Murali writes today about one of my favorite semi-cranky hobbyhorses:

I live in Singapore and all citizens are required to have an Identity Card. (IC) The IC is very useful. It doubles as a library card, it serves as identification when I apply for overseas visas, or want to open a bank account etc. Someone’s IC also allows me to identify the other party if I get into an accident (i.e. who to pay or who to bill for damages etc etc). At this level [] there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with it. So, what are the problems with having a mandatory IC policy?

There's more, and you should read the whole thing. I usually break this topic into two separate issues:

  • Having a reliable picture ID card.
  • Having a permanent ID number that allows information about you to be reliably tracked.

But here's the thing: we already do this for most people. Most of us already have picture IDs in the form of driver licenses. And nearly all of us have a permanent ID number in the form of a Social Security number. So like it or not, if you're worried about having tons of information about yourself collected into computerized databases — well, that ship sailed a long time ago. It's already happened.

Given that, what's the real objection to formalizing this? I can suggest several benefits of a national ID card:

  • Done right, it would be more reliable and harder to forge.
  • It would be free (if I had my way, anyway), which means that everyone has access to high-quality ID even if they don't drive and don't have a bunch of credit cards.
  • The whole voter ID movement would become moot. Sure, go ahead and require ID. Why not, as long as everyone has it?
  • It would make it easier to keep employers honest about hiring illegal aliens.
  • It could make emergency medicine easier if ID cards allowed easy access to medical history.
  • As Murali says, "This would also prevent bullshit things like deporting American citizens."

The usual objection to a national ID card revolves around the idea of a jackbooted police state being able to track your every move. But jackbooted or not, this is already possible unless you pretty much take yourself off the grid. Your Social Security number — excuse me, your Taxpayer Identification Number — is already used universally by the government, by your employer, by your bank, by credit bureaus, and by everyone else to keep track of data about you. It's a done deal, and a national ID card wouldn't change this one way or the other.

Now, there are still some legitimate objections. Perhaps you don't think ID should be 100% reliable, that there ought to be a little bit of friction in the system. Or, more concretely, maybe you're afraid that a national ID card can be misused too easily. We'll end up with lots of color-coded symbols on the cards that indicate whether you've ever served time, whether you're a sex offender, whether you have a concealed-carry permit, or whatnot. I think this is a legitimate concern, but I guess the question is whether it's very likely to happen. Given the reality of partisan politics in America, I suspect it's not.1

Bottom line: If we get the whole Nazi-inflected "papers please" thing out of our heads and look at a national ID card as just something to....identify ourselves, it's really not very sinister at all. It's mainly a way to make our lives more convenient. So what's the real objection?

1Except, I'll concede, for the sex offender thing. That's driven us into a collective national insanity, and I'm halfway surprised we don't already tattoo convicted sex offenders on their foreheads.

Why did Barnes & Noble, a seller of physical books, decide to get into the business of selling e-book readers? Matt Yglesias muses:

There's no real mystery about this. The physical book retailing industry is in structural decline driven by technological changes. Insofar as physical bookstore survive, they'll survive because (some) people have warm/fuzzy/nostalgic feelings about bookstores. But that implies a future, if there is one, for the sort of neighborhood independent bookshops that people have warm/fuzzy/nostalgic feelings about, not soulless chains. Barnes & Noble the organism doesn't want to die, so it makes a desperate effort to launch a new book-related businesses—the design and manufucter of e-readers—that it has no particular expertise in. All very understandable....

This isn't the biggest deal in the world, but I think this deserves some pushback from a child of suburbia. See, the whole idea of warm and fuzzy neighborhood bookstores strikes me as very much an urban one. That's not to say they didn't exist outside of cities before the rise of the chains. Of course they did. When I was growing up, my family mostly patronized the Garden Grove Book Shop and were quite friendly with Irv, its owner. It doesn't exist anymore, of course, and although that's unfortunate on one level, it's not really a great loss on another. You see, the Garden Grove Book Shop was pretty small. That's not because it was a specialty store, it's just because it was small. So the selection was limited, and if you needed something they didn't have you had to order it. It would then show up a couple of weeks later. And while we might have hung around to chew the fat with Irv while we were there, his shop didn't have any espresso machines or comfy chairs or anything like that. It had shelves with books in them.

