Transparency in government means different things to different people. Like the word “change” itself, it tends to mean what you want it to mean.
For some, it is a “no more secrets” reaction to 8 years of a ridiculously secretive Bush administration, while for others it is a wonky idea that has been flowering since sunshine laws first went on the books in the states in the 1970s.
There is a big difference between, say, attempting to get information by submitting a FOIA request and the government publishing or disseminating information on a regular basis. Likewise, there is a big difference between a specific paper trail that shows the origins of every single line in every single piece of legislation to come through the House or Senate, and a requirement that legislators keep an open record of who they meet with and when.
What does transparency mean to Obama?
Probably something along the lines of the latter, though I’m not quite sure. Admittedly, it’s probably because I’m not paying attention closely enough, but part of it is that Obama’s views are couched as “ethics” as per his campaign’s website and on change.gov. These are good lists of things to do, but the “shine a light” items are listed alongside “spend taxpayer money wisely” items, conflating open government with wise government.
I am a big believer in transparency, though as I’ve stated, this can mean whatever the hell I want it to mean.
I tend to come from a regulatory perspective (which is different than a legislative perspective), and furthermore an environmental and public health perspective, wherein I’d like to see the government be more open about the information held by the government. Specifically, I want to see the information used to make decisions — that is, when EPA sets some new air pollution standard, I want to see the analysis and I want to see the data and I want all of the computer models. I want it all out there for “peer review” or rather, open public review. Current OMB rules on such matters are insufficient.
I guess the difference here is between transparency of influence and transparency of information. The latter is really a form of “information accessibility.” Everyone seems to care about the former, but I hope the latter doesn’t get lost.
I’m not the only one with a somewhat broader view of transparency. I really like, for example, the five policy ideas put forth by public.resource.org, a group attempting to make government information more accessible:
FedFlix. Government videos are an essential national resource for vocational and safety training and can also help form a public domain stock footage library, a common resource for the YouTube and remix era.
The Library of the U.S.A. A book series and public works job program to create an archival series of curated documents drawn from our cultural institutions, with full-quality masters of the books and research materials made available for other publishers to draw on. The program would employ the GPO master printers and would recruit writers, archivists, artists, and other creative workers through a national call for participation.
The United States Publishing Academy. GPO should expand current training programs such as the Institute for Federal Printing and combine them with current workforce development efforts to create a national academy similar to the National Mine Academy and the National Fire Academy, training its own workforce, the government, and the local schools in the art, craft, and science of publishing.
The Rural Internetification Administration. Repurposing the Amateur Radio League, modifying spectrum policy, and injecting capital into rural coops can bring high-speed broadband to 98% of rural Americans just as the Rural Electrification Administration did in the last century.
I think this last idea is pretty interesting, because it gets to the point that accessibility isn’t just about putting stuff online, it’s about making sure that people can get to that stuff. But you can see how easy it is to get off the point: first we’re talking transparency, and the next thing you know, we’re talking broadband investment.
There are of course a bunch of other ideas floating around along these lines, though I haven’t been a close follower of this transparency debate and am still getting to know the players.
But one idea certainly did catch my eye, and not because it’s a good idea. Rather, it’s because it’s a horrible, horrible idea.
Witness this atrociously awful Washington Post op-ed from Matthew Miller of the Center for American Progress, in which he recommends that Obama force all high-level appointees to sign a “pre-nup” of confidentiality. He suggests that “aides should pledge not to disclose anything they see until, say, five years after their boss leaves office.”
This is such a monumentally abominable idea, it’s almost unforgiveable. The reasoning has something to do with the idea that the possibility of the tell-all memoir forces politicians to trust an ever smaller cadre of insiders. But the only reason why we’ve had so many tell-alls during the Bush years is precisely BECAUSE his governance has been opaque and openly hostile towards the idea of openness or accountability. Secrecy creates the atmosphere for books about secrets. Duh.
Furthermore, this is a pathetically partisan idea, as nobody from CAP would have dared suggested anything of the like during Bush’s tenure. In fact, until recently, they seemed kind of against secrecy. I just found this post by Glenn Greenwald, which trashes Miller’s op-ed much better than I.
