Tuesday, May 30, 2006

One Nation, One Language?

What does history teach about the need for a nation to have a common/national/official language?

As always with history's lessons, the message is mixed. One could argue, I suppose, that the worst war in U.S. history was not caused by language--that the South and North didn't speak different languages. And if we look north to Canada while we've seen signs over the years of strains caused by two official languages, they've survived pretty well with much less bloodshed than we. And if we look south to Mexico and beyond, we're reminded that multiple (native) languages can cause problems, but don't necessarily mean division.

Personally I'd look to economics. Whenever two people with no language in common get together, they try to trade, either goods or sex. (Simply follow GI's in foreign countries.) To oversimplify, as long as our immigrant population is part of the U.S. economy, they'll become "Americans", regardless of whether they become citizens or not.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Are Economists Exceptionally Christian?

Alex Tabarrok has an article claiming that economists mostly support immigration and outlining reasons why hereTCS Daily - Why Ruin the World's Best Anti-Poverty Program?: His points include:
"Economists are probably also more open to immigration than the typical member of the public because of their ethics -- while economists may be known for assuming self-interested behavior wherever they look, economists in their work tend not to distinguish between us and them. We look instead for policies that at least in principle make everyone better off. Policies that make us better off at the price of making them even worse off are for politicians, not economists."

Somehow this seems "christian" to me, in the old golden rule sense.

Flash--Pope Foresees the Future

Today's News from MSNBC - MSNBC.com: "Pope begins pilgrimage to successor's homeland"

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Competition at the Bloodmobile

Eugene Volokh says
"You Know You're Too Competitive When This Happens:

A few months ago, I was donating blood here at UCLA; a law student was one cot over from me; and both of us simultaneously noticed that my blood was flowing out faster than hers."
I well remember the feeling.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Be Nice to Conservatives/Libertarians

I think Virginia Postrel falls in the conservative/libertarian camp, but not aggressively so. Whatever her politics, she deserves praise for this:

Texas Monthly June 2006: Here’s Looking at You, Kidney:
"Most important, it turned out, I had the right personality. Donating a kidney isn’t, in fact, a matter of just showing up. You have to be pushy. Unless you’re absolutely determined, you’ll give up, and nobody will blame you—except, of course, the person who needs a kidney. When I went to see my Dallas doctor for preliminary tests, the first thing she said was “You know, you can change your mind."

Friday, May 19, 2006

Problems with Patrick Henry College

Patrick Henry College started a few years back as a college for home-schooled students and religious conservatism. It grew and thrived, but today's Post indicates there may be problems:
5 Professors Quit Religious School:
"Nearly a third of the faculty members at Patrick Henry College in Loudoun County are leaving the school because of what they described as limitations on their academic freedom, causing unusual introspection at the politically connected Christian liberal arts college."
It may be simply a conflict between an opinionated founder and some faculty. But it may also be just another instance of a college starting with a clear and narrow vision which the dominant culture forces to fuzz and spread. Or, like a flashlight beam, the beam is sharpest closest to the bulb.

Misunderstanding Reality on the Right

John at Power Line blogs on English as the official language closing with this line:
"My Congressman, Col. John Kline, is a long-time advocate of legislation establishing English as the country's official language. The principle is sound, but the question is, will the legislation make any difference? To the extent that we still hear, 'Press 1 for English,' the answer may be No."
It's amazing that a conservative, presumably strongly in favor of free market principles, would make such an elementary mistake. The use of multiple languages in company operations is a direct response to competition among companies for customers. No company is going to try to exclude potential customers, whether they're Hispanic, French-speaking, gays or evangelicals. At the margins making another sale is pure profit and that's what companies do.

The same principle applies to government bureaucracies--while we aren't profit driven the more people we serve the more power we get on the Hill.

And the same works for colleges. Most colleges [Harvard, Yale, Princeton, etc.] in the country started with an affiliation to a church. As time passed and they competed for students they found themselves leaving the affiliation behind.

