of people who are in this case not compliant with the law. Find people who are not compliant with the law, and you hit them as hard as you can and you make examples out of them, and there is a deterrent effect there. And, companies that are smart see that, they don't want to play that game, and they decide at that point that it's time to clean up.

Ah. So he wants his team to go after people who break the law and hit them hard. Set an example. That sounds very....conservative. James Q. Wilson would approve, no? Unless, of course, it's environmental laws we're talking about. In that case, I guess it's better just to ignore them.

Here's some heartwarming news from the LA Times today:

Less than a year before the 2008 collapse of Lehman Bros. plunged the global economy into a terrifying free fall, the Wall Street firm awarded nearly $700 million to 50 of its highest-paid employees, according to internal documents reviewed by The Times.

.... The rich pay packages for so many people raised eyebrows even among compensation experts and provided fresh evidence of the money-driven Wall Street culture that was blamed for triggering the financial crisis. "Many people are going to be stunned at how well some people were being paid," said Brian Foley, an executive compensation expert in White Plains, N.Y. "This wasn't a matter of five or six people being paid a lot."

....The records illustrate that enormous pay wasn't limited to top executives but was dished out to a wide range of traders and others who sometimes took home even bigger paychecks than the CEOs who ran their companies.

It's nothing to get upset about, though. Just a few bad apples. The exception that proves the rule. The black sheep of the family. Surely you don't believe that all of Wall Street was doing this, do you?

I suppose I should do a pro forma post about today's GDP announcement, so here it is: GDP increased 2.2% last quarter. The general consensus is that this is "meh." It's not great, especially for an economy supposedly coming out of a recession, but it's not horrible either, and it might get revised upward next month anyway. Bottom line: if it's a blip, it's no big deal. If it's the first sign of a slowing economy, it's pretty bad news. But we'll have to wait and see. More details here.

Can the government provide healthcare more efficiently than the private market? There's no simple answer to that, but a couple of recent data points suggest the answer is yes.

First there's Medicare. It's true that long-term Medicare costs remain our most critical budget problem, thanks to aging baby boomers and ever-expanding treatments for chronic illnesses and end-of-life care. But per-capita Medicare spending has been on a long downward trend, and that trend has been so steady and predictable that a recent study suggested that spending growth per beneficiary over the next decade would be close to zero. Earlier this week we got some confirmation of this when the annual Social Security Trustees report was released. Most of the media attention focused on Social Security, whose financial position deteriorated compared to last year thanks to a slowing economy and an aging population. But using the same economic forecasts, the trustees nonetheless projected no deterioration in Medicare's financial picture. Why? "Once you dig into the numbers," says the Washington Post's Sarah Kliff, "the most plausible explanation is a pretty encouraging one: Our health-care system is getting better at delivering the same medicine more efficiently."

And there's more. On Wednesday, Austin Frakt and Aaron Carroll reported on a new study of Medicaid spending by states. Despite years of horror stories about Medicaid bankrupting state budgets, the study found that most of the increase over the past decade has simply been due to inflation and population growth, not the rising cost of medical care. Adjusted for inflation and population, it turns out that Medicaid spending rose by less than 4% between 2002 and 2011. (That's the dotted line in the chart on the right.) Why has Medicaid done so well? The study quotes Vernon Smith, former Medicaid director for Michigan:

When you look at the rate of growth for all the major payers — Medicaid, Medicare, employer-sponsored insurance, National Health Expenditures — what you see is that no other payer has constrained the rate of growth in spending as well as Medicaid has. [] The reason is that no payer has been as motivated to undertake cost containment as state governments.

This is a key insight, and it doesn't apply only to state governments. One of the problems with the employer-centered healthcare model that we adopted accidentally during and after World War II is that it does a pretty good job of hiding costs. Sure, our premiums and copays rise every year, but most of us have very little idea how much our medical insurance really costs. We pay a small portion, and the rest is, from our point of view, effectively free. By contrast, in European countries, which have done a much better job of controlling costs than the U.S., spending comes largely out of tax dollars, which means that legislatures and taxpayers have to face up to the cost of healthcare every year when they pass a budget. The fact that the process is played out in the rough and tumble of the political spotlight gives everyone a strong incentive to hold down spending. After all, rising costs mean rising taxes.

