Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Taking a Walk

Actually, my morning routine is a run/coffee/walk combo, with possibly some gardening thrown in. I ran cross country in high school, so now that I'm old running again gives me the illusion of youth. I can almost feel young again, except that when I try the final sprint to Safeway/Starbucks I can only manage about 10 yards before slowing again. (The coffee is the reward I give myself for the running.)

This morning I ran to the closest of our community gardens (Reston sponsors them, mostly on the right of way of the gas pipeline that runs through the community). After doing a little weeding to keep abreast of nature, I resumed my jog, to the water fountain next to the soccer field, also on the pipeline right of way. The soccer field replaces the original Reston landmark, dating back to the late 60's, a riding stable. The stable was just off the right of way, while the riding rink (terminology check?) was on it. Unfortunately Reston didn't attract enough horse enthusiasts to make the stable really thrive, so when the stable collapsed under the weight of snow, if I remember correctly, rebuilding was a dubious proposition. On the other hand, enough of the horsey set insisted that the stable be rebuilt. They were vocal enough to immobilize the decision makers. So the insurance money from the stable collapse sat in the bank for several years. Finally enough of the horse people moved so the powers-that-be were able to build a soccer field and basketball courts and kids play area. Oh, and the parking lots needed for the cars to carry people to the exercise areas.

When they built the complex (probably 1986-8ish), they put in a water fountain. I'm sure there was no debate--people exercise, get thirsty, they need water, for water you need to have a fountain. A century ago you'd put in watering troughs for the horses just as automatically. What the planners didn't realize was that technology was advancing. While Perrier water may have been the pricey option suitable for the rich then, entrepreneurs were starting to realize that people would pay good money for water in a bottle. Sure enough, when I paused on my jog for a drink, there was a Poland Springs bottle lying by the fountain. The fountain still works, but there may come the day when it becomes as unneeded as the horse stable that used to occupy the site.

Having depressed myself by this reminder of the march of progress, I went on to get my coffee.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

What George Orwell Didn't Say

My wife and I went to Wolf Trap Friday night for Garrison Keillor. He used a quote from Orwell, which I later researched. The quote turns out to be apocryphal, as discussed here:

The Chestnut Tree Cafe - George Orwell FAQ: "Rough Men

Did George Orwell ever say: 'People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf?' Or: 'We sleep safely at night because rough men stand ready to visit violence on those who would harm us?'

Not exactly. But he did make comments that were along similar lines. In his essay on Rudyard Kipling (1942), Orwell wrote: '[Kipling] sees clearly that men can only be highly civilized while other men, inevitably less civilised, are there to guard and feed them.' (Thanks to Keith Ammann for this). And in his 'Notes on Nationalism' (1945) he wrote: 'Those who 'abjure' violence can only do so because others are committing violence on their behalf.' (Thanks to Parbety). Where the rough men crept in is anyone's guess."
On reflection, "rough men" sounds like political correctness. Would any good leftist today be comfortable saying that soldiers are "less civilised?"

Friday, May 27, 2005

Even Nobelists Nod

Gods and Nobelists occasionally nod. In this case, Professor Stephen Bainbridge is discussing potential limits on the power of hedge funds to control corporations, raising the issue of principal/agent relations:
ProfessorBainbridge.com: "In a very real sense, giving institutions this power of review differs little from giving them the power to make management decisions in the first place. To quote Arrow again: “If every decision of A is to be reviewed by B, then all we have really is a shift in the locus of authority from A to B and hence no solution to the original problem” of allocating control under conditions of divergent interests and differing levels of information."
What Nobelist Kenneth Arrow fails to reckon with is human nature. [Note: I recognize I'm critizing a quote without reading the source material. But this is a blog.] In my experience, if B always reviews A, the issue becomes one of the quality of A's action. If A is capable, you end up with a "pro forma" review. If A and B share trust, A will try to alert B to any problematic issue where B may have different interest or different information (a different "take" on the situation) and B, under conditions of too much work and too little time, will rely on such judgment. If A is neither capable nor trustworthy, the situation will not usually last.

What may happen is two parties, nominally separate and each with their own interests and sources of information, merge over time, blending their interests and information so that the legal organization does not reflect the reality. This might account for some of the failures by auditors during recent years.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Social Class and Immigration in US

Today's NYTimes article on class compares a Greek who immigrated after WWII and a Mexican who immigrated in 1990. The Greek has a NY restaurant, the Mexican worked as a cook for him until he was fired. What struck me was the change over the years. Scotch-Irish immigrants in the 18th and early 19th centuries (my great grandfather immigrated in 1824) had big problems even writing back to the home folks; a letter every 2-3 years was doing good. By 1946, immigrants had regular mail and telegraph service, with the possibility of phone service. And today immigrants regularly return to their hometowns on holidays and perhaps to retire. All this has got to make a difference, both in the immigrants mobility in their new country and in the effect on the old country. Query--is it really a zero sum game, modern communications/mobility means less upward mobility for the immigrant in the new country, but greater improvements and status in the old?

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Freddy Adu and George Washington

(I bet that's a phrase that doesn't get a Google hit. Checked and I was right.)

In last week's New Yorker, the review of David McCullough's "1776" focused on George Washington's presence and the process by which he achieved a command presence that impressed the hell out of everyone. A feature piece on Freddy Adu, the teenage soccer phenom, included a couple paragraphs on his training in Florida to have a presence in dealing with the media. Interesting contrast, but the idea's the same--to get one's aims you have to impress others. We are social animals.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Managerial Delusions

The Washington Post's "Unconventional Wisdom" in The Curse of Drafting First highlights a piece by "behavioral economists Cade Massey of Duke University and Richard H. Thaler of the University of Chicago" claiming that top NFL draft picks don't earn the money they're paid--low first rounders and high seconds are a better value.
"One reason why top players tend to be chancy investments is that general managers think they're better at evaluating talent than they really are, so they willingly overpay for first-rate talent."
It's natural, I guess, to think that if you've spent your working life trying to understand football, you do. The same goes for many walks of life.

The Importance of a Rising Tide

I'd put two articles together, one in the Post on Finland's school system (free to all and top scores on international rankings) and one in the Times on the problems of the poor going to college. Featured in the Times story is a man who went to college for a while, then dropped out. He's got a good job in his home community now, but is worried about future insecurity. In my reading of the story, a part of the problem for him was the extensive social network, his family and friends. Going to college wasn't a part of the network's world, so he was climbing a hill. (Does this show the social capital praised by people like Robert Putnam ("Bowling Alone") also has a downside?) (Ironically, his life sounds idyllic. Going back to school, as he finally decides, is essentially buying insurance against future change, at the cost of present happiness.)

Reading between the lines, in Finland there's now a social expectation for learning and education. By making higher education free it's the equivalent of the GI Bill--after World War II many of the vets went to college using the GI Bill's benefits. That was the way many of the boomer's parents achieved some mobility.

Kennedy used the metaphor of a rising tide lifting all boats for the importance of prosperity. But you can apply it also to education--if the society, and the subset of society you belong to, expect everyone to do well in school and go far, it makes things a lot easier.

Class Matters - Social Class in the United States

The NY Times site for the series has some interesting links, including an interactive graphic for plotting one's position by occupation, education, income and wealth. But I can't rate their bibliography very highly, at least in comprehensiveness.

