Saturday, September 30, 2006

Clinton Failed and I Failed

Clinton said he failed to get bin Laden and I failed in the project to get USDA agencies to share data. Here's an excerpt from an article on crop insurance fraud:

In 2003, government investigators found that the Risk Management Agency of the USDA had incomplete information on ownership of 21,000 of the nation's largest farms, so it lost a valuable tool to determine whether farmers falsified production figures to file unwarranted claims.

"It's really a shell game ... to show a loss that probably didn't occur," Bertoni said.

Another branch of the USDA had the ownership information but didn't provide it to the RMA. Up to $74 million in possible false claims resulted.

The difference between Bill and I is that I never headed the project. Well, there are other differences.

What Does The Future Hold?

The Times has an analysis of the new legislation on terrorism which includes these thoughts:

How the measure will look decades hence may depend not just on how it is used but on how the terrorist threat evolves. If a major terrorist plot in the United States is uncovered — and surely if one succeeds — it may vindicate the Congressional decision to give the government more leeway to seize and question those who might know about the next attack.

If the attacks of 2001 recede as a devastating but unique tragedy, the decision to create a new legal framework may seem like overkill. “If there is never another terrorist attack and we never obtain actionable intelligence, this will look like a huge overreaction,” said Gary J. Bass, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton.

The last paragraph is what I'm inclined to think.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Why Catholics in the FBI?

Reading Mr. Wright's "Looming Tower" on the rise of al-Qaeda. It's good. One interesting side note is John O'Neill, the retired FBI agent who died on 9/11 who was quite a character. Wright mentions that Italians and Irish predominated in the ranks of the FBI. I wonder why and when? Was it from the beginning or was it after J. Edgar?

Perhaps it was a generational thing: the sons of policemen who went to college wanted to follow in the steps of their fathers and do law enforcement. Perhaps it was a prejudice thing in that early graduates of Catholic law schools (Fordham, Notre Dame?) found it easier to get admitted to the FBI than to existing WASP law firms?

Why Is a Fighter Pilot Like a Farmer?

This piece in the Times on how the fighter community beat Rummy to get more F-22's (at $350mill a crack) prompts me to compare pilots and farmers:
  • Both are robed in the rags of former romantic glory: fighter pilots as the gallant solo aces of one on one combat; farmers as the gallant son of the soil fighting nature.
  • Both have strong, bipartisan lobbies on the Hill
  • Both get taxpayer money for programs of dubious value (a jet designed to outclass the Soviet jets; direct subsidy programs that do little for conservation or production adjustment)
  • Both are wedded to past methods that are fast losing potency (I predict the manned fighter jet will be successfully challenged by pilotless drones; individual farmers are being replaced by contract farmers (as in poultry and hogs).

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Republican Management--An Oxymoron?

Perhaps the most significant long term aspect of the uproar over the National Intelligence Estimate is buried at the end of the Karen DeYoung/Walter Pincus piece in the Post, after noting the NIE was transmitted to the Senate and House committees in April:
In the House, "there was a bit of a snafu with this particular document," said a spokesman for Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), the intelligence committee chairman. "We had a massive computer failure on our classified side." The first that the committee knew of its existence was late last week, when "it was requested specifically by a member. That was when it was found and scanned into our system."

Whether the document was ignored or disappeared into cyberspace, however, it seemed to have made little impact on Capitol Hill at the time. No one in either chamber, on either side of the aisle, requested a briefing or any further information on its conclusions until now, the sources said.

If the Republican administration can't communicate with the Republican-led House, what hope is there for the CIA and FBI to communicate with each other? The failure must be both systemic and political.
  • Systemic because even the USPS offers "return receipt requested" service. Any electronic transmission system should have the same sort of safeguard to ensure that recipients have received the transmission.
  • Political because surely any new/updated NIE on the war on terror should have been discussed between the Congressional staffers and Negroponte's office, who should have been waiting for the report to arrive and raising flags when it didn't.
This is just an instance of the broader failure of Congress to carry out its oversight responsibilities. Can you imagine a similar lapse during a shooting war like WWII? (Whoops, we are in a shooting war.) But the Republicans can't take all the blame. If the incumbent Democrats were really out for blood they would have been on this earlier. Perhaps the answer is that incumbent House Democrats feel safe this year, thanks both to custom tailored districts and the political climate.

