Saturday, July 16, 2005

Intermittent Blogging

I'll be blogging less over the next few weeks. My older sister is going to have hip replacement surgery and I'll be traveling a couple times to help during this time.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Finland Bureaucracy Is Innovative?

Robert Kaiser has another interesting article on Finland in today's Post. (Caution: he makes 2 math errors in one paragraph; I've written the editor.) He claims the country is united in pushing innovation, trusting the government to guide R&D, and devotes more GDP to R&D than the US:
"'We are helping to plan R&D projects that we will then fund,' he said. About a third of the projects Tekes funds fail completely, Saarnivaara said. He would like that percentage to be higher -- in other words, he would like to take more risks."
I'm amazed by the statement--I can't imagine any US government agency boasting that 1/3 of its money is wasted (at least, that's how the politicians of the out party would phrase and the media would be hot on their tails). If I'm right that you almost never do things right the first time (witness Chertoff's reorg of Homeland Security), the ability to learn from your failures is critical. That assumes you're free to fail, which most US agencies aren't.

It's possible though that Kaiser and I are over-enthusiastic. Both DARPA and NSF probably have a bunch of failures that are mostly hidden. And the history of government steering development isn't always good. I remember in the early 90's Japan was pushing the "5th generation computers". A blind alley, I believe. But with all the cautions, I'm still envious of a society that seems to trust its government that much.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Homes As Hummers

Sometimes I agree with Robert Samuelson of the Wash Post; sometimes I don't. Today's column is one I agree with. Among the nuggets is a poll that showed 35 percent of Americans think a home theater (room) is highly desirable. (There was a bit in the Post over the weekend where builders said they weren't building libraries anymore.)
"Another cause of this relentless upsizing is that the government unwisely promotes it. In 2005, about 80 percent of the estimated $200 billion of federal housing subsidies consists of tax breaks (mainly deductions for mortgage interest payments and preferential treatment for profits on home sales), reports an Urban Institute study. These tax breaks go heavily to upscale Americans, who are thereby encouraged to buy bigger homes. Federal housing benefits average $8,268 for those with incomes between $200,000 and $500,000, estimates the study; by contrast, they're only $365 for those with incomes of $40,000 to $50,000. It's nutty for government to subsidize bigger homes for the well-to-do."
Why don't liberals make proposals here? (Samuelson just points with alarm but doesn't make suggestions like the following.) From H&RBlock:
If you take out a mortgage to buy a second home, the interest is deductible if the mortgage is secured by the home and you itemize deductions. Your deduction may be limited if the mortgage exceeds the fair market value of the home or if the mortgages on your main home and your second home exceed $1 million ($500,000 if you are married, filing a separate return).
Granted, these days $1 million doesn't buy as much of a home as it used to. But my great grandfather had a cabin that was about 600 square feet, with 7 people (mother-in-law, wife, four kids). I'd think 500 square feet per person is a very reasonable cap. Limit deductibility of interest to the lesser of $1million or interest on the average cost of a home in the ZIP code sized to the number of dependents reported x 500 square feet.

There's no way the taxpayers should subsidize beach houses, ski houses, etc. This issue appeals to the populist instincts we still have.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Creating Disability--History

Don't usually listen to NPR but tuned in briefly today to an Odyssey program, interviewing someone on "disability" and the place of the ADA. He attributed it to the Frederick Taylor efficiency expert mode circa 1900, which created the idea of "able-bodied" as the norm and therefore "disabled" as the inferior. (He used "valorized", a term I'm too old to touch.)

Meanwhile, yesterday got word that my 69 year old sister will need a hip replacement. Also, recently discussion about the ethics of infant euthanasia--doctor in Netherlands drew up guidelines for ending the life of children under certain instances (like lack of a functioning brain, a skin condition that leaves the infant in pain and the skin peeling off from any touch).

