In an otherwise tedious case about milk regulation, Appellate Judge Janice Rogers Brown decided to give her inner Randian free rein last week. "Cowboy capitalism" is dead, she moaned, and courts are at fault for not slapping down legislatures both local and national that infringe on economic rights. It was a pretty remarkable performance, all the more so since it really had nothing to do with the case at hand. So what gives? I think Dahlia Lithwick gets it right here:

There’s one other point worth making, before we leave Judge Brown to her open-mic libertarian musings. She is, beyond any doubt, apt to appear on any short list for Mitt Romney’s choice to replace any of the four Supreme Court Justices who are currently in their 70s, some of whom will be 80 by the 2016 elections. In that light, this concurrence looks less like a judicial opinion than a job application.

I have written before how ironic it is that a liberal jurist can be disqualified from a judicial confirmation hearing for expressing a single progressive idea in a law review article, whereas when it comes to conservative judicial nominees extreme and full-throated ideological exhortations are usually an added bonus. For Brown, the choice to write an opinion eviscerating New Deal worker and health protections at precisely the moment these issues are burning up cable television and Tea Party rallies is just smart politics. It’s hard to imagine a liberal shortlister attempting the same and surviving a Supreme Court confirmation bid. Or a confirmation bid of any sort, really.

Yep. Both Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan had to practically disavow any settled opinions on anything, and even so got plenty of rabid opposition from gun groups, abortion groups, and other right-wing groups convinced they saw a glimmer of a shadow of a penumbra of liberal thought in some choice of words a dozen years ago or an ambiguous decision handed down that touched on some hot button issue. But Brown? She just lets it rip. Apparently she's not worried that it will hurt her at all with a future President Romney.

I have a feeling this might become a trend. Conservative judges have been feeling less and less restraint over the past few years about expressing their small-government bona fides, and the recent oral arguments over Obamacare were a kind of high court permission to let politics roam freely in judicial proceedings. I suspect a lot more lower court judges are going to take advantage of that.

UPDATE: I've gotten some pushback on this from various quarters, most of it fair. First, everyone in comments is right that Brown is 62, much too old to be a serious contender for a Supreme Court appointment these days. Second, she was kinda sorta under consideration for the Supreme Court in 2005, but was considered too outspoken to get the job. Third, liberal judges have made similar comments in the past — though I think these comments haven't been quite as broad or radical as Rogers'.

So, yeah, most likely Brown knows she's too old for a promotion, which means she's free to say whatever she damn well pleases. That's not necessarily praiseworthy, but it's probably not a job application either.

Via Steve Benen, here is Mitt Romney's view on the current impasse over extension of the Violence Against Women Act:

Andrea Saul, a spokeswoman for Mr. Romney, said in an e-mail, “Gov. Romney supports the Violence Against Women Act and hopes it can be reauthorized without turning it into a political football.” But she declined to specify which version he supported.

Neither presidents nor presidential candidates have to weigh in on the minutiae of every single legislative tiff. But Romney is taking this to cartoonish extremes these days. He's desperate not to anger the tea partiers who still don't fully trust him, but he doesn't want to do himself any further damage with independents either. So he's punting on everything.

How long can he keep this up? This summer the Obama campaign is going to try to portray Romney as a guy who doesn't really believe in anything, and he sure seems to be going out of his way to make it easy on them.

In a much-cited blog post, Steve Randy Waldman says that our fiscal and monetary response to the Great Recession was weak because, as it turns out, economic growth isn't really our highest priority. We might say it is, but our actions speak louder than our words:

The preferences of developed, aging polities — first Japan, now the United States and Europe — are obvious to a dispassionate observer. Their overwhelming priority is to protect the purchasing power of incumbent creditors....These preferences are reflected in what the polities do, how they behave. They swoop in with incredible speed and force to bail out the financial sectors in which creditors are invested, trampling over prior norms and laws as necessary....They do not pursue monetary policy with sufficient force to ensure expenditure growth even at risk of inflation.

....This preference is not at all difficult to understand. The ailing developed economies are plutocratic democracies. “The people” do have power, but influence is weighted in a manner correlated with wealth. The median influencer in these economies is not a billionaire, but an older citizen of some affluence who has mostly endowed her own future consumption. She would like to be richer, of course. But she is content with her present wealth, and is panicked by the prospect of becoming poorer. For such a person, the depression status quo is unfortunate but tolerable. The risks associated with expansionary policy, on the other hand, are absolutely terrifying.

