Sunday, November 30, 2008

Final Days of the Bush Administration 7

Source: "Federal Workers Unions Want 'Burrowers' Lists," Carol D. Leonnig, The Washington Post, November 30, 2008.

Leaders of the American Federation of Government Employees and the Senior Executives Association want the government's Office of Personnel Management to release lists of Bush administration political appointees recently hired for career jobs and to show whether the positions were filled through competition.
(T)hey are concerned the agency is not carefully overseeing last-minute hires of political aides. They point to recent reports in The Washington Post and other evidence suggesting political aides are leaping over qualified candidates or avoiding competition as they "burrow" into the civil workforce.
Comment: We want a government with open and transparent processes. OPM should provide the requested information, and indeed should make it public. I note with pleasure that the Obama transition process is making very public the members of its teams. JAD

Final Days of the Bush Administration 6

A rule approved by the White House after the election
would ease constraints on oil shale development in the West.
(By Ed Andrieski -- Associated Press)

Source: "At the Last Minute, a Raft of Rules: Bush White House Approves Regulations on Environmental, Security Matters," R. Jeffrey Smith and Juliet Eilperin, The Washington Post, November 30, 2008.

In the past month the Bush administration has approved 61 new regulations on environmental, security, social and commercial matters that it estimates will have an economic impact exceeding $1.9 billion annually. Some examples:
A rule approved by the White House three days after the presidential election, for example, would ease constraints on environmentally damaging oil shale development throughout the West, despite objections from Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter (D) and a majority of the state's congressional delegation.....

A controversial new Health and Human Services rule approved in late October, for example, cuts an estimated $2 billion in state Medicaid reimbursements for outpatient services. State officials had complained that it would jeopardize dental care for children, certain lab tests and speech and occupational therapy......

A controversial Justice Department rule approved Nov. 19 orders accelerated judicial review for death sentences. Legal groups had argued that speeding up executions makes errors more likely.
Some draft regulations have recently been disapproved.
On Nov. 19, the OMB ordered the Energy Department to kill new regulations that would have forced the federal government to buy more-energy-efficient lights, appliances, and heating and cooling systems. Daniel J. Weiss, climate strategy director at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, called that retreat from a 2005 requirement "unbelievable."

The White House also ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to withdraw a new regulation mandating that truck manufacturers install equipment to monitor vehicle pollution. It blocked the Department of Veterans Affairs from issuing new promised "user-friendly" guidance on burial and survivors benefits.
Fortunately, the Bush administration could not yet finish its work on some regulations
including a regulation inhibiting the ability of Congress to halt logging, mining, and oil and gas extraction on public lands. Another rule would allow federal agencies to proceed with development projects without undergoing independent scientific review under the Endangered Species Act.
Regulations deemed to have an impact estimated at more than $100 million a year take legal effect after 60 days. Thus the Bush administration wanted to announce many new regulations more than 60 days before Obama takes office on January 20th.
Once the new rules take the form of law, Democrats can undo them only by three complicated means: through a new regulatory rulemaking that would probably take years; through congressional amendments to underlying laws; or through special, fast-track resolutions of disapproval approved by the House and Senate within a few months after the start of the new congressional session on Jan. 6.
Comment: Fortunately the Democratic Congress is already preparing to repeal some of these regulations, and one assumes that the Obama administration will reconsider some of the useful regulations that the Bush administration tried to kill. We think of the outgoing president as a "lame duck", and perhaps this duck is going to leave a very large mess as it limps out. JAD

The World Is More Complicated Than Most of Us Think

The attacks in Mumbai last week were terrible. We should, however, keep them in context. There are nearly 60 million deaths in the world per year. Indeed, the World Health Organization suggests that we should take into account the age at which people die and the degree of disability that they suffer, and we thinking about deaths we probably underestimate the threats to man. It is a mistake to spend too much time and effort reducing terrorism if that means we will spend less time and effort reducing other sources of death and disability, especially since there are so many interventions that would do more good that further efforts to eradicate terrorism.

