Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Brits Do It Better

Wonky bureaucrats often admire Britain and its Civil Service, even to the extent of trying to reform our bureaucracy along its lines.  (See Jimmy Carter's civil service reforms, which created the Senior Executive Service with the dream, so far unrealized after 40+ years, of having the best people identified and moving from agency to agency and department to department as the need arose. In other words, Jimmy wanted to duplicate the Dwight Inks of the world.)

We bureaucrats and pundits forget the differences in the societies of the two nations, and the structural differences of our governments.  Nonetheless, when I see this report from FCW, I can't resist being envious.
"British citizens can access tax, pension and drivers licensing information through a single, secure login called GOV.UK Verify. The system is set to exit a public beta and go live the week of May 23."
The UK hasn't progressed as far as Estonia, but they're way ahead of the US.  

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Only Good Country to Study Crime


The US, according to this researcher who says:

"The only good country to study crime in is the United States, because we have so much of it."

"Harvey Molotch, a professor of sociology and metropolitan studies at New York University, took me through the contentious history of women’s bathrooms in a recent conversation. Molotch was the co-editor of the 2010 book “Toilet: The Public Restroom and the Politics of Sharing,” an anthology of papers by sociologists, anthropologists, architects, historians and others about the unfamiliar and dramatic history of the public restroom."

Monday, June 27, 2016

The Good Old Days Weren't: West Pittston, PA

My paternal grandfather was a Presbyterian minister in West Pittston, PA. I recently got access to some of the letters received by his wife.  One thing they show is the conditions around 1900 in that area

In 1907 Ada seems to have written to a prominent Presbyterian layman, looking for a new post for her husband, based on the fact his voice and his health were being injured by the atmosphere (I assume a combination of the smoke from household stoves and fireplaces and the fumes which were a byproduct of coal mining). After they moved to Minneapolis, he got a letter from West Pittston recounting their search for a replacement, and describing the family's reaction to a settling of the earth, caused by a mine collapse under the town.

It turns out that event doesn't make the history books, or Wikipedia, but the CDC has an amazing list of mine disasters here.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

No Toto, No Dorothy, But Fallows Is in Kansas

 James Fallows has a piece on immigration in rural areas, which ties into a two-part blog series by the Center for Rural America.  An excerpt from Fallows:
These cities of western Kansas, Dodge City and Garden City, are both now majority-Latino. People from Mexico are the biggest single immigrant group, and they are here mainly for work in the area’s big meat-packing plants. Others are from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Cuba, and more recently Somalia and Sudan, among other countries. You might think of Kansas as stereotypical whitebread America. It’s pure America, all right — but American in the truest sense, comprising people who have come from various corners of the world to improve their fortunes.
I don't like his title, "real Americans" are everywhere, but it's a worthwhile piece.  I wonder how much immigration has affected rural UK?

Friday, June 24, 2016


May you live in interesting times, goes the Chinese curse. 

I share the conventional wisdom of most of the political class that the decision is wrong.  We shall see.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Magic of Low Expectations: Trump

I follow a handful of outlets for conservative and moderate Republican opinion  Today it strikes me that Mr. Trump is going to consolidate Republicans behind him, simply through a piece of magic. 

Trump has established a baseline of expectations for his candidacy, a rather low baseline IMHO.  But I'm not a Republican.  So where I read Dana Milbank's Post article on Trump's speech yesterday which finds the speech filled with falsehoods, some Republicans can find it good.  And I think by "good" they mean it was better than they expected, it attacked Clinton, and so they feel better about Trump.  Continue this process for another 4.5 months and Republicans will be united behind him.

I only hope Trump's magic is not from the same barrel as Ronald Reagan's was, when we had some similar dynamics.

British Agriculture in the Modern World

I found this long piece from the London Review of Books very interesting. The writer's hook is Brexit. The EU budget is heavily focused on agricultural subsidies, but the EU also imposes regulations, so he can find a mix of opinions.  The writer interviews farmers about Brexit and considers the various impacts, but the piece ranges broadly. What's especially fascinating to see what's common to English and American agriculture, such as expanding farm size and conservation concerns, and what's different, particularly the continuing position of the wealthy/noble landowners. And finally the writer discovers the variety which exists behind all the stereotypes of farmers.