Class Matters - Social Class in the United States of America - The New York Times

Finland Diary

Robert Kaiser is touring Finland to write pieces for the Washington Post. The first one focuses on education:
"Finland finishes first in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exams that test 15-year-olds in all of the world's industrial democracies. Finland also finishes at or near the top in many global comparisons of economic competitiveness: Internet usage, environmental practices and more. Finland, where the modern cell phone was largely invented, has more cell phones per capita than any other nation -- nearly 85 per 100 citizens.

As recently as the 1970s, Finland required that children attend school for just six years and the education system here was nothing special. But new laws supported by substantial government spending created, in barely 20 years, a system that graduates nearly every young person from vocational or high school, and sends nearly half of them on to higher education. At every level, the schooling is rigorous, and free."

Monday, May 23, 2005

H-Net Review: Jonathan Beard on Overconfidence and War: The Havoc and Glory of Positive Illusions

This sounds like an interesting book--review from H-Net Review: Jonathan Beard on Overconfidence and War: The Havoc and Glory of Positive Illusions:
"[the book] begins with a short examination of optimism's roots in human evolution and psychology. It is both useful and pervasive, Johnson argues. During much of human history, people have been prey, and during the last few thousand years, warfare has been a significant factory in our lives. Optimism and (unwarranted) confidence aid survival under such conditions. Psychological testing has found, over and over, that almost everyone rates themselves as above average, and they underestimate their chances of getting sick or having accidents. Leaders, he suggests, are almost sure to incarnate both optimism and high self-esteem. Confidence combined with faulty information frequently leads to miscalculation."
Beard is a political scientist who reviews leaders' decisions: World War I; the Munich Crisis of 1938; the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962; the choice by five American presidents to continue engagement in Vietnam; and the decision to invade Iraq in 2003.

Certainly we don't like leaders who are pessimistic--remember Jimmy Carter's "malaise" speech? Yet some leaders go far by demonizing their opponennts. Emotions, including optimism, enable us to overcome the inertia to which humanity is subject.

Achenbach on George Washington

Joel Achenbach of the Post, and a blogger, gets a good review from the academy for his book:
The Grand Idea: George Washington's Potomac and the Race to the West:
"the story of George Washington and the Potomac River, which has often been told before, has never been told so well, in large part because the reader comes away with an impression of the man as well as the river. Since the 1980s, historians and the Mount Vernon Ladies Association of the Union have struggled to present Americans with 'the man' rather than 'the monument,' often too consciously. In The Grand Idea Achenbach skillfully presents the man as a bold, geographically-obsessed, ambitious visionary. "

Although the review dates back to January, it was just circulated on the American Studies list from H-Net, the site for humanities and social sciences.

Legislative Process Changes Make a Difference

A sharp observation from Mark Schmitt at The Decembrist:
"I believe that one reason -- not the only reason, but an important one -- that this particular fight [the "nuclear option"] has become so bitter and so polarizing is exactly that fact, that so much of the Senate's business is now run through the rubber-stamp, party-line process of budget reconciliation. (Including pure policy decisions whose budget impact is incidental, such as opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.) Much of the rest is pushed through using the bizarre technique of rewriting legislation from scratch in small, tightly controlled conference committees, and then forcing the Senate to pass it or not, without amendment."
If my memory serves, budget reconciliation originated with David Stockman, Reagan's OMB director. A lot of Reagan's program of tax cuts and program cuts was wrapped up in one package. The one package idea provides cover for some--by combining disparate provisions you can do your logrolling in one vote. It may also reflect Theodore Lowi's "interest group" liberalism, the idea that politics has been taken over by narrowly focused groups.

How Big Is Government?

One of the illusions of political discussion is the definition of the federal government as "big". It's not. Or rather, bigness is relative to who you are. If you are an ordinary citizen, you have little direct contact with the federal government besides the IRS. Where the government becomes most visible and most onerous is for small business, those who employ people and who may impact the environment. That fact partially accounts, I think, for the division between Democrats and Republicans; they simply experience the government differently.

Planning, or Lack Thereof

Liberals need to remember we humans can't predict the future well, nor plan too far ahead. Timothy Noah at Slate had the bright idea of doing a poll of readers to see how they rated the New York Times op-ed stable. Unfortunately:

"The poll was a stunning success—and that, I'm afraid, created a problem here in the Chatterbox War Room. Even though I limited the voting time to roughly four and a half hours, I ended up with about 1,000 entries. That was roughly 10 times as many as what I imagined to be a likely upper limit. Each entry, remember, contained eight numbers for me to enter into a spreadsheet. And devoted though I may be to my readers, there was no way I was going to enter 8,000 numbers into my Microsoft Excel program. (Memo to the several hundred people who have continued to vote since the deadline three days ago: Please stop.)"

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Going Up, Going Down, CSI and Rap

Today's Washington Post has an article along this theme:
"Prosecutors say jurors are telling them they expect forensic evidence in criminal cases, just like on their favorite television shows, including 'CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.' In real life, forensic evidence is not collected at every crime scene, either because criminals clean up after themselves or because of a shortage in resources. Yet, increasingly, jurors are reluctant to convict someone without it, a phenomenon the criminal justice community is calling the 'CSI effect.'"
It seems a case study in the flow of culture (ideas/info/norms) down the classes (see NY Times series). Consider: well paid scriptwriters in Hollywood come up with story ideas for CSI and similar series. They're aired and the ideas/information about DNA and other forensic science get spread around. Jurors take their cues from what they've seen. Even assuming that many criminals don't watch CSI, defense attorneys learn to focus on the holes in the prosecutor's cases. Any success will get incorporated into the folklore of the "criminal street." That changes behavior.

In contrast, consider the flow of rap from the criminal street up to the top of the entertainment industry. It's certainly not the first instance of obscenity rising from its roots to become modish--I remember the reaction to rock in the 1950's. I think you can go back further to vaudeville and other entertainments that rose up.

Query--if class mobility has declined recently, can we say culture is flowing up and down more rapidly these days?

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Bureaucrat's Dictionary

This is intended as an ongoing list:

blogger: n. (1) A person who sees ignorance as empowering

Friday, May 20, 2005

On Organizational Culture

Joel Achenbach in the chatroom followup to his good piece on space exploration in the Washington Post Magazine: To Infinity and Beyond says (referring to NASA): "
Joel Achenbach: I'm always skeptical when I hear people talk about 'internal cultural change,' because let's face it, most organizations have a culture that rises organically from below, rather than imposed dictatorially from above (though I should check with someone smart, like Malcolm Gladwell, about that). "
I'd modify that. In my view an organization often reflects the founder (think FBI and J. Edgar Hoover, IBM and Tom Watson, etc.). If the organization is able to survive, it and its culture become almost the same thing, so new leaders have great difficulty in changing the culture (which is what Achenbach is getting at). Some change is possible, as in the differences between Secretaries Rice and Powell at State, but major change is very difficult. (Look at all the old blue-chip companies that have either gone under or lost their former eminence.) But sometimes what people call "culture" is really the interlocked networks of stakeholders, of customers and suppliers. See the Innovator's Dilemma by Christenson.

