Friday, March 31, 2006

Obeying Rules--A Bureaucrat's View

Glenn Reynolds takes the position that providing "amnesty" for illegal immigrants is destructive to legal immigrants:
Reynolds:� Laws are for suckers? - Glenn Reynolds - "My question is, if the fact that lots of people break a law is a reason to get rid of it, why don't we get rid of the Drug War next? That would be OK with me. But it doesn't seem to be the way they think in Washington.

The problem with the current system -- and with the amnesty proposal -- is that it makes people who obey the law feel like suckers. That's a very destructive thing, socially. "
As a bureaucrat, I have to sympathize. I certainly feel mad as hell when I read of the rich evading taxes.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

When Did Immigration Turn Bad?

Opponents of immigration reform seem to take the position that immigration is bad. That raises the question, when did it go bad? Was it 1970? Or 1912? Or 1848? Or 1630? Or maybe 11,000BC?

Wednesday, March 29, 2006 and Class Discrimination

Orin Kerr has set up shop separately from Volokh Conspiracy and posts here
"It’s always hard to second-guess a state sentencing decision based only on press reports. You don’t know the details of the sentencing scheme, or the details of the factual findings. But I wonder what sentence this defendant would have received if she had been an African-American male who had dropped out of high school?

UPDATE: Brooks Holland weighs in with a very helpful comment here."
The comments suggest that the defendant (a college grad white millionaire's daughter) profited from having a good lawyer and access to therapeutic programs but not from a racial bias in the system.

A thought on blogs and Orin's move: Bloggers want an audience. One way to get one is as a cooperative enterprise. But there's always the free rider problem--some in the cooperative are going to be more productive and more attractive than others, so there's often an incentive for people to split off and go on their own. Eugene Volokh has seen that happen with Tyler Cowan and now Orin (others I think, but I don't remember their names).

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

"Low-Skilled/Unskilled Immigrants"

The debate over immigration is heating up. People, mostly on the restrictive side, often refer to "low-skilled or unskilled immigrants". We need to be careful of context--there's two societies involved: the U.S. and the country of origin; so comparisons and social ladders in one society don't match up with those in another.

My impression is that the vast majority of immigrants of working age have to come up with a fair amount of money in their native country in order to get into the U.S. Indeed, illegal immigrants probably have to pay more than legal immigrants. (A "coyote" on the Mexican border costs more than an airline ticket from whereever.) That assumed fact leads me to believe that the future immigrants, while in their country of origin, had skills. They weren't the "lowest of the low" there. They may be doing jobs "Americans won't do" here, but that reflects the differences in the two societies and is not a basis for looking down on them. [ed.--do I heard a comment that of course we don't look down on people? Remember the Bible's beam and mote in the eye.]

Monday, March 27, 2006

Why the Estate Tax Helps Our Competitiveness

Mr. Mallaby in today's Post didn't intend to endorse the estate tax in his column lauding American superiority over Europe in productivity, but I think he did in this excerpt:

Why U.S. Business Is Winning:
"The next explanation for American superiority is a healthy indifference to first sons. Bloom and Van Reenen report that the practice of handing a family firm down from father to oldest son is five times more common in France and Britain than in the United States. Not surprisingly, this anti-meritocratic practice does not always produce good managers. So even though the best European companies are managed roughly as well as the best American ones, there's a fat tail of second-rate firms in Europe that's absent in the United States."
As for the overall column, I'd apply a large grain of salt. Over the last 55 years I remember the many enthusiasms the chattering class had for the superiority of this system or that. As far as I can tell no one system maintained an edge for the whole time. That suggests to me that the factors that seem to make for greater productivity ebb and flow. It's like saying the CAA is better than the Big East in basketball based on this year's NCAA tournament.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Those Ivied Walls Are Falling Down; Meritocracy and Institutional Imperatives

An interesting op-ed in today's Times: To All the Girls I've Rejected,
by Jennifer Delahunty Britz, director of admissions at Kenyon College:
"The elephant that looms large in the middle of the room is the importance of gender balance. Should it trump the qualifications of talented young female applicants? At those colleges that have reached what the experts call a 'tipping point,' where 60 percent or more of their enrolled students are female, you'll hear a hint of desperation in the voices of admissions officers.

