Sunday, February 26, 2006

If a Tree Falls and There's No One But a Microphone?

The NY Times had an article on data mining Taking Spying to Higher Level, Agencies Look for More Ways to Mine Data which includes this quote:
"But by fundamentally changing the nature of surveillance, high-tech data mining raises privacy concerns that are only beginning to be debated widely. That is because to find illicit activities it is necessary to turn loose software sentinels to examine all digital behavior whether it is innocent or not.

'The theory is that the automated tool that is conducting the search is not violating the law,' said Mark D. Rasch, the former head of computer-crime investigations for the Justice Department and now the senior vice president of Solutionary, a computer security company. But 'anytime a tool or a human is looking at the content of your communication, it invades your privacy.'"
If a tool is doing the looking, is that the same as a having a microphone in the famous forest where the tree falls? I disagree. It's when a human eyeball sees the content or a human ear hears it that there may be an invasion of my privacy.

Mr. Broder's Column, Revisited

Having done my mea culpa, let me take another crack at the plans of Secretary Leavitt for four "breakthrough projects" in health care and the column written by David Broder here.
  1. Either Leavitt or Broder gets the genesis of the projects wrong--they aren't HHS initiatives; they're done under direction from President Bush with HHS as the "managing partner" with OMB's Tim Young as "portfolio manager".
  2. The column reveals what may be a problem--according to Broder: "worthy as these big projects may be, it is clearly the New Orleans challenge that stirs Leavitt's juices." Why is this a problem? Leavitt may be doing NIH (not National Institutes of Health but "not invented here"). The four projects evolved over years and HHS got the job of managing them back when Tommy Thompson was the Secretary. (See the April 2004 Executive Order.) Assuming that Leavitt has the healthy ego of most successful politicians, Satan will tempt him with the idea that he will do more for the world by his work in the Big Easy, rather than supervising the four project effort. If Bush is a lame duck, so is Leavitt, so he may be tempted to push hard to get the Big Easy project done. Pushing hard is incompatible with maintaining good relations with DOD and VA. It's also likely to take people and money away from the four projects.
  3. Another problem may be Broder's. In the piece he says Leavitt is "modest," "creative," "attacking the problem," "experienced", and interested in "empowering" people. Quite the description of the modern Presidential candidate.
  4. It certainly made a better story for both Leavitt and Broder to slight the involvement of White House, DOD, VA, state and local government, and private "stakeholders" in the four project effort. I'm sure as good bureaucrats the members of the various workgroups will soldier on regardless of how much credit they get in the Post. But an effort as complex as this has low odds of success in any case and doesn't need any more straws added to its back.

Why I Got It Wrong

My post on Mr. Broder's column was wrong, at least in part. Why did I screw it up?
  1. Impatience. As I grow older I seem to be more slapdash, meaning I focus on some things and miss others. I read the piece as Secretary Leavitt pushing his four "breakthrough projects" and missed the segue into the fact that he's more interested in treating New Orleans as a clean slate to redo healthcare.
  2. Laziness. In my defense I flagged the fact I hadn't done research, but that's hardly valid in the days of Google. Just a minute of drilling down the site brought up lots of background on Leavitt's four initiatives. The effort began in Clinton's time, includes an executive order from Bush, and this American Health Information Community (the Community) Workgroups Web site.
  3. Misplaced self righteousness. Because I knew so well the problems and processes of trying to redo areas of USDA, I thought the same was true of Secretary Leavitt's effort. I jumped to conclusions--taking a couple bits of information from Broder's column and fitting them into an overall structure derived from past experience. I didn't allow for change and difference.
These faults are characteristic, both of me and often I think of others on the Internet.

Invading Privacy II

The Post reprinted this article from the Chicago Tribune | They've got game--and hijab " discussing Muslim girls playing basketball in the Chicago area.
"Duaa Hamoud holds a basketball to her hip. She is standing in a long blue gown in a gym at Bridgeview's Universal School. Her head is covered in a white scarf pulled tightly around her neck. Not a wisp of hair is showing.

Around her, other high school girls dressed in similar flowing robes shoot a few casual baskets while they wait for practice to begin. There are no men in the gym--no male coaches, no boys from school, no dads or brothers in the bleachers.

