When I returned home, I was greeted by a flood of email from one reader asking if I'd post my usual California ballot initiative guide. There are only two of them on tomorrow's ballot, so why not. In case you don't remember my general biases about the initiative process (nickel summary: I'd be happy to see it go away completely), you can read about them here. With that out of the way, here's how I plan to vote:

  1. Term Limits: YES. On balance, term limits are a bad idea. But California voters approved them two decades ago and don't seem inclined to remove them. Given that, Prop 28 is probably the best we can do right now. Instead of a 14-year term limit, split into six years in the Assembly and eight years in the Senate, it provides for a single 12-year term limit, all of which can be spent in one house. This would eliminate the ridiculous situation California is in now, where top leaders in the Assembly almost never have more than four years of legislative experience. Putting neophytes in charge of legislation is absurd, and we've been paying the price for this for a long time. Prop 28 isn't a panacea, but it's an improvement.

  1. Cigarette Tax Hike: NO. Regular readers know how I feel about ballot-box budgeting. It's a scourge. I don't have a problem with higher cigarette taxes, and yes, cancer research is a worthy cause. But there are lots of worthy causes, and it's the legislature's job to figure out which ones deserve funding on a year-to-year basis rather than enshrining specific priorities into law forever. We're already funding dumb stem cell research and a dumb bullet train thanks to ill-conceived ballot measures, and we're still paying off the dumb revenue bonds that Governor Arnold foisted on us in 2004. This has to stop. I don't care how worthy the cause is.

On Prop 29, I'll concede that reasonable people might think circumstances are special in California. A previous ballot initiative (the infamous Prop 13) requires a two-thirds majority in the legislature to increase taxes, which means that in practical terms there's really no way for things like cigarette tax hikes to happen aside from ballot measures. That's true, but I don't find it convincing. Passing an endless stream of ticky-tack budget patches that become permanent parts of the legal code just isn't a solution. It only makes things worse. If Californians won't allow the legislature to increase taxes, they should live with the consequences. Maybe eventually they'll figure out that this particular piece of Prop 13 was a bad idea.

Stuart Staniford reviews the recent rise and then collapse of oil prices today, and concludes that it's the economy, stupid:

So whither these trends now? On the one hand, it seems clear that the recent downward forces on prices will continue....Spain's difficulties rescuing Bankia, and the fact that there are likely still a lot of not-fully-discounted bad loans in Spain's banks, suggest that the Spanish government is near the end of its rope....And then there is the continued inability of the polarized US political system to come to grips with major challenges — particularly the upcoming expiry of the Bush tax cuts and the automatic spending cuts that will be triggered around the end of this year. All this is chilling stock markets everywhere, particularly as no-one really knows what the implications for the global financial system will be if pieces start to fall off the Eurozone as it trundles forward.

These kinds of considerations suggest that the downward break in oil prices could continue quite a lot further.

But if that happens, Saudi Arabia will probably cut production and prices will rise again. So oil prices may fall in the short term, but will probably stay around $100 in the medium term.

Generally speaking, we're finally living in the world of peak oil. Or call it plateaued oil if you like, since we seem to have hit a rough plateau in oil production that's likely to continue for quite a while. This is the world of the vicious circle: when the economy gets better, demand for oil goes up and oil prices spike. This causes the economy to tank, which sends demand for oil down. Rinse and repeat. Add to that the effect of external events on oil prices (the Arab Spring, pipeline breakdowns, embargoes on Iran, etc. etc.) and world economic growth is likely to remain both sluggish and unstable for the foreseeable future, held hostage to OPEC oil production until we get serious about alternative energy. And since, in this brave new world, the price of oil gyrates frequently and erratically, it's hard to get people serious about this. If oil were, say, permanently above $200 per barrel or so, we'd be building wind farms and installing PV solar at breakneck speed. But whenever the price of Brent falls below $90 or so, everyone gets nervous and wonders if wind farms and solar arrays are really such good investments after all.

