Monday, November 28, 2005

Religion as Accident

Paul Bloom in the December Atlantic argues that the religious impulse results mostly accidentally from the way that human minds work. We have separate systems for understanding physical objects and social objects, with the one being subject to Newton's laws, the other subject to interpretation, purpose, intention. It's interesting, but I'm not convinced. I'd be more tempted to argue that people are naturally interested in good stories and that's what religion is--stories that make sense of the universe.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Where Are the Secretaries/PA's?

The NYTimes has an interesting graphic on the subject: "Who Spoke to Woodward"? Don't know if the link will work without a subscription. While it's a good guessing game, it also shows the pervasive bias of DC, and perhaps the emotional reality of working in a bureaucracy.

Take a look at the graphic: it lists only "principals", no personal secretaries as they used to be called (remember Rose Mary Woods, Nixon's secretary?) or personal assistants/executive assistants as seems to be the modern nomenclature. I'd wager that the majority of these people have one or more people who knew about Ms Plame. But people never see these people when they discuss bureaucracy. I'd love to know if Woodward shares this vision problem. When he was hanging around the White House and ran into Mark Felt, was he really chatting up the secretary?

It's possible the answer is "no". The emotional reality seems to be that most PA's are so loyal to their boss (think Woods and Fawn Hall, Ollie North's secretary) that they're more discreet than their boss. (And sometimes more capable, though that's a topic for another day.)

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Gains from "Comforting the Enemy"?

Daniel Drezner posts an excerpt from an Economist article arguing that Al Qaeda/Zarqawi have antagonized the "Arab street" and draws attention to a comment:
[Economist]" Now, or so it seems, it is the cooling of the Palestinian intifada, a slight lowering of the volume of imagery featuring ugly Americans in Iraq, and a general weariness with jihadist hysteria that have allowed attention to refocus on the costs, rather than the hoped-for rewards, of “resistance”. At the same time, the rising tide of American domestic opposition to the war has begun to reassure deeply sceptical Arabs that the superpower may not, after all, be keen to linger on Arab soil for ever. (emphasis added)
The administration has consistently crticized the domestic opposition to the Iraq war effort because it ostensible undercuts troop morale. However, the suggestion that this same opposition helps to vitiate Arab claims of U.S. imperialism is an intriguing one."

This seems reasonable to me. After all, one of the premises of liberalism, I think voiced by J.S.Mill, is that open discussion is the corrective to dogmatism. I remember the 50's, when in the words of Whitaker Chambers--democracy/the West seemed to be the losing side. Communist totalitarian society seemed to have the advantage in allocating resources, as shown by big gains in GDP, culminating in Nikita's boast that they would "bury" us. (He claimed to have meant in economic terms.) Then, too, liberals had to trust to the idea that efficiency directed to a goal was not the end all and be all. While Cheney and his running dog Bush (while I'm stuck in the 50's I might as well revive some rhetoric from that era) believe that a single-minded, focused effort is needed to defeat terrorism, liberals must believe that the virtues of the society/culture will prevail, even when dissent undermines the morale of the Pentagon troopers.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Conservatives, Multiculturalism, and U.S. Reality

The conservatives at Power Line take out after multiculturalism today, citing a piece from Britain discussing supposed British policy:

"As an ideology, multiculturlism [sic] is a corrupted form of Marxism in which race and nationality replace class. Like Marxism itself, it is an ideology that must be opposed if we are to preserve a country founded on the proposition that all men are created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights.

I don't know enough to judge whether France is in better shape than Great Britain with respect to the corruptions of multiculturalism. Moreover, it seems to me that elites in the United States -- the 'leaders' whom John wrote about yesterday -- have similarly elevated multiculturalism into an operative principle, if not a principle of governance. We have our own multicultural problems with with which to contend. McKinstry's article outlines the looming perils that confront us as well as the Brits and the French."
Americans have often been suspicious of "multiculturalism" (which I define as the presence and recognition of different cultures on U.S. soil). After all, the land has seen a congeries of peoples presumably ever since the first immigrants crossed the Bering Sea. I'd like to think that conservatives have been especially suspicious, but it's true of liberals as well. The irony for conservatives is that they tend to be libertarians, wanting the maximum of autonomy for individuals. But when the individuals share a culture, it becomes a threat.

