This is the damnedest thing. The Financial Times reports today on why the recent EU summit to save the euro collapsed into a debacle, with Britain opting out entirely and forcing the rest of Europe to go ahead without them. The basic story, of course, is that British prime minister David Cameron demanded special protections for London's financial sector and neither Germany nor France was willing to go along. But what's striking to me is how incompetent the negotiation process was on all sides.

The FT reports that Cameron met with Angela Merkel in November and got the impression she was willing to deal. So he went home to work on a proposal, but he and William Hague kept their cards close to their vests until the very last moment:

They wanted the bid to be kept secret from two potential adversaries. The first was Mr Cameron’s hardline eurosceptics, who want an EU referendum and repatriation of powers....The second was France....Moreover, the British position was not settled till late. On Tuesday December 6, Mr Cameron assembled his chief foreign policy advisers.

[Note: the summit was due to take place December 9th.]

....It is unclear whether Mr Cameron was aware of the warning lights flashing in the Whitehall machine....From Paris, too, came warnings that Mr Sarkozy was intent on a weaker, intergovernmental pact....Berlin, meanwhile, was warning London not to overdo it in pushing Germany. Nikolaus Meyer-Landrut, Ms Merkel’s Europe adviser, was given early sight of the City protocol and said it went too far. When asked what was acceptable, German officials made clear it was not their place to draft UK demands. After a flurry of Franco-German diplomacy, a common position took shape: if the British did not temper their demands, a deal would be done without them. Days before the summit, German officials said their “pessimism was more pronounced” – words intended as a clear signal to London.

You can read the rest of the piece for more details, but what's most striking is how little communication there was here. My sense of these kinds of summits is that they're always preceded by weeks of frenzied activity among mid-level negotiators so that the top level folks just have to work out a few well-defined issues before they appear smiling before the cameras when the summit ends. But no. As near as I can tell, Merkel's advisor, Nikolaus Meyer-Landrut, got a look at Britain's demands on December 7 and refused to engage with them beyond saying they went too far. On the morning of December 8 Merkel and Sarkozy met privately. On the evening of the 8th, the FT reports, they invited Cameron to a pre-summit meeting and "ambushed" him by flatly turning down his demands. And that was that.

What the hell kind of way is that to run a railroad? It's crazy.

Now, I'll confess that this whole affair puzzles me on another level. The main point of the summit was to gain agreement for some level of European control over national budgets, with automatic sanctions for countries that run budget deficits that are too big. I can understand Spain and Greece and the other periphery countries agreeing to this under pressure. But was Britain also willing to agree to this if only they got a special deal for their financial industry? I find that frankly hard to imagine. And yet, it doesn't seem to have been a sticking point.

But why on earth would Britain, which isn't part of the euro, agree to fiscal oversight like that? What's in it for them?

In any case, it's too bad Cameron didn't figure out a way to scuttle the whole noxious mess and force Merkozy — that's what everyone calls Merkel and Sarkozy, sort of like Brangelina but without the charisma — to deal with Europe's actual problem instead of obsessing over budget deficits and idiotically unenforceable "binding" sanctions. Until they deal with the root of the problem, this is all just so much gum flapping.

From Rick Perry, explaining to an Iowa crowd that Herman Cain would make a good Secretary of Defense:

He has all the characteristics of the type of person I would bring forward.

Yes indeed, in much the same way that, say, Hannibal Lecter has all the characteristics that would make him a good food critic for the Times. I smell a Twitter meme coming on here. #allthecharacteristics

So, Christopher Hitchens. I've never read any of his books, only his columns and magazine essays, but am I the only one who's feeling a strong need for a bit of perspective on the guy?

Politically, he spent the 80s as a Trotskyite, the 90s in transition as a lunatic Bill Clinton hater, and the aughts as a cheerleader for the Iraq war. This is not exactly an enviable track record of considered judgment. 

