When CNBC's John Harwood asked Newt Gingrich what he did to earn $300,000 consulting for Freddie Mac, he said that he offered them historical advice. This is so plainly implausible that there's not much point in wasting time pretending to take it seriously enough to debunk it, but Bloomberg reporters Clea Benson and Kristin Jensen took the time anyway. That's professionalism for you. And the real answer turns out to be sort of interesting in a way. Gingrich, we're told, didn't perform any lobbying:

Freddie Mac officials expected Gingrich to provide written material that could be circulated among conservatives on Capitol Hill and in outside organizations, said two former company executives familiar with Gingrich’s role at the firm. And executives looked to him to help them find innovative ways to address the problems confronting Freddie Mac, said an official familiar with the company’s internal dynamics.

The former speaker attended brainstorming sessions with Freddie Mac’s management. He didn’t produce a white paper or any other document the firm could use on its behalf.

Impressive! Gingrich was expected to provide written material, but whatever that was, it wasn't substantial enough to even be called a white paper. All he did, apparently, was shoot the breeze with company brass, schmooze donors to Freddie's PAC, and give a speech or two. For that he got paid $300,000.

That's some pretty lucrative historical advice, no? Where do I sign up for this kind of payday?

Deconstructing Newt

John McWhorter deconstructs the verbal tsunami that is Newt Gingrich:

Gingrich's patterns of speech are largely analytically acute, and sometimes aesthetically interesting, but substantively, they are very often lacking. Language is supposed to be a package that carries substance, but Gingrich is sometimes so pleased with his uninterrupted stream of words, that he mistakes it for an actual flow of ideas.

Fair enough. But I'd put it a little differently: Gingrich's favorite debate ploy is to avoid answering tough questions by immediately zooming out to a million-foot level and explaining imperiously how enormously complex everything is. It's all so impressive sounding that he seldom has to bother telling us just what he'd do about any of this enormously complex stuff. Here are a few examples from the most recent debate:

On negotiating with the Taliban:

Look, I think this is so much bigger and deeper a problem than we've talked about as a country that we don't have a clue how hard this is going to be. First of all, the Taliban survives for the very same reason that historically we said guerillas always survive, which is they have a sanctuary....So I think this has to be a much larger strategic discussion that starts with, frankly, Pakistan on the one end and Iran on the other, because Afghanistan is in between the two countries and is the least important of the three countries.

On cutting government:

There are four interlocking national security problems. Debt and the deficit's one. Energy is a second one. Manufacturing is a third one. And science and technology's a fourth. And you need to have solutions that fit all four.

On dealing with a loose nuke in Pakistan:

Well, look. This is a good example of the mess we've gotten ourselves into since the Church Committee so-called reforms in 1970s. We don't have a reliable intelligence service. We don't have independent intelligence in places like Pakistan....This is a very good example of scenarios people ought to look at seriously and say, "We had better overhaul everything from rules of engagement to how we run the intelligence community, because we are in a very dangerous world."

Gingrich is hardly the first blowhard in history to routinely talk this way, but he's certainly made it into a political art form. It all sounds very erudite, but mostly it just allows him to avoid concrete answers. And even when he does get concrete, he most often just ends up spouting buzz phrases like "Lean Six Sigma" and "human capital" and "Agenda 21."

This isn't because he has no concrete answers. When he wants to, he can be perfectly concrete. But when he doesn't feel like getting himself into a jam, he puts on his best world-weary expression, retreats to the million-foot level beloved of management consultants and tweedy professors, and then finishes off with a couple of trendy buzzwords. I often wonder just who he thinks he's kidding with this act, but it does have the virtue of baffling the masses with bullshit so that he can plausibly claim to be the most conservative guy on the stage without ever giving anyone an opening to prove otherwise.

The only thing that surprises me about this is that it didn't happen sooner:

The builders of the controversial Keystone XL tar sands pipeline agreed Monday to reroute it around Nebraska's ecologically fragile Sandhills in the hope the move would shorten any delay in the project, which has posed political complications for the Obama administration.