I have a hard time buying this. The bailout of the banks was way overdetermined. Everyone agreed that a banking collapse would be catastrophic and had to be avoided at all costs. You can argue that we went about it the wrong way, that maybe temporary receivership would have been a better policy for some of the big banks, but it's hard to argue that the mere decision to rescue the banking system favored one particular constituency.

And Steve's "median influencer" is problematic too. I'm willing to buy the idea that the upper middle class in general is the single biggest influence on our political system, but that's not the same thing as "an older citizen of some affluence." It's in a similar ballpark, but it's not the same thing. And the wealthy and the broad middle class are significant influences too.

But put that aside for the moment. It's not the biggest problem here. Rather, it's Steve's claim that the median influencer — whoever it is — "is panicked by the prospect of becoming poorer," which explains our financial system's rabid opposition to inflation higher than 2%. This claim might have made sense 50 years ago, when many of the affluent elderly were coupon clippers. But today it doesn't make sense even for them, and it certainly doesn't make sense for anyone else. Hardly anybody literally lives on a fixed income these days. The elderly middle class lives on Social Security, which is indexed to inflation. The broad middle class has its retirement savings invested in 401(k) funds, which do better when the economy does better. The wealthy have their money invested in a variety of sophisticated vehicles, all of which are hedged against inflation in one way or another. We simply don't live in a world of fixed returns anymore. Unless you're a hedge fund quant making some specific kind of inflation play, there are very few people today who have any reason to fear higher inflation, especially of the moderate, temporary sort that the Paul Krugmans and Scott Sumners of the world advocate.

So....I'm having trouble with this. There's no question that our financial elites are pretty fiercely anti-inflation. And there are certainly a few constituencies who rationally fear inflation: holders of fixed-rate mortgages, small savers limited to the interest rates at their local credit union, and (possibly) those who are heavily invested in low-yielding corporate bonds or muni bonds. But are those really the people influencing Fed policy? I'm not seeing it.

In the end, I guess this is really a request for Steve to write in more detail about this. It's worth figuring out who exactly is influencing Fed policy, as well as central bank policy everywhere else in the world. But central banks have always been pretty rabidly anti-inflation, so I'm not sure you can pin the blame on something specific to the "developed, aging polities" of today. After all, William McChesney Martin didn't much like inflation 50 years ago, and Chinese central bankers don't much like it now. But why?

Among the several ways that recession in Europe could hurt the global economy is via the specter of bank deleveraging. As you may recall, one of the proximate causes of the Great Panic of 2008 was the fact that American banks had run up huge amounts of leverage, something that makes the banking system extremely vulnerable to sudden shocks — like, say, a housing bubble bursting.

Well, European banks were even more leveraged than American banks. The top chart on the right, courtesy of a new IMF report, shows that American bank leverage peaked in 2008 at a ratio of about 25:1, and since then has dropped to a much more sustainable 15:1. European banks, even after four years of deleveraging, are still at 25:1. This means they remain vulnerable to sudden shocks — like, say, Spain going bust — so they'll need to continue deleveraging for several more years.

There are basically two ways they can do this. First, they can raise money by selling off assets. This is OK unless it turns into a fire sale, which is always a possibility. Second, they can reduce the amount of credit they make available. The bottom chart on the right shows the IMF's estimate of credit contraction over the next couple of years.

The good news for Americans is that this probably won't affect us directly very much: Most of the credit contraction will happen in Europe, and American corporations have deep access to capital markets to replace whatever they lose from European banks. There is, however, a potential indirect effect via derivative exposure, and also some more general exposure at a macro level if bank deleveraging keeps Europe's economy in a rut.

Still, the IMF doesn't think the credit contraction in Europe is likely to be all that severe: "The implied decline in the credit-to-GDP ratio [] sits between the relatively moderate experience in Japan in the 1990s and the more pronounced credit contraction in the United States in the earlier part of the financial crisis." As long as European banks avoid a "synchronised and large-scale deleveraging" — i.e., a fire sale of assets — things will likely stay under control.

In other words, the big danger remains not sluggish growth in Europe, which everyone has already priced in, but the possibility of panic. And with sovereign debt still extremely wobbly in the south, monetary policy still too tight, austerity still the order of the day, and bank leverage still high — with all that still in front of us, panic remains a distinct option. A eurozone crackup is still a real possibility.

