From Major Randy Schmeling, a 43-year-old Army National Guardsman who commands the American police mentoring teams in Ghazni, on the endemic corruption in Afghanistan:

Right now, there is no meritocracy here. It's, "Hey, your sister has a pretty mouth — do you want to be a general?"

There's nothing in this article to be surprised about if you've been paying even the slightest attention to Afghanistan.  But you should read it anyway, just to remind yourself all over again of just what we're up against there.

According to the minutes of the latest Fed meeting, their staff economists believe that weaker than expected economic growth will result in "the projected path of the unemployment rate rising more steeply into early next year before flattening out at a high level over the rest of the year."  An artist's conception of unemployment growing steeply all the way through the first quarter of 2010 is shown below.  I sure hope the Fed economists are just kidding about this.

The fact that Washington Post op-ed star George Will has been accused of inaccurate reporting isn't so surprising. What is surprising is that the accuser is The Washington Post.

In a story published yesterday, WaPo writers Juliet Eilperin and Mary Beth Sheridan cite evidence they say "contradicts data cited in widely circulated reports by Washington Post columnist George F. Will that sea ice in the Arctic has not significantly declined since 1979."

Grist writer David Roberts notes, "I can’t think of another instance when a news story at a newspaper explicitly called out an op-ed writer in the same paper for lying, by name." The closest I can think of is when New York Times ombudsman Clark Hoyt publicly reproached Maureen Dowd for gender bias. But that was an opinion, not a rebuke of reporting.

The paper's decision to call out Will was no doubt difficult, but props to them for doing the right thing—even if it leads to some awkwardness around WaPo.

The Sunlight Foundation has long worked to bring transparancy to the lobbying process, and yesterday the good folks there made something of a breakthrough. They've developed an online lobbying disclosure form. That may not sound important, but here's why it matters.

Currently, lobbyists file disclosure forms four times a year. They are required only to disclose who their clients are, how much they got paid, what topics or bills they worked on for each client, and whether or not they visited the House, the Senate, or the executive branch. What that means is that if a defense contractor is using a lobbyist to make sure it gets a piece of the pie in an upcoming DOD budget, the public gets no info about the specific appropriation being targeted or the lawmakers who got the full-court press. We may only find out that the contractor was lobbying at all after the budget is passed.

The online disclosure form that Sunlight has developed -- you can see a mock-up here -- changes all of that. A lobbyist can pull up this form on her BlackBerry after each lobbying contact and easily fill out a very comprehensive range of fields: date and time of the meeting; name and client for the lobbyist; name, agency, and position of the federal employee(s) lobbied; topics discussed and specific actions promoted or urged.

If every lobbyist filled out a form like this after every meeting, a group like the Sunlight Foundation could build a constantly up-to-date database of lobbying contacts that would allow the public to sort by lobbyists, clients, federal agencies, bills, topics -- any and all relevant metric by which money in politics can be overseen and rooted out. John Wonderlich, writing on Sunlight's blog, adds, "This is just the beginning. What else can you imagine tracking? Would you set up an RSS feed of all lobbying related to your interests? Would you, as an agency head, track all lobbying directed at your agency?"

Now it's just a matter of getting folks in government to see the (sun)light.

Caving on Auctions

That Washington Post reports that the Obama administration has all but caved on the principle of auctioning 100% of emission credits in a cap-and-trade system:

The Obama administration might agree to postpone auctioning off 100 percent of emissions allowances under a cap-and-trade system to limit greenhouse gas pollution, White House science adviser John P. Holdren said today, a move that would please electricity providers and manufacturers but could anger environmentalists.

...."The idea, obviously, is to end up with a bill that reflects both the thinking of Congress and the administration, a bill that the president can sign," Holdren said, adding that when it comes to a 100 percent auction, "Whether you get to start with that or get there over a period of time is something that's being discussed."