We should also not leap to the assumption that the Pakistanis are responsible for the attack. You might read about:
Even were we to be sure that the terrorists came from, or received support from Pakistan, it would be important to figure out who in Pakistan bore responsibility to what degree.

The Bush administration's invasion of Iraq should serve as a warning about our ignorance of foreign lands and the dangers of acting on the basis of that ignorance.

Americans Eat Too Much Meat!

It should be obvious that our hamburger and hot dog culture, based on fast food, has lead to an overweight, unhealthy population with clogged arteries, high levels of stroke and heart disease not to mention diabetes. But think about it.

40 percent of our grain production goes into animal feed. We use 10 calories of energy from non-renewable fuels for each calorie we obtain from meat. With limited agricultural land we have a choice of producing food grains, feed grains or biofuel stock. We have chosen to subsidize the production of biofuels, making wheat, corn and rice more expensive. People in developing nations will no doubt starve because of that choice. We could have chose to produce biofuel instead of feed grains, and would then have improved our health while decreasing our dependence on foreign oil.

We support agro-industry that is needed to produce this fast food cheaply, but that is resulting in the depopulation of our rural areas and the excessive degradation of our environment, plus increased dependency of our food supply on foreign suppliers. (Remember that during World War II, 40 percent of fresh produce -- and most produce was fresh before the frozen food revolution and we ate a lot more produce -- was produced in home "victory gardens".) My family participates in a community supported agriculture program and discovered that it produces not only fresher food and supports local farmers, but also puts better food and a better variety on our table.

Why do we do this. As Michael Pollen points out, our food habits are an unintended result in part of the way our society works. Agro-industry is better organized to promote its profits than are consumers to promote their health, so the Congressional Agricultural Committees are dominated by legislators beholden to that industry. As the government promotes small business development in inner cities, the easiest small business to start is a franchise food outlet.

Indeed, our Senate and our presidential electoral college over-represent states with small populations and strong agro-industry and under-represents states with large urban populations. Thus the Republicans representing these red states support agro-industry friendly policies. The Bush administration exemplifies one that has been willing to support policies that contributed to the wealth of agro-industry at the expense of the environment.

Of course people are ultimately responsible for their own actions. There are people who buy and eat food that is good for them and which is produced in ways that are good for the environment and the economy, but most of us do not. As the American public spends too much and saves too little, we eat too much and think to little about the way our food is produced, and we are to blame for both. However, we have supported policies that make unhealthy food cheap and available and cheap, available fast food encourages bad food habits.

I don't have a solution. Good luck to the Obama administration in finding one.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Infrastructure for the 21st Century

The Obama campaign indicated that his administration would invest in the American infrastructure. It seems likely that those investments would be part of the stimulus for the economy needed to get us out of the recession, or to avoid a worse recession. All that is to the good.

Lets be sure that we take the opportunity to invest in the infrastructure we need for the 21st century. As we invest in energy infrastructure, lets invest in wind, solar and biogas energy as well as the energy sources of the 20th century, not forgetting to invest in energy saving infrastructure. And lets think seriously about Warren Buffet's idea of using natural gas for our trucking fleet, investing in the delivery infrastructure as well as the wells.

Thinking about transportation, should we rebuild the railroad infrastructure and use policy instruments to encourage rail use? Aren't trains much more energy efficient than trucks? And how about wiring our vehicles and roads to make them safer and more energy efficient.

Are we at a point were we should rethink our sewage system to save water? One would think that would be important in at least some areas of the country.

In terms of water, should we reconsider agricultural policies? Most of our water is used for irrigation, and the ground water resources are being depleted in some important regions. How about reducing meat consumption, achieving health benefits, while reducing the need for feed grains and the environmental impact from feeding lots.

I hope that the White House Office of Science and Technology intervenes to assure that we use technological foresight in planning the investments in the infrastructure.

