Quote of the Day

From Tyler Cowen:

About a year ago, five or so people sent me links about chessboxing for "Markets in Everything."  I didn't think it was weird enough to merit inclusion in the series.  But now, with the addition of "Swedish" and "ladies" to the mix (or is it the "convivial party atmosphere"?), I think it is weird enough.

Roger that.

Although President Barack Obama pledged that taxpayers would be able to monitor "every dime" of the $787 billion dollar stimulus bill, a government website that is supposed to track the expenditures is off to a rocky start. Months after going live, Recovery.gov provides only sketchy information about government purchasing and is undergoing a rushed bidding process to be revamped. The problems that Recovery.gov faces are the central problems of the stimulus: The need to roll out projects quickly while meeting long-term goals and preventing taxpayer money from being wasted.

From the start, Recovery.gov was an ambitious project. Never before has the government sought to provide so much data about contracting in a single, user-friendly format. Moreover, the Obama administration is requiring that stimulus money be tracked not only to recipients like state agencies--which is normal practice for federal spending--but also to sub-recipients that could include individual contractors. Yet so far, Recovery.gov hasn't delivered on that promise. It's little more than a collection of press releases and general breakdowns of spending.

After taking considerable flak over the site, the Federal Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board issued a request for bids to revamp Recovery.gov on June 15th, requiring proposals to be submitted a mere 11 days later. Bypassing the typical "full and open competition" bidding process, the board limited bids to 59 pre-approved contractors "because of the speed with which we have to handle this particular procurement," a spokesman told Federal News Radio. Whoever won the contract would have to roll out the new site in less than a month. On Tuesday, Federal News Radio reported that only two contractors actually submitted bids--far from an ideal level of competition.

"They are required to have open competition, but everyone pretty much knew that the incumbent vendor was going to get the contract," says Tom Lee, a technology director at the Sunlight Foundation, an open government advocacy group that had considered submitting a bid of its own. "There's just no way another organization could get up to speed quickly enough to get the work done."

 

I've been unhappy about the Obama administration's embrace of several Bush-era secrecy rules, but I'm on the fence about the latest one.  David Corn reports that they're continuing to fight the release of Dick Cheney's interview with the FBI in the Valerie Plame case:

On Wednesday night, in another move that puts the administration on the side of secrecy over openness, Obama's Justice Department filed a memo supporting its ongoing opposition to a lawsuit requesting the release of the Cheney interview. This memo included a declaration from Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, who said that if the Cheney interview is made public it could cause public officials in the future to not cooperate with criminal investigations.

I guess what I'm unclear about here is the distinction, if there is one, between an ordinary FBI interview and one with a high-ranking politico.  Just speaking generally, it strikes me that it's genuinely in the public interest for interviews like these to be kept private unless they lead to criminal prosecutions.  Lots of people really would would be less forthcoming during FBI investigations if they knew their interviews might become public, so it's reasonable that the default position should be that they stay confidential.  That's certainly how I'd want things to stand if I were dishing dirt to the FBI.

Now, perhaps things should be different for non-ordinary people like vice presidents.  But I don't know if that's part of the legal argument here or not.  Are there any law bloggers out there who can step in and explain what's going on here?

UPDATE : Jeralyn Merritt points out that FBI interviews are also kept private in order to protect the names and reputations of the innocent, those who don't get indicted:

Even though this isn't a grand jury secrecy case, I think in order to protect the privacy and reputation of those who are mentioned or discussed by the subject of a law enforcement interview, the reports of these interviews, untested by cross-examination, should remain in government hands and not subject to release via a FOIA request.

....The same rule should apply to Cheney as to everyone else. In my view, the Congressional Committee had a right to the documents since they are federal officials investigating a matter related to the subject matter of the grand jury's Valerie Plame leak investigation. But CREW and the public don't. It's too bad that Dick Cheney is the one who wins if the material is not released to CREW and the public, but I'd rather have that than a precedent that allows reports of law enforcement interviews of the average citizen who ultimately is not indicted, and who may have slandered Tom, Dick and Mary during their interview, subject to public disclosure.

I haven't been keeping close tabs on the details of our mission in Afghanistan lately, but Steve Hynd mentions something today that's interesting.  Back in March, Barack Obama said we would be focused primarily on counterterrorism — killing bad guys — but now that's changed.  Without really announcing anything, the mission is now apparently focused on counterinsurgency and nation building:

Counter-insurgency "clear, hold and build" has entirely taken over from counter-terrorism "hunt, kill and disupt". That might be the right thing to do — although I have my doubts — but the point is that it wasn't what Obama said would happen and government policy has radically shifted in favor of an interventionist, long-war, nation-building policy straight from the military and the folks at CNAS without any official announcement or very much public debate. In fact, it's almost as if Obama himself hasn't been told.

I don't have anything much to say about this, and it might even be that Steve is drawing too strong a conclusion from a couple of hazy data points.  I'm not sure. But it seemed worth sharing.  Just how long is Obama planning on staying in Afghanistan, I wonder?