Well, now Garden Grove and its surrounding area has a bunch of Barnes & Noble outlets. And guess what? Soulless or not, they're just way better. They have a bigger selection of books, they're open to 11 pm, bestsellers are discounted, and comfy chairs abound. If you're older than me, you might still have some nostalgic feelings about neighborhood bookstores, but even then probably not much. And if you're my age or younger, you probably barely care at all.

Big cities have either (a) big neighborhood bookstores or (b) lots of little bookstores. That can be pretty nice, and I understand the attraction. But suburbia never had that. For us, Barnes & Noble has been great. If it dies, it's not going to be because of nostalgia for small bookstores, it's going to be because too many people prefer

And that's the point at which I'll start getting nostalgic too. I don't really care that my book browsing no longer takes place in small, cramped neighborhood bookstores, but I do like to browse — and while Amazon is doing everything it can to make books browsable online, it's not the same. So if B&N goes under, there will literally be almost no place left in my neck of the woods to just walk around and look for a good book. This makes me, child of suburbia that I am, a big fan of soulless chains.

It's Romney!

Adam Sorensen reports on the latest Time/CNN poll from South Carolina:

The poll, which surveyed likely primary voters on Wednesday and Thursday, found Romney commanding 37% support, a 17-point gain since early December. He’s not the only one carrying momentum out of Iowa’s photo finish. Rick Santorum has surged 15 points to 19%, picking up the largest chunk of Newt Gingrich’s shattered coalition.

....The largest remaining threat to Romney is a conservative bloc coalesced behind one candidate. As of Friday, that simply isn’t happening. Romney is getting his share of born-again Christians (35%), Tea Party supporters (32%) and self-described conservatives (37%).

If Romney wins Iowa, New Hampshire, and the conservative stronghold of South Carolina, it's really hard to see this race continuing much past February. Right now, the only plausible anti-Romney scenario is for everyone else to drop out quickly and put all their support behind Santorum, but there are two problems with that. First, the other candidates won't do it. The fact is that, among Beltway Republicans, Santorum isn't much better liked than Romney. Second, even if they did, it's hard to see it working in time. Santorum just doesn't have the money or organization to ramp up victories quickly, and in just a few days he's already shown that his ability to verbally self-destruct is very nearly Gingrichian. Even if the race does come down to Romney vs. Santorum, Romney will win pretty easily.

Question: has an "Anybody But ______" movement ever worked in modern history? My memory goes back to ABC — Anybody But Carter — in 1976, and obviously that didn't work. And I can't think of any other example where a clear front-runner was defeated after a few victories by the rest of the field dropping out and coalescing around a single alternative. The collective action problem is simply too hard to resolve in the heat and speed of a modern-day primary.

Hey, did you know there are still some Republicans who believe that climate change is real? There are in New Hampshire! The Climate Desk's James West has video proof below. Enjoy.

Today is new jobs day, and my usual chart is below. It shows the number of net new jobs created over the past few years; that is, the number of new jobs above the 90,000 per month needed just to keep up with population growth and tread water. In December, that amounted to 110,000 net new jobs, pushing the headline unemployment rate down to 8.5%. Not bad. Karl Smith has all the internals plus a few more graphs if you want to dive deeper into the data.

How good are your political punditry skills? I've already made my basic prediction for the Republican presidential race: Mitt Romney is going to win, and he's probably going to win fairly quickly. But anyone can say that. If you really want prognostication glory, you need to put some numbers to your predictions.

We're here to help. Click here and you can start playing with our shiny new GOP Primary Predictor. The results for Iowa are already locked in (Romney got 13 delegates, Santorum got 12), but you can enter your predictions for every primary after that. We tell you how many delegates are available in each state, and you parcel them out based on how you think each candidate will do. When you're done, enter your name and you'll be eligible for fabulous prizes if you make the closest prediction.1 Click the Twitter button if you want to share your prediction with the world. (Use the hashtag #fantasyGOP to share your results.)

