Thursday, November 30, 2006
The most important recommendation of the 9/11 commission was for Congress to redo its oversight structure. Currently there are the House and Senate Intelligence committees to provide oversight, but there are also subcommittees of Ways and Means and Senate Appropriations who provide the money. So Negroponte, Hayden, et.al. have 4 different bodies to deal with. The commission recommended a consolidation, the Democrats during the campaign promised to implement all the recommendations (which the Republicans had failed to do), but now they're backing off. Why--because someone would lose power.
Getting Congress to reorganize itself is almost hopeless. The structure of committees overseeing USDA still reflect struggles back in Theodore Roosevelt's day. Maybe someday people will realize how little effective oversight Congress provides. And maybe someday people will live to 110. Bet on the latter before the former.
Wednesday, November 29, 2006
John Hinderaker at Powerline posts on Iraq statistics, arguing the situation is not as bad as the media says and does not constitute a civil war. (See also here.) His arguments have included the idea that the casualty rate is less than in the U.S. Civil War, that most of the country is peaceful except for Baghdad, and that the violent death rate in Bagdad is close to or only a small multiple of the murder rate in American cities at some times.
I'd make some counter arguments:
1 The Iraq population today is about 26.7 million; the US population in 1860 was 34.3 million. Over the course of the Civil War, the killed in action averaged 3,846 a month, the October Iraq figure was 3706. See this LSU site on the Civil War.
2 Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address famously said: "We draw deep comfort from the fact that in July of this year, the country was peaceful except for small areas around Vicksburg, Mississippi and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania."
3 Lawyer Hinderaker should realize violent deaths within a legal system, however much the criminal justice system was challenged in DC in the past, damage the social fabric much less vigilante justice than the sort of militia violence we see in Iraq.
An additional note: I bolded "killed" because it helps my argument. Most of the deaths in the Civil War were from disease, not bullets. Whether the appropriate comparison for Iraq is KIA or military deaths is debatable, but I'd lean to KIA.
Monday, November 27, 2006
I started out long ago by reading the bill, getting my checkbook, writing the amount into a check and signing it. There were multiple sources of error: I could forget to pay the bill; I could fail to complete the check; I could misread the amount; I could lose the envelope on the way to the mailbox, my writing could be illegible so the check wouldn't be accepted.
A big step in improvement came as I bought a PC and Quicken software (and as Quicken made their yearly improvements in software). The software reminded me that the payment was due and ensured that I completed all the entries.
The next step was electronic payments--I could cut out the mail and send the payment electronically, thus cutting out the dedicated public servants of the USPS.
Then electronic billing--I can receive the bill electronically. And the final step is automatic payment by authorizing the power company's computer to deduct the amount from my checking account. (I've not taken the last two steps yet, but I expect to.)
FSA/USDA has followed a similar route from its beginning in the New Deal. The sequence was roughly: typing checks based on manually prepared payment documents with humans calculating the amounts; typing them in OCR font so the carbons could be sent to Kansas City for scanning and validity checking; having a computer print them; going upstream by getting the farm, crop, and producer share data into the computer to compute the amounts and print the checks; the next tributaries were getting data like payment limitation allocations and sod/swamp and "person" determination data into the computer after the forms were signed and determinations made so the computer could validate eligibility and handle special cases (claims and assignments). That's about where we were when I retired.
The problem with the 10 percent of "improper" (or as I prefer "defective" payments) is that the manually prepared supporting documentation, the forms the farmer signs to affirm his or her compliance with certain provisions or the accuracy of information, were found to be incomplete or inaccurate (at least, that's my understanding). So how does the agency go upstream from here?
[The following may well be erroneous, given the time I've been away.) The key is FSA's move to Internet (technically intranet) based software to update farmer data. Instead of an FSA employee showing the farmer how to complete a form, then updating the computer to reflect the completion (the current process), now the farmer could complete the form on line so software can ensure that she makes all entries and the data can be captured without human action. Theoretically FSA could have had their employees completing the forms on the county computer, which would at least ensure that they were completely and consistently filled out. But that's not much bang for the buck unless you can flow the completion of the form into the payment process.
Note however there's still the problem of matching "reality" with what's in the computer which is designed based on pictures in our head. Just because we have a consistent set of data in the computer that passes all validity checks and seems to match what Congress wrote into the legislation does not ensure a match with what's happening on the farm and nor that the program helps the farmer and his community.
