In a recession, you'd expect average pay to adjust to a lower level. As unemployment rises, workers should be willing to accept lower wages, and as wages drop employers should become more willing to hire new workers. If this doesn't happen, the recession is likely to persist. One of the current problems in Greece and Spain, for example, is that their workers became increasingly uncompetitive over the past decade. One way to correct this is by devaluing their currency, which would effectively reduce wages countrywide compared to the rest of Europe, but because they're both on the euro they can't do this.

Another way to effectively reduce wages countrywide is to keep compensation constant but allow a higher inflation rate. If inflation is running at, say, 4%, and you get no pay increase this year, your wages have effectively gone down 4%.

But what if inflation is low? Then the only way to reduce wages is to actually reduce wages. For a variety of reasons, however, employers generally aren't willing to do that. It just pisses off their workers too much. At least, that's the theory. And the chart on the right, from a San Francisco Fed letter, demonstrates that it seems to be true. It tracks wage changes during 2011, and there's a huge spike at zero. Employers don't have a big problem handing out tiny raises and letting inflation do their dirty work for them, but they don't like to directly reduce wages themselves:

This is supported by the large gap to the left of zero between the actual distribution of wage changes and the dashed black line representing the normal distribution. This gap suggests that the spike at zero is made up mostly of workers whose wages otherwise would have been cut.

The moral of this story is that tolerating high inflation during a recession is a helpful thing. The faster wages adjust, the faster the recession will be over, and a high inflation rate allows wages to adjust downward even if employers simply keep nominal pay flat. It's probably too late for this to make much of a difference anymore, but an inflation target of 4% starting back in 2008 probably would have produced a stronger and faster recovery than the one we're finally getting now.

Gardiner Harris has a long front-page piece in the New York Times today about friction between the FDA and the White House over just how strict the FDA's rules should be. With one exception (Kathleeen Sebelius's overrule of the FDA's decision to make the Plan B emergency contraceptive available over the counter) the conflicts actually struck me as fairly minor. One was a labeling issue, another seems to have been little more than a request for information, one is still up in the air, and another was a reaction to a pretty outrageous case of price gouging. This is the stuff of fairly routine bureaucratic scuffling.

But even if there's maybe a little less here than meets the eye, it's interesting to read the genesis of the bickering:

A decision that had nothing to do with the F.D.A. proved the turning point in the agency’s relationship with the White House. In the midst of the bitter 2009 battle to pass a law to provide health care to tens of millions of uninsured Americans, the United States Preventive Services Task Force announced in November that most women should not get routine mammograms until age 50 because the risks of the X-ray screens and surgical biopsies that often follow outweighed the benefits in younger women.

Although the task force did not consider cost in its analysis, Republicans charged that its recommendation was the start of health care rationing, an accusation given prominent play on Fox News. “That scared the bejesus out of everybody,” a top F.D.A. official said.

....A provision of the new law required chain restaurants and “similar retail food establishments” to post calorie counts on menus....The F.D.A.’s first draft of the guidelines — approved by the Department of Health and Human Services and the White House — stated that movie theaters, lunch wagons, trains and airlines would be included. A report about the proposal in The Wall Street Journal on Aug. 31, 2010, nevertheless caught the White House by surprise.

“This was the era of Glenn Beck, and the White House was terrified that Beck would get up and say this is all part of the nanny state,” a senior F.D.A. official said. Beth Martino, the F.D.A.’s chief spokeswoman, was instructed to write a blog post reversing the agency’s draft guidance even before the comment period closed and did so on Sept. 8.

Consumer advocates were outraged.

If this is true, Fox News has really gotten inside the Obama administration's head. On big issues, Obama seems generally willing to take the long view and just accept whatever attacks he's going to get. But at the same time, it sounds like the White House is almost hypersensitive to the potential for smaller issues to balloon into gigantic tea party press frenzies. And on those issues, the game isn't worth the candle. They aren't willing to take weeks or months of demagoguery on Fox over the question of whether movie theaters have to tell us just how bad their popcorn is. (Pretty bad!)

So Fox News is clearly inside the White House's OODA loop in a pretty systematic way these days. Congratulations, guys.

I think David Kopel made this point over at the Volokh Conspiracy a few days ago, but today he takes to the Washington Times to argue that Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law isn't really an issue in the Trayvon Martin case:

The assertion that Florida law allows shooting whenever someone believes it to be necessary is a flat-out lie. The actual law of Florida is that “a person is justified in the use of deadly force” if “(1) He or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself...."

Florida’s rule that deadly force may be used to prevent “imminent death or great bodily harm” or “the imminent commission of a forcible felony” is the norm throughout the United States.

Like the majority of American states, Florida does not mandate that victims of a violent crime attempt to retreat before they defend themselves. The retreat rule is irrelevant, regardless of whether you believe Trayvon’s advocates or Mr. Zimmerman’s advocates....Even among the more restrictive states, such as New York, retreat is not required before using deadly force in the home - to prevent a burglary, robbery, kidnapping, rape or other forcible criminal sexual attack. Thus, whether you are in Lake Placid, N.Y., or Lake Placid, Fla., and someone attempts to rob you when you are walking down the street, you have no duty to retreat before using deadly force to thwart the robbery.