Our story so far: Last week Hilary Rosen said Ann Romney had "never worked a day in her life." Republicans erupted in faux outrage. Being a mother is work! Rosen apologized. The outrage continued. Then Chris Hayes dug up a video of Mitt Romney saying that mothers on welfare needed to get out of the house: "Even if you have a child 2 years of age, you need to go to work....It'll cost the state more providing that daycare, but I want the individuals to have the dignity of work." Hah! So Republicans think that raising kids is only work for wealthy housewives, not for poor single mothers. Heartless bastards.

So now we have this:

A handful of House Democrats, encouraged by the recent bipartisan agreement that stay-at-home moms should be considered just as hard working as anyone in the workforce, will introduce legislation to apply that standard to mothers on welfare as well.

Under current law, raising children does not count toward the required "work activity" that must be performed by recipients of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, the federal program that emerged from the 1996 welfare reform....The Women's Option to Raise Kids (WORK) Act, a copy of which was provided to HuffPost in advance of its introduction, would allow mothers with children ages 3 and under to stay at home with their children and continue receiving benefits.

I'm no expert on political theater, but this sure sounds dumb to me. Like it or not, my guess is that a substantial majority of Americans support the idea of work requirements for welfare recipients. And America's stay-at-home moms — many of them persuadable Democratic voters — do not like the idea of being compared to single mothers getting welfare checks. Not one bit.

Maybe this is fair, maybe it isn't. It doesn't matter. Politically it's tone deaf. Liberals would do well to let this whole idiotic affair die a natural death.

A few days ago it was Spain. Now it's Italy. Prime Minister Mario Monti announced a new 3-year economic plan today that — surprise! — shows that austerity has been bad for Italy's economy:

The plan, which must be ratified by Parliament and sent to the European Commission in Brussels by the end of the month, forecasts that Italy's gross domestic product will contract by 1.2% this year, almost three times the forecast in December.

....Yet, Italy's fiscal policy is tightening, Deputy Economy Minister Vittorio Grilli said. Rome will post a budget surplus of 0.6% of GDP next year in structural, cyclically adjusted terms....The International Monetary Fund reached a similar conclusion, saying Tuesday that Italy won't balance its budget until 2017, but that next year it will achieve a structural balance—suggesting Italy wouldn't have a fiscal shortfall if the economy were performing at its full potential.

For those who argue that austerity is choking growth, the underlying rigor isn't something to boast about.

No, it's nothing to boast about. After all, lots of countries would have balanced budgets, or something close, if their economies were cranking along at full potential. But that's the whole point: austerity economics is stifling growth, which makes it hard to balance the actual, real-life budget. If the answer to that is even further austerity, you can expect even lower growth.

But austerity is the plan anyway. Hang on tight.

Yesterday I wrote a post about how expensive car batteries are. Today Brad Plumer has a post about clean energy subsidies and how they're fading out. These two things together reminded me about an energy factoid that's always struck me as slightly odd: virtually every form of energy seems to be almost as efficient as burning oil, but not quite.

For example, on either a power/weight basis or a cost basis, batteries are maybe 2x or 3x bigger and less efficient than an internal combustion engine. Not 50x or 100x. Just barely less efficient. And you see the same thing in electricity generation. Depending on how you do the accounting, nuclear power is maybe about as efficient as an oil-fired plant, or maybe 2x or 3x less efficient. Ditto for solar. And for wind. And geothermal. And tidal power.

I'm just noodling vaguely here. Maybe there's an obvious thermodynamic explanation that I'm missing. It's just that I wouldn't be surprised if there were lots of ways of generating energy that were all over the map efficiency-wise. But why are there lots of ways of generating energy that are all surprisingly similar efficiency-wise? In the great scheme of things, a difference of 2x or 3x is practically invisible.

It's tantalizing as hell, too. It doesn't seem like there ought to be a reason that during a century of looking we haven't been able to find a single energy source more efficient than either water wheels or burning oil, but we haven't. I think God is playing games with us.

A couple of weeks ago I published a chart showing that conservative trust in science has plummeted over the past few decades, while liberal and independent attitudes have remained fairly steady (liberals with high trust levels and indies with low trust levels). However, several commenters pointed out that this result was derived from GSS survey data, and the actual question was about institutions:

I am going to name some institutions in this country. As far as the people running these institutions are concerned, would you say you have a great deal of confidence, only some confidence, or hardly any confidence at all in them?

