Sunday, April 30, 2006

RIP JK Galbraith

John Kenneth Galbraith died. See the NYTimes obit, which I found disappointing, though it did provide words of wisdom about the worldview of farmers and Calvinist Presbyterians:

"Mr. Galbraith said in his memoir "A Life in Our Times" (1981) that no one could understand farming without knowing two things about it: a farmer's sense of inferiority and his appreciation of manual labor. His own sense of inferiority, he said, was coupled with his belief that the Galbraith clan was more intelligent, knowledgeable and affluent than its neighbors.

"My legacy was the inherent insecurity of the farm-reared boy in combination with the aggressive feeling that I owed to all I encountered to make them better informed," he said."
I can identify with the thoughts. (My family often played the game: Who's Right, I Am.)

Last year I posted a note of praise of him as a great bureaucrat. It's common in bureaucracy, and I suppose in real life, to find great talkers but someone who will write the first draft is a great asset. At times I didn't agree with his political ideas but the basic Calvinism of disdaining the nouveau riche and conspicuous consumption and valuing the use of money for public goods rings true.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Great Bureaucrats (Henriette Avram)

The Post today carries the obit of a bureaucrat no one has heard of (perhaps Laura Bush did):
"Henriette D. Avram; Transformed Libraries :

Henriette D. Avram, whose far-reaching work at the Library of Congress replaced ink-on-paper card catalogues and revolutionized cataloguing systems at libraries worldwide, died April 22 of cancer at Baptist Hospital in Miami."
From the obit we learn that Ms Avram essentially created a metaclassification scheme, subsuming the Dewey decimal and others, that rapidly became a world standard. Perhaps even more impressive is the personal story behind the facts--no college, goes to work at NSA, becomes an early computer programmer, then to Library of Congress and ends up in charge of 1700 people! Oh, and raised 3 kids.

She did great at one of the essential jobs of a bureaucrat--creating abstract representations of reality.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

So Long, Secretaries Day

Yesterday was what I used to observe as "Secretaries Day". See this official explanation of the day and week , see this in Slate for a view from the other side.

My impression is that secretaries are an endangered species. 21 years ago in a computer training session for professional I was told: "I don't type". I doubt many would say that today (although Michael Chertoff doesn't use e-mail). I recently read a book on Eisenhower as President. (I think it was called "the Hidden Hand" but I'm too lazy to look it up. It was one of the first books to renovate Ike's reputation on the basis of his work behind the scenes.) It was written in the early 80's and the author included in the acknowledgments a nod to his secretary for typing the manuscript. That used to be commonplace but no more.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Why Doctors Aren't "Faceless Bureaucrats"

There's a reason that doctors aren't considered "faceless bureaucrats"--the pricey training they get in medical school. You know the saying: "if you can fake sincerity, you've got it made"? Well it turns out according to the Times today that doctors are trained to fake caring--How a Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Medicine Go Down: [The writer describes an appointment where the patient is getting tense, which she defuses by complimenting the patient's hair.]
"We were taught to call them lubricating comments: little morsels of oleaginous verbiage tucked into the usual miserable catechism to ease it along a little. Quite early on in medical school, we were handed a list to memorize. Most of us shuddered. It seemed then, in that nice, peaceful classroom, that the list's contents were just inane. 'Tell me more about that.' 'That must have been very difficult for you.' 'I hear what you are saying.' 'Your story moves me.' Surely, with all the other wisdom spilling from our lips, we would not be resorting to those viscous cliches.
But with experience came the knowledge"
[that such things are necessary.]

Seriously, bureaucrats can be divided into those who directly contact the citizens/clientele of the bureaucracy and those who don't. The former are often not trained in how to cope with tense situations. (Although I remember that my USDA bureaucracy did offer such training when I came on board--not sure they do now.) But it's mostly the latter who get called faceless bureaucrats, on the assumption that they deliberately create rules that make no sense but make life difficult for the client, and often for the bureaucrat who's dealing with the client.

Monday, April 24, 2006

The Course of "Progress" on Rural Roads

The law of unexpected consequences operates in Montgomery County, MD, where the county is trying to preserve rural farming districts. It's well-intended, but as this article in today's Washington Post indicates, it's difficult, because the remaining farmers are adopting new modern equipment.