I'll have a go at New Hampshire, just as a test run. There are 12 delegates available. I think Romney will get 6, Santorum 3, Gingrich 1, Paul 1, and Huntsman 1. Anyone care to predict a Santorum sweep?

1And just what are these prizes? Sorry, but if I told you I'd have to kill you.

As a public service, I've collected charts showing all the Republican tax plans to date in one convenient place. (The Tax Policy Center hasn't yet tried to score plans from Santorum, Huntsman, or Paul.) It's really pretty spectacular seeing them all together like this. It's not just the amount of pandering to the super-rich that's so breathtaking, it's the lockstep unanimity. At all costs, every single Republican candidate knows that he has to promise the ultra-wealthy a huge tax break as the price of staying in the race. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the modern Republican Party in a nutshell.

The sluggards at the Tax Policy Center1 have finally done an analysis of Mitt Romney's tax plan. It's about time. And it's all bad news for Romney.

As the chart below shows, conservatives are right to believe that Romney isn't to be trusted. Sure, he lowers tax rates on millionaires by 9 percentage points, and you may think that's a pretty sweet deal for the rich. But come on. Newt Gingrich would lower them by 24 percentage points. (No, that's not a typo.) Rick Perry lowers them by 20 percentage points. Herman Cain lowers them by 15 points. Frankly, Romney is hardly even trying here.

So this is the worst of all worlds for the Mittster. For the 95% of us who earn less than $100,000, his plan is almost laughably tilted toward the plutocrat set. There's just no way for him to pretend that he really cares about the middle class. But for the plutocrat set itself, his plan seems downright miserly compared to the rest of the GOP field. So in the end, everyone is uneasy about him. Romney's tax plan, it turns out, is a metaphor for the man himself. It's a tough gig being Mitt.

1Just kidding. TPC rocks, and I feel sorry for the poor analysts who had to hack their way through Romney's vague and seemingly endless set of proposals to come up with a final set of distribution numbers.

Social mobility in America, as near as I can tell, has stayed roughly the same over the past few decades. If you're born to poor parents today, it's about as hard to move up into the middle (or upper) classes as it was 50 years ago.

But as Jason DeParle writes today in the New York Times, it's also true that social mobility is a lot lower in America than in most other developed countries. Jared Bernstein points out that this is partly because income inequality in America is so high: you need a lot more money to move into the top 20% here than you do in Denmark. If we had less income inequality — if the poor families started out a little less poor and the rich families were a little less rich — we'd be a more mobile society too.

But it's worth drilling down a bit and asking what, precisely, is it that America does so badly at? The Times piece includes a chart comparing America to Denmark, which makes things pretty clear:

On the far left, you can see the only really big difference between the countries: the poorest kids in America are far more likely to stay poor than they are in Denmark and far less likely to get rich. And that's pretty much it. If you look at all the other quintiles (I took out the middle quintile to make the chart legible at this size, but it shows the same thing as the others), you see that there's not a lot of difference. And what difference there is favors the U.S. as often as it does Denmark.

So that's the problem: lousy opportunities for the very poorest kids. They start out worse off than Danish kids, and they end up worse off than Danish adults. There's no single reason for this, but one of the big ones is early childhood education. Danes do a much better job on this score than we do, and if we put more money and energy into this I'll bet it would make a big difference.

A few years ago I called subsidies for corn ethanol "catastrophically idiotic." And why not? Corn ethanol, it turns out, is actively worse for the environment than even gasoline, farmers responded to the subsidies by reducing the amount of farmland used for food production, and this drove up the price of staple food worldwide. What's more, back when the subsidies were enacted corn farmers were already doing pretty well. We were shoveling $10 billion in ag welfare to a group of people who were already pretty rich.

