The spectacle of President Obama practically having to beg Republicans to approve a tax cut beggars the imagination. So when I read last night that the House GOP had decided to turn down the latest payroll tax compromise, I was left speechless. Thus the silence on the blog. This morning, then, I'll turn over the mike to Greg Sargent, who's made of sterner stuff than me:

Conservatives have a variety of explanations for opposing the compromise. One is that it’s only two months. But as Ezra Klein and Steve Benen point out, they won’t agree to a clean year-long extension, which is why the shorter-term one had to be negotiated in the first place. Another claim is that the Senate deal isn’t really a compromise, as GOP Rep. Tom Cole put it. But Republicans got their number one priority — the Keystone XL pipeline — included in the deal, while Democrats dropped their number one demand, i.e., that the extension be paid for by a millionaire surtax. Senate Republicans overwhelmingly supported the deal. If this deal isn’t a compromise, then the word has lost all meaning for conservatives, which may be the real story here.

A third reason is that a two-month extension is bad politics for Republicans. On a conference call, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy reportedly argued against the compromise partly because it would allow Obama to again browbeat Republicans into extending the tax cut during his State of the Union address in January. Such balanced priorities!

In any case, my advice is the same as always: just pass the tax cut without paying for it. That's both the best and the easiest option. You'll be doing the country a favor and you'll be home in time for the solstice.

Over at Paul Krugman's place, Kim Lane Scheppele describes how the new Hungarian government has consolidated its grip on power by effectively dismantling the judiciary

The Constitutional Court, which once had the responsibility to review nearly all laws for constitutionality, has been killed off in three ways. First, the government expanded the number of judges on the bench and filled the new positions with their own political allies (think: Roosevelt’s court-packing plan). Then, the government restricted the jurisdiction of the court so that it can no longer review any law that has an impact on the budget....Finally, the government changed the rules of access to the court so that it will no longer be easily able to review laws in the abstract for their compliance with the constitution.

....The ordinary judiciary has suffered a similar fate. The government lowered the retirement age for judges from 70 to 62....More than 200 judges will be forced to retire from the bench starting on January 1, including most of the court presidents who assign cases and manage the daily workings of courts....The law on the judiciary also creates a new National Judicial Office with a single person at the helm who has the power to replace the retiring judges and to name future judges.

....The independence of the judiciary is over when a government puts its own judges onto the bench, moves them around at will, and then selects which ones get particular cases to decide.

This sure does sound familiar. As near as I can tell, Newt Gringrich would approve of all of this. I wonder if anyone's asked him what he thinks of recent events in Hungary?

Is China Next?

Is China about to implode? Paul Krugman is worth a read on the subject, though in the end he doesn't know any better than anyone else. For what it's worth, the one encouraging thing I've consistently read about China is that their property bubble is largely driven by cash purchases, not debt. And non-debt bubbles, like the dotcom bubble, are inherently less destructive when they burst than debt-driven bubbles.

Of course, even a non-debt bubble can cause a lot of damage if it comes on top of an already fragile world economy — an economy that will be more fragile yet if Europe continues along its self-destructive path. It's sort of hard to believe that America might have the best managed large economy in the world, but you know what? We might.

From Public Policy Polling:

Newt Gingrich's campaign is rapidly imploding, and Ron Paul has now taken the lead in Iowa. He's at 23% to 20% for Mitt Romney, 14% for Gingrich, 10% each for Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Perry, 4% for Jon Huntsman, and 2% for Gary Johnson.

Seriously? Ron Paul is now going to take a turn as the GOP's reigning not-Romney? Republicans are just bound and determined to figure out some way to lose next year, aren't they? If I were a shrink, I'd say they subliminally get more pleasure from wailing about the imminent decline of everything good and true than they do from actually putting one of their own guys into office. This is just bizarre.

The Power of Fish

This is possibly the single most profound passage in Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman's memoir cum valedictory survey of cognitive biases. He's recounting a year that he spent working in Vancouver:

The Canadian government's Department of Fisheries and Oceans had a program for unemployed professionals in Toronto, who were paid to administer telephone surveys. The large team of interviewers worked every night and new questions were constantly needed to keep the operation going. Through Jack Knetsch, we agreed to generate a questionnaire every week, in four color-labeled versions. We could ask about anything; the only constraint was that the questionnaire should include at least one mention of fish, to make it pertinent to the mission of the department.