Where the 'Rustic' Clogs the Road:
"With traditional farming less profitable, many farmers are using larger tractors and combines, some as wide as 15 feet, to plant on more land. Their machines, they say, are getting too large for the roads, which are kept as close to their original condition as possible. Compounding the problem is that farmers are increasingly sharing the roads with commuters looking to find alternatives to clogged highways."

Sunday, April 23, 2006

When All Movies Are Smashes

Garrison Keillor will always be famous for his "all children are above average" line. But as I was looking at our Netflix account the other day I was struck by the ratings--we liked everything we saw (at least 3 stars, some 4 and a few 5)!

Why's that? In part because we're generous graders but mostly because of the way we choose movies to watch--we don't waste our money if there's a good chance we won't like them. What that means is that instead of having a 5 star range in our rating system, we've only got 3. I think it also means that the Netflix ratings carry less information--our "3" doesn't really tell you that much, our chosing the movie in the first place is the most informative data Netflix has on our preferences.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

End of Briefcases?? Change Shows in NYTimes Photos

I'm not able to provide a URL, but the printed Times had a photo of Bush, Rove, and McClellan walking (presumably to or from the announcement of the personnel changes). What struck me was that both Rove and McClellan were carrying handbags!

Just joking, they were shoulder bags. What struck me was that they weren't briefcases. I suspect it's a symbolic moment like JFK's inauguration, where he broke precedent by going hatless. (Actually, while the press at the time talked about him disrespecting (not a word known them) the hatters, I suspect hats were on the way out anyway. I'm not sure when the pattern started of men wearing hats. Sean Wilentz in his history From Jefferson to Lincoln mentions that Andrew Jackson was hatless at his inaugural, but that the audience wasn't.)

In the old days when I was an active bureaucrat, a briefcase was part of the definition. But then laptops came into the picture, which was helpful in that it balanced off the briefcase, but not so dashing. Now Moore's law has resulted in laptops small enough, and other devices numerous enough, that the modern major general bureaucrat carries more bytes and fewer pieces of paper, hence the shoulder bag.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Why Iraq and the Government Are Similar`

The Post this morning has a sidebar that I can't find on line. It reports results from a Post-ABC poll asking people about government waste. The basic result is that people think half (or more) of the money spent by government is wasted.

Obviously I disagree, but why the result? It's partially the way the question seems to have been worded--just an open-ended question. If the same people had been asked by budget category: i.e., how much of the money spent on education is wasted? how much on defense? how much on social security? and the results weighted by the proportionate share of the category in overall spending the amount of "waste" would be much lower.

It's also a result of multiple definitions of "waste"--is it foolish spending of money on wise objectives or is it wise spending of money on foolish objectives? There's an article today on wasted spending in Katrina relief which would fall in the first definition. An anti-war blogger like George Buddy who posts the cost of the war on his site would say Iraq spending falls in the second definition .

But as an ex-bureaucrat I focus on the first definition and believe that government is much better than people believe. Of course Rummy and Bush say that Iraq is much better than people believe. Why--because the media never reports the good news, just the bad.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Different Rules on Privacy Act

The NYTimes yesterday reported, Employers Push White House to Disclose Medicare Data:
"WASHINGTON, April 10 — The White House is clashing with the nation's largest employers over their request for huge amounts of government data on the cost and quality of health care provided by doctors around the country.

President Bush has repeatedly urged private insurers to disclose such data, saying it will help consumers choose doctors and hospitals. But Medicare, the nation's largest insurer, has turned down a request for its data from the Business Roundtable, whose member companies provide coverage to more than 25 million people."
Supposedly the Privacy Act prohibits providing this data to businesses. Yet it doesn't prevent the Environmental Working Group from getting payment data from USDA and showing the whole world what farmers got. ( (I wrote a letter to the Times pointing out the inconsistency.)