But the common theme here is the imperfect relation between the physical reality and the pictures in our head as evoked by the words we use. (See Walter Lippmann's "Public Opinion".) When Libby Quaid of AP writes the government "acknowledged improper payments", the headline writer who wants the hottest and sexiest title he can justify uses the stronger "admits", and some people discussing the piece on Yahoo jumped to waste, corruption, etc. etc. because they know the government and/or Bush is wasteful, corrupt, inefficient. Similarly, with Iraq each group has its own take on what constitutes a "civil war" and how closely or remotely the situation in Iraq matches that picture.
From what I've seen, "defective payments" would have been a better term, but "erroneous" is in the law and "improper" is being used as a synonym by the enforcing agencies.
Now, what's the relation to reality? That's a long story, because the legislators who wrote the laws authorizing the payments had pictures in their heads of farmers and how the programs should operate. (I hope they had more accurate pictures than I did when I wrote rules for them: I used to always use a farm with 100 acres of corn and a 100-bushel yield, just because it was easy to understand.) The short answer is that some of the payments that are not identified as "improper" are really fraudulent, while most of the "improper" but "defective" payments are not fraudulent.
[More to follow]
Friday, November 24, 2006
Thursday, November 23, 2006
Happy Thanksgiving (and check Washington Monthly for cat blogging)
and Buddy's bemusings for a livelier take (except for Bailey).
Tuesday, November 21, 2006
But I'm not convinced.
What Kinsley misses is the capitalist hidden toy game. For example, back in time (maybe late 60's) the craze was for conglomerates--assembling companies under one roof added value. That lasted for a while, then the conventional wisdom decided that more conglomerates were failures and they needed to be split up. That's just an example of the constant churn of capitalist deals. Remember GM used to own EDS? Sears owned a stock brokerage? GE owned many things, until Jack Welch decided he only wanted to be 1 or 2 in a field? Even today, Altria (i.e. Phillip Morris) is preparing to spin off Kraft Foods. But that's just one side. On the other you have the whole merger and acquisitions area of finance; so popular that it's known as M&A and doesn't have to be defined in stories.
It's the old story of boys and their toys. You hide a boy's toy for a while, then bring it back out and it seems new and different and worth more. There's nothing more attractive than a "deal", whether it's taking a company private, doing an IPO, doing a merger, or doing a spin off. Each is a "deal", a deal to publicized, exploited, envied, finagled, conned. It's all a part of "finance", which good old populists love to rage against.
Monday, November 20, 2006
The author says after the Nov. 1964 election the administration set up a committee to develop options. It came up with three. From page 182:
Momentum formed behind Option C. George Ball observed that the committee had developed options on the 'Goldilocks principle'. Option A was 'too soft,' Option B was 'too hard,' and Option C was 'just right'.Monday's Post has a lead article by Thomas Ricks beginning:
"The Pentagon's closely guarded review of how to improve the situation in Iraq has outlined three basic options: Send in more troops, shrink the force but stay longer, or pull out, according to senior defense officials.
One of the three authors of the review Ricks discusses: Col. H. R. McMasters, the author of "Dereliction of Duty". (As a captain, McMasters led an armored cavalry troop in a significant early battle of the Gulf war. He then went off to study and teach history at West Point, writing his book as a major. In the current war, he commanded armored cavalry at Tall Afar, and briefed in January on the results of his operation (Secretary Rice was promoting this as a model operation.)
Insiders have dubbed the options "Go Big," "Go Long" and "Go Home." The group conducting the review is likely to recommend a combination of a small, short-term increase in U.S. troops and a long-term commitment to stepped-up training and advising of Iraqi forces, the officials said."
Of course, the Goldilocks principle is well accepted in bureaucracy. When developing an options paper, you always include options more extreme than the one you favor. Option C in the Vietnam War was not a wise course; hopefully "Go Long" will be a better choice.
I realize that he's justified in his language, at least in terms of common usage in the circles in which he moves, and he may well be a nice guy. And how can I be opposed to anyone who got fired for a warning about Iraq? Historians have a concept called "producerism", which the old Populists and my mother fiercely believed in. That ideology said that those who produced things were morally superior to those who just sat around on their rears. You couldn't feel proud of earning a living by talking or writing, you had to do. That may be why Dr. Lindsey's piece touches a sore spot.