As a writer, he was all over the map. His prodigious memory was, indeed, prodigious, and he was capable of brilliance. And yet, quite aside from his subject material, I never much warmed to him. His writing contained provocation aplenty, but far too much of it, I thought, was tediously bloated, a few hundred words of dashed off substance wrapped around many more hundred words of tired reminiscences, random bile, and frustratingly circuitous filler. It certainly wasn't unreadable, and sometimes it produced a charm of sorts, but mostly it neither persuaded nor even really entertained on any kind of sustained basis.

So....I guess I've never quite gotten the cult of Hitchens. He had an impressively wide-ranging intellect, he was prolific almost beyond belief, and he was (I gather) personally gregarious and a good friend to thousands. But after half an hour of rereading old columns of his, most of them in carefully curated lists of "personal favorites," I was mostly just reminded of why I never much cared for him. There just wasn't much there there.

De gustibus non est disputandum. I have the mind of an engineer, so maybe his style was just never going to appeal to me. But his personal charisma aside, he sure seems to have combined almost appallingly poor political judgment with a rambling writing style that too often used its considerable (and genuine) erudition as a mask for its lack of a really sharp, well argued point. I never had anything much against the guy, but really, the hagiography is getting a little too thick to bear.

UPDATE: For what it's worth, I should make it clear that I'm talking here solely about Hitchens' writing on politics and current affairs, not his writing about culture and literature, which I'm not qualified to judge.

This has been new things week. Not really new, of course, just new enough to be newly fascinating. The nights are getting chilly here in Southern California (mid 50s!) so Marian tossed an extra quilt on her side of the bed, and Inkblot instantly fell in love. Every day he hops up on the bed and burrows under it for his late morning nap. Likewise, I got a little chilly a few nights ago and grabbed a quilt, which I then tossed onto my chair after I was done. Domino, who has never shown any interest in this chair before, claimed it immediately. Yes, she's the round black ball in the middle of the nest on the right.

In other news, today is Beethoven's birthday, so go listen to a symphony. Or, better yet, his violin concerto. And in case you're a late riser and missed my fundraising pitch this morning, you still have a chance to contribute to the Mother Jones Investigative Fund today. This is our last beg of the year, and we're trying to raise $75,000 to help fund our reporting activities for 2012. Many, many thanks to everyone who's contributed so far, whether it's $5 or $500.

The PayPal link is here.

The credit card link is here.

So what does the much discussed National Defense Authorization Act actually do? This is one of several topics that I've been too fatigued to seriously dive into over the past week, and after getting about 90 minutes of sleep last night I'm sure not going to do it today. Luckily, Adam Serwer has a pretty good rundown here of what it does and doesn't do. It's worth a read, especially if you're confused about all the competing claims made about it as it wound its way through the sausage factory.

Bottom line: It's probably not quite as bad as you think, but it's hardly a triumph of civil liberties either:

So what exactly does the bill do? It says that the president has to hold a foreign Al Qaeda suspect captured on US soil in military detention—except it leaves enough procedural loopholes that someone like convicted underwear bomber and Nigerian citizen Umar Abdulmutallab could actually go from capture to trial without ever being held by the military. It does not, contrary to what many media outlets have reported, authorize the president to indefinitely detain without trial an American citizen suspected of terrorism who is captured in the US.

....Still, the reason supporters like Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) are happy with this bill is that it codifies into law a role for the military where there was none before. It is the first concrete gesture Congress has made towards turning the homeland into the battlefield, even if the impact in the near term is more symbolic and political than concrete.

But "symbolic" and "political" doesn't mean "meaningless." Codifying indefinite detention on American soil is a very dangerous step, and politicians who believe the military should have an even larger domestic counterterrorism role simply aren't going to be satisfied with this. In fact, if there is another attack, it's all but certain they will hammer the president should he choose not to place the suspect in military detention.

Read the whole thing for all the details.

From Mitt Romney at last night's debate:

This is a president who fundamentally believes that the next century is the post-American century. Perhaps it will be the Chinese century. He is wrong.

Seriously, where does he get this stuff? It's just made up out of thin air. Obama's never said this or anything even close to it. We have truly entered the era of the postmodern campaign.

One of the first things you learn in Means-Tested Welfare Economics 101 is that means-tested welfare programs produce enormous marginal tax rates. Say you have a $5,000 benefit that's available only to people making less than $10,000. If you have market income of $9,000, this means you have total income of $14,000. But if you have market income of $11,000 you have total income of $11,000. You're essentially paying a marginal tax rate of over 100%.

