The world has long needed a Shorter John Holbo, and today Matt Yglesias provides it:

Start with the assumption that ObamaCare is repealed, in its entirety, tomorrow. The day after tomorrow Abdul Hussain, owner and CEO of a large private firm with 5,000 employees, announces that his firm will no longer offer employees health insurance that permits women to visit male doctors or male employees to be treated by female doctors. This is a newsworthy event, and the day after the day after tomorrow Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Attorney General Eric Holder both offer the opinion that this is a form of illegal discrimination and that if it's not already illegal it should be made illegal. Will Mitch McConnell and other congressional Republicans stand up for Hussain's "freedom of conscience" in this case? Will my conservative Twitter followers?

I'm going to guess no.

Yeah, that's my guess too. Likewise, if a hospital owned by a Muslim charity insisted that its patients all sign arbitration agreements that were governed by Sharia law, I think the conservative view of freedom of religion would take a sudden turn for the worse.

But I'm cynical that way. Perhaps some outspoken conservative will prove me wrong.

Back in January, before the South Carolina primary, I suggested there was still a sliver of hope for Rick Santorum. I probably meant to say that there were still slivers of hope for both Santorum and Gingrich, but my puny liberal brain just couldn't get its hands around the idea that there was any hope for Gingrich. So by process of elimination, that meant Santorum was the only remaining chance for the Anyone But Romney forces.

Well, guess what? Lots of negative ads and the usual Gingrichian meltdown — it's nice when people act exactly the way you think they're going to act, isn't it? — have, in fact, left Santorum as the last man standing whose last name doesn't start with R. The RCP poll average below shows Santorum surging after his primary wins last week, and the latest PPP poll shows him substantially ahead of Romney nationally, 38%-23%.

So what happens now that both the national spotlight and Romney's millions are turned on Santorum like the eye of Sauron? Nothing good, I imagine. Alternatively, maybe he really does have a chance, and Republicans have made up their minds to stage a nostalgic revival of 1964. The mind reels.

The Republican primary field has recently decided to revive the Welfare Queen trope, perhaps in hopes that a bit of that old Reagan magic will rub off on them. The argument, as usual, is that there's a vast stream of federal money going to people who are sitting on their asses eating Cheetos instead of going out and earning a living instead. These people are being bred into dependence on Uncle Sam's tit and having their work ethics destroyed.

So the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities decided to add up the numbers and figure out how much money the federal government spends on the nonworking poor. The answer: about 10 percent of all federal welfare spending. How did they come up with that? CBPP's methodology uses census data to figure out exactly where program dollars are going, but you can get pretty much the same answer using a simpler, easier-to-understand technique. Step One is to list every federal welfare program. Step Two is to deduct spending on the elderly, blind, and seriously disabled. That's Social Security, Medicare, SSI, and about two-thirds of Medicaid. Step Three is to deduct spending that goes to the working poor. That's unemployment compensation, EITC, and child tax credits. Step Four is to add up the rest. This overstates how much goes to the nonworking poor, since these programs are open to both working and nonworking families, but it gives you a rough idea.

It comes to about $235 billion, the bulk of which is SNAP (formerly food stamps) and about one-third of Medicaid. That's 12 percent of all federal welfare spending and about 6 percent of the whole federal budget. Once you account for the fact that some of these program dollars go to the working poor, you end up with CBPP's estimate of 10 percent, or about 5 percent of the whole federal budget.

Is that too much? I guess you have to decide for yourself. But I'll bet most people think we spend a lot more than 5 percent of the federal budget on this stuff. They might be surprised to know the real numbers. The CBPP's chart is below, with spending on the nonworking poor highlighted.

NBC News reports that the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, which has long been designated a terrorist group by the State Department, has been receiving funding and training from Israel:

Deadly attacks on Iranian nuclear scientists are being carried out by an Iranian dissident group that is financed, trained and armed by Israel’s secret service, U.S. officials tell NBC News, confirming charges leveled by Iran’s leaders.

....The attacks, which have killed five Iranian nuclear scientists since 2007 and may have destroyed a missile research and development site, have been carried out in dramatic fashion, with motorcycle-borne assailants often attaching small magnetic bombs to the exterior of the victims’ cars.

