Who cares about the %#&@#% $16 muffins?

The latest tempest in a teapot in this season of austerity? Congressional outrage over the Justice Department's spending on food and beverages at one of its conferences in 2009. An inspector general's audit report found that the department paid $4,200 for 250 muffins and $2,880 for 300 cookies and brownies.

"By itemizing these costs, with service and gratuity, muffins cost over $16 each and cookies and brownies cost almost $10 each," the report reads.

Never mind that this analysis is not necessarily accurate. Chuck Grassley, the ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, issued a statement decrying the muffin-spending: "The Justice Department appears to be blind to the economic realities our country is facing."

Frank Wolf, whose committee oversees the Justice Department in the House, chimed in with his own letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder:

"It is clear that while American taxpayers were tightening their belts and making difficult financial decisions, the department was splurging on wasteful snacks and drinks as well as unnecessary event planning 'consultants.'"

OK, let's stipulate that spending $16, or even $10, for a muffin is excessive, and a waste of taxpayer money. But give me a break -- this kind of spending is hardly the problem.

Not only are spiraling health-care costs the real cause of America's long-term budget woes -- something Congress has done hardly anything to address -- but defense spending is by far the biggest chunk of annual discretionary spending. The Pentagon can't even pass an audit, and won't be able to do so until 2017, according to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's Senate testimony today. With the enthusiastic patronage of Congress, the U.S. military spends tens of billions of dollars on weapons systems that either don't work as adverstised (Future Combat Systems, anyone?), cost far more than budgeted (all of them), or are wholly unnecessary (remember the Kafkaesque fight over the Joint Strike Fighter's "alternate engine"?).

The Justice Department's entire budget request for 2012 is $28 billion -- less than what the U.S. spends in Iraq and Afghanistan in three months. Before it was cut to only $200 million in July, the Pentagon's budget for military bands was $325 million. Military bands!

But by all means, rant about the muffins...


Russia, China, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan introduce proposed Internet 'code of conduct'

This unlikely quartet of countries has introduced a resolution to the U.N. General assembly, calling for the establishment of "international norms and rules guiding the behaviour of States in the information space."

Nate Anderson of Ars Technica has the details:

The code demands that countries show respect for “human rights and fundamental freedoms” and pledges support for “combating criminal and terrorist activities that use information and communications technologies, including networks.” States would also pledge not to use Internet tools to “carry out hostile activities or acts of aggression.”

But the document commits its signatories to “curbing the dissemination of information that incites terrorism, secession-ism, or extremism, or that undermines other countries' political, economic, and social stability, as well as their spiritual and cultural environment.”

Governments will also have the responsibility to “lead all elements of society, including its information and communication partnerships with the private sector, to understand the roles and responsibilities with regard to information security.”

This is all quite general, but it's not hard to see how curbing information that undermines “social stability” is going to lead to problems; indeed, the generality of the wording is part of the problem. Would other signatory countries be asked by China to start cracking down on pro-Falun Gong posts, for instance?

Uzbekistan and China are both labelled "internet enemies" by Reporters Without Borders. Russia is designated as "under surveillance". Eurasianet's David Trilling sighs:

If nothing else, this initiative offers at least one reason for hope: Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, who often look on the verge of war, have actually agreed on something.