House Republicans are holding President Obama's payroll tax cut hostage and are getting hammered for it. What makes them think this is a winning strategy? Dave Weigel puts it like this:

Democrats want to re-elect the president, so they’ll ultimately give up a lot to extend a tax cut and unemployment benefits....Despite how it looks right now, it doesn’t make sense to doubt them. After all, they’ve had a lot of practice at this.

National Journal's Ben Terris is even blunter:

The House, influenced by a new mentality ushered in after the 2010 wave elections, stood its ground on issues like spending and the debt ceiling all year, watching as Democrats conceded time and again. But, depending on how Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and President Obama act now, their intransigence on extending tax breaks for the middle class could either be another feather in their cap, or a failure for the Republican Party. Either way, the freshman class doesn’t see a downside.

There's no question that a stalemate is dangerous for Democrats. For starters, it would hurt the economy, and in an election year that hurts the president no matter whose fault it is. What's more, voters tend to blame presidents for gridlock whether it's their fault or not. After all, once Republicans make a counterproposal (and they have: a conference committee to work out a one-year deal before the end of the year), they can plausibly argue that it's the other side that's not willing to deal. Both sides are keenly aware of both of these dynamics, and they definitely point in the direction of Democrats caving yet again.

But that's exactly why I suspect Democrats won't cave. At some point, whether it's strictly rational or not, you simply have to let the other side know that you can't be pushed around forever. And this is about the best chance Dems have had to send this message in a while. Nothing is going to get shut down if they hold out, the nation's credit won't be wrecked, and even if takes until January to make a deal it won't have much effect on the economy. What's more, House Republicans have shown weakness by making sure the Senate's two-month deal is still on the table. If they'd voted it down, it would have been like ripping the steering wheel off the car, but they carefully made sure not to do this. And to make things even worse for Republicans, they're plainly losing the PR battle over this. Even the Wall Street Journal isn't on their side, and even Mitch McConnell is pretty disgusted over being double-crossed once again by the lunatics in the House GOP caucus.

So: no huge consequences for holding out; weakness and panic on the Republican side; and public (and press) opinion very clearly on the Democratic side for the first time in a while. This is the best chance Democrats have had all year to stand firm and actually profit from it. That's why I think they will.

Euphemisms in America

Yesterday I bought a copy of the Economist's annual holiday issue, which is always full of good stuff. It includes a piece about euphemisms around the world, and it started off a bit oddly by suggesting, among other things, that Americans routinely call false teeth "dental appliances." Really? Well, I thought, maybe we do. What do I know about what dentures are usually called? But then I ran across this:

The richest categories would centre on cross-cultural taboos such as death and bodily functions. The latter seem to embarrass Americans especially: one can ask for the “loo” in a British restaurant without budging an eyebrow; don’t try that in New York.

Say what? We don't use the word "loo," of course, but here in Southern California I ask waiters for directions to the men's room all the time. The only thing that happens is that they.....tell me where it is. Unless this is some kind of weird New York thing, I'm pretty mystified by this. I hope the rest of their reporting on global euphemisms is more accurate than this.

Cars and the Man

From Bloomberg, after reporting that American banks are in pretty good shape these days:

Consumers also are in better financial shape, thanks to reductions in debt and the Fed’s record-low interest rates. Household-debt payments as a share of disposable income stood at 11 percent in the third quarter, the lowest since 1994 and down from a peak of 14 percent set in 2007, according to data from the central bank.

That has freed up money for spending, and the automobile industry is a beneficiary....The average age of cars and light trucks on the road today has risen to 10.6 years, Jenny Lin, senior U.S. economist at Dearborn, Michigan-based Ford Motor Co., said on a Dec. 1 conference call. That’s above the seven-to-7.5 years Ballew says is the long-term average.

“We are going to see more and more of this pent-up demand realized,” Lin told analysts and reporters.

Karl Smith keeps telling me that this is what's going to spark a strong recovery in 2012. At some point, all those cars just have to be replaced, and that spending will drive improvement in the economy. Ditto for pent-up demand for houses and apartments.

I really want to believe this. I do, I do, I do. But with wages stagnant, credit tight, unemployment high, and the world economy flatlining, where's the money going to come from? I want to have faith in Smithianism, but my faith is tested whenever I open a newspaper — and I open a newspaper a dozen times every day. It is a stern and demanding creed, Smithianism is.

Happy Winter Solstice!

And now, finally, the days will start getting longer again. Hopefully this is a metaphor for our politics too. 