Getting there over time is what the Europeans tried, of course, and it was a disaster.  Basically, it meant nearly a decade of wasted effort until they finally got close to a 100% auction.  Blecch.  Still, at this point I suppose I'll be grateful if we put any kind of plan in place at all, since I assume the one thing we will get 100% of is Republican opposition.

The Obama administation has taken an important first step toward reducing what are basically a set of handouts to private insurers, embedded in the Medicare system. These government subsidies to private industry enrich insurance companies at the expense of taxpayers and beneficiaries.

The particular handouts in question come in the form of subsidies to so-called Medicare Advantage plans. As the Wall Street Journal reported on Monday:

The federal government made good on its plan to cut 2010 payments for private Medicare plans, whittling the subsidies to health insurers sooner than the industry originally expected.

The cuts, announced late Monday by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, are slightly less severe than the 5% reduction the federal agency signaled in February, but still raise concerns about what has been a critical source of profit growth for many health insurers. Reimbursements to private insurers that administer so-called Medicare Advantage plans would fall by as much as 4% to 4.5% next year.

Even the WSJ acknowledges that “Republicans during the Bush administration pushed the plans’ extra benefits for seniors and subsidies to insurers to promote more private-sector involvement in Medicare.” 

Even as Defense Secretary Robert Gates initiates an historic review of the Pentagon's budget, recommending that many of the department's big-ticket programs be scrapped after years of mismanagement and bloat, a new report from the National Priorities Project is a useful reminder of just how bad things have gotten. The report breaks down how Washington spent a median-income family's 2008 tax dollars. The results speak for themselves: 

As taxes come due on April 15, taxpayers can take stock of how the federal government spent each 2008 income tax dollar: 37.3 cents went towards military-related spending, while environment, energy and science-related projects split 2.8 cents...

37.3 cents for military-related spending breaks down as follows: 29.4 cents for current military and war spending coupled with 7.9 cents for military-related debt. At 3.8 cents of each dollar, veterans' benefits receive similar proportions of a federal tax dollar as housing and community programs and food-related programs.

In 2007, congressional Democrats called for the chair of the Consumer Products Safety Commission, Nancy Nord, to resign after she failed to respond quickly to news of lead-tainted toys imported from China. Not only did she refuse to step down before her term expires in 2012, but she actively opposed Congress' move to double her agency's budget. In early 2008,  an exasperated Lou Dobbs, examining her record, asked, "is she as imbecilic as she appears to be as absolutely insensitive to American consumers, as absolutely lacking the judgment to run a federal agency designed and created to protect the American consumer?"

Nord managed to survive not just Dobbs' tirade but a change in administrations. But today, Florida Sen. Bill Nelson revived the "Nord must go" movement, writing to the Obama administration to demand Nord's firing for "neglect of duty." His beef? The CSPS under Nord's leadership has failed to recall or ban the import of toxic Chinese drywall that's been installed in thousands of homes across the South, particularly those built after Hurricane Katrina. The drywall has been linked to sulfide gasses that corrode electrical wiring, air conditioning units and household appliances. “The agency is doing too little, too late to help residents of Florida and other states who are reporting serious health and safety problems associated with living in homes built with tainted drywall,” he writes.


Now that the American crew members of the Maersk Alabama have retaken the ship from four Somali pirates (USA! USA! USA!), it's important to note that like all the people involved with the safe landing of US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River in January, the crew members of the Maersk Alabama are union members. (Thanks to Marcy Wheeler for the blog title and the meme.) The unions in question are the Seafarers International Union, which represents 12 of the 20-person crew, the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association (MEBA), and the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots (MM&P). As former safety chairman of the Airline Pilots Association, Chesley Sullenberger, the hero pilot of Flight 1549, fought to make sure his colleagues got the training they needed to do what he did in January. And as I just heard on Fox News (and confirmed with the SIU), crew members of the Maersk Alabama received anti-piracy training from (where else?) their union. You can see an SIU member at small arms training at the union's Paul Hall Center for Maritime Training and Education in the photo to the right (more photos here). In addition to small arms training, the Hall Center offers anti-terror, basic safety, first aid, and other security-related courses.