True Conservatives, As Defined by a Liberal

A true conservative is one who not only believes Stephen Decatur's words: "our country, right or wrong", but also knows who Decatur was.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Mailer and Conspiracy, via Achenblog

Joel Achenbach at Achenblog comments on Norman Mailer's conspiracy theory on Newsweek:
"Journalists and pundits and aging novelists should try to think more like scientists, who typically favor parsimonious rather than elaborate theories. Dan Rather and Mary Mapes and many other reporters have gotten in trouble when they've tried too hard to prove a theory and ignored possible alternative explanations (like, these documents could be fraudulent). Conspiracies do exist, but so do simple mistakes. The Mailer scenario has an implausible number of moving parts. That's not to say that it couldn't be possible, only that it's exceedingly more likely that a journalist unwisely relied on a single source who didn't know what he was talking about. Happens all the time, and you don't need the White House Office of Counter-Espionage to orchestrate it."
I absolutely agree. I also comment: "Mistakes are much more common than conspiracies. A mistake has only one prerequisite: a person. A conspiracy requires two people."

Three Party Conflicts

One of the interesting aspects of the Koran flushing episode is the light it throws on three party conflicts. What do I mean?

Take any war. Typically it seems that the adversaries demonize each other. It's easy to think of examples: Japanese in WWII, Chinese in Korean War, native Americans in the Indian Wars, parents in a divorce. But there are cases where there are third parties, neutral states or fence-sitters, children in domestic disputes. In these cases both combatants try to appeal to the neutrals for support, or at least to keep them from joining the other side.

In the case of Bush's war on terror, we see both impulses at work in the U.S. Demonizing the adversary--there's plenty of it. Appealing to the neutrals--also plenty. After Bush's first misuse of "crusade", he's been careful to include Islam as one of the U.S.'s major religions, etc. To the extent that Americans in uniform have mistreated the Koran, that fits the demonization side. To the extent that the Establishment is horrified by the Newsweek error, the net effect of the episode seems to reinforce American tolerance.

Kerala and Reading

The Christian Science Monitor has a very interesting piece on the Indian state of Kerala, known for its radicalism and more recently for its universal literacy.
"The roots of Kerala's literacy culture can be traced back at least to the Hindu rulers of the 19th century. The Queen of Trivandrum issued a royal decree in 1817 that said, 'The state should defray the entire cost of the education of its people in order that there might be no backwardness in the spread of enlightenment.' She hoped education would make her people 'better subjects and public servants.'"
Significantly, that's earlier than in the U.S., showing the power of enlightened autocracy. This also shows the effect of the first mover.

Rice's focused style creates learning curve at State - The Washington Times: World - May 18, 2005

Management style makes a difference. Kudos to the The Washington Times: World for an article on the differences between Powell and Rice. Powell was into e-mail and was open to messages from the bureaucracy. Rice is more like Ike, short memos and structured meetings with input from fewer people. The Times doesn't mention another obvious difference: Rice likes to travel and meet while Powell didn't. It would be interesting to know more about the differences--does Rice's personality fit with a classical musician as opposed to a jazz one? Have the differences always been there or is the relative experience of each a factor?

From a bureaucrat's view there's no consistent advantage to either style. Each has strengths and weaknesses, and each will produce good results on particular types of issues. On the whole, though, I'd prefer a traveller who e-mails.

The Sepoy Mutiny and Flushing the Koran

History is instructive, as reader Sean McEnroe observes in letters to the Washington Post:

"In 1857 the British were nearly driven out of India when rumor spread among their Hindu and Muslim soldiers that ammunition was coated in unclean grease from cows and pigs. A year later, after much death and destruction, the British were wise enough to realize that the conflict was not just about rifle cartridges. I hope U.S. policymakers understand that the past week's anti-American riots in Afghanistan ['Afghan Protests Spread,' news story, May 14] were not just about one Newsweek article."

Monday, May 16, 2005

Definitional Drift: Math Goes Postmodern

According to the LATimes, solving mathematical propositions and proving the solution is correct has become so difficult mathematicians are either giving up or turning to the computer to do checking by brute computational force. In the end, if the community agrees it's solved, it's solved.

"Like so many other fields, mathematics is becoming less about some Platonic ideal of ultimate answers, and more a functional project of computational simulation and communal negotiation. Dare we say it: Math is becoming postmodern."

Writing History for Governement, Ernest May and 9/11

Ernest May, an eminent historian, provides a look behind the scenes at the writing of the 9/11 report. Worth reading for anyone interested in 9/11. But as a bureaucrat I was struck by this quote, following a description of how Richard Clarke's Delenda plan made no impact on the bigshots:

"... we learned that many documents in SOLIC files never reached--or at least made no impression on--secretaries or deputy secretaries or other assistant secretaries of defense or senior military officers. Pentagon witnesses reminded us that they had had a lot of other matters on their minds, including military operations in Bosnia and Kosovo and the reshaping of forces to fit a post-Cold War world. "
Bureaucracies move paper. Unfortunately, you often need a bureaucracy to focus on an issue, but the paper storm rains on all alike. One of the first things a bureaucrat learns is to ignore paper generated outside her bureaucracy. Unless, of course, somehow it's going to be followed by a direction from on high to do something. That's one of the points of Jamie Gorelick's pressing the issue of the Y2K meetings that "shook the trees" (I think that's the term.) Such meetings can get people paying attention.

Another interesting bit was this:
"Writing the bulk of the report as straightforward narrative helped the commission achieve its surprising unanimity."
The narrative focused the commission on the facts and the chronology first. That's a lesson bloggers often ignore--you need to establish what the reality is before you go off.

Finally, the commission's work reaffirmed Richard Neustadt's observation about Presidential power. Clinton had little power over DOD, CIA, or FBI; they were all alienated. That's one reason to take many political scientists and economists with a large grain of salt when they write about bureaucracies. Personalities count a hell of a lot, especially at the margins, and 9/11 showed us the margins matter.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Why Are Whippersnappers Smarter Than Me?

The "Flynn effect" is the observation that people keep getting smarter--that is, each time IQ tests are redone and revalidated, people who score 100 on the new test score over 100 on the old. See this article in Wired. Apparently this is true over all industrialized countries. So the assumption is that "G" (general intelligence) is real but responds to the environment, regardless of data that seems to show that the correlation of IQ and heredity is about 60 percent. The question is what would account for it--the author pushes the hypothesis that cognitively demanding leisure activities push it. (More later.)

The article includes this bit:
"Four years ago, Flynn and William Dickens, a Brookings Institution economist, proposed another explanation [than intelligence depending on genes], one made apparent to them by the Flynn effect. Imagine 'somebody who starts out with a tiny little physiological advantage: He's just a bit taller than his friends,' Dickens says. 'That person is going to be just a bit better at basketball.' Thanks to this minor height advantage, he tends to enjoy pickup basketball games. He goes on to play in high school, where he gets excellent coaching and accumulates more experience and skill. 'And that sets up a cycle that could, say, take him all the way to the NBA,' Dickens says."
I'm struck by this because I firmly believe in vicious and virtuous cycles. Addiction is more common than we know and so is saintliness. Putting one's faith in cycles also cuts the Gordian knot for liberals: how do we reconcile the evidence for genetic correlation and our faith in equality? (There would be a side question of inheritable personality traits. When we disapprove we call them addictive personalities, when we approve we talk of persistence, stubbornness, etc.)

