President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama pretend to sing with an a cappella group in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House during a holiday reception.

Christmas is only a couple of days away, and this week the Obama administration delivered a last-minute Christmas present to all of us, one that's been 20 years in the making. On Wednesday, following a tortured history, the EPA finally released new standards that sharply reduce the emissions of mercury and other airborne toxins from power plants. David Roberts is jubilant: 

This one is a Big Deal. It's worth lifting our heads out of the news cycle and taking a moment to appreciate that history is being made. Finally controlling mercury and toxics will be an advance on par with getting lead out of gasoline. It will save save tens of thousands of lives every year and prevent birth defects, learning disabilities, and respiratory diseases. It will make America a more decent, just, and humane place to live.

The new standards for airborne toxins are expensive: they'll cost upwards of $10 billion annually and will require dozens of old coal-fired power plants to shut down. The power industry, aided and abetted by the conservative press, has spent years retailing horror stories about blackouts all along the Eastern seaboard as the new rules take effect, but this is, unsurprisingly, little more than the usual doom-mongering. Brad Plumer provides the reality:

[An AP] survey found that the coal plants set to be mothballed are mostly ancient — the average age was 51 — and largely run without modern-day pollution controls, as many of them were grandfathered in under the Clean Air Act. What’s more, many of these plants were slated for retirement in the coming years regardless of what the EPA did, thanks to state air-quality rules, rising coal prices, and the influx of cheap natural gas. “In the AP’s survey,” she writes, “not a single plant operator said the EPA rules were solely to blame for a closure, although some said it left them with no other choice.”

Crucially, none of the operators contacted by the AP seemed to think that huge swaths of America were on the verge of losing power, as Jon Huntsman claimed. An official from the North American Reliability Corporation put it this way: “We know there will be some challenges. But we don’t think the lights are going to turn off because of this issue.” This jibes with an Edison Electric Institute study, as well as a Department of Energy study (which focused on worst-case scenarios), a study from M.J. Bradley & Associates, and the EPA’s own modeling (PDF). Utilities will manage to keep the power running, in part by switching to natural gas, as plenty of gas plants currently operate well below capacity.

So that's the downside: $10 billion annually in costs and a difficult but manageable shutdown of obsolete power plants. And the upsides are enormous. Here's the EPA's estimate:

The total health and economic benefits of this standard are estimated to be as much as $90 billion annually....Combined, the two rules are estimated to prevent up to 46,000 premature deaths, 540,000 asthma attacks among children, 24,500 emergency room visits and hospital admissions. The two programs are an investment in public health that will provide a total of up to $380 billion in return to American families in the form of longer, healthier lives and reduced health care costs.

Much of this is due to reductions in particulate matter, not mercury, which suggests that, if anything, the EPA may be underestimating the benefits of the new rules. As Michael Livermore points out, mercury is a dangerous neurotoxin for small children, and the EPA's analysis of that danger is limited to quantifying lost future earnings due to lower IQs. But even a grinch wouldn't pretend that the cost of this kind of neurological damage is limited to lower wages. "There are," says Livermore, "also risks of cognitive and social defects, negative autoimmune effects, genetic effects, and heart attacks that are not quantified."

Those of us on the left have had plenty of opportunity to be disappointed with politics in general and with President Obama in particular over the past year. But although I think Dave Roberts exaggerates a bit comparing this rule to getting rid of lead in gasoline, he's right that it's a huge positive step for our country's health, and one that's long, long overdue. Merry Christmas, everyone.

Over at New York, Noreen Malone provides us with "A Brief History of Teenage First Daughters." Why not teenage first sons? Well, oddly enough, there haven't been enough in recent years to bother with. Here's a list of all the teenagers to inhabit the White House in the postwar era:

  • Malia Obama (Sasha will join the ranks if Dad gets reelected)
  • Barbara and Jenna Bush (barely!)
  • Chelsea Clinton
  • Amy Carter
  • Susan and Steven Ford
  • Luci and Lynda Bird Johnson

Weird. Steven Ford is the only male child on the list. You have to go back to FDR to find a couple more. I blame humorless feminists for this indefensibly one-sided state of affairs.