The uncomfortable truth is that we'd probably all be better off if the federal government simply taxed oil variably at a rate that set the all-in price at $200 no matter what the market price was. That would be high enough to get everyone serious about more reliable energy sources and stable enough that investors would be falling all over themselves to fund alternative energy projects. And since it's oil price spikes that hurt the economy more than high oil prices per se, this probably wouldn't even have a major impact on growth.

It'll never happen. But something like it probably should. There's enormous upside both economically and environmentally, and the revenue would help address the federal deficit problem everyone pretends to be worried about. Conversely, the downsides are pretty modest and manageable. Wouldn't it be nice if any of this actually made a difference in Washington DC?

Now that I'm back, I'm going to try everyone's patience by posting a really, really long slide show about my exciting family vacation to Copenhagen and Rome. However, it's all under the fold, so if you're not interested, just scroll on by.

There are basically no pictures of famous sights here. It's always been a bit pointless to take pictures of this kind of stuff, and these days it's super duper pointless. Want a picture of the Colosseum? Google will deliver hundreds of top notch photos to your desktop in seconds. Why bother taking your own?

So instead, I took pictures of cats. And pictures of other animals. And a few annoyingly arty pictures of tiny bits of famous sights. Plus a few other things that I felt like including and that gave me an excuse to write about something interesting. Click the link to start.

From Paul Krugman, bemoaning the fact that the European Central Bank has adopted such tight monetary policy:

The fact is that the ECB is highly credible: most observers, me included, are quite sure that it is totally allergic to inflation and relatively indifferent to the collapse of the real economy.

Yeah, I really don't think the ECB has any inflation credibility issues at this point. Neither does the Fed. But they very definitely have some serious growth credibility issues.

So, anyway, as this post suggests, I'm back from Europe. Did their financial crisis affect me? Nope. Not a bit. But I will say this: in a fit of paranoia that I won't pretend was fully rational, I took $2,000 in cash with me, something I've never done before. Why? I dunno. Just in case. I figured if the eurozone chose last week to collapse in panic, U.S. hundred-dollar bills might be a nice, 100% sure source of liquidity. Silly of me, I suppose, but there you have it.

And with that, I want to take this chance to thank all my guest bloggers for the past couple of weeks: Adam Serwer, Erik Kain, and Heather "Digby" Parton. I mean, not only did they write a lot of great stuff while I was gone (and you do follow them at their home blogs, don't you?), but they even kept up Friday Catblogging. How great is that? Adam's herd of Garfields is....impressive, no? And thanks also to Kate Sheppard, for extra bonus catblogging.

All this means that nobody has any reason to complain of cat withdrawal symptoms, which means I really have no excuse for writing an interminable Cat Tour of Europe™ post tomorrow. But I'm going to anyway. I know you're all looking forward to it, aren't you?

I have to end my week guest blogging for Kevin in the only appropriate way. It's Friday. And you know what that means:

Photographs by Heather Digby

Photographs by Heather Digby

That's Rhubarb, my 15-year-old lap warmer, lolling on his chair in the garden.

(I have had the pleasure of meeting Inkblot and Domino in person and let me tell you they are even more impressive than they look in pictures.)

Many thanks to Kevin and the fine folks here at Mother Jones for making it easy and thoroughly pleasurable to blog here. Have a great weekend, everyone. And come visit me at Hullabaloo.

With Kevin out on vacation, I volunteered my cat, George, for some Friday blogging action. (I usually blog over on Mother Jones' environmental blog, Blue Marble.) 

George is way more involved in the lives of the humans he shares his home with than any other cat I've encountered. Most cats ignore you, or only occasionally deign to hang out. But George is always all up in your business, trying to do what you're doing. Including (actually, especially) when you're trying to blog:

Photos by Deen Freelon. Photos by Deen Freelon. 

Kevin is back next week, so you'll get the full Inkblot and Domino treatment. In the meantime, happy Friday.

Earlier in the week the discussion was all about what defines a hero, and the question came up frequently about when we became so reverent toward military service. Now, it's probably true that we've always had a special place for martial heroism, most societies do. But as one who grew up in a military family I can say that it's changed a bit over the years in this country. Military service in the two World Wars and Korea was respected, but it was also the subject of satire and criticism to an extent that I honestly don't think you could do today. There's not even a Sergeant Bilko or Mister Roberts, much less scathing satire like Catch-22. (In fact, have we had even one great wartime novel emerge during our last 10 years of non-stop war?)

