Tuesday, February 27, 2007

User Interface at Fault--Bureaucrat Screws Up

They don't cite the name of the designer, but the conclusion of the panel in FL is that faulty design of the ballot is the reason for a 13 percent difference in votes between the Senate race and the House race. It shows the importance of forms, whether on paper or on the web, as a means of communication between people.

Pet peeve--all of the (mostly liberal) concern about the lack of an audit trail and the possible hacking of touch screen voting systems. Audit trails are good, but the energy is misplaced. As best I can recall the mechanical lever action voting machines never had an audit trail and presumably could have been hacked (sticking something into the gears to interrupt the counting of votes for a candidate). But we never worried.

Monday, February 26, 2007

How Important Are Farmers?

John Phipps has an interesting post on the importance of farmers in the economy. Based on Commerce Dept figures many "agricultural" counties get 3 to 10 times more income from transfer payments such as Social Security and TANF than they do from farming.

Our Health Care System at Work

Further experience with our health care system. My provider is Kaiser, which has its own doctors and labs in the DC area. But when someone covered by the plan travels outside of the area and has emergency surgery, you get into the complications of our marvelous system.

First of all, Kaiser doesn't take the step of assigning an event code when you call in to talk to them about the emergency surgery. Apparently the call is recorded, but there's no automated link to the bill paying process.

Because fee for service is competitive and individual, Kaiser gets bills for the surgery from:
  1. emergency room physician
  2. lab
  3. pathologist
  4. anesthesia
  5. surgeon
  6. hospital.
Each bill is individually prepared by someone in the relevant office and coded and routed to the appropriate Kaiser facility, or not. So far we've had bills go to Kaiser California rather than Kaiser MD, bills miscoded (according to Kaiser), bills with the wrong tax ID number on them (according to Kaiser), bills that have been delayed in the mail. Each bill seems to be considered individually by Kaiser (they do have a database that the administrative service specialist can check) and I'm informed individually of the payment or nonpayment (through a very poorly designed form). Whoever is considering them in Kaiser does not have an overview of what actually transpired on the ground but is either trying to interpret the fragments or, probably more likely, is mechanically following some rules. It's now been over 4 months and everyone has not yet been paid.

Because there are multiple parties involved (biller, multiple Kaiser offices, me), each of us thinks the problem is with the other. Each automatically believes that we've done our bit, now it's time for X to finish the job. That's part of the "faceless" part of faceless bureaucrats.

It's no wonder that we spend so much on health care.

Saturday, February 24, 2007


The NY Times cites a memo from Howard Schultz, the founder of Starbucks, in this times article
but you can see the whole thing on starbucksgossip.com. (Although I drink the coffee every day, I've never bought their shares.)

It's interesting, not only the use of a blog within a corporation, but also the problems within a bureaucracy. What is the mission of Starbucks--provide great coffee at cheap prices or provide a great experience? He doesn't say, but some of the savings from the decisions made by his bureaucrats, to switch to flavor locked packaging for example, probably also enable them to be more environmentally conscious. How does a bureaucracy make the tradeoffs? His point is that he and his bureaucracy made decisions with tradeoffs of which they were not aware.

Richard Lehman, CIA's Great Bureaucrat

The Times posts the obit for Richard Lehman:

Mr. Lehman created the President’s Intelligence Check List (referred to as the “pickle”) in 1961, after President Kennedy complained of being overwhelmed by intelligence memorandums, many duplicating material while sometimes leaving out vital information.

“Kennedy’s enthusiastic response to the PICL ensured that it became an agency institution,” Richard Kovar, a C.I.A. analyst, wrote in 2000, in an introduction to an interview he conducted with Mr. Lehman for “Studies in Intelligence,” the C.I.A.’s quarterly in-house journal. “For many years thereafter, Lehman played a key role in supervising the agency’s current intelligence support for the White House, including briefings of presidential candidates.”