Strikes me that humans, and other animals, are innately competitive so we always have a pecking order. Taylor conceptualized and categorized it, but a good part of the rise of "disabled" must be from the growing wealth of society which permits us to express (occasionally) our better instincts. We want to preserve all life, but the reality is that the harder the life, the more likely the "weaker" will not survive. Think of extreme cases--the Donner Party the women survived, the weak and isolated did not. Before hip replacement surgery, my sister would have faced a painful, immobile, and probably short life. Now she can look forward to keeping her kid brother in his place for another 15 years or so. So while there may be a bit of truth in the guy's take, which seemed a slap at industrial capitalism, it also hides truth, the truth that we are making progress.

Monday, July 11, 2005

More on Bankruptcy Statistics

Posted earlier in the week on possible errors in bankruptcy statistics because of the way software was designed. I just stumbled on a reference in an economics book, "Does Atlas Shrug", a compilation of articles on the effects of taxing the rich, that may also be pertinent. In 1986 the Bill Bradley/Rostenkowski Tax Reform Act passed (with minor assistance from what's his face, the guy at 1600 PA). In the introduction to the book, the editor says there's research showing that entrepreneurs switched the form of their business as a result of the changes in tax treatment. Apparently the big switch was from corporation C (never heard of it, I assume it's just the straight corporation form) to corporation S (which I have heard, where the business is a corporation but for tax purposes all the income is attributed to the individual). Note that I don't know for sure that such changes might affect bankruptcy comparisons, but it seems possible and 1986 is the date mentioned in the previous article.

It raises a bigger subject--the idea that there's a discrepancy between what is presented by lawyers and accountants under the tax laws and what the economic reality is. That's a discrepancy my old agency had a lot of experience with--farmers would change their organizations so as to limit the impact of payment limitation laws and regulations, but the economic reality wouldn't change.

The bottom line is that statistics can be tricky things.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

When Cabinet Secretaries Can't Count

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, on NPR as reported in - What Africa Really Needs:
"Last year, the United States paid our cotton growers $3.2 billion in subsidies. That comes to about half a million dollars per farmer. These aren’t family farms, for the most part. They’re giant agribusinesses. These big businesses argue that without the subsidies the United States would lose its cotton industry and we shouldn’t rely on other nations for a vital material like cotton."
I don't want to get into the debate over what is a family farm, who is a farmer, or how badly subsidies to cotton farmers hurt the farmers in Africa. I do want to challenge Reich's figures:
Let's divide $3.2 billion by .5 million. That give 6,000 as the number of cotton farmers in the U.S. But even the toughest opponents of cotton subsidies acknowledge the U.S. has around 20,000 cotton farmers. I'd also note that the Environmental Working Group database for ag subsidies shows cotton at $2.7 billion for 2003 (although attacks on subsidies often include government benefits other than direct payments to farmers). Secretary Reich's calculation is off by an order of magnitude. I'd guess he got the half million figure from a separate source, perhaps representing subsidy payments over 10-20 years. Anyhow, IMHO carelessness with figures means one is more anxious to make a case, than to find the truth. Shame.


Saturday, July 09, 2005

An End to the "War on Terror"?

I'm still getting used to John Tierney as the conservative columnist in the NY Times (registration required) but I did like today's column, in which he tied the London bombings to the fear he felt when the snipers were terrorizing the Washington, particularly Maryland, area. An excerpt:
"But I think that we'd be better off reconsidering our definition of victory in the war on terror. Calling it a war makes it sound like a national fight against a mighty enemy threatening our society.

But right now the terrorists look more like a small group of loosely organized killers who are less like an army than like lightning bolts - scary but rarely fatal. Except that the risk of being struck by lightning is much higher than the risk of being killed by a terrorist."
As he says, terrorists could easily imitate the snipers, and if they switched cars each time it would take luck to catch them.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Vulnerability to Terrorism

I was planning to blog on this a couple weeks ago when a study on the vulnerability of the milk supply to botulism was published. I think it was done by the National Academy of Sciences and caused discussion over the flow of information: is it better to publish so vulnerabilities can be fixed or watched or to keep the information unpublished so that terrorists aren't given a roadmap?

