From Kate Sheppard, explaining how the Durban climate conference managed to avoid catastrophe and forge a last-minute agreement:

In the end, it came down to a single turn of phrase: changing "legal outcome" in the earlier draft to "an agreed outcome with legal force under the convention applicable to all parties."

Whatever it takes, I guess. In the end, the Durbanites agreed to "launch a process to develop a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force." So that's that. A process will be started. The outcome will be a protocol, or maybe a legal instrument, or maybe an agreed outcome with legal force. Hopefully this outcome will happen by 2015. And then everyone will sign on by 2020.

This doesn't strike me as an especially cheering result, but, as usual, it's better than a complete meltdown, I suppose. For more details, Michael Levi has a fairly discouraging take here ("It is distressing to see how much attention has become devoted to form rather than function") while David Roberts has a slightly more upbeat take here (the agreement may be mostly symbolic, but it's also "a marker and a serious concession").

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you politics in America:

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney’s baffling decision to propose a $10,000 bet with Texas Gov. Rick Perry over a disagreement on health care policy during Saturday night’s Republican presidential debate dominated the after-action analysis of the event.

....The bet then could have a similar effect to Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) ordering swiss cheese on his cheesesteak or Martha Coakley suggesting Curt Schilling was a Yankees fan — crystallizing for voters that Romney just isn’t one of them.

“The question for voters is will they see it as a trivial moment in a debate, or does the willingness to bet $10,000 show he’s not like middle class people,” said Republican consultant Dan Hazelwood.

I am willing to bet $10,000 that ordinary viewers barely even noticed Romney's bet until the punditocracy decided to make it the defining moment of the debate. This whole thing is just a ridiculous media concoction.

No, wait! I didn't mean that. I meant that I'd bet $10. Honest. I'm just one of the 99%, like all the rest of you. I probably couldn't scrape up $10,000 even if I sold the log cabin I live in and threw in both the cats. Seriously. Would you like to hear some stories about my deprivations growing up? I've got 'em! I had to share a bedroom with my brother. Three of us kids shared a single bathroom. It was like living in the third world, I tell you. But I persevered and look where I am now.

Jeebus. I can't believe we still have another 11 months of this nonsense to put up with.

Why are Republicans so thrilled with Newt Gingrich? The obvious answer, of course, is that they aren't. They just don't like Mitt Romney much, and after speed-dating Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain and finding them all wanting, Gingrich is all that's left.

But that's an uninteresting answer. There must be something about Gingrich, after all, something more than just being the last guy standing. But what? Once again, there's an obvious answer: Whatever his faults, Gingrich has a vast reservoir of goodwill among movement conservatives for ushering in the Republican Revolution of 1994 and toppling 50 years of Democratic dominance of Congress.

Okay, fine. But what else? That was two decades ago. There has to be something about Gingrich himself, something about his personality or his temperament right now today that conservatives find appealing. So what is it? Paul Waldman picks up on the same trait that I think is probably Gingrich's key strength:

Many conservatives are positively obsessed with the idea that contrary to all appearances, Barack Obama is kind of a dolt. There's lots of talk about how Obama only got into Columbia and Harvard Law School because of affirmative action (you may remember noted highbrow intellectual Donald Trump making this claim), and endless jokes about Obama overusing teleprompters, with the idea that he's too dumb to give an extemporaneous speech sometimes implied and sometimes stated outright.

So many conservatives have a fantasy that if they nominate their own smart guy, he'll show the world that they've been right all along, that Obama is really a numbskull whom people only believe is smart because the liberal media sing his praises.

A week ago one of Andrew Sullivan's readers provided the sound bite version of this theory:

As much as the commentariat likes to talk about electability, the just-regular-folks I spent the holidays with talked only about how Newt would "hammer" the President during debates. "Can you imagine," my sister said, her eyes as lit-up as a child's on Christmas morning. "When Obama starts that smartest-guy-in-the-room shit, Newt'll shut him up." No one talked about policy or even politics. This is a mob storming the Bastille, cheering the guillotine, and Gingrich is their most likely Robespierre.

In this view of things, Bachmann and Perry and Cain are the girls you want to have a fling with, but Gingrich is the girl you want to marry. No matter how many dumb teleprompter jokes they make—and this has been a staggeringly hardy laugh line among the right-wing for the past two years—in reality conservatives are intimidated by Obama's obvious intelligence. Deep in their hearts, they really don't want to nominate a moron like Perry or a clown like Cain or a kook like Bachmann because they're afraid Obama will tear them apart.

But Newt! He's the perfect candidate. He's (a) not Romney, (b) a sharp debater, and (c) has a very showy applause-line contempt for all the same things that movement conservatives have contempt for. What's not to like? He's apologized for the extra wives and the palling around with Nancy Pelosi, so why not let bygones be bygones?