The question is why that would be, and I think the consensus is that it's a response to the Vietnam Syndrome and the poor way that Vietnam vets were treated by civilians. President Obama referred to it himself in his speech the other day:

When the honourable service of the many should have been praised, you came home and sometimes were denigrated when you should have been celebrated. It was a national shame, a disgrace that should have never happened.

He's right about that. But I'm fairly sure that he and virtually everyone else has no idea who were among the worst perpetrators.

I discussed Vietnam constantly during the Bush administration on my blog. And this quote from Rick Perlstein (when he was in the middle of researching his epic history of the era Nixonland) may be the one that shocked people the most:

In the now-classic study The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam, sociologist Jerry Lembke established that the only actual documented examples of the frequently repeated canard that Americans spat upon returning Vietnam veterans came from the kind of World War II veterans who wouldn't let their brothers back from Vietnam join local American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts beause they were seen as shameful, as polluted. (The New York Times reported on the phenomenon here.)
They were the kind of veterans who — Gerald Nicosia tells the story in his history of Vietnam Veterans Against the War — greeted the antiwar veterans who had marched 86 miles from Morristown, New Jersey to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, just like George Washington's army in 1877.
The World War II veterans heckled them: "Why don't you go to Hanoi?" "We won our war, they didn't, and from the looks of them, they couldn't."
A Vietnam vet hobbled by on crutches. One of the old men wondered whether he had been "shot with marijuana or shot in battle."
I forgot, too, about their political interference in a prominent trial. The Legion post in Columbus, Georgia, home of Lt. William Calley's Fort Benning jail cell, promised they would raise $100,000 to help fund the appeal of the man convicted of murder in the My Lai Massacre "or die trying": "The real murderers are the demonstrators in Washington," they said, "who disrupt traffic, tear up public property, who deface the American flag. Lieut. Calley is a hero..... We should elevate him to saint rather than jail him like a common criminal."

(There's more here about my own recollection of growing up in those times surrounded by people who said exactly that sort of thing.)

Let me be clear. There is little debate about whether Vietnam vets were treated badly by some left-wing protesters. I'm not saying that never happened. But it's a lot more complicated than that, and it was as true then as it is now that "the troops" are revered as heroes on the right only as long as they support wars.

I bring this up because I think that unless we can grapple with the real facts of that era, we will not understand that this right-wing pressure to unquestionably portray military service as a sacred act of heroism is self-serving and limited to those who agree with them. Recall this famous exchange on Rush Limbaugh's show back in 2007:

CALLER2: They never talk to real soldiers. They like to pull these soldiers that come up out of the blue and talk to the media.
LIMBAUGH: The phony soldiers.
CALLER 2: The phony soldiers. If you talk to a real soldier, they are proud to serve. They want to be over in Iraq. They understand their sacrifice, and they're willing to sacrifice for their country.

It's always been this way with Limbaugh and the like—and still is.

Heather Digby Parton is guest blogging while Kevin Drum is on vacation.

From the time I started blogging about a decade ago I've been writing somewhat frantically about the GOP efforts to suppress the vote. This should not be surprising since I started writing online in the aftermath of the most dubious election result in history: the infamous Bush v. Gore.

Vote suppression has been with us for centuries, of course. Jim Crow was built on it. Very famous and important Americans have participated in it, including former Chief Justice William Rehnquist. But according to a 2004 report by the Center for Voting Rights it wasn't until the Jesse Jackson campaign in the 1980s that the Republicans began to organize nationally:

Democratic activist Donna Brazile, a Jackson worker and Albert Gore's campaign manager in 2000, said "There were all sorts of groups out there doing voter registration. Some time after the '86 election, massive purging started taking place. It was a wicked practice that took place all over the country, especially in the deep South. Democrats retook the Senate in 1986, and [Republican] groups went on a rampage on the premise they were cleaning up the rolls. The campaign then was targeted toward African-Americans." As in the past, Republicans justified the purges in the name of preventing the unregistered from voting. But Democrats charged vote suppression.