Conservatives laugh at the French, who try vainly to preserve their language against the onslaughts of English. They need to look in the mirror.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Farewell to Tax Evader Richard Hatch

In the end to a story that I blogged about early on, Richard Hatch was sentenced to 51 months in prison for tax evasion. See ABC News: 'Survivor' Tips for Richard Hatch in Prison for details:
"'Survivor' winner Richard Hatch might want to rethink his affinity for recreational nudity as he heads off for more than four years in federal prison.

Several legal experts gave practical advice to Hatch, the reality show's first million-dollar prize winner, after he was sentenced to 51 months in federal prison for failing to pay taxes on the $327,000 he earned as co-host of a Boston radio show and $28,000 in rent on property he owned."
As far as I'm concerned, it's an end that should be shared by many white collar criminals. (Feeling particularly Calvinistic today.)

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Business Opposes Free Flow of Information

The Post today has an article on business opposition to a proposal that the public be informed of where (what stores) meat was recalled from. USDA List Would Pinpoint Locations of Recalled Meat:
"The prospect of these names being made public led the National Meat Association , which represents meat processors and packers, to tell the agency in an open meeting in April that it should abandon the proposal.

'The publication of this information would be extremely advantageous to a firm's competitors. A competitor would have the ability to identify specific retail locations . . . and then offer their products as an immediate substitute . . .,' said Brett Schwemer , an attorney representing the NMA.

'We're opposed to it, and so is most every other trade association that has anything to do with food,' said Mark Dopp , senior vice president and general counsel for the American Meat Institute ,"
I shouldn't be amazed at this, but I am. I suppose the rationale for the opposition is that the retailers are innocent parties in any recall, so their business shouldn't be damaged because of a mistake by the meat packer/processor. But the general rule should be that information obtained by bureaucrats paid by the public should be available to the public and let the chips fall where they may (or where the free market may shift them).

Monday, May 15, 2006

Economics and Real Life

Today's Post had an interesting article on gift-giving, focusing on the conflict between economics (gifts don't make economic sense) and psychology--Searching for a Sense of Meaning in Gifts:
"At its core, gift-giving involves risk, said Mark Osteen, an English professor at Loyola College in Baltimore. There is a risk in giving the wrong gift -- besides the financial loss that Waldfogel identified; there is the psychological loss of having the recipient conclude the donor does not know her very well.

But the understandable desire in modern American society to minimize the risk in gift-giving is paradoxically what is causing a devaluation of the gift's intangible qualities, Osteen said. In the tension between what makes economic sense and what makes psychological sense, the economic argument is winning. This is why people tell loved ones what they want for gifts, why donors include receipts, and why so many people exchange gift cards. All are ways to minimize economic and psychological risk."
I think there's a general element in economics of ignoring complexity in order to model exchanges. If I get my ambition up, I'll blog on it.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Housing Costs, Suburbia, and Murdered Cop

Fairfax County lost its first police officer to gunfire the other day. The tragedy has several aspects, handling youths with mental problems, the responsibility of friends and parents, the wisdom of gun control, etc. See these links for more details:
Fairfax Gunman's Home Yields More Weapons and Dedicated Detective Remembered Also for Deep Faith.

One aspect is the detective was commuting from Culpeper, VA, some 40 or so miles away. No doubt she and her husband thought that was a good place to rear their kids. But high housing costs in Fairfax also played a part. Public servants like the police and teachers can't afford the lifestyle they want here. What will happen over the next 20 years?

Thursday, May 11, 2006

FEMA Bureaucrats

Stephen Barr in the Post covers the DHS awards ceremony in Honoring Those Who Went Above and Beyond During Katrina:
"Chertoff and Jackson honored more than 75 employees and employee teams at the secretary's second annual awards ceremony, held at Constitution Hall. Many awards ceremonies in Washington are perfunctory events, but not Chertoff's 2005 awards fete.

The department's gold medals went to employees who met the challenge of Katrina and are, Chertoff said, symbols of 'the thousands of employees who brought distinction to the department throughout the hurricane response effort.'"