The next couple of months should be pretty fascinating. I continue to believe that, in the end, there are still lots of non-tea partiers voting in the Republican primaries, and eventually they'll come to their senses and power Romney to victory. But I'm a lot less confident of that than I used to be. Romney just flatly can't seem to break through his 25 percent poll ceiling, and although Gingrich may have a lot of baggage, his strategy of simply admitting he was wrong about that baggage and claiming that he's now learned his lesson is disarmingly simple and—so far—devastatingly effective. If he's actually learned enough self-discipline to keep from imploding, he seems to have a real chance. The Obama campaign team must be licking their chops.

What Me Worry?

Nick Baumann is in Germany and has spent the last week talking with German journalists. Across the political spectrum, he says, they all share a similar view on the euro crisis: rote opposition to both inflation and the idea that German taxpayers might have to pay to cover Spanish or Italian deficits:

Perhaps this isn't surprising. But what was shocking to me was the total absence of any recognition that there might be an alternate view. When I mentioned the idea that the euro's problems might not be entirely due to government irresponsibility on the periphery, but rather a balance-of-payments issue (see Matt Yglesias or our own Kevin Drum for more on that idea), people looked at me like I was from space. The fact that German and French banks are holding the bag for Spain and Italy's debt never came up, and no one seemed to have any doubts that the European Stability Mechanism, the fund the eurozone countries are setting up for emergencies, would be sufficiently large to deal with the situation. 

....It's possible, of course, that my sample of journalists was oddly skewed and that German media are talking about this sort of stuff. But if Germans really are taking the "worry" side of the story seriously, it's a fringe thing. I spoke to reporters or editors from most of the country's largest papers and broadcasters, and they all seemed unconcerned. What's hard to convey remotely is the general mood: a kind of serenity, an almost utter confidence that everything will turn out fine. I hope they're right. But I'm not so sure.

I'm not so sure either. But if the confidence fairy has any power at all, I guess it's good to know that the German press has so much confidence that everything's going to turn out OK.

Why Italy Is Broke

The Guardian reports today on Tommaso, the world's richest cat. We've seen stories like this before, so it's all a bit ho hum. But check this out:

In a handwritten will, signed on 26 November, 2009, Tommaso's mistress—the childless widow of a successful builder—gave her lawyers the task of identifying "the animal welfare body or association to which to leave the inheritance and the task of looking after the cat Tommaso". One of the lawyers, Anna Orecchioni, told the Rome daily Il Messaggero they considered several organisations without getting adequate guarantees of the cat's future comfort and welfare.

Seriously? Tommaso's owner left an inheritance of 10 million euros. You could build a cat-sized Taj Mahal with a permanent staff and still have 9 million euros left over. Are Italian animal welfare associations so bulging with cash that they can afford to turn down 10 million euros just because they don't feel like guaranteeing posh treatment for a single cat?

I may have been under the weather this week, but luckily Marian wasn't, which means catblogging goes on as usual. Today, Inkblot investigates the unusual sounds/odors/crinkling noises emanating from the shopping bag he's sitting next to. Can you guess how this turned out?

I see that Karl Rove's PAC unveiled a preposterously deceptive ad yesterday claiming that Elizabeth Warren is unfit for the Senate because she's....wait for it....too close to Wall Street. Yes, you read that right. Here on Earth Prime, of course, Warren is perhaps one of the financial industry's most loathed figures. Saying she's too close to Wall Street is sort of like saying Ralph Nader is too close to General Motors because, you know, he spent a whole year researching a book about the car industry.

So why choose such a comically outlandish attack? Well, keep in mind that Rove is famous for believing that you should always attack your opponent's strongest points, not just their weakest. And obviously Warren's whole reputation is based on being the Scourge of Wall Street™. So something had to be done about that.

Will it work? It seems a little too farfetched to me, even if Rove's people do have the resources to saturate the airwaves with this stuff. Even Warren's critics will have a hard time picking up the ball on this and running with it, and without a groundswell of echo chamber goodness it won't have legs.

Still, it's an interesting test of Rove's thesis. If he can get away with this, it's pretty good evidence that you can get away with anything.

NPR wanted to talk to some rich people about whether the "millionaire's surtax" would hurt the ability of small firms to hire more people. They had a tough time finding any:

We wanted to talk to business owners who would be affected. So, NPR requested help from numerous Republican congressional offices, including House and Senate leadership. They were unable to produce a single millionaire job creator for us to interview.

So we went to the business groups that have been lobbying against the surtax. Again, three days after putting in a request, none of them was able to find someone for us to talk to. A group called the Tax Relief Coalition said the problem was finding someone willing to talk about their personal taxes on national radio.

So next we put a query on Facebook. And several business owners who said they would be affected by the "millionaires surtax" responded.

[Three small-business owners responded. All said that higher personal taxes would have no effect on hiring decisions for their firms.]

