According to the Washington Post copy desk, "Republican campaigns pause as Herman Cain announcement looms." Really? The entire clown show is in suspended animation while it waits with bated breath for Herman Cain to tell us if he's planning to pull out of the presidential race? I guess stranger things have happened.

Anyway, since Cain was never remotely likely to win the nomination, I don't really care what he decides to do. The only thing I'm curious about is who he blames. There are several obvious choices:

  1. The lamestream media, which was determined from the start to tear down President Obama's biggest threat.
  2. The Democrat machine, which is terrified of facing a strong, conservative black man in November.
  3. Republican elites, who don't want an outsider breaking up their cocktail parties and power lunches.
  4. Our hypersensitive liberal culture, which always interprets "You want a job, right?" in the worst possible light.
  5. Gloria Cain, who continues to support him without reservation but would like Herman to spend more time with his family.

Vote in comments! Or add your own guess to the list. Personally, I'm voting for all five.

For reasons that escape me, the latest craze in conservative pundit circles is to claim that Republicans aren't, in fact, unalterably opposed to tax hikes on the rich. Charles Krauthammer made this case last week, and Reihan Salam has since picked up the ball and taken a run up the gut with it a few times recently. For example, here he is objecting to Ron Brownstein's latest column:

[Brownstein] suggests that the GOP is aiming for “a deficit plan that relies solely on spending reductions (particularly in entitlements) while preserving tax cuts for the affluent.” As Keith Hennessey has explained, congressional Republicans have made a strategic shift on taxes. Opposition to any net tax increase was a way to secure leverage in negotiations over the long-run fiscal trajectory. But leading Republicans have demonstrated an openness to net tax increases, and in particular to an increase in the average tax rates paid by the most affluent households, provided it is part of a package that secures structural, architectural Medicare reform.

This is just flatly untrue, and I'm a little surprised at how flagrantly it's been bandied about lately. The Toomey proposal in the supercommittee did indeed include about $300 billion in new taxes, some of which would have fallen on high-income earners. But Toomey's proposal explicitly tied this to a demand for permanent extension of the Bush tax cuts for the rich (those are the red bars on the right, the ones that fall exclusively on those earning more than $200,000). Unlike the other Bush tax cuts, these cuts are very much a matter of contention between the parties, so Toomey's proposal, in plain English, was this:

  • Republicans will agree to raise taxes on the rich by $300 billion
  • If and only if Democrats agree to permanently extend $700 billion in tax cuts for the rich.

Conservatives try to handwave this away by claiming it's "just a baseline game" or some such, but if it were just a game they wouldn't care about it. In fact, as they know quite well, we're talking about actual tax dollars paid by actual people that affect the actual budget deficit. Compared to the law as it stands now, Toomey's deal explicitly demanded that net taxes on the rich go down by about $400 billion after 2013. That was the only deal ever on the table.

If you want to claim that it's a breakthrough merely for Republicans to propose a reduction in the net size of the Bush tax cuts, that's fine. But a net increase? They've never even come close to offering that.

On the left, this is surely what things would have looked like if Inkblot had lived in the Garden of Eden: Innocent, contented, free of all malice, and wanting nothing more than to commune with nature. Unless someone gets in the way of his food bowl.

And speaking of things horticultural, Marian recently constructed a square-foot garden, which I guess is all the rage these days. The one below has eight sections, and as you can see, Domino has her own personal square foot. Seriously. There's nothing planted there because Domino loves it so much she needed to be lured to a spot where she wouldn't crush the actual plants. Not only is it full of nice, lovely dirt, but during the late morning it's also the sunniest patch in the house. For a few hours each day, it's her home away from home.

Jon Chait's move to New York magazine has been annoying for two reasons. First, he doesn't blog as much as he used to. Second, the only way to read his occasional posts is to plow through New York's entire effing Daily Intel blog and pick them out from among the endless Big Apple-oriented detritus that I don't care about. On the bright side, though, all this plowing has introduced me to Dan Amira, who's worth the price of admission.

(But only barely, Dan. Can't you convince the powers-that-be to give you and Chait your own blog so I can more easily ignore the rest of the riffraff?)

Anyway, here he is today with a lexicographic tour of the mind of Newt Gingrich:

By now, we've all become familiar with Newt Gingrich's habit of using a few choice adverbs to make the things he says sound just a bit more intelligent to his listeners. Profoundly. Deeply. Frankly. But none of them are as vital to the Gingrich lexicon as fundamentally (along with its cousin, the adjective fundamental).

....To give you a more complete understanding of how compulsively Gingrich abuses his favorite words, I searched Nexis transcripts and news accounts with the goal of plucking out every single phrase in which he uttered them. I started in the present day, and made it all the way to the beginning of 2007 before I had to stop, for my own health and sanity, which, according to my editors, was beginning to suffer in noticeable ways....Scroll onward, if you dare, to behold all loosely alphabetized 418 entries.

"fundamentally a falsehood"
"fundamentally a lie"
"fundamentally a violation of international law"
"fundamentally about reassessing our entire strategy in the region"

[410 more....]

