Am I a classified document?
Back in my day, data stewardship actually meant something.
Trump, Biden, and Mike Pence have been in the news recently for their loosey-goosey approach to classified materials. Say what you want about the politics of these men, but they all appear to have the same affinity for document preservation that my father does. My dad has boxes and boxes of receipts dating back to the mid-80’s—on the off chance he’ll need to rebalance a 40-year-old checkbook.
To quickly summarize what I’m talking about: Trump got in trouble for having classified documents at his home, Biden got in trouble for having classified documents at his home, and Pence was like ahh fuck me, yeah, same.
All these guys getting scrutinized for having classified materials in their houses kinda sketched me out, so last night I went through my own closet to be super duper sure I didn’t have any government docs lying around. And while I didn’t find any classified documents, I did find a love letter and an accompanying mixtape that a junior high crush gave me about 15 years ago. Claudia—if you’re reading this, my love for you is as strong now as it was back in Ms. Bales’s 7th grade social studies class. This King needs his Queen—xoxo, pete.
As you’re probably aware, this newsletter isn’t really known for diving into topical political content—but then again, this newsletter isn’t really known for anything.
However. In light of all this classified material nonsense, now seemed as good a time as any to teach you kids about something called Special Sworn Status—something that’s… tangentially related to classified material.
Special Sworn Status is a very, very unremarkable security clearance that’s required to access data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. When I fresh out of college and still wearing v-necks unironically, my first full-time job was as an economics researcher at the University of California, Berkeley. I was working with an economist on a paper about changes in energy input prices for U.S. manufacturers and how those changes could impact various components of the manufacturing industry. In order to do this, we had to use the Census Bureau’s Census of Manufactures administrative micro-data to estimate the incidence of energy cost shocks—just brutally, brutally boring stuff.
However, the Census Bureau’s Census of Manufactures administrative micro-data is confidential, and the Census Bureau pinky swears to not publicly release any of this data in a way that can identify or undermine any business or organization or institution.
For real, though—if you leak any of this data you can go to federal prison for a weirdly long time and face extensive, immeasurably-painful public humiliation.
So to get my grubby little econ boy hands on this data, I needed to get Special Sworn Status—a process that involved a nauseatingly extensive government background check, a bunch of data security training videos, a stern talking-to from a Census Bureau lad, and an interview with some kind of federal investigator guy.
“Are you… like, a bad person?” —the investigator
Now I bet you guys probably think econ research on behalf of the U.S. government is sexy, but it’s not. The movies want you to believe that economics is just “spinning up fancy optimization models and snorting GDP off a stripper’s sternum in the back of a Fogo de Chao,” but that can’t be further from the truth.
Government economics research is less “cocaine at a Brazilian steakhouse” and more “spitting up on yourself after eating a turkey, ranch and swiss in the back parking lot of a Quiznos.”
“Wait—what movies are you even talking about?” —you
Also when I’m saying “economics research on behalf of the U.S. government,” I technically mean as a temporary, uncompensated employee of the U.S. Census Bureau. To get unnecessarily specific: I was working on U.S. Census Bureau data in a Bureau of Labor Statistics data center while the University of California, Berkeley wrote my checks using money from a grant they received from the U.S. government.
TL;DR: Berkeley wrote my checks and you paid my bills.
This post is already wayyy too long, but let’s press on
The Bureau of Labor Statistics data center was a massive, windowless room full of computers, O.S.H.A workplace safety posters, and that feeling you get after watching Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind for the first time.
I don’t know who else was supposed to be in the data center, and it didn’t seem like the BLS knew, either. I never saw anyone. The lights were motion-activated, which meant prolonged periods of little activity would be punctuated with rolling blackouts. Just a flick of the wrist or a wave of the arm wouldn’t suffice to turn the lights back on—I’d have to get up from my chair and announce myself to the room with a despondent, double-armed flailing.
The cafeteria on the first floor of the BLS building wasn’t bad. It wasn’t particularly good, but it did have some gumption. I was especially humored by the napkins, which cost five cents apiece. It felt wrong at the moment, but now I suppose I appreciate the federal government’s frugality. Why—as a taxpayer—should I pay for some middling government worker to wipe his or her mouth? Learn how to eat, you f—ing ungrateful slob.
My job was chill, but I did struggle with the loneliness. My wife was constantly flying back and forth from D.C. to Phoenix for work and I didn’t know anyone in the city. Other than the BLS building security guards, the cafeteria lady charging me a nickel to wipe my hands, and the BLS economist absolutely unloading himself in the bathroom stall next to me, there wasn’t another human to talk to.
I had rented a basement apartment in Dupont Circle, which meant I was in an absolutely bangin’ part of town, but—just like at work—I didn’t have any windows. So to make sure I was getting at least a few hours of natural light every day, I’d spend my free time just walking aimlessly through the streets of D.C.
I inadvertently learned the ins and outs of the city—like the best coffee shops in Dupont, the best restaurants in Georgetown, and the best rain gutters in NoMa to stash the Declaration of Independence.
Every day I’d wake up and take the metro to Union Station, work in the data center, and then just wander around the city until dark. On my way back home, I’d usually grab a jumbo slice from Duccini’s, an egg and cheese sandwich from Emissary, or a half-smoke from Ben’s Chili Bowl to eat alone in my basement apartment.
But you know what I never brought home to my basement apartment?
Missed my last This is bullshit and so can you post? Read it here.
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At one point I lived in a windowless basement and had windowless work, so I am completely vibing with you on the walking aimlessly around wondering which gutters are best for stuffing documents into (so they can never be retrieved again? So that they CAN be retrieved after losing my tail? Who would see me?) life.