Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

27 June 2010

Redundancy


[For a brief comment on cell-phone risk, click here.]

One of the most depressing pieces of punditry I have read recently was David Brooks’ May 27 piece entitled “Drilling for Certainty.” In it, Brooks laments the “bloody crossroads where complex technical systems meet human psychology.”

Without ever quite saying so, Brooks implies that human fallibility renders the complex technological systems on which our lives now depend inherently unreliable. After reading his piece, you want to: (a) crawl under your bed and hide or (b) jettison modern technology entirely and return to a safe, if drafty, cave.

Brooks’ piece is troubling in two respects. First, it reflects a form of fatalism that is conservatives’ (and scoundrels’) last refuge when things go terribly wrong. As you can verify virtually any day by reading editorials and comments in the Wall Street Journal, conservatives’ response to the financial meltdown and the Great BP Oil Spill is: “We couldn’t have done any better. Markets require discipline. Bad things happen. That’s life!” In contrast, progressives say―as the President did recently about the Oil Spill―“We can do better, and we will, starting now. Here’s how.”

The second reason Brooks’ piece is troubling is that it is emblematic of a gaping hole in our ruling class. Nearly all of our policy makers in both government and business were trained as lawyers or business people. Like Brooks, the vast majority of them were liberal-arts majors. By aptitude and training they have barely the faintest grasp of higher mathematics, science, or engineering. These fields control our massive technological infrastructure. Yet our leaders see them through a glass darkly, with the aid of fuzzy and often misleading popularizers.

The number of people in Congress with significant (let alone current) training in science or engineering you can count on the fingers of one hand. A society built on science and engineering, yet with a dearth of scientists and engineers in its ruling class, is in trouble.

The “bloody crossroads” of human psychology and technology is itself an object of scientific study, with great promise. About a decade ago, Korean Air Lines had one of the worst safety records of any developed-country airline, with an unusual series of fatal accidents. Social and industrial psychologists began to study why. They found that Korean culture is extraordinarily paternalistic and authoritarian, especially within its military. (There is a reason why Kim Jong Il rules North Korea.)

Because of this culture, co-pilots and engineers refused to speak up in the cockpit when observing errors or sources of danger. They were afraid to question or contradict the pilot, who was often a product of the South Korean military’s dictatorial culture.

The discovery of this cause of trouble fostered a program of training in teamwork, which brought Korean Air Lines’ accident rate down to the international norm in just a few years. The answer was science and social engineering, not fatalism.

But this essay is not about the enormous progress that science and engineering have made in examining us fallible human beings as part of their subject matter. That topic would require a whole book. This essay focuses on another tool of good science and engineering: redundancy.

When undressing one night, take a close look at your body. You have two eyes, two ears, two arms, two legs, and two nostrils. Men have two testicles. Although you can’t see them from the outside, women have two ovaries, and all of us have two lungs and two kidneys. Part of this redundancy reflects our bilateral symmetry. But most is a result of evolution’s four-million-year engineering. Making critical systems redundant enhances survival and the chances for successful reproduction.

If Nature’s own engineering recognizes the value of redundancy in complex, critical systems, why don’t we?

Of course we do, but we forget from time to time. The Apollo Program got men to the Moon with doubly and sometimes triply redundant critical systems like flight computers and life support. Power plants (especially nuclear ones!) and financial institutions have redundant computers and backup systems. Virtually every serious computer center has redundant backup storage, usually in separate locations, in case of fire, flood, other natural disaster, sabotage, or terrorist attack.

Lack of redundancy was a cause of the Challenger shuttle disaster. The critical O-ring seals in the rocket module were redundant in a way; there were more than one. But they were all in much the same place and therefore subject to the same brittleness and fracturing when the weather turned cold. Redundancy is not always a simple thing: it’s a matter of context that requires careful thought and planning.

I consciously practice redundancy in my own life. Since buying my first personal computer in 1985, I have rarely had less than two. At first the two were my own and an office computer. Lately, as operating systems and software got more complex and less reliable, my family has never had less than three at home. Two years ago I had to switch to my wife’s computer for a time (while she was out of the country) after the hard disk on my primary computer crashed. More recently, I had to switch to my Linux netbook for certain on-line brokerage transactions when my desktop computer proved incapable of providing reasonable response time.

The latter problem is one of those frustrating and intractable interactions between my computer’s software, my unusual ISP, and a particular on-line brokerage. Months of effort and inquiry have produced lots of finger pointing but no tangible results. Yet my Linux netbook chugs along, keeping me connected.

Redundancy works just as well as a defense against social complexity. I have written several essays (for example, 1, 2 and 3) about how complex and unreliable our mostly private health-insurance system is. So I practice what I preach: redundancy.

For my last six years before Medicare, I had no less than three different health-insurance policies: a primary one through my employer, a secondary one through my wife, and a third (“excess major medical”) policy, with high limits and a high deductible, through a professional organization. I felt all three necessary because of the complexity and well-demonstrated unreliability of private health insurance. Good health care is a “critical system,” and you don’t get it without good insurance. So when private health-insurance policies don’t work well, you need three of them.

Does redundancy cost money? Of course it does. But our own evolution decided it was worth the expense. It spent a lot of energy (the biological equivalent of money) developing and feeding all those redundant or partially redundant arms, legs, eyes, ears, nostrils, lungs, kidneys and reproductive organs. And evolution is never wrong: it always trends toward greater survivability, which is why we are here. Who are we to argue with our own origins?

Exploiting redundancy properly requires a balance of humility, wisdom and confidence. We need humility to know that our best systems do fail, wisdom to see how and to back up what is critical, and confidence to proceed with redundancy, knowing that nothing we make is perfect but that we can continue to strive for perfection.

Fatalism is never a proper response to disaster. At least it hasn’t been among us Americans until recently. When you consider the complexity of air travel and the number of fallible human beings involved in it at every stage, including the design and construction of aircraft, you have to marvel that its safety record is as good as it is.

Our government established and largely controls the vast, global social engineering project that achieved and maintains that safety record, with its FAA, air traffic controllers, strict maintenance schedules, mandatory modifications of aircraft and engines, NTSB, mandatory incident reporting, thorough investigations of accidents, and black boxes to reconstruct them. That’s why English is the universal language of aviation. And we all have to keep pushing to make the system better, especially when the profit motive encourages cutting corners.

Air travel is an inherently dangerous endeavor. If we can make it so safe that millions of people who know nothing about how it works use it with justified confidence every day, we can do the same with nuclear power and even offshore drilling.

Redundancy in critical systems is one important way of achieving that result. The trick is not to nickel-and-dime good engineering, whether physical or social, but to willingly pay the price for safe and reliable systems.

Now we know that blow-out preventers are not as failsafe as we thought they were. And the Great BP Oil Spill teaches that they are indeed critical systems. So maybe henceforth all deep-sea wells will have two of them, perhaps of different designs, and government regulation will so require. That would be useful social evolution.

Cell-Phone Risk

I don’t own a cell phone. My wife does, and I use it only rarely. One reason is that I don’t like an “on-call” 24/7/365 lifestyle. The other is my concern over possible biological effects.

Maureen Dowd brought the subject into focus yesterday in a column questioning whether cell phones will be the next cigarettes: everyday items fraught with serious medical risk. Before reading her column and comments to it, I was just concerned. Now I’m worried. Here’s why.

If you don’t mind a little high-school algebra, consider the following equation:

p/r2 = P/R2


This equation expresses the law of physics by which the power of radio waves decreases with the square of distance from their point source. The lower-case and upper-case letters represent the power (p) and distance (r) from your cell phone and another source of radio energy, respectively.

Now plug in p = 2.5 watts (the power of a typical cell phone), r = 0.5 inch (the distance from its antenna to your brain), and P = 100,000 watts, for a typical high-power radio station. Then solve for R. You get 100 inches, or about 8.3 feet.

So the next time you walk or drive down the road with a cell phone clamped to your head, think of an 100,000 watt radio station with its huge antenna less than nine feet from your skull. Your brain receives the same radio power in both cases. Kinda puts things in perspective, doesn’t it?

This calculation and comparison should make one thing obvious. Since Marconi invented radio, we humans have never subjected our brains to such radio power, even momentarily. For reasons of effective long-distance propagation, radio towers are actually much taller then nine feet. So you’d have to climb one and stay there to get the same radio energy, even if you lived directly under it. Few people do that, but millions walk around with cell phones clamped to their heads.

