Molly Ball on April 24, 2012:

The recent hiring of Richard Grenell, Mitt Romney's openly gay foreign-policy spokesman, represents a breakthrough in the world of Republican presidential campaigns. Grenell isn't the first out gay person to serve as a high-level staffer to a GOP nominee, but as far as I can tell, he is the first such press spokesman — the first to serve as the public face of the all-but-certain Republican nominee — and on the historically sensitive issue of national security, no less.

Congratulations, Mitt! This is a long overdue sign of increased tolerance and — wait. What's that? He's gone already? Here's Jennifer Rubin today:

Richard Grenell, the openly gay spokesman recently hired to sharpen the foreign policy message of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, has resigned in the wake of a full-court press by anti-gay conservatives.

....According to sources familiar with the situation, Grenell decided to resign after being kept under wraps during a time when national security issues, including the president’s ad concerning Osama bin Laden, had emerged front and center in the campaign....The ongoing pressure from social conservatives over his appointment and the reluctance of the Romney campaign to send Grenell out as a spokesman while controversy swirled left Grenell essentially with no job.

Well, that's that. The Republican base doesn't just oppose gay marriage on principle, they oppose the very idea of allowing someone who's openly gay to serve in any kind of highly visible position. And in Republican-land, if you get into an argument with the base, the base wins.

Dana Goldstein says that if she could have her pick of one big idea to inject into the presidential campaign, it would be universal pre-K schooling:

Any radical rethinking of American public policy ought to start with a consideration of one of our most politically neglected populations: The majority of 3-to-5-year-olds who have no access to high-quality, low-cost educational options. As scientists have learned more about the brain, they've concluded the early years are the most crucial ones for cognitive development. Seventy-five percent of middle-class kindergarteners can write their own names, compared to just about half of poor kindergartners. The typical middle-class 5-year old can identify all 26 letters of the alphabet on her first day of school; a 5-year old living in poverty may know only two letters. By first grade, middle-class children have double the vocabulary of their low-income peers.

Regular readers know that I'm on board with this. In fact, aside from universal healthcare, it's about the only big-ticket social program that I'm completely sold on. My reasons, however, are a little different than Dana's. Universal pre-K might very well raise academic achievement, but frankly, the evidence on that score is fairly thin. Nonetheless, there are good reasons to support universal pre-K anyway.

We all know that nothing is certain except death and taxes, but with that caveat out of the way I think we can safely say that there's a pretty compelling body of evidence that pre-K has a ton of benefits. It might raise IQs and jumpstart academic achievement — and certainly won't do any harm — but that's the least of its effects. A growing body of research suggests that pre-K increases high school completion rates; reduces rates of substance abuse; reduces felony rates; increases lifetime income; and improves non-IQ cognitive traits like the ability to delay gratification, the ability to hold a job, and the ability to control your temper. What's more, there's a growing body of evidence that especially bad home environments cause permanent biological damage and can do it before the age of two.

So it's not just pre-K. It's also things like home nursing visits and better childcare in our poorest neighborhoods. And it wouldn't be cheap. But as near as I can tell, taking, say, $100 billion out of K-12 education and redirecting it to pre-K would almost certainly be a pure win. That might not be the best way to fund it, but if political realities prevent us from raising more money in the near future, shifting spending would be a second-best alternative. Given the almost endless procession of educational reforms that turn out to have no measurable effect once you scale them up or study them for more than a couple of years, I doubt that decreasing funding for K-12 would have anywhere near as big an effect as increasing funding for pre-K. There are too many interest groups dedicated to K-12 funding to make this kind of funding shift easy, but it's something worth pushing for anyway.

Years ago the political blogosphere became overwhelmed by the growing popularity of Outrage of the Day™ blogging. These days there are usually four or five of these stories each day, all of them covered by the usual suspects before they move on to the next day's outrages and all of them following a familiar pattern. Basically, somebody somewhere said something dumb/outrageous/offensive/whatever, which means we're all going to spend the day explaining exactly why the remark was dumb/outrageous/offensive/whatever and why we're personally outraged/offended/whatever by it.

