Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Hirschmann and KIPP Schools

Jay Mathews writes about the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) schoools in DC in High Scores Fail to Clear Obstacles to KIPP Growth. KIPP has done well at the middle school level, but is having problems as they try to go up. As I read it I was reminded again of Hirschman's book on exit and voice.

As an economist, he was aware of Milton Friedman's proposal for school vouchers as a measure to increase competition. The proposal had been floated by 1969 but not implemented and Hirschman was dubious of its effectiveness. He compared it to the Big Three automakers, where "competition" wasn't really effective. He suggested that private schools would drain the public system of those parents who would fight for reform, so the public school establishment would be happy to see them go and would not react by improving their systems. From the Mathews article:
"Craig Jerald, a D.C.-based school achievement consultant who has watched KIPP's growth, said much of the response to the program has been tepid at best. He said Feinberg once told him that 'opening a KIPP school in every big city would embarrass or inspire urban districts to do better for their kids.

'I think we all underestimated how dismissive these systems can be.'"
The article also hints that KIPP may be having problems with maintenance as I blogged earlier. KIPP has succeeded in capturing the idealism and energy of the young, but the iron law of building is, the more you build, the more there is to maintain. Unfortunately, maintenance doesn't have the sex appeal of building.

Creation and Maintenance

A piece in the Washington Times today--White House eyes billions for Iraq maintenance Newspaper:
"The Bush administration is considering asking Congress later this year for at least $2 billion in new reconstruction money, primarily for maintaining completed Iraqi facilities.
Administration officials say the additional funding is needed to prevent completed projects in Iraq from falling into disrepair while the new government tries to establish a steady flow of revenue from oil and other sources to sustain the nation's infrastructure. "
The Bush administration is learning some home truths: time and decay happens to everything and that new ideas/facilities/organizations need to make connections to survive. It's rather like rooting a cutting. A cut flower may look beautiful, but will wither and die. If you can root a cutting, you've got a plant that can survive. That encapsulates one problem with "nation building" and "development aid". We can build facilities, whether roads in Afghanistan or water treatment plants in Iraq, but without rooting them they won't last. We have only to look at the history of many of the facilities colonial powers built across the world.

What do I mean by "rooting"? First is the knowledge. If Americans did the work, then Americans have the knowledge of how to repair and maintain the facility. It may be faster and more efficient to import equipment and the expertise to build a facility, but it's short-sighted in the long run. Second is the system--who is responsible for maintenance? Someone has to "own" the facility (or idea), someone who's going to be there year in and year out. And third is the money--is there a tax system in the case of Afghan highways or a fee system in the case of Iraqi water plants to get the money needed to make repairs? Knowledge, responsibility, and money all go together--it's difficult to have one without the other.

In short, you need a bureaucracy that works.

Naderism, A Gift That Keeps on Giving

Dana Milbank in the Post writes today about the antiwar Democrats in Tasting Victory, Liberals Instead Have a Food Fight. It's even more depressing than the approach of my 65th birthday.

"Cindy for the Senate!' called out moderator Kevin Zeese, a Ralph Nader acolyte. 'It's important for us to stop thinking as Democrats and Republicans and break out of this two-party straitjacket,' argued Zeese, a third-party candidate for Senate in Maryland."
Does Mr. Zeese remember that Naderism gave us George W. and Iraq, Roberts and Alito, all as one gift-wrapped package?

Monday, January 30, 2006

Exit, Voice, Loyalty; Maria Full of Grace; Samburu

Watched "Maria, Full of Grace" this weekend, the very good movie on a Columbian drug mule. Also continued reading Albert O. Hirschman's Exit, Voice, and Loyalty--see this summary at Wikipedia. And finally read this piece in the NYTimes magazine on American missionaries to the Samburu tribe in Kenya. What do they have in common?

Not much, except provoking thought on the boundaries of human loyalties and experiences. With the Samburu, the missionaries hope to bring Christianity to the tribe and eliminate female circumcision from its culture. But the tribal members seem satisfied with their religion and culture, even the females. The tribe is not in decline; members are neither exiting nor voicing discontent. Does one go along, or is there a moral obligation to change it?

The movie shows exit--Maria leaves the drug running and leaves Colombia. But one of Hirschman's points recapitulates the old "safety-valve" theory of American history: to the extent that the discontented are able to leave a human organization/group, the strength of voice--the expression of discontent and the working for change from within an organization--is weakened. (Part of the old "frontier theory" was the idea that "free land" in the West drained the cities of their poor and malcontents. Think of Horace Greeley's "go West, young man". My understanding is, while the idea seems valid, historians couldn't find many people who actually moved from cities to farms.) Anyhow, the director's commentary on Maria says 10 percent of Colombians live in the U.S., often the better educated. Does that mean that the forces of democracy in Colombia have been weakened? Do our open borders hurt the cause?