My Little Dog Bo

I get that a blog post is just a blog post. And sometimes blog posts are nothing more than water cooler blather. But this post from Shannon Coffin perfectly encapsulates the deranged Obama hatred currently consuming the American right:

Now, this may not be the biggest story of the year, and in all likelihood, it probably isn’t even true.  But did the President really order the first dog back from Hawaii to the White House to be a prop for a Petsmart photo op? According to a report, Bo (a dog whose name is an acronym for his owner — coincidence?) [actually, yes: just coincidence –ed.] was spotted one day in Hawaii, where Mrs. Obama had gone for vacation in advance of her husband, and in a “regular guy at the pet store” photo op with Mr. Obama in Virginia the next.

Now, granted, this could be accomplished with no cost to the taxpayer, if Air Force Two (which would have flown Mrs. Obama to Hawaii) was returning home to Andrews AFB anyway.  And reports of Bo (the dog, not the President) being in Hawaii could very well prove false, thus mooting Bo-gate as an election year political scandal. But let’s say it is true. Really, Mr. President? And shouldn’t some advance staffer be fired for letting the dog get on the plane in the first place?

So let me get this straight. First, we don't even know if this is true. Second, even if it is true, it didn't cost taxpayers anything. Nevertheless, someone should be fired over it.

I recommend Obama go on TV and give the following speech:

Republican leaders have not been content with attacks on me, or my wife. No, not content with that, they now include my little dog, Bo. Well, of course, I don't resent attacks, and my family don't resent attacks — but Bo does resent them. You know, Bo is Portuguese, and being a Portuguese water dog, as soon as he learned that the Republican fiction writers in Congress and out had concocted a story that I'd left him behind on a Hawaiian island and had sent a 747 back to find him — at a cost to the taxpayers of two or three, or eight or 20 million dollars — his Iberian soul was furious. He has not been the same dog since. I am accustomed to hearing malicious falsehoods about myself — such as that old, worm-eaten chestnut that I'm constantly apologizing for America. But I think I have a right to resent, to object, to libelous statements about my dog!

What do you think? Pretty good, huh?

UPDATE: Guess what? Bo was never in Hawaii in the first place! Imagine that.

At least, that's what the liar-in-chief says, anyway. I suppose most of my lefty readership will be gullible enough to believe him.

Sarah Kliff points us to an article in the New England Journal of Medicine that tries to isolate the reason that Medicare payments for physician services have gone up faster than Congress predicted in the late 90s. The chart below tells the basic story. General surgery, anesthesiology, and internal medicine have basically done OK. Emergency medicine, geriatric medicine, and radiation oncology have skyrocketed.

Using this data, the authors draw the following conclusion about the Sustainable Growth Rate formula adopted by Congress (and temporarily rescinded every year when they pass the annual "doc fix"):

We do not mean to suggest that the SGR physician-payment system should be restructured according to either state or specialty. For example, the arrival of new technologies in one area of medicine may justify faster growth in some specialties relative to others. Rather, our analysis illustrates that across-the-board cuts in fees are too blunt an instrument to restrain the growth of spending on physician services. In fact, any form of target expenditures for physicians who are not part of a coherent risk-bearing organization that is responsible for patient care will produce pathologies similar to those revealed in the graphs.

Unfortunately, that sentence in bold is key. It's not clear to me that the data here justifies any conclusion at all, because it measures total spending, not the amount spent specifically on physician fees, which is the subject of SGR. If hospitals are eagerly building $100 million proton therapy centers for cancer treatment — and they are — then Medicare spending on radiation oncology is going to skyrocket. But does that mean that oncologist fees should go up? Not really.

Now, the SGR formula might well be broken regardless. Doctors set their fees to cover their overhead, and if overhead is going up faster in some areas than in others then that means fees will go up faster in some areas than in others. But I'm not sure how looking at total spending allows us to draw conclusions about that one way or the other.

House Republicans are holding President Obama's payroll tax cut hostage and are getting hammered for it. What makes them think this is a winning strategy? Dave Weigel puts it like this:

Democrats want to re-elect the president, so they’ll ultimately give up a lot to extend a tax cut and unemployment benefits....Despite how it looks right now, it doesn’t make sense to doubt them. After all, they’ve had a lot of practice at this.