"fundamentally wrong with it"
"fundamentally wrong with the current system"
"fundamentally wrong with the system"
"fundamentally wrong with weakness in America"

Now that's what Lexis was invented for and what blogging is all about: to quantify just how big a blowhard Newt Gingrich is. Kudos.

War, Endless War

A few days ago I brought up the idea that the original Authorization for Use of Military Force, passed a week after the al-Qaeda attacks of 9/11, was obsolete. The AUMF authorizes action against those responsible for the 9/11 attacks and anyone who harbored them, but it was al-Qaeda central that was responsible for 9/11, and the CIA says that we've now killed all but a couple of their leaders and a few dozen of their foot soldiers. All that's left is the Taliban, which is the target of a very specific military campaign in Afghanistan.

I didn't take any of this too seriously, figuring that no one in Congress really seemed to care. They'd just go on assuming that the AUMF authorizes anything the president feels like doing, and since there's no one who can stop them, it was all a moot point. But no! I didn't realize this, but the terrorist detention bill sponsored by senators Carl Levin and John McCain specifically renews and expands the AUMF to include anyone who "substantially supports" al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or "associated forces." Glenn Greenwald is predictably appalled:

There are several very revealing aspects to all of this. First, the 9/11 attack happened more than a decade ago; Osama bin Laden is dead; the U.S. Government claims it has killed virtually all of Al Qaeda’s leadership and the group is “operationally ineffective” in the Afghan-Pakistan region; and many commentators insisted that these developments would mean that the War on Terror would finally begin to recede. And yet here we have the Congress, on a fully bipartisan basis, acting not only to re-affirm the war but to expand it even further: by formally declaring that the entire world (including the U.S.) is a battlefield and the war will essentially go on forever.

Indeed, it seems clear that they are doing this precisely out of fear that the justifications they have long given for the War no longer exist and there is therefore a risk Americans will clamor for its end. This is Congress declaring: the War is more vibrant than ever and must be expanded further.

As before, I don't know how much concrete difference this makes. Congress hasn't made a peep over our Yemen operations and only barely roused itself to notice the Libya war. But Glenn is right: apparently some of them have noticed an embarrassing loose end or two, and they want to make sure no one can pester them over it. From now on, military force will be perpetually pre-authorized against anyone who "supports" any group "associated" with something that looks like al-Qaeda. In other words, pretty much anyone at all.

Hooray! We have bipartisan agreement at last. Political insiders on both sides of the aisle agree: Newt Gingrich would be a disaster for Republicans. National Journal quantifies this for us today:

This comes via Jonathan Bernstein, who gleefully passes along the following quotes:

  • “Winning the presidency is all about discipline, focus, and organization,” said one Republican Insider, “none of which are strong suits for Gingrich.”
  • “With Newt, we go to bed every night thinking that tomorrow might be the day he implodes,” said another Republican. “Not good for our confidence — or fundraising.”
  • A third Republican stated plainly, “Gingrich is not stable enough emotionally to be the nominee — let alone, the president.”
  • “Bigfoot dressed as a circus clown would have a better chance of beating President Obama than Newt Gingrich, a similarly farcical character,” quipped a Republican.
  • “Come on,” sighed another GOP Insider, “the White House is probably giving money to Gingrich as we speak.”

I guess Newt still has a wee bit of confidence building to do. But he's a master of language as a key mechanism of control, so I'm sure he's up to the job.

The chart below shows net job growth every month since 2008. Why net? Because the U.S. population increases every month, which means you need a certain number of new jobs just to tread water. This chart subtracts that out to show the true net growth in employment.

I've run this chart before, but there are a couple of changes this time. First, per Dean Baker, I'm now using 90,000 as the number of jobs needed to keep pace with population growth. Second, I finally got off my ass and automated the whole thing on FRED instead of redrawing it every time I do this. You can link to it here and juggle the numbers yourself if you feel like it.

Bottom line: the number of net new jobs added in November was about 30,000. That's better than zero, but not a lot better.

The unemployment rate fell last month to 8.6%. Hooray! But that seems odd since the country added only 120,000 new jobs, which should be just barely enough for us to keep treading water. Phil Izzo tells us what happened:

In October, the household survey showed the number of people unemployed fell by 594,000, but the labor force — the number of people working or looking for work — fell by a little more than half that amount. That means that though the number of employed people rose, a large group just stopped looking for work. That could be due to discouragement of the long-term unemployed or by choice over retirement or child care. So the decline in the unemployment rate to 8.6% was about half due to people finding jobs and half people dropping out.

There's enough slop in the difference between the establishment survey (which gives us the number of new jobs) and the household survey (which gives us the unemployment number) that there's a fair degree of uncertainty here. But the establishment survey is bigger and generally more accurate, and it just doesn't support the idea that there's been a huge uptick in employment. So take this as good news, but probably not quite as good as the headline number suggests.

A paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division’s “Devil Brigade” aims his M240-B crew-served machine gun.