Back to the Flynn effect. As well as cycles I believe in the power of learning by example, learning by osmosis. Humans imitate, they imitate from birth. The fact is that the poorest among us still live a life of more choice and complexity, more stimulation, than my college educated great grandfather did in 1850. (I hasten to qualify--the comparison is not so stark as I state it. Our ancestors knew and dealt with many things we don't, but none of them appear on IQ tests.) So all our children are exposed to our dealings with the complex, human-formed life and absorb lessons. These get reflected in IQ test development and in performance on the test.

What's a Liberal Foreign Policy?

One of the principal findings of the Pew Research Report is:

"Foreign affairs assertiveness now almost completely distinguishes Republican-oriented voters from Democratic-oriented voters; this was a relatively minor factor in past typologies."
I've reservations on this issue. Back when Clinton was being reasonably assertive in foreign policy many, perhaps most, liberals supported him against the criticisms of the Republicans. Some liberals were quiet and some worried about a Vietnam/Somalia result. There were isolationist Republicans who didn't want any foreign adventures and "realist" Kissinger-types who didn't see any point in worrying about minor things like genocide and ethnic cleansing. Eagleburger thought the Balkans were (was?) a mess we should leave to Europe. Now most Republicans have moved to back their President and liberals have been pushed towards pacificism by Bush's actions.

I think the reality of the world is such that any future Democratic President is going to be more activist than the party currently is. I also think we should admit that our foreign policy differences are often more an issue of trust rather than principle. We Democrats would trust a Clinton where we don't trust a Bush. We should admit that almost all of us would support military action in some situations and believe that American principles can be powerful in some cases. I think our differences are really more at the margin--liberal hawks on Iraq thought the evil and the threat were certain enough and our military and economic power dominating enough that intervention was not terribly risky. Liberal doves thought the uncertainties of military too great, particularly after the inspectors got back in.

Looking back, the doves can argue the inspectors did their job. The issue for the future is whether there's some way for the world community to impose inspections for the long haul on a dictator.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Together or Apart? Keys to Success

The Washington Post does an article today on a school in Connecticut, similar to KIPP, very structured, very detailed, very successful in getting black students to achieve. It includes this quote from a school leader:

"'Any society, including a street gang, provides its members with status symbols. In many cases, what is getting valued is drugs, sex and money. We have to control what is valued in society. To get these kids to learn, we have to get them to believe that it is cool to do well in school.'

Amistad, Toll explains, is trying to turn the values of the street upside down. The school teaches students that it is 'cool' to do your homework, 'uncool' to be a bully."

It fits what Bill Cosby and William Raspberry have said--that elements of black culture decrease the chances for academic success. It also fits into a chain of logic that would explain why African-Americans achieve less than first and second generation immigrants from Africa or the Caribbean. The idea would be that immigrants isolate themselves from their former society so they are more focused on things like success and less restricted by commitments to other norms. A recent Pulitzer winner on slavery up to the great migration (1920) emphasizes the degree to which slaves were able to establish networks of relationships and used the networks after the Civil War in playing a role in political life in the South.

However, there's always the counter-example of the Jews, and other diaspora groups who do much better than the surrounding society. My best argument there, which isn't totally convincing, is that it's the nature of the culture. In other words, success can come two ways: by being part of a culture that focuses on and rewards success, or; by being somewhat separating from one's native culture so the focus is more on the individual.

I've no doubt I'll return to this subject.

Friday, May 13, 2005

WWCD--What Would Clinton Do?

Kevin Drum and Matt Yglesias say liberals have won most of the fight on separation of church and state and shouldn't push for total victory. Most of the comments on Kevin's post were fears about the slippery slope. I commented:

I agree with Kevin and Matt. Let the ACLU fit the issues, not the Democratic party. But the question is what does a Democratic politician say, i.e., WWCD (what would Clinton do)?

For abortion, Clinton used "safe, legal, and rare". That's a formula that provides some cover. I don't remember a comparable formula on religion issues. Anyone have any good ideas, better than: "I don't have a dog in that fight"?

Seems as if there ought to be a good formula. I'm posting this to remind myself to think about it.

What Are You Politically?

Thanks to David Greenberg guest blogging at danieldrezner.com for the link to the Pew Research Center and its report on how the electorate breaks down. It includes a typology test so you can see where you fit in the spectrum. (I came out a Liberal, 19 percent of us are.)

Fairfax County, Lake Woebegon, and Teen Sex

Fairfax County is Lake Woebegon Territory: All of our teenagers are abstinent, except those next door.

No scoring please, don't even try to steal second base.

Booklets Approved For Fairfax Sex-Ed: "Several parents and board members found fault with 'Birth Control Choices' because it said abstinence 'can range from no sexual touching at all to everything except intercourse.'

'It sent a mixed message,' said board member Brad Center (Lee). 'I think we need to be clear when dealing with kids that abstinence is abstinence.'"

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Phasing Out Farm Subsidies, Is Samuelson Right?

Robert Samuelson mourns the dearth of budget-cutting zeal in Washington. He includes this statement:
"Plenty of programs could disappear without serious ill effects. Here are two of my regular favorites: farm subsidies and Amtrak. The CBO estimates that from 2006 to 2010 farm subsidies will cost $97 billion. If they were phased out, food would still be grown and the agricultural sector would still be viable. "
I'd challenge the "serious ill effects", because Mr. Samuelson ignores the lessons of history. It may well be true that the subsidies should be eliminated, but you cannot phase out subsidies of that size without serious effects. Economists believe that the subsidies get capitalized into land values. A farmer who's subsidized is able to pay a higher yearly rent for cropland, or to pay a higher price to buy cropland, thus pushing up values.
We should remember that we've had two experiments in phasing out subsidies: in the 1970's and with Freedom to Farm in 1996. Neither one suggests an easy road to eliminating subsidies.

In the 1970's after the Russian grain deal we were planting fence row to fence row, subsidies were almost zero, and land values soared. They reached a peak in the early 80's, then the bubble burst and values plunged. What happened then? (See this article in the Austin Daily Herald: land prices in one Texas county rose to $2112 per acre in 1981, then plunged to $531 in 1985. They've now risen to $2,821. )

The farmers who had inherited land and been cautious in expanding were okay. The farmers who had been bullish went bust. They were caught with mortgages based on high values for land that grew only low priced crops. As a result bankruptcies and suicides rose, rural banks went under, county tax rolls were decimated, people left farming, farms got bigger. The rural areas demanded relief. That stalwart of free enterprise and smaller government, Ronald Reagan, caved. Beginning in 1983 we had unprecedented (then) levels of subsidy.

Newt Gingrich and Pat Roberts pushed the 1996 Freedom to Farm law as a phaseout of the subsidy programs. It worked so well that subsidies over the last 10 years have dwarfed even Reagan's record.

Assuming that budget deficits and WTO rules result in drastic cuts of subsidies, when the current bubble in farmland bursts, the only reason we won't see a repeat of 1981-5 is that there are fewer farmers around to go bust.

