Dave Roberts writes today about a federal program that has no net cost, supports the fastest growing industry in the country, leverages private capital at more than 4:1, and supports tens of thousands of new jobs:

So you'd think this would be a home run, right? At a time when jobs are at the top of every politician's mind, surely a bit of low-cost economic stimulus that doesn't increase the deficit and leverages tons of private capital and creates tens of thousands of jobs can serve as the rare locus of bipartisan cooperation. Right?

Except the industry in question is the solar industry. And because this industry involves clean energy rather than, I dunno, tractor parts, it has been sucked into conservatives' endless culture war. Rather than lining up to support the recession's rare economic success story, Republicans are trying to use the failure of a single company — Solyndra — as a wedge to crush support for the whole industry.

....This. Is. Insane. Right in front of our noses is what everyone says they want: a growing industry, creating jobs, leveraging economic stimulus into enormous private-sector investment. And Republicans are going to let it die! And Democrats are going to let them!

Even after following this stuff pretty closely for the past decade, it never fails to gobsmack me the way conservatives turn everything into a culture war issue. Because Dave is right: solar power is a great industry on pretty much any metric. It's growing, it's clean, and it provides lots of good jobs. At a minimum, it's as good as any other industry, and repurposing solar tax credits into solar cash grants in order to help a broader array of small businesses is sort of a no-brainer.

But Republicans are against it. Why? The logic seems to be (a) global warming is a myth, (b) therefore anything associated with global warming is bad, (c) solar power is associated with fighting global warming, so (d) solar power is bad. Or something like that. I certainly can't think of any other reason why Republicans are so unanimously in love with subsidies for nuclear and coal and so passionately opposed to renewable energy in nearly every form. It's as if supporting renewables is an implicit admission that clean energy is a good thing, which in turn is an implicit admission that global warming is real. And since that's a left-wing hippie thing to believe in, they can't support renewables.

The Tax Policy Center has done yet another analysis of Herman Cain's 9-9-9 plan, and guess what? Unless you're really rich, your taxes will go up! If you earn, say, $50,000 per year, you currently pay about 14.3% of your income in federal taxes. Under Cain's plan, you'll pay 23.8%. Whee!

And if you make the big bucks? Well, millionaires currently pay about 32.9% of their income in federal taxes. Under Cain's plan, they'll pay 17.9%. Ka-ching!

I actually think the TPC analysis is probably kinder to Cain's plan than it should be. But in any case, this is certainly the minimum damage that middle-class families can expect to see. So what do you think Cain's response will be when he gets asked about this tonight? I'm putting my money on "They're wrong." Other possibilities are "It's just a proposal, we can always tweak it," and "I was just joking."

UPDATE: Yep, Cain's answer was "They're wrong," almost verbatim. Plus some more nonsense about apples and oranges.

Last week, Herman Cain twice suggested that we should build an electrified fence along the border with Mexico that would kill anyone who touched it. On Sunday he reversed course, insisting he had just been joking, even though video of his remarks makes it pretty clear that he was perfectly serious. Today, he reversed course again, admitting that his original remarks weren't a joke at all.

This is a pretty obvious subject for tonight's Republican debate. You can see it coming a mile away and every candidate should have a pretty well-prepared response about it. Two questions, then. First: What do you think Herman Cain will say about this? Second: with plenty of time to prepare, what do you think Rick Perry will say about it? Will he be able to string together 30 seconds worth of coherent thoughts on the issue? Or will he screw up completely as he usually does?

Greg Sargent wants to know why the media is giving Republicans a huge pass on their various "jobs plans":

Obama and the Senate GOP have both introduced jobs plans. In reporting on the Senate plan, many news organizations described it as a “GOP jobs plan.” And that’s fine — Rand Paul said it would create five million of them. But few if any of the same news orgs that amplified the GOP offering of a jobs plan are making any serious effort to determine whether independent experts think there’s anything to it. And independent experts don’t think there’s anything to it — they think the GOP jobs plan would not create any jobs in the near term, and could even hurt the economy. By contrast, they do think the Obama plan would create jobs and lead to growth.

Why aren’t these facts in every single news story about the ongoing jobs debate? Why aren’t they being broadcast far and wide?

I’m trying to think of the reasons for this....[One] possible reason: Reporters and editors don’t take the GOP jobs plan seriously enough to have it evaluated by independent experts. But if this is the case, isn’t this something readers and viewers should know about? News consumers who read or view stories about the GOP jobs plan without being told this vital information risk coming away thinking that both sides are making an equally serious contribution to the debate. If reporters and editors don’t believe this, isn’t that pertinent info for their customers?

