Friday, September 30, 2005

Why I Respect Eugene Volokh

Background: There's been back and forth on the web over some legal proposals from the 1970's in which Justice Ginsburg was involved. The issue is whether the proposal intended to lower the federal age of consent from 16 to 12 or something else. Eugene Volokh has taken the first position in the past but now changes his mind:
"It Looks Like Justice Ginsburg Likely Was the Victim of a Drafting Error after all; and it looks like I erroneously failed to recognize just how likely this was to be an error."
I think I'd rate bloggers according to the following criteria:

1 How predictable are the person's opinions
2 Does the person come up with information or issues not found in other sites
3 Does the person respect his/her adversaries
4 Does the person admit errors

Professor Volokh rates high on these items and raise The Volokh Conspiracy above the ruck.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Lessons of the Hurricanes for Liberals

Some liberals have gloated after Katrina, saying in effect that the disaster proves how much we need government. I agree, but if disaster reveals some truths, there's also a lesson for liberals. Unfortunately, it's not one that conservatives are likely to highlight. The lesson: government, emergency government, is an open feast for the big shots, the influence peddlers and gladhanders. It reminds me of Madison's wisdom in Federalist No 51, commenting on the need for separation of powers:
"Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no governme nt would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. [The fact that Madison viewed government in terms of "control" shows the changes between 1789 and now]"
The evidence for the pigs at the trough is everywhere, but see Steven Pearlstein in yesterday's Post and the related on-line discussion.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Do Institutions Make a Difference?

In the MSNBC blog, the major in Iraq praised the captain who reported abuse of prisoners (Fishback?) as an exemplar of what's good in the Army. The major's fiance wrote questioning the praise, including this bit:
"Forgive me if I am being too cynical, but I b elieve the Army is only as good as the individuals that make it up. As with any institution - indeed any group of human beings. I think you'd agree. I know you believe the men and woman of our Army are the finest to have ever walked the earth as soldiers (I do not say that with sarcasm)... yet this belief brings us to the question:

Is it the individual natures of those men and women that make them the most humane (might we say?) Armed Force ever? Or is it the laws, guidelines, institutional infrastructure and ways of enforcing ethics that make them what they are?"
I'm sure she is an admirable person, but I have to come down on the side of laws and institutions. I remember reading in the late 50's in the National Review an article, perhaps by Buckley, who argued against the pending Civil Rights Act on the basis that laws could not change what's in human hearts. He made a good argument. But we learned different. Laws, and the Airborne's bayonets, could change human behavior and behavior changed human hearts. To maintain the opposite we'd have to say that Hitler was simply a representative German, reflecting the evil in the hearts of his countrymen.

Power Line Praises Bureaucrats

I suspect this is a one off, from Power Line:
"After I spent several decades working in the private sector, in constant contact with the public sector, I realized that both politicians and civil servants are much more capable than I had assumed--fully equal to leaders in the private sector, and sometimes superior. "

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

REMF and Nam

Full disclosure: I've read and liked several of Tracy Kidder's books. Like Mr. Kidder I graduated from a good university and ended up in Vietnam in a non-combat role (EM generator operator, while he was an orifice in the Army Security Agency (related to NSA)). It's quite possible his new book, My Detachment, reviewed in the Times today is poor. But Ms. Kakutani is in error when she says the following:
"It's hard to sympathize with the young, self-aggrandizing Mr. Kidder, and the older Mr. Kidder makes matters worse by trying to draw gross generalizations from his own experiences. Extrapolating from his own uneventful tour and the fictionalized stories he concocted, he writes: 'Of the roughly three million Americans who went to the war dressed as soldiers, only a small minority returned with Combat Infantryman's Badges, certain proof of a terrible experience.' He later adds: 'I thought a good monograph might be written about the debasement of medals during the Vietnam War. In ASA' - the Army Security Agency - 'anyway, virtually every officer got one, just for showing up.'"
I share this generalizations and firmly believe they are true. I've had difficulty tracking down authoritative sources on line. For REMF's the best I can come up with is this table:

As of 1 January 1968

Force Total Strength Support Combat Arms
US Forces 409,111 346,260 62,850

So only 15 percent of the troops in Nam would have been eligible for the CIB, at most (since some combat arms aren't infantry).

