In the Washington Post, David Fahrenthold writes about the Republican mantra to "repeal and replace" Obamacare. Jonathan Bernstein comments:

Fahrenthold does a good job of pointing out how little Republicans have done to carry out their “replace” promise. But he doesn’t quite nail down just how much of a betrayal it has been.

....The chairs of five House committees, in an op-ed they published right after the first House repeal vote, [were] pretty specific: “hearings in Washington and around the country” to develop the new legislation. It’s something that they had full control over (as opposed to actually passing legislation, which depended on the Senate and the president). And it’s something that just didn’t happen.

I consider this a highly metaphysical question. Is something really a lie if no one was intended to believe it in the first place?

Consider the various audiences. The Republican base certainly didn't care about "replace." They just wanted to repeal the socialist abomination that was Obamacare, full stop. The press surely never believed it either. They knew perfectly well that Republicans have never shown the slightest interest in passing healthcare legislation. Democrats knew it was a sham, of course. And independents.....

Aye, there's the rub. Did independents actually believe Republicans were serious about replacing Obamacare? Or did they see the implied wink and nudge just like everyone else? This I don't know.

Was "repeal and replace" an actual promise? Or was it merely political sloganeering best interpreted as "We hate Barack Obama, and if you do too then vote for us"? Where's Wittgenstein when you need him?

The 2009 stimulus bill included a tax cut called the Making Work Pay tax credit. Bruce Bartlett writes about what happened last year, when it was set to expire:

At the end of 2010, all of the tax cuts enacted during the George W. Bush administration were scheduled to expire, as well as the Making Work Pay credit. Although President Obama wanted the tax cuts for the rich to expire on schedule, Republicans insisted on an all-or-nothing strategy. Republicans also asked that the Making Work Pay credit be replaced by a temporary two-percentage-point cut in the employees’ share of the payroll tax.

....In short, the payroll tax cut was a Republican initiative. So why did they turn against it? The answer is unclear.

Unclear? Let's roll the tape:

  • 2009: Obama favored the Making Work Pay tax credit. Republicans were opposed.
  • 2010: Obama wanted to keep the MWP and initially opposed the payroll tax cut. Republicans supported it.
  • 2011: Obama is in favor of extending the payroll tax cut. Republicans are now opposed.

Do you see the trend? Sure you do.

Also of note: Bruce includes a chart from the Tax Policy Center showing why Republicans wanted to replace the MWP with a payroll tax cut in the first place. Partly to annoy Obama, of course, but it turns out that the payroll tax cut is far friendlier to rich people than the MWP. The absolute dollar amounts are small enough to be a rounding error for the truly wealthy, but I guess it's the principle that counts.

Aaron Carroll writes today about Stephen King's Dark Tower series, which I haven't read. And he tells me that King did something remarkable: Just before the end of the last book, he wrote a coda telling his readers not to bother reading the final chapter. Just enjoy the journey of reading the book and let it go:

I forced myself not to finish the story. Instead, I thought about how much I had grown and changed while I enjoyed it....I’ll admit that I went back later, and finished the book. To be honest, I had sort of predicted the final bit, much as I liked it. But Stephen King succeeded. In all the times I’ve talked to others about the series, I have never discussed the ending. I don’t care. What mattered, and what people who have read the book care about, was what happened before the ending.

But still, what I think about most is the coda. He changed the way I think about books and reading. I’ve learned to slow down and think about the story. I’ve learned to appreciate the journey, and focus not so much on the ending.

Oh, Aaron. You've been snookered. Stephen King has somehow contrived to make a virtue out of the fact that modern authors are so relentlessly crappy at finishing up their stories. They can write 500 pages of wonderful, well-crafted prose — or, in King's case, probably 5,000 pages — but most of them simply have no idea how to provide a conclusion that's equally well crafted and satisfying. Why? I don't know. But it's a defect, not a virtue. I don't know if the ending to the Dark Tower series was any good, but don't listen to Stephen King. Authors should learn how to write complete narratives. That means a beginning, a middle, and an end. Anything that lets them off the hook for not getting all three parts right — for not giving the ending every bit as much love and attention as the rest of the narrative — should be treated as nothing more than the special pleading that it is.

UPDATE: I didn't make this clear, and I should have: I'm not insisting on neat and tidy endings. Be as cryptic as you please! But too often endings these days seem almost like afterthoughts, dashed off because the book was due at the publishers and the author just ran out of ideas or something. Modern authors can obviously write with immense craft and sensitivity, and I think that endings deserve exactly as much attention to craft and tone and narrative as the rest of the book. That's all.

Also: this has nothing to do with Stephen King. I have no opinion about the endings to his stories. He was just an excuse to get this off my chest.