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Dog Bites Man, Ben Stein Bites Management

I realize it's not fair to say Ben Stein is always pro-business, but his column today, When You Fly in First Class, It's Easy to Forget the Dots - New York Times, on United Airlines surprised me.

"So here it is in a nutshell: employees are goaded into investing a big chunk of their wages and benefits in UAL stock. They lose that. Then they lose big parts of their pay and pensions. They become peons of UAL. Management gets $480 million, more or less. 'Creative destruction?' Or looting?"

Friday, January 27, 2006

Partisan Thought Is an Oxymoron

The NYTimes Tuesday had a piece headed: A Shocker: Partisan Thought Is Unconscious .
It reported on research:
"Using M.R.I. scanners, neuroscientists have now tracked what happens in the politically partisan brain when it tries to digest damning facts about favored candidates or criticisms of them. The process is almost entirely emotional and unconscious, the researchers report, and there are flares of activity in the brain's pleasure centers when unwelcome information is being rejected."
No surprise to anyone who reads the comments on blogs on politics. Much as I struggle to fit events into historical perspective, and grant the good faith of everyone, even terrorists, even your humble writer feels emotional reactions to politicians.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid

I'm a technosnob, looking down on all late adopters [though I'm no longer an early adopter], so this from a Rummy Nation makes me fear for the nation:
"A senior analyst from the Intelligence Technology Innovation Center at the CIA came to speak to our Principles of Biodefense class today. In an old-fashioned twist, his presentation was based on overhead transparencies, not PowerPoint. "
Or, it reconfirms the idea that FBI and CIA see themselves as above technology.

Two Theories on Crystal Meth

The Times today has an article discussing the possible spread of crystal meth to the East Coast big cities, Trashy or Not, a Drug Peril Creeps Closer. So far it hasn't happened

  1. One is ecological--"The theory is that addicts well supplied with cocaine in big cities haven't craved a substitute, which suits traffickers just fine since their suppliers in Colombia and elsewhere don't want the competition from largely domestic brewers."
  2. The other is classist--"The general impression among African-Americans is that this [methamphetamine] is a white-trash drug," said Sally L. Satel, a psychiatrist at the American Enterprise Institute who has interviewed drug addicts about methamphetamine. "African-Americans recoil from this drug. They told me they think it is a very low-class kind of drug, and there was a kind of revulsion to it."

Risk-Taking--Smart or Self-Assured?

Virginia Postrel in today's Times, Would You Take the Bird in the Hand, or a 75% Chance at the Two in the Bush? reports on research into risk-taking, and includes a 3-question quiz for self-assessment. The results seem to say that people, especially male people, who are smart are willing to take greater risks.
"'Even when it actually hurts you on average to take the gamble, the smart people, the high-scoring people, actually like it more,' Professor Frederick said in an interview. Almost a third of high scorers preferred a 1 percent chance of $5,000 to a sure $60.

They are also more patient, particularly when the difference, and the implied interest rate, is large. Choosing $3,400 this month over $3,800 next month implies an annual discount rate of 280 percent. Yet only 35 percent of low scorers — those who missed every question — said they would wait, while 60 percent of high scorers preferred the later, bigger payoff.

Men and women also show different results. 'Expressed loosely,' he writes, 'being smart makes women patient and makes men take more risks.'

High-scoring women show slightly more willingness to wait than high-scoring men, while the differences in risk-taking are much larger. High-scoring women are about as willing to gamble as low-scoring men, while low-scoring women are even more risk-averse"
I have my doubts. [Totally unconnected to the fact I only got 2 of the 3 questions right.] I'd like to see research on self-confidence: do people who think they aced the quiz accept greater risks versus those who weren't sure. That seems to me more likely to be the key variable. Divide the universe into four sets: smart and know it; dullards who think they're smart; dullards who know it; and smart who are modest. The second group qualify for the Darwin Awards.