It's interesting to speculate--is Ms. Kakutani succumbing to the glorification of soldiers and war that appears always to set in. If so, an ironic turn of the circle for the NY Times.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Lessons of the Hurricanes

Today's Wash Post Outlook section has two articles drawing lessons from the response to the hurricanes:

A doctor who traveled to Louisiana to help opines:
Good Samaritan Overload: "First, I don't think there's any doubt that there will be an intense medical response to any tragedy that strikes this country. Our doctors and other medical personnel, like people from scores of other fields, will react with an outpouring of time and effort to help their fellow citizens in any way they can.

The second lesson, though, is that this response should be coordinated and stratified. There should be a pre-set list of first, second, third and fourth responders ready to be activated and sent to a disaster area as needed by a central command. "
A science writer, observing reports from the scene, says:

But preparation -- even when it hews closely to the "game plan" -- only gets you so far. In the coming days, people with varying levels of authority all along the Gulf Coast will likely have to make many decisions. Often they'll have to make them quickly, alone, and without experience to guide them. Let's hope they have learned one more thing from Katrina: Sometimes you need to break the rules to avert greater disaster."

So, one asks for more bureaucracy, more coordination, more rules; the other says we need to break the rules. Which is it?

As usual, I think "Both". There's an absence of coordination among different bureaucracies. There's a report that the military has learned to apply a standard grid to the landscape, as they do in military operations, just to coordinate rescue flights from different organizations. And there's the danger of a bureaucracy following ordinary rules in an extraordinary situation. (I remember in the aftermath of the 1991 hurricane that devastated Dade county, we had to bypass our normal validity checks so that data could be quickly loaded.)

Mr. Brown cites liability issues and tunnel vision issues. We need to come up with a list of Good Samaritan waivers--I believe that doctors in some states who pull over to treat an emergency patient on the road are given immunity from liability. And we need to encourage initiative. But the public also needs to recognize the tradeoffs. There's a report today that the bus involved in the fire in Texas that killed 24 people was operating under a waiver granted by the governor of Texas. Bureaucratic rules often have a valid purpose, and bypassing them carries risks that we must recognize up front.

The Safety of Crowds

I've often thought but never posted that our (ordinary citizen) safety in the US is that of being in a crowd. But this post, via Volokh shows that others can feel safety in a crowd:
"The Volokh Conspiracy - -: "AP reports on some incidents, and quotes Houston Police Capt. Dwayne Ready, who makes a good point — in a way obvious, but perhaps not entirely clear to every one:

“I think the key element in looting is the fact that those who would not otherwise engage themselves in criminal activity (join in) and believe they will be able to hide in the crowd,” Ready said. “It’s the difference between an unlawful assembly and a riot. Essentially (looting) is theft but I think its when the crowd believes they can hide against the anonymity of a large crowd engaged in the same kind of conduct.”"

Saturday, September 24, 2005

New York Times Is NOT PC

From yesterday's Times comes this:

The Case of the Servant With the Fur Collar - New York Times:

"Why was she wearing fur?

That was one of the first questions experts asked when they began studying a 17th-century portrait of a woman who had the unmistakably stolid face of a servant but was decked out in a sumptuous fur collar. And why did the light on her face appear to be reflected off the dark surface of that collar when it should be absorbed by it?"
Do the editors of the Times really believe you can identify who is a servant by looking at faces? (It's possible the reporter was simply transmitting the views of one or more art experts.) I'm sure they don't, so this is just an example of how easy it is for people to slip into stereotypes.

Have Americans Usually Supported Their Wars?

I was surprised by the part of this article describing the contemporaneous WWII Gallup polls. My faint memories include saving tin cans and gas (my grandfather's big yellow car parked in our garage for the duration) and clothing made from flour sacks. Even so, the questioning of the war was more evident than I would have thought. Of course, Feb. 44 was before D-Day. The allies were bogged down in Italian mud and MacArthur was a long way from returning.

Have Americans Usually Supported Their Wars?: "In the twentieth century, as Hazel Erskine demonstrated in her widely cited 1970 article, 'Was War a Mistake?' (Public Opinion Quarterly), 'the American public has never been sold on the validity of any war but World War II.' She noted that as of 1969--a year after the Tet Offensive and the brief invasion of the American embassy in Saigon--'in spite of the current anti-war fervor, dissent against Vietnam has not yet reached the peaks of dissatisfaction attained by either World War I or the Korean War.'"