In fact, ethanol subsidies are such obviously appalling policy that it's one of the rare areas that both liberals and conservatives agree about. In theory, anyway. But that's never mattered. After all, lots of corn is grown in Iowa, and every four years Iowa holds the first presidential caucuses in the nation. And that has long made ethanol subsidies everyone's favorite pander.

But guess what? At the end of last year, ethanol subsidies quietly expired and no one tried to extend them. On the campaign trail, ethanol subsidies became invisible. It was like a tiny miracle. The Economist's Erica Grieder marshals up several reasons that ethanol subsidies finally died a well-deserved death:

The roaring tea-party movement opposed the subsidies on fiscally conservative grounds, and asked the 2012 Republican candidates to do the same…Then, the budget-cutting frenzy put the subsidies on the table…And concurrently, Midwestern farmers seemed to realise they weren't going to win this one and it might look greedy to keep clamouring…The burgeoning wind and solar industries are increasingly able to produce clean energy without requiring such whopping subsidies or distorting the agricultural markets. The rise of unconventional natural gas has also undercut any excitement around ethanol. And the opposition to ethanol subsidies has gotten more organised.

This is enough to restore your faith in democracy, isn't it? And for that reason, I'd really, really like to end the story right there. But I can't. We're grown-ups, after all. We can handle the truth.

And really, you're probably suspicious of this story anyway. Corn farmers were afraid of looking greedy? (That would be a first.) Tea partiers demanded an end to ethanol subsidies? (I must have missed the anti-corn rallies.) A bunch of politicians decided to stand up to a powerful special interest and do the right thing regardless of the consequences? (Uh-huh.) Maybe there's something we're missing here.

There is. It turns out that corn farmers really don't care about ethanol subsidies all that much anymore, but there's a reason for that. Here is our own Tom Philpott writing in February 2010:

After a flirtation with reason last spring, the Obama EPA has signed off on the absurd, abysmal Renewable Fuel Standard established under Bush a couple of years ago—ensuring that farmers will continue to devote vast swaths of land to GHG-intensive corn, of which huge portion will ultimately be set aflame to power cars—but not before being transformed into liquid fuel in an energy-intensive process.

Tom's a liberal. Here is Aaron Smith, writing a couple of days ago for the conservative American Enterprise Institute:

Deficit hawks, environmentalists, and food processors are celebrating the expiration of the ethanol tax credit. This corporate handout gave $0.45 to ethanol producers for every gallon they produced and cost taxpayers $6 billion in 2011. So why did the powerful corn ethanol lobby let it expire without an apparent fight? The answer lies in legislation known as the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), which creates government-guaranteed demand that keeps corn prices high and generates massive farm profits. Removing the tax credit but keeping the RFS is like scraping a little frosting from the ethanol-boondoggle cake.

The RFS mandates that at least 37 percent of the 2011-12 corn crop be converted to ethanol and blended with the gasoline that powers our cars…[As a result] the current price of corn on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange is about $6.50 per bushel—almost triple the pre-mandate level.

As the Congressional Budget Office wrote back in 2010, "In the future, the scheduled increase in mandated volumes would require biofuels to be produced in amounts that are probably beyond what the market would produce even if the effects of the tax credits were included." [Italics mine.] In other words, the mandates have grown so large that the tax credits barely made a difference anymore. Demand for ethanol is driven by the mandates, not by the tax credit. When you take away the tax credit, nothing happens: Demand stays high because the law says so, corn prices go up accordingly, and corn farmers stay rich. The subsidies were a nice little fillip on top of that, but at this point it's basically chump change.

So there you have it. The fairy tale version of the story was nice, but it turns out that ethanol subsidies didn't go away after all. That's true both literally (most of the subsidy money was redirected to other, smaller-bore ethanol initiatives) and in the bigger picture, where mandates provide the same benefit without being quite so obvious about it. Corn farmers have learned what so many other special interests before them have learned: A nice, quiet subsidy is always better and safer than a garish, noisy one. Now that's what they have.

Front page image: Patrick Fallon/ZUMA