I've deliberately commented sparingly on the Trayvon Martin case because the actual facts of the matter are in such turmoil. So I apologize if this question has been answered elsewhere and I just haven't seen it. 

But here's the part I've never quite gotten. Even if you accept Zimmerman's side of the story entirely, Zimmerman was an armed man tracking Martin and obviously scaring the hell out of him. In Zimmerman's account, Martin then jumped him and started beating him up. But even if this is the whole story, is that grounds to shoot someone? Just how much bodily harm do you have to reasonably expect before you're allowed to kill someone? After all, this wasn't in someone's home, and Martin wasn't trying to rob Zimmerman. He was a guy that Zimmerman was trailing. Surely "great" bodily harm has to mean more than just wrestling someone to the ground and throwing some punches, even in Florida? What does Florida law say about that?

Andrew Sullivan links today to a post by David Glasner arguing that low marginal tax rates might actually be bad for the economy:

Our current overblown financial sector is largely built on people hunting, scrounging, doing whatever they possibly can, to obtain any scrap of useful information — useful, that is for anticipating a price movement that can be traded on. But the net value to society from all the resources expended on that feverish, obsessive, compulsive, all-consuming search for information is close to zero (not exactly zero, but close to zero).

....So I am inclined to conjecture that over the last 30 years, reductions in top marginal tax rates may have provided a huge incentive to expand the financial services industry. The increasing importance of finance also seems to have been a significant factor in the increasing inequality in income distribution observed over the same period. But the net gain to society from an expanding financial sector has been minimal, resources devoted to finance being resources denied to activities that produce positive net returns to society. So if my conjecture is right — and I am not at all confident that it is, but if it is — then raising marginal tax rates could actually increase economic growth by inducing the financial sector and its evil twin the gaming sector — to release resources now being employed without generating any net social benefit.

Count me in! I'm totally ready to believe this.

Except that I don't get it. It's certainly true that marginal tax rates have declined dramatically since 1980. It's also true that the financial sector has expanded dramatically since 1980. But what evidence is there that low tax rates caused that expansion? Does finance benefit from lower taxes more than other industries, thanks to the sheer number of transactions it engages in? Or what? There's a huge missing step here. Can anyone fill it in?

I see that the 1940 census is now online, though only if you have a fair amount of patience:

"In the first three hours, we had 22.5 million hits on the site," said National Archives and Records Administration spokeswoman Susan Cooper. "We're a victim of our own success." Cooper said the archives had anticipated significant interest in the public release of the census, the first time such information has been available online, but not quite as much as materialized.

"It’s frustrating and we share that frustration with the public," Cooper said. She said some people are getting through on the website, but many are not. "We’re working as fast as we can to fix the problem."

I used to use the census records a lot, first in microfilm form at my local branch of the archives, then later online when Ancestry.com got them scanned in. But it was mainly the older records that interested me. By 1940, there's nothing much left to find out. I pretty much know where all my ancestors were and what they were doing. Of course, you never know! Maybe I'll discover some strange, dark secret that no one had ever mentioned before. You never know.

But I guess I'll wait a week or two before I try to find out.

Over the weekend Ross Douthat wrote a column saying that the individual mandate was a "political marvel":

In the negotiations over health care reform, it protected the Democratic bill on two fronts at once: buying off some of the most influential interest groups even as it hid the true cost of universal coverage.

I sort of shrugged when I read this. It wasn't really right, but on the other hand, it's certainly true that Obamacare succeeded politically by buying off a whole bunch of interest groups. And if you stretch things a bit, it's also true that forcing people to buy health insurance is a way of getting everyone insured without having to directly raise a lot of taxes and then have the government buy insurance for them.

But I shouldn't have shrugged. Ezra Klein, who I suspect may be holding back on a growing sense of outrage over the conservative assault on the mandate, fires off a spread of tactical nukes in Ross's general direction:

I can’t help feeling like Ross is forgetting something. There was some other reason Democrats adopted this policy. I’m almost sure of it. If you give me a second, I’m sure it’ll come to me. Ah, right! Because Chuck Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, was saying things like “I believe that there is a bipartisan consensus to have individual mandates,” and “individual mandates are more apt to be accepted by a majority of the people in Congress than an employer mandate.”

And it wasn’t just Grassley.....The Healthy Americans Act, meanwhile, had been cosponsored by a bevy of heavy-hitting Senate Republicans, including Lamar Alexander, Mike Crapo, Bob Corker, Judd Gregg, Norm Coleman and Trent Lott.