I plucked out that last reason (Greg actually tosses out three possibilities) because it rings the truest to me. I suspect that reporters are simply so used to Republicans embracing nonsense that they evaluate it on a whole different plane than they do "serious" proposals. GOP campaign plans are treated more as optics than as actual policy, as ways to signal a candidate's conservative bona fides more than as blueprints for actual legislation.

But Greg is right: this should stop. There's no reason to give these guys a pass on their laughable jobs plans that virtually no one thinks will create any actual jobs. It won't be easy, since most of the candidates (with good reason) refuse to release enough detail to make it easy to assess their plans, but it's still doable. And the press should do it.

This isn't exactly big news or anything, but the Los Angeles Times reports today on just how much of a litmus test repeal of Obamacare has become for Republican activists:

Republican activists, increasingly optimistic they can win the White House and Senate next year, are beginning to lay the groundwork for a multi-pronged campaign in 2013 to roll back President Obama's sweeping healthcare overhaul. The push includes an effort to pressure Republican candidates to commit to using every available tool to fully repeal the law, a tactic pioneered by conservative activist Grover Norquist, who made an anti-tax pledge de rigeur for GOP politicians.

…Some activists are so concerned that Republicans will miss their chance that they are trying to lock GOP candidates into using a controversial parliamentary tactic known as budget reconciliation to circumvent Senate Democratic opposition to repeal. "This needs to be a threshold question for both presidential and Senate candidates," said Michael Needham, head of Heritage Action for America, an advocacy group affiliated with the Heritage Foundation that supports many tea party positions.

I've been trying to think whether anything like this has really happened before. Has repeal of a major new law ever been the subject of such a feeding frenzy during a presidential campaign? There have always been small blocs that were dedicated to repeal of, say, Social Security or Medicare or the ADA, but I can't remember such a position ever being front and center for an entire party as its top concern.

A lot of progressives were pretty unhappy that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act ended up so watered down before it passed. There was no public option! For that reason and others, enthusiasm among the Democratic base for Obama's reelection is pretty muted right now. But my guess is that it won't stay that way: Once Republicans have an actual candidate nominated, the lefty base will find its outrage again. I sure hope so, anyway.

Because watered down or not, Obamacare is our best hope for national health care anytime in the next decade or two. It's not nearly as bad as its critics think, and in any case, it's something that can be built on. But if it's repealed? Then you can say sayonara to health care reform for at least a decade, and probably more. At a minimum, nothing serious will happen until we have a Democratic president and something close to a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate again. I'd put that at 20 years away.

That's really what the 2012 election is about. All the shouting aside, neither party is going to end up doing anything very different about the economy. Nor is there really all that big a difference between the parties on foreign policy these days. No, the single biggest accomplishment of the past decade has been the passage of Obamacare, and the single biggest difference between the parties going forward is whether or not it gets repealed, ending health care reform for another decade or two. In the end, that might not be enough to get the liberal base fired up, but it should be.

Front page image: TalkRadioNews/Flickr

So how fuel efficient are modern passenger cars? Stuart Staniford passes along a link to the latest EPA mileage report, which both clarifies things and adds a bit to the murk.

First the clarification. Table 1 in the report provides an "adjusted composite" figure of 25.8 mpg for model year 2010 cars. This number is production weighted, so it reflects the actual distribution of cars sold.

But wait! For the past decade the EPA report has published "adjusted" — i.e., real world — numbers because the "laboratory" EPA mileage, which is the number you see on a car's sticker, is notoriously over-optimistic. For 2010, the average laboratory 55/45 combined mileage was 32.7, which kinda sorta explains the BTS figure of 33.7 from the previous post. Close enough for government work, anyway. (Though this still sounds pretty high to me. It's based on average city mileage of 27.6 and average highway mileage of 42.3, but according to DOE's search site, there were a grand total of eight cars in 2010 that got lab EPA highway mileage over 42 mpg. So it's hardly credible that the fleet highway average was 42.3 even using the lab EPA values.)

So I'm still a little confused. Still, if you're looking for a real-world, production weighted fleet average for gas mileage, the best current estimate is 25.8 mpg for model year 2010. Now you know.

Warning: Obsessive data post to follow, probably of minimal interest to most normal people.

Brad Plumer has an interesting item today suggesting that once you account for all the electricity used to produce gasoline, electric cars not only use less gasoline than regular cars, they use less electricity too.1 Interesting! But something else in his post caught my eye: according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the average new passenger car in 2010 got about 33.7 miles per gallon. Really? We just bought a new car a few months ago, and while we were doing our comparisons I was surprised at just how few cars were available that got really high mileage. So where does that 33.7 figure come from?