When you think about the range of cultures within our borders, everything from California valley girls (am I showing my age) to the Amish, from the hasidic Jews to the Mormons, from the Lakota to the Appalachian country, from all the recent immigrants from around the world to the descendants of Virginia's First Families and the Winthrops and Kerrys from New England; we've a big spectrum. And mostly we accept all the cultures--we'll grant the right of the Amish to be Americans, even though their culture is very "un-American". Where conservatives (and others of us) object is when a group tends to deny the hegemony of the dominant culture. As long as a group goes quietly around their business, whatever their oddities, we can accept it as part of the American quilt. But when a group becomes vocal and insistent, then it becomes a threat.

Ironically, it's often when a group well into the process of melting that it becomes vocal. Witness the "black power" movement of the late 60's and early 70's; the emphasis on the great famine among Irish Americans; the Ku Klux Klan among white rednecks, and so forth. Conservatives should have more confidence in the power of the market system to bring cultures into at least loose coordination. You have only to look at the restaurants in the DC area (see Tyler Cowan's site) to see the power and attraction of multiculturalism.

Monday, November 21, 2005

The Road to Baghdad

Since Veteran's Day many have talked about the road to war. The President has attacked his critics for selective memory, forgetting that they supported the war resolution and thought Saddam had WMD. Milbanks and Pincus in the Post have quibbled with his statements, pointing out the administration had more complete information than Congress and noting there's been no investigation of how the intelligence was used.

I don't remember blogging very much on this issue. I'd classify myself with Bill Keller and Kenneth Pollack as a reluctant hawk. That is, doubting that Iraq had any connection with Al Qaeda, believing that Saddam was a bad man who ought to be removed, impressed by the quick collapse of the Taliban that maybe Rummy was on to something, etc. (I think the latter is a point often forgotten. The course of events in Afghanistan seemed to discredit many of those who feared a quagmire, who thought the US was following the USSR into an unholy mess. When the Taliban collapsed, it raised Rummy and GWB's creditability significantly. It lowered the effectiveness of the opposition to taking on Saddam, which seemed to rest on the quagmire argument. The only thing left was asking for international support, as in 1991.) I also remember the Clinton administration. At some point, Sec. Cohen went on TV with a bag of sugar as a prop in expounding the dangers of WMD. And Albright and Cohen went to a university as part of a campaign to act against Saddam and were rather ineffective in making it.

That being said, it seems obvious to me that the administration made up its mind to go after Saddam very early after 9/11, that they used everything they could and bypassed the bureaucracies to get some more to make their case, and had a closed mind. The latter is the sticking point: in September 2002 under pressure from Scowcroft, Lugar, Blair,, the administration agreed to go through the UN and did its "war" resolution accordingly. The problem is that it was a forced change of course. Neither Bush nor Cheney had his heart in the course they were following. Of course, I suspect many Democrats thought it was the best deal they could get at the time: maybe going to the UN for international support would cause the administration to reconsider, if not, they'd done their best.

The implication of the current criticism is that an administration should have kept an open mind all the way up to the time the bombs fell. If the casus belli was solely WMD, that would be rational. You get the UN inspectors back into Iraq, they can't find anything even though they've got the best leads you can give them, you should go back to the drawing board and consider whether your intelligence assessments were really sound. But when you decided to take out Saddam on 9/12 and your problem was simply assembling the case and the public support, there's nothing to reconsider.

The decision to go to war is not a decision like choosing a college, though many on both sides talk as if it were.

Why Burn Cars Rather Than Loot Stores II

Earlier I wrote on this question. Since then, my reading seems to indicate that the French riots are in the suburbs. Speculating wildly, for some reason the French didn't see the decline of the "inner city" that we saw during the 1950'-80's (though many inner cities have rebounded since then, partially due to immigration, partially to yuppies, partially to economics) with the poor and minorities getting squeezed there. Perhaps the Muslims in France were housed in the equivalent of the US housing projects that were done to redevelop the slums. I don't remember a lot of rioting occurring in the US in those projects, but it makes sense that there'd be fewer stores and more cars located near such project.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Undermining Troops?