Last year California voters approved an initiative that took redistricting out of the hands of the legislature and gave it to a nonpartisan "citizen commission." Today, Olga Pierce and Jeff Larson of ProPublica have a story suggesting that Democrats gamed the system by making sure that the commission heard lots and lots of pro-Democratic testimony. "Democrats surreptitiously enlisted local voters, elected officials, labor unions and community groups to testify in support of configurations that coincided with the party’s interests," the story says.

Now, I don't doubt for a second that this is true, and in any case, ProPublica seems to have gotten its hands on plenty of evidence to show how this worked. But here's what I don't get: Am I supposed to be surprised at this? Of course Democrats tried to get lots of Democrat-friendly testimony in front of the commission. What would you expect them to do? Surely Republicans aren't so lame that they didn't do the same thing?

(Actually, California Republicans are pretty lame. Still, I kinda doubt they're that lame.)

But that's not the only thing odd about this story. There's also this:

Statewide, Democrats had been expected to gain at most a seat or two as a result of redistricting. But an internal party projection says that the Democrats will likely pick up six or seven seats in a state where the party’s voter registrations have grown only marginally.

“Very little of this is due to demographic shifts,” said Professor Doug Johnson at the Rose Institute in Los Angeles. Republican areas actually had higher growth than Democratic ones. “By the numbers, Republicans should have held at least the same number of seats, but they lost.”

This doesn't sound quite right either. For starters, that six or seven seat pickup sounds mighty optimistic. I'll bet the real number is something like half that. But that's not all. You see, in 2001 Democrats decided to skip the usual partisan gerrymander and instead make a nice, cozy arrangement with their GOP rivals: gerrymandering with the primary goal of protecting incumbents of both parties. It made all the incumbents happy, but it also made the state's districts a bit more friendly to Republicans than they should have been. By 2010, even a fair-minded, nonpartisan redistricting was bound to produce more Democratic districts than we currently have. (Contra Johnson, California has become considerably more Democrat-friendly over the past decade.) It's true that Democrats mostly opposed last year's initiative, but I distinctly remember some of the smarter analysts suggesting that they should calm down because a commission-drawn map was likely to give Dems an easy two or three additional seats.

If Dems do pick up six or seven seats, that would mean the commission really did do them a favor. But if they pick up two or three or four, it's most likely just the result of reversion to the mean after 2001. I'm curious to see what the California wonks over at Calitics think about all this, but they haven't written about it yet. If they do, I'll update and correct as necessary.

Four years ago, Mitt Romney said that invading Iraq was the right thing to do. Today he said that if we had known Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction — something we knew four years ago just as well as we know it today — then "obviously" we wouldn't have invaded. Now, this happens to be incorrect as a matter of historical fact, since it was always clear that WMD was merely a fig leaf for an administration that was going to invade Iraq no matter what. But Jon Chait is charmed anyway:

The thing I’ve always found endearing and (to some degree) comforting about Mitt Romney is that his flip-flops betray pure contempt for the Republican base. He treats them like angry children, and their pet issues as emotionally driven symbols of cultural division rather than as serious positions. Four years ago, conservatives were enraged that liberals would question Bush’s handling of foreign policy, so Romney was defending the decision to go to war and promising to "double Guantanamo." (It made zero sense as a policy position and could be understood only as an expression of culture-war solidarity.) Likewise, conservatives are now outraged over Obamacare, so Romney promises to repeal Obamacare.

Nothing about Romney’s attempts to ingratiate himself with the right hint even slightly of genuine conversion. It is patronizing appeasement. Of course, none of this tells us the really crucial thing, which is what promises Romney would actually keep if elected. But at least it offers the modest comfort that Romney knows better.

Poor Mitt. It's to his credit, really, that he's such a godawful bad panderer, but that doesn't change the fact that it's a skill he desperately needs if he ever wants to become president. Unfortunately for him, practice doesn't seem to be doing him any good. He's been pandering relentlessly for more than four years now, and he's still as bad at it as he was in 2007. It's kind of sad, really.

Reframing the Mandate

Sarah Kliff points us today to yet another Kaiser poll on Obamacare, which yet again finds that people hate the individual mandate. However, the Kaiser folks also find that some arguments in favor of the mandate reduce the level of opposition:

This got me thinking. I just finished reading Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow, which naturally got me thinking about Prospect Theory, one of my favorite socio-econo-behavioral theories of the past few decades. There's a lot to Prospect Theory, but its most famous aspect is its focus on loss aversion. Most people, it turns out, aren't so much risk averse as they are loss averse: they prefer a sure gain over a gamble for a bigger gain, but they prefer a gamble when the alternative is a sure loss. Bottom line, people really, really hate to lose things that they already have.