So when the coach arrives and the real training starts, they can peel off their Islamic dress, exposing their sweat pants and short-sleeved T-shirts underneath."
What interested me was the accompanying picture, taken by a woman, which showed some of the girls on the court, most of whom were in the robes, but one of whom was in sweat pants and shirt. It's not clear whether that was a mistake, whether the particular girl was less particular about the rules, or what. Anyhow it raises the subject of Islamic privacy and the rules of the various bodies within Islam as to what is appropriate dress in which contexts. I take it as saying that Islam wants its adherents to control their privacy, to be able to say how much of their body/face is revealed to which others. This seems to me to be an attractive metaphor for overall issues of data privacy. We as citizens want the ability to control how much data is visible to different groups.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

David Broder and Why Government Doesn't Work (Revised)

David Broder's column today in the Post illustrates why government has problems working effectively. Mr. Broder writes in praise of an initiative by HHS secretary Leavitt to set up four sets of standards.

"One would standardize systems for registering patients and listing their prescriptions and other basic medical data so they would not have to be entered on separate clipboards with each visit. A second would set standards for equipment allowing remote monitoring of chronic illnesses, such as the blood sugar tests required by diabetes patients.

A third would focus on systems for exchanging medical test results from office to office. And the fourth is a 'biosurveillance system,' designed to alert public health officials to any change in the pattern of reported illnesses that could be an early warning of a pandemic.

Once the standards are set, he said, they will be applied in the purchase of systems by Medicare, Medicaid and the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs, creating a market that the private sector is likely to follow."

All of this seems praiseworthy; certainly it did to Mr. Broder. So why do I take a contrarian position? It's not simply my advancing years, although to be truthful my problems are specifically with the first and third and are not based on any particular research.

[Updated--what follows is in error and will be revised. Meanwhile ignore it.]

My reservations are founded on the idea that HHS doesn't have this authority or a government wide mandate. If Bush or Andrew Card had given Leavitt this charge, we no doubt would have heard of it. My bet is that Leavitt is mostly unaware of the e-government initiatives,
specifically the Federal Enterprise Architecture. Leavitt is a policy man. He has seen a need and is moving to act. He's told his policy people to do this and they've saluted and said yessir. But the FEA is a technocrat's dream, which (odds are) Leavitt has never heard of. As the policy people work with the technocrats, they'll bump into these requirements, which will slow progress to a snail's crawl. This division between policy and technology is wide and deep and is always a major impediment to progress. Both Clinton (Gore's "Reinventing Government") and Bush come into office talking big about rationalizing government. But it doesn't happen. (It didn't happen when LBJ tried to apply McNamara PPB system, when Carter tried to apply zero-based budgeting, etc. etc.)

Even if Leavitt is effective enough within HHS to get this done, it's unlikely to work with DOD and VA. They have their own systems (VA at least is getting good press on the effectiveness of its system) into which their people have invested years of work. They will pick holes in HHS's proposals. Result: controversy, conflict and delay.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006 - How the Amish Drive Down Medical Costs

I don't normally go near the Wall Street Journal, but they do have some free articles and here is an excerpt from one--dealing with how the Anabaptists (Amish, Mennonites) deal with modern medicine.
How the Amish Drive Down Medical Costs:
"Heart of Lancaster is a small hospital, and its case load is fairly conventional. But the Anabaptists weren't looking for anything exotic. They wanted discounts on services such as orthopedic surgery, biopsies and childbirth. The hospital agreed to discounts of up to 40% off its top rates, resulting in prices that would still be slightly higher than Medicare reimbursements, the level most hospitals consider a minimum. Not satisfied, the Anabaptists pushed the executives to go lower. But the hospital said if it dropped prices to levels below Medicare reimbursements, it could be charged for fraud for charging Medicare patients more."
The Amish, and the other Anabaptists, fascinate me. They form a test case for many theories. Are they really American? How should one deal with other cultures (like those who discourage higher education)? etc. etc. In this connection, I strongly recommend the book "The Riddle of Amish Culture"by Donald Kraybill.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

"Portgate" and Hutchison Whampoa

There's a fuss about the possibility of a company based in Dubai buying the company that runs a number of major U.S. ports. Critics on both sides of the aisle are yelling about the threat to security. It all reminds me of the 1990's controversy over Hutchison Whampoa and its taking over operation of the Panama Canal. In sum, an opportunity for some demagogery without substance.

Bigshottery, or You The Man

Christopher Lee has a good piece, albeit a bit lacking in cynicism, on backgrounders in the Post: Remember, You Didn't Hear This From Me . . .:
"Agencies cite any number of reasons for keeping names out of the press: allowing lower-level officials to be quoted might steal the spotlight from the Cabinet secretary or other high-ranking official; the briefers are policy wonks who are uncomfortable talking to reporters; the agency is involved in an issue, but in a supporting role; the officials are there to provide context or technical explanations as a courtesy, not to be the face of an agency."
My dyspeptic take: What much of this boils down to is that agency heads are ignorant bigshots. They don't know enough to be talking in detail to reporters and they want all the glory they can get. (It's a truism that the first thing any Beltway type does when picking up a book is to look in the index to find his or her name.) "Heads" want to be the "face" of the agency, not the brains, to be "the man".