A standard response to those who criticize the conduct of war and who call for something less than unconditional surrender is: "you're undermining our troops." We've heard it throughout American history. It carries a heavy charge, because it implies disloyalty to people who are fighting and dying. Is it fair?

IMHO it all depends on the definition of "troops" you're using. Usually it refers to the combat soldiers, the enlisted man and woman. In that sense I doubt the validity of the charge. The lower on the totem pole you go, the greater the concern with just getting through the next day and the lesser the concern with policy. (Reminds me of the signs on many bureaucrats' desks to the effect: "It's hard to remember you wanted to drain the swamp when you're up to your waist in alligators.") On the other hand, the further away from danger you get, the more the mind is free to focus on issues. (That's the definition of bureaucratic hierarchy--the bosses are supposed to worry about goals and objectives.)

Of course, the bosses like to wrap themselves in the aura of the front line troops, whether you're talking the Army, a corporation, or a civilian bureaucracy. It's the "we're all in this together" idea. I may be overly cynical, but mostly the idea is just wall decoration.

From MSNBC, on the House debate:
"At one point in the emotional debate, Rep. Jean Schmidt, R-Ohio, told of a phone call she received from a Marine colonel.

“He asked me to send Congress a message — stay the course. He also asked me to send Congressman Murtha a message — that cowards cut and run, Marines never do,” Schmidt said. Murtha is a 37-year Marine veteran and ranking Democrat on the defense appropriations subcommittee."

Note that the person sending the message was a colonel, not a lance corporal. So no, I doubt Rep. Murtha affected the morale of the troops, but he probably ruined Rummy's day.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Why Burn Cars Rather Than Loot Stores?

The recent spate of unrest in France has triggered some sociological speculation. Supposedly France is a nation so committed to equality under the law that it refuses to recognize religious/ethnic groupings that aren't doing well. There's also been some speculation that the unrest is mostly unique to France, with the implication that the U.S. wouldn't see such an epidemic of car burnings, etc.

But I've another question: why do the French burn cars? Remembering the MLK riots, there was a lot of looting and burning of stores. I think that the LA riots after the Rodney King arrest had the same pattern. But I don't remember a lot of cars being burned. What's the difference?

First, it might be distortions of reporting and my memory. But as I could write that sentence almost every time I blog, we won't worry about approaching senility and will instead assume that there's a real difference in riot patterns.

It could be that cars have different symbolic value in different societies. Or that the ownership patterns are different--in the U.S. some poor people own cars, in France, few of the angry (don't know the best term to use for second generation young Moslem men of North African extraction) do.

It could be that in U.S. slums, the cars parked on the streets belong to the residents, whereas in France the cars belong to outsiders. But that assumes that the riots are happening where people live, as opposed to the rioters gathering on the borderlines of the ghetto.

It could be that in LA and DC, the riots had some underlying economic tensions--blacks angry at Jewish/Korean/whatever storeowners. Maybe in France the angry are housed in big developments. Maybe in France the angry are in the suburbs with nearby cars while in the US the angry were mostly in the inner city with stores but no cars.

Or maybe it's just a case of "monkey see, monkey do"? (New question--since that's an old phrase, why is it a surprise to primatologists that primates have culture?)

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Bridges to Nowhere, RIP? Or a Redefinition of "Saving"

Seems the Republicans have decided to remove the earmark for the "bridges to nowhere" in Alaska. Instead they're giving the money to Alaska to do with what they will. This they will call "cutting government waste and fat", "saving the taxpayers money", and "being responsible".

No wonder our education system is doing poorly. How can you expect eighth graders to keep up with all these changes in the language?

Most People..and Children Above Average

A phrase I picked up a few days ago, I think from a discussion of a study of how people assessed other people in their decision-making is:

"By definition, most people are in the majority." It blew my mind, because it sounds like Garrison Keillor's Lake Woebegon, where all children are above average. But it's really the same logic, reversed. Using a mathematical truth, it states a conclusion that's not obvious.

The discussion (perhaps in the Sunday Post Outlook) was on research into people's behavior in the Prisoner's Dilemma situations (where it's to your self-interest to rat on the other guy, but the best course of action for both is to zip lips). Apparently people are surprisingly apt to adopt the best course, surprisingly at least to economists who have no imagination. An evolutionist would say that, if it's the best course, people would have evolved to figure it out.