One of the jobs of bureaucratic innovators is to create the forms and formats through which people can communicate. Presumably Truman and Ike had had regular briefings on intelligence material, but the process of daily briefings using a prescribed format took a while to evolve. How many mistakes were made when decisions were made based on misunderstanding of the data, or the data never reached the President?

Moving to today's world, did Bush and Cheney know about the rules for National Intelligence Estimates--did Tenet ever have a training session with them or did everyone just assume that everyone knew the rules? (I suspect the latter.)

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Ted Williams, Bureaucracy, and Habitat for Humanity

The NY Times has an article describing the difficulties that Habitat for Humanity is having in constructing housing in LA/MS after Katrina. The problem is that each local affiliate does their thing, and is geared to build 12-15 houses a year. So their bureaucracy/organization isn't set up to build hundreds of houses in one locality in a year.

Reminds me of Ted Williams. When opposing teams started using the "shift" on him (moving the shortstop behind second base and leaving big holes on the left side of the diamond, he famously refused to choke up and dump hits to left. He may just have been stubborn, or he may have figured that trying to do something differently than that which brought him success was a sure way to fail.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Space and Bureaucracy--Bull in the Bullpen?

DC has a new, young whippersnapper of a mayor--Adam Fenty. In his quest for excellence he went off to NYC and listened to Mr. Bloomberg, saw his "bullpen" office, and is reproducing it in DC. See this Post article by David Nakamura, who does a good job in considering the pros and cons.

The intangibles of space and schedule impact the work. I remember working in an office where we all arrived at the same time (before Flexitour, etc.) and all were coffee drinkers. So we (5 of us) had a natural staff meeting around the coffee pot to exchange information and get on a common footing. It made the office work.

Bloomberg seems to have done well in NYC. But he's older and has much more administrative experience than Fenty, who's only run his council member office. My guess is that the bullpen won't work as well for Fenty, who's going to have to learn on the job. It is, however, a valuable symbol for him. He wants a rep as the shaker and mover and this will help.

Jane Galt and Behaviorial Economics

Jane Galt's Asymmetrical Information gets attention from Greg Mankiw and Tyler Cowen for this post, which says:

The post below also applies to behavioural economics, which the left seems to believe is a magical proof of the benevolence of government intervention, because after all, people are stupid, so they need the government to protect them from themselves. My take is a little subtler than that:

1) People are often stupid
2) Bureaucrats are the same stupid people, with bad incentives.

I'm out of my depth, but I put together a thought from Dawkins in the Blind Watchmaker with economics. That is, it doesn't matter whether most people are stupid (in an economic, utility-seeking sense) or not for economic theory to work. If the mass of people act randomly irrationally, and a minority read the Consumer Reports and act rationally, the end result will be the same (but slower) as if everyone read the CR. (Dawkins said it didn't matter whether creatures had eyes or not, just so long as there was some variation in receptivity to light. The minority that had the better sensitivity would, through selection, lead to better eyes.)

Monday, February 19, 2007

1950's Nostalgia--Bill Bryson

I've mentioned the latest Bill Bryson book in the context of disputing Michael Pollan. I happened on this British site (ah, the wonders of the Internet), which includes some 50's images, plus (under the label "Image of 1950's Bounty", the picture of the food for a year for a family of 4 I referred to.

I have to say those chickens look scrawny. Note they're whole chickens. Rather than outsourcing the cutup process to immigrants at Tysons plants, mother does it herself as part of her hours at the stove and sink.

Saturday, February 17, 2007


Two contrasting articles today:

In the Washington Post:
"...today the state uses less energy per capita than any other state in the country, defying the international image of American energy gluttony. Since 1974, California has held its per capita energy consumption essentially constant, while energy use per person for the United States overall has jumped 50 percent.California has managed that feat through a mixture of mandates, regulations and high prices. The state has been able to cut greenhouse-gas emissions, keep utility companies happy and maintain economic growth."
In the NYTimes:
"...residents in this part of Illinois are seeing some of the biggest rate spikes in the country — in some cases, increases of 100 percent to 200 percent.