Until the cost of medical care bites, Americans won't put a lot of pressure on the healthcare industry to rein in its prices and administer care more efficiently. Taxpayer-supported national healthcare could help us get there. The relative efficiency of Medicare and Medicaid are bellwethers we should pay attention to.

Members of Congress love to grandstand about allegedly idiotic studies being funded by federal grants. But guess what? It turns out that a lot of this dumb sounding research ends up being pretty useful:

Federally-funded research of dog urine ultimately gave scientists and understanding of the effect of hormones on the human kidney, which in turn has been helpful for diabetes patients. A study called “Acoustic Trauma in the Guinea Pig” resulted in treatment of early hearing loss in infants. And that randy screwworm study? It helped researchers control the population of a deadly parasite that targets cattle costing the government $250,000 but ultimately saving the cattle industry more than $20 billion, according to Cooper’s office.

More here.

A "self-perpetuating oligarchy" is an organization where the current leadership plays a strong role in picking its successors. Corporations are an example: the board of directors chooses a CEO, who periodically nominates new members to the board, which eventually chooses the next CEO.

But corporations are only weakly self-perpetuating, since boards usually don't have a lot of loyalty to a particular style of management and CEOs usually don't care all that much who takes over after they retire. Beside, CEOs can be fired. A much better example is the Catholic Church: popes appoint cardinals unilaterally, and the College of Cardinals elects a pope when the old one dies. What's more, popes can't be fired and they care a lot about appointing cardinals who are ideologically sympatico. Mark Kleiman, after reading about the Church's recent humiliation of American nuns for being insufficiently anti-sex, comments:

As the characteristic risks of the democratic republic are corruption and demagogy, and the characteristic risks of hereditary rule are incompetent rulers and succession struggles, the characteristic risk of the self-perpetuating oligarchy is gerontocracy.

For most of the history of the Catholic Church, even the well-fed and well-cared-for tended to drop off by around age 70. So gerontocracy wasn’t a big threat. But modern nutrition, sanitation, and medicine have extended the life of the body by more years than they’ve extended the acuity of the mind. John Paul II put in a rule to get rid of aging Cardinals — mostly so he could complete the process of packing the College with members of his own faction — but didn’t apply the rule to himself, and continued to wear the Triple Tiara until he was long past it.

So — from a secularist perspective — here’s wishing a very long life to Pope Benedict XVI. I doubt that his commitment of the Church to the side of reaction and plutocracy around the world — continuing the work of John Paul II — is now reversible. So the faster the whole thing crashes and burns, the better.

It seems like every time I turn around I'm confronted by growing extremism. The Catholic Church is, increasingly, little more than an angry collection of reactionary old men who hate the modern world. The Republican Party is a refuge for bright-eyed true believers intent on tearing down the modern state. The state of Israel, unable to break the grip of its most expansionist zealots, is busily wreaking its own destruction and doing its best to drag us along with them. Large swaths of the Muslim world remain captured by the fever dreams of its most radical factions.

Unfortunately, none of this seems to be crashing and burning. Not yet, anyway. So when does the wave finally crest and start to break?

Or am I just imagining all this because I'm in a bit of a punk mood today?

Why are iPads made in China? Cheap labor is the obvious answer, but labor is such a small part of the iPad's total cost that this probably isn't the real reason. A more compelling argument is that China simply has a far more efficient high-tech manufacturing sector than America does these days. It's China's "flexibility, diligence and industrial skills" that make it so attractive. This is probably most of the answer, but Elizabeth Chamberlain suggests that China's near-monopoly on rare earth elements might play a role too:

Cambridge engineering professor Dr. Tim Coombs guesses that there may be lanthanum in the iPad’s lithium-ion polymer battery, as well as “a range of rare earths to produce the different colours” in the display....Electronics glass is often polished with cerium oxide. According to a Congressional Research Service report, worldwide demand for rare earths was 136,100 tons in 2010, 45-percent of which was for magnets, glass, and polishing.

