2009 - %3, March

US To Shed Contractors in Iraq, But It Won't Be Easy

| Wed Mar. 4, 2009 2:41 PM EST
General Ray Odierno, the US commander in Iraq, will seek to reduce the number of private contractors in the country by five percent each quarter, according to a directive obtained by the Christian Science Monitor. He is targeting 50 bases and smaller installations for reductions, where, so goes the thinking, Iraqis will begin to take over many of the responsibilities currently handled by private firms, such as laundry, driving, cooking, etc. There are currently about 150,000 contractors in Iraq, down from an all-time high of about 200,000. Some 39,000 of these are Americans, 70,000 are "third country nationals," and 37,000 are Iraqis--though according to the Pentagon these numbers are better thought of as guestimates; precise numbers are unavailable.

With US troops getting ready to leave Iraq by summer 2010 (itself a target date that is almost sure to be revised), a reduction in contractors only makes sense. But it will not be as easy as one might think. From the Monitor:
But reducing the number of contractors may not be easy. The support these contractors provide are sometimes critical, and difficult to eliminate quickly. Further complicating the matter is the fact that many of them use American equipment, which may or may not be left behind.
As for hiring Iraqis, apart from the security concerns posed by employing them for certain jobs, many Iraqi workers need to be trained before they can take over jobs such as base maintenance overnight. A training effort is now being planned to ensure Iraqis have the skills to take over these jobs, says a senior official in Baghdad.
In the interim, US forces may be forced to fill the void left by some of these contractors on everything from training Iraqi security forces to driving trucks, which could take them away from their military duties, says a former senior commander.

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The Market

| Wed Mar. 4, 2009 2:34 PM EST
One of the memes making the rounds in the leftosphere these days is that the media pays way too much attention to the stock market.  There's a lot of justice in this.  Day-to-day fluctuations are pretty meaningless, and the media's longstanding insistence on inventing reasons to explain each day's results has always been ridiculous.

But this critique can also be taken too far.  Just because Jim Cramer has the emotional maturity of a five-year-old doesn't mean that the S&P 500 has nothing to tell us.  It can tell us, for example, that investors have little faith in the near-term earning power of American industry.  It can tell us that lots of 50-somethings have suddenly seen their retirement savings cut in half and are scared as hell about it.  And if Robert Barro is right, it can tell us how likely it is that a recession will turn into something much worse:

The U.S. macroeconomy has been so tame for so long that it's impossible to get an accurate reading about depression odds just from the U.S. data. My approach uses long-term data for many countries and takes into account the historical linkages between depressions and stock-market crashes.

....In the end, we learned two things. Periods without stock-market crashes are very safe, in the sense that depressions are extremely unlikely. However, periods experiencing stock-market crashes, such as 2008-09 in the U.S., represent a serious threat. The odds are roughly one-in-five that the current recession will snowball into the macroeconomic decline of 10% or more that is the hallmark of a depression.

Now, it's worth pointing out that almost all of Barro's data comes from developing countries.  There have been only a tiny handful of post-WWII depression-level events in rich countries.  Still, events being what they are, you might say that we are all banana republics now, and if Barro is right the Dow is telling us that we might have as much as a 20% chance of spiraling into depression.  That's worth listening to.

Vilsack Outs a Bad Contractor: Where Do We Find Stan Johnson?

| Wed Mar. 4, 2009 1:36 PM EST
Who is Stan Johnson? That was the mystery in the White House press room on Wednesday morning.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Director of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano spoke on behalf of the Obama Administration's new initiative to eliminate waste and abuse from federal contracting. As part of his speech, Vilsack mentioned that he had learned of a USDA contract worth $400,000 that career officials in the department had flagged as "unnecessary." Vilsack was vague, saying only that the contract had come late in the Bush Administration and was likely awarded due to contacts. He added that the contract included questionable international travel.

Pressed by reporters for additional information, Vilsack looked to Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, as if asking for permission. When Gibbs did not object, Vilsack revealed that the contract had gone to a man named Stan Johnson, a major operator in Iowa who Vilsack, former governor of Iowa, said he knew personally. (One assumes Vilsack will not be invited to the next Johnson family dinner party.) So the question is, who is Stan Johnson and what did he do (or not do) as part of his "unnecessary" federal contract?