Beyond the availability of dance partners for the winter formal, gender balance matters in ways both large and small on a residential college campus. Once you become decidedly female in enrollment, fewer males and, as it turns out, fewer females find your campus attractive."
Link this to the thesis of The Chosen, by Jerome Karabel, a good book, recently published, which reviews the history of admission policy at Harvard, Yale and Princeton from 1920 to now. He traces the different criteria for admission used and not used: academic promise, SAT scores, personality, extra curricular, legacy (descendant of alumni), athletic ability, race, religion, geographic diversity, international diversity, etc. Sometimes "diversity" was used to keep Jews out, sometimes to get African-Americans in; "legacy" has always been important because it ties directly to alumni support (giving).

Karabel barely touches on the new controversy--whether affirmative action should apply to males over females. Twill be interesting--will Bill Buckley be happy if Yale is 80 percent female? Will the stalwart proponents of merit-based admissions change their positions when the issue is not black versus white but male versus female?

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

FEMA and Multiple Layers of Contractors

The Washington Post had an article, Multiple Layers Of Contractors Drive Up Cost of Katrina Cleanup on the 19th:
"Four large companies won Army Corps contracts to cover damaged roofs with blue plastic tarp, under a program known as 'Operation Blue Roof.' The rate paid to the prime contractors ranged from $1.50 to $1.75 per square foot of tarp installed, documents show.

The prime contractors' rate is nearly as much as local roofers charge to install a roof of asphalt shingles, according to two roofing executives who requested anonymity because they feared losing their contracts. Meanwhile, at the bottom of the contractor heap, four to five rungs lower, some crews are being paid less than 10 cents per square foot, the officials said."
A bunch of bloggers were attracted to comment on this obvious example of governmental inefficiency. I want to be contrarian.

First, government bureaucracy in the U.S is weak. In a typical bureaucracy (think Catholic Church, Army, GM, Starbucks) you have a pyramidal organization--the "operators" at the local level (churches, platoons, dealerships/factories, coffee shops), then a management hierarchy, often geographically organized. This is the way you combine local knowledge and ability to act with centralized management. FEMA and other governmental organizations don't have this complete hierarchy. What tends to happen is FEMA, or Department of Education, or whatever provides the centralized management, but the lower layers are State and local governments or nonexistent.

In the specific case described by the Post, there was no expertise on temporary covering of roofs (though it doesn't seem to require much expertise). So FEMA, through the layers of contractors as is right and proper in a nation so firmly convinced of the merits of private enterprise, created a temporary bureaucracy with the ability to cover roofs. Contrast this approach to disaster to that of USDA. USDA has a network of county offices throughout the country. When a disaster occurs or Congress authorizes a new disaster relief program for farmers, this existing bureaucracy springs into action and delivers the checks.

The USDA model works much more efficiently than the FEMA model but it also works much more often. It's like the old Maytag repairman ads--do you want to pay FEMA to have people sit around and do nothing for years? Or can you find enough other duties for a permanent FEMA bureaucracy to do (as USDA offices have ongoing farm programs to justify their existence)?

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

BCC Follies--How Not To Manage

John Tierney in today's Times (subscription required) has a column discussing the buck-passing that preceded the Iraq invasion. Summary: no planning because no one saw it as his responsibility.

The blame is that of Bush/Cheney/Card--the managers in charge. One thing any bureaucrat learns when you're dealing with an effort that spans multiple units is that your major effort must be to ensure that things don't fall through the gaps. You can trust people (almost all the time) to try to do their jobs. What you can't trust people to do is to define the boundaries of their jobs.