National Journal's Ben Terris is even blunter:

The House, influenced by a new mentality ushered in after the 2010 wave elections, stood its ground on issues like spending and the debt ceiling all year, watching as Democrats conceded time and again. But, depending on how Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and President Obama act now, their intransigence on extending tax breaks for the middle class could either be another feather in their cap, or a failure for the Republican Party. Either way, the freshman class doesn’t see a downside.

There's no question that a stalemate is dangerous for Democrats. For starters, it would hurt the economy, and in an election year that hurts the president no matter whose fault it is. What's more, voters tend to blame presidents for gridlock whether it's their fault or not. After all, once Republicans make a counterproposal (and they have: a conference committee to work out a one-year deal before the end of the year), they can plausibly argue that it's the other side that's not willing to deal. Both sides are keenly aware of both of these dynamics, and they definitely point in the direction of Democrats caving yet again.

But that's exactly why I suspect Democrats won't cave. At some point, whether it's strictly rational or not, you simply have to let the other side know that you can't be pushed around forever. And this is about the best chance Dems have had to send this message in a while. Nothing is going to get shut down if they hold out, the nation's credit won't be wrecked, and even if takes until January to make a deal it won't have much effect on the economy. What's more, House Republicans have shown weakness by making sure the Senate's two-month deal is still on the table. If they'd voted it down, it would have been like ripping the steering wheel off the car, but they carefully made sure not to do this. And to make things even worse for Republicans, they're plainly losing the PR battle over this. Even the Wall Street Journal isn't on their side, and even Mitch McConnell is pretty disgusted over being double-crossed once again by the lunatics in the House GOP caucus.

So: no huge consequences for holding out; weakness and panic on the Republican side; and public (and press) opinion very clearly on the Democratic side for the first time in a while. This is the best chance Democrats have had all year to stand firm and actually profit from it. That's why I think they will.

Euphemisms in America

Yesterday I bought a copy of the Economist's annual holiday issue, which is always full of good stuff. It includes a piece about euphemisms around the world, and it started off a bit oddly by suggesting, among other things, that Americans routinely call false teeth "dental appliances." Really? Well, I thought, maybe we do. What do I know about what dentures are usually called? But then I ran across this:

The richest categories would centre on cross-cultural taboos such as death and bodily functions. The latter seem to embarrass Americans especially: one can ask for the “loo” in a British restaurant without budging an eyebrow; don’t try that in New York.

Say what? We don't use the word "loo," of course, but here in Southern California I ask waiters for directions to the men's room all the time. The only thing that happens is that they.....tell me where it is. Unless this is some kind of weird New York thing, I'm pretty mystified by this. I hope the rest of their reporting on global euphemisms is more accurate than this.

Cars and the Man

From Bloomberg, after reporting that American banks are in pretty good shape these days:

Consumers also are in better financial shape, thanks to reductions in debt and the Fed’s record-low interest rates. Household-debt payments as a share of disposable income stood at 11 percent in the third quarter, the lowest since 1994 and down from a peak of 14 percent set in 2007, according to data from the central bank.

That has freed up money for spending, and the automobile industry is a beneficiary....The average age of cars and light trucks on the road today has risen to 10.6 years, Jenny Lin, senior U.S. economist at Dearborn, Michigan-based Ford Motor Co., said on a Dec. 1 conference call. That’s above the seven-to-7.5 years Ballew says is the long-term average.

“We are going to see more and more of this pent-up demand realized,” Lin told analysts and reporters.

Karl Smith keeps telling me that this is what's going to spark a strong recovery in 2012. At some point, all those cars just have to be replaced, and that spending will drive improvement in the economy. Ditto for pent-up demand for houses and apartments.

I really want to believe this. I do, I do, I do. But with wages stagnant, credit tight, unemployment high, and the world economy flatlining, where's the money going to come from? I want to have faith in Smithianism, but my faith is tested whenever I open a newspaper — and I open a newspaper a dozen times every day. It is a stern and demanding creed, Smithianism is.