This sounds obvious, but it turns out to have a lot of useful and nonobvious applications. And now, I'm wondering how it could apply to the mandate. In its usual form, the individual mandate forces people to take a guaranteed loss. Basically, this is the question people are being asked:

Would you rather take a sure loss now (i.e., be forced to pay for health insurance) or take a gamble that you'll be healthy for the next year and won't have to pay anything?

Put that way, people tend to be loss averse and they dislike the mandate. So here's the question: is there a way this can be reframed into a sure gain vs. a gamble for a bigger gain? If it can, then most people will prefer the sure gain. However, I'm not very creative and I can't really think of anything. It would probably be something along these lines:

Almost everyone gets sick eventually. Would you rather be guaranteed proper treatment when you get sick, or take a gamble that you'll never get sick and you'll come out ahead on health insurance premiums?

That's not very convincing. But maybe the hive mind can think of something better. There's not really much going on for the rest of this week, so this is as good a question to ponder as anything.

EPI has a handy year-end collection of "11 Telling Charts From 2011" that's worth checking out. Everyone loves a good chart, after all. I've taken the liberty of adding some holiday festoonment to one of them, which shows the total number of people who are unemployed or underemployed or who have just given up completely. As you can see, things have been improving over the past couple of years, and if we continue at our current rate we should reach a decent level of unemployment by around 2020 or so. Assuming, of course, that there are no additional setbacks or economic turndowns along the way. Needless to say, we could do better than this if we wanted to, but guess what? It turns out that not everyone wants to do better. Merry Christmas from the GOP, everyone!

Life in Old Carthay

John Hood notes an anniversary today:

Today might be a good day to whistle while you work. On this date in 1937, the first full-length animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, premiered at the Cathay Circle Theater in Los Angeles.

Oddly enough, this is incorrect. The film premiered at the Carthay Circle Theatre in Los Angeles. This is because there's a residential district near Fairfax in LA called Carthay Circle. I drive by it whenever I go up to the Farmers Market for lunch, and I've always wondered why it was so oddly misspelled. Now I'm inspired to take the ten seconds required to find out. Ladies and gentlemen, Wikipedia to the rescue:

In 1922, J. Harvey McCarthy developed the area as an upscale residential district along the San Vicente Boulevard line of the Pacific Electric Railway....McCarthy originally named the district Carthay Center (Carthay being a derivative of the developer's last name).

Really? Carthay is a derivative of McCarthy? That's just bizarre. But now I know. And so do you, even if you didn't want to.

Mitt Romney has a shiny new stump speech. Behold:

Just a couple of weeks ago in Kansas, President Obama lectured us about Teddy Roosevelt’s philosophy of government. But he failed to mention the important difference between Teddy Roosevelt and Barack Obama. Roosevelt believed that government should level the playing field to create equal opportunities. President Obama believes that government should create equal outcomes.

In an entitlement society, everyone receives the same or similar rewards, regardless of education, effort, and willingness to take risk. That which is earned by some is redistributed to the others. And the only people who truly enjoy any real rewards are those who do the redistributing—the government.

The truth is that everyone may get the same rewards, but virtually everyone will be worse off.

This comes via Jon Chait, who says: "This isn’t just a casual line. In eight sentences, Romney asserts over and over again that Obama wants to create 'equal outcomes' and give everybody the 'same rewards.' This is nuts, Glenn Beck-level insane."

In a macabre sort of way, this is all kind of fascinating. Politicians and corporations engage in meaningless puffery all the time, but to be effective it has to be based on at least a tiny core of truth. Obamacare may not have been a "government takeover of healthcare," as Republicans said, but it did give the government a great big slug of additional influence and control over the healthcare system. There's just enough truth there to hang the more audacious claim on, and this lends it enough of an air of plausibility to make it stick.

But Romney's not doing this. Like his "Apology Tour," this is just flatly made up. Ditto for his claim last week that Obama thinks we're living in a post-American century. 

So what's the strategy here? In the primaries, I assume he's calculated that it just doesn't matter. The true believers will believe anything, and the more outrageous it is the better. Romney typically uses over-the-top criticism of Obama to deflect criticism of his own record ("I've never flip flopped in my life, but what's really important is that Barack Obama has said he wants to give Texas back to Mexico"), so this is just more of the same. Romney is hoping that by demonstrating a bit of insanity in the hate-Obama department, primary voters will cut him some slack on being relatively non-insane in the policy department.

But what about the general election? Independents aren't going to go for this stuff. They'll just shake their heads and wonder what the hell he's talking about. So is he going to ditch this stuff completely after he's won the nomination and pretend that he never said it? Or will he keep pressing, literally hoping that if you say anything often enough you can get people to believe it? It is a mystery.