Saturday, June 30, 2007

World Hunger--Good News/Bad News

I haven't seen any media mention of this Economic Research Study of what, in the old days, we used to call "world hunger", but is now called "food security assessment". Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer the old days and the old term.

Briefly, they project over the next 10 years, although world population will grow substantially, the number of hungry people won't grow (at least within the margin of error of the study). Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for the bulk of the problem.

Where the Bureaucracy Meets the Citizen

In my former agency, we had a long-running discussion over our responsibility to the people we served; a discussion that was never resolved in my time there.

One side said: "farmers" are mature, rational people, well able to calculate what's best for themselves. Our job is only to make information on alternatives available to them. Their job is to make the best decision. If they fail to meet deadlines or understand the rules, that's too bad. But we should not spend taxpayer money to spoon feed every farmer, to walk him or her through the ropes and make sure they sign up for the right program. If our bureaucrats make mistakes, fine, but we should only offer redress for mistakes of commission, not failure to nurse people along.

The other side said: Congress creates confusing programs and never worries about how program operations relate to farmer's schedules for planning their operations and planting their farms. We county-level bureaucrats are dealing with our friends and neighbors, people we go to church with and whose children attend school with ours. We need to do everything we can to help these people understand the programs and sign up for the best option available. And if we fail to do so, we should recognize it's not the farmer's fault if they don't ask the right questions, it's our fault.

While I'm exaggerating the clarity of the two sides for effect, the different perspectives were real. I remember one county director in Kansas who took it as a personal affront when a former ASCS employee set up a consulting firm to aid farmers in complying with (or evading, depending on one's perspective) payment limitation rules. The differences were sometimes based on political perspectives--some Republicans leaned more towards the first, some Democrats more towards the second. But sometimes it was just the individual case where someone was particularly inept.

I suspect this tension is common throughout bureaucracies. Consider the IRS. This story
examines their program for free electronic filing of tax returns. Should our tax laws and tax procedures be so simple that H&R Block goes out of business? How far should the IRS go in explaining and coaching taxpayers? Or should they contract out, in effect, to private purveyors of tax preparation software and CPA's?

Will the U.S. Become Majority Minority?

No.

Yes, I know that California and Texas have already become majority-minority, with Hispanics, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Native Americans outnumbering the rest, but I doubt it will happen to the U.S., ever. Why? Let me go back in history. [yes, oldtimer, and let us sleep]

In the 1950's the WASP (white anglo-saxon protestant) dominance of America was slipping. A Catholic would even become President in 1960). To some that was as big an issue then as majority-minority is now. But now? We are all WASP's now. The issue of which people running for President are Catholics, which have a non-anglo-saxon background, is a non-issue, raised only occasionally as a space filler. Yes, I may be overstating my point, but the tone of the society is WASP. For all the jeremiads from the peanut gallery about the degradation of American culture, the differences between 1950 and 2005 are dwarfed by the continuity. We've evolved, but are still culturally American. For a comparison, Casey Stengel's NY Yankees and Joe Torre's NY Yankees are different, but are still the Yankees.

I predict the same is going to happen by 2050. We'll have some new divisions, but they won't be on the current lines. And the dominant culture will remain the dominant culture.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Outstanding Protection of SSN Data

From an FSA notice,explaining that travel documents show the Social Security number, which needs to be hidden:
The recommended method, provided by the Office of the Chief Financial Officer (OCFO) to hide
SSN’s, is to manually mark-out SSN’s on travel documents.
Notes: OCFO currently has no plans to modify the NFC OnLine Travel System to hide SSN’s
when travel documents are printed. Marking-out SSN’s is the only solution currently
recommended by OCFO, at this time, to protect an individual’s SSN.
An ink pen is more effective in hiding SSN’s than a felt-tipped pen.

I'm glad to see the USDA taking the protection of privacy so seriously.

Fallows, Chinese Peasants, Lowell Girls, and FSA Clerks

Sometimes I go off the deep end. Did that the other night, listening to James Fallows (renowned draft dodger [tongue in cheek] from the Nam era and now writer for the Atlantic) talk about his travels in China. (Here's a link to the Atlantic, but subscription is required.) He was describing a common practice: peasant girls from the country come to the city in their late teens, go to work in factories working long hours, living in factory dormitories, eating factory food. They end up saving enough money to go back home and move to a higher social class. (In the old days, they'd be earning a dowry--I'm not sure that's a Chinese concept though.)

As he talked, I remembered the "Lowell girls". The early New England spinning and weaving industry was typified by Lowell, MA, a factory town where country girls came to live under the eye of the management, working long hours, etc., etc. As we would say in Vietnam, "same, same". (The Wikipedia article is a little more anti than one recent scholarly article might suggest.)

