On Tuesday night I was idly flipping through TV channels and happened upon Sean Hannity and Karl Rove going ballistic over something. An invitation to the White House, it turned out. For some rapper. He'd called for the assassination of George Bush, Rove said. He was a thug. (A black thug, entirely by coincidence.) Hannity was outraged. Etc. etc.

The whole thing pegged the needle on the ridiculo-meter so hard that I hardly knew how to react. It was like Fox was doing a parody of Fox. I couldn't even bring myself to blog or tweet about it. Luckily, Jon Stewart did the job last night. Enjoy.

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Reihan Salam says that although Alan Simpson may have proven himself to be a moron when it comes to life expectancies and Social Security, we lefties shouldn't laugh quite so hard:

But here’s the thing: what really matters in a pay-as-you-go system is the dependency ratio, i.e., the ratio of workers paying into the Social Security system to the number of Social Security beneficiaries.....The dependency ratio is the pressing issue, not increasing life expectancy per se. So while some of our friends poke fun at Alan Simpson, I’d suggest that the rest of us think through the implications of the changing dependency ratio.

At the risk of repeating myself endlessly on this topic: no, we don't need to think through the implications of the changing dependency ratio. Or life expectancies. Or immigration rates. Or productivity levels. Or much of anything else.

Why not? Because the Social Security trustees have already done that for us. If you want to argue with the trustees' model, that's one thing. Then you need to dive into the details. But most of us don't want to do that. We accept their basic model, and once you accept their model then the solvency of Social Security boils down to precisely one thing: how much money is going in and how much money is getting paid out. That's it. And here's the chart that shows it:

This is the great thing about Social Security from a policy point of view: it's pretty easy. It's fundamentally a pure accounting exercise. By 20301, the income-outgo gap is about 1.5% of GDP, so all you have to do is pick and choose from a menu of options that gradually raise revenue and cut benefits by a combined total of 1.5% of GDP. That's it. Your choices will depend a lot on your values and your priorities, but in the end the only thing you have to do is make sure the numbers add up. Simple.

POSTSCRIPT: Go ahead! Give it a try! This CBO report lists 30 options for you to choose from (summarized in Table 2 on page 33). They use the 75-year gap as their unit of account, rather than the annual gap, which they peg at 0.6% of GDP. So pick a basket of options that adds up to 0.6% and you've fixed Social Security. Congratulations!

1Actually, the trust fund makes up for the gap between 2015 and about 2040. So you only really need to close the gap after that. But eventually you have to come up with about 1.5% of GDP.

Newt Gingrich has famously cheated on and then divorced two wives, all while loudly trumpeting his own family values bona fides and slamming liberals for their ruinous effect on our national culture. David Corn:

None of this is a secret, and Gingrich hopes to defuse this story line by placing Callista [i.e., wife #3] in the limelight. Yet, his jump into the presidential pool will likely produce a series of tales and news reports about Gingrich's bad-boy days, for as long as he remains in the race. In a presidential contest, biography matters much. And fresh details—even about well-known episodes in a candidate's past—are much valued, at least by reporters and cable news viewers. Thus, Gingrich may find it tough to escape the tawdry escapades of his earlier decades.

Maybe! But here's the thing: Gingrich may be a cannier media player than we think. Sure, he knows he's going to get slammed for his sexual adventures, but he also knows that one of the iron laws of the news business is that no one is interested in "old news." So the key to his success is to get in the race now, get all of these stories out in the open over the next few months, and then count on the media to yawn and refuse to bother itself over this stuff by the time serious campaigning starts later this year.

The only question is whether his fellow candidates will play along. If they decide to be good Reagan Republicans and keep their traps shut, Gingrich might get away with it. If one of them makes it a big issue, then the press will report it because — um, because it's now an "issue."

In the end, I think David is probably right: Gingrich can't escape his past. His primary opponents will stay quiet about his lecherous past as long as he's no threat, but the minute he looks like he might really have a chance to win, at least a few of them will go after him with all guns blazing. Politics ain't beanbag, after all.

Under the War Powers Act, the president can commit troops to a military operation for 60 days before getting congressional approval. Next week, that 60 days is up for the war in Libya. So what happens then?

Doug Mataconis rounds up some reporting on this, and the answer is.....nothing. Apparently no one in Congress really cares, and President Obama, like every president before him, doesn't recognize the WPA as a legitimate check on his commander-in-chief powers anyway.