Better Bureaucrats Win in Palestine

As best I can tell, Hamas won in the Palestinian Authority elections because they are and/or promised to be better bureaucrats than Fatah. Even David Bernstein at The Volokh Conspiracy
appears to agree with the analysis. Apparently Hamas has competed against the PLO in two ways: greater militancy in opposing Israel and greater efficiency in caring for Palestinians. As such they parallel the Republicans, who also have promised greater militancy in opposing our enemies and greater efficiency in government.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Dealing with Bureaucracies--Lines

In dealing with its public, a bureaucracy has to connect to its customers, which usually means setting up a sequence to deal with them and, sometimes, fitting them into service categories. Today I experienced some variations on this:

  • Visited the VA DMV to renew my driver's license. In their system, you first line up to reach an information window, where the clerk assesses your situation and fits you into the bureaucratic cubbyhole (license renewal, vehicle registration, id card, more documents needed, interpreter needed), tells you what to fill out and gives you a code number. An automated PA announcement system calls out the code numbers to go to the various windows. This morning there was maybe a 15-minute wait. So I sat waiting for the call and fussing to myself over whether someone who arrived after me was being served before you. I couldn't tell, because there were different number sequences according to the type of transaction. It would seem the different clerks specialized in different transactions. [I know I should have faith in the system and I really do, but it is a weakness. The strength, at least this morning, is that people were informed quickly of where they fit--they didn't spend 20 minutes waiting for a clerk only to find they needed more information.]
  • Later I visited the post office. You took a number from the machine and waited for your number to be called. There was only the one sequence, meaning every clerk had to be able There they had a number system, just like my barbershop, where every clerk could handle most any transaction. As with the barbershop, you could tell your place in line was safe.
  • Finally I hit the Safeway. You get your groceries, pick the checkout line--express or regular--and wait in line.

From the Mouths of Waiters

Frank Bruni, the NYTimes restaurant critic, tries waiting tables for a week and describes the result in My Week as a Waiter. In doing so he collects wisdom from the waiters (who may qualify as bureaucrats, I'll have to think about it):

"'It's amazing,' Bryan tells me, 'how unadventurous people are....'"[in rejecting specials]

"Some people are interested in having the experience of being disappointed," Tina says.... [setting expectations too high]

"Jess tells me that enthusiasm is more important than definitive knowledge, that many diners simply want a server to help them get excited about something.

"You've got to fake it until you make it," she says...."

"Once again I try to tackle an entire section, seven tables in all. Dave is my minder. He tells me to make clear to diners that they need to be patient.

"If you don't control the dynamic, they will," he says...."

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Investing Time

Blake Gopnik, the Washington Post art critic, went to various galleries/museums and looked at art, not special exhibits, just the regular stuff. It's interesting. One article suggests the difference between an amateur and a professional. Tuesday::
"The time the average museum-goer spends looking at a work of art, as clocked one morning at the Hirshhorn: Well under 10 seconds. [actually, when I go to the museum I usually spend between 30 seconds and a minute, covering the usual 60-100 piece exhibition in about an hour. ]

On the second day of my week, I decided to see what it would feel like to push the experience of a single picture as far as it could go."
He goes to see a picture that consists only of color stripes, and spends 2 hours looking at it. 2 hours!! But then, he'd spend a minute on something concerning bureaucracy that could keep me going an hour. Different strokes.

Monday, January 23, 2006

What Makes a Citizen?

Edward Rothstein has a neat article on the tests different countries give to immigrants apiring to become citizens--Refining the Tests That Confer Citizenship.

Questions include: "Where does Father Christmas come from? How old do you have to be to buy a lottery ticket? If your adult son declares he's a homosexual, what do you do? If a film or a book insults your religious feelings, what is your reaction? Why are aboriginal peoples seeking self-government? Who has the power to declare war?"

Raises questions of what we hope to achieve by the tests. Would life experiences be a substitute? (Like, if the immigrant provided x ticket stubs from baseball games, or had watched "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington", or ??)

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Richard Hatch and IRS Tax Systems

I've blogged previously on Richard Hatch's ("Survivor") tax evasion problem. The Times has an update here: A New Reality for First 'Survivor' Winner: Tax Evasion Trial .

Hatch first agreed to a bargain, then backed out and went to trial. From the article he seems not to be doing well, at least not in the reporter's opinion.
"Standing in the witness box for nearly five hours, frequently gesturing and looking at the jury, Mr. Hatch sought to portray his tax situation as complicated and confusing, especially for someone grappling with instant fame and stresses involving his adopted son."
At least the defense attorney doesn't seem to be attacking the IRS.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Tripping Up on Trips: Judges Love Junkets as Much as Tom DeLay Does - New York Times

Dorothy Samuels on the NYTimes editorial page criticizes judges for going on junkets (called "seminars" sponsored by organizations with an ideological or financial interest in judicial decisons) --Tripping Up on Trips: Judges Love Junkets as Much as Tom DeLay Does . But she includes this question:
"I've been writing about the foibles of powerful public officials for more years than I care to reveal without a subpoena, and I still don't get it: why would someone risk his or her reputation and career for a lobbyist-bestowed freebie like a vacation at a deluxe resort?