Check out the EPA Sustainable Infrastructure for Water & Wastewater website.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Middle East Regional Cooperation Program

My old friend and colleague, David O'Brien writes about the Middle East Regional Cooperation Program (MERC):
Many of the Arab-Israeli partnerships that began or matured under MERC grants have gone on to receive grants together under other funding mechanisms, just like other scientists around the world. Many apply to MERC again, and their proposals frequently cite these other grants they have received together in the interim. Furthermore, the cross-border relationships the grantees develop often lead to collaboration with additional scientists from the other side who were not even on their MERC grant. Some MERC partnerships have continued to collaborate without any outside funding, and several have expanded their collaboration beyond just the science into community outreach, etc.
Comment: This program was a Congressional Earmark some three decades ago which illustrates that sometimes the Congressional mandate for specific scientific activities works. I was involved from the start, and was actually responsible for the management of the grantmaking for a few years. Overall the program clearly demonstrated to a large number of people that Israelis and Arabs could work together productively and with good will. JAD

If Everyone With HIV Were Treated, It Would End the AIDS Epidemic

Source: "Universal voluntary HIV testing with immediate antiretroviral therapy as a strategy for elimination of HIV transmission: a mathematical model" Reuben M Granich, Charles F Gilks, Christopher Dye, Kevin M De Cock and Brian G Williams, The Lancet, 26 November 2008.

A thought experiment, in the form of a mathematical model, indicates that a strategy of universal testing for HIV infection and immediate treatment of all cases could
accelerate the transition from the present endemic phase, in which most adults living with HIV are not receiving ART, to an elimination phase, in which most are on ART, within 5 years. It could reduce HIV incidence and mortality to less than one case per 1000 people per year by 2016, or within 10 years of full implementation of the strategy, and reduce the prevalence of HIV to less than 1% within 50 years.
Roughly 3 million people worldwide were receiving antiretroviral therapy (ART) at the end of 2007, but an estimated 6·7 million were still in need of treatment and a further 2·7 million became infected with HIV in 2007.
Comment: What a nice use of computer modeling for exploratory and didactic purposes! JAD

Max Cleland’s Thanksgiving Message

Final Days of the Bush Administration 5

Source of graph: "What Do We Know About The Undercount of Children?" by Kirsten K. West and J. Gregory Robinson, U. S. Census Bureau

According to today's Washington Post:
The Census Bureau plans to cut spending on advertising and community outreach for the 2010 census by at least a fourth compared with the 2000 census, provoking concern among congressional overseers that historically difficult-to-count groups such as minorities and illegal immigrants will not be accurately tallied.

Although the reduction was part of the fiscal 2009 budget proposed to Congress by the administration in February and was reflected in a stopgap budget resolution adopted by Congress last month, several members of Congress said they did not become aware of the change until two weeks ago, when their staffers asked Census Bureau employees to brief them on details of the marketing plan.
Comment: The Republicans have worked for years to decrease the completeness of the census. Their efforts always have the effect of undercounting the poor, and I assume that their efforts result in some small electoral value to their party.

The Bush administration may leave in January, but the budget for 2009 that they submitted last winter and passed recently is likely to cut the accuracy of the 2010 census.

Shame on the legislators who let this one slip past them. Greater shame on the Bush administration for slipping this past the Congress. Shame on us all for letting the ideals of democracy fall to political manipulation. Perhaps the Obama administration can slip the needed money into the financial stimulus bill that they will be passing early in the new Congress.

Final Days of the Bush Administration 4

Source of Graph: USEPA via Treehugger

According to The Washington Post, the Bush administration is seeking to encourage comments from those likely to oppose further regulation of emission of greenhouse gases. Last year the Supreme Court required the administration to issue such regulations under the Clean Air Act, which it interpreted to apply to climate change. The period for public comments closes on November 28th. Want to bet the Bush regulations will be too little, too late!

Poverty Down Under Clinton, Up Under Bush

Source: "Feeding the Nation's Hungry,"
The Washington Post, November 26, 2008.

Cancer Rates Going Down in the United States

Source: "Diagnoses Of Cancer Decline in The U.S." by Rob Stein, The Washington Post, November 26, 2008.

The WP article, based on an article in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, indicates that the incidence of some forms of cancer is decreasing, attributing the decrease to the fewer people smoking. It mentions that the incidence of some other forms of cancer is increasing, perhaps due to increases in exposure to environmental carcinogens. However, some of the decrease in incidence is attributed to reduced use of diagnostic proceedures.