Idea--Sorting Trash through RFID

In Reston we're supposed to sort trash three ways: newspapers, bottles and cans, and trash. But in Japan they sort into many more categories, as described in this NYTimes story: How Do Japanese Dump Trash? Let Us Count the Myriad Ways
"YOKOHAMA, Japan - When this city recently doubled the number of garbage categories to 10, it handed residents a 27-page booklet on how to sort their trash. Highlights included detailed instructions on 518 items."
What was interesting was the social pressure on nonconformers to sort. I suspect the Japanese language has no word for "busybody".

Recognizing that more recycling is a necessity, wanting not to impose government restrictions on citizens, and seeing that what we have here is a problem of communication, I suggest that as stores like Walmart implement RFID (the tags that broadcast a limited set of information over a very short distance, like those the Fairfax library is now using on books) the information should include data needed for recycling. (This assumes the RFID tag can be incorporated in the item so it's not removed when the buyer gets it home.) That way we only need to sort tagged items out into a separate bin. The trash people empty the collections from such bins onto a conveyor belt, the RFID reader reads the information and sorts the item accordingly.

Idea--Sentencing Guidelines or Community Standards

Societies and bureaucracies face the problem of uniformity versus diversity: given reality (yes, you have to accept the gift) strict rules don't work in all cases but basic fairness calls for similar cases to receive similar treatment. In the '80's Congress came up with sentencing guidelines for federal judges to ensure that someone convicted of a crime in Maine would receive roughly the same sentence as someone in Arizona. Last (?) term the Supreme Court struck down the guidelines as too restrictive, too much of an encroachment by the legislature into the judicial realm. Congress is now considering raising minimum sentences to achieve much the same result. Meanwhile, New York is essentially backing away from the Rockefeller minimum sentence law that was very hard on drug offenders.

I've an alternative to offer. As usual it's technocratic and incorporates principles of feedback and transparency. A parallel is found in from tax software, that compares your tax return to the national average. It is:
  • have DOJ set up a central database/Internet application
  • for each conviction, the federal judge enters data on the crime (the data would fit parameters of the sentencing guidelines, i.e., age of malefactor, prior convictions, gun involved, etc.)
  • the judge enters his or her proposed sentence
  • the software compares the sentence to all others given for the same crime and similar parameters.
  • the judge can decide whether or not to adjust the sentence to fit more closely the national averages.
  • the public could see the judge's record over time.
The theory is that this idea would permit judges to be free to use their discretion to fit oddball cases. Because judges and everyone else would have the feedback information, the tendence would be for sentences to cluster near the national average.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

The Real Intelligence Failure

Seems to me that everyone (except me of course) has missed the real Iraq intelligence failure. The WMD issue seems relatively trivial. Suppose Bush knew on September 12 that Hussein had no significant stockpiles of any WMD. He still could, and most likely would, have made the case for military force to get the inspectors back in. He'd have pointed to the fact that Hussein still had the scientists and therefore the knowledge and therefore the potential threat, both in himself and in providing stuff to bin Laden. Because Hussein's cooperation with the reinstalled inspectors in January/February 2003 wasn't sufficient for Bush and Blair, Bush would still have gone to war. So better WMD intelligence might not have changed decision making.

Where the intelligence establishment failed was in the assessment of the state of Iraq's economy and society. There's been no evidence in all of the postmortems that much attention was paid to the subject. Everyone just assumed, as Wolfowitz I think said, that it would be easy to get the oil flowing. We also assumed that we could easily improve the state of the economy, more electricity in particular. Finally we assumed that an invasion and overthrow of the government would not unleash any energies, like looters. In part we may have been misled by the aftermath of the Afghanistan conflict.

It looks to me as if Bush was the victim of the bureaucracy--bureaucracies shape the way issues are posed and resolved, as we can see in the case of Iraq. CIA was focused on the threat, on getting secret information, on what is needed to make a decision. It didn't have any customers asking for data on how old the generators were, what Iraq had done given the embargo on spare parts, etc. DOD was focused on the invasion, avoiding a quagmire and minimizing casualties. They were late in planning for post-conflict action. State did planning for the aftermath, but didn't have responsibility. Gen. Garner or Ambassador Bremer should have been called in August 2002 (the Blair election showed that Bush had effectively made the go decision by July) and told: "We aren't sure there's going to be an invasion of Iraq. But if there is, you're in charge of picking up the pieces and rebuilding. You can task the intelligence establishment to try to get all the information you need."

If we had had a "nation building" bureaucracy sitting in the decision making meetings, they might have flagged our lack of information and raised the question of money. Without a bureaucracy to represent that viewpoint, everyone from Bush on down blithely assumed a rosy scenario.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Real ID: Principal versus Principle

Orin Kerr at The Volokh Conspiracy writes on the Real ID bill (included by House Republicans in the emergency appropriation bill for Iraq/Afghanistan to change requirements for drivers licenses) as commented on by Bruce Schneier here. Kerr is tentatively against Real ID, but thinks Schneier may overstate the case. Without going over the history, current law, and significance of the bill, I'd make these points:
  • I wish they'd teach spelling in Minnesota--the bill talks of "principle residence" when they mean "principal".
  • I don't have major problems with the aim, which is to tighten rules on issuing drivers licenses. As a technocrat, however, I wish we had a debate over identification, national standards, and data privacy.
  • I do believe in encryption, both of the data contained on the card and the data in state databases. The occasions when the license needs to be swiped should be rare, and readability should be limited to authorized agents of the state. If private entities want to swipe the card, let them OCR it.
Unfortunately the U.S. doesn't have a rational debate about identification, security, and data privacy. Since we don't and won't, I say:

* we should be doing away with the social security number, not further embedding it into our systems (Unlike other data it often serves both to identify and authenticate the person, which violates good security logic.)
* the implementation of Real ID should be flexible. The Federal govt. has guidelines for e-authentication that agencies are in the process of implementing, but that seems to be a separate line of discussion/development from Real ID. It's going to be expensive to implement both; we ought to be doing them logically.
* RealID ought to include restrictions on the state databases, including provisions for audit trails and transaction logs, encryption of data, provision for review and access.

A Career Spent Learning How the Mind Emerges From the Brain - New York Times

A piece in the NYTimes on How the Mind Emerges From the Brain:
Dr. Gazzaniga was a founder of cognitive science, often focusing on people who had the link between the left and right hemispheres of their brain. In one case, each hemisphere received sensation from one eye:
"Dr. Gazzaniga and Dr. LeDoux showed P. S. a picture of a chicken claw in his right eye and a snow-covered house in the left eye. P. S. pointed to a chicken with his right hand and a snow shovel with his left.

'I'll never forget the day we got around to asking P. S., 'Why did you do that?' ' said Dr. Gazzaniga. 'He said, 'The chicken claw goes with the chicken.' That's all the left hemisphere saw. And then he looks at the shovel and said, 'The reason you need a shovel is to clean out the chicken shed.' '"
The big point to me is that the brain tries desperately, as here, to integrate input into a comprehensible picture/narrative. We make up stories or we ignore or omit data that's inconsistent, as here. You can see the phenomena in blogs, which are people telling themselves stories.

Doctors Do Know Things Patients Don't Know - New York Times

Dr. Kent Sepkowitz writes in the NY today about the pros and cons of having the course of treatment of an illness being directed by the doctor versus the patient, a patient who may have researched the illness on the Web. He says doctors don't want control for ego purposes.