Sunday, November 19, 2006
Saturday, November 18, 2006
This is all by the way of referring to a Washington Post series, running occasionally, on being a black male in America. The most recent article focused on three entrepreneurs who'd founded an IT shop and were scrambling for business contracts. The main "suit" suffered from his suspicions--did he fail to get the contract because of an honest evaluation or because of discrimination? So I can empathize with the feeling.
Friday, November 17, 2006
"Depending on one’s perspective, the Bluegrass Institute [one of the institutes] view of liberty can seem either steadfast or extreme. Walking to his car after a recent event, Jim Waters, the policy director at the institute, mentioned how he had recently survived a head-on collision thanks to his car’s airbags. A few moments later, describing the institute’s priorities, he said the Bluegrass Institute was fighting tougher seat-belt laws, which he called an intrusion on liberty. Car safety laws “did save my life,” he conceded when asked about the apparent contradiction."Sen. McCain delivered separate speeches to GOPAC and the Federalist Society, telling them:
" 'I think they rejected us because they felt we had come to value our incumbency over our principles, and partisanship, from both parties, was no longer a contest of ideas but an even cruder and uncivil brawl over the spoils of power,' he said. 'I am convinced that a majority of Americans still consider themselves conservatives or right of center. They still prefer common-sense conservatism to the alternative.' " [In other words, the public thought Republicans had become hypocrites.]And finally, House Democrats chose their Majority Leader--with many voting for an ethically impaired Represenative and the majority for a well-connected friend of lobbyists.
Tuesday, November 14, 2006
"As we now debate torture, or domestic spying, or other dubious methods that will allegedly help us defeat radical Islam, it's worth remembering that the West won the Cold War not by matching the nastiness of Markus Wolf—though some certainly tried to do so—but by being, and remaining, a more open society. "
There's a "what-if" scenario that intrigues me. If I remember Secretary Cohen was waving a 5 pound bag of sugar around on TV during the Clinton administration. And he and Albright were pushing an aggressive line until they ran into a buzz saw of questions at some college that they didn't have good answers to. So just suppose that on the final days of the Clinton administration George Tenet had completed the National Intelligence Estimate that was done in the fall of 2002? In other words, say the Clinton Administration on January 20, 2001 was where the Bush administration was on November 1, 2002. Then the Bush people come in. What happens?
There's a parallel in 1961--Ike leaves JFK the Bay of Pigs operation. JFK modifies it but goes ahead. A difference--JFK had hit Nixon for not being hard enough on Castro; Bush never mentioned terrorism. Another difference--there probably was more comity, more "establishment rule" in 1961 than in 2001.
So does Bush go ahead with the flawed intelligence and missing plans? Or does his team say--Not Invented Here--and tear it apart? I suspect, given today's atmosphere, the latter.
You know you're senile when it takes you 2 days to compute.
Monday, November 13, 2006
We should have, it's logical. This is just another instance of the general principle: you put any group of people to talk among themselves and they develop their own accent, or jargon, or language, depending on the circumstances. The mechanisms are the same as outlined here: the need for fast, clear communication among the in-group; the desire to mark off the difference between the in-group and the out-group. This is a simpler, clearer example than, say, the difference between the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service and the Soil Conservation Service (circa 1960-1994 USDA) or between FBI and CIA circa 9/11.
I'd predict that the effort will fail--there's too much geographical specialization and not enough times where integration is needed. That will sap the will of the people pushing the change, the bureaucrats will comply pro-forma, but when the change-pushers go, so will the move towards English instead of codes. (Reminds me of a piece I saw today--polygamy is coming back in Muslim parts of the old USSR--the Communists suppressed it, but it's now gradually returning.)
Aardvark comments on the parallels with other technology.
Saturday, November 11, 2006
- the visitor center had material on the place of women in American culture, including a 3-dimensional graph (the best description I can think of) comparing the numbers (percentages?) of men and women in various occupations over the years. The problem I have is the last figures shown were for 1990, almost 16 years ago. Women have gained in that time, in the professions and in ranking. (Since politics is timely, look at this boasting by Emily's List, which hasn't been updated to reflect the two additional women Senators just elected.
- the web site (see above). It's "under construction", with the last performance plan posted being for 2003.
I repeat, it's not a unique problem. It's a version of NIH (not invented here)--as time passes the first blush of enthusiasm pales and the founders move on to other things, the people who inherit don't devote the same time and energy to maintaining the project.
The same applies to Veterans Day. The 11 minute of the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month can never mean the same to us as to those who fought in the trenches in WWI.
