People say that reducing inequality is radical. I think that tolerating the level of inequality the United States tolerates is radical.

— Thomas Piketty

This week everybody was still talking about the fiscal cliff

Personally, I’m bored with the conversation. I know the outcome is important, but the process is happening behind closed doors, so we don’t really know anything about it. Unfortunately, you can’t fill a news cycle with: “It’s important, but we don’t know anything”, even if that’s the Truth. So instead we’re treated to endless speculation and tea-leaf reading.

Ezra Klein thinks he can project the outlines of a deal. Paul Krugman hopes he’s wrong, because Obama ought to be able to do better than that. They’re both smart guys that I respect a lot, but neither of them actually knows anything about the negotiations.

I’m much more fascinated by something that’s not being talked about. If you watched Chris Hayes’ discussion of energy policy Saturday morning on Up — which was a whole lot more interesting and informative than a TV-talk-show discussion of energy policy has any right to be — you heard energy experts say this: Everybody in the industry takes for granted that eventually the government will put a price on carbon, either through a carbon tax or some kind of cap-and-trade system. (It makes sense: Climate change has very real costs — like storm damage — that you aren’t paying for when you buy gas or get electricity from a coal-fired plant. If you had to pay the real costs of fossil fuels rather than just the costs of mining, refining, and shipping, you’d see that renewable energy is actually cheaper.)

So: The government needs more long-term revenue. And a major market is working inefficiently because some of its products are unrealistically inexpensive. This is the perfect time to start phasing in a carbon tax.

But that’s not on either party’s wish list.

… and the debt ceiling

which isn’t technically part of the fiscal cliff, but winds up in the same conversation because it’s another part of the overall fiscal struggle between President Obama and the House Republican majority. The fiscal cliff was created by the agreement that resolved the debt ceiling stand-off in 2011.

The current debt ceiling will probably be sufficient until March or so, at which point House Republicans can hold the world economy hostage again.

I don’t think they’ve thought this out very well. The 2011 crisis wounded everybody involved. Obama, Congress — everybody’s poll numbers went down. Undoubtedly the public’s reaction will be even worse if it happens a second time. But here’s the difference: Obama never has to face the voters again.  He’s worrying about the judgment of history at this point, not the polls. Republicans who want to be re-elected in 2016 will blink first.

The most fun part of the debt ceiling speculation involves all the ways that Obama could try to defy the debt limit, including the trillion-dollar-coin gambit. Chris Hayes explains:

… and the Robot Menace

A series of posts about technological unemployment erupted on the liberal blogosphere, for not much apparent reason. I mean, it’s an important topic, but it’s not really … topical. Anyway, I summarize and add my two cents in Two Observations on the Robot Menace.

… and Republican reform

which really isn’t happening, no matter how many pundits wish it would. The example that sums it all up is the Senate’s rejection of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities: Crazy grass-roots groups fabricated death-panel-like theories to stampede their members to pressure their senators. 38 Republican senators gave in to the pressure, so the treaty didn’t get the 2/3 majority it needed for ratification. See: Repainting the Bubble.

… and Jim DeMint

DeMint resigned from the Senate, even though he has four more years on his term and is popular in his home state. He isn’t facing a scandal or a health problem. He isn’t even claiming that he needs to spend more time with his family. He just got a better offer: President of the Heritage Foundation, a leading conservative think tank.

On the surface, that doesn’t seem to make any sense. It’s like resigning from the School Board to become president of the local PTA. You had a position of power, and you give it up for an outside position where you either support or nag people with power.

But it does make sense, and the sense it makes points out how big money has changed our political system: Elected office has become only part of a politician’s career path, the way the glass of orange juice is only part of the complete breakfast in the Cocoa Puffs commercials. Consequently, the voters are only one of the special interests a politician needs to please.

If you ever wonder why it’s so hard to pass laws that polls say are popular (like, say, taxing the rich), that’s the reason. If a congressman votes against what his constituents want, possibly money from rich special interests will get him re-elected anyway. And even if it doesn’t, he’ll just move on to the next (and more lucrative) phase of his career.

But if he votes against the big-money interests, he’ll face a well-financed primary opponent in the next election cycle. And after losing, his career won’t have a next phase. The million-dollar jobs in think tanks and lobbying firms won’t be available any more.

This has been true for a while, but DeMint’s move shows that the game reached a new level: Even senators are just pawns now. Steve Kornacki lays it out:

What DeMint has apparently figured out is that in today’s Republican universe there’s less of a relationship than ever between holding office and holding power. This is what the rise of insular conservative media has done. News is interpreted, talking points are developed and agendas are set on Fox News, talk radio and in the right-wing blogosphere. Republican members of Congress, by and large, take their cues from conservative media, rather than shaping it.

If they all met in the same room, which conservatives do you think would be calling the shots: officeholders like Mitch McConnell and John Boehner? or people who never face the voters, like Rupert Murdoch, David Koch, Karl Rove, Grover Norquist, and Rush Limbaugh?

DeMint is trying to move up in the real power structure, the one with no visible org chart. And that means leaving the Senate behind.

… and you might find this interesting

Beyond parody: Mitch McConnell just filibustered himself.

The same nonsense I talked about in Repainting the Bubble inspired AlterNet to compile The 5 Dumbest UN “Conspiracies”.

An open video-letter to President Obama about the high school physics curriculum.

Great moments in propaganda: The 2001 Heritage Foundation study predicting that if the Bush tax cuts were passed “the national debt would effectively be paid off by FY 2010.”

Thailand has the best anti-smoking ad ever:

Tis the season to celebrate the re-birth of Crist.

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