But putting on my pseudo-economist glasses: any backgrounder involves a quid pro quo. The reporter likes it because they don't display their ignorance, as they might have to do in an open press conference. The official likes it because their hard-earned knowledge, won by years of toil in the trenches, can at least be flaunted. The agency head will tolerate the backgrounders as long as they don't take away any glory or raise questions about the head. There's also a question of balance--if there are more reporters with more time/space to fill with stories than there are agency heads with knowledge to impart, the reporter goes down the food chain.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Not Surprising, Republican Judges See White Collar Crime as Less Serious

The Post reports on a study of how judges from different parties analyze crimes and sentence criminals here-- NOTED WITH INTEREST:
"Federal judges appointed by Republicans give tougher sentences on street crime, whereas Democratic appointees take a stricter view of white-collar offenses."
The summary could be reversed, as I did in the title. It's the usual problem with many two-sided issues: do you say boys are doing worse in school or girls are doing better in school? It's a reminder of the importance of context and framing.

Saturday, February 18, 2006


George Buddy asked about FEMA's proper role, specifically its relation to DHS. I think a part of the problems we saw with Katrina were caused by the DHS reorganization. There's no doubt that reporting lines got confused--Brown felt loyalty to the people who bumped him up from FEMA deputy director to DHS undersecretary, not to Chertoff who arrived later. When Brown had a hot potato, he turned to his friends, not to his new boss. Chertoff, who was relying on Brown to alert him to problems, had his focus elsewhere. Just as we didn't realize before 9/11 that bin Laden could mount an attack much deadlier than any previous one, he (and we) didn't realize that Mother Nature could also mount an attack more devastating than prior hurricanes.

It also seems clear that the Bush administration after Sept. 11 said that the "war" on terrorism was more important than disaster preparations. Congress agreed and pushed the DHS reorg. There was a smokescreen of rhetoric whereby the policymakers tried to convince themselves that DHS would be a more efficient use of resources. There's some logic to this--the response to a natural disaster and an attack will often be similar and the coordination with state and local first responders must use the same infrastructure. But the reality, as any experienced bureaucrat knew, was that creating DHS would cause us to be less prepared over the next few years, both for disaster and terror, than the alternative. The truth is any reorganization uses so much bureaucratic energy that the sum is significantly less than the whole for several years. So we won't know for another 10 or 20 years whether there's a net improvement or not.

Suppose Mr. Negroponte came to the President and said: "Sir, our enemy has dispatched a team that has the capability of killing a thousand people and destroying 50 billion dollars worth of property. Current intelligence shows that the team is likely headed for New Orleans and has a 50 percent chance of carrying out their mission." What would Bush do? He certainly wouldn't do what he did the end of August. (Or maybe I should say--he would do something, not nothing.)

Friday, February 17, 2006

The First Amendment Doesn't Apply Everywhere

This was an amazing story in this morning's Post--read the whole thing.

Policing Porn Is Not Part of Job Description:
"Two uniformed men strolled into the main room of the Little Falls library in Bethesda one day last week and demanded the attention of all patrons using the computers. Then they made their announcement: The viewing of Internet pornography was forbidden.

The men looked stern and wore baseball caps emblazoned with the words 'Homeland Security.' "

...[further on] The sexual harassment policy forbids the "display of offensive or obscene printed or visual material." But in a library, which is both a public arena and a county workplace, the U.S. Constitution trumps Montgomery's rules.
I was struck by the implication in the last sentence that the Constitution doesn't always and everywhere trump Montgomery County's rules. But I guess it's true--any employer can impose some restrictions not applicable in a public area.

[The men were employees of the Montgomery county Homeland Security Department trying to enforce a ban on accessing porn through government owned equipment.]

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Participation in Organizations--Hirschman

I've previously blogged on Albert Hirschman's "Exit, Voice, and Loyalty : Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States". I just got through commenting on Caleb McDaniel's blog
using Hirschman's schema in connection with the abolitionists.

There's another aspect, particularly with voluntary organizations, like alumni associations/college trustee elections and homeowner's associations: how many people have to participate to make the election/vote binding on the whole? I just got a package from the Reston Association (the closest thing Reston has to a government) changing the quorum requirement to 30 percent. My cluster association has been unable to get 10 percent participation in the annual meeting. I think Dartmouth is trying to reduce its quorum percentage. Hirschman would interpret all of these as saying "voice" is silent because the members are satisfied.