Is it just plain old greed - the irresistible lure of bathrooms with heated towels, outstanding golf and tennis, and ski valets who will warm your boots on a cold day and deliver them right to your door? Is the tendency to sponge inappropriately off rich special interests an inherited trait, the product of some yet to be mapped junket gene? Or is it environmental, a sad reflection of the social and political culture?"
My guess is it's none of the above, at least not for most people. It's just very seductive to have people do for you, whether it's your mother when you're sick in bed and out of school, your secretary, your employee, or a supposed friend. Your ego gets charged up when you're the center of attention, no longer the nerd wallflower at the dance ignored by the girls clustered around the jocks, but the center of all eyes. It's easy to come to feel you deserve the attention. It's your brains and your beauty that explains the attention, not any possibility that others would benefit from pleasing you. And it's addictive, as all pleasure is addictive. Ms. Samuels no doubt felt similarly when she first had her name attached to her writing.

Faceless Bureaucrat Is Wrong!!

Although I beat to death the idea that we don't do things right the first time, Kevin Drum at The Washington Monthly provides an opposing view:
"Jon Cohn returns to the Medicare prescription drug debacle with a simple question: are the kinds of problems we're seeing just the inevitable startup bugs you get with any big new government program? He takes a look back at the start of Medicare itself to get the answer:

So what happened on the day that this complex program was implemented? Thousands of senior citizens simply went to the hospital and got the health care they needed. 'There were no crises that I remember,' says Yale University political scientist Theodore Marmor, who worked in the office overseeing Medicare implementation and went on to write The Politics of Medicare, the program's definitive history. Newspaper accounts from the '60s back him up. Under the headline 'medicare takes over easily,' a Post writer described the program's first day as 'a smooth transition, undramatic as a bed change.' Three weeks later, the Times affirmed that 'medicare's start has been smooth.'"

What can I say--LBJ's bureaucrats were better than modern day ones.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Public/Private Partnerships--Bureaucratically Problematic

Following on yesterday's post about the problems of implementing the Medicare Part D plan, Jacob Weisberg has an interesting article, Drug Addled - Why Bush's prescription plan is such a fiasco, in Slate. He observes that programs that try to partner public and private entities are more complex. And he makes the parallel with the Clinton health care plan in 1994. Recommended reading.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

First Time Problems or Misdesigned Program

Today's Post has an article describing reactions to the problems in the implementation of the new Medicare drug insurance plan (Part D). HHS Secretary Leavitt says:
"'Since this is a new program, some people may experience a problem the first time they go to get their medicines, but we're confident that after you use it once, things are going to go more smoothly,' he said. 'If you are one of those seniors experiencing problems, our message is don't leave the pharmacy without your drugs.'"
Remember my Harshaw Rule 1.

It's possible that the program is misconceived and impossible to administer well through the congeries of state and private organizations that must cooperate. I certainly don't envy the HHS bureaucrats. But it's also possible that with time and experience people will adjust their behavior and make it work. After all, that's how our present health care system has evolved, though some may quarrel with the idea that it works.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Bureaucracy in Body Armor

Re my blog on Mr. Bremer, Andrew Exum had an op-ed in the Times that leads off:
THIS week Senator Hillary Clinton, citing a secret Pentagon report that suggested some marines killed in Iraq might have survived had they been wearing more body armor, became the latest in a long line of politicians to castigate the Pentagon for a supposed failure to adequately protect our fighting men and women. Well-intentioned as the senator might be, the body-armor issue, like so many in war, is just not that simple.

The point he goes on to make is that troops need mobility and endurance, particularly in 120 degree heat. So each added pound of armor comes at the cost of less speed, less staying power. Efforts in the press (including a piece on Lehrer PBS Wed. night) to charge the administration with not protecting troops are overly simplified.

How does this tie with Bremer's bureaucratic rules on procurement--the same style of thinking applies in both. You focus on one thing (preventing fraud, preventing lethal shots from the side), propose a solution (more rules, more armor) and lose some ability to achieve your larger objective.

Update: Watched "Black Hawk Down". (I'd read the book before, but just got around to the movie.) When the Rangers loaded up for the raid, the movie shows them leaving behind some armor and other equipment they don't think they'll need.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Bureaucracy in Times of Crisis

Mr. Bremer had an op-ed in the NYTimes last week with observations on the lessons he learned in Iraq and the interpretations of his new book. As a bureaucrat, I found this interesting:

"I should have also insisted on exemption from the usual bureaucratic and contracting rules. This lesson was brought home to me in a dramatic fashion a few weeks after I arrived. We had learned that six major hospitals in Baghdad urgently needed new generators to run their operating rooms and air-conditioning plants. Our budget director told me I could use American funds, which were subject to United States federal contracting rules, or Iraqi government funds, which were not. Using American money, he told me, would mean waiting four to six months for the generators. We used Iraqi funds and got the equipment in eight days. In the future, Congress must make provisions for legitimate exemptions."
Fair enough, but as soon as GAO and the press find fraud in the use of money, Congress has to do something, which is to add levels of review. See my post on body armor.