"No, the difference between doctors and patients is that you are stuck playing on our home court. We know all the subtle bumps and slick spots, the places where things suddenly can ricochet out of control. With luck, we know when to pounce and when to shrug, when to grab the phone and start shouting and when to stall another week to see if things quiet down.

Managing an illness, in the best of circumstances, is an uncertain endeavor. Basically here's how it works: you inch along as if groping in blackest night for the light switch, trying first this, then that. Actual guideposts are rare. It can be most unsettling, especially if you haven't tried it before."
The bottom line is that things that look very simple from the outside turn out to be very complex and murky once you start in. Of course, that statement is true of any area of expertise; just ask a do-it-yourselfer who tries to do his own plumbing, etc. I generally give more trust and credence to experts than do the MSM, who almost always are looking in from the outside. But experts always have to remember both Lord Acton ("power corrupts") and the unequalled ability of people to fool themselves.


Monday, May 09, 2005

Teacher of the Year and No Electricity

Last night Brian Lamb did an interesting interview with the Teacher of the Year, Jason Kamras of DC. See the transcript here. It touched on a number of questions, from Israel to idealism. Jason is a very good interviewee. Lamb has little tolerance for a long answer. Often he'll come in with a new question when the subject is just a few sentences into the answer. (Keeps the interview lively and interesting, but is frustrating when you really want to hear the whole thing.) Jason was one of the few I've seen who could smoothly answer the new question then switch back to the prior subject.

Jason has taught for 8 years, and spent his summers writing for grants, so he now has $50,000 of audio-video, computer, and other extras in his room But down the hall, in the same building:

"But back to your question. I have a colleague that does not have electricity in her classroom, and so she can't even use technology if she wanted to." (She has lights but no live electrical outlets.)

That's revealing, of a number of things. First, bureaucrats like Jason can be entrepreneurial. It's an unsolved mystery why Jason has power for his goodies and his colleague doesn't, but I've no doubt he would have scrounged a generator if he had had to. Second, most people see their job as doing their job. His colleague reasonably assumes she's not responsible for diagnosing problems in electrical circuits. Third, the school system is good enough to attract and keep a Jason and bad enough to tolerate the dead outlets. Fourth, I'd generalize and say that maintenance is almost always treated as something to be put off. That's true whether it's kids picking up their clothes, or Congress appropriating money for bureaucracies like the Park Service, IRS, or the military: money goes for new historical sites or new weapons but not for maintaining the old, collecting revenue or training and repairing weapons.

Another interesting item was touching on salaries. Jason started at $28,000. Lamb asked whether you could buy a home in DC on a teacher's salary and Kamras said it was getting difficult. Trying to find current DC salaries I stumbled on this piece. It seems to be very thoughtful, though I've not digested it. One figure I'd point out is that 1995-6, DC paid its teachers about 3 percent more than the average DC worker, which ranked 51st in the nation.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Hanson Mourns the Loss of History

Victor Davis Hanson mourns What happened to history? - The Washington Times: Commentary - May 07, 2005. He says Americans don't commemorate their great leaders and warriors of the past. Ralph Luker at Cliopatria is mildly critical of Hanson for not crediting Emerson for "the tyranny of the present", the phrase he uses to start the piece and notes a post by eb at No Great Matter showing that Hanson is repeating the past because he doesn't know the history of such charges.

While I agree with Luker and EB, I want to challenge this:
"To appreciate the value of history, we must also accept that human nature is constant and fixed across time and space. Our kindred forefathers in very dissimilar landscapes were nevertheless subject to the same emotions of fear, envy, honor and shame as our own.
In contrast, if one believes human nature is malleable -- or with requisite money and counseling can be 'improved' -- history becomes just an obsolete science. It would be no different from 18th-century biology before the microscope or early genetics without knowledge of DNA. Once man before our time appears alien, the story of his past has very little prognostic value. "
At best this is exaggeration to make his point (lefty thought devalues the worth of history). At worst it's nonsense. Whether we're talking about people in different cultures today, or people in our culture in the past, both similarities and differences matter. In my opinion, a responsible historian searches assiduously for both. And that should make for good history.

The Post had a very good article on an Afghanistan village that stoned a young woman who committed adultery. Her father aided the execution, then expressed his sadness as he remembered her personality. I can understand the adultery and understand the sadness. It takes a hell of an effort to understand the emotions that may have accompanied the father's assent to the execution. But the article gave me enough on which to try.

On Mothers Day: For Tom DeLay and His Mother

I was thinking about politicians and baking bread.

Then I saw today's piece in the Times on DeLay's Empire of Favors which says DeLay is more than the caricature. For one thing, he's kind:
"The reason, it seems, is that over the years, brick by brick, Mr. DeLay has built a wall of political support. His small acts of kindness have become lore. Pizza during late night votes. Travel arrangements for low-level lawmakers. Birthday wishes, get-well cards, condolences for House members in emotional need.

On a larger scale, friends - and enemies - describe him as a favor-trader extraordinaire, piling up a mountain of goodwill."

The Washington Post did a magazine article on him a year or two ago. His father was an alcoholic and DeLay is now estranged from his mother. That offers an entrance to his psyche. In my experience, children of alcoholics are often very eager to please the people they meet (think Clinton, Reagan, my wife). Hence the kindnesses. Both the Post piece and the new Times article remind us of the dangers of stereotyping those we oppose, even though it's so much fun and emotionally satisfying. The fact that DeLay and his mother are estranged is sad, particularly on Mothers Day.

Why are politicians like bread? Well, when you make bread you knead it and work it and generally punch the hell out of it, just like the public does to politicians. Bread doesn't have any shape of its own, when rising it often goes all over the place, good bread requires a very small amount of yeast and lots of dough, its changes of shape and composition result from hot air, alcohol and gas, when baked some breads have body and substance and many are vapid, and brown breads are often more interesting than whites.

Agriculture and the Reds, Nathaniel Weyl

The New York Times obit on Nathaniel Weyl touches on the close connection between farm programs and communism and lawyers:

"Mr. Weyl (pronounced 'while') had been active in leftist student groups while he was an undergraduate at Columbia College. He left academic life for Washington in 1933 and joined the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, where he was recruited into a communist cell that, he would later testify, included Hiss."
The "communists" were in the Office of the General Counsel, and basically were purged in 1935 in a controversy over the treatment of sharecroppers in the South. AAA was a magnet for young talent, along with Hiss both JK Galbraith and Adlai Stevenson worked there. It may have been similar to the Peace Corps under JFK. For the communists and other leftists the job meant a chance to make a difference, to satisfy one's moralistic idealism by working on behalf of the poor and powerless. I suspect they also had a romantic view of agriculture, shared by such current writers from different perspectives as Wendell Berry and Victor Davis Hanson.