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

USDA and Agitprop

George Buddy nudged my elbow when he saw this editorial (registration required)An Agriprop Guide to Cluck and Awe - New York Times:
"A furious collective heehaw is surely the only proper response to the news that ranking bureaucrats and other occasional speechmakers at the Department of Agriculture have been instructed to include 'talking points' of praise for President Bush's handling of the Iraq war in their routine rhetorical fodder."
It's based on an Al Kamen piece in the Post, quoting from a message by a USDA speechwriter to political appointees in USDA that also got sent to some career types. The message showed how to include talking points on Iraq into ag speeches. This is called "message discipline" which has evolved in the executive branch over the last few administrations. I'd expect the same sort of thing in a Democratic administration (except that Bill wasn't disciplined on anything). When Hillary wins, she'll crack the whip.

It's similar to the flap over denying contracts to those who don't support the administration, something that happens on both sides, but which is normally kept out of sight.

The Care and Feeding of Genius, II

This week's New Yorker has two articles that are relevant: One is on Ivan Lendl's golf-playing daughters. Just teenagers they're doing well and Lendl seems to follow the pattern of Earl Woods. He says that kid athletes need a parental push early, but the parent needs to step back at some point. (What's different in sports these days is the early specialization. When I grew up, the 3 or 4 letter athlete was common (football, basketball, baseball, and maybe track). These days teens specialize early. )

The other article is on an ex-Harvard undergrad who developed Facebook, sort of a MySpace site tweaked for college. The point here is the familiar story of the computer whiz who spends lots of time and effort developing an application (similar to Napster and innumerable other applications). It's a combination of talent, effort, and the environment.

Mr. Kennicott, Meet Mr. Cohen's E-Mailers

I posted the other day on Mr. Kennicott's article in the Post on hatred and bigotry. Today Richard Cohen follows up on his past columns (criticizing Stephen Colbert's humor and supporting Al Gore's speech on global warming), specifically on the nature of the e-mails he received in Digital Lynch Mob:
"The hatred is back. I know it's only words now appearing on my computer screen, but the words are so angry, so roiled with rage, that they are the functional equivalent of rocks once so furiously hurled during antiwar demonstrations."
I think the two should compare notes.

[I'll take this opportunity to update my post on Kennicott. I must admit I blogged on the article in the heat of the moment, a sure way to lead to distortion and misreading. Upon rereading the piece, Kennicott uses most of his piece talking about how art handles hatred, claiming that modern narrative art in whatever form doesn't present hatred as living emotion, but rather as something to be examined in the laboratory. I think that's mostly true--I guess it's another way of saying it's mostly "politically correct" or post modern. At the end he asks: "Could our political life benefit from allowing hatred to speak openly once again?" My point was that there's plenty of hatred spoken in our political life already. However, to give Mr. Kennicott the benefit of the doubt, he may have been asking: "if modern art put hatred front and center, as a reality, would it help political life?"

I think Cohen and I would say "no". Certainly there was enough anti-LBJ and anti-Nixon art in the late 60's and early 70's to go along with the hatred in the streets to undermine the thesis. I'd guess the problem is that neither narrative art (novels, plays, films) nor anyone else is self-reflective enough to handle hate in art in a modern setting. Miller may have said "attention must be paid" to a salesman, but no one writes with equivalent understanding of those who commit genocide. (There may be an exception for Palestinian terrorists; but even a movie like "Munich" doesn't portray a hater.)]

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The Care and Feeding of Genius

The post on genius being the result of practice (and comment) the other day caused me to ponder the care and feeding of genius.
  • First, of course, you need reasonable capabilities (although "idiot savants", also known as autistic geniuses seem to have a screw missing). But no nurture is going to make a sprinter out of a white guy (joking) or a center out of someone of average height.
  • Second you need early stimulation and positive feedback. (See Tiger Woods at 2 or Mozart whenever.)
  • Third, you need a network that will keep feeding the feedback. Yes, Earl Woods gave Tiger feedback, but he also got him publicity. The publicity probably kept Earl going.
  • Fourth, the third requirement means you need a welcoming environment. I vaguely remember Stephen Jay Gould talking about the ecology of genius. Without researching it, the argument is that classical music, or baseball, or whatever field of endeavor is like an environment. In the early days there's lots of opportunity, but as time goes on some of the early movers take up niches that effectively exclude others. In classical music, there are very few composers writing works in the style of Bach or Mozart. There's no market for fugues and there's no room for originality.
  • Fifth, I'd suggest that Isiah Berlin's distinction between fox and hedgehog comes into play. It's much easier for a hedgehog to be a genius. You find yourself a field with plenty of opportunity and get lost in a continuous feedback loop of work and reward and before you know you're Bill Gates, the richest man in the world. (Interesting piece in the current NY review of Books by Andrew Hacker on class in America--the Rockefellers and du Ponts on the Forbes 400 list in 1982 were replaced on the current list by technology and marketing tycoons.)
  • Sixth--the bottom line is that you need luck, amazing amounts of luck for all the pieces to come together.
Personally, I'm a fox, curious about many things and not carrying through on anything (though the latter may be an effect of old age.)