Well, Brad links to this table from BTS, which does indeed promote the 33.7 mpg number. But how did they come up with that? According to footnote C:

Assumes 55% city and 45% highway-miles. The source calculated average miles per gallon for light-duty vehicles by taking the reciprocal of the sales-weighted average of gallons per mile. This is called the harmonic average.

OK, so what's the source? Here it is:

1995-2009: Ibid., Highway Statistics (Washington, DC: Annual Issues), table VM-1, available at http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/policyinformation/statistics.cfm as of Apr. 20, 2011.

Great. So let's take a look at Table VM-1. It provides a figure of 23.8 mpg for all light-duty vehicles on the road in 2009. There's nothing there about about 2010 passenger cars in particular. So where does their data come from? Here's footnote 1:

The FHWA estimates national trends by using State reported Highway Performance and Monitoring System (HPMS) data, fuel consumption data (MF-21 and MF-27), vehicle registration data (MV-1, MV-9, and MV-10), other data such as the R. L. Polk vehicle data, and a host of modeling techniques. Starting with the 2009 VM-1, an enhanced methodology is used to provide timely indictors on both travel and travel behavior changes.

Hmmm. Table MF-21 estimates total 2009 gasoline usage of 132.8 billion gallons on highways and 3.8 billion gallons elsewhere. Table MF-27 provides a similar number for 2008.That's it. Table MV-1 informs us that there were 134.8 million automobiles registered in 2009. Tables MV-9 and MV-10 provide registration numbers for trucks and buses. None of that is helpful.

So apparently BTS's actual methodology is based on HPMS data "and a host of modeling techniques," not anything in those tables. That means I have no way to check their work. Still, does that 33.7 mpg figure seem credible? Using their 55%/45% split, that would mean an average city EPA rating of about 29 mpg and a highway rating of 39 mpg. That sure seems high to me. DOE's search site won't let me plug in those exact numbers, but when I ask for a list of all cars rated above 30 city and 40 highway, I get a grand total of 13 hits — and of those, eight are either Volkswagens or Smart cars, neither of which has a huge sales presence in the United States. What's more, as near as I can tell, not a single one of the top ten sellers in the United States in 2010 had a combined mileage of 33.7 mpg, and according to Ward's Automotive, only 4% of auto buyers in 2010 purchased cars with a combined mileage over 30 mpg, let alone 33.7 mpg.

Bottom line: If I had to guess, I'd say that somewhere between 2-5% of passenger car sales in 2010 had a combined mileage of 33.7 mpg. The average mileage of 2010 cars just has to be way less than that. If anyone has better data on this, please let me know.

1Or maybe not. In an update, Brad says this: "According to this Argonne study — and this analysis by the Department of Energy’s Jacob Ward— it takes about 6 kwh of energy to refine a gallon of gasoline, not 6 kwh of electricity, as I originally stated." Electric cars still come out looking pretty good, but quite that good.

Guess what? Rick Perry's energy-centric "jobs" plan turns out to be — surprise! — pretty much a joke. (A joke mostly stolen from the American Petroleum Instititute, but a joke nonetheless.) Aside from the usual heroic assumptions you'd expect in a campaign white paper, Perry basically pretends that President Obama plans to halt a bunch of stuff — natural gas fracking, pipelines to Canada, etc. — and then counts as new any job that results from not halting this stuff that, in reality, Obama has no plans to halt in the first place. And even at that, he only comes up with something like 100,000 new jobs per year. More likely, says Michael Levi, Perry's plan would produce, at most, about 50,000 new jobs per year.

Does this mean that Perry is unserious? Jonathan Bernstein says no: Perry is just reacting rationally to the environment he finds himself in:

Perry is confronted with a tough problem, and is taking a sensible way out. The tough problem is that doing policy in the GOP nomination contest is almost impossible. What motivates Tea Partiers and other enthusiastic primary voters? A lot of it is mythical, such as the imminent Obama crackdown on fracking seen here, or Obama's apology tour, or Obama's plans to seize everyone's guns, or all those IRS agents that Jon Huntsman was complaining about in last week's debate.

Others are internally contradictory; good luck proposing a budget that eliminates the deficit, cuts taxes, and doesn't cut spending on the military or current Medicare or SS payments. Still others are massively unpopular general election positions; that part is normal in all presidential nomination contests, but particularly an issue this time around. And hanging over all of it is the possibility that something on the approved list today could be the mark of a RINO tomorrow (see: Mitt Romney, health care reform). Not to mention that there are a half dozen or so "candidates" who are prone to making up stuff intended to ingratiate themselves to the crazies (well, it's really mainly three — Newt, Bachmann, Cain).