There is no indication that Obama has anything like this in mind, though CAP has been a very prominent voice at the transition table. And Obama has shown very very strict message control. I can see how such a policy would be tempting to any politician, but I dearly hope this idea gets left out in the cold.
But this all raises the question on what Obama has actually been up to.
First, as noted by Lessig, Obama changed the transition’s copyright policy to Creative Commons 3.0. This is a big deal because it puts transition materials into the public domain, which isn’t an automatic thing.
Second, last week, the Obama Transition Team published this memo (PDF) on transparency, which specifies that the OTT will publish all policy documents and written recommendations from “official” meetings and list who was represented in them. Then they initiated the annoyingly named but pretty cool Your Seat at The Table feature to implement the memo. Of course “official” meetings must include three or more outside participants, and hiring and personnel decisions are off the table, but still, a big step in the right direction.
John Wonderlich has a great post up on the Sunlight Foundation blog about these changes. He wonders if the administration might enact a broader policy of “affirmative disclosure”:
All this raises a more significant question, however. What could such a program look like across the entire executive branch? In other words, does “Your Seat at the Table” scale? Could there be a system of affirmative designations that broadly opens executive branch information, just as Creative Commons has in the creative sphere?
The third thing that Obama has done has less to do with transparency than citizen engagement, but the transition team couches in the language of transparency, so I’ll bite. It is clear through change.gov that they are actively using a host of emerging web technologies and applications to attempt to have an open “discussion” with the American people. This post by Greg Elin outlines some of these things as related to Daschle and health care, as witnessed in this blog post on change.gov.
What does it add up to?
So far, I guess I’d say that the Obama transition is doing quite a bit on shining light on the transparency of influence and is working hard to use the internet to increase the rate and depth of dialogue between citizens and public officials. But still, very little is being done, as far as I’m concerned on openness and accessibility to government-owned information.
I am cynical, but hopeful, that Obama will push a transparency agenda that actively engages on some ideas beyond what they’ve set out so far, but regardless, I’m pretty happy. I love that we’re having this debate at all.
Transparency has been a bit of an under the radar issue in that it’s not something the public is clamoring for (as compared to, say, climate change legislation or the bailout), but it’s important. And the fact that Obama’s team is doing active things to change the way business is being done suggests that he has more to offer than “just words.”
"Number of men elected as Illinois governor since 1960: 7
Number who have been charged with criminal conduct: 4
Number who have served time in prison: 3
Number of years served (combined) thus far by three jailed governors: 6 *
(* — George Ryan, Rod Blagojevich’s predecessor, is two years into a 6 1/2 year sentence. Dan Walker went to jail in 1988 for conduct that occurred after his 1973-1977 tenure. He was released in 1989 due to poor health. Staged miraculous recovery after release; now lives in Mexico. Otto Kerner Jr. served time between 1974 and 1975 on bribery charges. He died of cancer soon after winning his early release.)”
“Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”—Abraham Lincoln, discussing the differences between the auto bailout and the financial bailout, 1861
I haven’t read the 76 page criminal complaint (pdf via WaPo), but if the press release is any indication, the full document must be a doozy. Read the press release at least - it’s a little long, but it is full of juice.
The most amazing part is how recent so much of this crap is. The Blag has been under scrutiny for some time due to ties to Tony Rezko, so the potential for impeachment or indictment has been expected for some time. Indeed, these historical indiscretions are part of the charges. But what’s absolutely crazy here is that all three of the major charges here pertain to actions and phone calls in October, November, and December of this year. That is: he did this shit after he knew he was under the microscope. I always knew the dude must have a screw loose to have that ridiculous helmet haircut, but this guy is a flat out joke.
I mean, even Stringer Bell knew how to swap out a SIM card. The Blag wasn’t even smart enough to do this shit on a cell phone, even after he read an article in the Chicago Tribune on December 5 (story here) that his phones were tapped.
And to those keeping count: this is the second Governor of Illinois in a row to be indicted (something tells me Dick Durbin’s attempts to have G.W. Bush commute George Ryan’s sentence are now effectively over), and likely the second in a row to be sent to the slammer.