Of course, the choice is between marrying young, which assumes you have available young men with available land, or delaying marriage and childbearing. In 1815 Massachusetts the land was taken, single men were moving west and leaving women behind. (Men being more mobile than women in general.) Women could go into teaching (as the public school system was taking off), or into the newly developed factories.

The issue of what do to with women (sounds more chauvinistic than I mean to) is common in rural societies. Some kill them (either in the womb or in the cradle) or, as the Chinese, prohibit them from being born at all (1 child per couple). In America, we've hired them as teachers, nurses, telephone operators, secretaries, and servants. In a minor way, the New Deal helped in rural America by opening up offices to run the farm programs. The paperwork needed women to handle it, so I'd expect you'd find a majority of women in the clerical ranks of the AAA/PMA/CSS/ASCS/FSA over the years. Just one way to keep them, if not on the farm, at least in the rural towns.

The Enemy of the Good--Health care and NASA

The attempt to do things perfectly is often an enemy to the good. This Government Executive piece outlines a familiar story: do you use a military standard software system that's centrally designed and inflexible, or do you use a locally developed system that works better, at least for some. This is in the area of military healthcare. An easy response is that it's such a vital area that things need to be exactly right, hence the need for a centrally planned and managed system.

A counter to that is a piece in the PC Magazine, including this discussion on NASA and even DOD:

The space agency itself has released at least 20 open-source applications under the NASA Open Source Agreement, including Livingstone2, a reusable artificial-intelligence software system that lets a spacecraft operate with minimal human oversight even if its hardware fails.

As the first federal agency to commit an open-source policy to paper, the Department of Defense has continued to encourage open-source deployments.

"Open-source software . . . connects and enables our command and control system to work effectively," said Brigadier General Nickolas Justice at an open-source technology conference in Arlington, Virginia. "When we rolled into Baghdad, we did it using open source."

More recent uses include the Navy's DDG 1000 Zumwalt class destroyer, built primarily on Red Hat Linux, and the Large Data Joint Capabilities Technology Demonstration, which allows quick handling of huge volumes of geospatial data. Such initiatives could streamline federal agencies and offer a new transparency to government.

So it's good to use open source in destroyers, but not in health care. (I recognize the difference between "open source", where the source code is public and available for people to change and improve, and "locally developed", where the source code is probably not public and almost certainly was not managed in a way that invites public comment and change. But, the psychology is similar--do you, the manager, want total control or do you want to steadily improve the software your users employ?

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Closing the Border Is Impossible?

Roger Simon at the Politico has some good observations on immigration, focusing on the problems in eliminating illegal immigration. Takes the position that you need a database of all legal residents in order to check new employees. I tend to agree, although I'd say there are more possibilities to improve the situation than most discussions allow for.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Farm Bill Progress

Jim Wiesemeyer has an interview with the chairman of House Ag on the current status. This quote:
Biggest problem is the farm program payment cap issue: Peterson said he does not intend to offer changes to the limits on direct payments during upcoming 2007 farm bill deliberations. He had originally sought to have farm subsidies distributed to single attribution -- only to individual farmers instead of co-operatives. That language was defeated in Tuesday's markup by the General Commodities and Risk Management Subcommittee. But it is widely expected there will be a debate over payment limits during House floor debate on the farm bill. "I'm not doing anything on payment limits in the full committee," Peterson said. “Cotton, rice and peanuts will have to beg me to put it back in,” Peterson said.
I still think a compromise is to switch from a cap to a graduated scale of limitations. Just intuitively, the graduated scale seems fairer, so there's a chance you can sell it to more people than a cap.

Monday, June 25, 2007

How Do You Know When You've Lost It?

When your wife gives you a list to take to the store, and you forget to check the list.

Cheney, II

The Post continues its series on Cheney, today focusing on the debates over torture and cruel treatment of prisoners.

A couple second thoughts from yesterday. You can bypass bureaucracies effectively. The new book out on Nixon and Kissinger in China describes this well. They brutally cut out the State Department, humiliating Secretary of State Rogers. But it worked. My vague memory of reading Clark Clifford's memoirs has Truman cutting out the bureaucracy at one point, perhaps on the Marshall Plan.

The two examples show a key--if you're going to bypass the bureaucracy, you need to change the world in which they operate. Once we recognized China, once Marshall had made his speech, the bureaucracy had lost its veto power. Yes, bureaucrats could sabotage from within (as the remnants of the China Lobby tried to do with Nixon and his successors. But they don't have the leverage.

