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

The Washington Post reports on the Obama administration's plans to cut back military spending. James Joyner comments:

Oddly, despite having been back benchers during the two hot wars the United States has fought over the last decade, “The Navy and Air Force are expected to fare better because they will play an instrumental role in the administration’s strategy for Asia, where the United States is seeking to counter China’s expanding military power.”

....All of this should remind old hands of the early 1990s. Despite being entangled in a series of peacekeeping/stabilityoperations/operations other than war missions, the Bottom-Up Review and subsequent Quadrennial Defense Reviews planned for a future of major regional conflicts modeled on the wildly unlikely scenario of two nearly-simultaneous wars in Iraq and the Korean peninsula. Yet, the United States military has spent the ensuing two decades fighting brushfire wars.

To be sure, there was the Shock and Awe Lite invasion of Iraq, in which rapid dominance was achieved in three weeks of fighting. But we learned, once again, that a military organized and equipped for major wars wasn’t necessarily one equipped to fight sustained small wars.

I'm always unsure whether to think of this as good news or bad news. The bad news version is the one James talks about: we're busily building a military that's suitable for fighting a war we're never going to fight but unsuitable for fighting the kinds of wars we probably are. If you believe that organizations — even ones whose mission you disagree with — ought to be run efficiently and effectively, then this is purely bad news.

On the other hand, if the Pentagon's old guard is ascendant again, and our newfangled focus on counterinsurgency is being quietly deep-sixed now that the pesky David Petraeus has been kicked upstairs, perhaps that means we'll be a lot less likely to get sucked into brushfire wars in the future. We just won't have the capability most of the time, and that will keep us out of them no matter how loudly the war hawks are whooping it up.

Compared to the alternatives, maybe that's not so bad after all. Unless, of course, it's wrong, and we end up fighting just as many wars as before but fighting them really badly. Take your pick.

I suppose I'm lowering both my IQ and the collective IQ of my readership just by mentioning this, but here is Herman Cain's return to public life:

The former Godfather’s Pizza CEO announced plans to tour the country to raise support for the “9-9-9” plan that was the star of his aborted presidential run, hoping to rally congressional sponsors for his plan to replace the federal Tax Code with a 9 percent corporate tax, 9 percent personal income tax and a 9 percent national sales tax.

....“I started a new movement. The biggest comment I got when I ended my candidacy was to keep 9-9-9 alive. That’s what this is about, and I’m going to keep it alive with what I’m calling Cain’s Solutions Revolution,” Cain said.

What's really going on here? I guess the obvious answer is that Cain is just engaged in the time-honored pursuit of separating fools from their money, but I can't help but wonder if he actually believes this stuff or not. I suppose it doesn't matter, really, but surely Cain isn't so completely divorced from reality that he thinks the Republican Party will ever adopt 9-9-9? Even hardcore conservatives thought it was an idiotic idea.

But I guess he figures he can get a book out of it, and so the clown show continues. Sigh.