Monday, May 08, 2006

My Favorite Conservative Commentator?

Ben Stein is in danger of becoming my favorite conservative commentator. I recommend his column from yesterday's Times--You're Rich? Terrific. Now Pay Up.
"Here we all are under the gorgeous crystal dome of prosperity, drinking, making money, eating swordfish, changing money at the temple, showing off ourselves to others, bragging — and all of it, every bit of it, is made possible by the men and women who wear the uniform.

Every bit of it is done under the protection of the Marines, the Army, the Navy, the Air Force and the Coast Guard, serving and offering up their lives for pennies. And we're also under the protection of the police and the firefighters and the F.B.I., who offer up their lives for nothing compared with what others make trading money on computer screens.

Something flashed into my mind — something that my late father used to say, quoting loosely from the economist Henry C. Simons, a founder of the Chicago School of economics: that it is 'unlovely' to see the extremes of wealth and nonwealth that are evident in contemporary America."

Acronyms--Key to Bureaucracy

Today's LA Times has an article on The Fine Art of Legislation Appellation on how Congressional aides manipulate titles of bills to come up with a fitting acronym, as in:
"What do you call a bill to sanitize Congress of the current lobbying scandal?

The CLEAN UP Act — the memorable shorthand by Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) for his Curtailing Lobbyist Effectiveness through Advance Notification, Updates and Posting Act.

'You'd be surprised at how much taxpayer time is spent in offices coming up with clever names for bills,' said Michael Franc, a former congressional staff member."
Bureaucrats have to do the same thing. I remember in 1981 dodging the logical acronym of "CRA" for the "conservation reserve acreage" in the new farm bill for fear of some wise guy in the press adding the "p" for "program" to it. Instead we went with the forced and awkward, "ACR" for acreage--conservation reserve". But easy as it is to laugh, names make a difference. Just ask innumerable Hollywood stars.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

The Capacity to Love

Having just posted on hate, I should give equal time to love. Tyler Cowan at Marginal Revolution
notes a piece in the NYTimes Magazine (Levitt and Dubner) dealing with research into talent and genius.

The argument goes that rather than genius being a matter of chance and heredity, it's really practice makes perfect, as shown in laboratory experiments, so genius is the ability to practice, and practice, and practice. So that means that genius is the ability to love what you're doing so much that you can endure the work that makes you great.

It makes sense to make, speaking as someone who always is jumping from one thing to another.

The Location of Hate

Philip Kennicott in today's Post uses an anti-Semitic diatribe from Chaucer (currently being performed in DC) to talk about hate in Chaucer's Slurring Words:
"It's rare, today, to hear this kind of hatred speaking on its own terms, at least in public spaces such as the theater. Hatred thrives, no doubt. In this country, it is still permissible, in varying degrees, to exercise it in public against marginal groups: homosexuals, immigrants, Muslims. And even bigotries that have been discredited in public, such as racism and anti-Semitism, still flourish underground, on the Internet and in public, if carefully coded. But most of the entertainment industry, and especially the arts world, is particularly sensitive to anything that smacks of bigotry. In narrative today -- in fiction, television, theater and movies -- characters who deal in discredited forms of hate are either caricatures, or so clearly marked as mentally ill or morally bankrupt that they wear their hatred with all the subtlety of a black cloak on a silent-film villain."
[He goes on to argue that exposure to hatred as expressed in past artistic works, like O'Neill's "Emperor Jones" broadens our understanding and leads us to consider hatred "old-fashioned".]