It's an old argument. I seem to remember back in the 70's the Progressive magazine published information on how to make a nuclear fission device, arousing much the same discussion. There was also a murder case in Maryland where the killer allegedly followed the instructions in a book on how to kill. The New York Review of Books, now rather staid and proper, in the late 60's printed an issue with a diagram of how to make a Molotov cocktail on the cover. (The cocktail, although out of fashion now, then represented the height of terror/people power. It was the sort of thing that the Hungarian uprising in the 1956 used against the Soviet tanks.)

I'm generally on the side of more information. In the case of milk, I rationalize my support this way: The job of the terrorist is to bring together different things: rage against "the West", either for its way of life, its adverse impact on Islam, or its support of Israel; knowledge of a destructive device; ability to gather the materials to build a destructive device (using "device" very generically); knowledge of and access to a vulnerable site. Note that "knowledge" and "access" are two different things--bin Laden might have a trained pilot or two left, but if he can't get into a locked cockpit, the knowledge is useless.

The way I look at it, terrorists are highly unlikely to have both knowledge and access to the milk supply. So far as I can remember, terrorists (Al Qaeda, IRA, the Basques, the Tamil tigers, etc.) have not attacked what I'd call "esoteric" vulnerabilities, like the milk supply, chemical plants or transport, nuclear facilities, etc. The problem for them might be that book learning isn't enough. You can read all you want about a subject, but try walking onto a farm or into a milk processing plant. Because they aren't public facilities, you'd stick out like a sore thumb. So a terrorist who might want to attack such targets would have to go under cover, taking a job in the industry to get the access. But there's a Catch-22--without access you can't really judge whether an attack can be successful, unless you are reasonably sure an attack could succeed you're unlikely to invest the time and effort required to gain access. All of this is not in isolation. There's the constant awareness that bombing nightclubs or buses, trains or ships, requires much less of an investment.

So, as economists might argue, the decision is rational, invest your anger and time in attacking the target requiring the least investment and providing the most immediate return (in terror).

From this perspective, the 9/11 attack pushed the boundaries of what terrorists could achieve. But flight schools for pilots were available as was access to airliners. There seems some conventional wisdom now that Al Qaeda is no longer a top-down organization. I'd leap to the conclusion that it's less likely now that regional terror groups could muster the delayed gratification necessary to plan and carry out an operation requiring years.

How about anthrax? It looks as if we'll never know the perpetrator of the anthrax attacks, but it seems clear it wasn't a terrorist connected to an international organization. If we ever have an attack on the milk supply, I'd suspect a domestic terrorist, a demented dairy farmer, before Al Qaeda. (Tim McVeigh did have the help of a farmer to get the nitrate needed for his bomb.)

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Good IT Design and Bankruptcy

Interesting article in the NYTimes (registration required) today, discussing bankruptcy. The claim it reports is that the new bankruptcy law was based on an apparent decline in the number of business bankruptcies, from about 20 percent to about 2, with a corresponding increase in individual bankruptcies. This led to the conclusion that individuals were abusing their credit and the bankruptcy system, therefore the law was tightened.

Now a Harvard study claims to have traced the change in statistics back to a software error:
"The Kauffman study discovered why the government had undercounted entrepreneurs to such a large degree: a computing error. In the mid-1980's, the bankruptcy court system's records began to be computerized, and the most common software programs defaulted to individual settings. The error often went uncorrected.

'The model that Congress used for writing the bankruptcy law - a growing number of consumers and a rapidly shrinking number of entrepreneurs and small-business owners - was simply wrong,' said Professor Warren. 'It's bad policy on lots of levels.'"
A caution--someone on Volokh, I think Zyblocki, thinks professor Warren does bad studies, so this isn't gospel. But taking it as written, a couple comments:
  1. I wouldn't consider this an error. Good user design will almost always default to the most common choice, in this case presumably "individual" instead of "sole proprietorship". Defaults save time and aggravation. (Of course, in 1986 the data entry was probably through a green screen terminal. If so, doing defaults may have been more difficult than it is now with graphical (Windows-like) screens.
  2. The key issue here is whether the distinction is only for statistical purposes, or whether it is real--does the difference make a difference in how a bankruptcy is processed? If it doesn't, then the person doing the entry won't care and you'd have to use a drop down box with "pick one" showing. If it does make a difference, then ideally the software does something that depends on the right choice--prints out forms showing: "Bill Harshaw, Sole Proprietor of FacelessBureaucrat" rather than "Bill Harshaw, Individual".
This is a reminder that statistics can and do lie, particularly when they don't evolve out of the business process but are a separate operation. We should also remember that the bankruptcy statistics before the process was automated may have been defective. I'm also curious whether the bankruptcy process was automated once nationally, or district court by district court.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Data Modeling the FBI