So does this mean that Israel is a state supporter of terrorism? I've suggested before that it does, and Robert Wright outlines some of the arguments pro and con:

After the NBC story broke, Paul Pillar, a former CIA official who teaches at Georgetown, dusted off the definition of terrorism used by the US government for purposes of keeping statistics: "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents." That, says Pillar, is what these assassinations are.

The counter-arguments have tended not to be big on legalisms...."Israel is entirely justified in using whatever means it has to prevent Khameini's government from achieving its genocidal ends," writes Jonathan Tobin in Commentary. Daniel Larison, writing in The American Conservative, was aghast at Tobin's argument: "In other words, Israeli state sponsorship of a terrorist group is acceptable because it's in a good cause."

Oddly, these both seem like decent arguments to me. Are the attacks on Iran terrorism? Of course they are. If they're not, we might as well give up on even trying to define the word. But is it acceptable just because the other side is using it? Of course it's —

But wait a second. Is it? For all practical purposes, Iran and Israel are at war; they've been at war for a long time; and both sides have tacitly agreed that it will primarily be a war carried out nonconventionally. The alternative is what we did in Afghanistan and Iraq: a full-scale conventional attack.

Is that a superior alternative? To say the least, I'm a little hard pressed to say it is. But the alternative is not to fight back at all. Given the current state of the art in human nature, that's really not in the cards.

Still: is it terrorism? Yes. Do both sides use it? Yes. Is this, in many cases, the future of warfare? Probably yes. Is there a better alternative? That's a good question.

LA Times columnist Steve Lopez visits a living room full of conservatives in California's Central Valley:

Obama is a socialist, said Ray Vercammen. He may be faking his so-called Christianity, said Sam Ackerman. And he wouldn't be much of a public speaker if not for TelePrompTers, said Loron Hodge...."The Mexicans, they have abused this country and we have let it happen," said Ben Strode.

...."What's happening in this country," said Hodge, director of a ministry that provides food and clothing to those in need, is downright scary. With all this "abortion and homosexuality," he went on, the United States may be headed for a hell "worse than Pearl Harbor, worse than 9/11."

"God," Hodge said, "will not be mocked."

Turns out almost all of them are for Santorum. Are you surprised?

Today, both cats grace the same frame, one looking in and the other looking out. In this photo, the cats are a metaphor for Man's ineluctable failure to appreciate his place in the world. One's nature wants to be in, the other's nature wants to be out. In five minutes, their roles will reverse, world without end. As always, the ISO 9000-approved windowpane prevents true understanding. It is the human tragedy given feline expression.

Alternatively, the cats just want me to open the door, and this picture is merely a representation of the fact that cats don't have opposable thumbs. For which we can all be thankful.

In other cat news, your cat may be turning you into an introvert. Or an extrovert. It depends. Details here.

And with that, I can get back to obsessing over hotel accommodations in Rome later this year. My needs are modest. I'm looking for a place with big, lovely rooms; modern, well-equipped bathrooms; situated in a quiet neighborhood in the center of town; providing all modern amenities; with a friendly and helpful staff; and all for a low price. Oddly enough, I'm having trouble meeting all these modest requirements. What's going on?

Well, we now have the details of the "accommodation" that President Obama has made over the contraception issue. Institutions affiliated with the Catholic church will be able to opt out of contraceptive coverage completely, so the bishops are said to be completely satisfied. The LA Times explains the rest:

The change essentially shifts the responsibility for providing and discussing contraception from the religious employer to the insurers. Any employer who has a religious objections to providing contraception will not have to provide that service to employees, but in those cases the insurer will be required to reach out directly to the employee and offer contraceptive care free of charge.

I've been laughing about this over email with a friend, who writes:

Further according to them, "Policy experts within the administration believe that there is effectively no cost to providing contraception, because use of it prevents much more expensive care they would otherwise have to provide."

Catholic bishops are reportedly thrilled. Insurance companies not heard from yet.

You think these things don't turn on the number of angels on the head of a pin? Apparently, they really do.

Not clear to me why they think there's "effectively no cost" and the insurance companies won't object, since if that were the case, they would have been offering this from the beginning of time.

If this gets everyone to sing Kumbaya, who am I to object? But really, this is just idiocy. If insurance companies are required to provide contraceptive coverage "free of charge," they will, of course, simply raise rates elsewhere to cover all these "free" contraceptives. And Catholic hospitals and universities will all pay these slightly higher rates, which means they're paying exactly as much for contraceptive coverage indirectly as they would be if their healthcare plans covered it directly — just as Catholic bishops who pay income taxes already pay indirectly for contraceptive care subsidized by tax dollars. (Which they do. That's life in a pluralistic democracy. We all pay for stuff we disapprove of.)