Falling Tides and Boats

JFK famously said "a rising tide lifts all boats". It's a favorite mantra of liberals--a way to finesse conflicts over distribution of wealth by encouraging economic progress. Benjamin Friedman has written "The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth" arguing that growth makes it easier for people to be virtuous, tolerant, and democratic. [Disclaimer--I've noted the favorable reviews but not read the book, yet.]

But how about the obverse? What happens when an organization loses income, a church loses members, a town loses population, a corporation loses profitability? Do they gracefully fade away into the mists of history, along with various Indian tribes? Or do they fight, fight against the dying of the light? Do they come together, joining forces against the common enemy? Or do they sputter out in recriminations, in animosity? See Jared Diamond's "Collapse", which I have read and recommend.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Why "Monkey See, Monkey Do' Works for People

The Times Tuesday, in Cells That Read Minds, reported on interesting research. Scientists are watching primates (first monkeys, then humans) to see what cells were activated when we watch other primates:
"The monkey brain contains a special class of cells, called mirror neurons,
that fire when the animal sees or hears an action and when the animal carries
out the same action on its own.

But if the findings, published in 1996,
surprised most scientists, recent research has left them flabbergasted. Humans,
it turns out, have mirror neurons that are far smarter, more flexible and more
highly evolved than any of those found in monkeys, a fact that scientists say
reflects the evolution of humans' sophisticated social abilities.

human brain has multiple mirror neuron systems that specialize in carrying out
and understanding not just the actions of others but their intentions, the
social meaning of their behavior and their emotions."

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Can You Identify the Original 13 Colonies

History News Network provides this reminder of eternal truths--the young don't know their history.
"“Ignorance of U.S. History Shown by College Freshmen” trumpeted the New York Time’s headline on April 4, 1943, a day when the main story reported that General George Patton’s troops had overrun Erwin Rommel at Al-Guettar. Providing support for Allan Nevins’s claim that “young people are all too ignorant of American history,” the survey showed that a scant 6% of the 7000 college freshman could identify the 13 original colonies, while only 15% could place McKinley as president during the Spanish-American War. Less than a quarter could name two contributions made by either Abraham Lincoln or Thomas Jefferson. "

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Poorly Performing Bureaucrats

Some would argue that my title is an anti-oxymoron, a redundancy. But today's Federal Diary in the Post discusses (Is the Annual Performance Review the Goof-Off's Best Friend?) a proposal from a Harvard man, Robert Behn (see his newsletter here):
"Behn argues that most agency managers have only two choices when trying to fire employees who don't pull their weight: Launch an all-out attack using the full powers of the personnel system, or shrug off their lackluster performance and give the employee a passing grade, such as 'meets expectations' or 'satisfactory.'

Agency managers are not dumb or incompetent in their handling of poor performers, but they understand that there is only so much time in the week, the month and the year, Behn says. Managers can focus on a few important problems and try to make a difference on behalf of taxpayers, or they can go to war with employees who know the workplace rules and are 'willing and able to use them' to protect their jobs, Behn writes."
I agree with the analysis. I'm dubious of the proposal, which is to eliminate yearly reviews and just rely on letters of commendation. The bottom line is that managers, like other Americans, don't like face to face confrontations (in the blogosphere is okay, but not where it counts). So they need strong incentives to manage people well.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Hedgehogs at the White House

Via Dan Drezner an article from the Wall Street Journal--WSJ.com - The Numbers Guy (free)--on Professor Tetlock's book, Expert Political Judgments. He used Isaiah Berlin's categories:
"Foxes [those who know many small things] outperformed hedgehogs [those who know one big thing] in nearly every measure, Prof. Tetlock said. That suggested that those with flexible thinking were better equipped to make forecasts.

Foxes were better, by about three times, at adapting their predictions to world events they hadn't expected. This relates to another failing of hedgehogs: they tended to be more likely to engage in 'hindsight bias.' In other words, hedgehogs were more likely to err in their own favor when asked to recall past predictions -- and if they couldn't recall their own mistakes, how could they be expected to learn from them?"
See Louis Menand in The New Yorker for a fuller discussion, including the points that people make their information fit their preconceptions, discounting opposing information, and that the premium is on "experts" to offer new and different predictions. But hedgehogs can be spectacularly right (particularly scientists).