The logic of the argument is that people make a decision by looking at themselves, then figuring that other players in the game will be and act like themselves. The scientist said this was rational, because most people will be in the majority most of the time.

Still blows my mind.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

In the Future Your Cocoon Goes with You

The NY Times has an interesting story that anticipates the future. With modern technology, particularly the linking of electronic devices, hotels can capture all sorts of information about guests, store it, and use it the next time the guest visits to make their room/environment the way they like it. The same thinking would allow information on desired temperature, favorite stations and music, etc. to be transported from one place (home) to another (car, hotel, place of employment).
Technology Lets High-End Hotels Anticipate Guests' Whims - New York Times: "When regulars like Dr. Laurence Wiener check into the Mandarin Oriental in Manhattan, they get more than a smile from the concierge and a mint on their pillow. Dr. Wiener's hotel room knows how warm he likes it - 68 degrees. It welcomes him with a personal message on his television set. It even loads his most frequently dialed numbers onto the phone."

Class Matters

Sebastian Mallaby in the Post a couple days ago on:
Class Matters: "But in 1980, the top fifth of families earned 7.7 times as much as the bottom fifth; by 2001, that ratio had risen to 11.4. So even though the bottom fifth of households made modest gains, the inequality ratio jumped by almost 50 percent. If you measure inequality by wealth rather than earnings, the results are even more preposterous."
Read the whole thing. He criticizes liberals at the end for concentrating on programs, particularly defending them, rather than broadbased reforms. I think that's right, although the likelihood of big reforms is low.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Filling My Contrarian Quota for Today

Dan Drezner blogs about nonproliferation here .

Most striking are excerpts from an argument that we might have more to fear from democracies than rogue states--sounds reasonable to me. (Look at the list of states with nuclear weapons.) Of course, it could simply reflect the relative democratization of big and wealthy states over the past decades.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Farm Program Payment Limitations--Failure

I haven't paid attention to the farm program payment limitation issue in recent months. Senator Grassley's effort to save money by tighter limitations on farm program payments has failed:
"Grassley said he had difficulty getting a budget savings score from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) from his language to further reduce and modify farm program payment caps because CBO had difficulty tracing gains from generic certificates, as well as separate entities. 'There is no real system in place to track these payments,' Grassley said, adding that he had 'a problem with that' because 'there is no system to show where taxpayer dollars go' even though 'that was mandated in the 2002 Farm Bill.' Grassley said that legislation requires USDA to develop a system of tracking farm subsidy payments to people who benefit from them so there is no excuse. 'I am sending a letter to USDA asking Secretary Johanns to enforce Section 1614 of the farm bill so we know exactly who is benefiting from farm program payments,' Grassley said.

Asked why his latest effort on pay caps was defeated, Grassley acknowledged that farmers are currently getting large Loan Deficiency Payments (LDPs). A Minnesota banker has calculated that it only takes around 800 acres of corn to reach the $75,000 LDP cap this year (but generic certificates would allow producers an effective end around the actual LDP pay cap, but Grassley's proposed language would have repealed the use of generic certificates)."
The implication of the last paragraph is that, because more politicians have more of their constituents who might be hit by tighter rules, rather than just the usual cotton and rice people, it's a tougher fight.

The Same Mom, On the Job or Off

Washington Post has an interesting article from a wife and mother who took a 3 month paid sabbatical and summarizes the experience thus:
The Same Mom, On the Job or Off: "I could no longer bemoan the perfect mothering, and the calm and organized household, that my kids would certainly have if only I were home with them. Because as I discovered, when I was home, I was more or less the mother that I am -- not much better, not much worse. And our household was, more or less, the household it's always been."
I'm struck by it because it fits with my retirement experience. A change of circumstance doesn't necessarily change one's life. You're the same person, your reactions and faults and virtues don't change much, and work expands to fit the time available. (That's Parkinson's Law, which the writer is much too young to recognize.)

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Conservatives Dissolving the Social Compact?