Astro-physicists talk of "black matter"--stuff they can't see or sense but which must exist because of the way the visible universe behaves. Similarly, there's dark matter in the social universe, a dark matter called fear of failure. An easy way to fail is to try something new, something chaotic, something undefined. So let people define their jobs and they'll define away any responsibility for things they don't know or they haven't done (successfully) before. Conversely, they'll devote their effort to the things they've done before, what they've trained to do.

So managers, like BCC, must constantly ask questions to see that their bureaucrats cover the gaps between units, use imagination to think ahead and around. Alternatively they may follow the FDR precedent--assign multiple bureaucracies to overlapping tasks, resulting in conflicts that must be resolved in the White House. But one way or the other Bush did it wrong.

Monday, March 20, 2006

When an Op-Ed Makes No Sense--Harvard for Free

Yesterday the LATimes published an oped, How Harvard could share the wealth,
proposing that Harvard use the income from its endowment to make itself free to all students. (The figures seem to work.) The writer's key point was the contrast between Harvard's wealth and the $41K it charges for tuition, suggesting that it needed to be accessible to the poor. But then the writer says:
"Two years ago, Summers took action to make Harvard more accessible. He declared that parents of undergraduates with family incomes less than $40,000 a year would no longer have to pay anything for their children's Harvard education. The expected payment from families with incomes under $60,000 would be cut greatly as well.

Summers said his initiative sent 'a powerful message that Harvard is open to talented students from all economic backgrounds.' The university reported that the enrollment of students in those income brackets rose 18%. But the 18% growth, when you do the math, means only an additional 45 students.

Harvard's message needs to be more powerful — at least as powerful as one ought to expect from an elite, 370-year-old, $26-billion institution. Dropping tuition, room and board charges for all students would be a gesture worthy of the institution."
So the bottom line is that Harvard is already free to students from families under $40K. So what's the effect of the writer's proposal? To make Harvard free for rich kids!!

Not something I want to support.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Family Ties

An interesting article in today's NYTimes on John Githongo, Kenyan whistleblower. What I found particularly fascinating were the allusions to the role that family and tribal ties played in corruption in Kenya.

On the one hand there's a pattern here, strong family ties tend to hold back "progress". Those who try to get ahead are obligated to take care of families. This is true in the Caribbean (see a book called "Crab Antics" (?to be checked), with Hispanic immigrants in the US, and apparently with Africans.

In the US corruption has often linked to family ties. Think of the Bolgers in Boston (although that's not corruption, but the relationship between the killer and his university president brother evokes the Godfather I.

My impression is that the pattern of family ties leading to corruption has not been true for WASP Americans. We're the greedy SOB's who're in it for ourselves, to hell with the rest of the world. Maybe that's why WASP's dominated the class system for so long

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Benefits of Cruise Control

One of my beliefs is that Hegel was right, that thesis and antisynthesis is the way of the world, that physics is right--the equal and opposite reaction law, whichever one it is. Freedom often requires a countervailing force. Hence, my paean to cruise control, a feature on my new car with which I was previously unfamiliar. In taking a long drive yesterday, I found one of its benefits was to keep me to the speed limit (or a tad above) in situations where I'd usually find myself doing well above the limit. For example, on route 15 below Harrisburg the speed limit goes from 65 to 55 to 50 and I'd always have problems keeping my speed down in the 55/50 zones. After all, it was divided highway, the traffic was a bit heavier and access was less limited, but I tended to keep up with the locals. But with cruise control, I could make a decision and cut my feet and my irrational side out of the loop. Without cruise control, freedom was too much for me.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Implanted Patient-Data Chips--Ugh Factor and Who Benefits