A couple quotes:
"[a farmer involved in conservation] was grateful for one aspect of his new life: he gets to meet people when he talks about his work. Mechanisation has isolated farmers. Wright and his brother farm alone where once 14 people worked."
"When the English government recently had the chance to carry out its own, independent CAP reform – in agriculture, there essentially is an English government, with the four parts of the United Kingdom having separate policies – it proved eager to go on subsidising the big landowners"
 Read it.

Thanks to commenter "rupello" for the lead.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Haspel on Vertical Farming

I respect Tamar Haspel's work, so I buy her conclusions on the tradeoffs involved with indoor, vertical farming.  Bottomline: because of the energy involved, the carbon footprint of current day vertical farms (of lettuce) is much bigger than for more conventional operations.  Efficiencies might import, and the lettuce produced has some advantages.

I've mocked vertical farming before, but that's the plans relying on sunlight.  I'd observe that growing lettuce is, I'd guess, the choosing the easiest path for artificial light farming.  And while these operations fit the locavore template, they don't fit the organic template.

"Grunt Work" and Organizing

Read a post this morning through my RSS feed from LawyersGunsMoney, a  site of mostly liberal college professors mostly, and mostly a bit left of me, but interesting just the same.  The post was entitled "Don't Diddle, Organize", being a call for leftists to get out and organize.  The writer included what seemed to be a snide dis of "grunt work" and a clear dis of the Democratic party.  Both riled me, so I was resolved to post a fiery comment.  Went onto the site just now, and found a lot of comments on the post, most making the same points I would have made--Democrats need to rebuild the party at the local and state level by doing the "grunt work" of organizing, not by devoting all energy to single, ad hoc causes which provide a platform for the talkers but lack the doers who make an organization formidable.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Agricultural Revolution as Insurance

I forget whether I've mentioned listening to Harari's Sapiens, as an audiobook (Mr. Bezos is taking over the world).  It's slow going, not because it's not interesting or well-written, but because I'm only listening when I use my exercise bike, and these days I'm mostly able to get exercise in the garden or by walking. 

Anyway, he's discussing the agricultural revolution, adopting the stance of Jared Diamond and others that it was bad for individuals, because hunter-gatherers had less work to get their food than did the early farmers.  While agriculture meant a given area of land could support more people, which was good for the species, it meant harder work and misery for the individuals.  His explanation for the revolution is mostly materialistic, a gradual accumulation of changes resulting in domesticated grains and animals, each change seeming an advantage but the overall result was poor.  An alternative explanation is possibly religious, citing an example of great stone columns erected by a hunter-gatherer culture in the same area where einkorn wheat was domesticate.

One thing I think Harari misses is the influence of climate and the seasons.  One of the outstanding features of our staple grain crops is storability.  There are food items a hunter-gatherer can store: acorns, dried fish, dried grapes, etc., but in most cases these are limited.  Grains can be stored indefinitely.  While Harari emphasizes the variety of foods hunter-gatherers could obtain, I'm not convinced.  Checking the climate for Jericho, a place he mentions, there's big seasonal changes: a cold wet season and a hot dry season.  What that means to me (operating on logic with no knowledge of the facts of the area) is that the life of a hunter-gatherer is good half the year, not the other half.  So growing and storing grain for the dry season would be rewarding.  A store of wheat was insurance against the risk of starving during the hot, dry season.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Culture Change and Name Change

Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution writes on Ban the Box (i.e previous convictions on job applications).  The suggestion is that employers who don't get the specific information may revert to disqualifying black applicants based on a possible greater likelihood of past convictions. He cites academic research (see the abstract below the page break).

What hit me was the method the researchers used to tell black and white applicants apart--names.