Two prominent (conservatives, or maybe more accurately loudmouths) decided this week to read people out of the American community. First, Pat Robertson:
Heeere's Pat!: "On Thursday Mr. Robertson said on his daily television show, 'The 700 Club,' that because all eight Dover school board members up for reelection on Tuesday were voted out of office after trying to impose 'intelligent design' on high school students as an alternative to the theory of evolution, God is not going to show up if there's a disaster in Dover. They'd voted God out of the city, Mr. Robertson said."
Then Bill O'Reilly:
Bill O'Reilly takes aim at San Francisco - Radio - "'Listen, citizens of San Francisco, if you vote against military recruiting, you're not going to get another nickel in federal funds. Fine. You want to be your own country? Go right ahead,' O'Reilly said, according to a transcript and audio posted by liberal media watchdog group Media Matters for America, and by the San Francisco Chronicle."

"'And if al-Qaida comes in here and blows you up, we're not going to do anything about it. We're going to say, look, every other place in America is off limits to you, except San Francisco. You want to blow up the Coit Tower? Go ahead,' O'Reilly continued, referring to the 1933 San Francisco landmark that sits atop Telegraph Hill."
The urge to put those with whom you disagree outside the pale is common. It's how we get wars and oppression. I think in America it's more usual for the right to put their opponents outside of American society, the left tends to put their opponents as outside humanity (i.e., heartless plutocrats).
(See here for a dissection of the

Friday, November 11, 2005

Althouse and France--Diversity and Political System

Ann Althouse poses this question in referring to a NYTimes article: "Should France's policy of not taking account of race, ethnicity, and religion, in light of the recent rioting, make us look more favorably on our own attention to such things?"

I had a different question when I read the article--why the difference in the two democracies? The pattern in the US seems to be that political conflict tends to cause people to build coalitions of interest, trying to attract the last few votes to put them over the top. Perhaps that's at least a major reason why the US and France differ: they are a multiparty parliamentary system while the US is a two party system. In a multiparty system I guess maybe you appeal first to your base, and then negotiate with the leaders of the other parties to attain power.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

I Accept Bribes/ Barbara Ehrenreich's Bait and Switch

Am I being bribed? I mentioned Barbara Ehrenreich's new book, "Bait and Switch" in an earlier blog and a representative of her publisher sent me a free copy.

Is it a bribe? I think there's enough moral fiber inherited from my Presbyterian minister forebears that I'd reject money, but free books are another thing entirely. I guess the logic is: read it, blog it, all publicity is good. If that's so, I'm corrupt, because I have read it and am now commenting on it. If you don't want to compromise your own integrity, browse another site.

Economists, particularly conservatives, talk of "creative destruction" as characteristic of the free market system. Capitalism allocates money and labor to where they can be best used, which means cutting off inefficient units and encouraging efficient ones. When Ehrenreich and I were young, Ma Bell was the biggest company and Bethlehem Steel, New York Central, Westinghouse, and Univac were all big names in the economy. Telephone operators and secretaries were big occupations and blue collar manufacturing was unionized and paid well, while retailing was dominated by local stores and regional chains. Today those companies are gone; those occupations are gone or diminished. Instead we've Microsoft and Intel, Fed Ex, McDonalds, and Walmart and everyone is her or his own secretary and phone operator.

In evaluating such changes:
  • Conservatives focus on the "creative" side, all the wonderful advances in living standards over the years and the elevation of people from poverty in the East Asian countries. They tend to use absolute standards, saying that anyone with a large screen TV and indoor plumbing can't be "poor". They look at all the Microsoft millionaires and say life is grand.
  • Liberals tend to focus on the "destructive" side, all the psychic harm suffered by those not empowered by capitalism. They tend to relative standards, saying that anyone whose life is insecure is poor. They look at all the people who lost their jobs at Enron and ATT, who lost their guaranteed pensions, and who have no health insurance and say something must be done.
Ehrenreich is definitely liberal, as a matter of fact she's a member of Democratic Socialists of America, not that there's anything wrong with that. However she never admits her age (according to Wikipedia a tad younger than I--i.e., 64) in the book. (Why she would want to move from Charlottesville, a town rated the most livable in the country, she never says.)

Ehrenreich is an interesting writer and this is an interesting, though frustrating, book. She says her purpose was to look at the world of the middle-class, white collar America, having documented the struggles of the low wage employees (cleaners, Walmart sales, etc.) in her previous best seller, "Nickel and Dimed". Her strategy was to make up a fake resume as a PR freelancer and proceed through the world of job searchers documenting the weird flora and fauna she found there.

