Monday, October 31, 2005

Rebuilding Iraq

Dan Drezner blogs on the report of the inspector general for the Iraq Reconstruction effort here.

The report is here.

The lead to the report highlights the shortfall in the number of projects that are being done. Our great aspirations in summer 2003 are sadly trimmed in the gray October of 2005.

Dan cites the criticism of the planning for the effort. I'd like to focus on another area, one that liberals often ignore. It's true, as was cited in a Post article on Katrina reconstruction, that doing stuff for people is lots worse than having people do stuff for themselves. It's a lesson I've seen over and over, whether in the results of much foreign aid from the 1950's on or in a bureaucracy, whether building things or building software.

Why--take an example of rebuilding the Kabul/Kandahar highway in Afghanistan. Very worthwhile, successfully completed, not controversial. But. Highways require maintenance, maintenance requires money, money requires either continuing foreign aid or a functioning tax system. Maintenance also requires equipment and contractors. To the extent that the reconstruction meant developing a base of Afghani expertise and contractors, the highway can be maintained. But reports from Afghanistan don't show the development of an effective bureaucracy that can assess and collect taxes (not even a government that can do a tax law that is complied with).

Similar logic applies in Iraq, whether it's hospitals or schools. Unfortunately, maintenance is not a "sexy" subject. Politicians and political scientists put their time and thought into the policy decisions, but fail to recognize that for a long term achievement you need the supporting web of bureaucracy and resources. Even the inspector general is likely to be focussed on the building, not the maintenance.

Social Learning

Sebastian Mallaby in the Post writes a column, Do Seniors Need Saving?, that raises many questions. The theme is that with globalization and longer lives, and the decline of pensions (see NYT magazine) people should be saving more now, but instead they're saving less.

He addresses a liberal strawman--that the "hidden persuaders" of the 1950's are making people spend more and save less:
"But people managed to save back in the 1950s, so they could also save today. Indeed, the hidden persuaders are surely less insidious now than they were then: People have gotten better at zoning out their messages."
I think it's true that societies learn. Supposedly that's the case for crack: people, particularly young people, in the inner cities saw the ravages of the crack epidemic of the 1980's and decided not to use it. A similar explanation may have been offered for the decline in teenage pregnancies, crime, etc.

But another way to look at this is as an arms race between consumers and commerce, with each side searching for advantage. Advertising has been around for centuries, getting more sophisticated all the time. Consumers have been around for a while, also getting more sophisticated all the time. Unfortunately Mr. Mallaby is a whippersnapper, with no personal memory of the 40's and 50's. There's more and more choice of products, more and more personalized advertising, more and more product placement. For example, I don't remember any vending machines in my high school, nor do I remember Disney doing a lot of product tie-ins when Cinderella was released.

My bottom line: in a race between people who have a direct and immediate financial incentive [to sell] and those whose incentive [to save by not consuming]is more diffuse and more delayed, I'd place my bets on the first.

Postscript: Thomas Schelling, whom I seem to cite repeatedly these days, did work on the idea of two people in one skin--the one who craves immediate gratification versus the one who plans and saves. Rereading that work would be interesting.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Where Is the Economic Man

Economists use the concept of the "economic man", who is a rational seeker of maximum utility.

An exchange with a reader here about real estate prices reminds me of some other articles that challenge this. One was an article in the NYTimes about medical savings accounts. The idea is that of economic man--allow a person to tax shelter money to be used for medical expenses. People will use their money more wisely than if their medical expenses are covered by insurance. It's win/win: better health at a lower cost. The problem is, speaking as someone who each year for the last 30+ has had the chance to change insurance plans, people don't necessarily maximize utility. I just keep renewing my plan; it's much easier than spending the time to compare plans each year. (In that sense, I am maximizing utility.)

Similarly, Henry Blodgett in Slate looked at the investment strategy of Ben Bernanke, Greenspan's replacement as head of the Federal Reserve. Turns out he's not a rational economic man either, at least by academic standards.

The problem is, not that people aren't rational, but people are more multiudinous (see Walt Whitman) than economics, or the law, or other disciplines admit.