Outrage Blogging

Via McMegan, Laura at 11D has a very good post about the evolution of the blogosphere over the past few years.  In particular, she mentions something I've noticed too:

3. Norms and practices. Bloggers have undermined the blogosphere. Bloggers do not link to each other as much as they used to.  It's a lot of work to look for good posts elsewhere and most bloggers became burnt out. Drezner and Farrell had a theory that even small potato bloggers would have their day in the sun, if they wrote something so great that it garnered the attention of the big guys. But the big guys are too burnt out to find the hidden gems. So, good stuff is being written all the time, and it isn't bubbling to the top.

I write as much as I ever have, but in my posts I link more to news sources and less to other bloggers than I used to.  I'm not sure why.  Part of it might be related to another evolution I've noticed: the political blogosphere increasingly seems to latch on to four or five outrages of the day that suck up most of its attention.  It seems like every blog I read posts about the same few political nano-scandals every day, and since I mostly find this stuff kind of boring I don't link to it very much.

I don't know for sure if that's a real trend or not.  My memory is famously fuzzy and I have a hard time really remembering what things were like four years ago compared to today.  But whatever the case, the end result is less engagement with other bloggers and less conversational tone to the blogosphere.  That may or may not be entirely a bad thing, but I kind of miss it.

Chart of the Day

From Calculated Risk, here's a chart incorporating today's bad unemployment news.  We're now clearly in the worst slump since the Great Depression, and by far the worst slump in the past 50 years.  And if that's still not bad enough news for you, keep in mind that we're in good shape compared to Europe and China.  If and when another shoe drops (ARM resets? Eastern European defaults? a big bank collapse? an oil price spike?), it could be 2008 all over again.

On the bright side, the Wall Street Journal reports that banker pay has rebounded and is now back up to bubblicious 2007 levels.  It's good to see that not everyone is suffering.

John Bolton says that Iranians' rejection of their rulers means now is as good a time as any for the Israelis to bomb Iran. I actually heard this argument bandied around last week by a friend who had heard it at a dinner with high-powered New York business and media types, but I couldn't really take it seriously. I guess I underestimated the Right once again. Is it any surprise that the man who joked about nuking Chicago and virulently supported the Iraq war thinks that bombing Iran will solve Israel's problems?

The broader point is that Bolton does a lot to attack Obama's position but very little to defend his own. It's as if he believes the burden of proof is on those who don't favor war. But this is not 1981, Natanz is not Osirak, and the Iranian nuclear program will not be easy to destroy. The best the Israelis could hope for from an attack on Iran is a temporary setback to Iran's bombmaking capabilities, offset by a redoubled Iranian desire for a bomb. That doesn't seem like a good outcome for Israel.

When it comes to the Bush White House's decision to withhold from the public Dick Cheney's interview with FBI agents investigating the CIA leak case, the Obama administration says its predecessor did the right thing. And it's fighting hard to do the same.

On Wednesday night, in another move that puts the administration on the side of secrecy over openness, Obama's Justice Department filed a memo supporting its ongoing opposition to a lawsuit requesting the release of the Cheney interview. This memo included a declaration from Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, who said that if the Cheney interview is made public it could cause public officials in the future to not cooperate with criminal investigations.

Breuer, who heads the department's criminal division, noted:

As a general matter, the non-public nature of law enforcement interviews can be a significant factor in securing the voluntary cooperation of witnesses. Indeed, it is not uncommon for prosecutors and law enforcement investigators to inform witnesses that, subject to applicable statutes, regulations and rules, they will attempt to maintain the confidentiality of information provided. A non-public interview can be particularly important in gaining the cooperation of senior-level White House officials given the public role of such witnesses, the sensitive nature of the subject matters that may be discussed, the potential politicization of these sensitive issues, and the possibility that whatever matter is being investigated ultimately may not warrant any law enforcement action.

In other words, top government officials may only cooperate with a criminal investigation--that is, submit to questioning without being subpoenaed--if they are promised confidentiality. Now what sort of public servant would a person be if he or she refused to help the FBI during an investigation? But Breuer claimed this is a real threat to future investigations: 

A White House official's reluctance to submit voluntarily to an interview or share certain information in an interview could hamper an investigation in several important ways....A law enforcement investigation based upon interviews subject to an expectation of confidentiality also benefits from senior officials more inclined to provide identifiable leads, name percipient witnesses, offer credibility assessments of the accuser or other witnesses, and even articulate inferences, insight or hunches that can be invaluable to a law enforcement investigator. A law enforcement investigation could lose these potential benefits if the senior official believes his or her statement will be subject to public disclosure.

But Citizens for Responsiblity and Ethics in Washington, the public interest group that filed the lawsuit seeking the Cheney interview, points out that "Cheney was never promised confidentiality, as Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald confirmed in a letter to Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), then Chairman of the House Oversight Committee." That is, Cheney participated in the investigation voluntarily without the cloak of confidentiality. If he could do so, why won't future officials? Melanie Sloan, CREW’s executive director, notes, "It is astonishing that a top Department of Justice political appointee is suggesting other high-level appointees are unlikely to cooperate with legitimate law enforcement investigations. What is wrong with this picture?"