IMHO our President is a hedgehog (most politicians are, regardless of ideology, although Bill Clinton could not have been), so it's not surprising that it takes a while for bad news to sink in.

Friday, January 06, 2006

How Government Really Works IV

Following up on yesterday's them, Slate has this article--
Lobbying and Laziness - It's not just about greed. It's about loafing. By John Dickerson:
"The more effective scenario, [ than exchanging money for votes] for everyone concerned, involves the lobbyist becoming friendly with members of the Congress member's staff, who research issues and advise him or her what to do and how to vote.

When the member of Congress goes to staff for information, he wants it fast. A staffer can read all available material on the issue, think through the policy, and balance what's right against the member's political interests—or he can call his friend Smitty the lobbyist. Smitty knows all about this complicated stuff in the telecommunications bill. He was talking about it just the other day at the Wizards game, which was almost as fun as the Cointreau-and-capon party Smitty hosted at his spread in Great Falls over Labor Day.

Smitty has a solid, intellectually defensible answer to every question. He also knows how an issue is likely to play out politically for the member back in his home district. In a hectic day, Smitty makes a staffer's day easier. That's almost as appealing as the skybox and the free drinks. It's easy to rationalize relying on lobbyists for this kind of help. In asking lobbyists to help them understand technical issues, staffers are doing the same thing journalists do every day—and in fact, journalists often call the same lobbyists for the same reason. They find someone who understands the issue, figuring that they're smart enough to use the information that rings true and discard the spin."
I.e., like the President with his slide briefings, Congress members and staffs are dependent on others for information. And it's true that most every issue can be given a reasonable justification.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

How Government Really Works III

A Big Government Fix-It Plan for New Orleans - New York Times:
"The passage of the bill [a proposal for the government to buy out LA homeowners] has become increasingly important to Louisiana because the state lost out to the greater political power of Mississippi last month when Congress passed a $29 billion aid package for the Gulf states region. The package gave Mississippi about five times as much per household in housing aid as Louisiana received - a testimony to the clout of Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, a former Republican National Committee chairman, and Senator Thad Cochran, chairman of the Appropriations Committee."

How Government Really Works II

Dan Drezner links to a Mickey Kaus observation on a Newsweek story about a slide presentation given to the President showing an al Qaeda/Iraq link. Kaus expresses incredulity that a slide presentation would be very significant in decision making. Drezner explains why it could be:
"The second thing is more mundane but nevertheless true -- the higher you go up the policy food chain, the less detail in the memos. The reason is that the most precious commodity of cabinet-level officials is time. They're scheduled to within an inch of their lives -- the last thing they have time for is 'assessing the veracity of the underlying raw intelligence.'

This is why stovepiping is so dangerous. [The allegation is that the presentation bypassed normal staffing and went up the stovepipe to the President.] Even with a decision as momentous as going to war, a president is rarely going to devote the time to assessing the accuracy rate of intelligence briefings. More likely, they'll assume that if it gets to their desk there must be something there there.

I'm not saying that there wasn't a willful blindness in parts of the White House about this intelligence. But never underestimate the cognitive limitations of policy principals that time crunches create."
I agree with the perspective, but would amplify. The intelligence community has often been viewed as in-bred and biased, a "stovepipe" (or set of stovepipes) in itself. There's a long history of attempts to bring a different perspective to security issues (the Gaither Commission in 1950's which came up with the "missile gap"; the Team B effort in the 70's). Cheney and Rumsfeld had Feith do a shop in DOD that ended up pushing the al-Qaeda/Hussein link.

In a broader sense, any executive needs to avoid becoming the captive of her bureaucracy, relying only on the information coming up the stovepipes. FDR was famously disorganized, setting up competing agencies, talking to everyone, with the result that he wasn't captive of any bureaucracy.

But today shows the flip side of the coin. If you go outside the stovepipe and are wrong, as the Iraq intelligence was, the bureaucrats in the stovepipe get very, very pissed off. Or, using a positive spin, they believe that leaders who have proven their incompetence should not have a monopoly on the information presented to the public. Hence the leaks.