"Always make sure there's at least one mention of fish." This is, somehow, a metaphor for the entire human condition. Explaining this is left as an exercise for the reader.

Newt Gingrich and God

Newt Gingrich isn't backing down from his jihad against the federal court system, and yesterday he said this:

When pressed as to whether a president could ignore any court decision he didn’t like, such as if President Obama ignored a ruling overturning his healthcare law, Gingrich said the standard should be “the rule of two of three,” in which the outcome would be determined by whichever side two of the three branches of government were on.

That's fascinating, isn't it? Unless I'm misremembering my lessons from Schoolhouse Rock, just about every law ever passed was approved by two out of three branches of the government. So this means the Supreme Court would never be allowed to overturn a law. Surely even Gingrich doesn't believe such a thing?

Apparently not. In fact, he wants the judiciary to be independent 99% of the time — which brings to mind all the usual jokes about being a little bit pregnant — and defines the 1% this way:

Another branch would step in, Gingrich said, when a judge or a court makes a decision that is “strikingly at variance with America.”

Even for Newt this is crazy stuff. I've heard of strict scrutiny and original intent and reasonable doubt, but I've never heard of the "strikingly at variance with America" rule. But not to worry. If you read more about Newt's views on this, it turns out that "strikingly at variance with America" isn't nearly as vague as you think it is. What it really means is any court decision dealing with religion in the public square. Newt wants religion front and center in the public square and he wants it funded and fully endorsed by any level of government that's so minded. And woe betide the judge who tries to get in the way.

That's pretty much it. Oh, he also makes some noises about decisions that restrict the president's power to handle enemy combatants any way he wants, but it's really nativity scenes and prayer in public school that animate him on this subject. He doesn't just want America to be a Christian nation, he wants to make sure the government is allowed to marshal all of its considerable resources to ensure it is a Christian nation without any pesky courts getting in the way. He's a visionary, Newt is.

A little while ago the LA Unified School District embarked on an ambitious plan to get rid of junk food in its schools and replace it with healthier fare. Kids participated in tasting sessions, and only stuff that passed teenage muster was added to the menu. So how's that working out?

For many students, L.A. Unified's trailblazing introduction of healthful school lunches has been a flop. Earlier this year, the district got rid of chocolate and strawberry milk, chicken nuggets, corn dogs, nachos and other food high in fat, sugar and sodium. Instead, district chefs concocted such healthful alternatives as vegetarian curries and tamales, quinoa salads and pad Thai noodles.

There's just one problem: Many of the meals are being rejected en masse. Participation in the school lunch program has dropped by thousands of students. Principals report massive waste, with unopened milk cartons and uneaten entrees being thrown away. Students are ditching lunch, and some say they're suffering from headaches, stomach pains and even anemia. At many campuses, an underground market for chips, candy, fast-food burgers and other taboo fare is thriving.

The experiment is only a few months old, so maybe with a bit of tweaking everything will turn out OK. So far, though, it looks like kids don't react any better to having their habits forcibly changed than any of the rest of us.

This is the damnedest thing. The Financial Times reports today on why the recent EU summit to save the euro collapsed into a debacle, with Britain opting out entirely and forcing the rest of Europe to go ahead without them. The basic story, of course, is that British prime minister David Cameron demanded special protections for London's financial sector and neither Germany nor France was willing to go along. But what's striking to me is how incompetent the negotiation process was on all sides.

The FT reports that Cameron met with Angela Merkel in November and got the impression she was willing to deal. So he went home to work on a proposal, but he and William Hague kept their cards close to their vests until the very last moment:

They wanted the bid to be kept secret from two potential adversaries. The first was Mr Cameron’s hardline eurosceptics, who want an EU referendum and repatriation of powers....The second was France....Moreover, the British position was not settled till late. On Tuesday December 6, Mr Cameron assembled his chief foreign policy advisers.

[Note: the summit was due to take place December 9th.]