In short, she fails in her quest, but the journey is interesting. She gets some opportunities in sales, but fails to get the $50K job with health benefits she desired. She encounters both the jobless and those seeking to change jobs or occupations, but the more entertaining are the entrepreneurs (French for "shark") who navigate these waters. People losing jobs and seeking jobs create their own market, a market for tests and advice, counseling and contacts, support groups and mailing lists, all sorts of supposed solutions. The whole thing reminds me of the anthropologist who wrote on the function of "magic" in "primitive" societies. Another parallel is a book called "The Witch Doctors"which discussed the gurus who try to sell solutions to management (management is as gullible as some of the people Ehrenreich runs into). It seems any time people run into a risky situation with no clear solution, magic comes to the fore, whether it is the hapless white collar job seeker, or the corporate boss. (Ehrenreich recognizes that, if she were searching for real, rather than as a subject for a book, she would feel much more desperate and, perhaps, therefore more open to some of the nostrums being peddled.)

She has great fun in mocking the people she meets and refuses to take herself too seriously. I would have preferred more open discussion of the age issue. But admitting her age would have changed the subject to age discrimination, not her topic. As I said in my earlier blog, she criticizes advisors who say a job seeker should change herself to meet the company's needs instead of joining others to change the company. But that focus on the individual goes way back in America--Ben Franklin tried to make himself acceptable to the gentry of Philadelphia when he arrived there, he didn't organize the apprentices to go on strike.

The irony is that, despite herself, Ehrenreich's book shows the genius of capitalism. There's no doubt that she's a much better and more interesting writer pointing out the faults of American society than she would have been writing corporate press releases. So, the bottom line is that capitalism is making the best and highest use of her many talents.

Fearsome Government, Part II, France

The reporting on the riots in France is interesting, but lacking context. (That's always a safe sentence to lead with.)

France is different than the US, being a unitary, not federal state. The only politicians getting in news with respect to the riots are the mayors of Paris and other cities and the national government. No state governors to interpose their authority, to decide to request (or not request) national aid, federal troops, etc. Further, the national government could invoke a national policy of curfews with no question of its authority.

For those of us who remember the urban riots of the 60's, it's a vast difference. Once again, it points up the weakness of the U.S. national government compared to those of some other countries.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

AMT--How Soon We Forget

The Alternative Minimum Tax is an orphan these days, no friends at all. Allan Sloan in the Post is just the latest:
A Right and Wrong Way to Kill the AMT: "The hideously complex AMT was added to the tax code in 1969 to stop a few rich people from avoiding taxes entirely. But this year, it will afflict 3.6 million families, according to the Tax Policy Center, a joint venture of the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution. Next year, 18.9 million. In 2010, 30.9 million. That's not a handful of tax dodgers; it's the masses. "
But there was a reason for the AMT, based in bureaucratic facts. The truth is that no single scheme (nod to Brits) can enmesh reality. The mind of man the rulemaker cannot encompass all possibilities, so there are ways ("loopholes") to get around every tax law. Because there are, the rich have long evaded taxes. After all, they have every incentive to act "rationally" in an economic sense, to become "freeloaders". Every tax dollar they save is a net gain. All this leads to the situation where very rich people, wealthy either in terms of income or of assets, pay no taxes. A democratic country considers that to be wrong, particularly in a time when people are dying to protect the rich. (Isn't that what our troops are doing in Iraq--dying to benefit us, including the rich?) Hence the AMT in 1986. Hence the idea of doing away with the AMT strikes me as base and immoral.

Let me offer a counter suggestion: Many discussions of the AMT point out that it was never "indexed" for rising levels of income, which brings more and more people within its scope as time goes by. Given that fact, we could "fix" AMT by retroactive indexing--jigger its parameters to gradually reduce its scope over the next 10 years until it gets back to where it was in 1990. That would solve the "freeloader" problem. It would leave the Bush problem in plain view; the Bush problem being his erosion of the tax structure to the point where it doesn't support the government, certainly not Sen. Stevens' "Bridge to Nowhere".

Monday, November 07, 2005

What Fearsome Government?