We See Only With Our Eyes

Today the NYTimes Editorial Page includes two pieces commenting on the indictment of Scooter Libbery that prove the point of my title--that we see only with the aid of our background and experience:
  • Robert Ray, successor to Ken Starr, uses Fitzgerald to say that regular prosecutors can do the job of investigating an administration's wrongdoings.
  • Lanny Davis, attorney and spin doctor for Clinton, shows sympathy for the Bush people, remembering that he never worried about the classification status of the information he used to spin the story. He says both sides are using double standards and worrying about motives instead of facts. He also sees them as falling into the same trap of covering up and spinning, as opposed to admission.
The latter point also confirms another piece of my wisdom: it's rare for people to learn from other people's experience. Back when we had coal stoves, I bet there never was a child who didn't burn him/herself on the stove, even though they'd seen someone else be burned. It's our natural egoism; we know better than others, we'll never die.

Friday, October 28, 2005

In Praise of Freecycle

I wonder if the economists in the government are taking freecycle into account? Freecycle, for those who don't know, is a no-cost classified ad concept implemented in Yahoo groups. For example, I'm in the Reston/Herndon freecycle group, so I get an e-mail digest containing "Offers" and "Wanted" postings. The Offers are of things still possibly usable but unwanted. For example, I just posted a series of offers, including an old (14 year old) PC and some homemade furniture. To my surprise, I've some interest from people.

Economically, the point is that freecycle (and, which operates slightly differently) lubricates the reallocation of assets, of "productive" stuff. By extending the useful life of products, it increases their value without requiring resources to produce. It's one of the rare instances where you can get something for nothing, or nearly nothing (since you do invest the time needed to coordinate the pickup).

Real Estate Bubble Ends?

I think it does. Yesterday I saw by the "for sale" sign in my townhouse cluster that they'd reduced the price on the house. Houses in the cluster have been selling for steadily climbing values since the millennium. Seems to me we started at about $100K, the most recent houses have been selling for $300+, and this house was priced for about $390K originally. It's in an area near the toll road in Reston--it's sort of on the fringe in an area with lots of townhouses and condos.

I've lived here for almost 30 years, buying back in a previous bubble in the 70's when land values and housing prices were taking off, before the crash that came with Reagan (a "crash" for ag land and office buildings, a leveling for houses). Back then the townhouses were good first homes, though there was a development of real small single family houses (like 800 sq. ft) that went for about $10K less. Over the years we've had problems with crime, lack of maintenance, renters, etc. (They seem to be over for the moment, although as people crowd multiple families into a single house and MS-13 becomes present, they may reemerge.) Prices took 25 years to double, which isn't a good return on investment, but now they've increased 200 percent more in 5 years.

It's sad--who can buy a house at $300K, much less the 900K for single family houses? It used to be a house was 2 1/2 times your gross. Today I think they're using a higher multiple, perhaps because basic living costs (food, etc.) take a smaller share of one's income. But still, a teacher who earns $50K has no hope. But with no kids I've only an academic interest in the health of the schools, but I've a greater interest in coffee. The local Safeway has big problems in hiring people for their Starbucks. Many of their clerks have worked there for a good while, so they're ensconced somewhere they can maybe afford. But Starbucks is new, takes a significant number of employees to staff, and the turnover has been tremendou. It's worrisome, because my coffee is essential to my health and sanity.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Ebbs and Flows--the Tide of Creative Destruction

The NY Times today has an article mostly on the scattering of the New Orleans labor force. However, it notes that some have migrated to New Orleans:
Its Work Force Scattered, New Orleans Wrestles With Job Crisis - New York Times: "Large numbers of workers who lived in New Orleans are now scattered throughout Louisiana or neighboring states, unable to return to flood-damaged houses and leaving hundreds of businesses unable to reopen or operating below capacity. Many are out of contact, or have settled elsewhere to enroll their children in schools.

Some positions are being filled by people from other states looking for new job opportunities in construction or, as in the case of the Five O'Clock Grille, service jobs."

One of my platitudes is that there are always tradeoffs, and it's true here. The farming way of life has changed/been destroyed in many areas, but the loss here is focussed and more visible. But, as in the case of the closing of some military bases, the new may seem better on balance than the old.

Gift That Keeps on Giving, or George Will Misleads

What is the gift that keeps on giving? For social commentators, otherwise known as the chattering class (thanks G. Will), it's the concept of the social ladder. Why? Because it works for both left and right and it's so vague you can make anything of it, as George Will does here

"America's economy is so dynamic that in any five-year period, approximately 45 percent of Americans move from one income quintile to another. Twenty percent move up from the bottom quintile in any 12-month period, and 40 to 50 percent move up over 10 to 20 years."