How Government Really Works I

Orin Kerr at The Volokh Conspiracy discussing the James Risen Book on NSA eavesdropping -. The background is that DOJ issued a memo apparently conceding that the program violated FISA, but Kerr's not sure. He raises the possibility that the DOJ public affairs shop did the document without thoroughly understanding the issues:
"That is, the DOJ memo may have been written by people who knew less about the monitoring program than we now know thanks to Risen's book. (This may seem odd to you if you have never worked in the federal government; my guess is that it will seem less odd to those who have.) "
Yes, outsiders to an institution believe that knowledge is like blood in the body--it's everywhere, so what anyone in the institution knows everyone knows. Makes it easy to demonize.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

"Creative Destruction" and New Orleans

One of the favorite phrases of economists is Joseph Schumpeter's "creative destruction":
the same process of industrial mutation–if I may use that biological term–that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one. This process of Creative Destruction is the essential fact about capitalism. [Schumpeter sees it as a virtue.]
But non-economic forces do the same job of revolutionizing structures. Following Katrina/Rita there have been a scattering of media reports on people who are settling into new lives in new places and doing better, finding the schools are better, jobs better paid, etc. The NY Times today has an article on the New Orleans school system, pre-Katrina one of the worst in the country, post-Katrina being converted to mostly charter schools. Of course, I think a conservative economist should argue that people should have left New Orleans before the hurricanes if they could find better lives elsewhere. And politicians should have pushed the charter schools if that's the way to better education.

But the reality, often not recognized by economists, is that people get in ruts and don't act rationally, at least in the terms that economists can calculate and count. They like tradition and community, they fear change, they find it simplest to do today what they did yesterday. Hurricanes, like economic change, uproot. The law of averages says that some people end up better off, some end up worse off. Over two centuries farm children have been leaving the country for the city: some made fortunes, some failed miserably. (That's an example of Schumpeter's creative destruction--moving resources from uneconomic uses to higher uses. ) By the nature of media, we tend to hear more about the successes than the failures. We must remember both sides: good and bad came out of the disaster, just as good and bad come out of the migration to the city.

Pornography and the Bureaucrat

Sorry, the title's misleading. My interest in porn has waned over the years.

Today in the Times Nick Chiles attacks black "street lit" in Their Eyes Were Reading Smut -:
"As a black author, I had certainly become familiar with the sexualization and degradation of black fiction. Over the last several years, I had watched the shelves of black bookstores around the country and the tables of street vendors, particularly in New York City, become overrun with novels that seemed to appeal exclusively to our most prurient natures - as if these nasty books were pairing off back in the stockrooms like little paperback rabbits and churning out even more graphic offspring that make Ralph Ellison books cringe into a dusty corner."
(He reminds me a bit of the reaction to "Peyton Place" in the '50's.) If he's correct, publishers have discovered that young black women will buy racy books. Presumably the bodice busters of the Barbara Cartland school are too tame, but books with "street cred" appeal. [Warning: I'm so out of it the phrases in quotes may be totally inappropriate.]

How's this speculation: pornography is often linked with masturbation, the topic that got the great bureaucrat Dr. Jocelyn Elders fired. Masturbation is often correlated with a lack of sexual intercourse. Lack of sexual intercourse is correlated with a lack of partners. Young black women lack partners because racial prejudice tends to limit their choices to young black males, a huge proportion of whom are locked up. (There's also the possibility that women prefer to marry above themselves, see my blog on Tierney's column.) So young black women turn to porn on Saturday nights as a result of our drug laws and culture. (If this extended chain of argument has any validity, porn in India and China should be exploding among the men.)

NSA and FISA--Bureaucracy at Work?

I've followed the discussion of the NSA's efforts with interest, both in the NYTimes and by Orin Kerr at Volokh.com. (Orin's a law professor who has mixed opinions about the legality of what Bush authorized. See his new discussion of James Risen's book (Risen being the reporter who got the story originally) and search the site for a number of interesting posts and comment threads.

Today the Post and Times report this development: Files Say Agency Initiated Growth of Spying Effort - New York Times: "The National Security Agency acted on its own authority, without a formal directive from President Bush, to expand its domestic surveillance operations in the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, according to declassified documents released Tuesday." Adm. Hayden briefed Congressional members and Rep. Pelosi challenged him on whether he had Presidential authority to broaden his eavesdropping after 9/11.

Perhaps influenced by Kerr, I tend to be somewhat sympathetic to the NSA (full disclosure--I passed their test in 1964 for employment, but the draft intervened). As I understand it, the Reagan administration in 1981 laid down the rules for what NSA could do in this area and the rules were followed until 9/11. Right after 9/11 NSA expanded their efforts on their own authority and then Bush authorized an expansion (not clear whether he authorized what NSA had already done, or whether it's separate expansions).

But the question that arises is, if the current expansions are legal and constitutional, why didn't the Reagan administration, no shrinking violet itself, authorize the steps in 1981? I have to think that Reagan thought Communism was a deadlier foe than most believe Al Qaeda to be, so it wasn't lack of motive. DCI Casey prided himself on breaking rules, so why play on a narrower field than you have to?