The mortality rates from cancers are decreasing faster than the incidence. The article does not explain the trend, but perhaps it is related to improvements in early case finding and treatment.

The article takes many more words to explain these simple observations.

The Cost of Ignoring AIDS Science in South Africa

A Johannesburg AIDS hospice in 2002.
Joao Silva; The New York Times

Source: "Study Cites Toll of AIDS Policy in South Africa," CELIA W. DUGGER, The New York Times, November 25, 2008.

"A new study by Harvard researchers estimates that the South African government would have prevented the premature deaths of 365,000 people earlier this decade if it had provided antiretroviral drugs to AIDS patients and widely administered drugs to help prevent pregnant women from infecting their babies.

"The Harvard study concluded that the policies grew out of President Thabo Mbeki’s denial of the well-established scientific consensus about the viral cause of AIDS and the essential role of antiretroviral drugs in treating it."

Comment: How much does failure to use knowledge for policy cost? One of the most obvious cases in recent decades of government leaders acting in ways counterindicated by scientific evidence was that of Mbeki's government HIV/AIDS policy in South Africa. This study suggests that failure cost hundreds of thousands of lives. Of course most of the lives lost were not those of the Mbeki government policy makers! JAD

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Regional Scientific Initiatives in Africa

Source: "Africa Analysis: Federal or regional science policy?" Linda Nordling, SciDev.Net, 24 November 2008.

Tensions between the African Union (AU) science secretariat in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and the science office of the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) in Pretoria, South Africa, apparently came to a head in Mombasa, Kenya, at the African Ministerial Conference on Science and Technology (AMCOST). It was decided that the AU would take the lead on policymaking while NEPAD would be responsible for implementation. Next month the AMCOST bureau meets in Abuja, Nigeria (3–5 December) and , a new science policy 'cluster' will gather on December second to create a 'calendar' of African science programmes for 2009.

Alternatives for Scientific Cooperation in the Middle East

My long-time colleague, Mike Greene, has an piece in the Policy Forum of Science magazine (Science 21 November 2008) suggesting the need for regional programs to promote scientific cooperation in the Middle East, especially among Israel, Palestine and Jordan. He notes the Association of Middle East and United States National Academies of Science that has been formed to further scientific cooperation and the MERC program supported by USAID, but calls for other similar multinational scientific initiatives.

Comment. I second Mike's suggestion. I would note that there are lots of potential conflicts in the region, such as those that might be triggered by disputes between Lebanon and Syria, Turkey and Iraq (in regions occupied by Kurdish ethnic populations), or futher east Iraq and Iran. There are regional organizations for cooperation among Islamic and/or Arab nations that would help to ameliorate relations among these nations. One potential source of conflict is the management of resources that are shared among countries, ranging from surface and ground water, fish stocks and shipping lanes. So too, the infection of one country by human, animal or plant diseases or the infestation by pests from a neighboring country may lead to quite negative feelings. It seems to me that scientific cooperation on the measurement and modeling of these resources and threats may help to create a common understanding which might thereby reduce distrust among the parties. JAD

OECD Economic Outlook No 84 November 2008

"This Economic Outlook represents a substantial downward revision from just a few months ago: many of the downside risks previously identified have materialised. The financial turmoil that erupted in the United States around mid-2007 has broadened to include non-bank financial institutions and rapidly spread to the rest of the world. Following the collapse of Lehman Brothers in mid-September, a generalised loss of confidence between financial institutions triggered reactions akin to a "blackout" in global financial markets. Spreads in credit and bond markets surged to very high levels, paralysing credit and money markets.

"Prompt and massive policy action to restore confidence and provide liquidity appears to have successfully limited the period of panic, but the need for financial institutions to operate with less leverage and to repair their balance sheets remains. This process of adjustment will take time and impair the flow of credit, and is the key factor weighing on activity going forward."