In the context of treatment of prisoners, Cheney tried to shift the parameters permanently, but the bureaucracy (and the structure of the U.S. government) ensured he couldn't do so. He would have been better off to claim a strictly temporary emergency power for the President--waterboard a handful, then declare the emergency over until the next time. The American people like to think of ourselves as holding to higher standards--we need our illusions.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Cheney and the Bureaucratic Dark Side

Post today has the first of four articles on VP Cheney's work while in office. What's interesting is that Dick (he's only 2 weeks older than I, but I'm much better preserved) has gone over to the dark side. Both he and Rumsfeld offered bureaucratic precepts before beginning service in the Bush administration. Cheney says perfectly good things like: "no surprises". Every player in the bureaucracy needs to know what's happening so they'll go along.

But the reality since 9/11 has been different. Cheney makes a practice of doing end runs around the bureaucratic machinery, predictably making the bureaucrats mad. He's become a bureaucratic Darth Vader. Or a leopard who hunts in the dark, leaving only the rags of its victims behind. It is a way to get results but it only works in the long run if you are either: (a) successful or (b) terrifying. Bush and Cheney succeeded in being terrifying until the lack of success became obvious. (Obvious to all but the most loyal and most blind.)

The article does elaborate on a bureaucratic tactic I don't remember seeing as well used--lack of feedback. Apparently Cheney will never offer suggestions or feedback. That tends to drive people up the wall. I well remember a boss who would reject a draft memo without being very clear on what was wrong. I used to call it: the "I'll know it when I see it" school of management.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Are Americans Really Know-it-alls?

A comment on a post: "I don't understand, but then again you americans think you know everything!" from a Canadian. It was a little misplaced, because I was almost in a state of wonderment that possibly the Canadian government administered their farm program(s) entirely through the Internet. Obviously I wasn't clear, but the commenter makes a very serious charge.

Of course, I often claim to know it all, that's an occupational hazard for a blogger. But do Americans think we know it all? Really? Remember Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady: "men are ...." ("A Hymn to Him) Just replace "men" with "americans" and that's probably fair, "we are a marvellous sex..", we only want others to be like us.

I have to plead guilty to the charge on behalf on 300 million + residents of the U.S. At this point, it's appropriate to refer to the post just below this one.

Incompetence and All Children Above Average

Garrison Keillor says in Lake Woebegone all children are above average. Two professors publish an article suggesting that incompetent people overestimate their abilities. To quote the abstract:
People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains. The authors suggest that this overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it. Across 4 studies, the authors found that participants scoring in the bottom quartile on tests of humor, grammar, and logic grossly overestimated their test performance and ability. Although their test scores put them in the 12th percentile, they estimated themselves to be in the 62nd. Several analyses linked this miscalibration to deficits in metacognitive skill, or the capacity to distinguish accuracy from error. Paradoxically, improving the skills of participants, and thus increasing their metacognitive competence, helped them recognize the limitations of their abilities.
There's problems with this. Teenagers are incompetent drivers, but think they're invincible. Most drivers of all ages think they're above average drivers, which is mathematically impossible. (I'd suggest the most realistic drivers are those between 50 and 65--after 65 you start to lose it but are in a state of denial :-( )

Praise for Bureaucrats?

Christopher Hayes in the Nation
praises bureaucrats (Hat tip I think to Kevin drum.) for standing up to the Bush administration on various fronts. While I'm all for bureaucrats, and all for standing up to the Bush administration, I suspect liberals should be moderate in their praise and expectations.

Comes the great day when the Democrats control the Presidency again (plus about 2-6 years) and the papers, or whatever media we have in that grand and glorious time, will be full of stories on bureaucrats standing up to the hare-brained dictats of know-nothing Dems. You can count on it.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

IT Progress at the FBI (Rah)

The sound of one hand clapping as the FBI rolls out phase I of its modernization program. It doesn't indicate that it will help in the problem recently reported--the length of time it takes to do FBI checks on immigrants. Apparently it's now a semi-manual process, the FBI office in DC has to poll all its field offices to see if they have anything in their files on a specific applicant. It's not clear from the story where that process is in the program. Perhaps after they upgrade their PC's to Windows XP in 2010?

3 to 5 Hours on the Phone, Daily?

Michelle Slatalla in the NYTimes today reports:

"How many calls does the average college student get or receive, anyway?

Peggy Meszaros, a professor of human development at Virginia Tech who asked more than 600 students that question in 2005, said, “An average of 11 calls a day.”

Professor Meszaros said that women, who talked longer than men, reported speaking most frequently to immediate family members, during calls that lasted 16 to 30 minutes.

“They were on the phone for an average of between three hours and five and a half hours a day?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said. “I’m guessing that it has ramped up more, too, because this study was done before texting was the fad.”"


I'm stunned, amazed, confused. I don't think I've ever had a day where I spent 5 hours talking with one other person (in series). So much for the idea that modern culture isolates individuals into social atoms.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Happy Birthday, Powerpoint

Via xx, here's an article in the Wall Street Journal on the 20th birthday of Powerpoint, the indispensable tool of bureaucrats these days. While interesting, it fails to give proper credit to the IBMers, led by Thomas J. Watson, who spread the gospel of graphics, along with their motto: "Think" around the world.

