Andrew Sullivan links today to a post by David Glasner arguing that low marginal tax rates might actually be bad for the economy:

Our current overblown financial sector is largely built on people hunting, scrounging, doing whatever they possibly can, to obtain any scrap of useful information — useful, that is for anticipating a price movement that can be traded on. But the net value to society from all the resources expended on that feverish, obsessive, compulsive, all-consuming search for information is close to zero (not exactly zero, but close to zero).

....So I am inclined to conjecture that over the last 30 years, reductions in top marginal tax rates may have provided a huge incentive to expand the financial services industry. The increasing importance of finance also seems to have been a significant factor in the increasing inequality in income distribution observed over the same period. But the net gain to society from an expanding financial sector has been minimal, resources devoted to finance being resources denied to activities that produce positive net returns to society. So if my conjecture is right — and I am not at all confident that it is, but if it is — then raising marginal tax rates could actually increase economic growth by inducing the financial sector and its evil twin the gaming sector — to release resources now being employed without generating any net social benefit.

Count me in! I'm totally ready to believe this.

Except that I don't get it. It's certainly true that marginal tax rates have declined dramatically since 1980. It's also true that the financial sector has expanded dramatically since 1980. But what evidence is there that low tax rates caused that expansion? Does finance benefit from lower taxes more than other industries, thanks to the sheer number of transactions it engages in? Or what? There's a huge missing step here. Can anyone fill it in?

I see that the 1940 census is now online, though only if you have a fair amount of patience:

"In the first three hours, we had 22.5 million hits on the site," said National Archives and Records Administration spokeswoman Susan Cooper. "We're a victim of our own success." Cooper said the archives had anticipated significant interest in the public release of the census, the first time such information has been available online, but not quite as much as materialized.

"It’s frustrating and we share that frustration with the public," Cooper said. She said some people are getting through on the website, but many are not. "We’re working as fast as we can to fix the problem."

I used to use the census records a lot, first in microfilm form at my local branch of the archives, then later online when Ancestry.com got them scanned in. But it was mainly the older records that interested me. By 1940, there's nothing much left to find out. I pretty much know where all my ancestors were and what they were doing. Of course, you never know! Maybe I'll discover some strange, dark secret that no one had ever mentioned before. You never know.

But I guess I'll wait a week or two before I try to find out.

Over the weekend Ross Douthat wrote a column saying that the individual mandate was a "political marvel":

In the negotiations over health care reform, it protected the Democratic bill on two fronts at once: buying off some of the most influential interest groups even as it hid the true cost of universal coverage.

I sort of shrugged when I read this. It wasn't really right, but on the other hand, it's certainly true that Obamacare succeeded politically by buying off a whole bunch of interest groups. And if you stretch things a bit, it's also true that forcing people to buy health insurance is a way of getting everyone insured without having to directly raise a lot of taxes and then have the government buy insurance for them.

But I shouldn't have shrugged. Ezra Klein, who I suspect may be holding back on a growing sense of outrage over the conservative assault on the mandate, fires off a spread of tactical nukes in Ross's general direction:

I can’t help feeling like Ross is forgetting something. There was some other reason Democrats adopted this policy. I’m almost sure of it. If you give me a second, I’m sure it’ll come to me. Ah, right! Because Chuck Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, was saying things like “I believe that there is a bipartisan consensus to have individual mandates,” and “individual mandates are more apt to be accepted by a majority of the people in Congress than an employer mandate.”

And it wasn’t just Grassley.....The Healthy Americans Act, meanwhile, had been cosponsored by a bevy of heavy-hitting Senate Republicans, including Lamar Alexander, Mike Crapo, Bob Corker, Judd Gregg, Norm Coleman and Trent Lott.

....Avik Roy points out that many liberals — including candidate Barack Obama — were historically skeptical of the individual mandate. And that’s true....Roy tries to use this to draw some equivalence between the two parties. Both Democrats and Republicans changed their mind on the individual mandate, he argues. But there’s a key difference: The Democrats changed their mind in order to secure a bipartisan compromise on health-care reform. Republicans changed their mind in order to prevent one.