Comment: Recession means belt-tightening in the OECD rich nations' club. For people living on a dollar and a quarter a day, it often means disaster and death. Those people represent one out of six of the world's population. Indeed, half the world's population lives in such extreme poverty that there is no slack to take up when their normal bad times get even worse. JAD

Trade Drop Could Set Developing Countries Back Years

The World Bank reports (November 24, 2008):
"A looming drop in world trade could 'set developing countries back for many years' and erase recent gains in development, a senior World Bank official warned ahead of a United Nations international conference in Qatar. Danny Leipziger, Vice President of the Poverty Reduction and Economic Management network at the World Bank, says the financial crisis has already affected trade and could undermine progress achieved in Africa and elsewhere in the last six years."

"IMF, World Bank Heads To Miss Key U.N. Forum"

Doha City: Where global economic policy is being made.

According to The Washington Post
The chiefs of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have declined to participate in a major U.N. conference next week on the financing of development assistance for poor countries, upsetting an effort to secure high-level attendance at a meeting aimed at goading the beleaguered financial giants into stepping up aid.......

Some top U.N. officials were visibly infuriated by what they viewed as a snub of Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. One official accused Zoellick of trying to ensure that the major decisions on the financial crisis would be made by the less unwieldy Group of 20 nations, which met in Washington on Nov. 15 to try to coordinate international response to the meltdown. "It's fair to say that the secretary general was very disappointed and doesn't understand completely" why they will not be attending, the official said.
Comment: I am conflicted on this one. Of course, there will be high level representatives from the Bank and the IMF at the meeting, empowered to speak for the organizations.

There is a reasonable argument to limit the discussions to a relatively small number of countries, choosing those according to the magnitude of their GDPs. It is impossible to get much done with diplomats from 200 countries participating in a meeting, and in fact the "heavy lifting" of stabilizing the global economy is going to be done by the countries with the bigest, most linked economies.

On the other hand, I suppose that the governments of the rich countries are trying to exclude countries with poor populations because they don't want visible demands for greater equity in the global distribution of wealth and income. Demands from some countries that other countries give then more money are not popular among the countries targeted by the demands. JAD

"Slouching Toward Fanaticism"

Theodore Dalrymple has an interesting review in the City Journal of Autism’s False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure, by Paul A. Offit.

"Paul Offit’s new book, as readable as a good detective novel, tells the story of how autism, a disorder of psychological development, came falsely to be blamed first on the MMR vaccine and then on thimerosal, a preservative found in several vaccines. It is a tale about bad science, worse journalism, unscrupulous political populism, and profiteering litigation lawyers."

Comment: It is too bad that the Republicans over the last several years have given a political spin to the term "junk science". There is a world of difference between condemning the results of good science to support political actions which the research results militate against, and condemning the results of bad science as such. We can also expect the popular media to refrain from pushing the results of bad science as worthy of peoples attention and as reasons to change peoples health or other behavior. JAD

Final Days of the Bush Administration 3

Photo: Nathan Bilow for The New York Times

Source: "In Waning Hours, Bush Administration Fortifies Oil Shale Industry," Jad Mouawad, Green Inc. (New York Times blog), November 18, 2008.

The article states:
Firing off another decision that is angering environmental groups, the Bush administration has issued new regulations to develop oil shale deposits straddling almost two million acres of public lands in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.

The rules lay out the framework to develop these deposits over the next decade, including royalty rates, how to evaluate bids for leases, mitigation requirements and other procedural elements......

Oil shale is a controversial and environmentally damaging source of hydrocarbons since it requires vast amounts of energy and water to squeeze oil out of sedimentary rocks. The process emits far more carbon dioxide, which is responsible for global warming, than ordinary refining operations.
Perhaps even worse was the effort to lease lands near national parks for oil and gas exploitation:
It is not the first time this month that the Bush administration has sought to make the best of its last days in office. Earlier this month, the Bureau of Land Management expanded its oil and gas lease program in eastern Utah to include tens of thousands of acres on or near the boundaries of three national parks.

The decision angered environmental groups, who feared it would lead to industrial activity in some of the state’s renowned empty regions, like Desolation Canyon.