Friday, September 23, 2005

Bureaucrats Vindicated?

The Washington Post Federal Page reports on some research here: "It turns out that the career managers, on average, do a better job of running federal agencies than the political appointees do. So says a 41-page study by political scientist David E. Lewis of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs."

It compares OMB's ratings of programs run by career bureaucrats versus those run by political appointees and finds the former do better. (Trigger the fireworks, let's celebrate.)

However, as an ever-cautious bureaucrat, some skepticism is in order--Dr. Lewis may be comparing apples and oranges. For example, in USDA circa 1970, the Soil Conservation Service was run by careerists, Farmers Home administration was run by politicos. But the programs were different--SCS was more "scientific" and less controversial than the loan-making functions of FmHA. I'd guess that there's a high correlation between "careerist" managers and "scientific" (i.e., not politically controversial) programs. That raises the issue of whether it's easier in some sense to run a program where the outcomes are more knowable and can be judged by clearer criteria. The question answers itself.

Political appointees run agencies that the public as a whole does not trust. The decline of trust in government over the past 40 years has been paralleled by an increase in the number of politically led agencies.

So while the work of Dr. Lewis is welcome, I'm going to save my fireworks.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Comment on Comments

Occasional visitors post comments. At least one recent one suggested swapping URL's (which may have been a scam). All comments are welcome, but please remember the comment facility hides your true e-mail address, so the only way I have to respond is in another comment. Likely I should work more on blogging's intricacies, but I haven't yet.

Where's the Fire Wardens?

When we had fire drills, both in school and working for the federal government, we had fire wardens whose job was to go to all the rooms and see that everyone was out. Such officials were notably lacking in New Orleans.

My impression is that both the USSR and China had the equivalent--in USSR each apartment building had one or more designated watchers, at least according to Le Carre, who could have served a fire warden function. In China, society was divided into "tens" and "hundreds", again providing the government with control down to the last individual.

I doubt the U.S. would ever have such a network, even though it would save work and lives. The Brits did have fire wardens during the London air raids in WWII. But absent such a repetitive threat, we just don't trust the government enough to let it create such a network. Socially, we opt for freedom and death rather than life.

Seizing Straws

This from MSNBC's Bagdad diary--the major is mainly concerned with the importance of superstition, but includes this bit of news:
"Route Irish, according to this threat-briefing, which represents our best guess at the situation before we locked and loaded and headed down the trail, has not been seriously hit in weeks. That was news. Some rifle and light machine-gun fire, sure, but nothing heavy. No Rocket-Propelled Grenades, no VBIEDs, not even any IEDs…nothing, for weeks. Things have changed on that road. An Iraqi brigade is sitting there on both sides of the highway, and they have taken some hits, to be sure. But the Iraqis made the road safer than I have known it to be before."
Of course, my picking up on this is akin to the major's superstition--we both latch onto one bit of information and ride the hell out of it (his superstition was that no vehicle in which a particular piece of music was playing has ever (in his experience) been hit). That's a human habit that may have saved us from lions in the bushes but doesn't always serve us well, particularly now when there are so many pieces of information available.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Best of Bureaucrats

This apparently from a volunteer helping in Katrina:

"Apparently being a bureaucrat, like riding a bicycle, is something you don't forget. The initial uneasiness that I feel in any new situation vanished the moment I started filing. I became involved in the game. Could I file faster than the person next to me? Could I keep ahead of the in-box? Could I find the case that was misfiled under the girlfriend's last name? I'm always trying for my personal best. I can throw myself into the mundane with enthusiam that's not faked. In the larger scheme of things, maybe filing papers isn't that important. But to the people sitting in line hour after hour, anything that can shorten the time spent waiting helps."

Bureaucracy makes things into routines, which is bad and good. There's some good advice about working within a bureaucracy as well.

