Wednesday, January 31, 2007
entitled "Unhappy Meals", he attacks "nutritionism" and preaches: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." I don't have a problem with the bottom line content, but I do with the argument. It seems to me to combine unhealthy amounts of vaguely left-wing paranoia over exploitation of consumers and romantic nonsense that carries over from the 1960's granola days. (I say this as someone who claims to be a populist and whose mother was fervently interested in organic food in 1950, probably before Mr. Pollan was born.)
Quotes from the article in italics, my comments follow:
"Once, food was all you could eat, but today there are lots of other edible foodlike substances in the supermarket." Nice snide innuendo there, making a distinction between "food" (good, wholesome) and "edible foodlike substances" foisted on us poor consumers by the evil nutritionists and the food industry, abetted by journalists.
"you should probably avoid food products that make health claims. Why? Because a health claim on a food product is a good indication that it’s not really food, and food is what you want to eat." Again, the distinction. Of course, Mr. Pollan is a fellow-traveler of the organic interests (I can use innuendo and smears too, :-) ) which is notable for its health claims.
The story of how the most basic questions about what to eat ever got so complicated reveals a great deal about the institutional imperatives of the food industry, nutritional science and — ahem — journalism, three parties that stand to gain much from widespread confusion surrounding what is, after all, the most elemental question an omnivore confronts. For some reason, consumers and their needs play no role in the history of the last 30 years or so. I'd suggest that reading Bill Bryson's "The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid"
would be a fine corrective. For one thing, he uses a Life picture from 1951 as front and endpapers. It shows a family of four and all the food they would eat in a year. What's striking is that it's "food", not "meals" (which is really what Pollan is dealing with). The mother spent hours in the kitchen converting the food into meals. Bryson cites a figure of 5+ hours a day, which seems a bit excessive. (On the other hand, my wife spends significant time cooking our evening meal.
The big changes in American cuisine over the last 55 years have been the change from eating at home to eating out (that's now almost half of every food dollar), from cooking raw food to eating prepared meals and processed foods (i.e., microwavable foods) and in the variety of the cuisine.
The first two are correlated with women's lib and the higher proportion of women in the workplace. All three are correlated with our greater wealth. And, despite the obesity and diabetics increases, they are also correlated with our better health and longer life. None of them were foisted on us by nutritionists, the food industry, or even journalists.
I could go on--Pollan romanticizes the past: one of my great great grandmothers would have recognized potatoes, oatmeal, and milk as foods, and not much else while another would have focused on cabbage and turnips; we eat 4 times the amount of green leaves now as we did in 1950 (iceberg lettuce, anyone?). But, I'll save my energy for the next Pollan text in the Times. Leftist thinkers can and should do better.
Monday, January 29, 2007
I'm a little skeptical about the reality behind the premise, that is, that we could have 5 straight years of great crop prices. I remember the push on synfuels under Carter in the 1970's, which was dismantled in the 1980's under Reagan as oil prices went south. I also remember enthusiasms for alternate crops that got legislated into law in past years (jojoba was one I remember and I'm too lazy to check the others). The free market does work, at least in the world of commodities such as oil and grain, resulting in volatility and ups and downs. Thus it has ever been since the first farmer sold his first surplus.
On the other hand, the weather's been reasonably good the past few years. Get a drought or a flood and that will put some adrenaline in the market.
Saturday, January 27, 2007
The time is 1830 or so to 1849, the place is Newry, Ulster, and its environs. The main characters are James Harshaw, Presbyterian elder and farmer; John Martin, nephew of James, a younger and more well-to-do farmer, college educated, a member of "Young Ireland"; and George Henderson, friend and classmate of John, editor of the Newry Telegraph, and supporter of the established order.
The book provides insight into:
- the interplay among religious groups and political and religious leaders: Daniel O'Connell and his son leading the Repeal Association and the Catholic Church on one side, the Protestants groups and the Orange marching order on the other, and the people in the middle, the British establishment ruling the country and the Young Ireland movement, representing a more secular (or at least cross-religious) nationalism, a conservative radicalism. (The whole mess parallels Iraq today, with religious parties dominant and the secularists isolated.)
- the agitation for Repeal of the Act of Union (which put Ireland under the British Parliament instead of having their own parliament under Queen Victoria).
- the famine, and the disputes over how to provide relief.