What are the ambiguities? Let me count the ways:
  1. The distinction between "income" and "wealth/assets"--the former is more variable, due to bonuses, separation pay, lottery winnings, commissions, etc. while the latter is more stable and usually more socially significant. (I've seen reports of research that says when you compare black and whites of equal family wealth, differences in test scores evaporate.)
  2. Using quintiles, or deciles (or whatever) means that every move up is matched by a move down which is why I say it works for both left and right. Mr. Will here uses "up"; in her recent book, Bait and Switch, Barbara Ehrenreich focuses on the "down".
  3. The difference between individuals and society. The modal individual in our society has an income curve that starts low, based on entry level pay in his or her occupation, then rises to a peak, then falls, rapidly or gradually depending on retirement benefits, etc. If you could visualize society over time, it's rather like seeing a school of fish: some leaping into the air, some in the water, some unseen below the surface, lots of activity and churning.

Learning by Doing--Military and FEMA

One of this blog's themes is learning. Here's another example, from today's Times:
Millions Are Still Without Power and in Need of Basic Supplies - New York Times: "Across the state in Naples, just north of where the hurricane made landfall early Monday, ice and water distribution appeared to be going more smoothly. At one station, members of several National Guard units were operating with assembly line precision. By 9 a.m., hundreds of cars, from Mercedes Benzes to jalopies, had lined up on a road leading into the parking lot of Barron Collier High School.

A National Guardsman in camouflage fatigues waved cars forward, and as each rolled up to a squad of soldiers, one sang out, 'Pop the trunk.' Other soldiers stepped forward with cartons of bottled water and plastic bags of ice, putting them in the car, tapping the trunk shut and motioning the driver on. Each delivery was over in seconds.

'We've done this so much over the last two or three years that we're getting pretty good at it,' said Sgt. First Class Tim Harper of the 265th Air Defense Artillery of Sarasota."

Simple but a product of learning. My point here is that you need the bureaucracy to incorporate such lessons. As long as the Guard in Florida is called out regularly, they'll have the institutional memory of how best to organize water/ice deliveries (assuming people have cars and gas). But if there's a gap of years, it will be lost because, I strongly suspect, there's no bureaucracy in place to capture "lessons learned" and put them into circulation and no training mechanism in place to spread experience to other places.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

In Defense of Bureaucracy

Though Secretary Powell's former Chief of Staff, Mr. Wilkerson, is receiving press attention for his speech at the New America Foundation which attacks the administration's foreign policy, I'd like to focus on his defense of bureaucracy, as follows:

"but fundamental decisions about foreign policy should not be made in secret.
Let me tell you the practical reason – and here I’m jumping over really into both realms, the practical reasons why that’s true. You have probably all read books on leadership: “The Seven Habits of Successful People,” or whatever. If you as a member of the bureaucracy do not participate in a decision, you are not going to carry that decision out with the alacrity, the efficiency and the effectiveness you would if you have participated. When you cut the bureaucracy out of your decisions and then foist your decisions, more or less out of the blue, on that bureaucracy, you can’t expect that bureaucracy to carry your decision out very well. And furthermore, if you’re not prepared to stop the feuding elements in that bureaucracy as they carry out your decision, you’re courting disaster."
It's certainly true that things go more smoothly if the bureaucracy has weighed the various policy options, sent them up to policymakers, and gets a decision back. That's the way the textbook says it should be done. But smoothness in decisionmaking and execution is not the end-all and be-all of policymaking.

It's true that human nature, and bureaucrats are mostly human, says that participation in a decision means energy in execution (assuming the decision went mostly your way). But a good leader is more than just the head of a bureaucracy. IMHO the leader needs to respect the abilities and needs of the bureaucrats, but know how to maneuver them. In other words, it's the "foist" in the above quote that is key, not the lack of participation. If you don't participate, it's easy to feel unenthusiastic, but a good leader can get acceptance. (Of course, it helps if the decision is right.) If I remember correctly, Lincoln's Cabinet opposed the Emancipation Proclamation and the Marshall Plan didn't come from the bureaucracy. In fact, they had to develop a new bureaucracy for it, which is a lesson in itself.

Perhaps the best metaphor is a lion tamer with lions? Once the bureaucrats smell weakness, they can turn on you, witness the media over the last couple weeks.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Accountability or Stooping Low?