....It is unclear whether Mr Cameron was aware of the warning lights flashing in the Whitehall machine....From Paris, too, came warnings that Mr Sarkozy was intent on a weaker, intergovernmental pact....Berlin, meanwhile, was warning London not to overdo it in pushing Germany. Nikolaus Meyer-Landrut, Ms Merkel’s Europe adviser, was given early sight of the City protocol and said it went too far. When asked what was acceptable, German officials made clear it was not their place to draft UK demands. After a flurry of Franco-German diplomacy, a common position took shape: if the British did not temper their demands, a deal would be done without them. Days before the summit, German officials said their “pessimism was more pronounced” – words intended as a clear signal to London.

You can read the rest of the piece for more details, but what's most striking is how little communication there was here. My sense of these kinds of summits is that they're always preceded by weeks of frenzied activity among mid-level negotiators so that the top level folks just have to work out a few well-defined issues before they appear smiling before the cameras when the summit ends. But no. As near as I can tell, Merkel's advisor, Nikolaus Meyer-Landrut, got a look at Britain's demands on December 7 and refused to engage with them beyond saying they went too far. On the morning of December 8 Merkel and Sarkozy met privately. On the evening of the 8th, the FT reports, they invited Cameron to a pre-summit meeting and "ambushed" him by flatly turning down his demands. And that was that.

What the hell kind of way is that to run a railroad? It's crazy.

Now, I'll confess that this whole affair puzzles me on another level. The main point of the summit was to gain agreement for some level of European control over national budgets, with automatic sanctions for countries that run budget deficits that are too big. I can understand Spain and Greece and the other periphery countries agreeing to this under pressure. But was Britain also willing to agree to this if only they got a special deal for their financial industry? I find that frankly hard to imagine. And yet, it doesn't seem to have been a sticking point.

But why on earth would Britain, which isn't part of the euro, agree to fiscal oversight like that? What's in it for them?

In any case, it's too bad Cameron didn't figure out a way to scuttle the whole noxious mess and force Merkozy — that's what everyone calls Merkel and Sarkozy, sort of like Brangelina but without the charisma — to deal with Europe's actual problem instead of obsessing over budget deficits and idiotically unenforceable "binding" sanctions. Until they deal with the root of the problem, this is all just so much gum flapping.

From Rick Perry, explaining to an Iowa crowd that Herman Cain would make a good Secretary of Defense:

He has all the characteristics of the type of person I would bring forward.

Yes indeed, in much the same way that, say, Hannibal Lecter has all the characteristics that would make him a good food critic for the Times. I smell a Twitter meme coming on here. #allthecharacteristics

So, Christopher Hitchens. I've never read any of his books, only his columns and magazine essays, but am I the only one who's feeling a strong need for a bit of perspective on the guy?

Politically, he spent the 80s as a Trotskyite, the 90s in transition as a lunatic Bill Clinton hater, and the aughts as a cheerleader for the Iraq war. This is not exactly an enviable track record of considered judgment. 

As a writer, he was all over the map. His prodigious memory was, indeed, prodigious, and he was capable of brilliance. And yet, quite aside from his subject material, I never much warmed to him. His writing contained provocation aplenty, but far too much of it, I thought, was tediously bloated, a few hundred words of dashed off substance wrapped around many more hundred words of tired reminiscences, random bile, and frustratingly circuitous filler. It certainly wasn't unreadable, and sometimes it produced a charm of sorts, but mostly it neither persuaded nor even really entertained on any kind of sustained basis.

So....I guess I've never quite gotten the cult of Hitchens. He had an impressively wide-ranging intellect, he was prolific almost beyond belief, and he was (I gather) personally gregarious and a good friend to thousands. But after half an hour of rereading old columns of his, most of them in carefully curated lists of "personal favorites," I was mostly just reminded of why I never much cared for him. There just wasn't much there there.

De gustibus non est disputandum. I have the mind of an engineer, so maybe his style was just never going to appeal to me. But his personal charisma aside, he sure seems to have combined almost appallingly poor political judgment with a rambling writing style that too often used its considerable (and genuine) erudition as a mask for its lack of a really sharp, well argued point. I never had anything much against the guy, but really, the hagiography is getting a little too thick to bear.

UPDATE: For what it's worth, I should make it clear that I'm talking here solely about Hitchens' writing on politics and current affairs, not his writing about culture and literature, which I'm not qualified to judge.