Two common misconceptions about radio energy confuse the cell-phone-risk issue and many of the commenters to Dowd’s piece. The first is the notion that radio waves are ubiquitous (true), so that cell-phone emissions must be harmless (not necessarily true). The fallacy is failing to recognize that putting a cell phone with several watts of power right next your head is a brand new phenomenon in human history.

You can see why by using the same formula to calculate power ratios, even if you don’t know your equipment’s specifications. Many homes have a wireless network, which of course uses radio waves. You can estimate its power, relative to a cell phone’s, by looking at the distances each is supposed to serve. Home wireless networks typically have a 500 foot limit, while cell phones have to reach towers at least 2 miles away, or 10,560 feet. That’s a distance ratio of about 21. Take the square root to get the power ratio, which is about 4.6.

So your WiFi network has at least 4.6 times less power than your cell phone. On top of that, you don’t hold your laptop or wireless router right next to your head. It’s at worst at arm’s length, which is typically about 18 inches from your head. So the distance ratio is about 36, which when squared is 1296. Multiply that by the power ratio, and you get a number close to 6000. So your home WiFi network delivers about 6000 times less radio power to your brain. Not in the same league with cell phones!

Radio and TV stations deliver even less power because they are so far away. That’s why they require such sensitive and finicky electronics to pick up their signals.

Another common misconception is confusing radio waves, or long-wave electromagnetic radiation, with nuclear or “atomic” radiation. The two are similar in some abstruse physical respects, but they have very different energy regimes and physical effects. Cell-phone “radiation” is worlds away from the radiation that comes from atomic explosions, radioactive materials, X-rays or cosmic rays. Therefore physicists rightly point out that cell-phone emissions cannot cause the same kind of chemical ionization that “atomic” radiation does, and which is a known cancer risk.

But that doesn’t mean that radio waves from cell phones can’t cause cellular damage and cancer by other biological mechanisms not yet known. Strong radio waves can cause microscopic Ohmic heating or minute electrical discharges inside our brains. And we know that mutations at the cellular level increase with temperature.

Biology is more complex than basic physics. Rather than look for reasons to debunk single absurd mechanisms of cellular damage, such as ionizing “atomic” radiation, we should pay attention to the increasing number of credible studies that suggest a link between cell-phone use and brain tumors. We should also pay attention to the anecdotal stories of people like Ted Kennedy, who had no cancer in his family and yet died of a brain tumor after years of cell-phone use. Genetics are a strong predictor of cancer susceptibility, and the studies done so far suggest that something else is at work.

So where does that leave me? I used to be agnostic, but now I’m a skeptic. I do plan to get a cell phone soon. But I’ll keep my land lines and use my cell phone as infrequently as possible. And when I use it, I’ll keep the antenna as far away from my head and vital organs as possible. I’ll wear the phone on my belt while walking, put it on the seat or dashboard while in a car (not driving!), and use a wired headset. And I'll do so until a series of credible scientific studies, not funded by the tech industry, convinces me that cell phones are safe.

Distance really matters because it’s squared. If cell phones are dangerous, it’s not because they are so powerful, but because we use them so close to our most vital organ, our brain. And some of us keep them there for hours a day.

Put the antenna at arm’s length, and the radio power reaching your brain decreases by two or three orders of magnitude, i.e., by hundreds or thousands of times. Texting at arm’s length is probably OK, as long as you don’t hold the phone up to your eyeballs while sending.

It’s a sad fact in our society that every issue―even medicine and product safety―becomes politicized. So we have exonerating studies funded by the tech industry, which no one trusts. And we have vigorous arguments based on theory and so-called “common sense” (radio is everywhere), which make no sense when analyzed rigorously, as above.

Now that Maureen Dowd has given the problem some visibility, industry may help solve it by engineering instead of PR. Some enterprising cell-phone maker may offer phones with removable clip-on antennas, connected by retractable shielded wires (much like those used for vacuum-cleaner power cords, but tinier). Then you could put the phone to your ear but clip the antenna on your belt, on your umbrella (in the rain), or (in your car) on the rear-view mirror post or eyeshades. Doing so would improve reception in many cases, and the increased distance from your head would vastly decrease the radio power reaching your brain.

In the meantime, what we need are serious scientific studies, funded and run by impartial, neutral institutions, like the suggestive Swedish studies that Dowd cites in her piece. While waiting for Godot, it seems prudent to treat chronic cell-phone use (with phone clamped to head) like the hazardous activity it may turn out to be, and not just while driving.

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20 June 2010

Whither the Renminbi? Two Neglected Factors


Saturday a developed world battered by economic storms welcomed China’s announcement that it will soon get serious about currency reform. The news had two components. First, China said it would let its renminbi rise faster. Second, China implied that it would no longer peg the renminbi to any particular currency, as it now does to the dollar. Rather, China will use a basket of leading currencies―probably including the dollar, yen and euro―to adjust its exchange rates.

What the second point means is that China’s new policy will not affect all foreign countries equally. Some will gain and some will lose, relatively speaking. Which ones will gain the most and which ones will lose depends on the reasons for China’s apparent change in policy.

Unfortunately, our moronic Western media have been a Johnny-one-note on the subject for years. The main effect of a low renminbi, they tell us over and over, is to allow China to sell its manufactured goods cheap, thereby jump-starting its domestic employment and sucking manufacturing jobs from developed countries.

Of course there is truth in this point. But it’s not the only truth. By sticking monomaniacally to this single theme, Western media have missed others important points, namely, why now, and who will benefit most.

There are at least two other reasons, besides the balance of manufacturing and trade, why China might want to allow the renminbi to rise. These reasons help explain why now and who will benefit.

The first reason is something I touched on in an earlier post. Currency exchange rates are part of the means by which a nation adjusts its domestic money supply and thereby maintains a semblance of conservation of money without a precious-metal standard. In free-market nations, central authorities have little control over exchange rates, which international markets determine. But in China, which maintains its “peg” to the dollar by artificial means, currency policy is a de facto part of central banking policy.

Here’s how it works. China keeps the renmibi low as compared to the dollar by buying dollar-denominated assets, principally US treasury bills and notes. By financing our growing public and private debt, those purchases help keep our domestic interest rates low. That’s good for us in the short term, but not so good in the long term, as it encourages fiscal irresponsibility and discourages saving.

But what about China? All the money that China injects into our economy has to go somewhere. Where does it go? Right now, the US is a less attractive place to invest than at any time in the past. Our manufacturing is wilting, and our finance sector has overgrown our economy, accounting for up to 41% of all our domestic business profits during the last decade. In other words, lots of that Chinese money is going into our multinational banking system, after being funneled through the Fed as near-zero-interest-rate loans to our banks.

But where does it go ultimately? Well, according the basic principles of capitalist economics, it goes where the returns are greatest, i.e., where growth is greatest. Where might that be? You guessed it. Right back to China, which is now where all the world’s most robust industrial action is. The money also goes to other rapidly developing nations like India and Brazil. So as China invests in US assets, much of that investment comes right back to China because that’s where the action is. American taxpayers pay for this backflow twice: one in bailout schemes like TARP and a second time for interest on our international debt.

A significant portion of this money flows to China for two reasons. First, because China is the world leading industrializer, investment in it offers both the greatest potential return on equity and greater opportunity for market growth (the “two billion armpit” theory). Second, by keeping the renminbi low, China makes its already attractive business assets cheap compared to comparable foreign assets and therefore even more attractive.

China’s position as a chief global magnet for foreign investment is therefore no accident. It reflects a basic law of capitalist economics: money flows toward cheaper assets and greater returns.

The return flow of investment back to China might cause general inflation there. But that result is not especially likely. Foreigners don’t invest in or buy the same things that Chinese consumers do.

More likely, the return flow helps inflate bubbles in particular assets, such as commercial real estate and home markets in key internationalizing cities. Used as they are to international standards in commercial buildings and housing, foreign multinationals, their executives and middle managers go for desirable locations and high-quality construction in commercial cities like Shanghai and Guangdong, thereby bidding up prices for things like land, building materials and construction wages.