The Post today has this article--Use of Implanted Patient-Data Chips Stirs Debate on Medicine vs. Privacy:
"The two D.C. residents are among just a handful of Americans who have had the tiny electronic VeriChip inserted since the government approved it two years ago. But the chip is being aggressively marketed by its manufacturer, which is targeting Washington to be the first metropolitan area with multiple hospitals equipped to read the device, a persuasive factor for Fischer and Hickey.
There's an "ugh" ("ick"??) factor to such chips. But there's also an overly easy knee-jerk reaction:
"...the concept alarms privacy advocates. They worry the devices could make it easier for unauthorized snoops to invade medical records. They also fear that the technology marks a dangerous step toward an Orwellian future in which people will be monitored using the chips or will be required to have them inserted for surveillance."
The question that needs to be asked is "why?", what is the motive, the potential gain for someone to snoop? People don't do things for no reason, so how would they gain from snooping into a 77-year old's medical history? I'm sure I'm not being imaginative enough, but as of now I don't see a big potential threat.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Why DC Cabbies Don't Come from Latin America

John Kelly had a column in the Post about the origins of DC cabdrivers. (Not sure the link to the list will work.) Here's an excerpt. Driving Around the World in D.C.: "Topping the list is Ethiopia. Of the 4,990 drivers that the commission has information on, 1,383 were born in that East African country. Next up was the United States, with 1,047."

What's notable, given that Latinos dominate in our immigrant population, is the absence of countries below the border. Why is that, I wonder?

Kelly's column suggests one answer is education/language. My impression is that most Hispanics who emigrate are lower middle class (they've got enough money to pay the coyotes but not much more). They might be uncomfortable navigating the bureaucratic ropes needed to learn to drive and get a cabbie's license, and dealing with customers. At least one driver he rode with had a college degree and suggested it was a good stopgap job.

Another answer might be the first-mover phenomena: an initial pioneer comes to the U.S. and finds a job, he tells his relatives and neighbors back home and they follow. That's one reason for Irish cops in NYC, Koreans in groceries and dry cleaning, and Patels in motel ownership.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Immigration and Crime

Tyler Cowan at links to an op-ed in the Times on the relationship of immigration and the crime rate. The professor says that studies show that immigrants have a lower crime rate than natives, more generally that Hispanics do better on socio-economic indicators than would be expected at the gross level. (i.e., many immigrants are young males living apart from women, the group we'd expect to have the highest crime rate.)

As I said in comments there, I think the professor oversells his thesis, but it is a reminder not to generalize. It would also be interesting to look at the cultural patterns related to years of residence of family (i.e., obesity, cancer rates, etc. etc.)

Friday, March 10, 2006

Framing the Issue--Ports Versus 3 Percent of Terminals

The administration lost its battle when the issue was framed as "UAE taking over 6 US Ports" instead of "Control of 3 Percent of Terminals Transferred". From today's Post: Dubai Firm to Sell U.S. Port Operations:
"DP World acquired management control of 24 of 829 container terminals at the ports of Baltimore, New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Miami and New Orleans. Terminal operators are primarily responsible for transferring containers from ships to railroad cars and trucks, administration officials have noted, while port security is the responsibility of the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Customs and Border Protection."

Thursday, March 09, 2006

ex-Mayor Barry, Playing Again

The Post reports Marion Barry Sentenced to Three Years Probation:

As a bureaucrat, and therefore partial to the IRS, I find this depressing.
"Assistant U.S. Attorney James W. Cooper, the lead prosecutor in the case, said Barry violated the spirit, if not the letter, of his plea agreement by dragging his feet to file necessary paperwork.
Barry did not file his tax returns until the day before the original sentencing date, and then waited a month, until yesterday, to have his accountant contact the Internal Revenue Service to initiate negotiations about a payment plan."

Twill be interesting to follow when and if he pays any of his back taxes.

Michael Collins, Revolutionary as Bureaucrat

Found this New Republic review of the new biography of Michael Collins, an IRA leader after WWI, interesting because of the use of "bureaucrat" throughout. (Free registration required.)

Who was the real Michael Collins?:
"Irish nationalism had always had a surplus of dreamers, poets, visionaries, rhetoricians, and idealists. What it lacked was bureaucrats. Collins became the indispensable man of the Irish revolution because he knew how to run things.