As it's Mother's Day, it's appropriate to be sentimental. The obit boils Weyl's life down to early communism, spying, and then testifying against Hiss. But a recent article in the American Historical Review pointed out the contribution that the old left made to the cause of civil rights and feminism in the 30's and 40's. It seems that some charges of the segregationist leaders in the 1950's about leftist influence on civil rights had more validity than I wanted to admit. Yes, it's a fault of the young to want their causes to be pure and true; it's wisdom in the old to realize the best of men have mixed motives and even the worst may achieve some good.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Know Your Beef

As agricultural prices continue to decline, more and more people are seeking custom niches. Now the entire state of South Dakota is backing their certified beef, as described in this WPost article:
"Enlisting its police and administrative authority, the state guarantees consumers who buy South Dakota Certified Beef that they will be partaking of a computer-tracked cow that was born, fed and butchered inside state borders, using exacting standards of nutrition, with a humane upbringing and walled off from all possible contact with mad cow disease.
After a consumer takes home the beef, he or she can use the Internet to find a photograph of the South Dakota family ranch where it came from. And if a rancher or a butcher cheats in caring for cows under the new rules, the state is ready and willing to charge him with a felony and send him to prison for two years."
The idea may sound good, but there's some problems with it.
  • First, as described here, USDA is implementing a national animal ID system. So anyone, state, or individual, could piggyback on the system to offer similar guarantees with little or no added investment.
  • Second, while I've invested in Whole Foods because I think organic-style marketing is only going to grow, I'm not sure how much of a premium South Dakota could command. (What they really need, about a year or so from now, is a really major mad cow problem.)
  • Third, the logical extrapolation is using the Internet to see, not the ranch, but the actual steer being raised. But that may be more reality than city types really want to deal with. (Michael Pollan had an article in the NYTimes magazine a couple years ago where he bought a calf and had it raised, so he could write about the process. My memory is he wasn't happy about eating it.)

Cricket and the Fight Against Imperialism

Orlando Patterson and Jason Kaufman write in the The New York Times > Opinion > Op-Ed Contributor: Bowling for Democracy (from a forthcoming piece in The American Sociological Review on the puzzle of why cricket is a big sport in Britain and some parts of the former British Empire, but not in either Canada or the U.S. "The puzzle only deepens when one considers that cricket was once popular in both Canada and the United States. It rivaled baseball for most of the 19th century, with as many stories in the sports pages of The New York Times until 1880. Indeed, the world's first international test match was played between Canada and the United States in 1844. So the puzzle is not so much why it was never adopted in North America, but why in the early 20th century it was subsequently rejected."

They discuss factors like climate, playing space and duration of games but focus on cricket's role in affirming a native elite as opposed to egalitarian games like baseball. They also mention the role of nationalism--the former colony defeating the mother country.

Sport is an interesting subject. As a "meme", it's clear and identifiable. Does it spread more through grassroots activity, or from the top down? Is the spread a matter of evolution in the biological sense or competition in the economic? What about the linkage between sport and religion?

The big three U.S. sports seem to have spread at the grassroots, though basketball and college football had strong connections with the Protestant elite (basketball was born in a YMCA). Perhaps because sport and entertainment are meritocratic endeavors, meaning money rules, both have been routes for mobility. Boxing was big for a long time (anyone remember the Friday night fights on TV), often as a route for upward mobility by various minorities. If boxing were still big, we'd be seeing more Hispanic-American boxers than we do. Similarly track and field have lost mind share. Now corporations want to promote sports, exploiting Tiger Woods and Mia Hamm, pumping the Triple Crown races, and sponsoring every square inch of NASCAR races.

U.S. sport seems less nationalistic than (say) soccer, although the Olympics succeed in rousing our interest. Losing the basketball gold medal the first time hurt, but it wasn't that big a deal the last time. Still, I think the post-war Olympics were more nationalistic than recent events, perhaps because it was viewed as a proxy for war. Doing well at the Olympics meant demonstrating the superiority of one's social system; that was the myth that all, from Hitler to the East Germans to Soviets to Chinese bought into and we weren't far behind. It touches on the area that William James called the "moral equivalent of war". Try reading his piece. It seems to me like another time, at least if I forget the few months after 9-11.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Don't Ask, Don't Tell and Lesbians

Eugene Volokh at Volokh Conspiracy starts off: "I'm puzzled about how the military's 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy -- or for that matter, any exclusion policy -- can be justified as to lesbians." He goes on to show why a rule that might make some sense applied to male homosexuals makes no sense if the same reasoning is applied to lesbians.

But his puzzlement is surely rhetorical, if effective. "Don't ask, don't tell" is just one instance of a general rule of human thinking: "if it doesn't fit, you must omit" (apologies to Johnnie Cochran). For example, most generalizations about Americans implicitly omit some groups (the group might be women, children, Southerners, Hispanics, Mormons, Amish, atheists, native Americans, etc.) Once you get into an argument, often neither you nor your opponent has anything to gain by expanding your thinking. In "don't ask, don't tell" gay activists wanted acceptance, the military wanted status quo, and neither were served by a more nuanced argument.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Real Men Don't Google

A report dealing with the Department of Justice Inspector General's report on intelligence analysts in the FBI in today's Washington Post Federal Diary: FBI Analyst Jobs Remain Vacant:

"The report also documented numerous instances in which analysts were made to perform work that one called 'demeaning.' One veteran intelligence analyst who went to the bureau from another agency spent a week watching workers do a repair job, while another analyst at a small field office was required to work nights and weekends operating the telephone switchboard.

Some analysts appear to be viewed as assistants to regular FBI agents, who ask them to perform Internet searches and other basic research, the audit found. 'A lot of my job doesn't require a college education,' one analyst told investigators."
I blogged on related subjects in connection with the 9/11 commission report and the FBI's failed attempt to automate their activities. I've skimmed part of the IG report, which seems to say:
  • FBI has hired new analysts in the last 5 years, including people with foreign language, military intelligence and similar backgrounds.
  • But it's having problems keeping the new hires, because the training isn't good and the FBI doesn't really know how to handle them. The impression I get is that the hires see themselves as members of a profession, while the special agents who dominate the agency see them as "support".
  • By contrast, the older analysts, those who converted over from secretarial/support specialties are less discontented and more comfortable. They have learned over time that the agents are top dog in the agency and are reconciled to that fact.
  • The training for analysts lumps new and old analysts together, but importantly does not include special agents. Also, the analysts can't train on a computer facility that would permit sharing data with other agencies, a true indicator of how [un]important DOJ thinks data sharing is.
So the FBI culture of macho get-your-man continues. And its disdain for those like Robert Hansen who understand computers but isn't a "real" special agent like J. Edgar and Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. continues. Assuming no more 9-11's, it's likely the culture will continue, unless an analyst captures bin Laden. Organizations are like bodies; their immune systems reject things identified as "alien". My position is supported by this from the Post piece:

"Judge Richard A. Posner of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit said he believed that crime fighting, rather than intelligence work, "will always be dominant" in the bureau.

Although law enforcement is "easily graded and important for careers," Posner said, intelligence work is more difficult to measure. He also said the decentralized nature of the FBI does not lend itself well to battling global terrorist networks.

As a result, Posner said, there is "really a deep dog and cat incompatibility between criminal and intelligence activities."

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Loose Lips Sink Ships??

In World War II we had signs warning "Loose Lips Sink Ships". People were super conscious of security (my folks were suspected of being German spies because of the lights in the henhouse --might be a signal to German bombers).

But both ends of the blogging spectrum have a casual attitude towards security today. Background: the US report on the killing of the Italian agent in Iraq was released in an edited form--classified information was blacked out. There was, however, an easy work-around, so bloggers posted the full report on the web. Kevin Drum on the left mocked the ineffectiveness of the bureaucrats; Orin Kerr on the right mocked the NPR ombudsman who expressed concern over the release.