Monday, September 19, 2005

SSN on Medicare Cards

The LATimes had an article a couple days ago pointing out that while states and counties were removing Social security numbers from drivers licenses and similar documents, Medicare (and DOD) still uses it as the identifier on their cards:

"Spokesman Peter Ashkenaz said that Medicare officials were aware of the concerns involving use of the numbers and that alternatives had been discussed. But so far, he said, there were no plans to issue cards with different numbers, which would probably cost $100 million and require retooling the agency's computer systems.
IMHO, the number on the card serves these purposes in the medicare computer system:
  • show to the clerk that the person already has a record in the system, as opposed to enrolling the person for the first time.
  • provide a quick, fast way to access the record--typing in 9 digits is probably a bit faster than typing in "Harshaw", "William", and then deciding that the one living in Reston, not nearby Oakton, is the correct one. Of course, "bharshaw [at]" is quick and sure.
What's unfortunate is that neither the Medicare bureaucrat nor the LATimes writer is aware of the work being done on IDs in government. It's another example of the "silo" complex.

No, No, No to Carter-Baker Panel

Dan Balz has an article in the Post on the Jimmy Carter/James Baker panel recommending fixes to our electoral system. I've no problem with most of the items, but I continue to believe we should phase out the Social Security number.

"The panel recommended that the U.S. Election Assistance Commission oversee a system to allow easy sharing of state voter databases as well as requiring the use of a uniform identifier -- the voter's Social Security number -- to help eliminate duplicate registrations."

See the recent LATimes article on ID theft for the problems we run into when we use SSN. See this previous blog on the subject.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Managing Federal Credit Cards

The NYTimes has an article on the Federal credit cards, with a purchase limit that was raised in the context of Katrina.
"The thought of individual employees able to charge up to a quarter-million dollars per trip with only the plastic in their wallets, directly payable by Uncle Sam, has government watchdogs agog."
The cards were pushed in the Clinton administration, as part of Gore's "Reinventing Government" program. They're a good idea that was poorly implemented, IMHO. The cards were used both for travel and small purchases, but the management controls were lacking, as GAO discovered. I've a couple suggestions in the new context:
  • the credit card companies have software that identifies breaks from a normal pattern of usage, hoping to find cases where a card has been stolen. The Feds should apply the same software among cards--the pattern of usage among employees with similar responsibilities should be similar (i.e., if they're only used for travel, or for small purchases).
  • public servants have no privacy, so make the record of purchases for each employee available on the internet and authorize rewards for people discovering abuses.
  • have the employee's supervisor log on to the account and approve it each month. (Sort of like the controls that parents can put on their children's cards.)

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Green Foolishness?

Today's WPost has an article on how an environmentalist redid her kitchen in green, or should that be "greenly"? She says she turned down granite for her countertops in favor of recycled glass embedded in concrete because "granite is definitely not renewable -- once it's removed from the earth, it's gone forever."

I'm tempted to mock her--she fails to realize that concrete is made with cement, derived from limestone quarried from the earth, heated in a kiln fired most probably by fossil fuel, combined with sand which is also derived from the earth. (It's not clear to me which counter top would require more energy to make.) But seriously, it's an example of the limited vision we all have. We all argue based on a subset of data because you've got to close your mind somewhere. It's also an example of trends. To this old codger, the idea of a green kitchen seems a bit laughable, but it's taken seriously in the paper and may well be a coming thing. It's how social norms develop, just remember (as I do every time I watch an old movie) how norms on smoking have changed over the years.

Buy One or Build One, On the Tick of Time

After some 7 or 8 years, I think it's time to get a new PC. The issue is how? Unlike previous acquisitions, I'm now retired so I could save a little money and gain some confidence by buying the components and building it myself. Building would give me a warm fuzzy feeling, whereas spending the money would trigger some guilt.

As far as capability goes, I've installed new cards and hard drives in past PC's, so I have some experience working inside the case. Harshaw's law, you never do things right the first time, might apply, but probably not. There would be a learning curve. It probably would take longer to build than buy. At my age, when one can count the years remaining, that's not a trivial consideration. Is building a PC what I want to do with my time? Tick, tock, not.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Fishing the Blogs

No one is more needy than a blogger in search of readers. Some shrewd people have figured that out and are out to exploit our neediness.

Background: In May I blogged on the flow of culture/information down the classes, using the example of DNA, and the flow up the classes, using rap.