I often wonder about our standards, compared to God's (assuming there is a god). The Old Testament God is St. Peter's patron, and a relative of Santa Claus, keeping a list of all one's sins for eternity. That implies that you are accountable for your misdeeds, no matter your age or the situation. Sometimes that's the standards endorsed by conservatives, particularly when liberals are involved. Take this bit from PowerLine, a small part of a discussion of Secretary Rice's return to Birmingham with Jack Straw, British Foreign Minister:
"I noted in the Standard column that the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963 had been the handiwork of former members of the Ku Klux Klan -- brothers under the hood to former Ku Klux Klan Grand Kleagle and current Democratic United States Senator Robert Byrd. Byrd of course opposed Rice's confirmation as Secretary of State. "
Byrd has apologized for his Klan membership, though perhaps in a Clintonian manner if my memory serves. In the course of a long (too long) Senate career he's migrated leftward (or maybe Congress has moved to the right) and become much more partisan. There seems to be an inverse relationship: the more pork he's gotten for West Virginia the further from the center he finds it safe to be.

But (many) conservatives don't believe in change, or forgiveness. They don't believe in rehabilitation of prisoners or parole. Some are starting not to believe in a President who says, "when I was young and irresponsible [although older when Byrd when he left the Klan], I was young and irresponsible." Any change is dangerous to these folks, who apparently were born right and never erred, never grew, and never learned.

Personally I find Powerline's linking of Byrd and bombers to be despicable.

More on Thomas C. Schelling and the Madman Theory

I recommend the History News Network for anyone with an interest in history. I blogged before on new Nobelist Thomas Schelling. This piece, Did Thomas C. Schelling Invent the Madman Theory?: by Jeffrey Kimball" discusses his work in the context of the late 50's.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Housing Changes

The Washington Post has a column, It's a Change, Not a Conspiracy, from a black resident of Takoma on the changes he's seen over the years. Recommended, but the bit I'd like to focus on is this:

"In the 16 years that I've lived in Takoma, I've seen three houses that were, arguably, sold out from under black owners who'd been there for decades. Two of the homes had been owned by couples whose children and grandchildren developed problems with drugs and alcohol. By the time the original owners died, the properties were heavily mortgaged. The heirs were forced to let the banks take the houses."

I'd pair this observation with data from New Orleans where the lower Ninth Ward had a very high home ownership rate. We, the mobile, college-educated elite, tend to assume that home-ownership is the result of buying. Thus it's important for the government to subsidize home-ownership, by allowing mortgage interest to be deducted on tax returns. What we forget is lots of homes are acquired by inheritance. Just like lots of farms are acquired by inheritance.

The old phrase about rags to riches to rags in x generations applies. Hurricanes like Katrina and epidemics like crack both result in the loss of status, the loss of inheritance. It's my belief that such things affect the social margins and the lower classes more heavily than the upper classes--there's just less margin of error and reserves available.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

USDA Flinches

It didn't take long for the Administration to back off the plan to close FSA offices. See this from House Ag Committe: News from the House Committee on Agriculture: "Goodlatte Supports Delay of FSA Office Closures "

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Bureaucrats Resist Change--Wash Post

This is very predictable:
"Farmers are famously resistant to change, and that goes for a recently announced
U.S. Department of Agriculture plan to close as many as 713 of the 2,351
county offices of the Farm Service Agency. "

It's an interesting case study in what some would call pork barrel politics. Some past efforts at closing and rationalizing offices have been successful, some have failed. (One of my former bosses came to DC when the plan was to consolidate state offices in the Northeast. Why do Rhode Island and Delaware need a State office to oversee a couple county offices?) As USDA moves more operations to the Internet and the number of farmers dwindles, the infrastructure needs to adjust accordingly. But from the point of view of the small country towns, the county seats, they both need the good paying federal jobs and whatever traffic the office generates by drawing farmers to the town. See the NASCOE site for a sense of what it looks like from the other side.

This irreconciliable conflict between two goods is one reason I took early retirement.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Assessing the Significance of Attack Data in Iraq--Contrarian

Seems like I'm due to challenge conventional wisdom (warning--this is off the cuff and not based on research):

The media reports that the military reports the average number of attacks per month in Iraq has steadily increased over the years since the end of significant military operations announced by our leader.

But this may not be significant, at least not as significant as it sounds. Counting and reporting is one of the things bureaucracy does. You need a flow of information up the channels to allow decision makers to make good decisions. So the data sounds useful. But changes in the data can reflect a change in reality or a change in the reporting mechanism.

In the early days of the war, DOD did no body counts; that was too much like Nam. My impression is that Rummy and Myers ran away from statistics as fast as possible. But as time has gone on, everyone searches for data, so the attack figure is one that has come to the forefront. My guess is that the military has become more and more concerned about the accuracy of such figures. They're probably also responding to continuous pressure from the media for such information. As the military changes and learns, it inevitably changes the data reported.