Now back in the day "black names" (or rather "Negro names") were stereotypically "Washington", "Franklin", "Lincoln", etc., meaning there really wasn't a distinguishable difference.  Which brings me back to Cassius Clay, who famously changed his name. He, along with Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm Little, was part of the early trend of blacks dropping their "slave name" in favor of a more distinctive name, a trend existing alongside the Black Pride and Black Power movements.  These days it seems there's less dropping of surnames, but lot more distinctive given names.  It's ironic that a change which affirms identity has become a means for people to discriminate against that identity.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Gun Control and Civil Sanctions

Some, like Conor Friedersdorf and Kevin Williamson, have problems with the no-fly list, saying it penalizes people without any legal process or chance of redress.  There's also the FBI terrorist watch list, which apparently overlaps no-fly but is different. In a different area, we have the sex offender lists. IMO all three lists deprive people of abilities they'd normally have. The right says that denying guns to people on such list is denying them their Second Amendment, Constitutional right, which is wrong.

I think Friedersdorf and Williamson have a point: there should be a legal process for review and possible challenge when people lose, possibly for the duration of their life, some abilities.   I think that's true even for sex offenders, who have already gone through a legal process. People can grow and change, people can be convicted in error.

The Senate is to vote on the issue in this coming week--several proposals, none of which are likely to pass.  I've not studied the issue, but I think, provided there's a review process at some point, it's reasonable to deny guns to those on those lists.

And having said that, I don't think such a restriction would do much to avert mass shootings.  Even Mateen would have passed that test, since he wasn't on the FBI list when he bought his guns. 

I like the New York gun laws, including the requirement for friends to sign onto the application for a permit, but even with those laws Jiverly Antares Wong killed 13 people just a few miles south of where I grew up.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Friday, June 17, 2016


National Archives has a document of the day, and this was for the 16th. As a bureaucrat I'm always interested in forms. What struck me about this was the opening--the President is telling the U.S. Marshal to arrest John Dillinger. That's a carryover from the days when the monarch gave orders to his officers, a carryover surviving into the 20th century. The Bureau of Land Management has the document confirming the sale of 80 acres of Illinois land to my great grandfather, a document signed by the President. Seems amazing to think they'd ship a document all the way to Washington for his signature, but they did. Such is the power of history and custom over the minds of men.  

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Surprising Father Facts

"Republican and Democratic dads have the same number of children, an average of 2.4, and on average they start their families at the same age — 28. They are also equally likely to be employed. In other words, the demographic data tells a story of very similar fathers in the two parties."

From this Post article describing a study of fathers and their attitudes and party affiliations.  Otherwise the differences between the groups are about what you'd expect, Republicans more authoritarian, Democrats more self-accusing--in other words the studs versus the wimps.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Coffee Drinkers Are Concentrated, Gun Dealers Are Not

That's the lesson I took away from this Flowing Data post 
mapping Starbucks and other common chains against gun dealers.  The key is the comparison is based on circles with a 10-mile radius. If the circle has more Starbucks stores than gun dealers, it's one color, otherwise another.  

Monday, June 13, 2016

Why Don't IT Contractors Fail?

Just finished reading The Confidence Game,--anyone who enjoyed The Sting and the David Mamet film House of Games (which inspired the book) will enjoy it.  The author views con artists running con games as employing human traits, the desire to believe, the desire for meaning, the reluctance to cut one's losses, etc.we all share. With that perspective, I was struck by the question in my title.

How did I get there?  It's true, I believe, that most massive IT projects, possibly especially those in government, fail; the success rate is maybe 30 percent.  With that sort of track record, why do we in government keep creating and funding the projects and why can IT contractors get contracts to run them?  Surely if Elon Musk's space venture only got into orbit 30 percent of the time, he'd fail to attract venture capital.  But as far as I can tell (not very far), no big IT contractor has gone out of business because they can't get any more contracts.  So why?