Without knowing anything about the FBI, I've speculated on why it might have had problems with its big IT project. Part of the problem, I guessed, was a culture that gave priority to the special agent and not the administrative side.

One of the fun things about my time in USDA was learning about "data modeling", which is the process of analyzing processes to pick out the key data that you need to capture in the computer. Now this was in the days of relational databases (i.e., almost 20 years ago) and I'm sure the process has progressed since. But, that won't stop me from opining about things I know nothing about; I am a blogger after all.

I picked up Ronald Kessler's book, "The Bureau" which is a history of the agency, based on his past reporting for the Post and other books on FBI issues. There I find that Hoover specified the filing system for the agency early on: case files, with the designation the reference of the law violated, the abbreviation of the office, and a sequential number (not clear whether the number is within the office or within the law and office). That gives me just enough information to go to lots of speculation.

Observations: It makes sense to file by case--after all FBI's raison d'etre was to enforce federal law, so a violation is a logical starting point. The coding makes it easy to report to the main office--file case folders by status (under investigation, referred for prosecution, closed, etc.) and just do counts by law and status--so many bank robberies, so many Mann Acts, etc. etc.

But, in a modern context it wouldn't work at all well for intelligence investigations. (The FBI may have changed their filing system, but I'll assume not.) Note that the system assumed the field office is the alpha and omega, so it is awkward to transfer a case to another office or the main office. I think starting with the violation would make it hard to investigate organized crime, drugs, or any network.

Note--plan to do some more research and post more on the subject.

Digging and Weeding in the Garden

My wife and I have a garden plot rented from Reston Association. Watching other gardeners is interesting. Often the new gardeners are very energetic in the spring, digging their beds and planting. But sometimes they poop out. It's easy enough to get enthused by spring, after the winter when the day is warm and the promise of summer is in the air. You don't remember that gardening is a commitment, that the weeds will sprout and grow as easily and more strongly than your plants, that the weather will get too hot, or too cold, that bugs will emerge as the temperature rises, in sum, that gardening can be a pain in the knees, if not the rear.

I'd parallel this to lots of initiatives, government, private, commercial, nonprofit. Because of the way people are built, when we're mobilizing to do something, it's always easy to forget the maintenance requirements on the far side.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Supreme Court Appointment

My guess is that Bush will select a woman and a Hispanic in his next two appointments to the Supreme Court.  Most likely someone named Edith and Judge Gonzales.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Teaching Mathematics--Brad DeLong

Economist Brad DeLong repeats the Kevin Drum critique of Diane Ravitch, then goes on to discuss the problems of getting adolescents interested in math. Lower in the blog he has a discussion of teaching math, of which this is a brief excerpt. Go here for more:

"One Hundred Interesting Math Calculations: How do you convince adolescents that there is a big long-run payoff from math? Teaching them (mine at least) that there is a huge short-run payoff from reading and a huge medium-run payoff to writing is easy. But math is harder.
  1. [World War II Bomber Pilot Survival Odds]
  2. [How Many Extraterrestrial Civilizations Are There?]
  3. [Gravity and "Weighing the Earth"]
  4. (There's 20+ more examples.)

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Gossip from Iraq

Chris Bray has an interesting post on Cliopatria reporting discussions with soldiers back from Iraq. Chris is a historian and reservist who's been called to active duty.