As I understand, Watson liked visual aids, so IBM got into it. It spread to DOD, where in the mid '60's I attended "charm school" (training for instructors), which included time on how to make your overhead projections. (Wikipedia has a different chronology, giving credit to the Army in WWII.)

As a bureaucrat, I first steered clear of overheads, until my boss (the one I called the "junior idiot", but not to his face) encouraged them. Part of the problem was the specialization of that era--to get overheads done you went to the graphics/forms shop. I didn't like the dependency. So when WordPerfect came out with a presentations package I got into it, because now I could control the process. ("If you want it done right, do it yourself".)

There was an advantage, especially important for a national bureaucracy faced with training people in 50 states and 2700+ county offices. You could create a graphics presentation and duplicate it for others to present. That's particularly important when the emphasis is on speed--if Congress passes a bill today and wants payments out in X weeks. In the old days, you'd present a spiel and state specialists would desperately (if they were conscientious) try simultaneously to take notes and plan their own presentations to county personnel beginning almost as soon as they got back to the state. It was a formula for misunderstanding, mistakes, and mispaid checks.

Gradually we moved to a pattern where (with the help of very capable county personnel (take a bow MK)) we'd be able to provide copies of the national materials ready for the state specialists. Ironically, we managed to centralize the training materials based on a decentralization of the process of developing them. Powerpoint (and, more importantly, word processing) spread skills and capability to more people, making them more productive. Apparently even school children use it these days. Which is just another instance of formerly advanced skills becoming the common property of the young.

TSP and Social Security Privatization

Back in the day when reform of Social security was under discussion, Republicans were pushing the alternative of having people invest in securities. They preferred the idea of individually managed accounts, as opposed to having the government manage investments. Some Democrats (like me) were open to something like the Thrift Savings Plan--the Federal version of a 401 K for its employees as at least one element of a revised system. Republicans attacked the idea, arguing that a government managed plan would be pressured to reflect social objectives in its investments.

A test of that position is underway--some Dems have asked the TSP to divest of stocks of companies in the Sudan, of tobacco, etc. etc. So far the board has resisted the idea.
If we get a Democratic government in 2008, it will be interesting to see if they can continue to do so.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Pet Peeves--"Traditional Farmers"

Don't have a URL for this, but it's aggravated me and, if this blog serves any purpose at all, it should help relieve my aggravations. Last week I ran across an article criticizing US farm programs (which is fine, there's nothing wrong with that). But one of the criticisms was that they had the effect of undermining the traditional farmers in other countries, because they couldn't compete with the flood of food imported from the U.S. at low subsidized prices.

What aggravates me is not the cause and effect relationship, but the idea that undermining traditional farming is somehow wrong and bad. After all, China is surging its way to developed nation status by policies that undermined traditional farming, creating an urban labor force for its new industries. Ireland is the Tiger of the EU because its traditional farming has been undermined and abandoned. The U.S. is an industrial power because our traditional farming patterns have been destroyed.

Granted, destroy any traditional way of life and you cause suffering and pain, loss of the past and loss of life. And granted, the power of the market is blind. But I believe in the general proposition that life in the U.S. today, taken by and large, is better than it was 180 years ago when one of my ancestors immigrated. And that's true despite, and even because, the traditional agriculture found in 1830 America has been destroyed, even on Amish farms.

Impact of Farm Bill

The Farmgate site of the University of Illinois says extrapolations show minimal impact on agriculture from the administration's farm bill proposals. Oddly, though they credit FAPRI (Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute) for the data, I don't see it highlighted on FAPRI's website.

How the Brits Do Health and IT

This is interesting:

Britain's best-paid civil servant is to quit as the head of NHS information technology, claiming the new, accident-prone computer system is on track.

Richard Granger, the chief executive of Connecting for Health, said he would leave the post, and its £290,000-a-year salary, in October. "There is no doubt about the programme's achievability," said Mr Granger, who took up the role in October 2002. "Most of the building blocks are now in place."

Karen Jennings, the head of health at Unison, the NHS's biggest trade union, said Mr Granger's optimism was at odds with the views of the "majority of NHS staff".

She said: "Technically... things are finally coming together. But lessons must be learned from the way these over-ambitious, big-bang IT projects have been brought in late and so over-budget."

Parts of the project are two years behind schedule and it may now cost a total of £20 billion, which would put it £7 billion over budget.

Mr Granger can point to some successes. An electronic patient-booking service now arranges 20,000 appointments a day and 250 million X-ray images are now stored electronically.