The Boomers Want Immortality

At least, that's how this web site strikes me, although one could say the same thing of this blog.
FAQ - MemoryWiki:
"Think of the Future

Your experiences are the stuff of history, literally. You may think 'Who would be interested in my experiences of this or that? Lots of people were there, and everyone knows about what happened.' Well, that's true, for now. But all the people, like you, who are alive today and who bore witness to the significant events of our age, will pass on. Our collective memory -- yours, mine, all of ours -- will go into the great beyond with us, vanishing forever. Over the coming decade, century, and millenium, your experiences will slowly dissappear. The past, they say, is a foreign country -- distant, strange, often unknowable. Unless you have a map. Your memoirs, recorded and shared at MemoryWiki, are that map for future generations. Go ahead. Tell the future how it was to be alive now. Your children, childrens' children and all who follow will want to know. You've got a story. Make it history."

Ah, the Romance of the Past is Fading

From a comment to a Joel Achenbach posts--Achenblog: Daily Humor and Observations from Joel Achenbach: "The biggest cross-generational shock when my son became a Boy Scout was the ubiquity of propane camp stoves. It seems so few places allow open fires for cooking, that it has become a necessity."

I remember from childhood the romantic pictures of people around campfires, faces highlighted with the light from the fire. Not that I ever experienced that, although we did cook marshmallows once on sticks over a small fire in the yard. And it was standard practice to burn our paper trash (we lived in the country).

What's the romance in a propane stove?

The Collapsing Bubble

There seems to be agreement that the real estate bubble is collapsing. Here's an interesting site:
How Much Real Estate Can a Salary Buy? - New York Times

Factoids--in the DC area the percentage of income went from 17 to 24 from the late 90's to now. In upstate New York cities the percentage is still around 10 percent.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Tip of Hat to Rep. Tom Davis

I do my best not to compliment Republicans, but Rep. Davis (who once was my representative, before some redistricting) has done a good job as chair of the House Government Reform Committee, particularly in its report on Katrina. The Dems boycotted, saying it would be a partisan whitewash and the White House wasn't particularly cooperative, but the report has gotten respect in the mainstream media. It's perhaps noteworthy that the NYTimes didn't mention Davis' name in its discussion of the report. If I were a Rep, I'd cite it as bias. As a Dem, I'd say it's proof that Davis didn't grandstand.

Handling Future Katrinas--Ideas

As a bureaucrat and experienced Monday morning quarterback, I've some ideas on how FEMA/DHS should handle future disasters. First, I'd acquire ID packages--consisting of a digital camera and laptop with software to work with RFID ID bracelets. Each operative in the field would, as soon as possible (ideally when they first rescue people, etc.) snap digital pictures of the person, provide them with a RFID ID bracelet, and record a conversation with them (hopefully giving name, address, and similar info). The software would associate the ID bracelet to the picture and to the location, such data to be uploaded to a central database when wireless data communications are available.

[updated--published too fast] The recorded conversations could be transcribed into a database that could be matched against public information.

The bottomline is that as the bureaucracy kicks into gear with the provision of emergency help: grants, loans, shelter, whatever, the processing center can read the ID bracelet and match the person to the data in the database. This has many benefits:
  1. Finding lost children and reuniting families--because everyone is in the database with some sort of identification (even if only 1-year infant found near X), people could be speedily reunited. That would save much effort and more emotional strain.
  2. Avoiding fraud--while there could still be fraud it would remove the biggest causes of abuse in Katrina.
  3. Providing information--you'd have a much faster flow of more accurate information as to the extent of the disaster and its impact. That means much better management of relief efforts.
Given the spread of digital equipment, the biggest problem is probably getting people together to agree on the standards for the bracelets, the picture, the recorded conversation, and the database.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight?

Sorry, I couldn't resist the Cheney story [the title is a reference to an old Jimmy Breslin book]. For a more sober reaction, read the Stephen Hunter take in the Post.