They formed a group called the Republican National Lawyers Association for the purpose of manipulating the voting laws in all 50 states to the benefit of the party. Of course, they said it was for the purpose of stopping "voter fraud" but since there was and is no evidence of voter fraud, vote suppression was the obvious intent. They learned the ins and outs of all local and state voting rules and figured out how to use them for their own electoral advantage. And with the help of other conservative groups like ALEC, they set about making it harder to register and harder to vote. They really made their bones in the 2000 recount, when the call went out the morning after the election for their lawyers to descend on Florida. The rest is history. Well, it's deja vu all over again. Here's Ari Berman:

Back in 2000, 12,000 eligible voters—a number twenty-two times larger than George W. Bush's 537 vote triumph over Al Gore—were wrongly identified as convicted felons and purged from the voting rolls in Florida, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. African Americans, who favored Gore over Bush by 86 points, accounted for 11 percent of the state's electorate but 41 percent of those purged. Jeb Bush attempted a repeat performance in 2004 to help his brother win reelection but was forced to back off in the face of a public outcry.
Yet with another close election looming, Florida Republicans have returned to their voter-scrubbing ways. The latest purge comes on the heels of a trio of new voting restrictions passed by Florida Republicans last year, disenfranchising 100,000 previously eligible ex-felons who'd been granted the right to vote under GOP Governor Charlie Crist in 2008; shutting down non-partisan voter registration drives; and cutting back on early voting. The measures, the effect of which will be to depress Democratic turnout in November, are similar to voting curbs passed by Republicans in more than a dozen states, on the bogus pretext of combating "voter fraud" but with the very deliberate goal of shaping the electorate to the GOP's advantage before a single vote has been cast.

The whole story is shocking in its brazenness.

"The reality is that in jurisdictions across the country, overt and subtle forms of discrimination remain all too common," Holder said this week.

I have long wondered why the Democrats haven't seemed to take this seriously. It's been happening in slow motion, but it's been happening in plain sight. It wasn't just the 2000 election, although that should have been enough for the Democratic party to launch a full scale defense against this sort of connivance. And it carried on throughout the following decade in elections throughout the country. You'll recall that even the US Attorney firing scandal was largely about their failure to flout election laws in favor of Republicans. Better late than never, the Democrats seemed to wake up this week:

Attorney General Eric Holder told members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Conference of National Black Churches on Wednesday that the right to vote was threatened across the country. "The reality is that in jurisdictions across the country, both overt and subtle forms of discrimination remain all too common and have not yet been relegated to the pages of history," Holder told the audience, made up of black church and political leaders, during a faith leaders summit in Washington. He also reaffirmed the Justice Department's commitment to the Voting Rights Act, and in particular, the section of the law which prohibits certain states from making changes to their election laws without first getting federal approval, and which has been the focus of several recent court challenges.

And he followed through:

The Justice Department sent a letter to Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner Thursday evening demanding the state cease purging its voting rolls because the process it is using has not been cleared under the Voting Rights Act, TPM has learned. DOJ also said that Florida's voter roll purge violated the National Voter Registration Act, which stipulates that voter roll maintenance should have ceased 90 days before an election, which given Florida's August 14 primary, meant May 16. Five of Florida's counties are subject to the Voting Rights Act, but the state never sought permission from either the Justice Department or a federal court to implement its voter roll maintenance program. Florida officials said they were trying to remove non-citizens from the voting rolls, but a flawed process led to several U.S. citizens being asked to prove their citizenship status or be kicked off the rolls.

It's not that I care so much that the Democrats win. But I really care that Americans are allowed to vote and have their votes counted and I expect that most people care about that too. In this regard there is a big difference between the two parties: the Republicans have organized around suppressing the vote while the Democrats have organized around expanding it. The problem, as usual, is that the Democrats haven't been nearly as good at it.