A few winners from the press release:
The Blag on the historic election of Illinois Senator Barack Obama: “Later on November 5, Blagojevich said to Advisor A, “I’ve got this thing and its [expletive] golden, and, uh, uh, Im just not giving it up for [expletive] nothing. Im not gonna do it. And, and I can always use it. I can parachute me there,” the affidavit states.”
The Blag on realistic prospects of his future career: “Over the next couple of days - Election Day and the day after - Blagojevich was captured discussing with Deputy Governor A whether he could obtain a cabinet position, such as Secretary of Health and Human Services or the Department of Energy or various ambassadorships. In a conversation with Harris on November 4, Blagojevich analogized his situation to that of a sports agent shopping a potential free agent to the highest bidder. The day after the election, Harris allegedly suggested to Blagojevich that the President-elect could make him the head of a private foundation.”
The Blag on health care: “On October 8, Blagojevich told Individual A that he wanted to obtain a $50,000 contribution from Hospital Executive 1, the chief executive officer of Childrens Memorial Hospital in Chicago, which had recently received a commitment of $8 million in state funds. When the contribution was not forthcoming, Blagojevich discussed with Deputy Governor A the feasibility of rescinding the funding.”
The Blag on highway infrastructure: “Also on October 6, Blagojevich told Individual A that he expected Highway Contractor 1 to raise $500,000 in contributions and that he was willing to commit additional state money to a Tollway project - beyond $1.8 billion that Blagojevich announced on October15 - but was waiting to see how much money the contractor raised for Friends of Blagojevich.”
The Blag on the media and baseball: “Intercepted calls allegedly show that Blagojevich directed Harris to inform Tribune Owner and an associate, identified as Tribune Financial Advisor, that state financial assistance would be withheld unless members of the Chicago Tribunes editorial board were fired, primarily because Blagojevich viewed them as driving discussion of his possible impeachment. In a November 4 phone call, Blagojevich allegedly told Harris that he should say to Tribune Financial Advisor, Cubs Chairman and Tribune Owner, “our recommendation is fire all those [expletive] people, get em the [expletive] out of there and get us some editorial support.”“
“It’s almost like putting your dick in the wrong hole, ya know. There’s like a thrill to it. There’s a friction that occurs when you put an ingredient in an improper dish. That’s the basis of all fusion cooking is that there’s a sexual friction that’s caused by putting the wrong food in the wrong place. And sometimes it works. But not always.”—
This simple yet amazing web page simply tells you how to reach a human being when calling corporate customer service. My favorite is probably for MetLife: “Press 000 rapidly and repeatedly, ignoring messages.” UnitedHealth is pretty good, too: “Select type. Say “Representative” three times” If you want to talk to someone at the IRS, “Don’t press or say anything.” (via VSL)
“As long as I live, America, I’ll never forget irreparably ruining you. Unless we all die in a nuclear war or calamitous environmental disaster brought on by my neglect. Either way, I’ll see you all in heaven!”—George W. Bush (as per The Onion)
McClatchy reports that a Kuwaiti company under contract to KBR, a former subsidiary of Halliburton, has been holding about 1000 foreign workers against their will for oever three months confined to prison-like windowless warehouses with disgusting sanitation, hardly any food, and no pay.
“It is amazing what we think we want then get tired of once we get it. It is probably good to make a change about ever 5-6 years anyway just to keep motivated. Guess I do that with husbands! Yikes! Done with that yo!”—Postcards From Yo Momma
Driving back to the QC from Chicago last night, I invented a new game to keep me awake. It kept us amused for a good hour, on and off, and I heartily recommend it to anyone looking for reasons to stay awake while driving for long distances.
It’s simple: whenever you pass an exit sign for some town, imagine that’s the title of a movie, and describe the plot. A few examples from yesterday…
Rock Falls: a bunch of down-and-out middle-aged rockers work menial jobs by day and rock at night, in the dying midwestern town of (fictional) Rock Falls. Once an eighties one-hit wonder, their band is now on the long slow road to nowhere. That is, until a mysterious sexy woman, who turns out to be an old fan, suddenly moves into town and shakes things up. Imagine Spinal Tap meets Bull Durham meets Chocolat! (I’ve always loved this town name — so evocative, so full of imagery)
Sterling: a movie about some modern Texas cattle ranchers at the Sterling Ranch and their struggles to keep up with changing times. Immigration, competition from South American producers, fads and trends in diet and living, and other fascinating concerns of the American Cattleman are explored in numbing detail.