Looking for Mr. Smith? Don't look in Congress. Adjusting for inflation, and not counting home equity, members of Congress are more distant from their constituents than ever before:

The financial gap between Americans and their representatives in Congress has widened considerably since [the 70s], according to an analysis of financial disclosures by The Washington Post. Between 1984 and 2009, the median net worth of a member of the House has risen 2½ times, according to the analysis of financial disclosures, rising from $280,000 to $725,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars.

Over the same period, the wealth of an American family has declined slightly, with the median sliding from $20,600 to $20,500, according to the Panel Study of Income Dynamics from the University of Michigan.

It just costs too much to run for Congress today for anyone who's not fairly well off to do it. And that's no coincidence. As income inequality goes up, campaign funding from rich donors also goes up — partly because the rich have more money and partly because they're more motivated to use that money to influence the political process in order to protect their wealth. This creates an arms race that effectively precludes anyone who doesn't have either money of their own or access to wealthy donors from running. And that means that Congress has fewer and fewer members with any real connection to the working world. Is it any wonder that members of Congress these days don't really care at all about the views of the poor and the working class?

Tyler Cowen points us to the chart on the right, from the Economist, and says he was surprised to learn that Germany has more passenger cars per capita than the United States. But there's no real surprise here. It's mostly a matter of whether a Ford Explorer counts as a "passenger car."

You see, in the non-commercial/non-truck world, the federal government distinguishes between "passenger cars" and "other 2-axle 4-tire vehicles." In 2008, there were 137 million passenger cars, which works out to about 446 cars per thousand people. However, there were also 101 million "other 2-axle 4-tire vehicles," primarily in the fast-growing category of SUVs and pickup trucks. Add that up and you get 238 million of the things that we'd ordinarily call cars, which comes to about 775 vehicles per thousand people.

In Germany, apparently, they don't make this distinction. In the non-commercial/non-truck world they put everything into one bucket and just count 44 million "cars." That comes to about 544 vehicles per thousand people.

Unsurprisingly, then, it turns out that we have more cars per capita than Germany. You just have to be careful about comparing national statistics across borders.

Everyone's writing about luxury intercity bus travel today because a new study was released a few days ago claiming that a new breed of "curbside" bus operators has grown their business by 32% in the past year. Matt Yglesias thinks this is mostly new travel, not substitutes for existing travel. Felix Salmon isn't so sure: he suspects that new operators like BoltBus and Megabus are just cannibalizing business from the older breed of "Chinatown operators."

I'm not sure this is really answerable. The first thing I wondered when I saw that 32% increase was how many trips that represented in absolute terms. I figured it might be fairly low, but I didn't expect it to be this low:

Curbside operators expanded daily bus operations by 32.1% in 2011, primarily due to  the addition of three new hubs. Curbside operators now account for 778 daily bus operations in the continental United States, up from 589 last year.

So that's 189 new daily operations. At a very rough guess, that represents growth of maybe 3 million passengers per year.

At another rough guess based on available information, airplanes carry nearly a billion passengers per year on intercity travel and cars carry another 2 billion or so. So that means the growth in curbside bus traffic amounts to about 0.1% of total intercity passenger traffic.

That's a rounding error. There's just no way of knowing whether that's new traffic, substitution traffic, or anything else. It's literally below the level of measurability. For now, I think we just have to admit that we're in the dark about this.

And now for something completely different. The Counterparties blog today highlights an old post from Eamonn Fingleton arguing that Japan's "Lost Decade" is a myth. This is not the story I've heard before, suggesting merely that Japan has done pretty well considering its demographic problems. Not at all. This story suggests that Japan is just flat out lying about its economic growth. For example, here's a piece of data from Fingleton's blog:

In 2007 it was discovered that the long-term record in electricity output completely gainsaid the “lost decades” story. Adjusted to a per-capita basis, the figures showed that Japan’s electricity output in the 1990s rose 2.7 times faster than America’s!....Electricity output is widely accepted as an impartial, culture-neutral proxy for economic growth and it is indeed relied on by international organizations such as the IMF and World Bank when a government may not be following international accounting standards in calculating GDP growth.

Fascinating! But why is Japan supposedly lying about its economic growth?

For those who know Japanese history, a clue lies in trade policy. The fact is that, constantly since the 1870s (with the exception of a brief interlude in the late 1930s and early 1940s), Japan's pre-eminent policy objective has been to keep ramping up exports. That policy came very close to derailment in the late 1980s as a groundswell of opposition built up in the West. By the early 1990s, however, the opposition had largely evaporated as news of the crash led Western policymakers to pity rather than fear the "humbled juggernaut." It is a short jump from this to the conclusion that Japanese officials have decided to put a negative spin on much of the economic news ever since.

