The Department of Defense has come too rely too much on private contractors to fulfill core missions without adequate consideration of which functions are "inherently governmental," Gene Dodaro, GAO's acting comptroller, has told Congress. Testifying Wednesday before the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, headed by Pennsylvania Democrat John Murtha, Dodaro reiterated a request from GAO--first made in 2006--that lawmakers compel the Pentagon to consider how it hires and deploys contractors. The amount of defense spending devoted to paying private companies to perform an wide array of tasks (support services, intelligence, translation, security, etc.) has doubled since 2003.

While we are all to eager to blame contractors for fraud and corruption, Dodaro emphasized that a large part of the problem stems from a shortage of Pentagon contract specialists and incompetence among those already on the job.

Thimerosal Update

THIMEROSAL UPDATE....The vaccine/autism community has made great hay out of a single case last year in which the government conceded that a child with a pre-existing mitochondrial disorder may have been "aggravated" by a series of shots.  It was only one of thousands of cases in federal court, though, so how will they react now that the main test cases have been decided?

In a major setback for the fight to link autism to vaccines, a special federal court ruled Thursday that the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine and vaccines that contained a mercury-based preservative were not connected to the autism that developed in three children. The decisions in the cases [] could potentially sink the claims of several hundred other families in an omnibus proceeding that believe the MMR vaccine alone or in combination with vaccines containing the preservative thimerosal caused their children's autism, said Curtis Webb, a lawyer for the Hazlehurst family. ...."I concluded the evidence was overwhelmingly contrary to the petitioners' contentions," George Hastings Jr. wrote in the Cedillo opinion, similar to the others. "The expert witnesses presented by the respondent were far better qualified, far more experienced and far more persuasive than the petitioners' experts."

Needless to say, this won't convince anyone who doesn't want to be convinced.  "There's no denying what happens to your child when you see it firsthand," said Rick Rollens, who has an autistic son and co-founded the UC Davis MIND Institute.  And: "Rollens and others said these verdicts wouldn't make parents stop questioning the safety of vaccines, especially when the parents see changes in their children right after vaccination."

No doubt.  Time for the rest of us to move on, though.

Safe Havens

SAFE HAVENS....Via Felix Salmon, here's some interesting news: Moody's has decided that not all AAA sovereign debt is created equal.    Here's how things shake out:
  • AAA-Worst: Ireland, Spain
  • AAA-Middle: United States, UK
  • AAA-Best: Germany, France, Canada, Scandinavia

I wonder what it would take for the United States to be downgraded into the Ireland/Spain category?

Vatican Brings Back Indulgences

From the New York Times comes news that the Roman Catholic Church is allowing indulgences again. The revelation compelled the Times to write this improbable paragraph:

There are partial indulgences, which reduce purgatorial time by a certain number of days or years, and plenary indulgences, which eliminate all of it, until another sin is committed. You can get one for yourself, or for someone who is dead. You cannot buy one — the church outlawed the sale of indulgences in 1567 — but charitable contributions, combined with other acts, can help you earn one. There is a limit of one plenary indulgence per sinner per day.

The Tipping Point

THE TIPPING POINT....Should the stimulus bill have been even bigger?  Tyler Cowen lists several reasons to be cautious on this score, including this:
5. Many on the left are boasting that the U.S. government could borrow lots more (look at the current T-Bill rate), forgetting they used to warn us that international capital flows, as amplified through noise traders and speculators, mean that crises can arrive in a single, whiplash moment, bringing countries from riches to rags virtually overnight.  Somehow those old narratives are being forgotten, I wonder why.

We have essentially replaced a risk bubble with a safety bubble.  And there are lots of good reasons to think that this bubble, which manifests itself as an almost bottomless demand for U.S. treasuries, will continue for a long time.  But a long time isn't forever, and we're planning to sell upwards of $3 trillion in treasuries over the next 30 months.  So when will the tipping point come?  After $1 trillion?  $2 trillion?  Never?  I hope the answer is never, but if the past couple of years has taught us anything, it's that we don't know — and that never is probably the least likely answer.  And when the market does turn on us, it's going to turn ferociously and without notice.  I sure hope Geithner and Summers and the rest of the crew are prepared for this, because the odds are that we're going to be paying for the profligacy of the Bush administration for a long time to come.

Billboard magazine has ranked the top 20 biggest money-makers in music this year, and I assume they don't mean, um, the body part one is supposed to shake. No, no, they mean musicians who've made the most dollars, or, more likely, euros, and maybe even rubles, in 2008. Madonna topped the list by a wide margin, earning a total of over $242 million, with rockers Bon Jovi and Bruce Springsteen just about tied at $157 and $156 million, respectively. Not surprisingly, says Billboard, touring is your best bet for the big cash these days, and every performer on their top 20 list had major tours this year. But perhaps more surprising is the apparent gap between album sales and tour income: Madonna's 2008 album, Hard Candy, was only the 50th-best-selling of the year in the US. But that didn't stop concert-goers, as her continuing "Sticky & Sweet" tour grossed nearly $230 million, not including the $18 million worth of tour merchandise sold. Jeez, and I'm stoked when I get 50 bucks for DJing. Anyway, the full list of the most immune-to-economic-woes musicians after the jump.