Thursday, November 09, 2006
blog saying that until we have paper trails on voting, we won't have fair elections, I get real tired. I learned to vote on lever machines. I saw JFK, LBJ, and RFK elected on lever machines. I saw RMN elected on lever machines. I never saw a paper trail on any lever machine, nor was there the prevasive questioning of the electoral mechanics we have now. People should chill out and enjoy the fall colors (currently just past their peak in Reston).
(Why am I so glum after the Dems finally retook Congress?)
Wednesday, November 08, 2006
I've no idea what's right, but I'd offer another analysis, looking at it as a bureaucratic message. Hughes says she's visited field offices and promised them guidance on what they could do. I've been there, done that. It's easy to forget the distance there is between DC and Bangkok or whereever. We may think that fast communications resolve issues, but people don't work like that (witness all the marriages that break down over "communications" issues). So I project my own experience into Hughes' text: she got hit with questions from the field, particularly from people who know her reputation for tight control and for being tight with Bush, so really, really don't want to get on her wrong side (and are therefore likely, in the absence of written guidance, to over react).
So Hughes gets back to DC and writes down rules, mostly to reassure people that they do have some leeway. There's also a subtle tug-of-war going on: Hughes is pushing PR, public advocacy. But she's a staff person [I assume], not in the line organization of State. Anything said in public at the local level can raise a stink, so the line organization is going to want to restrict the message to what's safe. No head of an organization (Condi or Bush) wants people making waves. But Hughes knows that safety is not the end-all. So in her directive she offers freedom from "clearance" [meaning running it up the ladder] for some things and help in getting clearance in others. The fact that she has the clout to put out such a directive is good.
(I regret the article didn't refer to the recent episode where someone at State "misspoke" (i.e., said the truth that didn't agree with the official line), I think in an interview on Al Jazeera. State pulled it back, but with support for the official.) Of course there's mixed messages, and control from the center--that's the way bureaucracy operates. But at least she gives something in writing. The able can take some initiative protected by some of the contents; the more cautious will rest easier.
Tuesday, November 07, 2006
I've read his book on the Scots-Irish, being half S-I myself (though my forebears went to New York and Illinois, not the southern Appalachians) and would give it a lukewarm recommendation. I'd suggest David Hackett Fischer's book, Albion's Seed, over Webb's, if you're only interested in the S-I.
Monday, November 06, 2006
Anyway, my thanks to all of the doctors and staff, particularly Dr. Cora Foster, the surgeon, and Kathy Hauss (sp?), a nurse.
Saturday, November 04, 2006
So why the outrage? Maybe buried beneath the rhetoric and the political spinning is the feeling that it shouldn't be this way, that equality in a democracy means the burden of defending the nation should be allocated, not on economics, but on citizenship. I'd refer back to Cass Sunstein's "The Cost of Liberty" which made this argument. He said (as I remember) that a good polity needed the allegiance of all, therefore it needed to be fair and to seem fair in allocation of burdens like taxes and military service.
Friday, November 03, 2006
It's strange how "gradual" change comes not to be noticed. You have to get outside the frame to identify it. I spent the last week in Tompkins county, NY (Ithaca). What was very noticeable were the people who were maids in hotels, workers on construction, etc. They were almost all white (and presumably native-born Protestants). It seemed strange and not in the "natural order", as I've become used to Fairfax county where those jobs are filled by immigrants, especially Hispanics. It's a reminder that while the material culture of the country has become more uniform (witness the same chains of stores and hotels everywhere, the same cable TV channels), the people culture is not.
Thursday, November 02, 2006
On coming home after 2 weeks I find a stack of WPosts and NYTimes, which I feel bound to read or skim, at least, before recycling. I don't know why--it's an ingrained habit since I was a child. Things like the A-bomb, H-bomb, Korean war, etc. were first reported in the paper.
I saw a report that newpaper circulation is down significantly during the last reporting period--a significant downtick from the previous slow erosion of readership. Seems to me there may be correlation between the rise of cellphones and the fall of newspapers.
I remember the old days when the paper was the source of news. Radio was just the headlines and TV wasn't available. The paper served to filter and highlight items of interest, as well as providing the detail that we needed. Now the functions are separated. I first learned of 9/11 sitting at my computer reading a brief bulletin about a plane striking the WTC--I think it may have been Yahoo picking it up. Today people are most likely to learn of interesting news through their cellphone, then the Net, then TV, so the filtering function is gone.