Take an example: someone in the lead vehicle in a convoy hears a couple bullets fly over head. That's all, nothing more. I don't know whether that counts as an "attack" today, but I'll bet it didn't count as an attack in July 2003. As a bureaucracy, the military has probably issued instructions on what counts as an attack and probably has a form, hopefully on-line, for reporting details. I don't know when they did that, but my experience is that you refine the instructions. (Did the bullets injure anyone? Was it Iraqi or U.S? Did they cause any property damage?) As time passes, there's also less downside to reporting attacks. Everything gets easier with experience, including reporting. There could also be some perverse incentives at work--don't report attacks, it looks as if the unit is in a quiet area so they may get moved to a hotter area. Report attacks and you may attract more resources. (There was a review of a book over the weekend, possibly in NYTimes--some ex-soldier reporting that his captain ordered an artillery barrage because the captain of a nearby unit had ordered one. ) That's the sort of thinking that leads to inflation of medals.

All this is, I suspect, documented in assessments of our experience in Vietnam. Iraq may not be Vietnam, but some of the dynamics of a (military) bureaucracy never change.

Ferrets and Turtles

The New York Times has an interesting article on a bureaucracy--the Medicaid bureaucracy,

I've a post in draft on Gary Becker's use of "a culture of dependency" in reference to New Orleans residents. To me, the term doesn't ring true, perhaps because I associate it with Reagan's welfare queen anecdote, which implies an active, manipulative role; people as "terrible two's". I think it's more accurate to say that many people are turtles, not good at all at manipulating their surroundings but pretty good at enduring. (Am I saying many people are Russian peasants, renowned for their endurance--perhaps.) Others are ferrets. And most of us age into turtledom.

Anyhow, many of the Medicaid patients described are turtles.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Football Bureaucray--The Tuck Rule

Piece in the WPost yesterday on the "tuck" rule. (Skins thought that Jake Plummer had fumbled into his own end zone last Sunday, but it was ruled a forward pass, hence the discussion.)

The way the rule reads now is roughly this: Once the quarterback starts his arm forward in a pass, it's an attempt to pass until he tucks the ball back to his body or starts a football move.) In the Denver game, Plummer started to pass, rather obviously changed his mind and pulled the ball down, but lost it in the process. The problem is the "obviously changed his mind"--that requires the officials to read the quarterback's mind to tell his intention. That's difficult for a bureaucrat. So the NFL doesn't want to change the rule, because what they have is based on visible moves, no mind reading required.

That's what bureaucrats like--objective evidence.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Inertia, or the Safety of the Known

Yesterday Gallup reported on CNN that, based on a poll of people who applied for relief after Katrina, of those who stayed until the hurricane hit, 45 percent (roughly, I'm going on memory) thought they could ride the storm out where only 25 percent lacked transportation and/or money to leave.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Class and America--Research Topic in the Stadia

In a WPost discussion of how the St. Louis Cardinals revamped Busch Stadium for baseball (as a lesson for DC to do a similar upgrade of RFK stadium) there was a brief mention of the need for luxury boxes. Such status symbols seem to be ubiquitous these days; almost as much as the proliferation of ways to recognize different levels of giving to colleges and cultural organizations.

It strikes me as a fertile area for some sociologist/economist to work: consider the transition from free to paid attendance, from one-class to multi-class tickets at sporting events and theater events, from "contributor" to differentiated giver. My impression is that everyone attending baseball games in the 40's wore suits and hats and paid the same prices. Today I don't know how much differentiation there is in seating, but a lot. (Of course, the attendees may all wear casual clothes these days.) I'm assuming the same forces are at work in all areas. There may be a relationship with the differentiation of culture, a subject Tyler Cowan has written on.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Black Removal (Home and Land Ownership)

Yesterday the media was reporting the return of residents to New Orleans Lower Ninth Ward to see what was left of their homes. This factoid was buried in the report: although 33 percent of the residents are below the poverty line, over 60 percent own their own homes. If memory serves, that is well above the national average for blacks, which is somewhere between 40 and 50 percent.
Let me jump into speculation. The high ownership rate is a function of the stability of the black population--people born in New Orleans stay in New Orleans. Over the generations, the working, saving blacks have built up their home ownership. Homes were cheap enough and wages high enough to make it possible for people to beome new owners. Conditions were stable enough so that existing owners didn't lost their homes.

