Do you need a bit of a primer on this whole "fiscal cliff" thing? I'm here to help. For starters, it's more of a fiscal staircase than a fiscal cliff. If you want to know why—along with a breezy explanation of everything else cliff-related—just click here. It's got everything you need to know in order to sound knowledgeable at your next cocktail party.

Last night 60 Minutes did a segment about manufacturing companies that can't find good entry-level workers even though millions of people are out of jobs. While reporter Byron Pitts was reading the intro, I threw my shoe at the TV (figuratively) and told Marian acidly that it would almost be worth watching the segment just to see what idiocy they were going to promote this time around. I was just about to switch back to the Bears-Texans game, but it turned out Marian wanted to watch the segment, so I ended up watching it too. About halfway through, after describing a local community college in Reno that trains students to run complex, computer-controlled machines, we got this:

Most of the students here will start at jobs paying 12 dollars an hour.

At that point I jeered. You're wondering why you can't get highly qualified applicants for 12 bucks an hour? Spare me. But then, to my surprise, a few minutes later Pitts dealt with this head on:

Byron Pitts: Do you think if manufacturing paid more, could that be part of the issue? Part of the equation?

Klaus Kleinfeld [CEO of Alcoa]: I don't think that manufacturing is not paying well. In fact, I think manufacturing is paying very, very well.

Peter Cappelli disagrees.

Peter Cappelli: This is a market. And so, you know, if you're not willing to pay more, don't expect to get better quality people....One of the things we know now is wages are not going up. In fact, they've been stagnant and some cases even declining over time. So where is the shortage?

Byron Pitts: What's changed in the way that American companies hire workers compared to a few decades ago?

Peter Cappelli: I think there are big changes. And I think this is the heart of what is new. What's new now is that employers are not expecting to hire and train people....Companies are now saying, for all kinds of reasons, "We're not going to do it anymore." And maybe they're right, they can't do it. But what they probably can't do is say, "We're not going to do it, and it's your problem. It's your problem to provide us with what we need, Mr. and Mrs. Taxpayer. You need to pay for this for us."

Shortly after that, Pitts talks to a guy at a local company that's having trouble finding workers, and he confirms this: "I can't afford to develop every worker that I need from scratch. One, that's not my core competency. We're not a school, we're a company. We can't do that well. Two, we can't afford to do that. If we actually had to do that from scratch, even if we could, the jobs would have to go somewhere else, because it's simply not economically tenable to do that."

Companies like this all insist that American manufacturing is too competitive with anyone in the world. But look. If you can't afford to train workers, but you also can't afford to pay the wages it takes to attract experienced workers, then by definition that means you aren't competitive. The only time you're competitive is when a recession has made people desperate and the government helps you out with training. And who knows? Maybe this kind of training is a good use of taxpayer money. Wall Street certainly benefits from the training provided by state universities. But it's still a subsidy no matter how you slice it. Without it, apparently, American manufacturing just isn't very competitive.

Via Andrew Sullivan, Geoffrey Pullum talks today about the weirdness of all the long strings of numbers that infest our lives:

I have often stared at documents like gas bills and been amazed to see things like account numbers or other identification numbers as long as 18 or 20 digits. There are only about 7 × 109 people in the world. Some account numbers are so long you could give separate account numbers to every member of the population on a billion planets with populations like ours. Those numbers could record the addresses and ages and incomes of the customers instead of just being random digit strings. But we don't do that. The information society that people get so worried about — the world in which The Government knows all your details and tracks everything you do — hasn't arrived yet, and probably never will. We're not that organized as a species. We waste too much time and too many of our computational resources keeping track of pointless random digit strings and being unable to relate them to each other.

This is an interesting misconception on a couple of levels. First, most long strings of numbers aren't simply random. They encode information in various portions of the digits, and they usually (though not always!) do it for good reasons. One of the most common reasons is to make the numbers comprehensible to trained human beings. If the first two digits of a part number indicate that it's a TV set, for example, that can make life a lot easier for a clerk who's entering the order. People frequently write down part numbers incorrectly, and human-readable chunks that don't match the English-language description can alert order-entry clerks that there's a problem. This in turn saves a ton of time and trouble remediating bad product shipments. I can attest from personal experience that this ability to decipher chunks of long alphanumeric strings comes in handy in a million different ways.