The higher rates are touching off a fresh round of national debate over unleashing competitive forces on traditionally regulated electricity markets. Opening up the markets was supposed to lead to savings for consumers. But that did not turn out as regulators predicted. The anticipated competition among energy suppliers never fully emerged as natural gas prices more than doubled in the last decade."

I'm not sure what to make of all this. My February bill was the highest it's been (because of cold) and I don't feature doubling it (according to the articles, VA has a rate half of California's). On the other hand, that much of an increase would lead me to more conservation, which would be good for everyone.


Friday, February 16, 2007


From a Weather Service alert:

434 AM EST FRI FEB 16 2007
434 AM EST FRI FEB 16 2007
Please, bureaucrats at the Weather Service, stop using all caps for emphasis, just because that's the only thing you had back in the days of Teletypes. These days you can emphasize in many ways, whether by color, type characteristics, images, or whatever.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Brooks Jinxes Clinton

David Brooks just endorsed Hillary Clinton for President, thereby jinxing her. His column is based on analysis of her speeches in the Senate on the authorization for the Iraq war. He finds her navigating the hazards, being true to Bill's record, including bypassing the UN upon occasion, supporting a President, but being opposed to the war.

"When you look back at Clinton’s thinking, you don’t see a classic war supporter. You see a person who was trying to seek balance between opposing arguments. You also see a person who deferred to the office of the presidency. You see a person who, as president, would be fox to Bush’s hedgehog: who would see problems in their complexities rather than in their essentials; who would elevate procedural concerns over philosophical ones; who would postpone decision points for as long as possible; and who would make distinctions few heed.

Today, the liberal wing of the Democratic Party believes that the world, and Hillary Clinton in particular, owes it an apology. If she apologizes, she’ll forfeit her integrity. She will be apologizing for being herself."

Her mistake was in believing that GW was someone worthy of support.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Ralph Olson, R.I.P.

Ralph Olson died in January. Who was Ralph? Originally from Vermont, worked for Social Security at one time, which he talked about more than he did about his WWII military service. He had been a typist in the SSA pool, using manual typewriters. He was expected to be fast and accurate. When I knew him it was a fellow editor in ASCS, in 1968 to 1972, when he retired.

In those far gone days, directives were typed, then reproduced by offset lithography--meaning that the printers took a picture of the master that was used to print. So the typed page didn't need to be perfect, because imperfections and corrections could be hidden through the picture-taking process. So when editors asked for changes, the typists would use white-out correction fluid, or correction tape, or, for really big changes, cut and paste blocks of text to compose one page. But sometimes they would have to retype the whole thing. Some handbooks would show their age, when the original page had been typed in 1960 on one typewriter with one typeface, with successive changes and amendments made over the intervening years with newer and different typefaces, with some typists more or less skilled in matching spacing and getting the alignment right.

In those patriarchal days, the typists were almost all women, the writers almost all men. So editors would ask writers for changes, writers would pass the work on to the typists. Some typists would push back, pointing out that the requested change was pointless, just a matter of format or of following some arcane and stupid rule. If they persuaded the writer, the writer would come back to argue with the editor. The whole process turned into continuous negotiations, almost worthy of the 6-power talks with North Korea.

Now, as I've said, Ralph prided himself on having been a fast and accurate typist, so he had little time or sympathy for the typists. After all, 250 words on a page, meant a good typist would take 5 minutes to retype the whole thing, clean and pristine. So Ralph would huff and puff at the writer. Sometimes he would almost imply that the writer was at fault for tolerating such a lazy and unskilled typists. But more often he would cave, asking another editor for confirmation that a requested change could be waived.

Ralph leaves no immediate relatives--he had some nephews or nieces if I remember. As the number of veterans of WWII dwindle and fade, so too does the ranks of those who typed in pools.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Compliments to a Republican

From the media:

"Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns wasn’t exactly stepping into the lions’ den, but it was close.

A few hours after he announced USDA was proposing to end farm payments for anyone with an adjusted gross income of more than $200,000 and eliminate the three-entity rule, Johanns traveled to a meeting with farmers in Tunica, Miss.