Misinformation on Big Farming--Pollan

A review of Mr. Pollan's new book, The Omnivore's Dilemma in Sunday's Washington Post passes on this [mis]information:
"Each bushel of industrial corn grown, Pollan notes, uses the equivalent of up to a third of a gallon of oil. Some of the oil products evaporate and acidify rain; some seep into the water table; some wash into rivers, affecting drinking water and poisoning marine ecosystems.[1] The industrial logic also means vast farms that grow only corn. [2]When the price of corn drops, the solution, the farmer hopes, is to plant more corn for next year. [3]The paradoxical result? While farmers earn less, there's an over-supply of cheap corn, and that means finding ever more ways to use it up."[4]
[1] I shouldn't claim any expertise in growing corn but my guess is that the "oil products" are mostly the fertilizer needed for high yields of corn. It's true enough that rain can wash fertilizer into the water and this has deleterious effects. But note the effect of language--"oil products" sounds much more omnious than "excess fertilizer". It's rather like a plastics manufacturer saying the plastic artifacts that end up in the oceans are "oil products"--technically true but not very helpful in analyzing the problem.

[2] Also misleading. Yes, the farms are "vast", at least compared to the farm my great grandfather had in Illinois in 1850, but not compared to the collective farms in the USSR back in the 1950's. But farms don't grow "only corn". Usually they rotate corn and soybeans. But soybeans can't be demonized as readily as corn-based high-fructose syrup, so Mr. Pollan presumably (if the reviewer is doing a good job), ignores the soybean half of farming.

[3] It's certainly true that given today's agricultural policy farmers have to grow crops. But they do change from crop to crop, growing more soybeans and less corn as prices change.

[4] I do agree that the economic structure of farming tends to produce cheap food and fiber. But it's not a question of finding ways to use the surplus, but of encouraging behaviors that might not be wise. It's rather like the oil industry--without OPEC it tends to produce cheap gas, meaning, in the absence of high gas taxes and/or CAFE standards, cars are bigger and more powerful than they would otherwise be. But people don't buy Hummers in order to use cheap gas.

The reviewer ends: "His [Pollan's] cause is just, his thinking is clear, and his writing is compelling."

Based on this part of the review, NOT.

Bunny Crumpacker is the author of "The Sex Life of Food: When Body and Soul Meet to Eat."

Monday, April 10, 2006

Ben Stein's Tunnel Vision

Ben Stein in the Sunday Times, First, Tame That Envy. Then Give Thanks, writes about all he has to give thanks for. He then segues into this ode to investment:
"Because we little people are allowed to invest in the nation's growth, we can become big people. We no longer have to save under a mattress or in a bank. We no longer have to manage our money actively by buying and running a farm or an apartment building. Instead, we can flick a few buttons on a computer or make a call, and all the resources of the nation's best and brightest are at our command to let us hitch our wagons to the capitalist star.

IN the last 70 years or so, for the first time in history, the little guy has been able to invest with some assurance that he is not being ripped off, that he is being told the full story and that if his investment does well, he will reap the rewards, or at least a lot of them. (Don't let the hedge-fund hoopla fool you. By and large, they are not outperforming funds open to the little guy at vastly lower cost.)

Yes, there will be some rip-offs. There is too much money floating around and too much temptation for the system to be anything like tamperproof. But in general, that much-maligned Wall Street makes it possible for anyone with some savings, some sense and some discipline to have the engine of capitalism anywhere in the world roar for him like my Cadillac STS-V. Wall Street, for all its faults, makes it possible for any of us, like the fictional television character George Jefferson, to finally get a piece of the pie."
Of course, the reference to "70 years" slyly glides over the uncomfortable idea that a government bureaucracy was and is responsible for making Wall Street relatively safe for the little guy. It's too much to expect that a libertarian/conservative would give thanks for the SEC.

Bad Guys and Bureaucratic Tunnels

Yesterday's Post describes a list of people with whom U.S. citizens cannot do business--Hit-and-Miss List:
"The so-called 'Bad Guy List' is hardly a secret. The U.S. Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control maintains its 'Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons List' to be easily accessible on its public Web site.

Wanna see it? Sure you do. Just key OFAC into your Web browser, and you'll find the 224-page document of the names of individuals, organizations, corporations and Web sites the feds suspect of terrorist or criminal activities and associations...