Today I got an e-mail message from "Emily". My heart beat faster, I was happy, someone out there was reading me. This is what it said:

From : emily
Sent : Wednesday, September 14, 2005 11:27 AM
To :
Subject : [Faceless Bureaucrat] 9/13/2005 03:20:48 PM

Go to previous message|Go to next message|Delete|Inbox

Your blog is great! It's hard to find blogs with good content and people talking about dna testing these days! I have a secret dna testing blog if you want to come check it out

Posted by emily to Faceless Bureaucrat at 9/13/2005 03:20:48 PM

Needless to say, the URL is for an advertisement in the form of a post to a blog. It was obviously machine generated, though I'm interested in DNA, the original post is not about DNA and no intelligent blogger about DNA would link to me on that basis. This is an example of the evolution of IT in a free market--whenever there's a sufficient concentration of energy/eyeballs/platforms, someone will figure out how to take advantage. The good old days of idealistic blogging are about to go the way of all utopian dreams. Someone needs to rewrite The Inferno to specify the ring of hell reserved for spammers and phishers.

UPDATE: The above is a bit harsh, being written in the throes of disappointment. The people behind the message are looking for eyeballs, not ID's, so it's sleazy but not illegal.

Updated Update: Got another comment this morning, same effect, but this one was advertising cheap gas. I think the effect might be to kill the goose--getting high from the compliment followed by the depression of finding it's fake nets out to a downer, tending to discourage one from blogging.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Intersections, Aging, and Plans

Was thinking about when I should give up my driving license. Supposedly the key is reflexes, we oldsters are a lot more careful than you whippersnappers, but our reflexes are slow. But is that true?

I've had three accidents so far: the first was unambigously the other driver's fault; the second was perhaps a little mine (pulled off the side of the road in very heavy fog and was rear-ended by someone a bit high; and the third was all mine. In that case (back in 1978), I came up to an intersection and made a left turn in front of oncoming traffic. I was thrown by two facts--it wasn't a 4-way intersection with right angles, but a 5-way with no right angles and it was the first time I had entered it. I was first distracted by the possible traffic on the road coming in on my left, then by figuring the angle to my left turn and I assumed (ass u me) that there was nothing coming from the opposite direction. Unfortunately, this was at the top of a grade, so the traffic on the oncoming street was somewhat hidden. At 37 my reflexes were still sharp, but not enough to avoid the accident.

So the bottom line is that the concept "intersection" in my head didn't match the reality on the ground. I suspect that's a major pitfall of driving while old, we've too many pictures in our head and we have neither the flexibility nor reflexes to adjust quickly when reality doesn't jibe with the pictures in our head. In that, we are a lot like the government in handling Katrina, the reality didn't match our stereotype of "hurricane".

Social Capital, Family Ties, and Corruption

Robert Putnam, author of "Bowling Alone" has popularized the idea of "social capital", the sort of thing Tocqueville identified when he saw Americans forming multitudes of voluntary associations. Putnam argues these tie people into the larger society, give them practice in working together in a democratic institution and, at least pre-1960, cross-cut class and social lines.

I saw a brief reference a day or two ago that suggested Louisiana ranked very low (last?) on measures of social capital. I'm not sure that's tied into the idea that Louisiana is very high on family stability and solidarity, as I've blogged before, and Cmdrsue has affirmed in comments. It might also tie into the expectation of corruption, the subject of an article in the last couple days. Apparently Lousianians have low expectations of their government, remembering Huey Long and the plutocrats against whom he fought, so they figure that officials will be taking a cut out of the money destined for rebuilding.

It fits Putnam's original research, which I've not read but understand he compared the social capital in Sicily, with heavy Mafia/family influence, with northern Italy, which is very much a modern economy. It also fits the Gemeinschaft/Gesellschaft opposition which was a main theme of sociology back in my days as an undergrad. I wonder what's happened to that since 1960?

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Health Care Comparison

This week I did a "physical assessment" at Kaiser Permanente--it's their jargon for an old fashioned physical. Interesting contrast with private physician service, in that their laboratory is in the same building as the doctor's office. So when I told the doc that my hip hurt sometimes, he sent me off to get x-rays, it took 15 minutes, and he told me I've moderate arthritis in the hip, take anti-inflammatories and so long.