The guerrilla chief who demanded that his subordinates supply reports 'done in tabular form and furnished in duplicate' was simply a grown-up version of the boy in the Post Office Savings Bank, where hundreds of thousands of transactions had to be recorded accurately every day and clerical errors were not tolerated. The earnest, punctual Collins who earned a reputation as 'the speediest young clerk in the Savings Bank' was, in embryo, the leader whose favorite terms of castigation were 'lazy,' 'inefficient,' and 'unbusinesslike.' Obscured by the legend of the trickster-terrorist is the real Collins story: the literal treason of the clerk. "

Crap and Discrimination--A Moral

There's an interesting piece at The Crappiest Invention of All Time - Why the auto-flushing toilet must die. By Nick Schulz:

He includes this bit:

"Hands-free toilets and faucets are certainly smarter now than when they first came on the market. Pete DeMarco [an engineer and expert] told me that when automatic fixtures first got popular in the early 1990s, they had difficulty detecting dark colors, which tended to absorb the laser light instead of reflecting it back to the sensor. DeMarco remembers washing his hands in O'Hare Airport next to an African-American gentleman. DeMarco's faucet worked; the black man's didn't. The black guy then went to DeMarco's faucet, which he had just seen working seconds before; it didn't work. This time DeMarco spoke up, telling him to turn his hands palm side up. The faucet worked."

While Schulz tosses this off as human interest, it might really represent how some "discrimination" works. I suggest what happened is that the engineers who initially designed the faucet tested it out rather thoroughly. They probably used themselves as guinea pigs. And the faucet worked, so it was put on the market. But guess what, it just so happens that none of the engineers were dark skinned. Result: something that would appear to many like discrimination. And in a way it is. No one intended the result, but it was the by-product of the fact that blacks haven't been well represented in engineering. I'd suggest this sort of interrelationship is quite common, if you look hard.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Splitters and Lumpers/Bugs and Terrorists

The release of the names of the prisoners at Guantanamo (see Monday's papers and today's NYTimes editorial: They Came for the Chicken Farmer reminds us of the dangers of lumping--when DOD said the prisoners were "terrorists", we (i.e., any reasonable person) are led to visualize a bearded violent man (somewhat as the pirate Blackbeard was pictured in my youth). When you know the names and backgrounds you see a much more disparate group than you visualized, differences that inevitably increase the odds that mistakes were made in their capture and retention.

On the other hand the New York Review of Books has an article by Tim Flannery, reviewing 3 books on nature, including David Attenborough's latest venture on insects. He found spiders of the same species seeming to display personality differences, leading Flannery to this statement:
"The fact that invertebrates have characters seemingly similar in their fundamentals to those possessed by ourselves is a theme to which Attenborough returns repeatedly, and as he does so the gulf between the least and greatest of living things diminishes."

So it goes, the back and forth between lumping and splitting, on which see wikipedia.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Limits on Bureaucratic Rules--Basketball and Immigrants

Two articles over the weekend showed the limits on bureaucratic rules--they aren't self-enforcing:
  • Basketball players need to receive valid high school diplomas and college educations? No. Players at major college programs attend paper high schools and have problems reading at the fourth grade level says this Washington Post article: A Player Rises Through the Cracks.
  • You can't get a job unless you're in the country legally? Of course not. Employers don't try to enforce the rules, even when you give them access to a database to check says this NY Times article: The Search for Illegal Immigrants Stops at the Workplace.
The common thread is collusion--the wink, wink between college coaches and aspiring players (and their mentors, pushers, etc.) or between employers and employees. The bureaucracy that is supposed to police the rules (NCAA and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement respectively) are far away. There's little incentive for anyone to report violations. Even the media gains--they get the opportunity to win journalism prizes by doing the occasional piece on the issue.

(A nod to Professor Robin Williams, who long ago pointed out this sort of process at work in his American sociology class.)