Several things--the guy was the highest paid civil servant. By automating the National Health Service, Britain brings all the advantages and weaknesses of centralized IT to health care, including the problems of doing a big big project. On the other hand, while $40 billion is a bigger project than anything the US government has done, at least outside the military, they appear to have had better success than the FBI has.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Putting Up Fences and Winning the War

The NY times has an op-ed today by Owen and Bing West, Bing was in DOD (under Bush I, I think), Owen was a marine in Iraq. They contrast the ability of NYC cops to identify people and lookup history in databases, with the lack thereof in Iraq. (NYC probably has a large population of illegal immigrants.)

Meanwhile, the people opposing the immigration bill in the senate are calling for tough enforcement. Charles Krauthammer in the Post has an column pushing fences.

I read somewhere that 40 percent of those illegally present in the US arrived on visas, so fences won't be the magic bullet. It seems obvious to me that, if we say that we don't want illegal immigrants, we also are saying we agree to digital ID's, biometric databases, and tight checking of credentials. We can't have one without the other (if indeed we can have the one). As Mr. Heinlein used to say, there's no such thing as a free lunch.

Closing Offices--NRCS

This press report says four NRCS offices are recommended for closure.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Fear the Model Bureaucrat

As in all things, knowledge is power, which means one should be careful of those who excel, particularly those who have mastered the art of faking sincerity. Slightly less dangerous are model bureaucrats, such as this one in Cleveland:

Juanita Myrick got her first job with county human services as a records clerk and quickly devoted herself to the patron saint of government: paperwork. Over the next 17 years, she became the mistress of meticulous documentation -- of clients, welfare checks, case evaluations. No detail was too mundane to escape her.

Having Fun, Ken Cook and EWG

Now that EWG has the database of farm payment beneficiaries up and running (something my old co-workers at USDA couldn't get done :-) ), Ken Cook is having fun by linking the payment data to to geography--in his most recent posts he's shown the people who live in Key West and in San Francisco who benefit from farm program payments.

This is called "rabble-rousing", at least when one's opponents do it. When the good guys do it, it's called alerting the people to injustices.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

EWG's Database

Both EWG and the press are pushing the availability of data on who might be benefiting from farm payments. Their old database showed whose name was on the check, the new one (the one that USDA couldn't figure out how to make available online) shows the beneficiaries (i.e., members of estates, stockholders of corporations, etc.). I haven't seen the data myself--I suspect it'd be best to wait a couple days until the initial burst of activity dies down.

If Charlie Stenholm (former blue-dog Dem Representative from Texas defeated by Mr. DeLay's redistricting scheme) is right, and EWG doesn't give the data a fair shake, one wonders why the farm state legislators didn't make sure that USDA put the data up. Maybe they didn't think that far ahead, or maybe they just didn't know technology that well.

Two Bureaucrats Marry

The (former) richest man in the world now has a bureaucrat as a son-in-law:

Brunei Sultan's daughter married a civil servant yesterday in a glittering traditional ceremony.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Unfair Attacks

My wife and I went to the Kennedy center last night for the last ballet of our subscription. Although we've had hot weather already this year, the humidity wasn't bad so it was pleasant. We were on the terrace, overlooking the Potomac. (Isn't that where Captain John Smith sailed 400 years ago?) Discussed the father of a friend, who may have Alzheimer's (or micro-strokes), who was described as getting upset and irritable when things were going on that he didn't understand.

Since I'm paranoid about Alzheimers, I tried making the joke that the same description could readily apply to me. My everloving wife replied: for you, it's a character trait, not an indication of Alzheimers. :-(

How Does Canada Do It? II

An email piqued my interest on what farm programs Canada has and how they are administered. The big one is:
"Beginning 2003 the Canadian Agricultural Income Stabilization (CAIS) program replaces previous safety net programs available to producers. (Farm Income Disaster Program, Canadian Farm Income Program, Net Income Stabilization Account)" from the Alberta corp.
Some background: Canada has roughly 10 percent of our population and their agriculture is 2 percent of the economy, compared to our 1 percent (CIA factbook). Their federal government is weaker than ours. Their equivalent of USDA has 170 regional offices. Both provinces and federal government have agricultural programs, or rather, the federal government runs the program in some provinces and not in other. The estimated 2007 expenditures are $4,757 million for the federal and $3,127 for the provincial. about half of which is for "farm programs" (i.e., crop insurance, subsidies)

The Ontario USDA is Agricorp.com , and its annual report is interesting. They boast about getting payments out in 6 weeks (not clear whether the comparison should be to our disaster payments or to supplemental counter-cyclical payments) but mourn the fact that processing of CAIS applications is slow. (The CAIS process looks to be more like getting a farmers home plan from the producer and making a grant based on it.)

Their equivalent to the non-recourse commodity loan and purchase program of olden days is called the "Advance Payments Program" and is administered through producer organizations. That's similar to the cotton and rice marketing cooperatives the US uses, and the producer associations for tobacco and peanuts, but apparently Canadian organizations were stronger across the board than in the US.