Tunica County is the home of Dick Flowers, the cotton, rice and soybean farmer who became famous on “60 Minutes” for receiving millions of dollars in government subsidies in the late 1990s."

I don't think it was "late 1990s" because I think I was still at USDA when it aired. Those of us who dealt with payment limitation issues were very aware of it. At least one of us enjoyed watching Mr. Flowers squirm. I give Johanns credit for the trip.

Great Bureaucrats, Robert Moses Revisited

Robert Caro did a great biography of Robert Moses, a man who held a number of public offices in New York City and New York state, and did much building (roads, parks, housing projects) from the New Deal to the 60's. In Caro's book Moses comes across as a very talented bureaucrat, who becomes obsessed with building and building ultimately to the detriment of New York. Jane Jacobs was the critic who articulated the case against him in "The Life and Death of Great American Cities.

This LA Times article discusses a revisionist look at Moses mounted as art exhibitions in NYC. The two people, Moses and Jacobs, are at the ends of a continuum--the difference between the person, the expert, who knows best and the romanticized evolution from the roots, which also glamorizes the past. I tend to lean towards the first and away from the second, but in reality they're two halves of the human personality and both are needed.

Friday, February 09, 2007

They Don't Make Wars Nor Armies as They Used to

Hank Bauer just died. (Obit in NYTimes today) For those of you who weren't born soon enough, Hank was an outfielder for the NY Yankees back when I was a Yankee fan (1948-on), starring in the World Series and then a World Series-winning manager for the Baltimore Orioles. He also was a Marine vet, spending almost 3 years in the Pacific and winning medals.

Yesterday I heard a snippet on C-Span of the Secretary of the Army testifying. He was saying that the policy was one year deployed, two years home station. Then Lehrer News Hour ran the photos of 14 killed in Iraq.

In the old days you often enlisted (or were drafted) for 3 years or the duration. (3 years for the regulars of the Continental line in the Revolution, 3 for some in the Civil War, duration for WWII). And, as Bauer shows, you often fought for the duration. (Audie Murphy, the most decorated WWII soldier fought from North Africa into Germany, Nov. 42 to Jan 45 or so.) Of course, you weren't in the war continuously. In the Pacific, at least in the island-hopping phase, islands were taken fairly rapidly. In the Atlantic, there were invasions and preparing for invasions. For those troops who got stuck slogging up the boot of Italy, they'd be rotated in and out of line, as was also the case in WWI. So for our "combat" troops in Iraq, they're probably seeing more continuous danger over their year tour (for the Army, 7 months for Marines, I think) than Hank Bauer did. If you graphed it, one continuous line for Iraq, one discontinuous up and down line for Bauer.

Another thing I note--there's hardly any privates dying in Iraq. I assume, with a volunteer army, everyone gets promoted at least to sergeant E-5. There may also be the sort of grade inflation in the armed services that the rest of the government experiences--we're all above average.

Bureaucratic Systems and Ptolemaic Systems

Was reading "From the Archives", whose author seems to be a pedant after my own heart, (hat tip to Tyler Cowen) which got me thinking about regulations and then to thinking about scientific theories, particularly Ptolemaic system (i.e. geocentric).

Now I was told once that the way ancient astronomers developed the geocentric system was, whenever they had an observation that didn't fit the theory, they slapped on another epicycle or other widget to solve the problem. And the theory worked, from Aristotle through Ptolemy right up to Galileo it corresponded with observations as well as any competing system.

Well, that's a metaphor for the way bureaucratic systems develop. Some policy maker lays out a set of bureaucratic rules, or forms, or organizational structures that seems to fit the situation as they understand it. But then the bureaucracy gets hit by members of the public (i.e., their customers, clients, users, or whatever hell buzzword is in favor) with unexpected situations--reality is more complex than the theory. So the policy makers come up with some solution, often a compromise among interests, sometimes half-assed or make-shift, that gets added onto the bureaucratic rules, gets made another form in the set of forms, gets a special office in the bureaucracy (i.e., Doug Feith in DOD). And time passes, more situations come up, more fixes are made. Pretty soon a once effective bureaucratic system gets constipated, because there's too many twists and turns in the pipeline for the s... to flow.