Still, I guess this accommodation means the bishops can convince themselves their money isn't going toward paying for the evils of contraception. Kumbaya!

POSTSCRIPT: I just want to add that it's possible that this is a cunningly brilliant move. Obama gets to show — again! — that he's always willing to meet his critics halfway, and if the insurance companies play along with the "free of charge" charade then the critics really don't have a leg left to stand on. If they continue to object, then they're exposed as simply opposed to birth control, not merely standing up for religious liberty.

On a broader note, I don't think there's a single person in the world who has a consistent opinion on the fungibility of money. And you know what? As silly as that is from a purely technical point of view, it's probably not a bad thing. We all need ways to fool ourselves into making compromises we otherwise wouldn't make, and in the grand scheme of things, inconsistency over the fungibility of money is a small price to pay for a better lubricated society.

Paul Krugman says that although the employment picture is looking up, it still has a ways to go. To illustrate this, he displays a chart showing the employment-population ratio for prime age workers age 25-54:

I agree that this is a telling statistic. It really does indicate that we haven't made up much of the ground we've lost since 2007, so I don't have any argument with Krugman using it. At the same time, you get a different picture if you pull back and disaggregate the data a bit. Here's another view:

I don't want to make too much of this, especially since I'm not sure exactly what we should make of it. But the employment-population ratio among men has been declining steadily for over half a century, and right now we're only a point or two below the trendline for men. Conversely, participation among women plateaued starting in the mid-90s, which suggests that we're still a good four points or so below the trendline for women.

Maybe. The question is what the long-term trend really is. I'm not sure what to say about that, but it's been niggling at me for a very long time. Basically, I just want to caution everyone not to treat 2007 as a magic year. There's no question that employment is still in the doldrums, but the question of where the employment-population ratio "should" be is not easy to pinpoint.

As you may recall, I think one of the most important questions you should ask yourself when you ponder public policy is, "Compared to what?" Michael O'Hare asks this question regarding drone attacks:

I think our emotional reaction to stuff like this depends a lot on what alternatives we instinctively compare it to. Is the drone a cowardly analog to lying in wait for a bad guy and bushwacking him, a pusillanimous substitute for standing up and ‘fighting like a man’, putting your safety at immediate risk? Or is it just like launching a bullet from far away, or dropping a bomb from high in the air, or planting a mine that goes off when you’re in another county, except better because it’s more accurate and selective, can be called off right up to the last second, and even safer for the pilot/operator?

Here's a related point, prompted by the news that even a majority of liberals approve of drone attacks. Again, the key question is, "Compared to what?"

  • When you think of drone attacks, are you mentally comparing them to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq? If so, they'll seem like superior alternatives: more focused, less deadly, less costly, and less likely to spiral out of control.
  • Or, are you mentally comparing them to no war at all? If so, they'll obviously seem more deadly, more costly, and, as Mike points out, maybe even cowardly and pusillanimous too.

If liberals are implicitly choosing the first option, that might explain why so many approve of drone attacks: because they want us to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, and they think of drone attacks as a way of allowing that to happen. They may or may not approve of the attacks in a vacuum, but if that's what it takes to provide cover for a drawdown, then it's an acceptable compromise.

I'm not sure how you get inside people's heads to see if this is the lens they're using. But I suspect that something like this explains what's going on, just as "Compared to what?" explains a lot of other things that otherwise seem a little mysterious at first glance.

I see that the Obama administration is expected to offer up a compromise on contraceptive coverage later this morning. Greg Sargent wisely tweets, "I see no reason not to wait for final proposal. The world won't be worse off if we yell 'cave' in an hour, instead of right now."

Fine. I'll wait. Politically, though, it sounds like a disaster no matter what the compromise is. All the folks who have had Obama's back on this are going to be wildly furious, and the Catholic bishops, having smelled blood already, will not be appeased. Not even slightly. They won't accept any compromise other than an absolute, ironclad exemption for any institution that's associated in any way with the church, putting a clear end to all the nonsense about this really being an issue of copays or some other secondary issue.

This has not been well played.