(Another example: yesterday Marian and I bought a new refrigerator. It turns out that in the model numbers used at Sears, "3" means stainless steel and "2" means white. We were able to catch a mistake before it happened by knowing this and mentioning it to the sales person who was helping us.)

Second, the fact that these strings of digits are or aren't random, and may or may not be longer than they need to be, has exactly zero effect on the government's ability to track everything we do. It does not imply any lack of organization, nor does it make anyone's job harder. The computational resources used to keep track of strings of digits is probably something like 0.0001% of the world's computational resources, and believe me, the fact that IP addresses are long doesn't slow down the NSA one bit. However, the fact that, in this case, they are largely random, slows them down a lot. There are times when we should praise randomness, and this is one of them.

There have already been dozens of postmortems of the Romney campaign making the point that they screwed up their data analysis. But I'm not quite sure I buy it. A couple of passages from John Dickerson's piece in Slate today explain why. Here's passage #1, explaining that Team Romney figured Obama couldn't match the turnout he got in 2008:

Though Romney said he was “severely conservative,” it was the Obama team that played its hand conservatively. They, too, planned for fewer Democrats to show up at the polls, but in their case it was so that their campaign organization would work twice as hard. On election night in Ohio, when turnout exceeded their intentionally conservative estimates in some districts, they knew that they’d win the state 45 minutes before the networks called it.

It’s not that the Romney camp failed to meet its targets. They say they actually met their voter outreach goals in Ohio....“We did everything we set out to do,” says a top strategist about the Ohio effort. “We just didn’t expect the African-American vote to be so high.” African-American participation in Ohio jumped from 11 percent of the electorate to 15 percent between the 2008 and 2012 elections. "We could never see that coming. We thought they'd gotten a lot last time." But that wasn’t the only problem. Romney underperformed George Bush’s results from 2004 in the vast majority of Ohio’s counties, not just the ones with big African-American populations.

It wasn't crazy to think that Obama couldn't match his turnout from 2008, or that Democrats were less enthusiastic than they were four years ago. In fact, the Obama team apparently thought the same thing. And Ohio was a pretty close-run thing if Obama's campaign wasn't sure they'd won there until 10:30 pm.

But here's what I continue to not get. Is it really that hard to predict turnout? Public polls in the last month of a campaign are all based on "likely voters," and there's no rocket science to this. They just ask people if they're likely to vote. And for the entire four weeks prior to the election, Obama was winning the swing states among people who said they were likely to vote. No matter what preconceptions you might have, why would you dismiss this? It's a butt-simple metric, and it's worked before: if someone says they're likely to vote, then they're likely to vote. Boom. There's your most probable turnout distribution.

And with that, here's passage #2:

In the final 10 days of the race, a split started to emerge in the two campaigns. The Obama team would shower you with a flurry of data—specific, measurable, and they’d show you the way they did the math....The Romney team, by contrast, was much more gauzy, reluctant to share numbers, and relying on talking points rather than data. This could have been a difference in approach, but it suggested a lack of rigor in the Romney camp. On Election Day, the whole Romney ground-game flopped apart. ORCA, the much touted- computer system for tracking voters on Election Day, collapsed....Field operatives never saw a beta version. They asked to see it, but were told it would be ready on Election Day. When they rolled it out Tuesday, it was a mess. People couldn’t log on and when they did, the fields that were supposed to be full of data were empty.

This tells a whole different story. First, it suggests that the Romney camp didn't simply misinterpret their numbers. They never really had them in the first place. If their polling operation was anything like ORCA, it just wasn't rigorously run. It was a mess.

I'm not sure which story to believe. Did they really have solid numbers but completely screwed up their analysis? Or was their whole operation being run on a hope and a prayer from the start?