Whatever else you can say about Bush's wars, he did get Congress's approval for them. Obama isn't even bothering with that much. Still, it's hard to come down on him too hard over this. It's up to Congress to defend its authority in the warmaking arena, and they're tacitly agreeing that Obama's actions have been just peachy. If both branches agree on this, then I guess that's that. The president can deploy troops any time and in any way he wants. I just hope congressional Democrats don't start whining about this sometime in the future when a Republican president does the same thing.

Here is American politics in a nutshell:

“I’m glad to see they’re trying to rein in Fannie Mae, but I think I’m being disproportionately penalized,” said Rayn Random, who is trying to sell her house in the hills for $849,000 so she can move to Florida.

Actually, that's probably everyone's politics in a nutshell. The issue here is that in 2008, after the collapse of the housing market, the federal government raised the limit for the size of the home loans that Fannie Mae would guarantee. Now, three years later, they're planning to lower the limit back to near its old value. This is a small step toward limiting Fannie Mae's involvement in the mortgage market, something that's almost a unanimous, bipartisan goal.

But no matter how broadly supported a policy is, there's always somebody who's going to get the short end of the stick and is convinced they're being singled out for unfair treatment. In this case, it's upper middle class homeowners, who might have a bit harder time selling their homes and might have to pay a bit more when they're buying one. This is, of course, the free market in action, but no one in the housing industry cares about that when it's their paychecks on the line:

The National Association of Realtors, 8,000 of whom have gathered in Washington this week for their midyear legislative meeting, is making an extension of the loan guarantees a top lobbying priority....The Mortgage Bankers Association has opposed letting the limits drop, although a spokesman said its members were studying the issue.

I'd peg the number of genuine believers in free market capitalism at about 1% of the population. Maybe. The rest of us just want whatever policies benefit us the most. And the richer you are, the more money you make from policies that benefit you. Among the rich and the corporate elite, true believers in the free market probably number about 0%.

This is a little off the beaten path, but let's do a bit of World War I blogging. (Need a news hook for this? Here it is.)

Tyler Cowen just read Dance of the Furies: Europe and the Outbreak of World War I, by Michael Neiberg, and says he was "stunned" by the claims in the book, a few of which can be summarized quickly:

First...few Europeans expected a war and even fewer wanted one. Europe was not a place of white-hot nationalist passions looking for a spark…Virtually no one in Europe sought a war to correct supposed inequities stemming from the turbulent nineteenth century or as a way to adjust borders. Even in France, there was no desire for war as a way to avenge the loss of Alsace-Lorraine...

Third, the people of Europe accepted the necessity of war primarily because they believed their wars to be defensive.

Fourth, disillusion with the war...was well in place by the end of the war’s first year.

Sixth, despite their concerns and suspicions, societies kept fighting. Their reasons for doing so included a desire to avenge the losses of 1914, the quite real threats to their existence which remained from foreign armies, and an awareness that the hatreds unleashed by the war as early as the end of the first month made anything short of total victory or total defeat unthinkable.

I'm genuinely curious about this. All of these four claims seem, to me, not only non-stunning, but almost pedestrian. If you'd put them in front of me with no commentary, I'm pretty sure I would have said that this is pretty much the modern conventional wisdom about WWI.

So: am I completely off base here? Are these claims more unusual than I think? And if they are, why did they seem so familiar to me? I've read a few books about the war, but that's about the extent of my knowledge.

A while back I suggested that the killing of Osama bin Laden wasn't likely to provide President Obama with much of a long-term benefit. Now I'm beginning to change my mind.

Why? Not because of the fundamentals of the situation, which haven't changed. It's because over the past week I've been watching the almost pathetic desperation with which conservatives are trying to denigrate Obama's part in the bin Laden operation. Really, it's been awesome. On radio, TV, blogs, op-eds, pretty much everywhere, they've been in a lather insisting that Obama himself played no real role; that he's arrogantly hogging the spotlight; that he screwed up by announcing the operation so soon; that the entire success is really due to Bush-era torture policies; that he shouldn't have killed bin Laden; that he's being churlish by not giving George W. Bush enough credit; etc. etc. etc. It's been a virtual feeding frenzy, and the stink of fear that Obama is appropriating the traditional Republican role as killer of bad guys is palpable.

Sure, this is just politics, and if it were the summer silly season that's how I'd view it. But Republicans already have a message that they want to stay laser-focused on: tackling the deficit. The fact that they're taking so much time out from that to denigrate Obama's role in the bin Laden operation suggests that they think this is a big deal. And if they think it's a big deal, then maybe it is. They're usually pretty good at reading the public mood, after all.