- world affairs, particularly the Revolution in France of 1848, which revived the revolutionary enthusiasm of 1789 (read Jefferson from Paris) and seemed to prefigure revolution in other countries (I was also reminded of 1968, with all the upheavals around the world)
- British politics, the alternation of Whig and Tories, the repeal of the Corn Laws which hurt the Irish farmers (I was reminded of the protests of Mexican corn farmers against the lowering of trade barriers through NAFTA), and the response of the British governing classes and those in Ulster to the agitation over Repeal and then over the response to the famine
Marjorie mostly sticks to the facts, without editorializing. [Actually, that statement may be wrong. It may just be that her judgments agree with mine, dislike for religious extremism and a regard for those who tried to take a different course.] It's her first book, and hopefully not the last.
Friday, January 26, 2007
Thursday, January 25, 2007
Why so many SBU's? It's a combination of reasons.
- The official classification system is limited and rigid--only three markings so they have been amplified by modifications.
- Bureaucrats are scared--suppose this paper leaks to the Post, that would be embarassing. Or even if it reaches the local gossip. (The Plame affair revealed that even deputy Secretaries of State can love their gossip.)
- There's the high school clique reaction: we know something you don't, ha ha ha.
- Most of all, bureaucrats love to set boundaries and SBU's are a way of marking them.
The problem we have in homeland security is that our bureaucracies have each had their own objective(s). When the global war on terrorism came along, we superimposed new objectives on the old and we still haven't straightened things out yet.
Tuesday, January 23, 2007
"'I used to attack the Americans when that was the jihad. Now there is no jihad. Go around and see in Adhamiya [the notorious Sunni insurgent area] - all the commanders are sitting sipping coffee; it's only the young kids that are fighting now, and they are not fighting Americans any more, they are just killing Shia. There are kids carrying two guns each and they roam the streets looking for their prey. They will kill for anything, for a gun, for a car and all can be dressed up as jihad.'Nice to know we're making progress.
Rami was no longer involved in fighting, he said, but made a tidy profit selling weapons and ammunition to men in his north Baghdad neighbourhood."
Monday, January 22, 2007
- one of the things an established bureaucracy does is reproduce itself. In other words, it develops patterns of recruitment and training for its employees. The American effort in Iraq, whether Garner's effort or the Coalition Provisional Authority, wasn't a developed bureaucracy. As a result, the recruitment seems to have been haphazard and the training nonexistent. I'm sort of reminded of an old cartoon, perhaps from Disney, where the lead character, an inventor, puts together a super-duper vacuum cleaner, turns it on, and the suction pulls in everything that isn't firmly nailed down. Iraq seems to have had the same effect: pulling in a bunch of young aspiring types, some older people nearing the end of their working life with expertise that might relate to CPA's needs, and a few people in the middle of their careers. It was a natural reaction to the situation: no planning, reliance on who knows who (which leads to political connections being importance), etc.
- a number of bureaucracies ended up in Iraq: CPA, State, DOD, contractors. What's striking is management's failure to ensure the bureaucracies were permeable. It would have been a much smaller book if he didn't have the anecdotes about bureacratic conflicts within the US occupation.
Finally, it seems to me that Harvard should revoke and disown a certain MBA.
Friday, January 19, 2007
"Facing public outrage over the soaring price of tortillas, President Felipe Calderón abandoned his free-trade principles on Thursday and forced producers to sign an agreement fixing prices for corn products."We liberals want to fight global warming, so we encourage ethanol production, particularly when we're seeking the Presidency and it's primary time in Iowa. But on other days we also complain about farm programs, as undeserved rewards to big industrial agribusiness. Those of us focused on foreign lands worry about the impacts of cheap US corn on poor Mexican peasant farmers, observing that if they can't be kept on the farm, they'll end up in the US.
But that's last years politics. Now it seems that demand for ethanol, sparked by high oil prices and government supports, has taken off at the same time the uncounted millions of Chinese have earned enough money to start eating meat, good corn-fed meat, sending corn prices high. (Soybeans are up too, but not as high.) So high corn prices are bad for the Mexican poor, who need protection. (Not sure if high corn prices will drive the urban worker to the U.S, but it won't help the evolution of democracy in Mexico.) Of course, capping the corn price in Mexico hurts those farmers remaining on the land.
Meanwhile, the volatility of corn prices resulting from the market dynamics (demand is relatively inelastic--it takes lots of meat eating Chinese and new ethanol plants to move the price) may be accentuated by boomer money flowing into index funds that seek the next hot commodity (gold and copper have had their runs, now it's time for ag commodities).