That process may have been similar to the process in certain other cities, notably Washington, DC in mid-century. It is also similar to the progress in black land ownership in the 60 years after the Civil War. Blacks worked their way from ex-slave, to share cropper to tenant to landowner by hard work, thrift, and endurance. Land was cheap enough to make it possible.

What has happened: changes make it harder for existing owners to remain and for new people to buy.

1 In DC in the 1950's, urban renewal came along and removed many landowners. Rising housing prices, particularly recently, make it difficult for poor homeowners to stay. Unless you're in the meritocracy, there's little way to earn enough for families to buy new homes.

2 In rural America, the boom and bust of agriculture and the advent of mechanization, which lessened the advantage of large families, has meant black landowners leave for cities and the north.

3 In New Orleans, the odds are against the black homeowners being able to resume their life.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Schelling and Communication Problems

One of Nobel winner Thomas Schelling's concerns has been coordination between cooperating or competing parties. For example, if you agree to meet a party in New York City at a certain time, but forgot to specify a place, where would you go? It's a fascinating area. But Barbara Tuchman's histories remind us of the truth that software developers and parents also know--even when you're able to pass messages to the other, you may not communicate. Here's an excerpt from Joel on Software:
"Custom development is that murky world where a customer tells you what to build, and you say, 'are you sure?' and they say yes, and you make an absolutely beautiful spec, and say, 'is this what you want?' and they say yes, and you make them sign the spec in indelible ink, nay, blood, and they do, and then you build that thing they signed off on, promptly, precisely and exactly, and they see it and they are horrified and shocked, and you spend the rest of the week reading up on whether your E&O insurance is going to cover the legal fees for the lawsuit you've gotten yourself into or merely the settlement cost. Or, if you're really lucky, the customer will smile wanly and put your code in a drawer and never use it again and never call you back."
This, writ large, is the problem the FBI and many other organizations, public and private, have had in developing software.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

High Housing, Low Service

We went to the movies today ("A History of Violence") in Reston Town Center. Walking back, passed a pizza place with a sign on the window--what I caught was that it's apologizing that lack of staff may result in long waits. On the radio this morning, someone in Montgomery County was pushing a proposal to require developers to include low-cost housing in their developments. "Low cost" in this case means something buyable on an income of $50-100K!!

As the spread between the top 1 percent (i.e., everyone we see on the TV) and the bottom 50 percent widens, we can expect poorer service, whether it's in restaurants or schools.

Luddites or Conservative

Daniel Drezner did not get tenure. Among the comments on his post was this: :: Daniel W. Drezner :: So Friday was a pretty bad day....: "Of course, its hard not to consider the blog. Even at my top-ranked and technologically progressive university, I find that the tenured faculty members in our political science dept. have a very conservative view towards new technological approaches. None ofthem use Powerpoint, listen/assign podcasts, have/read blogs, etc. And suggestions to start a departmental blog or regular podcasts of visiting speakers has been met with a genuine lack of enthusiasm."
It's hard to stay open to new things. I like to think I do, but I find myself skipping the reviews of "graphic novels" in the Post Book Review. I can't take upscale, pretentious comic books seriously; I can't take the comic books I read back in the 1950's seriously.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

LaVar, the Unbureaucrat

The Washington Redskins don't have a quarterback controversy; Mark Brunell has resolved that for now. They do have a linebacker controversy. Their best athlete and highest paid defensive player, LaVar Arrington, hasn't been playing much, although he's recovered from last year's injuries.

Why? He's not bureaucratic. The defensive coaches have a highly structured defensive "scheme "(this is the only time Americans use the word in the same way the Brits do). Apparently Arrington has difficulty following the plan during the game, as well as trouble putting his heart into it in practice.

Football is a bureaucratic game--the play book is the set of instructions, the choreography for the performance. The best I can tell, there are tradeoffs among aggressiveness, free lancing, team spirit, and following the plan. Much the same in bureaucracies.