Two items today that show the weakness of the government, ironically both from relatively conservative commentators:

One is Sebastian Mallaby, writing an op-ed in the Post on the problems of preparing for a flu pandemic:
A Double Dose of Failure: "Like Hurricane Katrina, the preparations for avian flu expose the weakness of American government. Pressing dilemmas get passed back and forth between executive and legislature, and between federal government and the states; lobbies get multiple chances to confuse and paralyze policy. Flood walls don't get built. Flu preparations don't get done. Government lets people down, and people don't trust government."
The other is Diane Ravitch, writing an op-ed in the Times on the problem of assessing students progress:
Every State Left Behind - New York Times: "WHILE in office, Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton both called for national academic standards and national tests in the public schools. In both cases, the proposals were rejected by a Congress dominated by the opposing party. The current President Bush, with a friendly Congress in hand, did not pursue that goal because it is contrary to the Republican Party philosophy of localism. Instead he adopted a strategy of '50 states, 50 standards, 50 tests' - and the evidence is growing that this approach has not improved student achievement. Americans must recognize that we need national standards, national tests and a national curriculum."

(Incidentally, GAO just did a report on the problems the Department of Education is having in standardizing data elements across the country so they can pull educational data into a national system.)
Of course, the founding fathers didn't want the government too powerful. See Federalist 10. The problem is that, if we can agree on a goal, the government can work. See the military knock off opposing military. But if we don't agree, as Ravitch and Mallaby find, the government does not work well.

Is Rational Evaluation Possible?

Read a piece in the Times yesterday that confirmed my prejudices, but which I forgot to link to. It was on conglomerates, saying that academic research says that conglomerates don't do well because the management tended to allocate capital more evenly among subsidiaries than they should, based on potential returns on investment. In other words, instead of rationally assessing the situation, these ruthless economic men {sic} tried to avoid hurt feelings and conflict by spreading the money around.

Use that as background for the ongoing controversy over performance evaluation plans in the federal government (see here for Wash Post article today). Unions and employees fear that bosses will play favorites; the other reality is that they won't bite the bullet and reward performance adequately. In my experience, the second is the reason that the Carter civil service reforms failed. (There's a notable failure by the current administration to examine those lessons.) Favoritism played a factor in the special awards but spreading the money around was the rule in handling the within-grade increase money.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Meeting and Bureaucracies and Nazis (Wannsee)

Bureaucrats are supposed to love meetings. By this criteria, Simon Ramo, a major figure in aerospace who has written a book on meetings reviewed in the LA Times is no bureaucrat.
"During his 69 years in the aerospace industry, Simon Ramo figures he's attended more than 40,000 meetings — an average of two or three per workday.

About 30,000 of those meetings could have been shorter or not held at all, he laments."
By bureaucratic criteria, the Nazi's Wannsee meeting, which is dramatized in the HBO movie "Conspiracy", which we watched last night, was very effective. Of course in a tyranny a man like Heydrich (played by Kenneth Branagh) can bribe and threaten to get a bunch of bureaucrats to agree on a course. What was interesting, and effective, in the movie was the differing perspectives brought to the movie by the various participants (the lawyer (Colin Firth) who'd done the original Nazi race laws, with their careful and bureaucratic categorizing of Jews and near-Jews, was especially interesting. What was horrible was the duality: on the one hand watching the tactics and concerns of the bureaucrats; on the other remembering the reality behind the bureaucratic language--that all of this led to 6 million dead.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Good News from Iraq--It's About Time

I learned in the 60's not to overestimate the military's intelligence. This piece in today's Post is good news (note the past tense), but it's rather late. You'd think Rummy and Victoria Clarke would have figured out that the single bit of evidence most useful to those who oppose the Iraq venture was the fact it wasn't safe to drive this highway.

Easy Sailing Along Once-Perilous Road To Baghdad Airport: "BAGHDAD -- It used to be the most dangerous highway in Iraq, five miles of bomb-blasted road between Baghdad International Airport and the capital cityscape. It was a white-knuckle ride, coming or going. To reach Baghdad or leave it, you had to survive the airport road first."

Why Does Time Switch Screw Up Traffic?