What's missed here is the relationship of farm programs and volatility. Farm commodities are much more volatile than other commodities (just watch your California navel oranges go up in price). Over the years, that uncertainty has led to the creation of programs to lessen risk, which continues even now.
Thursday, January 18, 2007
From John Dickerson's piece on the Scooter Libby trial in Slate.
Wednesday, January 17, 2007
Tuesday, January 16, 2007
"The law that requires agencies to create privacy impact assessments can be waived to protect classified, sensitive or private information, according to the E-Government Act of 2002. Hohn, who composed the privacy assessment, said it left out some information so tax evaders and terrorists wouldn't know how law enforcement is targeting them.
The point, Hohn said, is "not to reveal your strategy."
Law enforcement certainly doesn't like the idea--they like to imagine themselves to be hunters/detectives who accumulate information then capture their suspects. Telling suspects, hey, we just opened a dossier on you for possibly contributing money to a terrorist organization in Lebanon (apparently the sort of thing most common in the context of the article) means you can't build a case to take to trial and build your career on. But I'm not sure we want FBI agents to build their careers on that. I think the public might be safer using "deterrence" (the good guys are capable and on the job) rather than post-crime "punishment".
Monday, January 15, 2007
It's a good question, but first let me address the AMT. I like the damn thing, liked it back when it was instituted amidst much publicity about fat cats (we had a few back then (i.e., 1969)) and still like it. Problem is, it wasn't indexed when imposed initially. These days it tends to hit the upper middle class in high tax states like Wisconsin. Someone with a $500K house might get hit with a $12.5K tax bill, then be subject to AMT. While I don't have much sympathy for someone in that position, I'd agree they shouldn't get hit by AMT.
Now for the question: is Turbotax a weapon of the evil, tax-sucking vampires known as liberals? Obviously no. It would be like saying that the lack of a banking system in Iraq, which undermines the Iraqi Army, is a weapon of the Iraqi opposition. Bureaucratic systems and software systems are morally and politically neutral, even though they may accidentally help or hurt the good. After all, Turbotax makes our tax system more efficient, permitting lower rates than would otherwise be necessary.
He's the only such coach in the league. He coached Shawn Bradley, who achieved a 90% accuracy figure (though it turns out to have been only one year).
It's amazing that, given the highly competitive environment, no other team has followed suit. Indeed, the article claims that videotaping free throws is highly unusual. (Compare this to a recent article on Phil Mahre, holder of the American record for ski victories, who's making a limited comeback in his 40's. The article observed that now skiers have their runs videotaped and slow-mo analyzed for imperfections in their style, etc.) This seems to be a failure of the competitive free market. Economists, please study.
But the most interesting bit was this:
"Even when the player wants to learn, Boren must conquer another barrier.That's a good metaphor for bureaucratic reorganizations and mergers of organization--the brain may say one thing but the muscles do another. It's an especially attractive metaphor because I've found it true. For example, when I drive a usual routine I get locked into a routine so muscles take over. Which is fine, except on those occasions where I need to vary the routine, like deviate from the route to stop at a store.
He tells them: “When I look at you, I see two things — a brain and a bunch of muscles — and the good news is the brain is really clicking. But the bad news is your muscles have been taking a siesta. They like it the old way and they’re not paying attention to any of this stuff. So when we get down there, they’re going to resist.”
Thursday, January 11, 2007
What blew my mind, at least initially, was the idea that the government would ask how often parents praised children!
Now in my day [tell it, granddad] children weren't praised, at least not to their face. I can remember my parents bragging on me to others (like their siblings), but I don't remember daily praise at any time. I guess, despite evidence to the contrary, we may have advanced.
Wednesday, January 10, 2007
comes a column by Cato people suggesting reform of the federal crop insurance program. I found this quote ironic:
"lawmakers have made several efforts to "reform" crop insurance. But each wave of legislative changes has moved the program further away from economic rationality and exacerbated its distortion of incentives and inefficiency."It's ironic because the "reformers" have always operated under the flag of "free market competition". To recap, the New Deal set up the Federal Crop Insurance corporation, issuing government policies for damage to the big field crops. In a parallel universe there were several private companies (some associated with the Farm Bureau, etc.) issuing similar policies. In the 70's we had a standing program that made disaster payments. In 1980, Congress and the Administration decided to phase out the standing program in favor of the private companies, with Federal reinsurance. But each time Congress has said: "no more ad hoc
disaster programs, you have to have crop insurance, they've backed down. The result is a mish-mash of policies and programs that offends every rational bone in this bureaucrat's body. But the reality is the private insurance lobby packs too much clout to expect any big change in the future.