Of course, you could spread this out. Instead of just taking away the entire benefit when you cross the $10,000 threshold, you could take away, say, $500 for every $1,000 in additional income. This means that for every additional $1,000 you make, your actual income only goes up $500. That's better, but it's still a 50% marginal tax rate, which is higher than the tax rate paid by any other income class on any kind of income.

This is all basic stuff, recognized by everyone since the dawn of time. Megan McArdle comments on it today:

Note two things: first, that in this case, at least, the supply siders seem to be completely right. Everyone I've spoken to about the problem seems to agree that the poor respond to these high marginal tax rates by either taking lower-paying jobs than they could, or working less — not in every individual case, but in aggregate.

And second, that this is not a problem that supply siders seem to be applying much brain power or political capital to fixing.

Nope. In fact, they mostly want to make it worse by applying means testing to programs like Social Security and Medicare. Unfortunately, despite plenty of high-wattage brainpower being applied to this problem, nobody's ever figured out how to avoid this basic problem of means-tested benefits. If the means testing is strict (i.e., benefits phase out quickly) it creates a big incentive to simply save less or not work as hard. If the means testing is loose (i.e., benefits phase out slowly), the perverse incentives get smaller, but you end up barely saving any money. It's an especially big problem for Social Security, which is a pure cash benefit.

This is why I'm pretty skeptical of means testing either of these programs more than we already do. Any version of this that avoids big negative incentives would phase out so slowly that it just wouldn't save much money. So why bother?

Tyler Cowen on the latest news out of the eurozone:

At this point you have to be asking whether it is better to simply end the eurozone now, no matter how painful that may be....As a politician I probably could not bring myself to pull the plug, but as a blogger I wonder if that might not, at this point, be the wiser thing to do. Current crisis aside, does anyone out there see the euro’s governance structure — even with reforms — as even vaguely workable?

Nope, not me. But the sunk costs are simply too big for Europe's leaders to be willing to dissolve the eurozone in response to anything short of a complete financial meltdown. As usual with financial crises, they can probably avoid this meltdown a lot longer than anybody thinks. But can they avoid it forever? It sure doesn't look like it.

This has been a pretty busy year at Mother Jones: covering the Occupy protests, the Wisconsin sit-ins, the Arab Spring, human rights in trouble spots around the world, and a whole lot more. As you know, I write about this stuff from the comfort of my living room, but MoJo's other reporters don't. They're out there on the front lines, producing first-person accounts of the stories that progressives care about most.

But it's expensive doing that, and next year is probably going to be more expensive yet. For starters, it's an election year, and we're planning to spend a lot of time investigating dark money and its increasing importance on politics in a post-Citizens United world. It's an important topic, but it's not a cheap one to dig into.

So with the end of the year coming up, we're making one last fundraising push. If you appreciate our brand of reality-based journalism, please help us out by donating a few dollars to the Mother Jones Investigative Fund today. Even $5 or $10 makes a difference, and $50 or $100 makes an even bigger difference. Plus, your donation is tax deductible. So please take a minute right now to give via credit card or PayPal.

The PayPal link is here.

The credit card link is here.

The work we do here costs a lot to produce, and we can't do it without help from our readers to help fund it. From me personally, and from all of us at MoJo, thanks in advance for whatever help you can afford to give.  

Newt and the Mandate

The New York Times has uncovered yet another instance of Newt Gingrich supporting an individual mandate for health insurance:

Although he now says he is opposed to the so-called individual mandate, in a May 2009 conference call — previously unreported — he told health care executives, “We believe there should be must-carry; that is, everybody should have health insurance, or if you’re an absolute libertarian, we would allow you to post a bond.”

I imagine Newt will have yet another too-clever-by-half explanation for this, but there's now quite a track record of him being a big fan of the mandate. At some point, his denials just aren't going to wash any longer.

There's also more in the article about his relentless lobbying-that-wasn't-really-lobbying. His explanations for this are getting a little frayed around the edges too.