Thoughts on Corn, and Farming

USDA's Economic Research Service does a lot of good publications. From the summary for one--

Characteristics and Production Costs of U.S. Corn Farms, 2001: "Corn production costs per bushel vary considerably among U.S. producers, depending on yields, farm location, tillage practices, irrigation, previous field usage, enterprise size, and weather. In 2001, the operating and ownership costs per bushel for corn ranged from an average of $1.08 for the 25 percent of U.S. producers with the lowest costs to an average of $2.98 for the 25 percent with the highest costs. Heartland corn producers had the lowest costs per bushel on average. Corn producers with small corn enterprises had the highest costs per bushel due to their lower-than-average corn yields. Operators of part-time and low-sales corn farms had higher production costs per bushel than operators of farms with higher sales. In 2001, 59 percent of corn producers earned a positive net return per bushel after covering their operating and ownership costs from the market value of corn. "

My thoughts--note the range of costs. While GM's costs are higher than Toyota's or Hyundai's, there's not nearly the range. The big range means that lots of discussion of agricultural programs is misleading, if not unfounded. There's apt to be a big disconnect between the pictures in our head and the reality.

If the cash price for corn is in the area of $2, how can anyone stay in business if it costs them $3? Obviously government programs help, but since the benefits tend to correlate to bushels produced, and the smaller producers are the high cost ones, that's not the entire answer. Another part of the answer is the older farmers, who have no mortgage, have low out-of-pocket ownership costs for land. That makes a big, big difference. To economist, someone with a million dollars worth of land (which is a smallish field crop farmer these days) needs to account for the cost of that land capital. But to a farmer, cash flow is critical. The fact he could sell out and get $40,000 a year by investing the proceeds is irrelevant.

Monday, February 13, 2006

The Limits of Libertarianism

I don't know for sure, but I'd consider Ben Stein to be a libertarian type conservative, believing in the virtues of free markets and less government. But current events strain his convictions, as witness yesterday's column in the Times:New Front: Protecting America's Investors.
He writes on executive compensation in Delphi and United Airlines, cites his father-in-law's war medals, then segues to this--
"But my favorite communication, the one that made me stay up nights, was from a United States Army sergeant who has done two combat tours in Iraq and two more in Afghanistan, and is now home in Georgia training others to serve in those wars. I have been pals with this man for a couple of years now, and we talk on the phone. He has been following my articles online, and he simply asked, 'Was this what I was fighting for in Iraq?'

The question haunts me, not only because of UAL and Delphi, but also because there is something deeply broken about the corporate system in America. Long ago, my pop was pals with Harlow H. Curtice, the president of General Motors in its glory days in the 1950's. Mr. Curtice presided over a spectacularly powerful and profitable G.M.

For that, in his peak year as I recall from my youth, he was paid about $400,000 plus a special superbonus of $400,000, which made him one of the highest-paid executives in America. At that time, a line worker with overtime might have made $10,000 a year. In those days, that differential was considered very large — very roughly 40 times the assembly line worker's pay, without bonus; very roughly 80 times with bonus. A differential of more like 10 to 20 times was more the norm.

Now C.E.O.'s routinely take home hundreds of times what the average worker is paid, whether or not the company is doing well. The graph for the pay of C.E.O.'s is a vertical line in the last five years. The graph for workers' pay is a flat line — in every sense.

Now, my fellow free-market fans may well say: 'Hey, stop your whining. This is the free market at work.' Only it isn't the free market at work. It's a kleptocracy at work. (I am indebted to another of my correspondents for the word.) What's happening here is that the governance system for many — by no means all — corporations has simply stopped working."
He concludes with a message from another soldier, making the same point, that the America of Kenny Boy and Tyco isn't an America she feels comfortable fighting for.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

If All Else Fails, Read the Manual

I should know better. I sent off a message to Blogger complaining, actually two messages, about missing posts. Then I read their help messages, tried Internet Explorer (instead of Firefox), found that the website worked fine in IE, went to Firefox and cleared the cache per Blogger's instructions and it works fine in Firefox.

Self, read the damn manual.

Immigrants Get Houses

The Post has an interesting article on how recent Hispanic immigrants are buying houses in
American Dreams, Realized:
"The Teoses and many other immigrants see their homes as the physical manifestation of the hope that they carried with them upon arrival in the United States. Home equity accounts for two-thirds of the average net worth of Hispanic households, studies show. According to 2000 Cenus data, 41.2 percent of Latin American immigrants own homes and other real estate, up from 38 percent in 1997.

In the Washington area, Latin immigrants have become active real estate investors with rental properties and well-thought-out strategies, said Jose Luis Semidey, president of the National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals in Northern Virginia and of the Vienna real estate firm ERA Semidey & Associates. Last year, Semidey's company sold 900 homes; 90 percent of his clients were Latino.

'Our community has been changing, but people have not been realizing that. We are very entrepreneurial, with a lot of expendable income,' Semidey said. 'We are here. We are here to stay. We want to progress and to be successful.'"
The theme seems to be people taking advantage of opportunities. My impression is that homeowning is also furthered because families, relatives, and friends share houses, thus combining incomes and because immigrants can get good deals on home repairs (they know someone who does the work and can and will do a job on the side cheaply).