A little bit of online sleuthing reveals that Johnson is primarily a poobah at Iowa State University, having once headed ISU's Center for Agricultural and Rural Development and the university's extension school. Other credits on a lengthy resume: Board of Directors of the North Central Regional Center for Rural Development, executive director of the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute, and chair of the Board of the DC-based Institute for Policy Reform.

Not bad for a guy who got his start studying agricultural economics at Western Illinois University. One can see how Johnson had the contacts he needed to get a sweetheart deal from the US government. So what was the contract? USAspending.gov, a website that stores info on federal contracts and grants, says that a man named Stan Johnson has a $20,000 contract with the Forest Service in Alaska. That's not likely to be the right man. Clearly more information is needed. Mother Jones spoke to the USDA main office, which said it is gathering information for reporters, and left a message for the press staff at the Forest Service. We'll let you know if we hear more.

Gordon and Barack

| Wed Mar. 4, 2009 1:10 PM EST
It now seems to be nearly universally agreed that Barack Obama snubbed British PM Gordon Brown pretty hard yesterday, holding no formal press conference and taking only a few questions.  But why?  Alex Massie speculates that Obama just didn't want to deal with foreign reporters:

Obama has been briefed about the British press corps and sees no reason to humour them. This would not be wholly unsurprising: Fleet Street's finest are viewed as scatalogically-obsessed, bottle-throwing, teenage yobs far too fond of relieving themselves behind the bushes in the Rose Garden, or worse, in the East Room's pot plants.

Joshua Keating figures Obama's reasons are more prosaic:

I think his motives are actually a bit colder. Obama's most powerful diplomatic weapon right now is his own international popularity, and he seems to be making it clear that he won't share it with just anybody. 

Obama giving the cold shoulder to Brown probably doesn't mean he has any less respect for the special relationship with Britain than any of his predecessors. More likely, and bluntly, he probably just thinks of Gordon Brown as a bit of a loser. Why roll out the red carpet for guys like Brown and Taro Aso who will likely be out of office soon anyway? Something tells me that when Dmitry Medvedev or Hu Jintao visit the White House, the Obamas will break out the good china.

Poor Gordon.  He's the Herbert Hoover of British prime ministers: a guy who took over at precisely the wrong moment and hasn't been able to figure out since how to deal with the hand he's been dealt.  He probably never had a chance.

One Good Thing About the Death of Newspapers

| Wed Mar. 4, 2009 12:30 PM EST
Bad thing about the death of newspapers: No more beat reporters to hold cops accountable.

Good thing: David Simon comes out of retirement to kick some ass on the streets of Baltimore.

In a recent Washington Post article, The Wire creator and former crime reporter looks into the shooting of an unarmed man by a police officer. The police department says it can't reveal the cop's identity; Simon calls BS and does the digging no other reporter—or blogger—is doing. And he concludes: "Half-truths, obfuscations and apparent deceit—these are the wages of a world in which newspapers, their staffs eviscerated, no longer battle at the frontiers of public information."

Amen. Every time a beat reporter gets canned or a daily is shuttered, a public official smiles. More of Simon's conclusions about the death of accountability journalism after the jump.

Quote of the Day - 03.04.09

| Wed Mar. 4, 2009 12:22 PM EST
From Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R–Ca.), speaking to one of her aides after a visiting reporter suggested that the stimulus bill didn't actually contain a provision for a maglev train from Los Angeles to Las Vegas:

"Get him the bill, it's right there, show him."

You will be unsurprised to learn that no such provision turned out to be in the bill.  Mack's reaction went sadly unrecorded.  (Via Steve Benen.)

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Cuba Lunacy

| Wed Mar. 4, 2009 11:35 AM EST
Barack Obama supports a provision in the spending bill before Congress that would allow Cuban-Americans to visit relatives on the island once a year and end limits on the sale of American food and medicines in Cuba. New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez (D–Lunaticville) is so outraged by this that he's threatening to oppose the entire bill.  And he's holding up two of Obama's science nominations (John Holdren and Jane Lubchenco).  And he's threatening to hold his breath until his face turns blue.

Jeebus.  What is it about Cuba that drives people into decades-long fits of insanity?  Even JFK, the guy who instituted the Cuba embargo in the first place, thought we were all kind of crazy on the subject.  But 50 years later?  Crazy doesn't begin to describe it.