Sterling: a dreary and lonely silversmith discovers that a locket he creates is embued with magical powers that cause the wearer to fall madly in love with whoever’s picture is on the inside. Crazy things happen when a woman puts into the locket a photo of her beloved dog, Fifi.
Clinton: a biopic about Chelsea Clinton
Erie: a horror movie that takes place on Lake Erie, about a homicidal fisherman who goes around using booze and sex toys as bait for naughty teenagers who party on the shoreline, who he then catches in various fishing line traps and disembowels. Police suspect political motive as all of the murdered kids are Canadians cought on the American side of the lake…
Prophetstown: In Nevada, in the 1850s, there’s a small but growing mining town run rampant with con-men and outlaws, and five different preachers claim to be prophets sent by God to clean up the mess. As miracles occur around town in increasing numbers, it’s unclear whether all five are truly touched or whether they are faking events in a high stakes game of oneupsmanship. Eventually they have a five way shoot out and kill each other, leaving another character who predicted this would happen as the sole religious visionary in town. But one must wonder: did he orchestrate the five-way homicide/suicide all along?
Lyndon: a musical about LBJ, the Senate years.
Silly, I know, but fun!
It’s amazing how quickly you can create these imaginary worlds, and just riff on them as you roll down the road. As you bounce ideas back and forth about these preposterous movies, you can actually start to see them in your head. You start putting actors in the film — James Gandolfini as LBJ! — and the next thing you know, you’re home…
I’ve noticed this, too. It seems incredibly whiteysomething (that’s my new slang word for young white urban thirty/fortysomething) these days, and since the loss of Fey and Poehler, incredibly male. The highs of SNL have been higher in the last few years, with more memorable skits than I can recall happening in quite a while. They’ve even managed to string together a few episodes with more than one or two good skits (Jon Hamm, Paul Rudd).
But just like in the late 80s, a lot of the skits are starting to feel the same. It’s like they’re living in a bubble. It’s always been an NYC bubble. But now it feels like the Upright Citizens Brigade bubble.
But I will one-up the linked blog post (reblogged from kittykittybangbang) and say that what SNL needs are WRITERS of color. By this, I just mean non-white, having some perspectives from outside the bubble. (And Canadian does not count as a minority.) I think it’s circular — find writers that work well with your cast, and find castmembers that work well with your writing staff.
I’m guessing that the 30 Rock portrayal of the writers is a pretty good approximation, but I decided to see what Google could tell me. I started with the 2008 writers list, which I found here and here.
I then used IMDB, Google image search, Facebook public profiles, and other tools of creepy amateur intertron stalking to put together the following half-assed probably-wrong breakdown of the writers:
Doug Abeles - male whiteysomething James Anderson - male whiteysomething Alex Baze - male whiteysomething Jessica Conrad - female whiteysomething (suspected) Jim Downey - old male whiteysomething Steve Higgins - male whiteysomething Colin Jost - male whiteysomething Erik Kenward - male whiteysomething Rob Klein - male whiteysomething (suspected) John Lutz - male whiteysomething Seth Meyers - male whiteysomething John Mulaney - male whiteysomething Paula Pell - female whiteysomething Simon Rich - male whiteysomething Marika Sawyer - female ? Akiva Schaffer - male whiteysomething John Solomon - male whiteysomething Emily Spivey - female whiteysomething Kent Sublette - male whiteysomething Jorma Taccone - male whiteysomething Bryan Tucker - male whiteysomething
So, with the caveat that these results depend heavily on unreliable internet stalking, sometimes involving singular grainy images shot from moving helicopters, I was not able to find a single writer of color. I count 18 “verified” whiteysomethings, two suspected via itsy-bitsy thumbnails (creepy!), and one unknown because her Facebook avatar is an obese cat. Furthermore, of the 21, only four are women.
I expected male whiteysomethingness, but not quite this much of it. There’s as much diversity here as if you lined up all the boy bands side by side. Even a burger joint sells french fries, for chrissakes.
As a male whiteysomething, I am proud to say that we have not yet ceded control. As someone who’d like to see more than just my voice represented, however, I’m disappointed.