I get a little bored repeating over and over that our short-term deficit is almost entirely not Barack Obama's fault. It's mostly the fault of the Bush tax cuts, the Bush wars, and the financial collapse that happened during the Bush presidency. At this point, though, this is more in the nature of a religious debate than a factual one, and conservatives are going to keep repeating the same tired disinformation about the deficit regardless of any evidence one way or the other.

Still, just on the off chance that a few people are still persuadable on this, it's nice of CBPP to update its chart showing the source of the deficit over the next decade. (Farther out than that, Medicare is largely responsible for most deficit projections.) As you can see, by 2013 or so, virtually the entire deficit is due to Bush-era policies/disasters. So cut this out and post it on your refrigerator.

In the Washington Monthly, Sylvester Schieber and Phillip Longman take a look at the historical evidence and conclude that the state pension crisis doesn't really have much to do with the demands of public sector unions. Rather, it's due to the incentives faced by elected officials:

The real cause of the crisis is the inherent conflict of interest politicians face when they have the option of handing out or maintaining pension promises to favored constituencies, including themselves, without the public understanding what’s going on and without the bills coming due until after they are gone from office. Politicians have two basic ways of doing this. First, they can, as Republican Christine Todd Whitman and subsequent governors of New Jersey did, simply stop contributing money to the pension fund or tap their credit card to pay the pension mortgage.

....Politicians can also make benefits more lush without coming up with the money to pay for them. That’s what happened in California in 1999 under Democratic Governor Gray Davis, when the state enacted the largest pension increase in its history—one that now has become the single biggest threat to the state’s continued solvency....The pension bill passed 39-0 in the state senate and 70-7 in the assembly, while barely making the papers.

....So this is the world as we find it. Government decisionmakers face an inherent conflict of interest when it comes to making pension policy for government employees, and so do their staffs. This is true whether or not unions are involved. Beyond the enticement of self-dealing is the temptation to self-aggrandizement that comes when politicians are allowed to take credit for delivering benefits whose full cost only becomes apparent after they are long gone. That all this can be done within a tight circle of insiders without the press or the public taking much notice only further perverts the logic of decisionmaking.

It's true that public sector unions have an inherent advantage that private sector unions don't, namely that the people they're negotiating with depend on them for campaign support, but this isn't the core problem responsible for out-of-control pensions. The core problem is that politicians always prefer to pay bills in the future, not the present. If they have a choice between giving firefighters a $10 million raise that will come out of the current year's budget vs. a $30 million pension increase that will come out of someone else's budget far in the future, it's a slam dunk. They'll take the pension increase every time. As Schieber and Longman note, California's 1999 pension rise was approved nearly unanimously by both parties and adopted by virtually every county in the state, including some of the most conservative ones. The dotcom boom had everyone bedazzled regardless of political affiliation.

So what to do? Schieber and Longman suggest that significant pension changes be treated the same way as large bond issues:

Let the unions and the politicians negotiate all they want, but if they come up with a contract that puts future taxpayers on the hook for the cost of making pension and other retirement benefits more generous, it should go to a vote of the people. If the people are feeling generous, or if they feel there is indeed a strong case for why public employees need more generous pensions, they may well go along. If they feel there are more compelling purposes for which they should be spending their own or their children’s money, they will not.

It's an interesting idea. By itself, it does nothing to address the existing problem, which makes is a bit like shutting the barn door after the horse has left. What's more, it also does nothing to force governments to properly fund pensions, one of the big reasons why we're in our current mess to begin with. However, solutions to the former are pretty hard to come by regardless and shouldn't stop us from addressing the future, while solutions to the latter could probably be incorporated into the referendum language with a bit of thought. It's worth some consideration.

Jon Chait commends to us a short essay in the Yale Law Journal by Andrew Koppelman explaining (a) why the healthcare reform law is obviously constitutional but (b) why it might get struck down anyway:

The constitutional objections are silly.....[So] what will the Supreme Court do? There is no nice way to say this: the silliness of the constitutional objections may not be enough to stop [conservative] Justices from relying on them to strike down the law. The Republican Party, increasingly, is the party of urban legends: that tax cuts for the rich always pay for themselves, that government spending does not create jobs, that government overregulation of banks caused the crash of 2008, that global warming is not happening. The unconstitutionality of health care reform is another of those legends, legitimated in American culture by frequent repetition.

Read the whole thing for the details. However, since our political class seems to have an attention span no longer than a PowerPoint slide these days, I figured I'd condense Koppelman's argument into a PowerPoint slide. Enjoy.