....That’s politics, I guess. But ask yourself: If Obamacare is overturned, and Obama is defeated, who will win the Democratic Party’s next fight over health care? Probably not the folks counseling compromise. Too many Democrats have seen how that goes. How much easier to propose a bill that expands Medicaid eligibility to 300 percent of the poverty line, covers every child through the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and makes Medicare availability to every American over age 50. Add in some high-risk pools, pay for the bill by slapping a surtax on rich Americans — indisputably constitutional, as even Randy Barnett will tell you — and you’ve covered most of the country’s uninsured. Oh, and you can pass the whole thing through the budget reconciliation process.

I don’t think that’s a particularly good future for the health-care system. And I doubt that bill will pass anytime soon. But, if Obamacare goes down, something like it will eventually be passed. And what will Republicans have to say about it? That no, this time, they really would have worked with the Democrats to reform America’s health-care system? Who will believe them?

Ezra has them dead to rights on this. It's one thing to always push for the most conservative feasible policy — that's what I'd do if I were a conservative — but it's quite another to actively lobby for that policy and then, when you get it, immediately turn around and insist that the whole thing is just a slimy piece of political graft that deserves to be blown up by a politicized Supreme Court using a brand new constitutional distinction that no one had ever heard of before last year. Maybe all's fair in love and politics, but the eventual result of this kind of duplicity isn't likely to be either the most conservative possible healthcare plan or the most liberal possible plan. It's likely to be the crappiest possible plan.

Time's Mark Thompson posted an email exchange today with Douglas Wissing, author of Funding the Enemy: How U.S. Taxpayers Bankroll the Taliban, about his impression of the war after spending time on the ground in Afghanistan. Here's Wissing:

FM 3-24, the famous counterinsurgency manual authored by General David Petraeus that guides the U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan, states that partnering with a legitimate host government is an indispensable “north star” to a successful war. Instead, the U.S. is allied with an Afghan government that is largely ineffective and systemically corrupt.

....When I was embedded with U.S. troops in eastern Afghanistan, the soldiers started telling me that the U.S. government is wasting tens of billions of American taxpayer dollars on scandalously mismanaged aid and logistics contracts that end up financing the Taliban.

We’d be trundling through Taliban-controlled areas in armored vehicles, dodging ambushes and hitting IEDs, and the soldiers would be saying, “We’re funding both sides of this war.” It seemed preposterous at first. But as I dug into the story, officers, diplomats, and aid officials confirmed the rough outlines of the pernicious system. One sardonic US intelligence officer told me, “It’s the perfect war. Everyone is making money.”

....I have seen courageous American soldiers get increasingly frustrated and cynical about the war. Last summer a Marine colonel in southern Afghanistan told me there was low morale among the troops. He said, “On an operational level, the soldiers are saying, ‘I’m going to go over there and try to not get my legs blown off. My nation will shut this bullshit down.’ That’s the feeling of my fellow soldiers.” The marine officer said, “The juice ain’t worth the squeeze.”

Wissing believes that the continued American presence simply isn't doing any good. His advice: "I think the U.S. officials need to accelerate the withdrawal of the troops, and prepare to assist with the inevitable humanitarian crisis that is bound to overwhelm Afghanistan when we leave. We broke it. We need to help pick up the pieces."

You all know what a speed trap is, right? If you have a highway running through your small town, you can make a lot of money by ticketing out-of-state drivers who are going one or two miles per hour over the speed limit. How many victims are going to waste time trying to fight it, after all?

But have you heard about "forfeiture corridors"? That's a little different — and quite a bit more lucrative. All you have to do is pull over an out-of-state driver for supposedly making an unsafe lane change, have your police dog sniff around for a bit of marijuana residue, and then use civil asset forfeiture laws to impound any cash you might find. Apparently it's especially popular on highways leading into and out of casino towns. Radley Balko has the details here.

I know that conventional wisdom says that primary contenders can hold hands and sing Kumbaya in the fall no matter what they've said about each other in the spring. But Rick Santorum sure seems bound and determined to perform a destruction test on this conventional wisdom. This ad, especially by Republican lights, is just brutal.

So how's that whole contraception thing working out for the right? The latest Gallup poll of swing states suggests that it's not going so well: Obama now leads Romney in these states 51%-42%. Here's why:

The biggest change came among women under 50. In mid-February, just under half of those voters supported Obama. Now more than six in 10 do while Romney's support among them has dropped by 14 points, to 30%. The president leads him 2-1 in this group.

USA Today breaks this down a bit more in the chart below. Most people still don't have much of an opinion about birth control, but among those who do, 27% agree with Obama's view while only 11% agree with Romney's view. This might all blow over by November, but if the Obama campaign manages to keep it in play it could become a pretty serious albatross for the right.