Republican state governments around the country have been working overtime to manipulate the electoral laws and shut down the Democrats' organizing institutions, from ACORN to unions, and wealthy plutocrats have put huge money behind the effort. With the exception of Wisconsin, the Democrats have been behaving like potted plants in response. One would have thought the 2000 election would have been enough to energize them to protect the franchise, but it clearly wasn't. Let's hope it doesn't take another stolen election to convince them.

Heather Digby Parton is guest blogging while Kevin Drum is on vacation.

Mitt Romney has been playing the crony capitalism card lately, talking up the Solyndra stimulus-money debacle and falsley accusing the Obama administration of lining the pockets of "friends and family." But it turns out that Romney may need to take a long, hard look in a mirror:

When Romney was governor, the state handed out $4.5 million in loans to two firms run by his campaign donors that have since defaulted, leaving taxpayers holding the bag.

The two companies—Acusphere and Spherics Inc.—stiffed the state on nearly $2.1 million in loans provided through the state's Emerging Technology Fund, a $25 million investment program created while Romney was governor in 2003 that benefitted 13 local firms.

Acusphere, a biotechnology firm headed by a Romney campaign donor, got $2 million in 2004 that it was supposed to put toward a $20 million manufacturing facility in Tewksbury, which never became fully operational...

The loans were approved by a seven-person advisory board that included two Romney appointees and three Romney campaign contributors, a Herald review found.

Meanwhile, stimulus funds have actually been remarkably well managed. Michael Grunwald at Time's Swampland blog writes:

The Department of Energy has handled $37 billion in stimulus money, more than its annual budget. Overall, the federal government has distributed over $800 billion in stimulus money. Where are the sweetheart deals? Where are the actual outrages that are provoking outrage? During the debate over the stimulus, experts warned that as much as 5% to 7% of the stimulus could be lost to fraud. But by the end of 2011, independent investigators had documented only $7.2 million in fraud, about 0.001%. As I've written, reasonable people can disagree whether the stimulus was a good thing, but it's definitely been a well-managed thing.

If you want to talk about actual crony capitalism at the federal level, the problem isn't so much a vast conspiracy as it is a magnificently complex web of elected officials who want to keep their own jobs by keeping jobs in their home districts and states. That bland reality makes the real problems with more equitable spending at the federal level even more intractable.

Meanwhile, Romney's broader argument against the stimulus is incoherent. He blasts Obama for job losses during his administration, but under a Romney administration during that same period of economic crisis, with no stimulus money, job losses almost certainly would have been much more severe. There's a time for austerity, and it isn't during a recession.

John Cole reacts to the new anti-large-soda ban that Mayor Michael Bloomberg is pushing in New York City:

Stupid, paternalistic, and completely unenforceable. My old platoon sergeant once told me that when it comes to keeping the guys in line, you never make a rule you won't enforce, you never make a rule you can't enforce, and you never make a rule you shouldn't enforce. This new ban fails on at least the first two.

Cole's platoon sergeant gives the same advice parents get. Don't make rules for kids that you can't or won't enforce, and if you do make rules then you'd better stick to them or your kids will just ignore them entirely.

Majiscup - The Papercup & Sleeve Log/FlickrI get the feeling we'll see a lot of that kind of ignoring going on in New York City when this ban goes into effect. As John points out, people can just buy two 16-ounce sodas instead of one 32-ounce soda. So what's next? A ban on the number of sodas you can buy at one time?

Whatever public-health costs the ban may defer could be offset by the costs of attempting to enforce it in the first place. Meanwhile, Bloomberg lends credence to the "nanny state" alarmists who will rightfully hold this up as a bad example of government interfering in the economy.

Rather than banning soda, how about having the government just raise taxes on it? Taxing sugary drinks would put downward pressure on consumption of those drinks without any enforcement, and revenue could be pumped into public health and education efforts, effectively killing two birds with one stone.

The other day George Will said: "Donald Trump is redundant evidence that if your net worth is high enough, your IQ can be very low and you can still intrude into American politics." I don't think Bloomberg has fallen quite so low as Trump, but his reckless policies have more dire implications for the people of New York than the birther-bloviations of a reality TV star.

Money can buy a lot of things, but it can't buy common sense.

Erik Kain is guest blogging while Kevin Drum is on vacation.