What's more, it's a different kind of crazy from most exile communities.  What accounts for it?  A Cuban-American congressional candidate told me last year that the difference was simple: most Cuban exiles, when they fled the island after Castro's takeover, left with their entire families.  So for a lot of them, there's literally nothing remaining there that they care about.  You could drop a nuke on Havana and they'd be OK with that.  This promotes a different brand of insanity than in most exile communities, which might hate the current regime in their home country but still have deep personal ties to it.

I don't know if that's really the explanation or not.  Comments welcome on this score.  But there's got to be something that explains this.  It's just nuts, and Menendez should be ashamed of himself.  It's time to grow up.

Do You Think Bills Should Be Read Before They Are Passed?

| Wed Mar. 4, 2009 10:42 AM EST

It's a dirty little secret of Capitol Hill's: lawmakers frequently vote on bills they haven't read, either because they don't want to spend the time or because the majority party, hoping to ram through a contentious piece of legislation, demands a vote immediately after a bill's final version is produced. Now, a petition is circulating that aims to change that. Readthebill.org has a simple demand: "Congress should change its rules to require that non-emergency legislation and conference reports be posted on the Internet for 72 hours before debate begins."

That 72-hour period would give lawmakers enough time to determine if they really support a bill. Perhaps more importantly, it would give everyday citizens and public watchdogs enough time to hunt for hidden provisions, kickbacks, and conflicts of interest. Take a look at some bills that got rushed through Congress here; they include the stimulus bill, FISA, and the PATRIOT Act. You can sign the petition here.

Is the Kindle Too Smart For Its Own Good?

| Tue Mar. 3, 2009 9:09 PM EST
Yesterday I decided to buy a Kindle.  As a patriot, I even paid for next day delivery, since surely UPS deserves to be stimulated every bit as much as Amazon.  Right?  Today it came, I charged it up, and then dove into its guts to buy a book and try it out.  Charles Stross's Halting State seemed like a nice choice.

So I clicked on "Kindle Store," and before I could even type in the name of the book Amazon offered up four recommendations.  One of them was Halting State.

I dunno.  That's kind of scary.  I'm pretty sure I've never bought a Stross book via Amazon, so how did they know?  Does the Kindle read my mind?  Brrr.

The book itself was easy to buy.  Too easy, really: click "Buy" and you're done.  The Kindle magically comes preprogrammed with your Amazon account information, and I guess they just assume that anyone impatient enough to buy ebooks online also wants one-click shopping.  A couple of minutes later the book was downloaded and ready to go.  (They say it only takes a minute, but I appear to live in something of a Sprint dead zone, so it took a little longer.)

I shall report back after I've tried it out for a while.  In the meantime, it's pictured above, along with some suitable background material to show scale.

Easy Fixes: Vinegar and Chickenshit

| Tue Mar. 3, 2009 8:06 PM EST
Two interesting papers in the science lit today on home-brewed solutions to industrial-strength problems. The first: contaminated water can clean itself if simple organic chemicals such as vinegar are added. The second: chicken manure cleans soil that's been contaminated by crude oil.

The vinegar solution was tested on groundwater tainted by former textiles factories, smelters, and tanneries. The leftovers of these industries produced harmful chromium compounds that cause cancers and all kinds of kidney, liver, lung and skin troubles. But add dilute acetic acid, aka vinegar, and—presto!—the oxidized chromate became non-soluble. That means it's no longer bio-available and can be left safely in the ground without risk to the surrounding ecosystem. The vinegar feeds and grows naturally-occurring bacteria which then alter the chemistry of the chromium compounds, rendering them harmless.

Good job bacteria!

The chicken guano solution was used on soil contaminated by crude oil spills. Conventional clean-up bears a heavy environmental cost since detergents become pollutants themselves and persist in the environment for a long time. Better to bioremediate: use natural or engineered microbes to metabolize the organic components of crude oil. But too often that requires expensive nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers with their own hefty environmental price tags (decreased soil quality). But when chicken manure was added to the soil—presto!—nearly 75 percent of the oil was broken down after two weeks. At least 12 different species of oil-munching bacteria liked the chickenshit menu and responded by metabolizing the oil.

Let's dig back through our great-grandmothers housekeeping diaries and find out what else they (probably) knew that we've forgotten?