The Justice Deparment also filed a declaration noting that because the Cheney interview covered "confidential deliberations" he held with other senior administration officials, its disclosure "could chill future internal discussions about matters of national importance, thus limiting...full, frank, and open discussion." This separate declaration also maintained that the Cheney interview can be withheld because it also covered "confidential communications" he had with Bush. This is the argument that the Bush administration routinely used, such as when it opposed the release of information related to Cheney's energy task force.

By fighting the CREW lawsuit--adopting arguments made by the Bush administration--the Obama administration is demonstrating that even as it encourages greater transparency in government operations, it still is reluctant to yield secrecy that applies to White House actions. For instance, it is still seeking to block the release of White House visitors logs. Cheney, no doubt, is appreciative.

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.

Just for the record, since I get asked this a lot: the reason I'm not writing about the California budget mess, even though I live in California, is because I just can't stand to.  Sorry.  If you ever thought there was a group of lawmakers who could make the U.S. Congress look like a sober, highminded deliberative body, the clowns in Sacramento are them.

In case you're interested, here's the latest.  No budget agreement is on the horizon, but on June 29 Dems tried to pass a bill that would have saved a bit of money.  It was a technical measure related to how education money is distributed via Proposition 98, but the bottom line is that it would have saved the state about $3 billion. It had to be passed before June 30 or not at all, but Arnold Schwarzennegger flatly refused to consider it.  Why?  Who knows.  No "piecemeal" budgeting, he says.  He wants an entire budget all at once that slashes $24 billion without increasing taxes so much as a dime, or nothing at all.  Why?  Again, who knows?  It's like trying to figure out a five year old.

So, anyway, our gargantuan budget deficit, much of it caused by almost lunatic irresponsibility on Schwarzenegger's part in the first place, is now about $3 billion higher because of further lunatic irresponsibility on Schwarzenegger's part.  And while Dems may not exactly be heroes in this mess, at least they're doing something.  Proposing things.  Trying to keep the state from resorting to IOUs for blind people.  Hoping to do something to prevent our credit rating from going down the toilet, making our budget problem even worse.  Something.  Meanwhile, Schwarzenegger has no plans at all, and the sullen Republican rump in the Senate and Assembly just sits around and votes no on everything.  No proposals, no ideas, no nothing.  Just no, no, no.

Like I said, it makes Washington DC look like the second coming of Periclean Athens.  Depressing.  But if you really want to know more — and you're a stronger man than me — check out the fine folks at Calitics.  They'll keep you up to speed.

When Republicans passed the Medicare prescription drug bill in 2003, they didn't really need to worry much about how to finance it.  Their plan was straightforward: first, have the administration lie repeatedly about the cost of the bill and make sure Congress never knew about it.  Second, don't worry about financing it anyway.  Just blow another hole in the deficit and move on.

Democrats, bless their goo-goo little hearts, are doing their best to actually pay for their healthcare reform project.  That would make things hard enough, but unfortunately, they're making things even more difficult for themselves via some fairly stunning incompetence at getting cost estimates out of the CBO.  In turn, Republicans are twisting the CBO estimates to make them look even worse than they are.  This isn't especially highminded of them, but hey — politics ain't beanbag, and Dems know how the CBO scoring process works as well as anyone.

Anyway, today we have new cost estimates.  Sort of.  To get them, though, you have to paste together several items.  Ezra Klein tries to explain:

The short version is this: CBO estimates that by 2019 the bill will cover 21 million people at a cost of $597 billion. But — and this is important — the HELP Committee's bill doesn't include the Medicaid expansion, because Medicaid is under the sole jurisdiction of the Finance Committee. But if Medicaid is expanded to 150 percent, it will cover an additional 20 million at a cost of about $1 trillion. Add in the savings that Finance is expected to get from reforming Medicare and you're looking at a bill that will cost $1 trillion to $1.3 trillion and cover 42 million people (which would mean 97 percent of the legal population in 2019 would have health insurance) by 2019.

The headlines will still probably get this wrong because it requires putting together several different numbers.  And Republicans will undoubtedly try to twist the numbers to their advantage — which is exactly what you expect an opposition party to do.  Democrats have really made a hash out of these competing estimates, leaving themselves open to all sorts of attacks they wouldn't have to put up with if they'd produced some reasonably clean bills for CBO to score.

But anyway, this is where we're at now.  The difference between this estimate and the previous ones appears to come mostly from the addition of an employer mandate, and covering 97% of the population for a little over $100 billion per year is probably quite doable if this is where things stay.  Add a strong public option and the cost might even come down some more.

Read the whole post for more, and read Jon Cohn for a different take on the same numbers.  It's too bad it's taken so long to get here, but it's basically good news.