I do some of this myself, so it's not like I'm purer than Caesar's wife here, but for the most part I find it pretty tiresome. However, via Dave Weigel, I learn today that David Wong has solved a problem for me: what to call this phenomenon. "Outrage of the Day" has never felt quite right, but I've never taken the time to figure out a better handle for it. Here's Wong, in his listicle of "5 Ways to Spot a B.S. Political Story in Under 10 Seconds":

#2. The Headline Is About a "Lawmaker" Saying Something Stupid

In every single group of human beings, you have a certain percentage of crazy shitheads. Find me an organization of a million charity workers who have devoted their lives to saving homeless golden retrievers, and I'll bet my life that within that group I can find a faction of crazy shitheads.

....So if you see a headline citing something a "lawmaker" said, the first thing you should know is if it's someone with actual power with implications on policy (i.e., a senator stating how he or she is going to vote on upcoming legislation) or if it's simply a nobody who's being held up as the Crazy Shithead of the Week (CSotW).

For instance, in the headline earlier about the CSotW comparing rape to a flat tire, the crazy shithead was a member of the Kansas state legislature — one of 165 members of the body that makes laws in Kansas. This guy is so hugely important that it took a whopping five thousand votes to elect him. You could fit every one of his supporters in a high school gym. Which is to say, he has just slightly more power to enact law than you do. And none outside of Kansas.

Wong's point in the first paragraph is one that I usually refer to as the "300 million person problem." The United States has a population of over 300 million, and that's a number so vast that you can always find a large number of people doing some particular thing, no matter how stupid it is. Interest groups take advantage of this all the time, filling their monthly newsletters with outrages against common decency even though most of these outrages are, in fact, vanishingly rare. But in a population of 300 million, even 0.0000001% of the population amounts to 30 separate people doing 30 separate outrageous things every month. That's plenty for a newsletter.

As for the rest, my only change would be to replace week with day. Or maybe hour. So the acronym probably ought to be CSotH. Welcome to modern politics.

The New York Times reports today that climate skeptics have pretty much run out of plausible pseudo-science to support their claim that global warming is a myth. Sunspots are a joke. Weather station innacuracy isn't an issue. Paleoclimate reconstructions seem to be fine. Urban heat islands aren't distorting measurements. And no, it hasn't been getting cooler since 1998.

According to Justin Gillis, the deniers have only one arrow left in their quiver: cloud formation. Climate scientists remain unsure of the effect of cloud formation on weather patterns, and this has given MIT's Richard Lindzen all the opening he needs:

When Dr. Lindzen first published this theory, in 2001, he said it was supported by satellite records over the Pacific Ocean. But other researchers quickly published work saying that the methods he had used to analyze the data were flawed and that his theory made assumptions that were inconsistent with known facts. Using what they considered more realistic assumptions, they said they could not verify his claims.

Today, most mainstream researchers consider Dr. Lindzen’s theory discredited. He does not agree, but he has had difficulty establishing his case in the scientific literature. Dr. Lindzen published a paper in 2009 offering more support for his case that the earth’s sensitivity to greenhouse gases is low, but once again scientists identified errors, including a failure to account for known inaccuracies in satellite measurements.

Dr. Lindzen acknowledged that the 2009 paper contained “some stupid mistakes” in his handling of the satellite data. “It was just embarrassing,” he said in an interview. “The technical details of satellite measurements are really sort of grotesque.”

If Lindzen is the climate deniers' last hope, they should probably just give up the fight right now. But they won't, because Gillis is wrong: clouds aren't their last hope. Human greed and self interest are their last hope, and there's very little chance of that diminishing anytime in the near future. The deniers don't want to believe, so they don't.

As for Lindzen, this is where I'd normally link to the official 5,000-word takedown from Joe Romm, but I just flipped over to Climate Progress, and to my surprise there's nothing there yet. But check back later in the day. I'm sure he'll have chapter and verse on the good doctor before long.

UPDATE: Joe comes through! Full takedown here.

Matt Yglesias brings to my attention this morning a deal announced by Delta Air Lines to buy its very own jet fuel refining plant. Here's the explanation from Delta's CEO:

While Delta will remain hostage to fluctuating crude oil costs, the facility would enable it to save on the cost of refining a barrel of jet fuel, which is currently more than $2 billion a year for Delta and has been rising in the wake of U.S. refinery shutdowns, said Delta Chief Executive Richard Anderson. "What we're tackling here today is the jet crack spread, which you cannot hedge in the marketplace effectively," Anderson told reporters during a phone briefing. "It's the fastest single growing cost in our book of expense at Delta."

