Thursday, May 28, 2015

Be a Social Analyst

The Times has a post which is different.  We're used to taking a survey and having our results compared to the average of previous survey takers, but in this case you're asked to draw a graph.

Specifically, you're asked to plot the relationship between family income and probability of going to college.  They give a midpoint, and when you're finished compare your line to those of the previous takers and discuss the reasons for the result.  Like many people I drew an S curve, but it turns out the true graph is a straight line.  A straight line relationship is also true for some other social factors.

"Intriguingly, the relationship between parental-income rank and teen pregnancy is also quite linear, and some of the same forces are probably involved. So is the relationship between parental-income rank and a child’s future income rank.
Not every relevant relationship is linear, however. The chances that a student enrolls in the highest-quality colleges, as measured by their students’ future earnings, are a bit more complicated. These chances accelerate as incomes grow.
And enrolling is not everything. While rich children born around 1980 were nearly three times more likely to go to college than poor children, they were six times more likely to graduate, according to a study separate from the one we're showing here.


Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Comment on "Actively Engaged"

The Blog for Rural America criticizes the draft rule on "actively engaged". He may be picking up comments from the Coalition for Rural America, which I commented on here.The opportunity for the public to offer comments expired yesterday.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Why No Registry of Debts?

"Bad Paper" by Jake Halpern reads quickly, has a number of colorful characters, and tells a depressing story of brokering debts and debt collection in the days before the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau issued new rules.  It's not clear that CFPB will change the situation.  Basically banks and others who make loans to consumers, auto loans, credit card debt, etc. would try to collect delinquent debt.  Very quickly they would sell the obligations for cents on the dollar through brokers to debt collectors. The collectors would collect some of the debt and sell the unpaid obligations down the line.  At each level the collectors operate closer to the legal line, using tougher tactics.  Debt collecting turns out to be a good profession for ex-convicts whose criminal record keeps them out of other jobs.  Halpern devotes little attention to the debtors, just enough to evoke sympathy.

One of the problems in the system is that what's sold seems to be spreadsheets of debtors on flash drives, which can easily be copied/stolen.  The biggest problem is the whole system depends on trust and honesty but the reality is that the weak get the shaft.

Halpern uses the epilogue to argue that the Feds should implement a debt registry, which tracks a debt from issuance through resolution, no matter how many times ownership of the obligation changes hands. Makes sense to me.

Sidenote: I was surprised to learn that in a third of the states people can go to prison for unpaid debts.

Monday, May 25, 2015

A Woman Professor at Georgia in 1918!

Moina Belle Michael is even famous enough to rate a wikipedia page but her fame is due to her involvement with poppies as a symbol of remembrance.  What I'd like to know is what she was teaching at the University of Georgia in 1918?  I don't know how many female professors there were outside of women's colleges but she has to have an interesting back story.

Notable Bureaucrats: Jager and Lauter

Harald Jager and Gerald Lauter deserve places in the bureaucrats hall of fame.  Their roles are described in The Collapse by Mary Elise Sarotte, the book I blogged about yesterday , on the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Jager has a bit of fame, sufficient to rate a wikipedia page.  He was the lieutenant colonel in charge at a major Berlin crossing, who ultimately made the decision to open the gates and let East Berliners cross to the other side without facing rifle fire.

Lauter doesn't get that much fame, but arguably was the more important player. He was the second level bureaucrat who led a group of 4 bureaucrats from different agencies which produced the directive on a changed policy on travel to the West.  As Sarotte tells it, he didn't think much of the policy memo he was given to implement, so the group wrote a new one, including two important provisions: the new policy to take effect immediately and to include Berlin.  He wasn't a good bureaucrat, because there was a big omission--travelers needed to obtain a visa before traveling. (The policy types really wanted only to allow permanent emigration of selected individuals but Lauter believed that wouldn't work.)