Friday, February 10, 2006

Revamping Bureaucracies

An earlier post and comments on the Farm Service Agency leads to broader consideration of how you revamp an old bureaucracy.
Via Kevin Drum (Washington Monthly) is a link to a proposed alternative to Rumsfeld's Quadrennial Defense Review. Rummy wants more special forces, but doesn't cut major weapons systems, even though there's no military threat to us in the world.

Meanwhile the State Department is revamping its overseas posts--from today's Post: U.S. to Shift Envoys to China, India: "China and India have emerged as the big winners -- and Russia and Germany as the top losers -- in the first round of a broad restructuring of U.S. diplomatic posts ordered by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice."

Oracle is firing 2,000 workers after its takeover of Siebel. (Seems like just yesterday they took over Peoplesoft--what happened to the monopoly concerns?)
The difference is that Oracle's workers have nowhere to go, while the DOD programs (and the FSA offices) are supported by Congress. And of course, there's no Representative from Russia to tell Secretary Rice to what to do. A Senator Helms can play hob with the way an administration wants to run foreign policy, but there's lots more freedom in managing posts in foreign countries.

Searching for the Right Parallels to Cartoons

I posted yesterday agreeing that a parallel to cartoons of Mohammed was the burning of the flag. I post today to disagree with Martin Peretz in The New Republic (registration required).

What the cartoons have revealed: "Muslims are just plain forbidden from depicting the prophet. So, let them not depict him. But Christians and Jews, Hindus and Buddhists are not prohibited, and I assume that the Danish cartoonists were not Muslims but Lutherans (an overwhelming majority of whom assert that they do not believe in God) or from that cool breed of Scandinavian rationalists. Another cartoon shows the prophet greeting some martyrs at the entrance to heaven, and he shouts to them, 'Stop, stop, we have run out of virgins.' When you compare the most offensive of these caricatures to the vile and inciting images of Jews routinely shown on government-owned television all over the Muslim world (forget about the ugly role of caricature in the long history of Christian anti-Semitism) you wonder what all the fuss is about. OK, Bill Clinton doesn't wonder. He's referred to them as 'these totally outrageous cartoons against Islam,' although I myself doubt whether he's ever bothered to look at them. Is he for free expression or for that sloppy multiculturalism that forbids you from raising anyone's hackles? This is the liberal's dilemma. By the way, a European-Arab website--in retaliation, I suppose--has just put out a cartoon showing Anne Frank and Hitler in bed."
I don't agree with his specifics. Offensive cartoons of Jews, whether of Anne Frank or whoever, are parallel to offensive cartoons of Muslims (or Lutherans [by the way, a Lutheran would believe in Christ and God]. Offensive cartoons of U.S. Presidents are parallel to offensive cartoons of Saddam Hussein or the ayatollah. An offensive cartoon of Moses or Abraham or God would parallel one of Mohammed.

I was brought up to be sensitive to others' feelings, but as a liberal I believe in equal opportunity for everyone to offend everyone.

Blogger Problems--Apologies for Duplication

Blogger was having some problems republishing its blogs. That appears to have resulted in two duplicate posts here but I'm not able to delete the duplicates. My apologies.

There also appears to be a problem in counting comments--there's a comment on the FSA post
but the count shows "zero".

Maybe it's time to look at Typepad??

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Flags and Cartoons

A commenter at The Volokh Conspiracy raises the issue of how depicting Mohammed compares to burning the flag. Eugene has an interesting discussion, including:
"One can naturally come up with some distinctions — among other things, banning all depictions of Mohammed burdens a wider range of speech (e.g., pretty much any film biography of Mohammed) than banning flagburning would — but I think that on balance these distinctions are unpersuasive. If you want to credibly say to Muslims that they have to tolerate offense to their sacred symbols, you have to tolerate offense to your own sacred symbols, too."
I agree.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Heading in Opposite Directions

Two articles from today's Post suggest the complexity of housing issues. Meanwhile Safeway is having difficulty hiring Starbucks workers, advertising $11 an hour for them. At something over $20K a year, that that doesn't pay for housing in Fairfax:

Fairfax to Buy Affordable Apartment Complex in Reston: "Fairfax County agreed yesterday to purchase a complex of 180 apartments in Reston. With their relatively low rents, the units might otherwise have been converted to luxury condominiums, county officials said.