OK, so Delta thinks refinery profit margins are too high, and they don't feel like making refinery owners rich at their expense. But then there's this later in the article:

The refinery is expected to resume operations in the third quarter, Delta said, about a year after ConocoPhillips idled the plant as rising imported crude oil costs, a collapse in demand and tough competition from foreign refiners crushed margins.

This makes sense. After all, why would ConocoPhillips shut down the plant if it were making windfall profits?

Matt paints this acquisition as a failure of the financial industry, which ought to be able to help Delta hedge the cost of jet fuel more efficiently. Maybe so. But I'm just flat confused. If a collapse in demand and tough competition from foreign refiners has crushed profit margins, then what is Delta complaining about? It sounds like it's a buyer's market for jet fuel these days. And what on earth makes Delta think that it can run a refinery more efficiently than someone who's fighting tooth and nail for business in the free market? If they can really do that, it's not a failure of Wall Street, it's a failure of capitalism. This whole deal sounds crazy. Maybe ConocoPhillips should have bought Delta instead. 

Paul Krugman "debated" Ron Paul yesterday, and afterward he had an epiphany: debates are useless.

Think about it: you approach what is, in the end, a somewhat technical subject in a format in which no data can be presented, in which there’s no opportunity to check facts (everything Paul said about growth after World War II was wrong, but who will ever call him on it?). So people react based on their prejudices. If Ron Paul got on TV and said “Gah gah goo goo debasement! theft!” — which is a rough summary of what he actually did say — his supporters would say that he won the debate hands down; I don’t think my supporters are quite the same, but opinions may differ.

Krugman is right, but I think he's also missing the point here. Wars of ideas are typically won in print: in journals, in books, in magazine articles, and in monographs. The audience is fellow professionals in your field, the language is often technical and abstruse, and you keep score by counting citations, being invited to conferences, and amassing disciples.

Public debates, including their gruesome modern variant, the three-minute hit on cable TV, aren't about that. They're solely designed to influence public opinion, and you keep score at the ballot box. Nobody cares if Ron Paul is technically right about the Romans debasing their currency, and nobody cares whether that really has anything to do with the modern global economy. All that matters is whether he's found an analogy that moves a few of the rubes to his side. Truth isn't just an obstacle in public debates, it's a handicap.

If you want to increase your understanding of a subject, public debates are worthless. But that's because that isn't their purpose. Their purpose is emotional appeal, and understanding actively gets in the way of that. Ron Paul already knows that. I hope Krugman does too.

Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein, two of Washington's premier Congress watchers, have written a new book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks. Robert Kaiser reviews it in the Washington Post today, and it turns out that the wonky piece of their diagnosis is one of my favorite hobbyhorses:

Their principal conclusion is unequivocal: Today’s Republicans in Congress behave like a parliamentary party in a British-style parliament, a winner-take-all system. But a parliamentary party — “ideologically polarized, internally unified, vehemently oppositional” — doesn’t work in a “separation-of-powers system that makes it extremely difficult for majorities to work their will.”

These Republicans “have become more loyal to party than to country,” the authors write, so “the political system has become grievously hobbled at a time when the country faces unusually serious problems and grave threats. . . . The country is squandering its economic future and putting itself at risk because of an inability to govern effectively.”

Quite so. We've developed parliamentary-style party discipline within the context of a presidential political system, and that just doesn't work. Parliamentary systems have a particular set of rules and traditions that allow them to function with tight party discipline — chief among them a dedication to scrupulous majority rule. Presidential systems don't. If you try to marry the two, the political system seizes up.

Anyway, that's the wonky part. Here's the more entertaining part:

Today’s Republican Party has little in common even with Ronald Reagan’s GOP, or with earlier versions that believed in government. Instead it has become “an insurgent outlier — ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition . . . all but declaring war on the government.”