The Economist's Roger McShane is unimpressed with all the doom-mongering over proposed cuts to the Pentagon budget:

So by how much will the defence budget decline over the next decade? That could be seen as a trick question, because in nominal terms it will grow. Prior to the supercommittee's failure, the defence budget was slated to increase some 23% between 2012 and 2021. Now, according to Veronique de Rugy, the Pentagon will have to make do with a 16% boost…Or to put it another way, as Lawrence Korb does, the "sequestration will return defense spending in real terms to its FY 2007 level, the next to last year of the Bush administration, when no one was complaining about devastating levels of spending."

…But these numbers have not quieted the critics. And perhaps the most ardent among them has been [Defense Secretary Leon] Panetta. My colleague cites a statement from the secretary, in which he lists the tragic results of a 16% increase: "We would be left with our smallest ground force since 1940, the fewest ships since 1915 and the smallest Air Force in its history." Here's another fact: America already has the fewest ships since 1916, despite a 70% increase in defence spending between 2001 and 2010.

We could, of course, have thousands of ships and tens of thousands of warplanes if we wanted. But that would mean buying lots of PT boats and swarms of F-4s instead of a dozen Nimitz- and Ford-class supercarrier groups and a few hundred F-35s. We don't have a small number of ships and planes because we're too cheap to buy more, we have them because that's what the Pentagon wants. Modern war makes a small number of superadvanced weapons systems more effective than a bunch of cheap cannon fodder.

Defense hawks like to insist that we should judge the Pentagon budget as a percentage of GDP. The Bill Kristol contingent, for example, claims that we should never allow defense spending to fall below 4 percent of GDP. But is this a sensible way of looking at things? For some programs it is. Social Security and Medicare, for example, are both inherently tied to population growth and living standards, so as those go up so will outlays. But in other areas this doesn't make so much sense. Do we need more embassies overseas just because our GDP has grown? Not really. There will be some increase in wages that's tied to economic growth, but that's about it.

National defense falls into this category. The United States is no harder or easier to defend when our economy grows, so it's foolish to pretend that defense spending as a percentage of GDP should remain constant. It should go up when we're at war, or when external threats are high for some reason, and it should go down in other times.

This is one of those other times. Despite the best efforts of defense hawks to jangle nerves over China, the plain fact is that China remains a minuscule military threat and probably will remain so for the foreseeable future. We aren't going to start a land war in Asia, after all. Spending on cybersecurity will increase in the future, but it's still a nit in the grand scheme of Pentagon spending. On other fronts, Al Qaeda is all but dead, and our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are winding down. We'll continue to keep troops in the Middle East and (for better or worse) we'll continue with our drone wars in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere. But those are pretty cheap. As scary as terrorism might be, the fact is that it's primarily an intelligence expense. On a pure military basis, it's simply not a big-ticket threat.

So can we afford to reduce defense spending to 2007 levels? Of course we can. The world is not more dangerous today than it was in 2007, and there's no a priori reason it should cost more to defend the security of the United States today than it did in 2007. We might spend that money differently, of course. Perhaps the Pentagon will decide it would rather have a thousand more drones instead of a single additional supercarrier group. That might well make sense since the mission of supercarrier groups is becoming fuzzier all the time in an era of primarily asymmetric warfare.

The supercommittee sequestration will require the Pentagon to find additional cuts of about $50 billion per year in its budget. To pretend that this would make us virtually defenseless is to insult our collective intelligence. We can make that cut and still have the most powerful military on the planet by a factor of five or six. If that doesn't make you feel safe, nothing will.

Newt Gingrich in November 2011, asked what he told Freddie Mac when he was consulting for them in 2006-07:

My advice as a historian, when they walked in and said to me, "We are now making loans to people who have no credit history and have no record of paying back anything, but that's what the government wants us to do," as I said to them at the time, this is a bubble. This is insane. This is impossible.

Newt Gingrich in April 2007, during an in-house interview promoting the virtues of Freddie Mac, uncovered today by Morgen Richmond of the blog Verum Serum:

I think it is telling that there is strong bipartisan support for maintaining the GSE model in housing. There is not much support for the idea of removing the GSE charters from Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. And I think it’s clear why. The housing GSEs have made an important contribution to homeownership and the housing finance system.

....Millions of people have entered the middle class through building wealth in their homes, and there is a lot of evidence that homeownership contributes to stable families and communities. These are results I think conservatives should embrace and want to extend as widely as possible. So while we need to improve the regulation of the GSEs, I would be very cautious about fundamentally changing their role or the model itself.

Hmmm. He seemed much more....upbeat....back when he was getting paid $1.6 million for his historical advice, didn't he? I guess the "insane" part must have been delivered only in private. Richmond comments:

Either he knew Freddie Mac’s lending practices were contributing to an unsustainable housing bubble headed for collapse, as he now claims, and yet accepted money to publicly defend them anyway. On their web site. Or he is now stretching the truth about his assessment of Freddie Mac’s problems at the time, and the advice he privately gave to their management.

Roger that. Newt's defense is (surprise!) that he's changed his mind since 2007. I'll bet you didn't see that one coming.