I find this self-satisfied, smug, and rather young. While many forms of hate may have been discredited, new forms spring up like weeds in springtime. I forget whether it was the Post or Times that recently ran an article on liberal bloggers, featuring a woman who exulted in her hatred of Bush. On the conservative side the hatred used to be for Bill, now it's Hillary and the vast left wing conspiracy. And us middle-roaders hate those who dare to believe passionately.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Administrative Capability--Enabling Weird Ideas

The Times today has an article on the history of the $100 rebate--$100 Rebate: Rise and Fall of G.O.P. Idea. It includes an interesting quote:
"Mr. Prater [staffer] reminded Mr. Ueland [Frist aide] that the Bush administration in 2001 sent rebate checks to taxpayers . Mr. Ueland ran the idea past his boss.

'It seemed reasonable to him,' Mr. Ueland said, describing Mr. Frist's reaction."
What is my point?

That sometimes, not all the time, governmental decisions depend on considerations of implementation--is the idea doable? If a faceless bureaucrat says it is, either by pointing to past history or by coming up with a new mechanism, as was done in 2001, then Congress or the bigshot administrators can go ahead and make up their minds.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Condescensional Wisdom, on Both Sides

George Will has a column, Condescensional Wisdom,
on John Kenneth Galbraith and liberalism in the 50's. He charges liberals like Galbraith, Reismann, et.al. with being condescending eggheads, who thought Americans were the helpless prey of advertising. There's a bit of truth in the charge. America is basically democratic and capitalistic, meaning we're all responsible for what the country is. Certainly anyone who writes on what America ought to be, as opposed to what it is, runs the risk of falling into snobbery and self-righteousness. George Will ought to know, from personal experience.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

The "Decider", For Real?

Apparently President Bush is getting some attention (i.e., parodies, songs, etc.) for his claim that he's the "decider". But few seem to challenge the idea that he is decisive. I don't know. What I do know is that Mr. Bremer, in his book on Iraq, says that Bush doesn't announce decisions during or at the end of meetings of top officials. (Can't give a cite; I've returned the book to the library already.) It's not clear to me whether Bush does have a decision-making process.
If I remember the Woodward book on Iraq the decision to go to war evolved, it wasn't "decided" in the sense I'm familiar with. (As a bureaucrat you prepare a decision memo on an issue, giving options and pros and cons on each and the decider signs off, or holds a meeting to come up with an alternative. That's the way the Nixon White House worked, which may not be an endorsement.)

Then today I read in the Senate committee's report on Katrina this:
"In addition, the need to resolve command issues between National Guard and active duty forces – an issue taken up (but not resolved) in a face-to-face meeting between President Bush and the Governor on Air Force One on the Friday after landfall, may have played a role in the timing of active duty troop deployments."
There can be problems when political leaders get together to resolve problems--they may not know what they're doing. But staff (read Andrew Card) need to follow up on missing decisions.

It's possible that Bush fakes being a "decider", relying on his staff to read his mind and fill the gaps. (That seems to me to have been part of Reagan's process, but Baker and Regan were more assertive aides than Card seems to have been.)

Monday, May 01, 2006

A Bureaucrat's Ambivalence--Agricultural Disasters

USDA announced that "sign-up begins May 17, 2006, for four crop and livestock assistance programs providing aid to producers affected by the destructive 2005 hurricanes. These programs are funded by $250 million in Section 32 funds authorized immediately following these destructive storms."

This is separate from the billions for disaster included in the supplemental appropriation bill now under consideration in Congress (HR4939). A bunch of people have criticized the provisions, including the Secretary of Agriculture.

It's a topic that causes me much ambivalence. I was a part, a big part I think, of USDA's implementation of early ad hoc disaster programs during the 1980's. I suspect there's still bits and pieces of the software programs and system designs incorporated in USDA's implementation of the current programs (bureaucrats and programmers like to re-use the old). And the bureaucratic systems are like the field of dreams--"build it and they will come". If bureaucrats can build systems to get money in farmers pockets reasonably efficiently, politicians will come up with programs to authorize such payments.

When I remember my father and uncle, and the pain caused by bad weather, disaster programs seem halfway justified. When my memory fades, the programs seem excessive.