Maybe they're running a con game?  After all that in the beginning there's lots of enthusiasm, enough to sweep agency employees, agency officials, even OMB and Congress into supporting the project.  A big project may paradoxically be easier to sell than a small one: a big project has meaning, it offers to change many things, to solve lots of problems, etc. etc. For IT projects it's likely that management and Congress don't really understand the nuts and bolts; they just know that people who should know, who seem to know, claim it can work, can succeed.   In the early stages it's easy to use the project focus to find more improvements to make, problems to solve, things to be folded into the project scope.  And once you're committed to a project, your reputation is involved, there's money been spent, meetings have been held, promises made.  And the problems surely are fixable, no need to abandon hope, just spend a little more money here, work some more hours there, move the schedule back just a little.

Finally there's a loss of confidence by those who should know, an increasing desperation, and Congress and management cut their losses, a process made much easier because there's been turnover in both areas so they aren't killing their own baby, it's some else's bastard child.  That can in turn make it easier for those who know (who haven't retired or moved to higher paying private jobs) to blame the big shots for not keeping the faith.

Meanwhile the IT contractors can move on to run another con.

Note: I don't necessarily think IT contractors are knowingly con artists; they may be conning themselves as much as their customers and they do have the occasional success.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Can See Remote Planets But Not Milky Way

Kevin Drum writes he's never seen the Milky Way.  Meanwhile two scientists are revisiting the Drake Equation (a way to think about the probability of other intelligent life in the universe) based on the discovery of thousands of planets.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Bring Back Manufacturing Farm Jobs?

There's lots of (bipartisan) angst over the loss of manufacturing jobs.  Trump talks about Carrier moving from Indiana to Mexico (it also closed its Syracuse operation years ago),.  The idea is these jobs were good ones, ones which high school grads could do and which would support a family, perhaps even a single-earner family.  Liberals point to the loss of union jobs, the UMW, the UAW, the steelworkers unions are all shadows of their former (circa 1970) selves.

What neither Trump nor liberals mourn is the loss of farm jobs.  (That's not totally true--the food movement often talks about the need for more farmers, but that's somewhat different than farm jobs.)

My own feelings are represented by this piece from Modern Farmer, a person who remembers the farm life fondly, but doesn't want it for herself.

Friday, June 10, 2016

When The Right Was Wrong

Remember when the hot issue in American politics was Jimmy Carter's Panama Canal treaty, where we agreed to turn over the Canal to Panama over 20 years?  If I recall correctly, Ronald Reagan rode to the presidency by ranting about the issue, mostly to please Jesse Helms so he could win the primary in North Carolina.

Carter got the treaty approved in the Senate, just barely, to a chorus of Republican predictions of doom.  Bottom line: the Panamanians were incapable of managing the canal and it was indispensable to American security.

Move forward some years and Panama hired the Chinese firm Hutchison-Whampoa to manage port facilities in the area.  Again Republican uproar.  This was the Chinese sneaking their Oriental tentacles into a strategic area. Some Republicans wanted to discard the treaty.  But time wounds all heels.

Today the canal is operating well and Panama has just finished expanding it.

The Myth of Justice

Just listening to the book "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind" by Yuval Harari, who discusses the key role of "myths" (defined as things which have no physical existence) in our history.  He spreads his discussion widely, including religions, nations, corporations, etc. as myths.   I think he mentioned "justice" as one myth, though just in passing.

Got me to thinking about the two judges making the news: Judge Curiel, attacked by Trump as biased, and Judge Persky, attacked by millions as biased in sentencing the Stanford student convicted of sexual assault.  It seems to me the two go together, because the controversies are about justice.  No one would say that judges who graduate from Stanford should never sit in judgment on Stanford graduates, just as no one except Trump would say that a person whose parents immigrated from Mexico should never sit in judgment on Hispanic immigrants, or someone who disparages Hispanic immigrants. 

However, people do say that the commonalities of background between Persky and the student explain the sentence, meaning we know judges can be biased. On one side we have Trump claiming bias, on the other victim rights advocates claiming bias.  So  the myth of impartial justice is being threatened from two sides and much of the emotion in both debates is the community reinforcing the boundaries of justice.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Mormonism, Progressivism, and Utopianism

Via Marginal Revolution, I came to this plan to build "New Vista" developments in Vermont for millions of residents, based apparently on ideas of Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism. The son of the industrial diamond maker has the money behind the plan and is busily buying up Vermont land and making enemies of some of the locals.