The Wall Street Journal provides an extra bit of detail today on the David Petraeus case. It all started in May, when Jill Kelley complained to an FBI agent she knew about receiving a series of harassing emails:

Agents spent weeks piecing together who may have sent them. They used metadata footprints left by the emails to determine what locations they were sent from. They matched the places, including hotels, where Ms. Broadwell was during the times the emails were sent. FBI agents and federal prosecutors used the information as probable cause to seek a warrant to monitor Ms. Broadwell's email accounts.

....They learned that Ms. Broadwell and Mr. Petraeus had set up private Gmail accounts to use for their communications, which included explicit details of a sexual nature, according to U.S. officials. But because Mr. Petraeus used a pseudonym, agents doing the monitoring didn't immediately uncover that he was the one communicating with Ms. Broadwell.

That's not a trivial amount of work. The FBI team spent weeks (months?) tracing email metadata, which requires court permission. Once they figured out the emails had come from Broadwell, they began tracking her movements. Then they went to court to get a warrant to read her email. Then they apparently got a warrant to monitor a second email account belonging to someone Broadwell was having an affair with. It turned out to be Petraeus.

Wow. What kind of juice does Kelley have? This sure seems like a helluva lot more than your ordinary FBI attention to some harassing emails.

From John Quiggin:

If we started any analysis of international relations with the assumption that war will end badly for all concerned, and that the threat of war will probably lead to war sooner or later, we would be right most of the time.

Any foreign policy types care to weigh in on this? Over, say, the last 50 years, how often would you say that U.S. wars have achieved their desired outcomes?

I have to say that today's New York Times piece about the FBI's investigation of David Petraeus's affair with Paula Broadwell is pretty fascinating. Apparently it all began with Jill Kelley, a friend of the Petraeus family:

The involvement of the F.B.I., according to government officials, began when Ms. Kelley, alarmed by about half a dozen anonymous e-mails accusing her of inappropriate flirtatious behavior with Mr. Petraeus, complained to an F.B.I. agent who is also a personal friend. That agent, who has not been identified, helped get a preliminary inquiry started. Agents working with federal prosecutors in a local United States attorney’s office began trying to figure out whether the e-mails constituted criminal cyber-stalking.

Because the sender’s account had been registered anonymously, investigators had to use forensic techniques — including a check of what other e-mail accounts had been accessed from the same computer address — to identify who was writing the e-mails.

Eventually they identified Ms. Broadwell as a prime suspect and obtained access to her regular e-mail account. In its in-box, they discovered intimate and sexually explicit e-mails from another account that also was not immediately identifiable. Investigators eventually ascertained that it belonged to Mr. Petraeus and studied the possibility that someone had hacked into Mr. Petraeus’s account or was posing as him to send the explicit messages.

[The investigation proceeds, and the FBI interviews both Broadwell and Petraeus.]

....Meanwhile, the F.B.I. agent who had helped get a preliminary inquiry started, and learned of Mr. Petraeus’s affair and the initial concerns about security breaches, became frustrated. Apparently unaware that those concerns were largely resolved, the agent alerted the office of Representative Eric Cantor, Republican of Virginia, the House majority leader, about the inquiry in late October. Mr. Cantor passed on the agent’s concerns to Mr. Mueller.

You know, I'm pretty sure that the FBI doesn't routinely put a lot of investigative muscle into a complaint about half a dozen anonymous emails. My guess is that they mostly get filed and forgotten. So why did they do it this time? And how did they "obtain access" to Broadwell's email account? Unless they had a warrant, I sure hope that's not legal. And if they did get a warrant, that suggests that someone was really, really a lot more serious about this investigation than the FBI would normally be.

And then we have our junior J. Edgar Hoover getting so distraught that he decided to compromise the investigation by alerting Eric Cantor. Why Eric Cantor? He's not even on the intelligence committee. And do FBI agents normally alert members of Congress because an investigation hasn't finished up in three months? What the hell?