How To Handle Limitations on Farm Payments

The USDA farm bill proposes changes on payment limitations, including making farmers ineligible if their adjusted gross income (AGI) is $200,000 or more (now $2.5 million). My guess, without doing much research, is that this is just another proposal that won't be enacted. That's the history of changes in payment limitation; lots more get proposed than get enacted.

There are at least two aspects of the proposal, aside from the general opposition to payment limitations, that will play into the prospects:
  1. The size of the change, from $2.5 mill to $200 K. The bigger the change, the stronger the opposition from groups that are opposed.
  2. The all or nothing aspect.
My suggestion, to USDA, to Congress, would be to consider a progressive payment structure. Assume that FSA has the payee's AGI recorded in its payment system. (The bureaucratic problem is getting the data attached to the payee; once you do that, getting the data into the computer system should not be a big deal.) It then would be easy to program the payment calculation to factor payments according to a progressive rule. For example:

AGI Payment
  • < $100,000 100 percent of calculated amount
  • <$200,000 80 percent of calculated
  • <$500,000 50 percent of calculated
  • <$1 mill 25 percent
  • >$1 mill 0

Vary the amounts and percentages however you want, put in as many levels as you want.

The advantages of the proposal are:
  1. Makes the implementation more gradual
  2. Counters the widespread criticism that the bigger the farmer the bigger the payment--makes payments "progressive" in some sense
  3. Might make payees less likely to try to evade the limitation. (The incentive to evade is variable, like boiling a frog slowly.)
Based on my experience with the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings factoring of payments in 1986, it would be imperative to think through the relationship of factored payment dollars to the payment limitation.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Why Bureaucracies (Plural)?

One reason is good old human nature, as in schadenfreude.
Although I'm almost perfect, I'm not above feeling a bit of satisfaction when I read a GAO Report on the problems NRCS has had implementing payment programs. [Background: The predecessor agencies of NRCS (National Resource Conservation Service) and FSA (Farm Service Agency) fought for many years over which one would handle payments for conservation programs. FSA won for about 30 years, but lost them around the time I was retiring. ]

GAO says:
"Despite legislative and regulatory provisions, it is still possible for producers to receive duplicate payments through CSP and other USDA conservation programs because of similarities in the conservation actions financed through these programs. However, NRCS did not have a comprehensive process to preclude or identify such duplicate payments. In reviewing NRCS's payments data, GAO found a number of examples of duplicate payments.
NRCS state officials agreed that the payments made in these four cases were duplicates. They stated that they were unaware that such duplication was occurring and that they would inform their district offices of it. NRCS headquarters officials stated that the agency lacks a comprehensive process to either preclude duplicate payments or identify them after a contract has been awarded. Instead, these officials said, as a guard against potential duplication, NRCS relies on the institutional knowledge of its field staff and the records they keep."
That's laughable, but what one should expect when a bureaucracy has to do something (i.e., make payments) it hasn't done before. It reinforces the position of NASCOE (the FSA employee lobbying organization) that there should only be one administrative organization for offices serving farmers. That's what I worked on in the early 90's, then lost enthusiasm, partly because the Department didn't understand itself, partly because NRCS had too much lobbying clout to allow it to pass, and finally because the end result was going to be reducing the number of jobs in rural areas. I've still not squared that circle.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The End of Tradition--No Spit Shines

The NYTimes today reports on a new Army uniform. The focus mostly is on the use of Velcro to attach name tags and insignia and the end of dry cleaning. (Seamstresses and dry cleaners did good business around Army bases.) But buried in the piece is the move from spit-shined leather boots to "tan 'desert boots' made of suede and synthetic materials."