The county will pay the Mark Winkler Co. $49.5 million for the Crescent Apartments near Lake Anne, the largest outlay from an affordable housing fund approved by the Board of Supervisors last year. Monthly rents at the complex run an average of $1,023 for a one-bedroom apartment and $1,170 for two bedrooms. The current tenants, who represent Reston's mix of ethnic communities, earn incomes of $40,000 to $50,000 for a family of four."

Reality Thins Out An Urban Vision: "In Fairfax County's official vision for Tysons Corner, thousands of people live clustered around the Metro stops planned there -- riding the train or walking to work, leaving their cars at home and injecting new life into the austere glass and concrete hub.

But in the reality of developers' blueprints, a different Tysons is emerging -- one with a population smaller than what county leaders have in mind." [article explains that the zoning requires x million square feet of residential space, which the developer has decided to make into 2K condos instead of 1K. Rationale is that the bigger condos attract people willing to pop for upgrades (granite counter tops, etc.) that are more profitable.]

"Career Professional" or "Faceless Bureaucrat"?

A Republican Attorney General thinks highly of faceless government bureaucrats (whoops, career professionals) (Gonzales, from yesterday's Senate hearing):
"Second, the program is triggered only when a career professional at the NSA has reasonable grounds to believe that one of the parties to a communication is a member or agent of Al Qaida or an affiliated terrorist organization. As the president has said, if you're talking with Al Qaida, we want to know what you're saying."

Was Adam Smith Wrong?

Smith famously used the example of pin making to put over his argument that specialization of function improved efficiency. But Sunday's Times suggests this may be wrong, at least in some cases:
Carmakers' Big Idea: Think Small - New York Times: "THE contrast between old and new is even clearer in the way jobs are assigned to workers at the Dundee plant. During their shifts — 10 hours a day, four days a week — workers might be responsible for 18 to 20 spots on the assembly line, rather than be rigidly limited to one narrowly defined task. Indeed, each worker learns every job on the line, reflecting the plant's philosophy of 'anyone, anywhere, anything, anytime.'

The workers, who are U.A.W. members, had to go through a rigorous application and training process, and had to be accepted by plant managers rather than just being assigned by the union. Because they are using an entirely new approach, the managers accepted only two workers from other Chrysler factories. Others came from parts makers or other companies with U.A.W. workers. Despite the intensity, Jimmie Pierce, 36, says the job is a godsend to him. He recently lost his previous job when the Lear Corporation, a parts supplier, closed its plant in Romulus, Mich. In his 12 years there, he said, he stuck to his assigned tasks, even if a problem popped up. 'At Lear, someone else fixes it,' said Mr. Pierce, a second-generation autoworker. At his new job, where he supervises a team of workers, he said that 'you think of yourself more as part of a business.'"

Monday, February 06, 2006

Bush's Budget Proposal for Farm Service Agency

Budget of the United States Government, FY 2007:
"Improving the Effectiveness of Providing Support to Farmers

The Department's Farm Service Agency (FSA) administers farm programs and services through one of the Federal Government’s largest and most decentralized field office structures. This arrangement, which remains largely unchanged today, dates back to the 1930s when communication and transportation systems were limited by geographic boundaries. FSA currently has 2,351 county offices across the country, of which nearly 500 are within 20 miles of the next nearest office. Over 1,000 of these offices are staffed by three or fewer employees.

This outdated office structure is inefficient and must be streamlined to realign benefits and services with a rural America that has changed dramatically since the early part of the 20th Century. Today, the number of farmers has declined sharply and computers, modern telecommunications and transportation systems have increased farmers’ access to information and assistance without ever visiting a USDA field office.

To streamline operations, FSA must consolidate offices and invest in information technology tools to improve business operations and service delivery to farmers. Before investment in modern information technology is made, the agency will work with stakeholders to close and consolidate offices, where appropriate, and ensure that future investments are made prudently and in a manner that ensures taxpayers’ dollars are spent wisely. The Budget fully funds the agency’s staffing needs while targeting these resources to the agency’s more efficient offices, and includes funding to modernize FSA’s outdated computer systems."

The background is that the administration floated a proposal to close field offices last year which very quickly got shot down. They're now promising to work with Congress on the issue.

Now They Admit It

Virginia Democrats suffered from Gilmore's campaign to end the car tax (an annual tax based on value of your car) which was in 1997. He rode the issue to Richmond and the Reps rode it into control of the House of Delegates and Senate. Given the Clinton boom (might as well be partisan today) Gilmore had the surplus to start the process, even though it was obvious that he was digging a hole for the future. Mark Warner had to duck and dodge around the issue to get himself elected in 2001, but made a name by navigating through the Gilmore fiscal mess that resulted when the state went into a recession.