One of the points I'd make is that, when we think of "patients" as being reasonably healthy and mobile, the travel and coordination required by the specialization of services in different organizations (as I blogged in August) is tolerable. It's like New Orleans thinking of its citizens as mobile and able to evacuate. But when the patient is ailing and hurting and not so mobile, it becomes a real big deal.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Factors Affecting Government Response to Katrina

I commented at Marginal Revolution on a Tyler Cowen post.
(I thought I did, but it's not visible, so here is a modified version):

Being a retired bureaucrat, not an economist,and operating from ignorance, I'd put another slant on the subject. Though I voted against Bush, I have to console myself that the criticism, some unwarranted)he's getting now is balanced by unwarranted praise after 9/11. I'm particularly interested in the comparison between Katrina and last year's hurricanes. Factors I haven't seen fully discussed include:
  1. Wealth tells. The hurricanes last year hit Florida, much richer than Mississippi and Louisiana. The physical infrastructure is greater (more roads, more of everything) and the redundancies in networks are greater. Skinny people and skinny governments can have problems handling sudden illness. One truism of free markets is "you get what you pay for". That's also true for government. (It's no coincidence that Fairfax county, VA ranks high both on wealth and on government.) My impression is that all three states affected by Katrina are less than models of democracy. (See "All the Kings Men".)
  2. Timing counts. Yes, those who live from check to check, whether pay or welfare, were hurt by the timing of Katrina. But Bush wasn't the only bureaucrat on vacation on August 28. French society notoriously shuts down in August. The U.S. government isn't that bad, but late August is a great vacation time.
  3. "The American government system is a mess", a paraphrase of a BBC reporter, is right (as the Founders intended). Because we don't have the sort of hierarchical system Cuba has (a post referenced from Marginal Revolution said that Cuba had successfully evacuated last year in advance of a big hurricane using its system of and China and the USSR used to have, schools are the best way to get information into the community. I doubt that New Orleans schools were open yet, and if they were, the weekend timing would have cut off that avenue of coordinating evacuations.
  4. The power of math. FEMA coordinates. In last year's Florida hurricanes they were coordinating mostly with one state and I don't think the Corps of Engineers, Coast Guard, or regular military had any significant role. This year they had multiple states simultaneously, plus a bunch of new players. (Just ask your secretary about the amount of work to place one phone call versus setting up a conference call--as the number of parties expands the work involved increases exponentially, not arithmetically.) Assuming they trusted the state people, last year the only allocation issue was: do we have what you need? This year, the issue is: which state needs limited resources most.
  5. Two disasters, not one. We've not had levee breaks and hurricane damage in one event for a long time. It pulls in more "stakeholders" to coordinate and poses new problems to learn.
  6. Never underestimate learning. I say over and over, we never do things right the first time.
  7. Finally, politics matters. Last year every bureaucrat in the Florida and federal governments knew that their boss's rear was on the line if the hurricanes weren't handled well. Neither George nor Jeb had to say a thing; it was in the air. That knowledge makes a difference on the margins, not the center. The question is: do you make one more phone call, check one more city block, bite your tongue a little harder to work cooperatively with someone in another agency. Knowing the big boss will get very excited over failure helps then. This year, George is a lame duck, the Louisiana governor is a Democrat, so....
Regardless of the above, neither Albaugh nor Brown nor Brown's no. 2 should have been appointed to that job. That's Bush's culpability--personnel selection.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Social Networks and Katrina

One of the interesting things (rather cold statement) in the aftermath of Katrina is the unexpected (to me) profusion of extended families among the evacuees. Mostly black, but some white, although that's the proportion of media coverage, it seems lots of people have lots of siblings, cousins, uncles, aunts, who may evacuated together, got separated in the evacuation, or stayed behind to help relatives. It makes for a good story, a lot better than the individuals who were by themselves. Is this area of the South home to more extended families who seem to have been relatively immobile than other areas?

I've a hypothesis in mind--familial bonds are literally that--ties that can and do hold one back from individual achievement but supports that rescue one in times of peril.

Ganging Up on Barbara

The Post ran an article this morning on Barbara Ehrenreich and her new book. I'd had mixed feelings about her last one, Nickeled and Dimed, along the lines of "yes, but". Haven't read the new one, but was ready to fire off a blog article saying: " a 64-year old looks for a $50K job in PR while lying on her resume? Give me a break, there should be no reasonable expectation that she get a job."

Then I found that Tyler Cowen and Alan Wolfe in Slate were taking the same line, after having read the book (they try to uphold intellectual standards, I don't).