....The announcement came during a special session of the Nebraska Legislature and won immediate support from many lawmakers....Under the agreement with TransCanada, the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality will join federal officials in preparing a supplemental environmental impact statement to study an alternative route around the Sandhills.

When the State Department issued its delaying order last week, its official position was that it needed more time to study the effect of the pipeline on the Ogallala aquifer, especially the Sandhills section where a rupture could easily seep pollutants into the water supply. So why did the Keystone folks refuse to consider rerouting in the first place? Why not spend a little bit more and take away the Obama administration's easy excuse for delay?

It is a mystery. I guess they thought they didn't need to. In any case, TransCanada's suggestion that maybe now the State Department will consider making a decision in a few months, instead of dragging things out for a year or more, is charming but clearly a nonstarter. It's pretty obvious that "12 to 18 months" means "sometime after November 6, 2012." If Obama wins reelection, I don't doubt for a second that he'll wait a decent interval and then approve the new routing. The victory of the environmental movement over Keystone XL was almost certainly just a temporary reprieve.

The Fate of Obamacare

The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to decide if Obamacare is constitutional, and in particular, whether the individual mandate is constitutional. One senator thinks it's all a big nothingburger:

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a former state attorney general who sits on the Judiciary Committee, said that the individual mandate might very well fall, but that the law’s defenders have gotten “overexcited” about it.

....“So the mandate falls? Big deal,” Whitehouse said. “I think a family able to keep their sick kids on insurance even though they have pre-existing conditions, kids out of college able to stay on their parents’ policies while they look for that first job with healthcare — things like that are what will stick. Irrespective of what the Supreme Court says, that’s the things people really care about and are counting on.”

In a way, he's right. If the mandate falls but the rest of the law remains intact, what happens? Here's Scenario #1: In the 2012 election, Republicans win the presidency and big majorities in both houses of Congress, which gives them the power to repeal the whole thing. But if that's the case, then who cares what the Supreme Court does? The whole thing is going to get repealed anyway.

But Scenario #2 is more likely: Republicans don't win such a sweeping victory, which means that Democrats will be able to prevent them from repealing the rest of the bill, either by veto or by filibuster. Then what? Democrats will want to replace the mandate with something else that requires everyone to buy health insurance — maybe something tax based — but Republicans will kill it. So both sides will be stymied.

So then what happens? Answer: insurance companies go ballistic. If they're required to insure all comers at the same price but healthy people aren't required to buy insurance, then prices spiral as sick people sign up for coverage and healthy people drop out. Eventually this death spiral will lead — as the name implies — to death for insurance companies, and at that point it becomes a staredown. Something has to be done, and either Democrats or Republicans will blink first. It may seem like a no-brainer that Democrats will be the ones to cave if this happens, but that's not clear. All it takes is 41 holdouts to filibuster the GOP, and as the insurance industry gets ever more desperate they'll start pushing hard on their Republican pals.

Obviously the outcome is unclear. But depending on where public opinion falls — and requiring insurance companies to insure everyone is pretty popular — Congress might end up reinstating the mandate in some form or another. It's genuinely a crapshoot.

But will it come to that? I just emailed a friend that I'm too much of a coward to publicly predict what I think the Supreme Court will do, but admitting that privately has galvanized me into action. So here it is: I think they'll uphold the individual mandate 7-2, with Scalia and Roberts joining the majority. Does that sound crazy? Yes it does! But I've never thought this was a Commerce Clause case. There's no question that, in general, Congress has the power to regulate healthcare under the Commerce Clause. The real question is whether the Necessary and Proper Clause allows them to legislate an individual mandate as a reasonable way of implementing their regulatory goals. In the end, I think the government will be able to persuade both Scalia and Roberts that the individual mandate falls well within the scope of McCullough v. Maryland: "Let the end be legitimate, let it be within the scope of the constitution, and all means which are appropriate, which are plainly adapted to that end, which are not prohibited, but consist with the letter and spirit of the constitution, are constitutional." The individual mandate may not be the only way to accomplish Congress's goals, but I think the facts of the case provide an extremely strong basis for concluding that it's appropriate and "plainly adapted" to those goals.