As a former bureaucrat, I'll stipulate the release was bad and the editing quite possibly pointless. I'll also stipulate the "war on terror" is hardly a war and is not at all comparable to WWII. Although the Privacy Act may restrict releasing names, I'm skeptical that bureaucrats, including soldiers, have much right of privacy, even when they kill an innocent civilian. Finally, the Pentagon Papers established the idea that media can publish first and we'll sort out whether there's any real damage to the public interest later.

On the other hand, I question whether there isn't an ethical question here that Drum and Kerr skate over. In the broad sense I'd frame it as a decent respect for the intentions of others--sort of an application of the Golden Rule to everyday life. I'd like to think if I stumble across a laptop on the DC Metro I would only check to see if I could figure the owner from the contents. I wouldn't, I don't think, go prying into either personal or classified information. I don't think the ineptness of the bureaucrats in this case offers any justification for revealing the full document. Would we agree that Robert Hansen's spying crimes were mitigated by the fact the FBI didn't understand how to run computers?

I think anyone posting the full document should accompany it with a justification of why the publication is in the public interest. In this case the hurdle is probably very low. But surely we can imagine cases where damage is likely? Or maybe both Drum and Kerr are so libertarian that they deny the idea of a public interest to be damaged?

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Ideas, III Transparency Above All

For what it's worth, when groups like EPIC and ACLU raise concerns about security cameras, why not put an Internet camera in the control room of those observing the cameras. That way, anyone fearful or interested could check up on what the observers were doing. If it's inappropriate (as in zooming in on the hottest females/males), then it could be recorded and reported.

Monday, May 02, 2005

What's Wrong With "Welfare"?

Liberals are attacking Bush's Social Security proposal as converting the program into "welfare".

Paul Krugman in the NYTimes makes the point:

"In short, [Bush's proposal] would be a gut punch to the middle class, but a fleabite for the truly wealthy.

Beyond that, it's a good bet that benefits for the poor would eventually be cut, too.

It's an adage that programs for the poor always turn into poor programs. That is, once a program is defined as welfare, it becomes a target for budget cuts.

Mark Schmitt at the Decembrist quotes Stephen Bainbridge quoting Wilbur Cohen as the source for Krugman's adage. (A program only for the poor is ultimately a poor program.) Mark defends SS as a universal program, but starts questioning whether supporting only universal programs wouldn't put liberals behind the eight ball
"There would be real daring, real opportunity to make big changes if liberals went not necessarily for "soak the rich progressivity," but for a clear message that our well-being as a society is measured by how we treat the worst-off, and a moral agenda of targetted, rather than universal, programs. In both his 2004 campaign and in what appears to be the beginnings of its 2008 rerun, John Edwards has been the closest to this potentially liberating insight."
Edward in "ObsidianWings" post picks up on Krugman and Kevin Drum picks up on Edward and says:
[Social Security]"is a modestly progressive social insurance program that's paid for by everyone and that benefits everyone. If it ever stops being that, if it ever stops being universal, it will eventually cease to exist. Don't let anyone fool you into thinking otherwise."

A whole bunch of thoughts spring to mind, some contrarian and some just questions:
  1. How'd we ever let conservatives devalue the term "welfare"? It's in the Constitution, isn't it?
  2. Yes, "welfare programs" have a bad name, but they've lasted surprisingly well. I remember Reagan and his "welfare queen" in 1964 (based on earlier Reader's Digest article, I think). Should any program be immortal?
  3. Targeted programs like EITC, supported by both right and left, survive. How'd that happen?
  4. Although the roots of the food stamp program go back to the New Deal, the current program dates to JFK. It's been supported by a deal with farmers, urban Congresspeople support farm subsidies, rural ones support food stamps. That may be an artifact of the institutional structure--putting both programs under USDA and the Congressional Ag committees.
  5. Is it possible to generate a rationale for SS, either modified per Bush or as it exists?

Economists, Analysis Wanted (Women's Clothing)

This article in the LA Times says that women's clothes don't have standard sizes.

What's With Women's Clothing Sizes? Industry Balks at Uniform Standards: "Women through the ages have griped about not being able to find clothes that fit properly. Their predicament is getting new attention as manufacturers, retailers, researchers and entrepreneurs wrestle to inject some sense into apparel sizes, the smallest of which have sunk to a mind-bendingly low 00 in some U.S. stores.

Most apparel manufacturers and retailers size clothes arbitrarily, often as a competitive tool. That makes it virtually impossible to get everybody on the same page."
I don't understand the logic here. In most cases it seems that having standards helps competition. Men's clothes don't suffer from a lack of competition, so what's the difference with women?


Sunday, May 01, 2005

What I Don't Understand on Indexed Benefits

For years I've heard the sort of thing included in today's New York Times in James Dao's article entitled "'55 and Out' Comes Home to Roost" That is, public employees "...receive among the best, most rock-solid pensions and retirement health benefits of any workers in America. Many can retire before 65, with generous cost-of-living adjustments built into their pensions and full medical benefits for life." Now Mr. Dao is describing state and local government employees, some of whom have only their government pension and some of whom have a pension on top of Social Security. (I think the 1983 commission required all employees to be under SS.)

When conservatives talk about changing Social Security benefits to be indexed to inflation rather than wages, liberals say that's unacceptable. But Mr. Dao can describe the same COLA's as "generous" when discussing public employees.

Ideas, IV, Accountability

A TV news piece on the abuse of drivers licenses as ID, particularly DMV clerks selling licenses, raises another idea. To ensure accountability, put the name of the issuing clerk on the drivers license. (I assume that DMV's already have security measures in place for handling the blank licenses.)

Competition and Change

I see three pieces in the Washington Post today as touching on the same topic (which always interests me): how does an institution compete in a changing world? In all, the answer may be: change to be more specialized, find a competitive advantage.

The pieces:

  1. The Corcoran is an art gallery near the White House that includes a variety of art. Blake Gopnik suggests that instead of trying to compete with the National Gallery of Art it change to focus on photography.
  2. The mainline Protestant churches have had trouble competing with the evangelicals, so this article "Old-Time Religion For Mainline Churches" says that some are taking "a heavily devotional, even mystical approach to spirituality that often calls on ancient Christian practices" and borrowing from other traditions.
  3. In a commentary on Larry Summers, this piece describes the writer's experience in trying to turn around a West Coast university by "creating a new nationally respected research institute for molecular medicine [which] would be our best path toward attracting top-notch scientists, teachers and clinicians." He encountered great resistance from his faculty, which were wedded to their specialties and wanted any new money devoted to them.

The New York Times > International > Middle East > Ex-Hostage's Italian Driver Ignored Warning, U.S. Says

Harshaw's Rule No. One (you never do it right the first time) strikes again:

The New York Times > International > Middle East > Ex-Hostage's Italian Driver Ignored Warning, U.S. Says: "It said the troops stationed at the checkpoint were on their first full day on shift there and 'lacked experience in issuing operational orders and in battle tracking security forces' at checkpoints."

The news report doesn't state how much experience the troops had otherwise. If green, then tension would be high.