The plan reminds me of a scheme I ran across when reading in Country Life literature; it probably was a proposal at one of the Country Life conferences in the 1920's.  It too was a plan for a very organized town which incorporated all the necessities: agriculture, commerce, transportation, community services, etc.   Never went anywhere much, although perhaps you can see some of the same ideas in the New Deal, in the "green" towns, like Greenbelt, MD and the Resettlement Administration's projects.

And of course pieces of this pop up everywhere in American history, from the town settlements of the early New England Puritans to the utopian schemes of New Harmony and others. More recently we see the seasteading movement of the libertarians.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Trump and Lawsuits

I'd like to know how many lawsuits Trump or his enterprises have filed, how many have been filed against them, and the won-settled-lost figures for each category

When I wrote the above sentence, I was suffering a loss of faith in the Internet: I should have known better.
"An exclusive USA TODAY analysis of legal filings across the United States finds that the presumptive Republican presidential nominee and his businesses have been involved in at least 3,500 legal actions in federal and state courts during the past three decades. They range from skirmishes with casino patrons to million-dollar real estate suits to personal defamation lawsuits.
Read the whole thing.

Monday, June 06, 2016

Bureaucrats: Bulwark of the Constitution?

That's the position the prominent law professor Eric Posner seems to take in his op-ed for the Times:
"Mr. Trump’s biggest obstacle to vast power is not the separation of powers but the millions of federal employees who are supposed to work for him. Most of these employees have a strong sense of professionalism and are dedicated to the mission of their agency. They don’t take kindly to arbitrary orders from above. As President Harry Truman said ahead of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidency: “He’ll sit here, and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen.
To make things happen, Mr. Trump will need to get loyalists into leadership positions of the agencies, but to do so, he will need the cooperation of the Senate (or he will need to aggressively exploit his recess appointment powers). Moreover, the small number of politically appointed leaders enjoy only limited control of the mass of civil servants. These employees can drag their feet, leak to the press, threaten to resign and employ other tactics to undermine Mr. Trump’s initiatives if they object to them. They’re also hard to fire, thanks to Civil Service protections."
I don't think the Founding Fathers saw this role for bureaucrats, but I think Prof. Posner is right, particularly in the Federal context.  In other countries with more centralized bureaucracies, maybe a politician can topple the bureaucratic bulwark, but in the U.S.  not so.   I'd quibble a bit about the "professionalism": conflicting alliances with Congress and private interests may be as important..

When politicians, like the Republicans now, go after bureaucrats in the VA or IRS, they should remember there's a reason we have civil service rules. 

Sunday, June 05, 2016

A Small Defense of Trump

I pride myself on being able to focus on nuts and bolts of implementation.  With that in mind, I'll offer a small defense of Donald Trump. The story briefly: he holds a fundraiser for vets early in the year, claims to have raised $6 million, of which $1 million came from him.  The media, notably the Post, pressed him on who and when, and yesterday he announced the details.  It turns out he didn't write his check until last week.  The mean-minded, which often includes me, take that as a sign he wouldn't have given without the media attention.

That's surely one story which fits the known facts.  But there's an alternative version of  what might have happened. Trump does the fundraiser without really planning the details of implementation. He does intend to make the donation.  What I haven't seen yet is the details of the handling of the money, whether donors wrote checks to the recipients or whether the money was routed through a checking account.  It's also not clear who determined the recipients--Trump, his aides, or the donors.  Once the media got on his case, Trump's people slapped together what was revealed at the news conference.
Bottomline: While I won't convict Trump of lying about the donations, I will say there's a strong case he and his people were inefficient bureaucrats, proving they fail at implementation.