So there you have it. I'm now on record with my first Supreme Court prediction, one with a strong chance of turning out to be idiotic. But I'm sticking with it for now. Believe it or not, I think that the case for constitutionality is clear enough that, in the end, both Roberts and Scalia will do the right thing even though it's not ideologically what they'd prefer. Feel free to mock me in comments.

On the cosmic scale of political malfeasance, this still doesn't exactly peg the meter or anything, but it looks like the Solyndra affair finally has its first whiff of genuine scandal. From the Washington Post:

The Obama administration urged officers of the struggling solar company Solyndra to postpone announcing planned layoffs until after the November 2010 midterm elections, newly released e-mails show.

....On Oct. 25, 2010, Solyndra chief executive officer Brian Harrison e-mailed the energy department’s loan staff to explain that Solyndra “has received some press inquiries about rumors of problems”....Harrison’s e-mail was forwarded to program director, Jonathan Silver, who then alerted White House climate change czar Carol Browner and Vice President Biden’s point person on stimulus, Ron Klain.

October 25 was a week before the November midterms. After the White House folks were notified, apparently word was sent back that a delay of a few days would be appreciated:

In an Oct. 30, 2010 e-mail, advisers to Solyndra’s primary investor, Argonaut Equity, explain that the Energy Department had strongly urged the company to put off the layoff announcement until Nov. 3....“DOE continues to be cooperative and have indicated that they will fund the November draw on our loan (app. $40 million) but have not committed to December yet,” a Solyndra investor adviser wrote Oct. 30. “They did push very hard for us to hold our announcement of the consolidation to employees and vendors to Nov. 3rd — oddly they didn‘t give a reason for that date.”

How odd! I'm sure there's an explanation for this. I just doubt that it's going to be a very good one.

Well, that was quick:

In Italy, the honeymoon for Mario Monti, an economist who became the country’s premier designate on Sunday, was quickly ending. Monti was holding intense meetings with Italy’s notoriously divided political parties on Tuesday to win backing for a new cabinet. But after an initial recovery in Italian bonds, investors again drove Italy’s borrowing rates above the unsustainable 7 percent mark.

The eurozone economy is flat; Germany's central banker announced in no uncertain terms yesterday that the ECB had better not provide liquidity to markets in any way, shape, or form; Angela Merkel told her own party that the answer to Europe's woes was more fiscal integration, something that obviously isn't going to happen anytime soon; and the fundamentals of the eurozone's problems haven't really changed a bit. Put all that together, and everything is unsurprisingly sliding right back into chaos. Tick tick tick.

It's late and there aren't many details yet, but apparently Mayor Bloomberg has decided it's time to end the Occupy Wall Street protest. This is from the New York Post:

From the Post story:

The NYPD has begun evicting the hundreds of Occupy Wall Street demonstrators that have been encamped in Zuccotti Park for almost two months....Hours before the massive operation commenced at around 1 a.m., Mayor Bloomberg, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, Fire Commissioner Sal Cassano and other officials convened in secret at City Hall to greenlight the campaign to clear the park, sources said.

....Cops handed out flyers early this morning declaring that, "The city has determined that the continued occupation of Zuccotti Park poses an increasing health and fire safety hazard," to protesters as well as first responders, and ordered personal property removed.

The real motivation for Bloomberg's action appears to be OWS's announced plan to "Shut Down Wall Street" and "Occupy the Subways" on Tuesday. Check your Twitter feed for the latest. MoJo's @JoshHarkinson and @jameswest2010 are both tweeting live from Zuccotti Park.

From Herman Cain, after an excruciating 60 seconds in which he wracked his brain to figure out what he thought about Libya:

Here's what I would have done. I would have done a better job of determining who the opposition is — and I'm sure that our intelligence people have some of that information. Based on who made up that opposition might have caused me to make some different decisions about how we participated.

So what's the best interpretation of this? That the intelligence community knew who the Libyan opposition was but withheld some of that information from President Obama, causing him to make a poor decision? Really, Herman?