A final nod to a Republican--the NIE has revived the Rumsfeld question of a couple years ago--are we capturing and killing more terrorists than we are creating. It was the key question when he wrote it and it's key now.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Why I Drink

From a paper trying to prove that male drinkers make more money than nondrinkers, via Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution:
"Whether abstainers choose not to be as social or whether organizers of social occasions involving drinking exclude abstainers is unclear. Abstainers may prefer to interact with other abstainers or less social people. Alternately, abstainers might not be invited to social gatherings, work-related or otherwise, because drinkers consider abstainers dull."
The argument is that drinking benefits one's social network and the paper is one of two that show a correlation, at least for male drinking. A separate stereotype says females tend to be more social than men, perhaps meaning men rely more on crutches. For me at least that's true--I use(d) drink as a social lubricant, depressing my sense of social unease while participating in a social ritual. So drink is both an indicator of my social participation and a facilitator of it.

I wonder though whether this is as true today as it used to be. My impression is that drinking, at least liquor, is down. Certainly the bars at the Kennedy Center don't seem to be doing the business they used to. Maybe someone should do a study of coffee drinking?

Monday, September 25, 2006

As Close as I'll Come to Making the Front Page of NYTimes

That's today's article on "generator men" in Baghdad:
"In offices across Iraq, a ritual plays out every morning during the hottest months. Haggard employees drag themselves into the room, mumble a pleasantry or two and slump into their chairs, moaning about what a bad night’s sleep they had: the power went out, the backup generator was broken, the heat was unbearable, the baby would not stop crying, mosquitoes were everywhere.

Inevitably, these grievances, like hornets, will gather in a single cloud of fury and swoop down on one target: the generator man, probably the most vilified figure in Iraqi society after Saddam Hussein."

I was a "generator man" in the Army. We had power (a pun).

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Who's a Farmer? Whitman College?

The Walla Walla Union-Bulletin reports on a violation of payment limitation rules by Whitman College, which owns 15 farms. CRP payments are limited to $50K, so Whitman leased out land on a 70/30 lease:

Under the arrangement, Tom Peterson Farms would claim 30 percent of the CRP contract, while Whitman would receive 70 percent. The result was annual payments of $20,854.20 and $48,659.80, respectively.

But in addition to those payments, Whitman Farm Committee representative Fred Kimball reportedly negotiated that Peterson pay Whitman a cash lease of about $10,000 for Peterson's part of the acreage.
The $10K off the books evaded the payment limitation regs.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Bolivar County

I visited Bolivar County, Mississippi a time or two as part of an aborted "Info Share" project (trying to get different agencies of USDA to work together). It's Delta country, cotton country, poor country. According to this story in the LA Times on the retiring county librarian it's also 40 percent illiterate.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Risk Management Deja Vu

A couple of different pieces on Risk Management (Federal Crop Insurance Corporation) that brought a smile to my face:

From an interview by Jim Wiesemeyer of the head of RMA:

Where is RMA at regarding reconciling reporting dates between FSA and Federal Crop Insurance?

Gould: "We've already made some progress on that front. That came from one of our informal listening sessions with groups of agents. I started taking a look at it and about half of the dates already were similar, which was a little different than I was aware of being a farmer from the Midwest. Also, on another 25 percent of the dates, either RMA or FSA were willing or able to change. That only leaves 25 percent, and that will take more time."

[Why the smile--this was a big issue 10 and more years ago. Progress takes time.]

A February article on Agweb discussed several items on crop insurance, including trying to get yields right and find abuses, including use of a spot check list (farmers who got crop insurance indemnities multiple years in a row). [Why the smile--one of my first jobs on the program side was to run a similar function for ASCS disaster payments, way back in 1979. Takes a while for ideas to migrate from one agency to another, or for the wheel to be reinvented.]