Both foreign multinationals and overseas Chinese returning to China to participate in the coming boom participate in this bidding process. The process is likely a significant factor in the Chinese real-property bubble, at least in selected cities that are foci of foreign investment. An artificially low renminbi helps inflate the asset bubbles by making the assets both cheaper to foreigners than to locals and more desirable compared to other alternatives for foreign investment.

The second neglected factor may help explain who will benefit. China is a serious country, with serious and intelligent industrial policy. It exaggerates little to say that China today is ruled by engineers and economists, while politicians and other miscreants who know nothing of value and promise everyone a free lunch run most of the developed world. So as China de-couples its renminbi from the dollar and attaches it in part to other currencies, who will benefit most depends on which country’s currency’s relative decline will most benefit China.

This factor in turn depends on two things. First, China doesn’t want to lose its foreign markets. As the renminbi gains value compared to the dollar, for example, it becomes harder for American consumers and businesses to afford Chinese products. So markets for Chinese products in the United States decline.

But this factor becomes less important as China, in accordance with repeatedly declared policy, strengthens its domestic markets and increases domestic demand. As that happens, the other side of trade policy increases in relative importance: what does China want to buy abroad?

Does China want to increase the buying power of the renminbi just so its consumers can gobble up Western, overpriced, branded luxury goods just as Japanese youth do today? Unlikely: that would not be serious industrial policy. China is a serious country with no geriatric demographic problem and no demonstrable susceptibility to fads.

So what would/do China’s smart leaders want it to be able to buy more of? High-technology goods, especially for business, higher education, and technology itself. China wants to buy cheaply things available nowhere else that will make China’s economy―especially its manufacturing economy―ever stronger.

So here are the three key factors in China’s currency policy: (1) avoiding asset bubbles due to incoming foreign investment; (2) maintaining foreign markets for China’s manufactured goods; and (3) increasing China’s buying power with respect to things China’s smart leaders want China to have more of, in order to improve the prospects for China’s future still more. Factors (1) and (3)―the neglected ones―demand a high renminbi with respect to a target foreign currency. Factor (2)―the well-known and over-hyped one―demands a relatively low renminbi. Thus the two neglected factors oppose the well-known over-hyped one.

So which countries do these factors favor, especially the neglected ones?

At the moment, all three factors appear to favor the US and Japan. Both countries have been mired in recession for some time. Both are likely to stagnate for the foreseeable future, Japan because of demographics and high wages, the US because of financialization and abysmal governance. So while both the US and Japan are important markets for Chinese-made goods, China’s future growth markets lie elsewhere, in the developing world, especially in its most rapidly developing parts. As China’s own domestic markets and these developing markets grow, China’s reliance on US and Japanese consumers will wane. After all, the two countries together have about seven percent of the world’s consumers.

Factor (1), avoiding assets bubbles, also favors both countries, the US more than Japan. While both the US and Japan are rich countries, the US is more of a banking and finance center. Equally important, its multinationals have a huge cash hoard, which they have accumulated through cautious saving in their recovery from the 2008 crash. Some of these companies may return some of that cash hoard to their shareholders through stock buybacks and dividend increases. But undoubtedly many will chose to expand their business by investing more in the world’s best place to invest today: China. To avoid a destabilizing influx of foreign investment, China won’t want to keep its renmibi too low compared to the dollar and the yen.

Finally, there’s factor (3). Whose stuff will China’s smart and tenacious leaders want its citizens and businesses most to buy? Overpriced Gucci and Louis Vuitton handbags? Hardly. China will want its currency to be strong compared to currencies of countries that make and develop things that China doesn’t or can’t make itself. The principal beneficiaries will be the US, Germany, Japan and South Korea. The rest of the EU, which can’t keep up with Germany, will hold Germany back in this regard, increasing the risk that Germany might leave the EU, at least insofar as monetary union is concerned.

This analysis suggests that, while China’s new policy is by no means directed solely at the US, the US will be one of its principal beneficiaries. The renminbi will rise compared to the dollar not because our politicians demand it, but because that rise will be good for China.

The rise will be slow and steady, in accordance with China’s most sacred governing principle: stability. In the long run, the rise will be inflationary for both US consumers and businesses, as Chinese goods become more expensive and interest rates here rise due to China’s reduced interest in buying dollar-denominated assets to keep the renmibi low.

All this follows from a simple fact. China is now a serious country, with serious, well-informed leaders who consider very carefully the probable consequences of their acts.

We are no longer. Our President is a serious man. But Congress, our Supreme-Court majority, and especially our so-called “loyal opposition” are anything but serious. They treat serious issues of policy like candidates for a Mardi Gras or fraternity party, as grist for amusing one-liners. Pitting people like John Boehner, Mitch McConnell and John Roberts against Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, which is what our system does, is a bit like putting the average obese, drunken bum from the back streets of St. Louis in the ring against Muhammad Ali in his prime.

Until we start getting opposition leaders who are serious people and understand what is going on, our economic future will depend on the kindnesses of strangers like China. In particular, it will depend on whether their interests happen to coincide with our own.

Fortunately for us, in the short term (and maybe the medium term) those interests now do coincide. Whether we have the good sense and determination to exploit that short respite from national decline remains to be seen.

If not, China and other rapidly developing nations will suck us dry of high technology and higher education and go on to lead the human race to the stars. We will degenerate into a dysfunctional agrarian and money-handling society, rife with social discontent, having inherited “British disease.” Maybe it’s congenital.

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13 June 2010

Five Conditions for Taliban Rule


Raise another glass to Bob Herbert, America’s conscience. While we’ve been obsessing over the tea party’s senile mutterings, South Carolina’s electroral farce, oil-coated birds and lost Gulf jobs, he reminds us that fellow Americans are still dying, day after day, in far-off Afghanistan.

The adjective “far-off” applies in every sense. Not only is Afghanistan impossibly distant. It is far from everyone’s mind.

No one here wants to think about it―not the deaths of our young men and women, not the strategy vacuum, not the increasingly enormous costs, and certainly not what damage we may be doing to a society that, largely due to our own neglect, has suffered horribly over thirty years of war. Everyone from the President to his most persistent critics appears to be hoping that the whole country will just go away by the time our troops are scheduled to begin their drawdown next year.

Unfortunately, events make that impossible. There is now a critical mass of evidence that Hamid Karzai doesn’t have a clue how to hold his country together, let alone defeat the Taliban. So our job there will become exponentially harder, and chaotic popular discontent here at home will continue to erode the last vestiges of competence and sense in our domestic politics.

Since last year’s fraudulent election, whispers have become shouts. Karzai won’t accept international norms of legitimacy and honesty. He protects his corrupt brother in Kandahar who, as far as I can tell, is a significant part of the problem in the south. His administration is either corrupt itself or turns a blind eye to corruption. His “support” for reforms that might increase his own popularity is at worst counterproductive, at best lukewarm. He has made awkward and pathetically naïve public appeals to the Taliban, plus some secret attempts at negotiation that may be more promising. And now a superb piece of reporting suggests that he lacks confidence in the West’s ability to win, while he continues to take our money and our people’s blood to support his corrupt regime.

The evidence is beyond disturbing. Karzai apparently refused to consider evidence of the Taliban’s participation in attacks on the recent jirga. Then he publicly speculated that Americans might be behind the attacks. Finally, he forced out two of his most senior and experienced security officials, or they resigned in disgust. Both had analyzed the evidence of Taliban involvement in the attacks, and both just happened to be Tajiks. (Karzai and his family, like most of the Taliban, are Pashtuns.)

There are only three ways to interpret this evidence. First, Karzai may have concluded that a Western defeat and retreat are just a matter of time. So he wants to continue to suck away our blood and treasure while creating a coalition government to save his skin, his corrupt family, and some role for himself, perhaps as figurehead, in the eventual government of Afghanistan.

Second, Karzai may have concluded that Central Asia is the next Yugoslavia: an ethnic time-bomb about to undergo a delayed explosion two decades after the stabilizing Soviet force disappeared. The recent ethnic/political unrest in Kyrgyzstan, which the Russians wisely decided to watch from a distance, may be another precursor of this explosion. So Karzai instinctively rallies to his tribe, the Pashtun, which includes Taliban on both sides of the AfPak border.

Finally, this former restauranteur, who has never shown any aptitude for politics or governance besides a good command of English, may have a credible master plan for stabilizing his country that we foreigners just don’t understand. This last alternative is possible, but I give it a probability of less than 10%.