So conservatives were becoming less confident in the people who run the scientific community, which is not quite the same as becoming less confident in science as a discipline. This is fair up to a point, though I suspect that most people answering the question don't generally make distinctions quite that fine. What's more, in the aftermath of the 70s liberals had plenty of reason to lose confidence in some aspects of the scientific community too — this was a period in which corporate sponsorship of science was a growing flashpoint — but that didn't cause them to change their general level of trust. The Reagan-era decline was solely a conservative phenomenon.

All that said, though, the New York Times reported a couple of days ago that over the past decade or so there might well be reason for all of us to be a little more skeptical of scientific results than we have been. A couple of years ago, Dr. Ferric Fang, editor in chief of Infection and Immunity, discovered that one of his authors had doctored several papers:

Dr. Fang became curious how far the rot extended. To find out, he teamed up with a fellow editor at the journal, Dr. Arturo Casadevall of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. And before long they reached a troubling conclusion: not only that retractions were rising at an alarming rate, but that retractions were just a manifestation of a much more profound problem — “a symptom of a dysfunctional scientific climate,” as Dr. Fang put it.

....Last month, in a pair of editorials in Infection and Immunity, the two editors issued a plea for fundamental reforms. They also presented their concerns at the March 27 meeting of the National Academies of Sciences committee on science, technology and the law. Members of the committee agreed with their assessment. “I think this is really coming to a head,” said Dr. Roberta B. Ness, dean of the University of Texas School of Public Health. And Dr. David Korn of Harvard Medical School agreed that “there are problems all through the system.”

....Critics like Dr. Fang and Dr. Casadevall argue that science has changed in some worrying ways in recent decades — especially biomedical research, which consumes a larger and larger share of government science spending.

It's not clear how far this extends outside the biomedical community, and it's also not clear if this is genuinely new behavior, or if bad papers are simply more likely to get caught than in the past. Either way, though, the research community in general had better listen to Fang. Declining public trust in science may be primarily a conservative phenomenon right now, motivated by hostility toward evolution and climate science, but independents have had low trust levels ever since the 70s, and there are plenty of liberals who could probably be tipped into the anti-science camp pretty easily too. Time to clean house, folks.

Several years ago the Los Angeles Unified School District decided that every high school student should take and pass college prep classes in order to graduate. Most infamously this included an algebra requirement, but it was much broader than just that. Would this produce more dropouts? Sure, but everyone was told we'd just have to bite the bullet and accept that.

Well, it's now bullet-biting time as the new requirements finally take effect, and guess what? Bullets aren't really all that tasty:

On Tuesday, district officials backtracked, offering details of a proposal to reduce overall graduation requirements and allow students to pass those classes with a D grade. They must change course, Los Angeles Unified School District officials said, or they would open the doors to scores of dropouts and others who can't pass the more rigorous requirements. The new plan, which still must be approved by the board, would allow students to graduate with 25% fewer credits.

"If we don't do something, we have to be prepared to be pushing out kids as dropouts," said Deputy Supt. Jaime Aquino at a school-board committee meeting Tuesday. "We face a massive dropout rate in four years."

The idea, apparently, is that by requiring fewer credits, struggling kids will have more opportunity to repeat classes that they failed the first time around. That doesn't sound like much of a plan to make staying in high school more attractive.

I know this is an argument that's been played out thousands of times in hundreds of places already, but it just seems crazy to me. Encouraging everyone to take college prep classes is fine, but college prep just isn't the same thing as high school graduation. At least, it shouldn't be. There has to be some societal recognition of an achievement level in between "dropout," as traditionally conceived, and being prepared to attend college. We can pretend all we want, but not every 18-year-old is ready and able to attend even a community college, and effectively labeling all of these kids as dropouts is nuts. If politics weren't enough to make me think we've gone collectively crazy already, stuff like this would do the trick.

Karl Smith has an odd response to my post last night about Abbott Labs and its efforts to make sure that a generic version of TriCor would never see the light of day:

This is a part of a longer point but it's important to note that it's not clear that health care costs were raised as a part of this....Mostly it seems that at worst money was transferred from consumers and taxpayers to TriCor. This is not an economic cost. It is simply redistribution.

....However, as generally used the phrase “high health care costs” doesn’t refer to anything that makes any economic sense and so it's not clear what the appropriate remedy is. I would like to encourage people to be more explicit about the real problems that they perceive rather than extensive references to large scale accounting issues.

Just for the record, then: when I say "high healthcare costs," what I mean is "lots of money flowing to heathcare entities." I'm pretty sure that's what everyone else means too. I know that Karl likes to be contrarian, but calling this a mere large-scale accounting issue is surely a little bit too Olympian even for him, isn't it?