But now, that great organ of enlightened government, the Washington Times carries this piece: Officials sour on car-tax relief�
" 'Frankly, I wish it had never happened, even though I voted for it,' said Senate Majority Leader Walter A. Stosch, Henrico Republican. 'The car-tax program was a wonderful political decision but almost a nightmare for the state and for local governments.' "

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Sad for Liberals

The NYTimes Business section today has a profile of the head of Brown University, Ruth Simmons--Doing It Right Matters .

I found this very sad:
"As an African-American, I was patronized pretty consistently by professors, so to finally have someone say to me, 'You know I think you are very smart but what you just said is dumb'... nobody had ever been honest with me before."
This might tie to David Brook's column today (Remaking the Epic of America) in which he sees a trend of popular sports movies with the gruff, tough coach and the working class team fighting against their adversary. Contrary to the 60's, the movies celebrate authority but like the 60's, they embrace equality--minorities and women. Uniformly the coaches are honest with their players. Perhaps that's one reason for their popularity.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Bureaucracy and Counting

Tim Harford has a piece at Slate: Who's the Greatest Artist of the 20th Century?
He uses this research to segue into bureaucracy:
"My former colleagues at the World Bank have also been counting away: How many official signatures does a farmer in the Central African Republic need to obtain before he's able to get his bananas on a ship bound for America or Europe? 38. How many official procedures must a businessman in Lagos go through in order to legally buy a warehouse? 21.

This kind of counting—done with the help of local lawyers and public officials—shares common ground with Galenson's work. It transforms a qualitative impression ('Nigerian bureaucracy is painful') into a quantitative fact; it does so through the intermediation of experts, and uses a perfectly transparent process."
There's a topic for someone--what history explains the cumbersome bureaucracy often found outside the developed world. (See De Soto's work for further discussion.)

(Who's the greatest artist: Picasso)

Legends, Myths, and Truth

Tomorrow is the Super Bowl. does a debunk on this:

"Before Super Bowl XXII in 1988, a reporter asked Washington Redskins quarterback Doug Williams, 'How long have you been a black quarterback?'
Humans value a good story over good facts.

Friday, February 03, 2006

DC Government More Efficient Than Private Business

Steven Pearlstein writes in the Post about his problems with bureaucracies, particularly Verizon. But he includes this nugget:
"While on this vacation, I discovered at 6:30 one morning that my wallet had been lost or stolen. Normally, this would have ruined my day. But by 8:30, using the hotel's Internet access and dialing some 800 numbers, I was able to order up three new credit cards, a new bank card and a new driver's license. When I returned home two days later, I found the replacement license from the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles in the mailbox. (Honest!) All the other cards arrived within the next two business days."
Back to Verizon--his wife was sold a one-stop solution for phones and Internet, but there wasn't good communication within Verizon on the different pieces. Pearlstein rightfully complains, but as a bureaucrat that's what you have to expect. It's much easier to present one face to the customer if the face is really a mask than to reengineer the reality.

Partisan Thought Is an Oxymoron--II

Jim Lindgren at The Volokh Conspiracy
passes on a Cass Sunstein report of an experiment on the effect of discussion on political views. The bottom line is that, when liberals talk to liberals and conservatives to conservatives, both groups get more extreme.

Cat People, This Administration??? No, Really

Who woulda thunk it?

Ready Kids, From the U.S. Department of Homeland Security

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Definitions Matter--a War is a War is a War

Via Washington Monthly James Carroll writes in the Boston Globe challenging the idea we're at war:
Is America actually in a state of war? "Iraq is not a war, because, though we have savage assault, we have no enemy. The war on terrorism is not a war because, though we have an enemy, the muscle-bound Pentagon offers no authentic means of assault."
I don't agree with everything he says, but I emphatically agree that determining whether the current state of affairs is a "war" is crucial. My answer is "no"--this is not a war, not a war between states, not a war of armies whose leader can be convinced to surrender. It may be a war as in the "war on organized crime" or the "war on cancer". But precision of language is vital.

My main concern about Guantanamo is the idea we're at war. It's inhuman to sentence prisoners when we can't define the conditions under which the sentence would end.

My doubt as to the "war" also underlies my position on NSA wiretapping. If we were at "war", as Judge Posner posits in the TNR (registration required), I'd be more comfortable with Bush's position. Bush does have historical precedents for his position. We Americans do accept Presidential excess in times of crisis--look particularly at the Civil War. In my case, and perhaps the case of many liberals, the fact is that we disagree with Bush's analysis of the current situation: we don't call this "war".