So is seems, with 90% probability, that Karzai is about to cave in to Taliban through sheer fear and ineptitude, or that he is going to throw his lot with theirs because he is a Pashtun, too. Neither outcome bodes well for the future of Afghanistan or our interests there. And either would be an insult to the sacrifices our troops have already made and are still making every day.

In order to salvage something from this mess, we first have to accept reality. The Taliban will probably rule Afghanistan (or most of it) some day. The Karzai government is hopelessly and irretrievably corrupt and inept. Even today, it has little hope of governing all of Afghanistan.

In contrast, the Taliban appear to be the only native force fighting for a vision of the future, something beyond personal power, wealth or subsistence. Their rule is harsh, but many local people appear to like the order and Islamic justice they bring to a region that has known nothing but corruption, war and warlordism for as long as anyone can remember.

More important, as they have already demonstrated, the Taliban have staying power. They have already persevered for nearly a decade since Dubya issued his ultimatum to hand over bin Laden, and they appear ready to fight for another decade or two. There is no sign that our people have similar patience. In this respect if no other, we are in Vietnam redux.

If this be the case, the most important question is not whether the Taliban will rule, but which Taliban will rule. The “Taliban” is a common name for a loose assortment of religious, tribal and local leaders, including some warlords. They are not all the same. Nor do they all have the same view of jihad―especially global jihad―which is what most worries us.

So our task in the year we have left is to do our utmost to give the “right” Taliban the upper hand, through military, political and humanitarian operations, including direct negotiation where possible. Following are five principles we should use to differentiate the “good” Taliban from the “bad” Taliban and give Afghanistan (and our national interests there) a reasonable chance for survival:

1. Cut back the global jihad. The Afghani Taliban and their predecessors are Afghans. Many of them are illiterate and uneducated. (What would you expect after thirty years of war?) They know nothing about New York, Washington, or London. What they want is to control their own communities and make things “better,” as they see them, in their own way. In other words, they are after self-determination, not global domination or our destruction.

By now Al Qaeda may have convinced some Taliban that global jihad is the best means to these ends, maybe the only means. But the Taliban are quintessentially local, the more so because they know little about the outside world. They are descendants of people who have repelled and assimilated foreigners ever since the invasion of Alexander the Great.

In contrast, Al Qaeda’s jihadists are foreigners and dangerous guests. No doubt many of the Taliban are skeptical and suspicious of them. There is a good chance, although far from a certainty, that the Taliban might expel Al Qaeda, or at least vastly cut back its domestic operations, soon after consolidating their own control. Proper incentives might increase the likelihood of this happening.

2. Let girls go to school. In the long run, female education is probably the single most important goal of our policy in Afghanistan. It doesn’t matter if girls have to go to school covered up from head to foot, as long as they learn. If they learn, so will boys. Educating girls can secure a modern and peaceful Afghanistan quicker―and with far less pain―than any foreign invasion.

If we had taken this tack in the anti-Soviet jihad beginning thirty years ago, the girls we would have educated would now be wives and mothers with powerful local influence, if only at home. Likely many would have gone further and today would be helping to drain the cesspool of perpetual war and corruption into which Afghan men have fallen.

Some Afghans and many Taliban are opposed to girls’ education. They are the extremists. But many are not. Many more could be convinced in a more peaceful setting. Many Afghans neglect their daughters’ education not for religious or ideological reasons, but just for lack of money and schools.

No one wants his daughter to be useless and a burden, and rural Afghans are nothing if not practical people. We could make real progress on this vital goal if we exercised some patience and diplomatic skill.

3. Let peaceful, civilian foreigners continue their good work. I call this the “Greg Mortenson” rule, to applaud his superb work, of which our military commanders are well aware. (If you are not, read “Three Cups of Tea,” or watch this review of his extraordinary effort.)

Mortenson is not alone. There are many others like him, trying to make change in Afghanistan one family and one village at a time. Some Taliban oppose this work; others do not. So far Mortenson has survived and achieved superb results by wits and cultural sensitivity alone. We should assist the Taliban who aid this work, or at least don’t hinder it, and oppose the others.


4. Promote ethnic tolerance and equality. The most troubling thing I have read about Karzai in the last two years is evidence that he may be ejecting Tajiks and other ethnic minorities from his government. The last thing Central Asia needs is to become another Yugoslavia, mired in bitter inter-ethnic conflict, with nuclear weapons just across the border in Pakistan. It is worth recalling that Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai's only serious rival in the recent fraudulent elections, is a Tajik.

Virtually every one of the “Stans” is like a Rorschach blot. Its ethnic areas are so complex and intertwined as to permit no reasonable unwinding or partitioning. Ethnic conflict can quickly flare out of control, as the recent troubles in Kyrgyzstan show. Letting that happen is in no one’s interest―not Afghanistan’s, not NATO’s, not ours, not the broader international community’s, not Russia’s, and not the Taliban’s.

The Taliban are mainly religious and ideological. Although many (if not most) are Pashtun, I have seen no evidence that their ideology or goals require ethnic discrimination. We can give the whole area a big boost by supporting egalitarians and opposing bigots, just as we do at home.


5. Give real schools equal time. In the long run, madrassas are among the world’s most dangerous institutions. These Islamist schools teach religion and hate, but no useful skills except Quran reading. Through Saudi and other “charities,” our oil money goes to fund these non-schools. They are a principal reason for exponentially increasing extremism in Central Asia.

Until the Western world shakes its addiction to oil, it will be impossible to eliminate these centers of extremist brainwashing entirely. Poor people prefer any school, even a bad one, to no school at all, and most of Central Asia is dirt poor. But we can certainly support Taliban who are willing to give real schools a try, if only as an alternative. Among a practical people, real schools will win this competition every time.


The age-old rule of war is “know thy enemy.” In Afghanistan, we don’t even know our ally. Hamid Karzai, whom we thought we knew, is increasingly an enigma, perhaps a saboteur.

Fortunately, our military has been smarter than our politicians and diplomats. Since the beginning of the “surge” it has made every effort to get to know the local people, who know the Taliban. The resulting “on the ground” knowledge can be invaluable in distinguishing Taliban who can live with these five principles from those that can’t.

With that knowledge, we can tilt the scale of Afghanistan’s future toward the brighter side. Our and NATO troops on the ground will know best how to do that, using all the techniques of soft and hard power that they have learned so well there and in Iraq.

Doing this will not be easy. Most of the effort will be invisible and unsung. There will be no victory parades.

But this is about the best we can do. The American people cannot and will not support another year (beyond 2011) in this endless, ultimately unwinnable war. And no matter how much the military or right wing insist, the President will not endorse another “surge,” because he would lose his entire base by so doing.

And rightly so. I and others supported this limited surge for three reasons. First, at that time I thought Karzai was an effective leader with a good plan and the support of his people. Second, I wanted to give our superb military, whose new leadership had pulled our irons out of the fire in Iraq, a chance to work similar miracles in Afghanistan. Third, I thought (and still think, given the alternatives) that a successful Obama presidency is the only chance we Americans have to arrest our national decline. Obama’s success at home and abroad required a projection of toughness that simultaneous retreat from Iraq and Afghanistan could not have provided.

Today, a mere nine months later, none of these reasons applies. The first has proved false. Karzai is a weak, corrupt and ineffective leader. He is no Al-Maliki. He’s not even an Al-Jaafri. It is impossible to foresee him continuing to lead Afghanistan (outside Kabul) much beyond next year, except perhaps as a figurehead for Taliban rule.

Our military still seems to be doing a superb job under the circumstances. But not even geniuses can perform impossible missions. Afghanistan will not be a functioning democracy anytime soon. It won’t even resemble Iraq. The best we can do in the time we have left is to arrange conditions so the Afghans have a chance at a decent future after we leave. The five principles above may help give them that chance.

As for domestic politics, it is clear now that about a third of Americans will oppose the President adamantly whatever he does. His continuing to waste blood and treasure on a pointless and unwinnable war will alienate both his base and still-wavering independents.

If the President must lose his mandate or his presidency due to irreconcilable political opposition, better that he lose it for doing the right thing, rather than for continuing a failing policy and a tragic, losing war that he didn’t start. Ending this useless war could revitalize his political fortunes by renewing the hope of 2008 and convincing past and present supporters that his election really made a difference.