As I said in comments there, the reports evoke my time in Vietnam, but I suspect there might be some bravado in the discussions that exaggerate the reality in Iraq.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Teaching Mathematics--Kevin Drum

Kevin Drum has been researching a Diane Ravitch comparison of the indices to two math books, one from 1973 and one contemporary that were used to support an assertion that modern math courses dumb down the subject. See here. I find the comments particularly fascinating. In my youth I was good at math but a teacher with an bad accent in calculus my freshman year ended any thoughts of doing it for a living. Now I've forgotten most all of the terms and can't really follow much of the discussion. ("graphing calculator"--what's that all about?)

I have to agree with the comment by an engineer--that the experience of working something by hand, not calculator, has helped him over the years by allowing him to estimate for reasonableness of result. That's an important ability, because sometimes reporters are math illiterates and pass along incredible statistics. (For example, recently the Rolling Thunder motorcycle rally was estimated at a few hundred thousand people, but any calculation of reasonableness would make it much lower.)

I can also readily believe that modern kids have harder math than I had. That's the historic pattern, every generation does a bit more than the previous. (Read a book about numeracy in early America and the Founding Fathers were lucky if they knew arithmetic.)

Friday, July 01, 2005

Global Warming--The Compensatory Principle

Robert Samuelson recently wrote on global warming in the Post. In passing he said that global warming could do good as well as harm. For some reason, the statement irks me. Possibly there's no change from the present about which that couldn't be said, at least from certain perspectives. Suppose an unseen asteroid hit the earth tomorrow at 9:05 am and completely destroyed all life on the planet. Still, that destruction would do good--it would end the suffering of many people and prevent the doing of much evil.

But on to a more serious take. Yes, grant that global warming will change much, and some of the changes will be for the good. Some land now a desert may bloom, some untolerable environments may become subtropic resorts, inland areas will become great seashores. It's entirely true that global warming will create both winners and losers.

I know more history than economics. Henry George in the 19th century wrote a book pointing out that most increases in the value of land were due to society. He argued that was moral justification for taxing land values to take back the unearned increase.

Conservative economists (almost a redundant phrase) talk of "rent-seeking" behavior. From Wikipedia:
"The phenomenon of rent-seeking was first identified in connection with monopolies by Gordon Tullock, in a paper in 1967. It takes place when an entity seeks to extract uncompensated value from others by manipulation of the economic environment -- often including regulations or other government decisions."
I'm adopting the same moralistic attitude when I say that the winners in the global warming lottery will gain unearned value, and therefore do not deserve to keep it.

In a "rational world" (an oxymoron), we would tax the winners to compensate the losers. The people in Bangladesh, the Pacific island nations, Netherlands, Miami, New Orleans, and Wall Street would be compensated for their losses by those who gain, whoever they may be. If the Australian desert blossoms and the Midwest dries up and blows away, the Aussies would compensate the Yanks.

There's precedent for this--in time of war democracies tend to tax the profits of those who supply the armies at a higher rate--a "windfall profit tax". (That's an ancient metaphor, I assume coming from the apples that you find on the ground after a fall windstorm; no one had to climb the tree to pick the fruit.)

Honey versus Vinegar, Part II

Posted yesterday on Prof. Leiter's views on the relative merits of persuasion versus yelling in the blogosphere. Robert KC Johnstone at Cliopatria blogs on the proper role of collegiality within academia. He sees it as overrated, leading to a bunch of nice people who downplay good research for getting along. He comments on this post at Inside Higher Ed :: Collegiality -- the Tenure Track's Pandora's Box, which includes 15 steps for being collegial and getting tenure. It boils down to:
"Common sense and self-control. Exercise both. Concrete manifestations of common sense and self-control require several tactics. Here are some things to try. Most of these tips are obvious..."
Johnstone sees some of the steps as advice to suck up to those in power. I have to say I'm more with Mary McKinney, the writer at Inside Higher Ed, than with Johnstone. It's an old controversy though--there are those who modify their behavior on the basis of other people's concerns and those who don't. I'm reminded of criticism of Benjamin Franklin, who might have originated the saying: if you can fake sincerity you have it made. But William James observed that if you act as if you believe something, you often come to believe it. And George Washington studied, not how to be nice to people, but how to impress them.

To quote my mother: "be nice". To quote my father: "there's more than one way to skin a cat" [and win approbation]