(A diversion--long ago, about a century ago as a matter of fact, the insurance industry (i.e., life, liability, etc.) dodged the bullet of federal regulation because they had too much clout. Insurance agents and adjusters are precisely the sort of people who can make for good political workers.
Wohlstetter wrote a great book, that won the Bancroft Prize, on Pearl Harbor. Her argument basically was, yes, FDR and Washington had lots of information that predicted Pearl Harbor, but in the day-to-day run of affairs, there was also lots of information predicting an attack on Singapore, or Indochina or the Dutch Indies or.... She pointed out the problem of identifying what's significant from amid the mass of detail that a decision-maker receives each day. It's a caution for those who over-simplify.
Ironically she was the wife of Alfred, who was an early mentor to the neo-cons, who have set a new standard for over-simplification.
Tuesday, January 09, 2007
Farm groups are concerned with international trade, the Doha round of trade negotiations, immigration, the new farm bill, air quality, and animal protection (against the last two :-) ).
This year has seen a run-up in corn prices. Indeed, I saw one summary that said that corn was the "commodity" with the largest percent increase in 2006. Don't know what price measure was used. Farmers should be used to this--there was a big price increase in 1996, I believe. And then it went to hell again.
Meanwhile, this morning's news has John Deere's stock prices, up 40+% last year, looking good for the future (again based on rosy prices for corn, etc.). But oil prices are falling again, reaching new lows. That means less impetus for ethanol, lower prices for corn, higher profits for pork, and different pressures on politicians doing the new farm bill.
Being a cynic, I think I'll plan to sell John Deere short.
Monday, January 08, 2007
I can understand what happened. The accounting firm probably sent out some people who found that anyone could break into a county office (mostly located in small towns of 2-10,000), break into the system and make off with personal data, or hack into the overall system. It could happen. And, as a public agency, you can't really say that the chances are very, very small of this happening, there are things we can do to reduce the risk and mitigate the damage from any such break-in, so we should devote our attention to those areas. Remember that people have lost their jobs over the handling/mishandling of data on laptop computers even though no damage resulted. And know that Congress would pillory anyone who appeared before them after a break-in.
It's the game we bureaucrats have to play--hire an outside firm and then go through hoops just to cover our ass.
Thursday, January 04, 2007
"The Bureaucrat - This character not only lives “by” the rules, but “for” the rules. “We must follow this rule no matter what,” according to this enemy of progress. In process change, many of the old rules should be reconsidered and some probably be thrown out the window. The bureaucrat, however, will fight tooth and nail to preserve the way things are because “it is the rule."
Bureaucrats occur at different levels in an organization. The "operatives", to use James Q. Wilson's term for them (the clerk at the DMV window), wrap themselves in the "rules" as protection against the demands of their customers. They don't have the authority to change the rules. To get them to change, you need to offer a process that is better in their eyes (hopefully in the eyes of their customers) and training that gives them confidence in the new rules and new process.
At the upper levels you find the bureaucrats who do have the power to change the rules. But to change you have to make a rational case for the superiority of the new process and overcome the natural conservatism of those who are comfortable with the current process and who, in many cases, have invested sweat and tears in developing and perfecting the current process. And you need to recognize that spin doctors in the past have pushed various organizational nostrums and improvements on the incumbent bureaucrats with benefits that have evaporated into thin air. Finally, and the straw breaker in my case, you need to recognize that process improvements that increase efficiency may and should cost jobs in the organization.
Wednesday, January 03, 2007
One afternoon after a group counseling session, he and another seasoned offender, Kenneth Williams, got to talking. They had been eyeing each other and finally discovered that they had attended the District's Garnet-Patterson Middle School together. Reminiscing with Williams seemed to unlock some happiness stored inside of James. A smile replaced his scowl. "You remember Miss Brown? Miss Mack?" James proudly mentioned he had been in the gifted-and-talented program as a seventh-grader, the last shining moment of his schooling.That was the only expression in the story of affection--teachers do make a difference, if only in memory and in failing to make all the difference.
The other thing that struck me was his observation--in the context of the justice system, that his allegiances were relative. If he was in prison away from DC, then his homeboys were everyone from DC and that was his identification. If he were in DC jail, then his homeboys were from the neighborhood. But if he were in the neighborhood, he'd be fighting and killing his neighbors.