As for toughness, the charade is over. It is increasingly obvious abroad, as at home, that we are a society collapsing into itself economically, competitively, politically and militarily. Extending the pretense of global empire and world domination would fool no one except our own least informed and most gullible voters.

Allies and rivals alike would respect us more if we accepted reality and made a sensible strategic retreat to get out own house in order, just as George Washington did at our Founding. It’s perseverance and resolve in the long run that count, and Islamist terrorism is here for the long run. However hateful a symbol bin Laden may be to us, Afghanistan is just one battle in what threatens to be a century-long global conflict. Leaders who insist on winning every battle lose wars.

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06 June 2010

And you thought government was bad!


[For brief reaction to pundits’ various suggestions as to what the President should do, click here.]

Business in General
Private Medicine
Government
Conclusion

Many things amaze me about the media and politics today. Most striking is the ubiquitous belief that government is incompetent and unresponsive.

The source of this belief is a relentless thirty-year program of right-wing propaganda designed to get common people to distrust their government and turn power over to our ruling class’ business wing.

What amazes me is not the program’s effectiveness. Modern admen, PR people and “spin doctors” are good at what they do. What amazes me is how this propaganda has gotten people to ignore their own everyday experience.

Before you can call any institution incompetent and unresponsive, you have to ask “compared to what?” The whole thrust of the right-wing’s propaganda is that business is like Annie Oakley: anything government can do, it can do better.

Really? My own personal experience is so different that I think those who espouse this view must live on a different planet. Here are some examples:

Business in General

1. Bank Predation and High-Handedness. I have written a post about how modern banking and finance have degenerated into sophisticated swindling. My views are not entirely abstract. I’ve been a victim, too. And the predators include two of the most prestigious names in American banking:

A. Wells Fargo Bank charged me $277 to deposit a check from France in euros, in the amount of approximately $3,600. The check was hardly a risky instrument; it was drawn on the account of a French provincial government. The bank advertised only a tiny currency-transaction fee but hid this exorbitant charge in a sub-market currency exchange rate.

B. Without my knowledge, JP Morgan Chase “automatically” rolled over a $60,000 certificate of deposit paying a reasonable interest rate into a new one paying 0.25% interest. It then charged me a penalty of $600 to extricate my money. (The bank had tried try to notify me during a transition period, but the calls were indistinguishable from telemarketing, and I did not take them. I had heard the recorded refrain “This call is important!” too many times before.) I am no longer a customer of Chase.

C. MetLife Home Loans, to which our small mortgage was assigned, “blocked” our account from using third-party “billpay” checks to make payment. This “blockage” occurred after MetLife had rejected a single payment in an inaccurate amount (due to a change in escrow figures) and after we had corrected the amount and MetLife had so verified. After several phone calls through godawful telephone queues, no one could give us any reason at all (let alone a good reason!) for the blockage, but no one would release it. I had to locate the firm’s general counsel and send him a threat of suit to clear this problem up.

2. TD Ameritrade. Recently I tried to transfer funds from an Ameritrade on-line brokerage account to an account at a separate bank. Ameritrade’s website purports to makes this easy, using the government-run ACH (automatic clearing house) system. I had set up the transfer parameters months beforehand, had “verified” them using Ameritrade’s automated system, and had transferred money into Ameritrade using this setup. Yet when tried I to transfer money out to my bank, Ameritrade refused to honor my on-line request.

The next day I got a secure e-mail, purportedly signed by the company's president, that “explained” as follows: “We are unable to process your request for an electronic withdrawal of [amount] from your TD AMERITRADE account.” No reason why. No suggestion as to how to fix the problem. Just the message, in effect, “We blew you off, customer, so there!” The only suggestion was to send an e-mail reply or stand in the telephone queue.

As it turned out, Ameritrade has a rule that the first outward transfer of funds requires telephone verification for security purposes. Fair enough. But that rule nowhere appears on the website, and the e-mail didn’t mention it. If government had done a similar thing, it would appear on Limbaugh or Beck as an example of how incompetent government is.

I hate to name Ameritrade as an example of incompetent business. It is a firm I still patronize and respect. It has the best on-line brokerage website that I have used so far and has dealt with me honestly. The fact that even this relative paragon of modern business could be so disappointing only highlights the incompetence of modern business generally.

3. Telephone queues. There ought to be a special place in Hell for the person who invented automated telephone queues. Apparently they serve the needs of business well. Virtually every big business has one, as do many medium-sized firms.

I am hardly a technophobe (see Point 4 below). But I abhor telephone queues almost as much as I abhor stupidity. My consistent experience over about a decade reveals a “success rate” in solving problems of less than 20%, and a wasted-time factor (as compared to using the Internet for the same purpose) of at least one-half hour per call, and sometimes over an hour.

These queues apparently serve business’ needs. They employ otherwise unemployable, untrained morons to man the phones at minimum wage or less.

The marvel is business’ failure to understand how doing so affects the customer relationship, despite all the endless recorded messages about how “important your call is.” If my call is so important, I think, why don’t you put someone on the phone who has at least average intelligence and knows something about your business and our culture, and so can answer my question or help me without my having to waste time and energy begging to speak to a supervisor who does?

I have written a lengthy parody of telephone queues, so I won’t belabor the point. Suffice it to say that the basic problem remains: you cannot have uneducated, untrained (or untrainable) people reading from a canned script, without any knowledge, authority or incentive to respond helpfully as one human to another, and still hope to maintain an acceptable customer relationship. Yet major banks, brokerages, mutual funds, and software houses (among others) put their customers through this wringer daily, all in the relentless pursuit of reduced cost and profit.

My personal response is to shun telephone queues like the plague, use the Internet when I can, and terminate business relationships when I can’t. One of the pleasures of dealing with small, local businesses, I have found, is that many have a real, live human being answer the phone before the fourth ring.

4. Business and the Internet. I’ve used (and occasionally programmed) computers for 49 years. So I’m not afraid of them. I know what they can and can’t do and how they work. I took to the Internet like a duck to water and try to do as much of my work and personal business on it as I can.

If I had to grade business’ websites―especially banks’ and brokers’ sites―I would give most of them marks no higher than C. Most are cluttered, confusing, poorly organized, hard to navigate, and inconsistent in design (and sometimes even information) from page to page.

It often takes me as much as half an hour to find basic information on a commercial website. Even the sites of “critical businesses”―banks, brokerages, private utilities, and credit cards―have barely adequate navigation tools. Many come cluttered with useless ads and promotions that distract attention from on-line business and slow the website down, sometimes substantially.

When I see useless promotions and advertisements where an important link to basic information ought to be, I want to scream, “I’ve already got an account. I don’t need another one. I just need the one I’ve got to work. Get a clue!”

Then there are the incessant demands to switch to on-line statements and away from paper. I would love to do that. On-line records are electronically searchable, easy to store, copy and back up, and so much faster, more convenient and more efficient than paper.

But have you ever read banks’ or brokerages’ agreements for on-line statements? They are drafted very carefully to take away all your rights as a consumer that Congress and state law have granted you over the last several decades. If you “sign up,” you’ll abandon those legal rights and go back to a state of nature and caveat emptor. These businesses are using their desire to save themselves money as an excuse to take away your legal rights.

Thanks, but no thanks. As I laboriously file my paper statements, I take perverse pleasure in knowing that each one costs the bank or brokerage several dollars. “If you want to make things cheaper,” I think to myself, “draft an agreement that’s fair and that preserves at least some of my legal rights, and I’ll sign it.”

Private Medicine

One of many pernicious cultural myths—and the one that most astounds me—is the notion that our almost-entirely-private health-care system is the best in the world. During the debate on health-insurance reform, several pundits debunked that myth far better than I could; here’s the best refutation. I will not try to duplicate their efforts here.

Insofar as my personal experience is concerned, I can only conclude that people who admire our health-care system must be very, very sick when they use it, too sick to notice obvious flaws. In my experience, the best of our private health-care providers have administration that is so inefficient and comically incompetent as to make comparison with government ludicrous.

1. Abysmal “Customer” Communication. For the past decade or so, I have used one of the our country’s “household brand” medical complexes. I cannot name it without compromising my anonymity. But it’s a huge, well-known complex, with a sterling reputation for medicine and consistent ratings among the top five hospitals nationwide in several key specialties. The main complex alone (there are satellite offices) occupies a significant part of the territory of the city in which it originated and contributes enormously to that city’s economy. Economically, it is a big, big deal.