Gregg Withdraws

GREGG WITHDRAWS....I sure didn't see this one coming:

President Obama’s choice for Commerce Secretary, Senator Judd Gregg, withdrew his nomination on Thursday. He said there were “irresolvable conflicts” between him and the administration.
“It has become apparent during this process that this will not work for me as I have found that on issues such as the stimulus package and the Census, there are irresolvable conflicts for me,” Mr. Gregg said in a statement. “Prior to accepting this post, we had discussed these and other potential differences, but unfortunately we did not adequately focus on these concerns. We are functioning from a different set of views on many critical items of policy.”
Irresolvable conflicts on the stimulus package?  That's crazy.  There's simply no way Gregg didn't understand Obama's stimulus priorities when he accepted the job offer.

So that leaves the census.  Obama has decided to remove it from the Commerce Department and put it directly under the White House, something that's recently become a right wing  cause célèbre"This isn't a small or innocent change," says Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R–Tenn.), and I suspect we're going to be hearing a lot more about this soon from Limbaugh and Drudge and the rest of the usual suspects.  I hope Obama has a pretty good explanation for doing this.

UPDATE: Marc Ambinder says here that the census director still reports to Commerce and that the whole thing is a "BS issue."  So I'm not quite sure what's going on.  Fox News frames it this way:
White House officials have announced that the census will technically remain part of the Commerce Department, but that Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel will oversee it at the White House, raising eyebrows among critics who say he can't be expected to be neutral in the task.

More later as I figure out what's really going on here.

Republican Louisiana Sen. David Vitter made a trip to DC's Chinatown on Thursday to nibble on kung pao chicken and rally the conservative troops. Addressing the DC lawyers chapter of the conservative legal group, the Federalist Society, Vitter got right down to red meat. After quoting comments from President Obama suggesting that he'd like his judicial nominees to be able to empathize with the downtrodden, Vitter declared that demanding empathy in a judge was something you'd expect in a "dictatorship." How empathy equates with repressive rule, Vitter didn't really explain, except to say that it had little to do with ensuring checks and balances on an imperial government. (Vitter also claimed--and it was hard to tell if he was joking or not--that he routinely walks from the Senate to the House of Representatives to use the apparently more populist House water fountains, instead of imbibing the stuff the Senate is drinking these days.)

But Vitter didn't really come to Tony Cheng's to discuss judges or the Constitution. His talk, entitled "Defending Conservative Principles in the Senate," was mostly a complaint about the economic stimulus bill that his Senate colleagues were poised to pass without his vote or the votes of most Republicans. According to Vitter, his party was having a come-to-Jesus moment over the stimulus package, which had provided the minority party an opportunity to rediscover its mantra of smaller government and lower taxes.

Song of the Day: RH+ - "Curb"

Hmm, are the folks at Nacional Records sure they didn't mix up their publicity photos? From what I see here, the members of RH+ look like three slabs of rough-and-tumble, smokin'-hot Chilean beef, complete with elaborate facial hair and tough-guy shades. But the single "Curb" from the Santiago combo's debut album Quintana Roo has the delicate, dream-pop style of Scandinavians Royksopp, lead by the high, clear vocals of what sounds like an innocent young lady. Did she not show up for the photo shoot, or is one of these hunks actually a castrato? Okay, okay, joking aside, there's actually a propulsive solidity to this track, and while I'm not sure if there are any strains of traditional Chilean sounds here, "Curb" does remind me of classic Brazilian psychedelia, with its hypnotic combination of silky vocals and buzzy melodies. Listen to it by pressing the "play" button on the thingy below or grab an mp3 over at the RCRD LBL site.
[Update: Okay, their label Nacional assures me that in fact, RH+ is a five piece with a female singer and one other guy, and that RCRD LBL just cut them out of the publicity shot for some reason. Well, it made for a funny post, at least...]

LOST: Please Tell Me They're Not in Purgatory

The title of last night's LOST episode should have been a giveaway: "This Place is Death." But I'm hoping to Hurley the island-bound Losties are not in limbo, or in purgatory, or just plain old dead because the show's creators promised they wouldn't be.

That sinking feeling aside, some really interesting information is helping progressing the series toward a (hopefully) satisfying conclusion. We now know the smoke monster used to guard a temple inscribed with Egyptian hieroglyphs, the same glyphs seen when Desmond's hatch computer was allowed to time out. The Egyptian symbols, together with Charlotte's Tunisian Dharma Initiative research, and the slave ship the Black Rock, gives this season a bit of an African flavor, but it's hard to tell what the link is between Africa and the island.