Power Line's Delusions

The folks at Power Line fall victim to an age-old myth, the distrust of the metropolis, of the ruses and schemes of those evil people at the center who entrap the poor unwary hick from the country's heart. In a discussion of the Miers nomination, and why Bush might have appointed her:
"I think that Bush is acutely aware that the Souter nomination was his father's worst and most avoidable mistake. I think that, as was widely reported, he liked John Roberts and was impressed by him during their relatively brief interview. But what grounds, really, does Bush have to trust Roberts? How does he know he won't 'grow in office'? It seems pretty obvious to me that Bush selected Miers to make damn sure that at least one of his nominees won't drift to the left. He knows Miers well enough to know that she won't be seduced by Washington Post editorials and Georgetown dinner parties, as a number of Republican appointees have been. He doesn't think Roberts will be seduced, either, but he can't know for sure. Isn't it obvious that the reason Bush chose Miers instead of a better known, objectively better qualified nominee, is that he wanted to be absolutely sure of appointing a staunch and unwavering conservative?"
Roberts was a DC lawyer and a DC justice, so if he hasn't already been seduced by the Washington Post, he should be safe. David Souter is renowned for being only slightly more sociable than Ted Kacynski, which suggests it's not DC wine and water that's seductive, it's legal ideas presented in briefs and arguments by competent lawyers.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Tom Friedman Is Right--China's National Ballet

Tom Friedman had a column Wednesday pointing to the interaction between U.S. forces (the Navy) and Iraqi and other forces. Our forces are very diverse and women are in authority. Theirs are not. Tom argues that we're educating as we go, presenting the model of a big country that handles the stresses of diversity.

Went to a performance at the Kennedy center last night by the Chinese National Ballet. Interesting, doing Giselle Act 2, and three Chinese pieces. I was struck by the nondiversity of the company. I have no idea whether it's an artifact of the pool from which they select, or whether the company directors consciously pick them, but I'd swear both sexes adhered to a pattern in terms of height. My seat wasn't the best for making judgements, but I'd swear they deviated by maybe 3 or 4 inches tops. Any American company would have a much greater deviation.

I understand that China has lots of different languages and ethnic groups. Apparently they don't do ballet yet.

Individuals Versus FEMA, Which Is Better?

The Times Oct 5 had an interesting article on an individual who did great work in reestablishing communications after Katrina, using wireless Internet networking--apparently used in rural areas using antennas and parts of the radiomagnetic spectrum. (See note below.)

The issue is why could he do so well in comparison with a bureaucracy like FEMA. I think it's related to why the Aussie's could win the Nobel in medicine by proving bacteria cause ulcers. The points are:
  • some knowledge and expertise (pathology in the case of the Nobel, WISP in the case of the Katrina)
  • existence outside the established networks (one's ideas aren't prestructured by being part of a job within a web of interacting people. In the case of the Nobel, the instigator was simply an observant pathologist, not an ulcer specialist. In the case of Katrina, the guy was simply an entrepreneur who had a sideline of doing wireless in rural areas.)
  • supportive resources (the Aussies got money for their work, the Katrina guy put up his own money, then attracted support from outsiders who wanted to help).
FEMA probably does not have anyone whose job is to look for ways to reestablish communications. It probably does have people whose job is to work on telephones and cell phones and radio, etc. But the wireless network is new technology, so it wouldn't be incorporated into the FEMA structure (or the structure of state emergency management, either). Even if someone in FEMA had the knowledge, it didn't fit his or her job. In the aftermath of Katrina, everyone at FEMA had to do their job.

Note: This is the Times description:
In one swoop, Mr. Dearman not only connected people in crisis, but he also illustrated the power of long-distance wireless networks, an emerging technology that uses unlicensed radio-wave bandwidth to send Internet signals into rural towns and cities, where the connections are locally accessible, much like Wi-Fi hot spots. The networks typically use microwave dishes and routers to beam and distribute the information many miles in the air from an original Internet connection.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Miers Prediction

If Harriet Miers is confirmed, I predict that early results will start talking of the "Roberts twins", as in the 70's when Berger and Blackmun were appointed together. Miers will spend some time following the lead of more experienced justices, and would logically gravitate to Roberts, as they will both be newcomers to the group and probably bonded during his confirmation battle. A few years in, Miers will start to emerge as an independent voice, much as Blackmun did and Thomas has. But the conservatives should be happy--Bush is giving them a reliable conservative vote for a few years and that's all he could reasonably promise.

I observed over on that both Roberts and Miers seem to work well with others, which may mean they do well in attracting support for their positions on the Court. (As a nonlawyer, I'm more impressed by the small-group sociology of SCOTUS than by doctrines.)

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Why I Believe in Original Sin

Why--because there's always someone who spoils things. I've just had to turn on comment verification, which requires any commenters to prove they're human by entering the correct letters in a box, because this blog was starting to get software-generated comments advertising various things/sites.

The effect is to throw sand into the machine, to slow down the interchange of ideas, and, most importantly, to diminish the likelihood of people commenting. To libertarians and free market conservatives, I suppose this is just to be expected. To me it's like tossing your trash on the ground instead of the garbage can. I'm mad.