In that environment, calling for a tough stand against the mythical is an obvious and probably smart choice. Thus Mitt Romney's foreign policy, which appears to be entirely designed against opposition to mythical apologies, not to mention everyone's opposition to the mythical "Obamacare" version of ACA. And thus Rick Perry's energy plan.

There are only so many ways to say that the modern Republican Party is crazy. Plus it's depressing to think too hard about this. So I often find myself trawling around the internet looking for the interesting and humorous ways that other people are saying this. Jonathan wins today's prize for his Kinsley-esque explanation of why Rick Perry isn't a nitwit so much as he's merely caught up in the spiderweb of crazy that is today's GOP.

To illustrate this, here's a picture of the spiderweb outside my window. Does this seem like a stretch? Of course it is, but I've already given you pictures of the ducks, turtles, squirrels, mice, roses, birds, and, of course, cats that have inhabited my backyard from time to time. And I'm not going to stop until I've shown you everything. (The possum in our garage a couple of weeks ago scurried away too fast to get a picture. But next time I'll be ready.) So today you get a spiderweb. Next week, perhaps I'll be reduced to taking a picture of a grasshopper or something, and trying to make some kind of political parable out of it. But that's next week's problem.

UPDATE: I originally quoted Levi suggesting that Perry's plan would create about 25,000 jobs per year. However, via Twitter, he says the jobs are front loaded, so 50,000 is probably a better estimate for the first few years. I've corrected the text.

You'd hardly know it from listening to the endless complaints about the lamestream media from movement conservatives, but guess which presidential candidate has gotten the worst press coverage over the past five months? The Pew Research Center took a look at all the Republicans running for president, and the answer is: none of them.

One man running for president has suffered the most unrelentingly negative treatment of all, the study found: Barack Obama. Though covered largely as president rather than a candidate, negative assessments of Obama have outweighed positive by a ratio of almost 4-1. Those assessments of the president have also been substantially more negative than positive every one of the 23 weeks studied. And in no week during these five months was more than 10% of the coverage about the president positive in tone.

The chart below tells the whole story. Anita Perry may think her husband has been "brutalized" over the past few weeks, but the numbers tell a different story. Rick Perry is actually the media's golden boy.

Now Less Than Ever

Over the weekend I flagged a blog post from Adam Ozimek called "Now Less Than Ever," but didn't get around to responding to it. Adam's post is framed around this assertion from economist Russ Roberts:

[Paul] Krugman is a Keynesian because he wants bigger government. I’m an anti-Keynesian because I want smaller government. Both of us can find evidence for our worldviews.

Before I get to Adam, I just want to add a comment about this. Krugman has already defended himself in the usual way — liberals aren't ideologically in favor of big government the same way conservatives are ideologically in favor of small government, and Keynesianism has never been about big government anyway — but I want to make another point. To the extent that Keynesianism has informed the liberal response to the financial meltdown of 2008, it's prompted support for temporary spending increases. But this is not something that liberals are generally for. It's just not. Outside of a recession, when was the last time you heard a bunch of lefties demanding a temporary increase in some program or another? Pretty much never. Various stripes of liberals may be in favor of various kinds of programs — national healthcare, carbon taxes, universal preschool, etc. — but the people who favor them want them to be permanent. Temporary globs of cash are very seldom on the liberal agenda.

For that reason, stimulus spending during a recession really isn't a matter of liberals taking advantage of a crisis for liberal ends. If we're going to allocate temporary piles of money, then sure: liberals would just as soon allocate it to stuff we support. But generally speaking, temporary spending just isn't, and has never been, part of the liberal agenda.

Now, on to Adam. It's easy to use a crisis like the current recession as an excuse to argue for stuff you've wanted all along (tax cuts, healthcare reform), but what about stuff you don't like? "Help prove Russ Roberts’ cynicism wrong," he says. "Tell us what favorite policies of yours we need Now Less Than Ever. These can be things that either would be downright harmful now, or that we simply shouldn’t be focusing on and aren’t as important as actual recession cures." Sure. Here's an example. A couple of months ago I proposed fighting the recession with a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan. But:

That's the jobs plan. A trillion dollars to make us into a first-world country again. And as part of the enabling legislation, ask for emergency powers to temporarily streamline the regulatory red tape, interagency approval processes, environmental-impact statements, and labor rules that might otherwise keep the money from being put to work speedily.

As a mainstream liberal, I normally wouldn't favor watering down either environmental impact reviews or labor rules, even temporarily. But the problem with infrastructure as a stimulus is that it's slow. If we genuinely favor spending a lot of money on bridges and dams and schools to boost the economy now, we need a way to get these programs started quickly. That means making some compromises we'd normally hate.

How about you? What dearly held priorities would you be willing to (temporarily) give up in order to get the economy moving again?