< Blogging the Stimulus


Friday, March 27, 2009

BOB GARFIELD: Steve Coll is a fearless journalist, going deep into territory that many deem impenetrable. I refer, of course, to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, a.k.a. the stimulus bill. He’s reading every page of it and blogging about it for The New Yorker. He knows what he’s up against. After writing Next Up: Title II, “Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies”, you can almost hear him sigh as he notes, not exactly Godfather Part II, I know, but we will carry on. Steve, welcome to the show.

STEVE COLL: Thank you, Bob. Good to be with you.

BOB GARFIELD: So you’re blogging the stimulus package.


BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] And that’s what I thought I would find, but come to discover it’s actually been a fascinating exercise. [LAUGHS] What made you want to blog a 400-page government document?

STEVE COLL: It was not a very well-considered decision [LAUGHS], I have to say. [BOB LAUGHS] I mean, I came in [LAUGHS] on a Monday morning and I was full of vim, and I thought, well, I ought to print this bill out and read it. And I was reminded of some other blogging that I'd read and been inspired by, by a guy named David Plotz at Slate, who had blogged the entire Bible by reading it cold, and it had been very funny and very interesting.

BOB GARFIELD: But he was dealing with source material that is filled with drama and tragedy and morality. And you were starting with a Stimulus bill.

STEVE COLL: Right, and I figured that out soon enough. At first I thought, well, the wonkiness of it, the actual material will be sufficient to generate interest, and then I pretty quickly discovered that wasn't the case. So I decided that the only way to do it was to treat it as a travelogue – to see the landscape of the federal government as illuminated by our Congress and its decisions in the Stimulus bill. And then there are obscure corners of our government that you encounter through this travel that you realize, just reading the text, are occupied by an entire subculture of specialists [BOB LAUGHS] who, for [LAUGHS] many years, unexamined, have been going about their work. And just to contemplate what it is they do and what they're now going to do with a billion extra dollars has been interesting.

BOB GARFIELD: Now, we've discussed this project as being Plotzian in nature, but it also is kind of a throwback to I.F. Stone, who always spoke of how close reading government documents enables you to find hidden stories with great drama. What have you discovered that you think fits into that category?

STEVE COLL: Well, there are enormously important and complicated projects of transforming the role of federal government in national life that are embedded in this bill. The bill is kind of a pastiche of theories about how to spend the government money not only to jolt the economy but to create a different political economy after the recession is over. And I've already sort of walked through the Department of Energy piece of that, which is one of several important examples of that kind, where the Stimulus bill is asking a department that generally is involved with supervising nuclear weapons labs and kind of an eclectic basket of responsibilities, asked this department to essentially remake the way electricity systems in the country work for a generation. So it’s a huge project. I mean, it’s like rural electrification and then some.

BOB GARFIELD: And you point out, among other things, that one of the complications is that electric utilities are regulated not by the federal government but by states, so that apart from the technical problems that have to be solved in creating a new national electricity grid, there are 50 different jurisdictions that have a dog in that fight.

STEVE COLL: Exactly right. And one of the purposes of the Stimulus bill and its sort of down payment on this new national system is to connect stranded sources of renewable energy, like solar in the southwestern deserts, to the cities and customers that actually need the electricity they could generate, but to do that, they've got to override state authority. And because, unlike pipelines, a lot of these can't be buried underground, these transmission lines are often controversial in local communities because they're ugly, they make noise, people don't like them.

BOB GARFIELD: Okay, so that exchange we just had, it was a perfect example of how wonkish and granular and technical and tedious some of this reporting can be.


STEVE COLL: Thank you. BOB GARFIELD: You’re very welcome.

STEVE COLL: But important – dull but important.

BOB GARFIELD: And yet I've got to say, you know, once again, you pull it off. It may be – yes it is – you know what, I'm going to say it – it would be good beach reading.


BOB GARFIELD: You've done well here, Steve Coll.

STEVE COLL: Oh, well, thank you, grasshopper. You've obviously been inoculated into the -

[LAUGHTER] - into the world of I.F. Stone. But to some extent, this is the easy piece. Even though it’s really dense and difficult as material, it’s at least available, whereas from the public’s point of view, probably the most consequential decisions about the economic crisis and policy responses are being made in the TARP by the Treasury Department. And there’s just so much that is just not available. It’s completely opaque.

BOB GARFIELD: Steve Coll is president of the New America Foundation. He’s blogging the stimulus package at Newyorker.com. Good luck [LAUGHS] with this project.

STEVE COLL: Thank you, Bob.