So no more spit shines in the Army. Even 40 years ago, the leather boots were challenged. Once you got to Vietnam, you very quickly learned that the "in" thing were the jungle combat boots, which had leather toes and heels, but canvas uppers--the idea being if you were in the boonies and wading through water you wanted the water to drain from the boots, not stay inside and help you get jungle rot. They were also significantly lighter. The boots were scarce, first being issued to the advisers and Special Forces, then to combat troops. But naturally they popped up on the black market and REMF's like me got their hands on them.

But no more spit shines? If I remember, the initial hurdles for this recruit were making the bed and shining the shoes. The bed I mastered after a few tries. (I hadn't formulated Harshaw's law then--I'm a slow learner.) The shoes were more of a challenge. Never did get a great shine.

Virginia Postrel has an article on beauty in the Atlantic I skimmed--quotes researchers saying that female beauty ties to fertility and vigor (i.e., hormonal levels, etc.). So too spit shined shoes were a signal to the training sergeants of one's capacity and/or willingness to adapt to the Army's ways. It's a loss.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Michael Pollan from Others

John Phipps comments on Pollan's new piece here . Nice to know there's another partial skeptic in the world.

Marjorie Harshaw Robie

I welcome my cousin Marjorie to the world of blogging. (See the link I've added, though you'd best wait a couple weeks to give her time to post something.) Remember Harshaw's Rule.

Monday, February 05, 2007

The "Surge" and New Orleans

New Orleans was damaged by the storm surge, but its post-Katrina fate says something about the possible fate of Baghdad after the Bush/Petraeus surge. Today's NYTimes has an article on murder in the city. One aspect is the distrust shown the police by the residents of the areas most affected by the violence. The police can't effectively solve murders and gang violence because they can't get information from the citizens, the justice system can't convict and jail offenders because the police don't build good cases for them, and the citizens can't trust the police or justice system because the violent are amongst them, laughing at "90-day murders" (i.e, a killing that you spent 90 days in jail for).

Assume the surge in Baghdad has an effect. It's possible. Malcolm Gladwell has familiarized us with the concept of "tipping point". Presumably there's some level of force that is sufficient to restore order in the city. (I remember the military--National Guardsmen? or regulars?-- on the streets of DC after the 1968 riots.) Gen. Casey thinks 2 brigades of US troops plus the Iraqi forces could do the job, Sen. McCain were thinking 50,000 more US plus Iraqis were needed, someone else might say 100,000. No one knows.

But assume Petraeus and Bush are right and 5 brigades shut down the bombings and the sectarian killings. Suppose for the sake of argument that no one dies in Baghdad from any sort of violence for a month. (I know, that's ridiculous, but so?) Then what? Do you slowly reduce the number of troops until you reach a point of low, but acceptable, violence? What is that point? How much violence have the Israelis been willing to live with? How about the residents of the United Kingdom? Or Spain?

I know the Bush/Petraeus strategy is for economic development to happen, but that doesn't cure things fast.

Can we really do better in Baghdad than in New Orleans?

Art Monk, Bureaucrat

Art Monk, the great receiver for Joe Gibbs and his Washington Redskins (first incarnation), missed out again on being voted to the Football Hall of Fame. His contemporary and rival, Michael Irwin, of the Dallas Cowboys, made it.

Irwin was the more flamboyant figure, making more dramatic catches, being more vocal in the media, having a more colorful (to use a euphemism) private life, than Monk. It's just a little unfair to Irwin to call him a predecessor of T.O., unfair in that he was able to stay on one team for his career. Monk lasted longer, made more catches (had the record at one point), kept out of the media, and did the little things. Irwin fit the image of the Cowboys, swaggering as "America's team", while Monk fit the earnest sobersided Joe Gibbs style of football.

So, naturally, the squeaky wheel got the grease. Such is the fate of bureaucrats*.

* yes, a football player is a bureaucrat. He follows the rules of the game and the playbook of the team to deal with others, i.e., the opposing players and the officials.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Wash Your Hands

My momma said: "wash your hands". This article from the LA Times repeats the fact that health care professionals don't listen to their mommas.

By the way, it's likely everyone on earth is here because someone failed to wash their hands in the past.