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Signs and Signifiers--Restroom Signs

Eszter Hargittai has an interesting discussion of signs on restroom doors at Crooked Timber � � Dress optional,
which leads to interesting commentary. I'm vaguely aware of post-modernism (don't understand it but I've heard of it) and a couple of the comments veer into that, or parodies of that, I can't tell which. Anyhow it's a fun Saturday morning read.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Bush and Competent Executives

The new videotape of President Bush meeting by teleconference with emergency officials before Katrina struck has drawn lots of comment.

Eugene Robinson at the Post: This Is 'Fully Prepared'?:
"At least now I know why the White House is so obsessively secretive about its decision-making process. The leaked videotapes and transcripts of pre-Katrina briefings that were obtained this week by the Associated Press leave in tatters the defining myth of the Bush administration -- an undeserved aura of cool, unflinching competence and steely resolve. Instead, the tapes show bureaucratic inertia and a president for whom delegation seems to mean detachment."
John Dickerson at Slate:
"It's [the video] a blow to a key Bush myth. The Bush management philosophy relies on him as an interrogator. He delegates, but that's OK because he knows how to question those he empowers to make sure they're focused. Question-asking is also a central public tool in the "trust me" presidency. We aren't supposed to worry that the NSA wiretapping program goes too far because the president has asked all the questions. When the president was wrong about the level of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or the strength of the insurgency, it wasn't because he didn't ask enough questions, we have been told, it was because he was given the wrong answers."
But maybe Steven Pearlstein inadvertently had the best take in his discussion of the Rudman report: Fannie Mae Report Is Long, but It's Not the Whole Story:
"As I was reading through that and other chapters of the Rudman report, I had a nagging feeling that I had read the story before. And then I realized where: in a management book about blowups of other once-successful corporations, written by Sydney Finkelstein, a professor at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business.

Finkelstein's insight is that big corporate mistakes aren't caused by stupidity, or venality, or by an unexpected bit of bad luck. Nor are they the result of flawed strategy or inability to execute, although those may sometimes appear to be the cause.

Rather, Finkelstein says, the most spectacular corporate failures occur in companies that are so blinded by their own competence and past success that they instinctively tune out legitimate outside criticism. Inside, a positive can-do culture tends to snuff out criticism, dissent or negative feedback. Executives at these companies tend to be obsessed with the company's image, underestimate major obstacles, assume they have all the answers and stubbornly rely on what worked for them before. [emphasis added]

The reasons behind most corporate collapses, according to Finkelstein, entail the deep-seated psychological need people have at all levels of a company to belong and get along, to rationalize what has already been done or decided, and to put off loss or failure."
You don't need to ask questions if you assume your team has all the answers.

My New Car

I discussed buying a new car here but didn't say what I got. It was a Toyota Corolla. (Bought a VW Beetle in 1966, and Corollas in 78, 91, and 2006.) Each time I've bought I'm struck by the improvement in the cars. Cars don't improve on the same time scale as PC's, but they do improve. Of course, not everything is an improvement, just like with PC's and software. The manual is bigger for my new car and I feel more need to study it. There are "features" that I doubt I'll use (like the I-pod connection socket), which is certainly true of software.

I recommend Henry Petroski's books--he teaches engineering history at Duke, writes on the history of technology, like pencils, paper clips, bridges, and a very nice memoir on growing up as a paper boy on Long Island. One of his themes is the need for tradeoffs, which I do see in the new car. For example, the back seats now have the head/neck rests, a safety measure. However they reduce the visibility for someone who learned to drive by craning his neck instead of checking the nonexistent right side mirrors. Another of his themes is that we learn from failure, which I firmly believe.

Some Days I Feel Like Preaching

There's several Presbyterian ministers in my ancestry, which may explain why today I had a moralistic reaction to the conjunction of these two items in the NY Times:

[With regard to the US/India deal on nuclear power] Dissenting on Atomic Deal
"The Defense Department issued an unusually explicit statement hailing the deal for opening a path for more American-Indian military cooperation.

'Where only a few years ago, no one would have talked about the prospects for a major U.S.-India defense deal, today the prospects are promising, whether in the realm of combat aircraft, helicopters, maritime patrol aircraft or naval vessels,' the Defense Department statement said."