And now, finally, the days will start getting longer again. Hopefully this is a metaphor for our politics too. 

Last year California voters approved an initiative that took redistricting out of the hands of the legislature and gave it to a nonpartisan "citizen commission." Today, Olga Pierce and Jeff Larson of ProPublica have a story suggesting that Democrats gamed the system by making sure that the commission heard lots and lots of pro-Democratic testimony. "Democrats surreptitiously enlisted local voters, elected officials, labor unions and community groups to testify in support of configurations that coincided with the party’s interests," the story says.

Now, I don't doubt for a second that this is true, and in any case, ProPublica seems to have gotten its hands on plenty of evidence to show how this worked. But here's what I don't get: Am I supposed to be surprised at this? Of course Democrats tried to get lots of Democrat-friendly testimony in front of the commission. What would you expect them to do? Surely Republicans aren't so lame that they didn't do the same thing?

(Actually, California Republicans are pretty lame. Still, I kinda doubt they're that lame.)

But that's not the only thing odd about this story. There's also this:

Statewide, Democrats had been expected to gain at most a seat or two as a result of redistricting. But an internal party projection says that the Democrats will likely pick up six or seven seats in a state where the party’s voter registrations have grown only marginally.

“Very little of this is due to demographic shifts,” said Professor Doug Johnson at the Rose Institute in Los Angeles. Republican areas actually had higher growth than Democratic ones. “By the numbers, Republicans should have held at least the same number of seats, but they lost.”

This doesn't sound quite right either. For starters, that six or seven seat pickup sounds mighty optimistic. I'll bet the real number is something like half that. But that's not all. You see, in 2001 Democrats decided to skip the usual partisan gerrymander and instead make a nice, cozy arrangement with their GOP rivals: gerrymandering with the primary goal of protecting incumbents of both parties. It made all the incumbents happy, but it also made the state's districts a bit more friendly to Republicans than they should have been. By 2010, even a fair-minded, nonpartisan redistricting was bound to produce more Democratic districts than we currently have. (Contra Johnson, California has become considerably more Democrat-friendly over the past decade.) It's true that Democrats mostly opposed last year's initiative, but I distinctly remember some of the smarter analysts suggesting that they should calm down because a commission-drawn map was likely to give Dems an easy two or three additional seats.

If Dems do pick up six or seven seats, that would mean the commission really did do them a favor. But if they pick up two or three or four, it's most likely just the result of reversion to the mean after 2001. I'm curious to see what the California wonks over at Calitics think about all this, but they haven't written about it yet. If they do, I'll update and correct as necessary.

Four years ago, Mitt Romney said that invading Iraq was the right thing to do. Today he said that if we had known Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction — something we knew four years ago just as well as we know it today — then "obviously" we wouldn't have invaded. Now, this happens to be incorrect as a matter of historical fact, since it was always clear that WMD was merely a fig leaf for an administration that was going to invade Iraq no matter what. But Jon Chait is charmed anyway:

The thing I’ve always found endearing and (to some degree) comforting about Mitt Romney is that his flip-flops betray pure contempt for the Republican base. He treats them like angry children, and their pet issues as emotionally driven symbols of cultural division rather than as serious positions. Four years ago, conservatives were enraged that liberals would question Bush’s handling of foreign policy, so Romney was defending the decision to go to war and promising to "double Guantanamo." (It made zero sense as a policy position and could be understood only as an expression of culture-war solidarity.) Likewise, conservatives are now outraged over Obamacare, so Romney promises to repeal Obamacare.

Nothing about Romney’s attempts to ingratiate himself with the right hint even slightly of genuine conversion. It is patronizing appeasement. Of course, none of this tells us the really crucial thing, which is what promises Romney would actually keep if elected. But at least it offers the modest comfort that Romney knows better.

Poor Mitt. It's to his credit, really, that he's such a godawful bad panderer, but that doesn't change the fact that it's a skill he desperately needs if he ever wants to become president. Unfortunately for him, practice doesn't seem to be doing him any good. He's been pandering relentlessly for more than four years now, and he's still as bad at it as he was in 2007. It's kind of sad, really.