Alberta also delivers the CAIS through a corporation, which seems to have started as a hail insurance corporation.

We (federal employees) should be glad the Bush administration hasn't picked up on this pattern, otherwise FSA would have been privatized.

Post Front Page--Politics and Reform

The Washington Post has two stories on its front page that relate, in a way. One is the second in its series on the DC school system. Today's is a review of the various efforts to reform the system over the years. Every few years new people come to power promising change and improvement, only to leave sometime later, either slinking out the door tired and defeated or thrown out by a new set of reformers. A theme is the power of the bureaucracy to frustrate change even at the cost of protecting incompetence. Another theme is unanticipated consequences--a court suit ends up depriving the system of money by forcing it to spend $50,000 per special ed student (if my quick math is right--$120 million divided by 2400 students?)

The other story is on the use of political connections to select immigration judges. It seems the Bush administration has been appointing judges with such ties.

What's the relationship? New leadership can exert its influence by appointing its people, as in the case of Bush and immigration judges. When it can't exert influence, as in the case of the DC schools, it can't be held responsible. So, bottom line, there's a case to be made for the old Jacksonian spoils system and against the goo-goo Progressive governmental reform people.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Melting Pot Bubbles On

Had to laugh today at a piece in the NYTimes Style section, on "A Privileged Life, Celebrating WASP Style: "The pages gleam with iconic photographs of ├╝ber-WASPs — William F. Buckley, George Plimpton, Jackie Onassis..."

The last I looked, WASP stood for White Anglo-Saxon Protestant; Mr. Buckley is, while an Anglophile, a very prominent Catholic and Jacqueline Bouvier was both Catholic and French. Not that I'd deny any one admission to the WASP club; I just marvel at the power of assimilation--what the economists call the first-mover advantage.

And How the Neighbors to the North Do It

Apparently as a percentage of net sales for most everything, including ostriches. See this news story and this web site on Canada's Cost of Production program to support farmers.

The process is intriguing--I need to look more at Canada's "supply management" program, which apparently still applies to dairy and poultry. And do they have no local offices--is everything done through the Internet?

LRECL and Mark Adamo

There's a recent report of research showing that infants are able to recognize the differences between languages. It's part of the innate and learned ability to categorize the "blooming, buzzing confusion"* of the world into something that makes sense.

Last night my wife and I went to the Kennedy Center for the last NSO concert of the year. Mark Adamo had a concerto for harp, a premiere well reviewed by the Post.

As I was sitting through it, I remembered the COBOL class where I first met my wife, where the instructor explained that computers only read binary, zeroes and ones, and that they had to be told how to handle the stream. LRECL was part of it--defining the logical record length (often a multiple of 80 characters, which was the maximum you could get on a punch card). You'd define the block size, which was how many characters the computer would eat at one gulp, then how many records were in the block--the LRECL, then the fields within the record and their length.

That's what babies do: they separate their experiences into chunks, defining what a word is, then make associations. That's how we learn to identify one cow from another (if you grow up on a small dairy farm) or one person from another, or one language from another.

Or, learn the language of classical music. Unfortunately, I haven't learned to be flexible enough to enjoy Mr. Adamo's concerto, I'm stuck back in the nineteenth century with Mahler's first, which was great.




* William James

Friday, June 08, 2007

The Virtues of Stovepipes

"Stovepipes" have gotten a bad name, both in IT and bureaucratic organization. It means that each organization/program has its own focus, its own data, its own concerns and doesn't share well with others. There's a case to be made in their defense, which is not a case I'll make today. But this article from Government executive, reporting that a subcommittee of the House Ag committee has voted to remove the ag inspectors from Homeland Security and put them back in USDA gives a sense of both the petty politics behind stovepiping and, in the comment, one of the virtues of stovepiping.

Loose Linkage on Immigration--see Passports

The administration has had to back off the rule that travelers within this hemisphere have passports, because the State Department's bureaucracy couldn't handle the backlog of applications. (People waiting until the last minute.) See this Government Executive piece.

That's the sort of thing one could expect if the immigration bill, that seems dead in the water, were to pass. What we could and should be doing is encouraging people to issue, and illegal immigrants to get, any form of ID possible (municipalities, consular ID's, etc.) with the idea that they'd be first in line for any future reform and they wouldn't suffer by doing so. That sort of halfway step is what I mean by loose linkage--easing people into the system, mostly for the benefit of the bureaucrats, but it will also benefit their clients.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Bureaucratic Interns

We die. Unfortunately.

Any self-perpetuating organization needs to recruit those who leave it on their way to the coffin. One way is internship. See Angry Drunk Bureaucrat's take.

(I'm not sure about the carbon paper though--maybe they didn't clean out the supply cabinet.)