I suspect what happened is in the nature of bureaucracy. As my old calculus teacher would say, it's the "delta", the change. In 1981 we still had vivid memories of the 70's investigations into abuses by the CIA and FBI. Reagan's bureaucrats wrote the executive order grabbing all the authority they thought they could get away with. That became the normal order over the next 20 years. After 9/11, by definition the bureaucracy needed to do something more and different so they did. There's no way the bureaucracy could testify before Congress that they were doing "business as usual". One change (9/11) had to be met by another change.

Of course, another answer could be that in 1981 the bureaucrats thought today's authorities were unconstitutional or illegal under FISA.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Results of Democracy and a Test for Iraq

The Washington Post's Federal page, carries the following excerpt in full:
VERBATIM: "Fred Schwien, the Department of Homeland Security's executive secretary, has sent out a new manual for correspondence standards and procedures, a portion of which follows:

4.3 Statement of Lateness (Note: Not in use until on or about Feb 1, 2006)

If a component response does not meet the five-day deadline for returning correspondence to the ES, a statement of lateness is required. The memorandum should be addressed through the component head to the Secretary or Deputy Secretary as appropriate, and signed at the office director level (normally the first Senior Executive Service level official in the chain of command). Proposed responses will not be accepted without the Statement of Lateness if the deadline has not been met and a valid extension has not been granted. At times, however, there are legitimate reasons for a response being delayed, e.g., a major decision affecting the response is about to be announced or the information simply not available. Workload and component priorities are not valid excuses. As stated previously, for the DHS employee tasked with preparing an item for the Secretary or Deputy Secretary signature, there are few, if any, higher priorities."
The Post seems to mock the content. I've mixed feelings. Based on my experience, most of this correspondence will be letters from Senators and Representatives, usually transmitting a constituent's letter. It is a truth universally acknowledged on the Hill that a person who is in possession of a seat must focus on constituent service to retain it. Thus the Hill believes that responding to their correspondence is the most important duty of every bureaucrat in the executive branch. And every executive assistant in every agency struggles to implement procedures that will ensure prompt answers.

We will know Iraq has become a representative democracy when such rules start popping up in their executive departments.

Mating Preferences

John Tierney in today's New York Times has an oped on mating preferences, citing some research in this century. He leads off:
"When there are three women for every two men graduating from college, whom will the third woman marry?

This is not an academic question. Women, who were a minority on campuses a quarter-century ago, today make up 57 percent of undergraduates, and the gender gap is projected to reach a 60-40 ratio within a few years. So more women, especially black and Hispanic women, will be in a position to get better-paying, more prestigious jobs than their husbands, which makes for a tricky variation of 'Pride and Prejudice.'"
We know, I think, that to a disproportionate degree intelligent women end up single. Tierney's discussion focuses not on intelligence but wealth/education/status, which isn't the same.
Tierney says that it's women's fault: studies show men are less bothered by having their mate earn more more than are women. That is, women are pickier than men. [Is that surprising--ed] There's also the implication that women are competitive. In other words, it's not just men who want trophy wives; it's women who want trophy husbands, or at least a husband who looks desirable to other women.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Real Estate Prices and the Problem of Averaging

Paul Krugman in No Bubble Trouble? writes on housing prices and the recent study that said, on average, Americans still spend a lower percentage of income on housing than at times in the past:
"Last summer I suggested that when discussing housing, we should think of America as two countries, Flatland and the Zoned Zone.

In Flatland [most of the country], there's plenty of room to build houses, so house prices mainly reflect the cost of construction. As a result, Flatland is pretty much immune to housing bubbles. And in Flatland, houses have, if anything, become easier to afford since 2000 because of falling interest rates.

In the Zoned Zone [Northeast coast, West Coast, etc.] , by contrast, buildable lots are scarce, and house prices mainly reflect the price of these lots rather than the cost of construction. As a result, house prices in the Zoned Zone are much less tied down by economic fundamentals than prices in Flatland."
His point is that discussion of averages misleads. It's a reminder useful not only in discussing housing, but in other areas of national debate.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Pursuit of Happiness, the Puritans, and Pragmatists

I posted earlier on two NYTimes oped columns which shared themes: happiness does not result from self-analysis, but from acting and being concerned with outside goals; and cited philosophers. I think there's a parallel there with the Puritans. Certainly they were concerned with analyzing the state of their soul to determine whether God had decided they were saints. But regardless of their belief in predestination, they acted and believed in action. Someone who was able to act as if he or she were saved was a better bet than someone who was palsied with indecision or who acted perversely. This whole analysis also fits William James, the philosopher of pragmatism.