How Do You Get to Stockholm--Keep a Certain Distance

"Network" theory says that weakly linked networks are more powerful than tight ones. For example, if you're job hunting, your casual acquaintances are more likely to come up with good leads than your close friends and family. It's the tale of the emperor's new clothes--the adults who were into the networks of power and expectations conformed to conventions, the child asked the right question.

Here's another instance--
Two Win Nobel Prize for Discovering Bacterium Tied to Stomach Ailments - New York Times:
"Dr. Marshall said that working in a 'weird' and academically obscure location aided in the discovery because he and Dr. Warren could pursue their observations without interference from the prevailing beliefs.

'If I had come up through the normal gastroenterology training schemes in the United States, I would have been so indoctrinated on the acid theory that I wouldn't have been considering anything else and might have skipped over Helicobacter, as everyone else had done,' Dr. Marshall said in a telephone interview yesterday."

Monday, October 03, 2005

Symmetry in Opposition

One of the truisms in social science is that opposites tend to mirror image each other. To put it another way: when entitities are in conflict, a change in one causes related changes in the other. When the conflict is predator/prey, or international relations, it's often called "arms race". Admiral Jackie Fisher creates the "dreadnought", all-big-gun battleship and launches an arms race with Germany that ends in millions killed. In other realms you can see a catalytic influence--add an ingredient to the mix and things start to get more organized. In the oil industry of the 1860's-80's, J.D. Rockefeller was the catalyst, organizing and rationalizing the industry, vertically integrating the flow of oil. Competitors also had to vertically integrate.

In politics, Tom DeLay may have been a similar catalyst, with impacts on both Dems and Reps, according to this analysis in the WPost:

DeLay's Influence Transcends His Title: "His take-no -prisoners style of fundraising -- in which the classic unstated bargain of access for contributions is made explicitly and without apology -- has been adopted by both parties in Congress, according to lawmakers, lobbyists and congressional scholars. Democrats, likewise, increasingly are trying to emulate DeLay-perfected methods for enforcing caucus discipline -- rewarding lawmakers who follow the dictums of party leaders and seeking retribution against those who do not."

Sunday, October 02, 2005

'Virtual Card' Should Be Example for Social Security

Washington Post yesterday had an article on "virtual credit card" numbers as an antidote to credit card theft.
"Offered to holders of Citi, Discover and MBNA cards, these 'virtual credit cards,' or single-use card numbers, are designed to give some peace of mind to consumers concerned about credit card fraud. Although the system slightly differs on each card, the principle is the same: For no extra charge, consumers sign up at the credit card's Web site, often downloading software on their computers. Then, when they're ready to shop, they receive a randomly generated substitute 16-digit number that they can use at the online store. The number can be used once or, in some cases, repeatedly at the same store."
The Social Security Administration should follow this example--allow people to get one-shot SSN's that work only for a relationship with a given organization. [ed--isn't this your hobby horse for doing away with SSN's? Yes}

Cutting Bureaucracy by Making It Faceless

USDA is trying once again to reduce its field offices, as discussed in the following. The last time began under Secretary Madigan in 1992 and was finally implemented under Espy/Glickman. It's a painful process. As rural towns dwindle and dry up, every remaining employer becomes even more important, particularly if you can argue that the office draws farmers to the town. The picture is blurred when you throw in towns that are really becoming suburbs. For example, closing the office in Leesburg Virginia wouldn't affect business there at all. But closing Leesburg makes all other offices a wee bit nervous.

The mention of technology investments is also reminiscent of the 1990's effort. It's true that you can improve efficiency by these means but you also make the bureaucracy faceless.

"'FSA is an agency with a strong record of service to farmers and ranchers,' said Johanns. 'To continue that tradition we must examine our future course with vision and an understanding that producers' needs are changing. Our FSA state directors are engaging stakeholders, local, and state congressional leaders to develop proposals that will help us chart the course for the agency's future. My hope is that we can agree on a plan that will make it possible to invest in equipment, technology and our employees. We want to ensure that top notch service is provided to our farmers and ranchers long into the future.

Nationally, the agency has 2,351 county offices across the country. More than 400 of these offices now have two or fewer full-time staff. Nearly 500 offices are within 20 miles of the next nearest office. And, the cost of delivering services varies widely, ranging from less than 1 cent for the delivery of a dollar of program benefits to more than $2 in expenses for every dollar of benefits delivered."