For the bad case see TPM

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Friday, June 03, 2016

Too Good Not to Steal

Robert Farley at Lawyers, Guns, & MOney writes"
"You lose a war against the United States, we sell you fighter planes.  You fight a war alongside the United States, we sell you fighter planes.  You beat the United States in a war, we sell you fighter planes:"
 The best bit is the title of the post. 

Thursday, June 02, 2016

One Hundred Years of Change

Slate has this post relaying a study on superstitions prevalent in the early 1900's.  While their discussion is interesting,  I'm more struck by the what they show about the changes in society.  The average American these days has no contact with horses, breadshelves, buckskin, babies dying, hoes or rakes. etc.

Ingenuity on the Phishing Front

Just got this email.  You have to applaud the ingenuity of the phishers.

Wells Fargo Online Banking,

Your account was recently accessed from a location we're
not familiar with. Please review the activity details below
and specify if that was you or not:

Location: Germany
Time: Yesterday at 5:52 AM EDT
Location estimated based on IP=

If anything looks unfamiliar, Wells Fargo will help you secure
your account to prevent people in the future from
accessing your account without permission.

Wells Fargo Online Banking

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Bureaucracy at Jutland

Brad DeLong blogs often about the day-to-day events of various wars.  Recently he's been posting on the battle of Jutland, the biggest naval battle of WWI and the subject of controversy ever since.

On the British side part of the issue has been the relationship between Admiral Jellicoe, the overall commander of the British forces, and Admiral Beatty, the commander of the most important subordinate force. The first was cautious, the second not.  The first was older, the second a young whipper-snapper.  Beatty had the battle cruisers, fast and hard-hitting, but vulnerable, ultimately their trade-offs between striking power and armor were judged to be bad choices

The Brits had superior numbers, the Germans had better ships.  The Brits had controlled the seas for centuries, the Germans were the upstarts. The battle itself was inconclusive--the Brits suffered more losses, but maintained control of the seas.  Both sides arguably had chances to do better, possibly even to win a decisive victory. Between the personalities, the So there's a lot of room for historians to come up with different narratives

Excerpts from tooday's post, which in turn is excerpts from a book:

"As discussed in Chapter 4, Evan-Thomas had not been favoured with a copy of BCFOs [Beatty's orders]. Had he been, he would have found informative Beatty’s ‘Instructions for Concentrating Battle Cruisers when Spread, and Forming Order of Battle’, for while these injunctions were framed with individual battlecruisers, rather than a squadron of battleships, in mind, the impression they impart of the thrust of BCF lore is unmistakable:
A sudden alteration of course by the ship sighting the enemy is seen by those on either side of her far more rapidly than any signal could be sent, and, being an almost certain indication of an enemy having been sighted it should be acted upon immediately. All ships that may be required to support must proceed to do so until they know definitely that they will not be required. The immediate sequel to concentrating is forming Order of Battle and engaging the enemy. In future this will be done so far as possible without signal, and each Captain is to use his discretion in handling his ship as he considers that the Admiral would wish.... Each detached ship should, at her discretion, close and engage the enemy without waiting for further orders.... Ships must never suppose that the absence of a signal implies that any given action is not sanctioned by the Flagship; on the contrary it usually denotes that the Admiral relies on each ship to take whatever action may be necessary without waiting to be told.... The sole object of these instructions is to enable ships to understand beforehand the principles of rapid co-operation, so that the enemy may be brought to action at the earliest possible moment without any ship needing or wishing to wait for detailed orders from the Admiral.
To point out again that Evan-Thomas’s ignorance of BCFOs was not mainly his fault is to emphasize again the divergence between the tactical regimes of the Battle Fleet and the BCF, and more specifically, between the habits of thought expected of their respective junior flag-officers. But if one ferrets around in the ‘70 closely printed pages’ of GFBOs, one finds, amongst the ‘mass of detail which should have been common knowledge’, ‘initiative’ injunctions which, while designed to preserve the unity of a deployed battle-line, are at least partly transferable in sense to Barham’s dilemma at 2.32...."
 My point is simply that you find bureaucracy everywhere, and knowledge of and compliance with instructions is important.