I use this facility because its doctors are very good and its equipment is up to date. I have no quarrel with the quality of medicine it practices. But if I look at this facility as a “business” and myself as a “customer,” I have to conclude that its administration is far worse than that of any government institution I have ever used, including the Post Office (see below), various departments of motor vehicles in various states, and even local utilities.

In fact, this facility has the worst communication equipment and procedures of any organization of any kind that I have dealt with in my entire adult life. Just getting a message to a sentient life form inside it is an ordeal comparable to approaching an alien species.

Recently, while out of town, I tried to make an appointment using this firm’s Web-based appointment system. That system has an elaborate set of on-line forms, which took me an hour to fill out. I took the time because: (1) I have a longstanding patient relationship with a particular physician whose care I sought and (2) I wanted to give that doctor and his medical staff detailed and accurate information about several medical tests I had had out of town. A month later, I called the doctor’s office to inquire why there had been no response. I was told that no one had seen or heard of my on-line request. It had vanished into a black hole.

The assistant who took this message promised that the doctor would review my request for a procedure and get back to me. After hearing nothing for a week, I called again, only to be informed there had been no progress whatsoever. It was as if my on-line submission and my phone call had never been made. So I contacted three different people in three difference offices in the hope of getting some response. It is now several days later and I have heard nothing.

I would have a right to be furious if the institution were a dry cleaner and the issue were a lost pair of pants. But this is a health-care provider, and my health is at stake. Yet because of my longstanding relationship with a particular physician and the difficulty of starting anew with someone else, I am as much a “captive” of this farcically inefficient and incompetent system as if it were my government and I had nowhere else to turn. So much for the theoretical benefits of “competition” in private health care!

This experience is not an isolated incident. Over the past decade, I have learned to avoid this institution’s communications systems like antibiotic-resistant bacteria. I (and my physicians) try to schedule follow-up and future appointments before I leave the office. Otherwise, simply getting an appointment—let alone conveying any information to the system and its doctors—typically takes from twenty to forty-five minutes on a telephone queue that makes my parody look good.

2. Private Medical Records. Over the last several months I have had the misfortune to use another medical group in another city. It’s a smallish group with a specialty practice of a half-dozen doctors. It is well regarded in its community and the object of frequent referrals.

After having had several medical tests with this group, I wanted to send the results to my primary specialist in another state. On signing up with this group, I had filled out several pages of forms. They included a blanket authorization to release medical information to my wife and to the “household name” medical institution discussed above.

Yet when I left a telephone message asking this group to send my records, what I got was nothing. Later I got a call from the group’s medical records specialist. She informed me that (1) the blanket authorization I had filled out on intake was no good for this purpose and (2) I could authorize the transmission only by a manual signature on the group's additional forms. Neither she nor the group’s lawyer had apparently heard of the Uniform Electronic Transactions Act, which all states involved had adopted, and whose purpose was to allow such authorizations (among many other things) by e-mail. I ended up sending my primary specialist’s office what records I had on hand myself, by Federal Express, at a cost of $30.

Compare this sorry history with government. A close relative of mine worked in an office of our military that handles troops’ medical records. At least seven years ago (and probably even earlier), the US military had digitized all medical records and could send a service person’s entire file, including high-resolution digital diagnostic images, to any permanent US military medical institution, anywhere in the world, at the click of a mouse.

3. The “Overhead” of Accounting for Profit. One of the most absurd things about our privatized medical system is the extraordinary amount of employment, effort, inefficiency, and waste that go into accounting for all its private profit.

This point hit home to me while I was waiting for my blood to be drawn in the office of a local diagnostic laboratory. I had waited patiently while at least two people who had signed in after me had their tests and left. When I inquired why, there was a further delay until I was called to a special counter to sign a form.

The issue had nothing to do with my health care or medicine. The firm wanted me to sign a form saying that some of the tests my doctor had ordered might not be covered by Medicare or my supplemental insurance and that I agreed to pay in any event.

After this annoyance, I took notice of the front desk. Its operation, which kept three people busy full time, was devoted entirely to payment. It checked insurance records of incoming patients and verified that their insurance or they would pay.

I estimated that there were not more than five phlebotomists in the back room actually drawing blood and running other tests. So in this one, small health-care firm, three out of eight, or 37.5% of its employees, were not in health care, but accounting. Their role was to insure private payment. Is there any wonder why our health-care system is twice as expensive as the rest of the developed world’s?

But even that was not all. This particular firm has the annoying habit of making copies of the very same insurance cards, and asking you to fill out the very same forms (with basic information such as name, address, telephone number and physician), every time you come into the office. It keeps no records on you, no matter how many times you use its services.

Over a period of four months, I had this same private firm do several tests. Each time, it was as if I had never been there before. If an office of government used such wasteful procedures, the right wing would ridicule it, and rightly so. Yet I have never seen any government office do anything so inefficient and wasteful.

4. Private Health Insurance. Since reaching the age when the warranty on my body appears to have expired, I have had triply redundant health insurance: a primary policy, a second policy through my wife, and an “excess major medical” policy with a high dollar limit and a large deductible. I have kept this triple redundancy not because I like to spend money unnecessarily, and certainly not because I like private insurers. I feel I cannot trust any single private insurer to be there when I need it, and I have ample reason (1, 2 and 3) for my fear.

Even now that I am covered by Medicare, I keep the triple redundancy. I have been so traumatized by the absurd administrative incompetence and inefficiency of private health care in this country that I do not trust anyone to do the right thing. As I gain experience in the Medicare system, I eventually may drop my excess major medical policy.

I could continue these examples, but someone else’s personal complaints do not make the most fascinating reading. My point is simple. My personal experience with private business reflects the type of incompetence, high-handedness, and non-responsiveness that right-wing propaganda attributes to government. But in my experience, business has these failings far more often and far more egregiously.


Government

The right-wing’s full-scale assault on government always puzzled me. Nothing in my nearly 65 years of life ever hinted that our government is in any way incompetent or high-handed in general, let alone more so than business. My biggest surprises were in the opposite direction: where I expected problems from government I got smooth, competent and helpful service.

1. Medicare and Social Security. Signing up for these vital government programs as I approached 65 was my most pleasant surprise. Perhaps because they are not trying constantly to sell you extraneous products, the websites for Medicare and Social Security are far better than those for most businesses. They are clear, uncluttered, well organized, informative, and well linked. I would give them at least a B, higher than the C I would give most websites of large businesses.

Other aspects of these two vital government programs are comparable. The mailings I have received from them are incomparably better in every way than those from equivalent private businesses. They are short, succinct, clear, well-organized and written in simple English. They give you all the information that you need to make basic decisions, plus clear contact information and instructions for getting more.

The government’s telephone queues were similarly superior. There was a telephone queue for Medicare, but its purpose was simply to make an appointment for an interview with a real, live person at an office convenient to my home. When I got there, I was impressed with the modern, architecturally attractive building. The man who took my interview was intelligent, articulate, and helpful, with an encyclopedic knowledge of the complex rules, regulations, exceptions and conditions that control both Medicare and Social Security. I already had done considerable research on the relevant websites, and everything this man said jibed with or supplemented what I had read. When I left the office, I felt well served, cared for and confident.

2. Comparison with Ceridian Benefits. At about the same time, I had the opportunity to compare these government programs with an equivalent private business. In the interim between my retirement from full-time employment and my enrollment in Medicare, I had had to rely on a continuation/extension of private health insurance known as COBRA, which a private firm called Ceridian Benefits administers.

As I compared the Medicare documents and website with their Ceridian counterparts, two things struck me. First, the government’s explanations were invariably clearer, simpler, easier to follow and more internally consistent than the private firm’s. Second, the private firm’s documents and website were confusing and at times internally consistent, even about what payments were due and when. It seemed to me (perhaps unfairly) that the private firm was trying to encourage mistakes in due dates so that it could terminate my insurance for nonpayment. Now that I have reached Medicare age I let this redundant private insurance lapse, and I feel much more secure.

3. The Post Office. Right-wing ideologues love to demagogue the Post Office. I can never understand why, or why their listeners stand for it.