What's not widely known about it is that by federal law, sellers are supposed to check it even in the most common and mundane marketplace transactions."

Of course, it doesn't make much sense. If the Department of Homeland Security does its job, these people won't be in the country anyway. But Congress presumably legislated this requirement ignoring the existence of DHS and border controls. Why? Because we have tunnel vision--Congressional committees and then the House and Senate focus on what the Treasury department can do against terrorists/criminals; on another day on another week in another year they focus on DHS. But I guess a bureaucrat can't blame others for having tunnel vision.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Tom DeLay and Faceless Bureaucrats

From yesterday's NYTimes, Conservatives Wonder How to Fill Hole Left by DeLay - New York Times:
"'[DeLay] was a master, and developed, in many ways, the art of earmarking,' Mr. Franc said, referring to the process that allows a lawmaker to add local projects to a big spending bill. 'He saw the political value in that. He justified it in conservative terms, saying it was a form of local control and individual members knew best what was best for their district rather than the judgment of some nameless, faceless bureaucrat. And he drove it as far as he could, to the point where we now have about 14,000 earmarks, up from below 5,000 when Republicans took over in 1994.'"

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Creative Destruction--by Hurricane

The Times today has an article on post-Katrina innovation by the New Orleans bureaucracy,City Hall Gets More Efficient, Despite a Hurricane (or Two) in dealing with huge problem of inspecting houses:
"Mr. Meffert addressed the problem by installing new software on dozens of Internet kiosks set up in public buildings ...[so]businesses and homeowners can type in the address of the home they need to have rebuilt, and the system does much of the rest.

It knows, for instance, that homes on certain parts of a given street have taken in four feet of water; it also knows the size of the home, the assessed value and the likely extent of damage. From there, it determines whether homeowners can rebuild (as opposed to demolish), and whether the Federal Emergency Management Agency will pay for it.

City Hall supervisors review the applications on the day they are filed. The next day, applicants can log on and print their building permits. The city knows the condition of the homes because it ascertained exactly how much water each precinct was under, and has preprogrammed the system to assess damage accordingly. If an application is outside the bounds of building ordinances, the permit will be denied... "

'It's pretty wild getting e-mails from some superhigh-tech cities asking me how we did that, then realizing, 'Wait a minute, I didn't have roads a few months ago,' ' Mr. Meffert said. 'But it's human nature. A lot of times you don't innovate unless you're forced to, and city halls typically have the luxury of not being forced to innovate.'"

I had reservations about kiosks when I worked--seemed as if users needed more handholding to learn a new system than a kiosk provided. But that may have changed with time. Meffert's quote is valid.

19th Century Americana

This is a website reviewed in one of my historical journals. If you're interested in what children read in the 19th century and/or in Americana I strongly suggest it.

I came across one 1851 letter from a girl in Virginia reporting the arrival of a new piano (the latest thing in midcentury American) saying--well if the Union dissolves at least we have our piano. Or this excerpt from The Behaviour Book, by Eliza Leslie (1853):
" If the servants are coloured men, refrain from all conversation in their presence that may grate harshly on their feelings, by reminding them of their unfortunate African blood. Do not talk of them as 'negroes,' * or 'darkies.' Avoid all discussions of abolition, (either for or against,) when coloured people are by. Also, quote none of their laughable sayings While they are present.

When the domestics are Irish, and you have occasion to reprove them for their negligence, forgetfulness, or blunders, do so without any reference to their country. If you find one who is disrespectful or insolent, or who persists in asserting a falsehood, it is safest to make no reply yourself, but to have the matter represented to the proprietor of the house; desiring that another waiter may be allotted to you."

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Extremists and Moderates

Watched "The Weather Underground" documentary last night with rather mixed feelings. On the one hand, sharing the scorn for the "old farts" (see interview with Ayers and Dohrn) that they get from today's students, on the other hand trying to remember how I felt about them back in the day.