....Avik Roy points out that many liberals — including candidate Barack Obama — were historically skeptical of the individual mandate. And that’s true....Roy tries to use this to draw some equivalence between the two parties. Both Democrats and Republicans changed their mind on the individual mandate, he argues. But there’s a key difference: The Democrats changed their mind in order to secure a bipartisan compromise on health-care reform. Republicans changed their mind in order to prevent one.

....That’s politics, I guess. But ask yourself: If Obamacare is overturned, and Obama is defeated, who will win the Democratic Party’s next fight over health care? Probably not the folks counseling compromise. Too many Democrats have seen how that goes. How much easier to propose a bill that expands Medicaid eligibility to 300 percent of the poverty line, covers every child through the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and makes Medicare availability to every American over age 50. Add in some high-risk pools, pay for the bill by slapping a surtax on rich Americans — indisputably constitutional, as even Randy Barnett will tell you — and you’ve covered most of the country’s uninsured. Oh, and you can pass the whole thing through the budget reconciliation process.

I don’t think that’s a particularly good future for the health-care system. And I doubt that bill will pass anytime soon. But, if Obamacare goes down, something like it will eventually be passed. And what will Republicans have to say about it? That no, this time, they really would have worked with the Democrats to reform America’s health-care system? Who will believe them?

Ezra has them dead to rights on this. It's one thing to always push for the most conservative feasible policy — that's what I'd do if I were a conservative — but it's quite another to actively lobby for that policy and then, when you get it, immediately turn around and insist that the whole thing is just a slimy piece of political graft that deserves to be blown up by a politicized Supreme Court using a brand new constitutional distinction that no one had ever heard of before last year. Maybe all's fair in love and politics, but the eventual result of this kind of duplicity isn't likely to be either the most conservative possible healthcare plan or the most liberal possible plan. It's likely to be the crappiest possible plan.

Time's Mark Thompson posted an email exchange today with Douglas Wissing, author of Funding the Enemy: How U.S. Taxpayers Bankroll the Taliban, about his impression of the war after spending time on the ground in Afghanistan. Here's Wissing:

FM 3-24, the famous counterinsurgency manual authored by General David Petraeus that guides the U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan, states that partnering with a legitimate host government is an indispensable “north star” to a successful war. Instead, the U.S. is allied with an Afghan government that is largely ineffective and systemically corrupt.

....When I was embedded with U.S. troops in eastern Afghanistan, the soldiers started telling me that the U.S. government is wasting tens of billions of American taxpayer dollars on scandalously mismanaged aid and logistics contracts that end up financing the Taliban.

We’d be trundling through Taliban-controlled areas in armored vehicles, dodging ambushes and hitting IEDs, and the soldiers would be saying, “We’re funding both sides of this war.” It seemed preposterous at first. But as I dug into the story, officers, diplomats, and aid officials confirmed the rough outlines of the pernicious system. One sardonic US intelligence officer told me, “It’s the perfect war. Everyone is making money.”

....I have seen courageous American soldiers get increasingly frustrated and cynical about the war. Last summer a Marine colonel in southern Afghanistan told me there was low morale among the troops. He said, “On an operational level, the soldiers are saying, ‘I’m going to go over there and try to not get my legs blown off. My nation will shut this bullshit down.’ That’s the feeling of my fellow soldiers.” The marine officer said, “The juice ain’t worth the squeeze.”

Wissing believes that the continued American presence simply isn't doing any good. His advice: "I think the U.S. officials need to accelerate the withdrawal of the troops, and prepare to assist with the inevitable humanitarian crisis that is bound to overwhelm Afghanistan when we leave. We broke it. We need to help pick up the pieces."

You all know what a speed trap is, right? If you have a highway running through your small town, you can make a lot of money by ticketing out-of-state drivers who are going one or two miles per hour over the speed limit. How many victims are going to waste time trying to fight it, after all?

But have you heard about "forfeiture corridors"? That's a little different — and quite a bit more lucrative. All you have to do is pull over an out-of-state driver for supposedly making an unsafe lane change, have your police dog sniff around for a bit of marijuana residue, and then use civil asset forfeiture laws to impound any cash you might find. Apparently it's especially popular on highways leading into and out of casino towns. Radley Balko has the details here.

I know that conventional wisdom says that primary contenders can hold hands and sing Kumbaya in the fall no matter what they've said about each other in the spring. But Rick Santorum sure seems bound and determined to perform a destruction test on this conventional wisdom. This ad, especially by Republican lights, is just brutal.

So how's that whole contraception thing working out for the right? The latest Gallup poll of swing states suggests that it's not going so well: Obama now leads Romney in these states 51%-42%. Here's why:

The biggest change came among women under 50. In mid-February, just under half of those voters supported Obama. Now more than six in 10 do while Romney's support among them has dropped by 14 points, to 30%. The president leads him 2-1 in this group.

USA Today breaks this down a bit more in the chart below. Most people still don't have much of an opinion about birth control, but among those who do, 27% agree with Obama's view while only 11% agree with Romney's view. This might all blow over by November, but if the Obama campaign manages to keep it in play it could become a pretty serious albatross for the right.