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Cheating and Politics

Academia is acknowledged to be dominated by liberals, particularly the humanities and social sciences, less so the business and engineering fields. Comes now a study that reports:

The study of 5,300 graduate students in the United States and Canada found that 56 percent of graduate business students admitted to cheating in the past year, with many saying they cheated because they believed it was an accepted practice in business.

Following business students, 54 percent of graduate engineering students admitted to cheating, as did 50 percent of physical science students, 49 percent of medical and health-care students, 45 percent of law students, 43 percent of liberal arts students and 39 percent of social science and humanities students.

I hesitate to draw any inferences from the data, but you are welcome to.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Bush Gets One Right

"And, finally, we're going to have to treat people with dignity in this country. Ours is a nation of immigrants, and when Congress gets down to a comprehensive bill, I would just remind them, it's virtually impossible to try to find 11 million folks who have been here, working hard -- and, in some cases, raising families -- and kick them out. It's just not going to work. But granting automatic citizenship won't work either. To me, that would just provide an additional incentive for people to try to sneak in, and so therefore there is a rational way forward."

Sunday, September 17, 2006

It's All the Learning Curve

"They gathered data on Palestinian suicide bombers in Israel from 2000 to 2005 and found that for terrorists, just like for regular workers, experience and education improve productivity. Suicide bombers who are older — in their late 20’s and early 30’s — and better educated are less likely to be caught on their missions and are more likely to kill large numbers of people at bigger, more difficult targets than younger and more poorly educated bombers."

Friday, September 15, 2006

Can You Spell "Turkey Farm"?

In bureaucratese, "turkey farm" refers to assignments (or units) to which the least able (or those affiliated to the opposite party) are relegated. I thought of it in connection with these interesting Iraq pieces:

From the Post, Anne Scott Tyson: "The conflict in the Anbar camp, while extreme, is not an isolated phenomenon in Iraq, U.S. officers say. It highlights two clashing approaches to the war: the heavy focus of many regular U.S. military units on sweeping combat operations; and the more fine-grained, patient work Special Forces teams put into building rapport with local leaders, security forces and the people -- work that experts consider vital in a counterinsurgency." [Tyson comes down on the Special forces side, but shows they reinforce the tribal status quo.]

Seth Moulton, an ex-Marine with 2 Iraq tours in the Times op-ed page says: "Green Berets in 12-man teams have already replaced entire battalions of conventional forces in some Iraqi cities."

"Yet despite the success of advisers, [emphasis added] the Army and Marine Corps still have a habit of sending their least capable troops to fill these positions." (Moulton praises advisers and disses the regular units.]

What I take away from these pieces is a renewed faith in the persistence of the military mind-set. Much as I've said about FBI agents, the military is macho, gung-ho. But it's also political, so it doesn't want flack from politicos. Consequently, most of the best and brightest head off to combat units, which is prerequisite to higher command. That means they look down on advisers, giving them less support. It also means they huddle in base camps, well protected against insurgents, but possibly less effective in winning the war. (I say "possibly" because I'm not convinced anyone really knows much about insurgencies.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Humans in Crisis

Slate runs this piece:
In his New York Times column yesterday (TimesSelect subscription required), Frank Rich discussed a photograph taken by Magnum photographer Thomas Hoepker on Sept. 11, 2001, showing a group of young people chatting on the Brooklyn waterfront, apparently indifferent to the scene of destruction across the river. Slate has reproduced the photograph below, which the Times did not print with the column.
Shankar Vedantam in the Post discusses research on how people react in crisis:
"Human beings in New York, Sri Lanka and Rhode Island all do the same thing in such situations. They turn to each other. They talk. They hang around, trying to arrive at a shared understanding of what is happening."
His discussion is in terms of how we can be slow to react to alarms--we have to understand whether this is a fire drill or a real fire, etc. etc.

I'd suggest Vedantam's article explains the photo--the people are looking at each other as the towers burn in the background, but they're trying to understand, not discussing last night's bar scene.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Kevin Drum, Blair, and Gore

Kevin Drum today says that Blair's support for the war helped persuade him, as it did me. And he argues that, particularly in foreign policy, that sort of thinking is rational. I agree. Then he posts Gore's speech 5 months after 9/11. Which is interesting.