What is undeniable is that just as corporate executives enjoy great latitude to juggle their profits up or down for different disclosure purposes (generally up for shareholders, and almost invariably down for the Internal Revenue Service), government officials enjoy even greater latitude to vary a nation's ostensible growth rate. The fact is that the calculation of economic growth depends on a myriad debatable assumptions (value judgments are critical because most growth these days takes the form of better goods and services, rather than more, e.g. better health care) and, while most governments like to plump up the numbers, it is a simple matter to plug in ultra-conservative assumptions.

So the story here is that bureaucrats reacted to the wave of Japan bashing in the late 80s by bowing and scraping in public and pretending to be in dire straits. And it worked! Everyone felt sorry for them, and we've left them alone ever since.

Fingleton has been making this case for a long time, but unfortunately I can't find an awful lot of details on his blog site. His basic argument has to do with Japan's extremely healthy trade surplus, its strong currency, and its leading position in "producers' goods," a super-technologically demanding sector that includes highly miniaturized components, advanced materials, and super-precise machines that other countries (such as China) use to make final consumer goods.

Is Fingleton right? I have no idea. This is light years above my pay grade at the moment. He sounds a bit cranky on the subject because everyone's been ignoring him for so long, but that doesn't necessarily mean he's wrong. On the other hand, if Japan really has been manipulating its official statistics for two decades, this is one of the biggest, most complex conspiracies in history to stay secret for so long. By now, it would amount to something like a 20-30% cumulative difference between reported GDP and actual GDP, which would be damn hard for the rest of the world not to notice, and it would require the active collusion and silence of thousands and thousands of bureaucrats with not so much as a single leak over the course of 20 years.

Still, it would be interesting to see someone debate him on this subject. Not in a live debate, mind you, which I consider about the worst possible medium ever invented for getting at the truth, but in a printed debate. Bring your best evidence. Show us your tables and your charts. Take the proper time to both make and respond to arguments. I'd read it.

Back when Proposition 8 — the anti-gay marriage initiative — was in court, one of the arguments made against it was that it represented a fundamental revision to the California constitution, not a mere amendment. As such, it should have required two-thirds approval from both houses of the legislature plus a majority of the public.

Gay rights supporters lost that argument, but Charles Young, the former chancellor of UCLA, had a brainstorm. Maybe Prop 8 wasn't a fundamental revision, but how about Proposition 13?

Passed at a time when property taxes were sharply on the rise and California was running a surplus, Proposition 13 limited property taxes to 1% of a property's value and restricted the annual increases on assessed values. Those provisions seem like a traditional amendment — they change or add specific rules within a larger constitutional set of provisions. But Proposition 13 also required that "any change in state statute which results in a taxpayer paying a higher tax" must be approved by two-thirds of both houses of the Legislature.

That language has had a profound impact on the power of the executive and the Legislature. The power that it constrains — the authority to raise public funds — is among the most fundamental of government. And the requirement gives more weight to some legislators — and, by extension, their constituents. As the lawsuit notes, "legislators opposing a tax increase are given the functional equivalent of more votes than those legislators who favor such proposals."

Young and William Norris, a retired U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals judge, have filed a lawsuit making exactly this case. Merits aside, I'd be pretty surprised if any court were willing to overturn Prop 13 after more than 30 years on the books. But then again, the merits of the case, frankly, seem pretty strong. Moving from majority rule to supermajority rule strikes me as a pretty fundamental revision of the basic plan of government, especially when it applies to a core function of government like raising money to fund itself. Californians may be in for a surprise once Young and Norris get their day in court.

Not an entirely unpleasant surprise, either. Sure, everyone likes having their property taxes capped. But Prop 13 has had a helluva lot of unintended consequences aside from simply making it hard to raise revenue efficiently. It's also fundamentally changed the relationship between the state and local communities, putting far more power in Sacramento than in the past. It's created permanent special treatment for businesses, which tend to own property for a long time and therefore pay lower average property taxes than the rest of us. And since revenue has to come from somewhere, it's created an insane crazy quilt of "fees" that often make little sense but can be put in place by majority vote. Getting rid of all that would be no bad thing, even if it does mean that a few people might see their taxes raised more easily than before. Stay tuned.

Merry Christmas!

And now for our traditional Christmas ornament greeting. Maybe someday Domino will get an ornament too. Until then, whether you celebrate Christmas, the War on Christmas, or some other holiday, enjoy the day.

By the way, have I mentioned recently that my sister designed this ornament? Well, she did. And now it's a holiday classic. It wouldn't be Christmas without it.

Merry Christmas Eve

'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a cat.

That's how it goes around this house, anyway. And not just on the night before Christmas, either. Enjoy your sugar plums, everyone.