Report Warns Malnutrition Begins in Cradle
"Some of the facts about malnutrition, familiar to experts but not widely understood, seem counterintuitive. For example, rates of malnutrition in South Asia, including India, Bangladesh and Nepal, are nearly double those in sub-Saharan Africa, which is much poorer.

India's programs to feed children in school have multiplied in recent years, but its nutrition program for preschool children mainly assists those between the ages of 3 to 6 — too late to prevent the stunting and damage to intellect that occur by age 2, bank nutritionists and other experts say.

A spokesman for the Indian Embassy in Washington said yesterday that he had not yet read the report and could not comment on it.

The problem of malnutrition in India, known for its well-educated, high-tech workers, is striking. Almost half the children are stunted by malnutrition, but the problem is not limited to the poor. A quarter of the children under age 5 in the richest fifth of the population are also underweight and nearly two-thirds are anemic, the report says."
So we'll sell arms to India to offset the arms we sell to Pakistan to get their aid against Al Qaeda while half their children are malnurished? [From the article, the malnutrition isn't from lack of food, it's from lack of knowledge.]

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Modernity Means Loss of Privacy?

I often read pieces which seem to imply there's a tradeoff between modern life/globalization/the new and privacy. That we lose privacy whenever we use credit cards, surf the Internet, talk on cell phones, use Onstar-type navigation systems, and so forth. There might be a little truth to this--certainly lots of data on us is recorded on various hard drives. But there's a big difference between having data stored away and being observed by living people. (Grow up in the country and you'd know what I mean.) An example was buried in a recent NYTimes article on those Indians who are returning to India to enjoy and exploit the new opportunities there.

A Reversal of the Tide in India:
"The cultural impact on their nation is visible and visceral. The New Delhi suburb of Noida boasts a collection of luxury homes known as an 'NRI Colony.' Meanwhile, returning stay-at-home spouses confess they miss the freedom and distance of America, far from the prying eyes of in-laws and nosy neighbors."
The writer observes someone who in the U.S. enjoyed driving herself now has a chauffeur to drive her. Nations with a servant class have a whole etiquette governing how they should act and be treated. If I can trust British movies and tv shows it boils down to the idea that servants are invisible--see Gosford Park.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Buying a Car, Now and Then

Bought a new car yesterday (the reason I didn't post Monday or Tuesday). It's the first one since October, 1990. As I waited for the paperwork yesterday I thought about the differences. (My memory of 1990 may not be totally reliable.)
  • Dealership--it changed ownership and is in a new building. It now claims to be the biggest Toyota dealer in a wide area.
  • In 1990 the showroom had 3-4 cars on display, yesterday none. Does that mean the sales experience is less about flash and glitter?
  • In 1990 the showroom had 4-5 white salesmen standing around, yesterday maybe 10 salespersons, mostly male, mostly, maybe even entirely minority, sitting at desks in the "showroom". (At the other dealership I went to in my shopping, the two salesmen (used and new cars) were both minority.) The minorities represented all the continents, except Antarctica. Management may not have been as integrated as the sales/finance staff. I wonder whether such sales jobs aren't particularly attractive to people who are aggressive, work long hours, have people skills. As such, they may be one of the ways for the upwardly mobile to bypass the need for credentials (i.e., college degrees).
  • In 1990 my purchase started by walking in the door, in 2006 it started with an Internet search and query.
  • In 1990, my salesman stumbled in using the computer terminal, yesterday every salesperson had a PC and seemed reasonably proficient (though I did see one guy about 50 typing with 2 fingers).
  • In 1990 I consulted Consumer Reports and still felt at a loss. In 2006 a salesperson printed out data from Edmunds to compare the Honda and Toyota I was considering. He was open about the change in the power balance between salesman and buyer because buyers have access to lots more information now.
  • In 2006 there was more paperwork, including more concern for identification and consumer rights and information.
Of course, the biggest difference was in the car I was buying.