An interesting question: do political movements generate extremists naturally, as part of the socio-physics of the movement (rather like any avalanche will scatter boulders at the fringe of the fall while the fine dirt is at the base) or do extremists generate movements--those bold and brazen souls who challenge the establishment and bell the cat encourage the timid mice to think new thoughts and venture away from their hole? Or is "or" a false dichotomy? I suspect the latter, though it's certainly reassuring to visualize extremists as the foam on the waves. [ed--anyone tired of metaphors yet--enough already.]

Bruno Mangum

Eugene Volokh speculates that Senator Byrd and Justice Stevens might be the oldest fulltime employees of the federal government. However USDA's own Bruno Mangum is older. (I remember being introduced to Bruno in 1969 during a training visit in North Carolina. At that time he was an oldtime employee. Since then, I've completed my career and retired and he's still going.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Decline of the Fuji

I remember my sister recommending the Fuji apple to me, probably in the 1980's. They became my favorite apple--crisp and sweet. I bought them at Safeway. For some years they were packaged almost like eggs, coming on cardboard trays. Then they started coming in bulk, just like other apples, Red Delicious and such. But they were still good. I was willing to pay the premium price the store charged. Apples are seasonal, of course, and I remember seeing New Zealand Fuji's imported during the spring and summer to match the Washington Fujis available in the fall and winter. I wrote "match", but they didn't really match them. The imported apples weren't quite as good as the U.S. ones, but since all spring and summer apples are either imported or come from cold storage they still usually were better than other apples available at the same time.

But recently I've grown more dissatisfied with Fuji's. They're smaller and less reliably sweet and crisp. I'd guess what's happened is, as apple growers switched to Fuji's, the quality control has suffered. After all, this is a classic case of what economists call "free riding". Once the Fuji reputation is good enough to justify a price premium, there's every incentive for growers to cut corners on the quality. Plant poorer trees, ship a higher percentage of the apples from a tree. (Not every apple on a tree is of the same quality.)

It's another example of the problems with an unregulated free market. And it's an example of why I'm testing different apples from the store again.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Change Is Bad; Staying Where the Heart Is

Today's NYTimes mag has an interesting last page article by a teacher in a Tamaqua, PA, community college. (That's a forbidding area that I've traversed for almost 40 years via I-81 to and from DC. The area's not fit for farming, all the vegetation is long dead and compressed as coal.)

Coal Miner's Granddaughter:
"The fact is that I come from a long line of people who pick up and leave when things stop working out. My grandfather migrated from Poland to Hazelton, Pa., to mine coal, and when the mines closed, my father hitchhiked two hours south to Bethlehem to roll steel, and when the furnaces shut down, my brother moved to Nigeria, where he drills for oil. It seems natural, American really, to move on. Aren't most of us descended from people who did just that?

I ask the class to write what they hope to learn from me on index cards I give out, and they hand the cards to me as they file out. How to write a bid proposal. How to create a technical manual. No one, it seems, wants to learn how to escape."

Bureaucrat to Honor

STEPHEN J. DUBNER and STEVEN D. LEVITT in today's NYTimes Magazine describe a bureaucrat to honor in Filling in the Tax Gap:
"an I.R.S. research officer in Washington named John Szilagyi had seen enough random audits to know that some taxpayers were incorrectly claiming dependents for the sake of an exemption. Sometimes it was a genuine mistake (a divorced wife and husband making duplicate claims on their children), and sometimes the claims were comically fraudulent (Szilagyi recalls at least one dependent's name listed as Fluffy, who was quite obviously a pet rather than a child).

Szilagyi decided that the most efficient way to clean up this mess was to simply require taxpayers to list their children's Social Security numbers. 'Initially, there was a lot of resistance to the idea,' says Szilagyi, now 66 and retired to Florida. 'The answer I got was that it was too much like '1984.'' The idea never made its way out of the agency.

A few years later, however, with Congress clamoring for more tax revenue, Szilagyi's idea was dug up, rushed forward and put into law for tax year 1986. When the returns started coming in the following April, Szilagyi recalls, he and his bosses were shocked: seven million dependents had suddenly vanished from the tax rolls, some incalculable combination of real pets and phantom children. Szilagyi's clever twist generated nearly $3 billion in revenues in a single year."