Back in the seventies I did get fed up with standing in long lines at urban branches at Christmas time. But since then I’ve learned not to go at peak times and to choose branches (usually in suburbs) where there is more space and less of a crowd. (The same trick works for departments of motor vehicles. I once changed states, i.e., got a new driver’s license and changed my car’s state registration, in a mere 45 minutes in a suburban office.)

I cannot remember the last time I had poor service at a Post Office. The clerks are courteous and helpful, even friendly. Off the top of their heads, they know all the rates, charges, rules and regulations of the post, overnight mail, customs, duties, insurance and so forth.

Furthermore, the Post Office is more modern and accommodative than many businesses. It has innovations like self-stick stamps, reasonably priced overnight mail, and all sorts of envelopes, labels and packaging designed to comply with relevant regulations, both at home and abroad. Its Website is excellent, with on-line postage calculators, branch locators, and a ZIP-Code+four calculator that I use routinely to find and verify complete ZIP codes in seconds.

The two Post-Office branches that I used most in the past several years also have highly responsive phone service. They have no telephone queue, and it never takes more than a few rings to get a real, live human being on the line. Often that person is familiar with my postal route and location.

I would be overjoyed if my banks and brokerage firms offered the same personal responsiveness. And I’d be astounded if private health-care providers, when needed, would visit my home, just as mail carriers do every weekday.

4. The IRS. The greatest public ire of all has our Internal Revenue Service as its target. That’s not surprising; the IRS’ purpose is to take your money and make sure you pay your fair share. But if you accept that purpose, the IRS’ efficiency and competence are not bad.

I’ve only been audited once, and the process was impressive. After the first few phone calls (which were trying) I had a real person with a name and an extension number who was assigned my case and was able to discuss it in detail. Eventually the case was assigned to a local office. I had to drive to a neighboring town to present my side, but when I did I was pleased to find the representatives there knowledgeable, professional, reasonable, courteous and competent. On a disputed point of law and calculation, we made a reasonable compromise, concluded a deal and avoided both litigation and an interminable hassle.

That was exactly the way I would expect a reasonable business to act. But in fact I have seen little such reasonableness in the big businesses I have dealt with. With Chase I met a stone wall. With MetLife I could not get anyone even to take my money equivalent. I had to threaten suit just to get someone with a brain to pay attention. My conclusion is that, where my money is at stake, I would rather deal with the IRS than with Chase or MetLife.

Conclusion

Again I could go on and on. I could describe the CDC’s health website, which puts every comparable, private health-related website to shame, with authoritative, well-written and well-organized information on every disease and condition, including up-to-the-minute epidemiology. I could describe how often I rely on government sources for critical information and statistics, especially about the federal budget and about energy. I could describe how much poorer we would be without these resources, which our government makes available and updates constantly, free of charge, for the entire world.

But my personal bottom line is simple. Given the choice, and based on my own personal life experience, I would much rather deal with government than with private business—especially big business—on any matter that affects my life or livelihood. There is no comparison. The mere contemplation of those useless private telephone queues makes me shudder.

I suspect that most consumers, if they thought about it, would feel much the same way. But many don’t ever think about it. They just absorb the relentless right-wing ridicule of government from the air around them and never examine it against their own life experiences.

That is one reason why I’m all for more females in government and business at every level. I think there may be a gender difference here. Women, I think, are more likely than men to examine lies against their personal experiences, and less likely to act on oft-repeated abstract claims (like “government is incompetent”) without thinking about them. I would love to see some serious psychological research on this point.

But gender difference or no, I cannot believe that my personal experience is that different from the average consumer’s. If anything, my education and multiple careers probably give me an advantage in dealing with recalcitrant or dishonest businesses trying to take my money and give me little or nothing in return. I know where the bodies are buried.

If people would only examine their own personal experiences with government and business in depth, as I have done here, they might debunk the myth of government incompetence. They might begin to understand the source of that myth: a deliberate lie, designed to get them to reject and distrust the government that protects them from both hardship and predation by private business. In short, they might begin to see what dupes they’ve been and wise up.

So Much Advice for the President!

I hesitate to upstage today’s post, the more so because I think the myth of government incompetence is one of the most errant and destructive cultural artifacts of our day. But I cannot refrain from commenting on Frank Rich’s column in the New York Times today. Of all the pundits’ recent well-meaning suggestions as to what the President should do and how he should change―including finding his inner Hulk―Rich’s, in my view, comes closest to the mark.

As I see it, Rich suggests that the President has given too much deference to experts in deciding whether, and (if so) when and how, to intervene in our many rapidly unfolding national disasters. The two most obvious are the financial meltdown and the Great BP Oil Spill.

My first reaction on reading Rich’s column was defensive. Although not on the President’s team, I consider myself an expert, and I have described experts generally as one of his most important constituencies. After eight years of unprecedented disasters coming from an ignorant and stupid man’s “gut,” additional scorn for legitimate study and expertise is the last thing we need.

But buried in Rich’s usual incisive reporting and lively prose was another lesson entirely. In this technological age, when fragmented division of labor is essential just to limp along, no single person can be an expert in everything―certainly not in fields as diverse as international finance and deep-ocean oil drilling. A president must trust the knowledge and expertise of others and be receptive to the recommendations they provide.

But we elected the President in large measure for his good judgment and strategic vision. It is worth recounting how strong those qualities are in him. In 2002, months before our invasion of Iraq, the future president said:
“I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a US occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda.”
When the President made that statement, no one expected him even to be a candidate for the highest office, let alone the winner. He did not have a phalanx of experts and consultants to call on or to heed. These words were his own personal judgment, and his alone.

Every word turned out out to be true and still is. Not only that, he made the right call although everyone else of consequence in the country, including his eventual Democratic opponent, the media, Congress and the executive branch, was beating the drums for war. That is the kind of independent, sensible judgment the President has, and that is why we elected him. (The fact that far better men than Dubya and Rumsfeld, including Defense Secretary Gates and Generals Petraeus, Odierno and McChrystal, managed to turn a bad situation around by dint of our nation’s extraordinary investment and our military’s tragic personal sacrifice does not detract one iota from the accuracy and prescience of the President’s judgment eight years ago. Despite all the sacrifice and expense, we still don’t know today whether our adventure in Iraq will ultimately succeed.)

I do not believe the President has lost that capacity. But the awesome succession of serious crises he has faced may have set him back on his heels. Since assuming office he has had to grapple with: (1) a domestic and global economic meltdown, (2) the need to stop a military slide in Afghanistan, (3) an unruly and dangerous Iraqi polity, (4) Iran’s resurgent nuclear ambitions, (5) an increasingly menacing North Korea run by a sick, aging and unstable dictator, (6) an increasingly intransigent and dangerous Israeli government, (7) several attempts by terrorists to harm us on our own soil or on our airlines, (8) a near-meltdown in our domestic auto industry, and now (9) the Great BP Oil Spill. On the average, that’s better than one new crisis every two months.

In contrast, the President’s two predecessors came into office at a time when we, like Francis Fukuyama, saw the “end of history.” Bill Clinton’s biggest problem was deficits, which he turned into surpluses. Dubya’s biggest problems, at least as he told it in his campaign, were gay marriage, alleged “oppression” of fundamentalist religion, and loss the “traditional values.” The only reason Dubya could get close enough to the presidency to allow the Supreme Court to steal it for him was that no one saw superior leadership as a vital national necessity. All that changed on 9/11, and more dramatically in 2008.

If the President has made any mistakes at all, I think they involve not relying more on his own good judgment. He is a humble and flexible man. Time and time again he has demonstrated the honesty and courage to change course when the facts and circumstances demanded. So we and he needn’t worry about mistakes. If any are made, he will correct them soon enough.

But we elected the President for his unusual combination of brains, education, judgment, vision, coolness under fire and empathy. We didn’t elect Tim Geithner, Larry Summers, or Ken Salazar.

I, for one, would like to see the President override these advisors more often. Even if he made mistakes and had to correct them, I would rather see that happen than believe he defers too much to “experts” lacking obvious seasoning, let alone ones with serious substantive and political shortcomings, such as alumni of Goldman Sachs and their protégés.

In fact, I would applaud the President’s removing Geithner, Summers or both, and appointing as Treasury Secretary someone with gray hair, eminence and a regulatory portfolio―someone like Paul Volcker, but maybe younger―who could represent the people and not our wholly discredited financial elite.