So Lauter writes the directive, a PR type holds a news conference and answers questions by reading the directive, the media reasonably interprets the directive and answers as announcing free travel to the West, East Berliners gather at the crossing points, Jager is faced with a decision of using force or opening the crossing and his superiors are no help. He finally makes the right decision.

Why do I consider them candidates for a hall of fame: both deviated from mindless obedience to orders from above, resulting in gains for freedom and human rights.  And both found themselves in situations which other bureaucrats can sympathize with: stupid policy decisions from management (Lauter) and failure by superiorss to provide helpful and reasonable decisions, leaving the bureaucrat on a limb.

I do recommend the book.  The epilogue draws some conclusions  with which I agree--both on the fall of the wall and the general sense in which history happens, accident and luck, individuals and not plans often rule.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Bureaucrats and MLKing: the Collapse

Reading "The Collapse", a very good narrative description of the events leading up to the demise of the Berlin Wall.  Having lived through that time and followed it in the media, even though it predated Internet news, I came to the book with good background.

I was surprised to be reminded by the role M.L.King played in the demonstrations leading up to the fall; East Germans knew and were impressed by his example and followed it in their own actions.

The political decision making and the bureaucracy to implement the decisions was notably defective. A change in leadership, the need to clear decisions with the Soviet Union, the aftermath of a long holiday, the miscoordination of two parallel bureaucracies (the regular bureaucracy and the Communist Party), all made for a dysfunctional system, even worse than our system today.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Presidential Management and Sidney Blumenthal

Some styles of presidential management:

Eisenhower, very structured, staffed, bureaucratic.

Carter, less structured, very micro-managed,

FDR, intentionally unstructured, free-flowing.

Back when I was in college, Ike was dismissed as too old and dated.  FDR was defended for intentionally creating conflict in his administration, and making effective use of Eleanor to  gain information from outside formal channels. (Carter was running the peanut operation.)  The idea, the historians and political scientists said, was to ensure that issues were forced upwards and onto his desk for decision.  (By contrast Ike used his Cabinet extensively, leading to the criticism that he never saw significant issues.)

With the release of Hillary Clinton's emails, her long-time friend and supporter Sidney Blumenthal has come to prominence again.  He sent many emails to her, and was involved in business initiatives in Libya etc. Clinton's defended his input as part of an effort to get outside the "bubble" which can surround and entrap Washington politicians/government executives.   Since she's just a little younger than I, she may be channeling the same sort of professorial wisdom as I received back in the day.  What I don't know is whether the professoriate has updated their ideas in the last 50 years.  I know Ike's reputation has risen, so maybe the answer is "yes"?

Friday, May 22, 2015

"Maggots Don't Lie"

An all-time great line, from an episode of "Waking the Dead".

The speaker is the forensic scientist, played by Tara Fitzgerald.

A quick google reveals this is what Gene Weingarten of the Post calls a "googlenaught"--something which returns no hits, though there is the meme that "bugs don't lie".

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Precision Ag/Internet of Farm Things

Technology REview has a post on the Internet of Farm Things, noting the sensors on field equipment, the use of drones, the release of historical data (soil surveys), etc. and the involvement of big corporations.
"Combining information like localized weather forecasts with details about topography, water levels in the soil, and the seed that has been planted in a field, a company like Climate Corporation will advise farmers about how much fertilizer, an expensive item, to put on a field and when to do so."

There's speculation it will help farmers make a profit. I suspect the real impact will be a further lengthening of the tail--younger, bigger, more aggressive farmers will become bigger (though with a higher risk of failing) while older, smaller, less aggressive farmers don't.  In other words, the history of farming ever since the invention of hoes and seeds.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Forgetting Emotion: David Brooks

David Brooks has a column today reflecting on the decisions to go to war in Afghanistan and Iraq and drawing some lessons.

IMHO he misses two basic issues: confirmation bias, which led us to select data which fed into our preconceptions (i.e., because Afghanistan went well in 2001, it would go well for decades into the future and Iraq would go as well); and emotion, which clouded our judgment after 9/11 in many ways.