It's obligatory to write something on 9/11.

Cats and Dogs

I'm struck by the personality differences between cats and dogs. Imagine a puppy dog who energetically runs around, exploring every nook and cranny, rushing back to you with some interesting stick, running off to search out more. Then imagine a cat, sitting by your side, content to let the world come to her, sure that there's nothing in the world worthy of any exertion, snootily amused at the energy of the dog. Let dog come too near cat, and whap, blood runs from nose.

Of course, cats can be curious and dogs somnolent, but today I prefer my image.

Monday, September 04, 2006

The Rat Race and Productivity Measurement

From today's Post by Shankar Vedantam:
"For years, economists have taught their students a simple maxim: As employers hunt for workers, they want to get the best talent at the lowest price.

According to this theory, whether employees want to work long hours or short hours, employers have an incentive to accommodate them, because asking people to do something they don't want to do raises the price of labor -- workers demand more compensation.

On this Labor Day, consider a paradox: Millions of Americans say they feel overworked and stressed out. Many say they want to work fewer hours and find a better balance between responsibilities at home and work. Given that people have been saying this for quite a while, employers should have figured out by now that they can save money by being more flexible in workplace arrangements."

The piece goes on to cite some research showing that the output of law associates can't be measured, so they get rated based on hours worked. Which leads to the rate race as described by many lawyer-writers. I'm struck me two ways:
  • First, I always like cases proving economists wrong.
  • Second, Jame Q. Wilson says one of the reasons for bureaucracy is that output can't be measured (if it could, it could be quantified and monetized and marketized and privatized). So it's nice to see private enterprises sharing the characteristic.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

More Christian than American?

I was catching up with my reading of the Cliopatria blog and found a discussion of Pew's research on the feelings of European Muslims, including this quote:
"French Muslims may feel more French than British Muslims feel British, but the question of how minorities feel about their citizenship and nationality has, in the past, produced highly deceptive results. Those who claim to be true French may have more to say about how integrated French Muslims really are."
I started to wonder. Suppose Pew asked Americans if they considered themselves more Christian or more American, more Jewish or more American, etc.? From my reading, and understanding of my preacher forebears, anyone devoutly religious would have to say: "I'm more Christian than American"; or whatever religion. Certainly anyone who believes in the hereafter would have to. Wouldn't they?

Friday, September 01, 2006

Accelerated Counter-Cyclical Payments

Whoops, I screwed up. My previous post on this issue tacitly assumed that USDA was accelerating the 2006 counter-cyclical payments for cotton, sorghum, and peanuts. In fact, according to a notice issued today and available here, it's the 2005 payments. Makes a bit more sense--roughly speaking this is the final third of the payments. While the official average price data isn't available yet, the data is clear and USDA is safe to issue the payments.

Incidently, this is a case where the Bush administration effectively moves expenditures forward from one fiscal year (2007) to the previous one (2006). There was discussion on the Washington Monthly site over HHS shifting money from FY 2006 to FY 2007 to decrease the size of the deficit before Kevin Drum here concluded that Congress mandated the shift in the Deficit Reduction Act. Ironically, I'm too lazy to check this rainy afternoon but I believe this provision in the Deficit Reduction Act had the effect of moving CCC payments back from FY 2006 to FY2007. So, Johanns has undone the effect of Congress acts:

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, here are 700 million dollars and three shells. Watch very carefully, very very carefully and tell me which shell hides the money--are the millions of dollars here or are they there?

Dependency Ratios Revisited

From Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution:
"Here is a basic argument and model that the youth dependency ratio can matter.

I can see three possible mechanisms. 1) Fewer babies mean that more women work. 2) Fewer babies mean that each baby gets more parental investment; in the long run those people are smarter. 3) Fewer babies raises the savings rate."
He goes on to argue that none of them explain Ireland, at least not very much. I'm still musing over the way economists think, compared to me. But today the Times had an interesting article on manufacturing in India, including the suggestion that manufacturers, because they can look ahead and see China will soon have a high dependency ratio while India will have a low one, are deciding to invest in manufacturing plants in India.