....Mann and Ornstein rightly blame the news media for doing a mediocre job covering the most important political story of the last three decades: the transformation of the Republican Party. They are critical of the conventions of mainstream journalism that lead to the evenhandedness they have now abandoned themselves. They see a “reflexive tendency of many in the mainstream press to use false equivalence to explain outcomes,”when Republican obstructionism and Republican rejection of science and basic facts have no Democratic equivalents. It’s much easier to write stories “that convey an impression that the two sides are equally implicated.”

Quite so. An op-ed summary of their book is here. It's worth a read.

Consumer spending can increase if (a) wages go up, (b) borrowing goes up, or (c) savings are spent down. Jed Graham reports that last quarter it was Option C that saved the day:

U.S. households saved just 3.9% of disposable income in Q1, the lowest since the last cycle’s peak in Q4 2007. In fact, the decline in saving from 4.5% in Q4 financed half of all personal consumption gains in Q1, adding one full percentage point to real GDP growth.

Needless to say, saving rates can't decline forever, and borrowing isn't likely to increase much either. That leaves disposable income as our main hope for future economic prosperity, and with job growth picking up, so should disposable income. So why isn't it?

This time, government policy is the main culprit. Real disposable income growth has trailed real private wage growth by nearly 3% the past two quarters as fiscal stabilizers have gone into reverse....The drag on disposable income comes, in large part, from three factors: flat total wages for government workers; roughly flat government social benefits; and a normal cyclical boost in income and payroll tax payments (up a combined $151 billion from Q1 2011).

....The bottom line is that fiscal policy is leaning too hard against recovery based on present conditions. The question is whether such austerity is avoidable right now amid trillion-dollar deficits and pressure from the ratings agencies.

Oh, I think it's avoidable. The problem isn't either short-term deficits or Standard & Poor's. It's an excess of politicians who don't really care much about the real-world economy. There's no point in trying to blame anyone else.

In the New York Times, Michael Shear explains how the Obama campaign is working to limit the damage from a wave of Republican laws that restrict voting rights:

In Wisconsin, where a new state law requires those registering voters to be deputized in whichever of the state’s 1,800 municipalities they are assigned to, the campaign sent a team of trainers armed with instructions for complying with the new regulations.

In Florida, the campaign’s voter registration aides traveled across the state to train volunteers on a new requirement that voter registration signatures be handed in to state officials within 48 hours after they are collected.

And in Ohio, Mr. Obama’s staff members have begun reaching out to let voters know about new laws that discourage precinct workers from telling voters where to go if they show up at the wrong precinct.

The political motive behind these laws is pretty obvious: most of them have a disproportionate effect on minorities, students, and the poor, who vote for Democrats in large numbers. From a Republican point of view, the fewer of these folks who vote, the better.

As contemptible as this is, especially given the mountains of evidence that voter fraud is a minuscule problem in America, this article exposes the flip side of all this: more than likely, the Republican plan to suppress voter turnout won't work in the long run. The effect of these laws is fairly small in the first place, and even that small effect will probably melt away as Democrats change their voter registration tactics. In states that require photo ID, Democrats will get aggressive about making sure potential voters have ID. In states with new restrictions on early voting, Democrats will change their tactics and concentrate more on election day. Etc.

None of this lets Republicans off the hook for their frankly loathsome efforts to suppress the votes of groups they don't like. But it does mean they're probably wasting their time. In the end, the impact is likely to be pretty small.

I see that our latest outburst of faux outrage has ended yet another career:

The Obama administration's top environmental official in the oil-rich South and Southwest region has resigned after Republicans targeted him over remarks made two years ago when he used the word "crucify" to describe how he would go after companies violating environmental laws. In a letter to Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson sent Sunday, Al Armendariz says he regrets his words and stresses that they do not reflect his work as administrator of the five-state region.

Dave Weigel is properly acerbic:

Critics will go on claiming that "crucify" was something other than an analogy for making examples out of crooks. (Imagine if a district attorney had used the analogy to describe a crack-down on car thieves, or something similar.) After all, how can you expect government to work efficiently if people are allowed to make analogies that some other people find offensive?

Needless to say, no one really cared all that much about Armendariz's comment. It was just a convenient excuse to go after a guy who had annoyed oil and gas interests in the state of Texas. And it worked. Pretending to be mortally offended by some ancient remark or another continues to be an excellent strategy for getting people fired.