"Those I would say were exceptions to the rule," responds Thune. "I think most small-business owners who are out there right now would argue that raising their taxes has the opposite effect that we would want to have in a down economy."

Which is worse? That neither Republicans nor business groups could find even a single person to back up their "job creators" nonsense? Or that the crack reporting staff at NPR couldn't figure out any way to contact millionaires except to ask Republicans and business groups? Don't they have any business reporters who might know a better way than Facebook to reach out to these folks?

Here is the final paragraph of Felix Salmon's summary of yesterday's summit to save the euro:

Europe’s leaders have set a course which leads directly to a gruesome global recession, before we’ve even recovered from the last one. Europe can’t afford that; America can’t afford that; the world can’t afford that. But the hopes of arriving anywhere else have never been dimmer.

I'm not sure things are quite as bad as that. It's true that some non-euro members of the EU, notably Britain, have declined to join a deal, but I think that was always inevitable and was probably priced in long ago. The euro is going to be saved by the countries that use the euro, not anyone else. It's also true that the ESM, the proposed bailout fund, is too small. But as bad as that is, it might not be disastrous. A trillion euros isn't chickenfeed, after all. In the end, success probably comes down to how seriously financial markets take the new deal.

I'm generally not a fan of economic theories that depend too strongly on setting expectations, but I think there's an argument to be made that expectations play a bigger role than usual in the euro crisis. If markets believe that Europe is committed to saving the periphery countries, then interest rates will come down significantly and the periphery countries will be saved. Only Greece is still a disaster even with low interest rates. The other periphery countries can survive in the short term just by getting their borrowing costs down.

So how likely is that? My guess is that the markets aren't too bent out of shape by Britain's opt-out. They probably aren't too upset by the modest size of the ESM either, as long as they believe that it's likely to get bigger if necessary. So it all comes down to one thing: will the eurozone countries unanimously agree to the new deal? Probably so. Britain's opt-out may be bad news generally, but the silver lining is that it makes approval more likely, since the deal now has to be done via an intergovernmental agreement rather than a treaty change. That's good news, since if markets think approval is likely, there's a good chance that disaster will be averted long enough to get the deal approved.

So, do I actually believe all this happy talk? Honestly, I'm not sure. I think it's possible that today's deal might work in the short term, but I don't know how long the short term is these days. What's more, the lack of mutual debt guarantees is bad news. The fact that the ECB continues to refuse to act as lender of last resort is bad news. The focus on budget deficits rather than current account imbalances is bad news. The lack of any serious plan to boost growth in the periphery countries is bad news.

In the end, that might be too much bad news. Maybe Felix is right after all: today's deal might avert disaster for a bit, but the eurozone is still tiptoeing right up to the edge. It's a mighty high-stakes game of chicken they're playing.

The Death of Style

Kurt Andersen writes in Vanity Fair this month about something that I've noticed too: visual style hasn't changed much over the past 20 years.

Think about it. Picture it. Rewind any other 20-year chunk of 20th-century time. There’s no chance you would mistake a photograph or movie of Americans or an American city from 1972—giant sideburns, collars, and bell-bottoms, leisure suits and cigarettes, AMC Javelins and Matadors and Gremlins alongside Dodge Demons, Swingers, Plymouth Dusters, and Scamps—with images from 1992. Time-travel back another 20 years, before rock ’n’ roll and the Pill and Vietnam, when both sexes wore hats and cars were big and bulbous with late-moderne fenders and fins—again, unmistakably different, 1952 from 1972. You can keep doing it and see that the characteristic surfaces and sounds of each historical moment are absolutely distinct from those of 20 years earlier or later: the clothes, the hair, the cars, the advertising—all of it.

....Now try to spot the big, obvious, defining differences between 2012 and 1992. Movies and literature and music have never changed less over a 20-year period. Lady Gaga has replaced Madonna, Adele has replaced Mariah Carey—both distinctions without a real difference—and Jay-Z and Wilco are still Jay-Z and Wilco. Except for certain details (no Google searches, no e-mail, no cell phones), ambitious fiction from 20 years ago (Doug Coupland’s Generation X, Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow) is in no way dated, and the sensibility and style of Joan Didion’s books from even 20 years before that seem plausibly circa-2012.

You can pretty quickly recognize a movie made in the early 70s or the early 50s. But the early 90s? In movies like Silence of the Lambs or Basic Instinct, only tiny clues give away when they were made.

Andersen's theory is that we're victims of future shock: "In some large measure, I think, it’s an unconscious collective reaction to all the profound nonstop newness we’re experiencing on the tech and geopolitical and economic fronts. People have a limited capacity to embrace flux and strangeness and dissatisfaction, and right now we’re maxed out." That doesn't really sound very convincing to me, but his basic observation about the inertia in fashion and other visual cues over the past couple of decades seems fair. Anybody got a better explanation?