Windows Vista and the Bureaucracy

As a result of PC problems, I'm now running Windows Vista (not my choice) and having problems getting old programs that ran under XP to work. So I read today that the Army medics are using software that runs under Windows 2000, and will only have new XP compatible software in 2008.

Our Tolerance Exceeds Our Knowledge

Via Crooked Timber, it seems that 83 percent of the population are okay with interracial dating but 74 percent believe the earth revolves around the sun (as opposed to vice versa or don't know). For someone who believes we're getting more and more knowledge, that's real depressing. But at least we can live together.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

D-Day and Responsibility

The Post editorial page today notes June 6 by quoting the announcement that Eisenhower wrote to use if the D-Day landings failed. He took responsibility. The Post thinks it's a good model.

Causes me nostalgia. Perhaps the first "adult" book I ever read was Ike's "Crusade in Europe". It probably was a Christmas present for my father, who was into history and biography, for 1949. I very vaguely remember (I think) my grandfather trying desperately to get the news on our old radio--was it the Battle of the Bulge? Those old vacuum tube radios couldn't get good reception when the station was 10-15 miles away, considering the hills that surrounded us.

He wrote clear prose, not great, and didn't directly reveal how he felt dealing with the prima donas like Monty and Patton. Long before the Holocaust, he wrote about the freeing of prisoners from the concentration camps and included pictures.

I don't know whether it was the atmosphere of the time, knowing the importance the grownups placed on the events, or simply a small boy's fascination with things military, but I read and reread the book over the years.

Immigration and Bureaucracy

Shannon O'Neill calls for: "More attention to functioning bureaucracies and less attention to walls will better address current policy failures." She says the US Citizenship and Immigration Service hasn't been able to process its current workload and won't have the ability to handle workload resulting from the proposed new system. (She also has some points about the Mexico population and its birth rate.

She's right that, for laws to be implemented, the bureaucracy that gets handed the law has to be capable. ( The Farm Service Agency for most of its history for some of its programs was capable.) Give Bush his due, HHS and Mr. McClellan (I think it was) ended up doing a good job implementing the drug benefit program. They got lots of flak along the way, but having been in their shoes (not as big) I salute them.

I still haven't researched the legislation--understand it's 400 pages. My guess is that it may be too black and white, which can be a big problem, particularly if there's interdependencies. My own leaning would be to a loosely coupled system, openly acknowledged, that gets tighter as we go. (Sort of like Clinton with the welfare reform package he was handed--he signed on the basis he and Congress could tweak in later years, which they did.) So now we should acknowledge we aren't agreeing on an ultimate system, simply signaling a change of direction.

Bureaucrats Fear People

That's the truth. Here's someone who tells Federal bureaucrats not to fear dealing with their staffs:

Drawing on more than 30 years' experience in federal agencies from the General Services Administration to the Veterans Affairs Department, Liff encourages government bosses not to believe the prevailing wisdom that managing in the public sector is impossible. Federal managers too often are governed by fear, and Liff is out to help them conquer it.

"Fear becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy," Liff warns when discussing how managers can deal with problem employees like the staring bully. "If supervisors and managers understood that the system provides plenty of protections for management, as well as employees, they would begin to see things in a different light."

The problem I had as a manager was the Peter Principle. I was a very good bureaucrat, but as a human being I didn't like conflict. Unfortunately, management requires some conflict (despite the romantic manuals for managers which promote harmony). Of course this failing isn't limited to government managers, but it's a bit more prevalent because it's harder to evaluate performance of a government agency than a corporation.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Near Death Experiences

Marginal Revolution has had some interesting threads (here and here )on the effect a near death experience should have on a person. A reader rolled his car 4 times on a dry empty road and survived with no big injuries. Prof. Tabarrok has an interesting, if totally idiotic to me, take on the idea. His logic is logical, but he's never met a human being. But to each his or her own.

What does strike me is the fact no one has paused to give thanks to the bureaucrats who drew up and enforced the rules that make cars today much safer than they were in my youth. Time for all good bureaucrats to feel sorry for ourselves.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Unenforceable Laws--Speeding, Immigration, Prostitution

Shankar Vedantam, in his Monday Post column, cites the opinions of Douglas Husak and Lawrence Solum, who probably unknowingly follow in the footsteps of Robin Williams, my sociology professor 45 years ago:
Husak and Solum, legal theorists and philosophers, argue that laws on immigration are part of a broad pattern. In recent decades, they say, Congress has passed innumerable laws that no one seriously expects will be enforced. Such laws largely seem to serve symbolic purposes and are often designed to placate some powerful constituency -- conservatives in the case of immigration, or the entertainment industry in the case of laws that seek to deter people from swapping copyrighted music and movies.
Williams cited the case of prostitution, illegal in most states. Laws aren't effective in such cases--you get pro forma prosecutions, "show cases" for effect, not something that works. It's easy to take this line of thought too far. For example, I disagree with Husak and Solum about speed limits. They believe that, if cars on the Dulles toll road go 65 to 80 in a 55 mph zone, the limit ought to be raised. That's carrying the power of the majority too far--let me creep along at 60-65 in the right lane without feeling guilty about not going the speed limit.