But consider this excerpt from the Post article (which is standard puff-the-writer stuff)--No Help Wanted, hitting a point Cowen and Wolfe haven't discussed yet:
"But in the end, what outraged her the most was the pervasive blame-the-victim ethos she encountered. Personal responsibility is a fine thing, she says, but it's not the same as omnipotence. Yet over and over, the newly unemployed were told: You totally control your own fate. At an 'executive boot camp,' the leader hammered the core message home:

'It's never about the external world,' he said. 'It's always between you and you.'"
I can understand how that might provoke outrage, but the reality in the situations is that it is all about "you". In today's environment, neither unions nor political action are a realistic route for the middle class job seeker. Controlling oneself is the only thing a person can control. So their alternatives are bleak: change oneself to be a more acceptable employee or endure. (Or perhaps, seek ease in religion.) (Can you see my inherited Calvinism emerging?)

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Social Structure--Tsunami and New Orleans

Heard someone on TV observe that there was more reconstruction activity at tsunami sites he'd seen than there was in Katrina's aftermath. First, I'd take that with a grain of salt--comparisons are tricky, particularly when comparing something that's fresh on our mind and something from a year ago. Second, it's probably true, for a number of reasons:

  • the disaster is different--the tsunami, like 9/11, destroyed one time. Katrina's flood waters are still in New Orleans (Biloxi and Gulfport would be similar to the tsunami
  • the social structures are different--Indonesia and Sri Lanka have flatter structures than New Orleans
  • the technology is different. If the water comes from a dug well, it's easier to reestablish than if it comes from a water treatment plant dependent on power.
  • the expectations are different. The rescuees in New Orleans, many of them, accept the idea that the government should be responding. I doubt the rescuees in the tsunami had the same expectation--they'd little experience of a reasonably effective government before the disaster so why should they wait to see what it would do after? (This is the "moral hazard" that insurance companies and right wing economists love to cite--by doing something to decrease risk you change the behavior--sort of like the heisenberg uncertainty principle. However, I don't buy it as an argument against effective government.)

Monday, September 05, 2005

Disaster as Revealing Social Structure

Several years ago a heat wave caused several hundred deaths in Chicago. A social scientist, Eric Klinenberg studied the event and wrote a book . The review on Amazon is fair and interesting--here's an excerpt:
"When the record-breaking heat and humidity arrived and stayed, these men and women started dying, one at a time and quietly, behind closed, locked doors. The immediate reasons were apparent. Many seniors did not have air conditioning in their houses or apartments. Of those who did have air conditioning, many chose not to use it, fearing utility bills that they could not afford to pay. Fear of crime kept others from leaving their homes to use free neighborhood "cooling centers." Still other elderly Chicagoans knew, from a physiological standpoint, that they were hot but were simply unaware that they were in danger. Klinenberg shows in detail how the tragedy was compounded by many factors and interests, including a public health and medical establishment that did not anticipate the magnitude of the looming danger and local news media that treated the severe heat and humidity as little more than a novel topic for lighthearted feature stories. The author also examines key sociological factors relating to the elderly, including the perils of "aging in place" while the surrounding environment changes; the idealization and valuing of personal independence among seniors; and differences between men and women in the establishment of friendships and other interpersonal connections.."
[The review criticizes Klinenberg for politicizing his analysis, which may be fair.]

I'm wondering how much of this is going to turn out to be true in New Orleans, replacing lack of AC with lack of operational cars?

A side note, while some have seen racism in the response to the hurricane, I suspect a fair part of the problems in the pre-hurricane planning is our human tendency to stereotype--that is we can't comprehend the vastness and variety of the human landscape so we simplify, thinking of the two-parent family with car, etc. etc.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

What Does "Modem" Mean?

I'm still amazed that there's problems in communicating across radio systems. 25 years ago engineers had solved the problem of converting analog sound signals into digital signals and back in something call a "modem". (Anyone remember when a modem had a cradle for the phone receiver?) Surely you could kludge up a partial solution to the problem without much effort. But I guess FEMA and DHS never made a market for such solutions. Did they hope to convert everyone to the same system? That would be optimal, but the best is often the enemy of the good.