On a different note, the same story tells us that members of Congress are upset they weren't notified about the investigation earlier. Color me unsympathetic. It was a criminal investigation, and the last thing the FBI should have done is jeopardize it by briefing loudmouth members of Congress. There was also no need to politicize it until and unless they were certain they weren't just chasing ghosts. I'd sure like to know just why the FBI put so much effort into a complaint from someone about receiving a few anonymous emails, but I couldn't care less that they held back on briefing Congress until they were sure they had a case. That's the way things should work.

A friend emails to keep me up to date on how the wingnut wing of the Republican Party is spinning the story of David Petraeus's affair:

The Fox fever swamp is sure and certain this is all related to Benghazi, even if they struggle to figure out a plausible connection. One theory is that Petraeus was more or less "outed" in order to keep him from testifying at the congressional hearings next week.

A competing and more popular theory has it that — let's see if I can get this right — he knew he was being investigated and therefore promoted the Obama administration's "lie" about the YouTube video under threat of being outed. Must be true, see, because the CIA station chief in Tripoli said less than 24 hours after the attack that it was AQ or AQ-linked militias that done the deed, and yet Petraeus several days later was still talking about the video in a closed congressional hearing.

Got that?

Oh yeah, I got it. You can see more along these lines from Laura IngrahamPatterico, Ace of Spades, Allahpundit, Monica Crowley, and (of course) Ben Shapiro. If only Glenn Beck were still around with his whiteboard, maybe someone would put all the pieces together and really explain what's going on here.

There are times when I think the conservative movement is literally going to explode. Their whole Benghazi obsession long ago left reality behind, reduced to a desperate search for impeachable malfeasance even though all the evidence points to nothing more than a fairly routine level of confusion and (at worst) minor ass covering. Now, they're desperate to somehow tie Petraeus to Benghazi because....well, why not? Benghazi is obviously a coverup, and Petraeus obviously must have known about it, and therefore (obviously) Eric Holder must have been ordered to dig up some dirt that would keep him on a tight leash. It's the murder of Vince Foster all over again.

When do the adults in the Republican Party take a stand against this insanity? Wouldn't now be a pretty good time?

I guess there's no avoiding the fiscal cliff. I feel like I want to scream the next time I hear the phrase, but that cuts no ice with either the media or my editors, who want me to write a fiscal cliff piece of my very own. I'm going to put that off until my head feels a little less explode-y, but maybe everyone will get to hear my pearls of wisdom next week.

In the meantime, I gather that our newly reelected president is talking this morning about....the fiscal cliff. I don't have the TV on, but Digby informs me via Twitter that this is the state of things:

This just drives me nuts. I've said repeatedly that I think liberals should try to cut a deal on Social Security. This hasn't done my popularity any good, but I continue to think it's a good idea. It could be done fairly easily with a combination of benefit cuts and revenue increases that are quite small and would be phased in over a couple of decades, and it would get the issue off the table so we can focus on other, more important things. It would also be a proof of concept that Congress can actually get something done.

But I continue to be gobsmacked by the insane preoccupation with increasing the retirement age. I get that it's easy to understand, and that makes it an obvious target. But it's probably about the worst possible way of cutting benefits. It's regressive, it's unfair, it's blunt, and it's stupid. That might not matter if it were the only solution, but it's not. There are dozens of other ways of shaving benefits a bit, and virtually all of them are better and fairer than taking a meat axe to the retirement age.

(Which, by the way, was already raised to age 67 for younger cohorts way back in 1983. Does anyone in the media know this?)

If you don't like the idea of any benefit cuts, no matter how small or how slowly phased in they are, then you just don't want to cut a deal. That's fine. I disagree, but that's fine. Ditto for all of you who oppose any revenue increases, no matter how small or how slowly phased in they are.

But for the rest of us, who think there's at least the chance of a productive conversation on these topics, can we all just shut up about the retirement age? Pick some other way of shaving benefits. It might take you an extra few seconds to explain, but who cares? Take the extra few seconds. It'll make all of us a little bit smarter.