It is a problem for bureaucrats whenever the gap between law and behavior becomes great. Do you enforce the rules or exercise the discretion and then become arbitrary?

A Question of Class

Recently (May 22, no longer available free) the NY Times was talking about the starting salaries for policemen on Long Island. They noted:
"Starting salary on the 2,692-member Suffolk force is $57,811 -- compared with $25,100 when entering the New York Police Department academy and $32,700 after six months at the department -- and rises after five years to $97,958 ($59,588 in New York). With overtime, many members of the Suffolk department routinely make more than $100,000."
As one might expect, the differential is causing NYC sergeants to become Suffolk patrolmen.

Then, on Saturday, comes a column on how college graduates should save money. The title is: "More Advice Graduates Don't Want to Hear". He wrote the same column last year:
"In droves, parents sent the column to their children. And some of those children wrote to me to vent. What I suggested was impractical, many said. How would you like to try to live on $40,000 a year in Washington or San Francisco, several asked."
In the bad old days (i.e., 1960), police departments were trying to upgrade their forces and get college grads. I'm not sure how well they've done, but the difference between the two pieces says to me there's a lot of unconscious arrogance among the college graduates who are coming to NYC to live. Makes my populist blood boil.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Is It Better to Know, or Not to Know

That is the question. I wrote the other day I'd rather know if I had the gene increasing the likelihood that I'll develop Alzheimers. (Not that I plan to spring for a DNA test anytime soon. I'm not that principled.)

Today the question is crime. Reston is included in the Backfence community site. One of their facilities is mapping the occurrence of local crime. So is it better to know, or not know? I suppose if you're mildly optimistic, so you overestimate the frequency of crime, having the facts would decrease your happiness. And vice versa the other way. Of course, the guy (Harvard professor type guy) who wrote "Stumbling on Happiness" might say in the long run it doesn't make much difference--you'll adjust either way. The only big deal would be if your belief is way off, in which case knowing the truth might change your actions (sell if crime is much worse than you thought; stay if it's much less).

But I think one point is that greater knowledge might tighten social connections, make the machinery of society have to operate with closer tolerances. I wonder.

A Bureaucrat's Tribute to a Bureaucrat

See this article about eagles and the bureaucrat, Rachel Carson.

Me and Nelson Mandela

Via Dr. Mankiw, this political questionnaire says I'm moderately left and slightly libertarian, like Nelson Mandela. I think my leftism is a little exaggerated; there wasn't any space between "Agree" and "Disagree" with a question. If they'd thrown in a "debatable" option, I would have turned out a wishy-washy flip-flopper.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Dr. Watson's DNA

On June 1 the Times reported that the complete genome for Dr. James Watson, one of the co-discoverers of DNA, was released to the public. There's many reasons to ponder this event, but the one that struck me is embodied here:

Amy McGuire, an assistant professor of medicine with Baylor's Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy, said integrating human genomes into medical diagnoses raises various ethical questions. Those include what to do when they reveal personal information about a patient's relatives and whether someone's genetic code could result in discrimination from insurance companies or employers.

''I think we'll have a healthier and more compassionate world 50 years from now because of the technological advances we are celebrating today,'' Watson said.

While Watson said that he would review the map further, there was at least one part he would avoid. He planned to skip the section of the map that would tell him if he was at risk for Alzheimer's disease, which his grandmother died from.

My mother had Alzheimers. And I'm paranoid about having it. But I think I would want to know. After all, I already know my genome contains the genes for death.

But I'm not going to spend money to find out my mind might die sooner than my body.

House and Gawande, Both Better

My wife and I have one, and only one, favorite TV drama--House.
For those who have not seen it, it features an anti-social drug-addicted, crippled MD, who diagnoses difficult cases while fighting with the world.

My wife and I just read "Better" a collection of essays by Atul Gawande, a surgeon. The essays investigate the field of medicine, in very good prose.

What's the common thread here: I think much of the appeal of Dr. House is the theme of many of Gawande's essays, the constant drive to do things better. House is never satisfied unless he's figured out the answer; he cares much more about the answer than about his patients, which means there's a nice contrast between his misanthropy and his drive for answers, which often results in helping the patients. (Often, but not always; occasionally he has to kill someone to find the answer.) Gawande celebrates the doctors who always strive to improve their methods, to better their results. And he mourns the cases, as when the medical professionals fail to wash their hands, when imperfection leads to death, as in one of his cases.