Via Brad Plumer, here's an interesting chart from the BLS showing how much we spend on stuff compared to a few selected other countries. We spend a lot more on housing than the other countries, somewhat more on healthcare, and quite a bit less on food. Hooray factory farming!

Brad has some commentary to go along with this chart, but I have a different takeaway. Looking at these numbers, it's hard not to conclude that we have a lot of headroom on healthcare. I could easily see healthcare rising to at least the same level as food expenditures, and maybe as high as transportation too. That could happen because we collectively decide to spend less on food and transportation, or it could happen just by spending the same fixed amount on these items as wages rise, and then plowing all of our additional income into healthcare. On past performance, that might very well be something we do happily.

In other words, it's true that to some extent rising healthcare expenditures provide their own pushback. When we collectively decide we're spending too much, we'll collectively start reining in our spending. But as the chart below makes clear, that time could be quite a way away.

Jonathan Cohn says the Supreme Court itself was on trial last week:

Before this week, the well-being of tens of millions of Americans was at stake in the lawsuits challenging the Affordable Care Act. Now something else is at stake, too: The legitimacy of the Supreme Court.

....The plaintiffs have conceded that a universal health insurance program would be constitutional if, instead of penalizing people who decline to get insurance, the government enacted a tax and refunded the money to people who had insurance....Think about that for a second: If the justices strike down the Affordable Care Act, they would be stopping the federal government from pursuing a perfectly constitutional goal via a perfectly constitutional scheme just because Congress and the Preisdent didn’t use perfectly constitutional language to describe it.

There are two ways to look at this. The first is through the lens of what it would actually mean to overturn Obamacare. On this score, Jonathan is right: it would be unprecedented. The Supreme Court has handed down plenty of big decisions before, but very, very rarely has it overturned a major piece of federal legislation. Not since the mid 30s, in fact. What's more, it would be overturning this legislation — a consummately political compromise forged in a consummately political area of public policy — based on a distinction that I think even most of Obamacare's critics would acknowledge is a very fine point of constitutional law. And that's not all. It would be overturning the law on a party-line 5-4 vote, and it would be doing so in the wake of oral arguments in which several of the justices made arguments so transparently political that it felt more like we were listening in on the Senate cloakroom than the chambers of the Supreme Court.

So yes: in terms of its actual impact, overturning Obamacare would be a very big deal indeed, and among a large chunk of the chattering classes it would certainly lead to a more jaundiced view of the modern Supreme Court as a nakedly political body.

But there's also a second lens to look at this through: the lens of public opinion. And although poll results on this are a little tricky to parse, there's no question that Obamacare is not much of a barnburner among the general public and isn't getting more popular over time. Even a generous reading of the survey data suggests that only about half the country likes Obamacare, and even among that half support is fairly lukewarm. When the Supreme Court started overturning New Deal legislation in the 30s, it ran into a buzzsaw of public condemnation. If it overturned Obamacare, most of the public probably wouldn't care very much.

So no: in terms of the public's view of the court, overturning Obamacare probably wouldn't have a big impact at all.

So which matters more? The general public's view? Or the view of a small but dedicated segment of elite opinion? In the short term, the general public probably matters more. In the longer term, probably elite opinion. Obviously we won't get a reprise of FDR's disastrous court-packing scheme, but overturning Obamacare could end up mobilizing movement liberalism in the same way that the Warren Court mobilized movement conservatism four decades ago. The nomination of Supreme Court justices is already an intense partisan battleground, and getting more intense all the time. Overturning Obamacare would raise the stakes even higher.

According to the Today show, here's what George Zimmerman said to a 911 dispatcher as he was trailing Trayvon Martin last February:

Zimmerman: This guy looks like he’s up to no good. He looks black.

What a racist! Obviously Zimmerman had a real hang-up about black kids. But no. It turns out some bright spark at NBC decided to edit the conversation just a wee bit. Here's the whole exchange:

Zimmerman: This guy looks like he’s up to no good. Or he’s on drugs or something. It’s raining and he’s just walking around, looking about.

Dispatcher: OK, and this guy — is he black, white or Hispanic?

Zimmerman: He looks black.

This is now fated to be Exhibit A in conservative charges of mainstream media bias for about the next century or so. And who can blame them? What a cockup.