Anyway, the official excuse for this is lack of sleep: "He was tired," said J.D. Gordon, Cain's spokesman and national security adviser. No doubt. During the same interview he also changed his position on collective bargaining rights, and that came right on the heels of GQ publishing an interview in which he revealed that a secret source has informed him that a majority of American Muslims are extremists.

But he's still up in the polls, so we have to continue to pretend to take him seriously. Sigh.

Newt Gingrich is the latest anti-Romney, so I guess that means we all have to pretend to take him seriously for the next few weeks. Fine. Here is Aaron Blake telling us that Gingrich has nothing but contempt for the debt reduction supercommittee:

Gingrich also discussed his own competing debt-reduction plan. Included in the plan is expanded energy exploration, giving states the authority to determine welfare eligibility, expanding research to search for cures to diseases such as Alzheimer’s, and instituting the “Lean Six Sigma” management program in the federal government.

I estimate that all of these things put together would reduce the federal deficit by.....hardly anything. Hell, even Motorola, which invented the Six Sigma program, only estimates that it's saved about $1 billion a year on $30 billion in revenues. That's about 3%, which sounds almost worthwhile, but it could only conceivably apply to about two-thirds of government, which makes it about 2%. And it's almost certainly wildly inflated even at that, so figure 1%. The rest of his stuff might add another 1% if we were really lucky.

So what else would he do? I headed over to his website to find out, but it turns out that Newt is such a cosmic thinker that he doesn't bother his gray matter with petty details. Instead, he wants you to bother your gray matter with the petty details:

The 21st Century Contract with America is so large and covers so many changes necessary to get America back on the right track that it can't possibly be developed by a small group. Instead, it will be developed with the help and support of the American people. 

So there you have it. Newt has provided the yeasty ideas to get you started, and now it's up to you to come up with a few trillion in savings. Just be sure none of your ideas are stupid, because Newt really, really hates stupid ideas. What's more, Blake informs us that Gingrich "has demonstrated a skilled grasp of policy minutiae," and since Blake is an objective hard news reporter, I guess it must be true. So please offer Newt only your very finest ideas so he can cut-and-paste a plan of his own that will blow everyone's mind. I can't wait.

This chart comes via Felix Salmon from an Exane report on Europe's banking system. Basically, what it shows is that wholesale funding between European banks has dried up. This is, needless to say, a big problem: "The way the banking sector works," he explains, "banks have to be constantly lending to each other: in nearly every country in Europe, the amount of bank debt coming due every day is higher than the total amount of bank capital in the system."

The whole thing is a bit mysterious, though, as bank runs so often are. In the United States in 2008, the same thing happened both to specific banks that were in trouble (Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers) and to the banking system in general. But the reason was fairly obvious: American banks held huge portfolios of subprime toxic waste, but no one knew exactly who held what or how much it might be worth. This made the entire banking sector suspect, and wholesale funding dried up systemwide.

Europe's case is different. Their problem right now is sovereign debt, and that's much more quantifiable. The value of some sovereign debt (Greece, Italy, etc.) is indeed in doubt, but at least we have a pretty good idea of which banks hold how much debt. So even if you assume a substantial markdown of sovereign debt, you can still have a pretty good idea of which banks are in trouble and which ones are basically fine. So why has wholesale funding plummeted throughout the entire banking system?

This is something I haven't quite sussed out yet. But in one sense it doesn't matter: panic is panic, and if banks are in the middle of a run — which is essentially what a wholesale funding cutoff is — then somebody has to step in and act as lender of last resort. Unfortunately, Europe no longer has anybody to take up this role:

This is a serious structural issue with the way that the European monetary system was constructed: the ECB is tasked only with guarding inflation, and not with ensuring the health of the banking system. Individual national central banks are meant to do that. But they can’t print money — only the ECB can. So when there’s a liquidity crisis, no one’s able to step in and solve it.

....But it’s liquidity crises which are the most violent, and which can kill a financial system — indeed, an entire economy — more or less overnight. Someone in Europe needs to come up with a plan for how to address the current crisis — now. Because if it gets any worse, it could well be too late.

Tick tick tick.