Why is all this rare earth consumption a problem? China currently controls 95-97% of the world’s supply of rare earths and has repeatedly cut export quotas, sending already-high prices skyrocketing.

....Today, an American electronics company can only be exempt from China’s rare earth export quotas by manufacturing within China. So that’s what most companies, including Apple, are doing. The only other solution is for us to stop consuming so much—an option that people rarely find appealing. Not as appealing as a retina display, at least.

Interesting suggestion. More on rare earths here.

(Via Felix Salmon.)

Felix Salmon pushes back against the canonization of Marc Andreessen in the current issue of Wired:

When you look at Marc the capitalist, rather than at Marc the ideas guy, the hero-worship becomes a bit more difficult....A lot of my own Wired story, last month, can be read as a push back against the IPO culture which Andreessen, almost more than anybody else, has managed to create.

“Silicon Valley is full of venture capitalists who have become dynastically wealthy off the backs of companies that no longer exist,” I wrote in that piece, and Andreessen is Exhibit A if you want to look for such a person. His first company, Netscape, lost the Browser Wars and ended up getting sold to AOL. His second company, Loudcloud, was (to be charitable) too far ahead of its time, so it “pivoted” into something called Opsware; eventually Andreessen managed to sell it off to HP. His third company, Ning, was even less successful, and ended up buried somewhere in Glam Media. None of them exist today in any recognizable form; none of them ever made much money; and none of them even really made it as far as building anything approaching a permanent income stream.

....While Andreessen is very good at making money, then, he’s much less good at creating lasting value for the long-term shareholders of his companies. In his world, buy-and-hold public shareholders are the patsies, the people left holding the bag when the fast money has long since departed. He’s smart; the rest of us are chumps. I guess it makes perfect sense that he’s recruited Larry Summers as a Special Advisor.

During the 90s I worked for a software company that, although modestly successful, never seemed all that successful compared to the dotcom frenzy that surrounded everything we did. Still, I always liked to joke that at least we made more money than Netscape. Which is to say, we made money.

I've got nothing against Andreessen. He's obviously a pretty brilliant guy who saw the potential of the web before most of us. But Wired also gives him credit for cloud computing, which is kind of silly, and for social networking, which is even sillier. And the idea that somehow Andreessen deserves credit for pioneering the idea that software is going to become hyperintelligent in the near future? Crikey. Is there anyone in the past decade who hasn't predicted that at one time or another?

And even the idea of web browsers as replacements for operating systems, which Andreessen can certainly take a lot of credit for, is happening largely because browsers are becoming nearly as big and complex and buggy as the operating systems they're supplanting. All those thin clients we used to talk about are putting on weight. What's more, yet another buzzy new name doesn't change the fact that cloud computing has the same pros and cons that similar technologies have always had, ever since IBM first offered its customers centralized hosting services about a million years ago. As bandwidth and computing power grows, more stuff can be successfully hosted remotely, and from an IT viewpoint this offers huge advantages in terms of control over your user base. For the same reason, of course, the user base often hates it because it takes away their control. If you don't feel like upgrading Microsoft Word whenever Redmond pumps out a new version, you don't have to. But Google Docs? You upgrade when Google tells you to. The war between the competing needs of centralized IT and unruly users hasn't produced a victor yet.

In any case, no matter how much bandwidth and computing power we have in the cloud, there will always be more locally. And apps will almost certainly expand to take advantage of as much bandwidth as technology can provide. So sure, we'll all live in the cloud in the future, but I don't think we'll live completely in the cloud. It's going to be a lot messier than that.

I love me some Samuel L. Jackson, but this nonsense bugs me:

It’s all but impossible to turn on a TV set any night of the week without happening on one of his movies (and sometimes two or three). Hence his anointment by Guinness World Records as “the highest-grossing film actor” of all time.

Yeah, yeah. His films have grossed $7.4 billion. But more than a third of that, $2.5 billion, was thanks to an essentially bit part in the three Star Wars sequels. And do those Nick Fury cameos count too? Give me a break. Jackson's a great actor, but he just doesn't drive box office grosses the way this factoid suggests. Profile writers should drop it.