Mickey Kaus in Slate posts on the idea that:
"traffic in Los Angeles (and, perhaps, elsewhere) gets horrifically jammed every year right after the switchover from Daylight Savings Time. What's interesting is that this seems to be a purely sociological phenomenon rather than a technological one. As best as I can figure it out, what happens is roughly this: [some people get up by the clock; some by their body rhythms. That results in a changed distribution of drivers, meaning jams.]
As a retired bureaucrat who no longer drives in rush hour traffic and who lives 2500 miles away from LA, I'm well qualified to correct Kaus' answer:
It's also the strangeness. People get used to driving under certain conditions--the amount of sun in your eyes, the glare, the general ambience. Changes to and from DST upset that comfort level--all of a sudden the sun is in your eyes, you slow down as you flip the sun visor down. In near saturation traffic, it requires only the smallest disturbance in traffic flow to upset the whole deal. Change will do that.

Fat Epidemic--Challenges to Conventional Wisdom cites a study of the ratio between waist and hip, which correlates to heart risk. Buried in it is a possible indication that we aren't as fat as conventional wisdom says:
"Overall, waist measurements recorded by the researchers were about 90 percent of the hip measurements. People in China scored best at 88 percent, followed by 89 percent in southeast Asia, 90 percent in North America, 92 percent in Africa, 93 percent in the Middle East and 94 percent in South America."
LA Times has a review of a new book that also challenges the conventional wisdom. But I prefer to trust my eyes and my memory--Americans are getting heavier.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Michael Brown's Dogs

Both Times and Post report on the release of some of Michael Brown's emails yesterday, which show he was concerned about his image on and about a dogsitter (apparently for the time he was going to be in Louisiana for Katrina).

It's easy to mock, but, as a great President used to say, the easy course would be wrong. Bureaucrats are people, too, and have a private life. In other contexts people who try to balance their work life and their home life would be praised, not mocked.

Usually workers have spouses who can handle dog care, as my wife has handled cat care over the years. Brown could be criticized for not having planned ahead, or not having previously had the occasion to go out of town to a disaster (that's assuming his spouse wasn't out of pocket or that he was recently separated). Certainly the teams that FEMA and the Red Cross put in the field in response to disasters should be expected to make provision for pet care and house sitting. And true that the head of FEMA should be a model for employees. By that standard, Mr. Brown fails, but not in love for his dogs.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

We Expect Republicans to Govern Well?

Jeff Birnbaum had a column in the Post on the process of filing Lobbyist Disclosure Act data with the House and Senate. It seems both places have or are moving to an all-internet process, but with incompatible requirements and software. He then had a discussion on the Post website today which included the following:
Lobbyists' Disclosures Via the Internet: "If the Senate already had a user-friendly LDA disclosure program, why didn't the House leadership confer with them and coordinate a 'joint but separate' type of system? I heard that the Senate even offered to work with the House on that very point but was rejected early on.

Don't you think that the separate filing points lend confusion to the process?

Jeffrey Birnbaum: Thank you.

I also heard that the Senate offered to work with the House to make all this right, but for whatever reason, nothing much has happened.

I don't know who's right or wrong, but I think that the lack of cooperation could lead to a breakdown in a system that already is pretty crippled."
Remember, both houses are controlled by the Republicans, which is the party that believes in efficiency in government.

The Advantages of Confusion--Greenspan

Confusion and ambiguity in the style of Chairman Greenspan has its advantages, so the forthcoming change to Dr. Bernanke with its gain in clarity, as described in the NYTimes, may not be totally advantageous.

What's the advantage to ambiguity? Perhaps several, but the one I'd point to is flexibility. One thing we can be sure of is the the Fed board is going to be wrong at some point. Unfortunately we Washingtonians, unlike the rest of the country, usually respond to error by repeating our error, by coverup and concealment. See our current (and past) President for proof. It's a human thing--in times of uncertainty (and error equals uncertainty) you (I) seek the security of the known.

Unfortunately sometimes the world gets locked in feedback cycles, in vicious circles so we need what the great liberal and bureaucrat J.K. Galbraith called "countervailing power". In sailing terms familiar to readers of Forester and O'Brian, it's "coming around on the opposite tack".

So, if a change of course is needed to break a vicious circle who is more likely to do so: someone who has staked out a clear position and rationale and committed to a model supporting the position, or someone who operates behind a smokescreen (forgive the mixed metaphors)?