Silos and Katrina

Katrina exposes not only the class divide that David Brooks cites, but the silos resulting from our system of weak and divided government. (Professor Bainbridge cites the opposite position--the problem is big public bureaucracies.) Items:

  • each entity has their own communication system and, incredible as it seems, almost 4 years after 9/11 there are still areas where they can't communicate (I note that private enterprise hasn't been able to agree on standards for the next version of DVD so there's no magic there.)
  • the National Guard works state by state
  • each bureaucracy does its own thing by its own rules
  • the Corps of Engineers and FEMA may not coordinate well (it will be interesting to see in the postmortems the extent to which the design limits of the levee system was factored into disaster planning and whether, in the decisionmaking leading up to the design decision, the problems of evacuating 100,000 people with no means of private transport were realized)
It all gets back to the question of how you achieve aims by organization and minimize the problems across organization. I don't think there's a perfect solution, but we can certainly improve on Katrina

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Respect for All Beliefs, or Just Religious Ones?

The Washington Times reports that the Naval Academy will retain its noonday prayer described thus:
" The brigade of about 4,000 students gathers at noon at King Hall. They stand by their chairs for announcements and the welcoming of any guests. Then, one of the school's six chaplains delivers a nondenominational prayer. Sometimes a moment of silence is observed instead.
'Those who want to participate may do so,' Cmdr. Gibbons said. 'Those who do not wish to participate do not have to pray. But they are expected to remain respectful for those who do.' "
While the ACLU might have a problem with this, I don't, except. (There's always an "except".) A paper, maybe the Times, did a piece recently on the chaplain problem in the military, including a table listing the number of military personnel by religious affiliation and the number of chaplains. The focus was on evangelical chaplains, but I was fascinated to see that around 100,000 military had no affiliation. Of course, there were no chaplains with "no affiliation".

My point is that there seems to be no military context/ceremony that would call for religious people to "remain respectful" for those who have different beliefs.

God Is Better Than "I"?

The New Scientist reports on a study of meditation which showed that:
"People practising spiritual meditation were more relaxed and better able to withstand pain than those performing secular meditation.

College students who volunteered for the study were randomly assigned to one of three groups regardless of their spiritual beliefs. The 25 students in the spiritual meditation group were told to concentrate on a phrase such as 'God is love' or 'God is peace' during their meditation periods. Those in the secular meditation group used a phrase such as 'I am happy' or 'I am joyful' while the third group were simply told to relax."
Seems to me a biased study. Surely the variables should be "God" (perhaps using various names and concepts) and "the universe". My image of Christianity is that one's sins are washed away in a union with God; my image of atheism is that one's defects and sins lose significance when viewed with the universe. Am I saying I'm more of a pantheist than an atheist? Perhaps but that's a fairer comparison than asking someone to focus on himself as opposed to God.

Gas Lines and Empty Shoes

A primer on gas lines for those too young to remember the 1970's.

To begin, remember everyone has a routine. That includes when and where to gas up--what's your trade off between having the security of gas in the tank and the hassle of refueling? Do you believe in "just in time" refueling or do you always want half a tank just in case?

The answers to those questions determine how many gas pumps we have and how much gas stations keep on hand.

The routine also determines routine consumption of gas, how many miles we drive.

Now throw a hurricane or an OPEC embargo into the picture. Suddenly everyone gets a little worried, so we all start refilling a little sooner, i.e., a little more often than we used to. That means the supply of gas pumps is not enough, so we start seeing lines. Then there's real scarcity in places. That increases our anxiety. The existence of lines proves that gas is in short supply, so everyone gets really anxious and refills every 50 miles.

That giant sucking sound is the preexisting gasoline stockpile slurping from gas stations into gas tanks. Now there are real shortages and real lines. But the lines don't affect demand for gas, at least not directly. Gas lines raise the price of gas by throwing in costs of time and aggravation.

Gas lines vanish when everyone has gas in their tank at their new comfort level so they stop refueling so often so the supply of pumps rebalances with the demand.

(The foregoing suggests that lines are a creation of panic, which they are and Malcolm Gladwell may or may not have discussed the phenomena in "Tipping Point". Real shortages are solved by higher prices, both in dollars and in time, which end up reducing the amount of driving.)

The empty shoes and sandals on the Baghdad bridge remind that panics can occur everywhere and any time multiple people have to interact. Gas lines remind that Adam Smith's "invisible hand" has limits: our interacting routines are an example of the invisible hand working; our gas lines are an example of the failure of the invisible hand.