Although Obama's résumé was not unusual for presidents, it was not an especially rich one. Perhaps through personal affinity, the President has appointed economic and financial experts with less seasoning than his own. If he chooses to clean house, in whole or in part, to revitalize his administration or improve the prospects for midterm elections, I would like to see some fully gray hair. But most of all, I would like to believe that every decision made, especially on the economic side, is the product of the President’s own superb judgment, which was what gave me and millions of others hope for change.

The President doesn’t need an inner Hulk or an uncharacteristic outburst of anger. What he needs is to get outside the bubble, rediscover the inner strength of his own good judgment, and regain confidence in himself. Maybe that brief “vacation” in Chicago wasn’t such a bad idea.

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02 June 2010

Lessons of the Great BP Oil Spill


Watching our politicians and pundits draw “lessons” from the Great BP Oil Spill is a bit like digging up an ant colony. The little creatures run frantically, every which way, in seemingly random directions.

So it is with the “lessons” described in our mainstream media. New York Times pundits almost unanimously agree that the President has lost his political touch and needs to find his inner Hulk. Progressives want to shut down all offshore oil drilling and have everybody drive less. (Fat chance for that last one!) Conservatives want everyone, including the Louisiana shrimpers, to just suck it up and wait for the marketplace to encourage innovation and better and more competent deep drilling.

Virtually everyone is ignoring the simplest, most straightforward lesson. Using oil as our principal source of transportation energy has much greater risk than we thought, and that risk is much shorter-term than we thought. That lesson repeats itself with every barrel of crude polluting the Gulf.

Most of us already knew that fossil fuels have big long-term risks. The biggest is global warming. Scientists tell us that, if we don’t reduce it this decade, our climate will change irrevocably from the climate we evolved in, and ultimately millions will suffer and die.

There are important medium-terms risks, too. Peak oil is coming, if it hasn’t already arrived. That’s why we’re using incredibly expensive and risky technologies, like drilling wells a mile down in the deep ocean, to find more. The low-hanging fruit is lone gone. Duh!

Demand for oil is still increasing rapidly, especially in the developing world, and will increase for the foreseeable future. The result of increasing demand and decreasing supply is inevitable price increases, which inelasticity of both supply and demand will make hard and steep.

So if we humans don’t change our ways, the medium-term future threatens dramatic price increases, shortages, fights over resources, and slower economic growth. In a global economy that is healthier than it’s ever been (even if our own economy isn’t so promising just now), that’s about the only thing that could cause another worldwide depression.

Another medium-term risk is strategic dependence, including military dependence, on scarce oil from petrostates that are our rivals or enemies, including sponsors of terrorism. A war or other upheaval in the Middle East could increase this risk suddenly and dramatically.

Coal also has huge medium-term risks. They include sulfur dioxide, mercury and particulate pollution, poisoning our atmosphere and our seas. They also include epidemics of asthma and other respiratory diseases, and a world that looks like Beijing or Shanghai on a still day.

All this we knew. But we hadn’t really internalized that oil has big short-term risks, too. Two months ago, no one had heard of Deepwater Horizon. Today, everyone knows that Big Oil can destroy a whole region’s ecology, plus the human economy that depends on it, in a matter of weeks.

That’s short term. So is the death of the eleven oil workers, whose fate everyone seems conveniently to forget. Ditto the 29 coal miners who died not too long ago.

So the lesson of the Great BP Oil Spill is that oil has huge long-term, medium-term, and short-term risks. It is therefore the riskiest energy option of all, even including coal. (Coal has little medium-term economic risk because we and Canada have so much of it.) This is true, now, today, June 2, 2010. That’s the only unmistakably clear lesson of the Great BP Oil Spill.

The next question is what we do about it. Do we continue to rely on, invest in, and gamble on the energy option that has the greatest long-term, medium-term, and short-term risks of all? The rational response is no: we find alternatives. We invest heavily in them, as quickly as we can, until we have reduced the various levels of risk.

We don’t have far to look for alternatives. Nuclear, wind and solar energy work right now, today.

Chernobyl and Three Mile Island teach us that nuclear energy has long- and medium-term risks, too. These risks are not insuperable. But the biggest risk is political. NIMBY opposition to sensible waste disposal reigns supreme. So dangerous radioactive waste remains dispersed throughout the nation, where it is difficult to monitor, control, contain, and protect from terrorism. Nuclear power could and will be part of the solution, but our collectively irrational reaction to its manageable dangers makes it a second option at best.

But what about wind and solar? Have you ever heard of anyone killed by a solar panel or a windmill? Has either ever destroyed a microecology, let alone a whole ecosystem and its dependent human economy, as in the Gulf today?

Apologists for coal have worked assiduously for decades, and the most they can come up with is that windmills might kill birds. I’ve not seen any real evidence, let alone reliable statistics, on that alleged risk. Have you?

Birds’ evolution has given their eyes extraordinary sensitivity to motion. Windmills move. So I think mass bird kills are inherently unlikely. And even if there is a small danger, we can use a minute fraction of the free power windmills generate to broadcast avian distress calls and keep the birds away, as we do now at some airports. To mix a fishy metaphor, the “bird risk” of windmills is the reddest of red herrings.

The fact is that wind and solar power have virtually zero risk, in the long term, medium term, and short term. The only relevant risk is that we will be too stupid to use them.

Windmills and solar cells also have two signal advantages than no “mainstream” energy source―even nuclear―can match. Once built and installed, they produce energy essentially for free, except for maintenance. They use no fuel. So they don’t require mining, drilling, refining, transporting and caring for fuel, as do nuclear, coal, oil, and even natural-gas power plants. And they create zero risk of global warming and zero pollution (apart from that required to make, transport and install them).

Solar cells are even better. They are “solid state.” They have fewer moving parts than an electronic calculator: no keys! So barring natural disasters, they should last a long, long time with minimal maintenance.

The sole disadvantage of wind and solar power is intermittency. The wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine all the time. But there are places where the wind does blow, or the sun does shine, almost every day. And this very year will see the mass production of large lithium batteries, which can store that power in widely distributed locations, where it is not vulnerable to natural disasters and terrorism, as are centralized power plants of any kind.

The batteries will appear in electric cars, or in so-called “serial” hybrids that can run on battery power alone. GM’s Chevy Volt will be the first, scheduled for late fall. The Nissan Leaf will follow in 2011, and Ford, Tesla, Toyota and others will follow in 2012. Every one of these cars will have a robust lithium battery capable of providing power to the average household for several days.

So we have a choice. We can continue to incur horrendous long-term, medium-term and short-term risks by relying on oil as our sole source of energy for transportation. Or we can switch to electricity generated by risk-free and marginal-cost-free means. We can convert in a decade or less if we make the decision to do so. All it takes is investment and will.

My hope is that the change will start from the grass roots, in what Sarah Palin calls the “real” America. If you live in small town and have some money or a good bank, you can start right away, by yourself and with your neighbors. Just buy some solar panels and a small windmill, suitable for your town. Then buy some good batteries with AC/DC converters―one for each home and small business―from one of the car companies or their Japanese or Korean suppliers.

Then go “off the grid,” relax and gloat. No more electric bills, ever! When you can afford one, buy an electric car, too. Then no more gasoline bills, either. And no more diverting good cropland to biofuels.

If you do that, not only will you cut your long-, medium- and short- term power risk, plus your carbon footprint. In the long run you will save money, as fossil fuels get more expensive. You will cut pollution. You will create American jobs. (The Internet can’t install windmills, solar cells, and batteries!) And you will improve our nation’s strategic independence and cut its reliance on petrostates, including sponsors of terrorism.

Windmills, solar panels and batteries are perfect for us Americans. They have human scale. Although corporations can install and own them, they don’t require corporations. A single person or a few neighbors can buy and install them. They can make a family, a town, or a locality independent and self-reliant. They are just what our spirit of individualism demands.

So let’s get busy. We can do this, America! And we should. Do it for your kids!

QUOTE OF THE WEEK (New Feature): “The election outcome should be received as an opportunity for self-examination.” Lee Myung-bak, South Korea’s President, commenting on local elections in which voters chastized his party and its his harder line against North Korean in reaction to the sinking of the Cheonan.

Where might we be if Republican leaders, especially Messrs. Boehner and McConnell, had shown such humility and moderation after 2008?

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