According to a report from Felicity Barringer in The Times earlier this month, officials with the National Park Service said that the decision to open lands close to Arches National Park and Dinosaur National Monument — and within sight of Canyonlands National Park — had been made without the kind of consultation that had previously been routine.
One piece of good news is:
In 1996, the Republican-controlled Congress passed the “Congressional Review Act,” which gives lawmakers a 60-day window to repeal new rules issued by executive agencies. The law was intended to prevent outgoing administrations from passing “midnight” rules in their waning hours.
Comment: Fortunately, the Congress will be able to review any regulations issued by Bush from now on, and of course if the Bush administration can rewrite regulations, the Obama administration will be able to rewrite them again and put things right.

The problem is that there is a ratchet effect, and there will be firms that take action under the Bush administration rules. They will no doubt lobby for the continued permission to implement their programs, and if that is not given will lose money as a result of the changes in government regulations.

Monday, November 24, 2008

"Who Are the Better Managers -- Political Appointees or Career Bureaucrats?"

Source: Shankar Vedantam, The Washington Post, Monday, November 24, 2008.

"The United States has a far larger number of political appointees in government than any other industrialized democracy."
There were 1,778 political appointees in 1960 and nearly double that number in 2004, not counting part-time, advisory and White House positions. The federal government grew dramatically in that period, too, but the number of political appointees grew nearly twice as fast, said Lewis, author of the book "The Politics of Presidential Appointments."
David E. Lewis, who is now at Vanderbilt University, compared the Bush administration's own evaluations of more than 600 government programs with the backgrounds of the 242 managers who ran those programs. Three-quarters of the managers administering the programs were political appointees while a quarter were career civil servants.
The political appointees were better educated, on average, than the civil staff. Many had stellar records in the private sector or on the campaign trail. Side by side, the political appointees just looked like a much smarter bunch than the careerists.

When it came to performance, however, the bureaucrats whipped the politicals: Programs administered by civil servants were significantly more likely to display better strategic planning, program design, financial oversight -- and results. These findings, remember, were based on the Bush administration's own evaluation system -- the Program Assessment Rating Tool, administered by the Office of Management and Budget.
Lewis "said his analysis controlled for a number of confounding factors, including the difficulty of administering different programs. He said civil servants outperformed political appointees even when the analysis was restricted to comparably difficult programs."

Comment: Of course, the analysis can not resolve the issue once and for all. Certainly there may be some excellent managers among the political appointees and some incompetents among the career government service people.

It is not surprising to me that people who have been selected by competitive evaluations and have long experience in administering their programs often do better in managing those programs than do political appointees, even if the latter do well on intelligence tests.

A balance is needed. The elected president has to implement the program on which he was elected via a huge bureaucracy. He needs a corps of people who understand that program and its administration, and importantly are committed to it, to impose it on the bureaucracy. Indeed, the more change that is mandated, the more difficult it is likely to be to get the bureaucracy to implement it. Whether the president needs 2,000 people or 3,000 people to impose his program I don't know.

On the other hand, it is easy for the political process to go astray. The White House can employ armies of ideologues to impose their ideology on a scientific agency that has evidence that contradicts that ideology. Alternatively, it can reward unqualified supporters with political appointments. It might seem especially likely to do so for the lower level positions in the bureaucracy. (Think about recruiting young ideologues from the Heritage Foundation jobs website to staff important positions in the Iraq Transition Authority.)

What does "bankruptcy" mean?

There seems to be some confusion and concern about the impacts of bankruptcy. Cornell University's School of Law provides an overview on its website:
Bankruptcy law provides for the development of a plan that allows a debtor, who is unable to pay his creditors, to resolve his debts through the division of his assets among his creditors. This supervised division also allows the interests of all creditors to be treated with some measure of equality. Certain bankruptcy proceedings allow a debtor to stay in business and use revenue generated to resolve his or her debts. An additional purpose of bankruptcy law is to allow certain debtors to free themselves (to be discharged) of the financial obligations they have accumulated, after their assets are distributed, even if their debts have not been paid in full.
I understand that different kinds of bankruptcy procedures may lead to different kinds of outcomes. Bankruptcy is being discussed in terms people defaulting on their home mortgages, the big three American automakers, and many commerclal firms caught by the current financial crisis. We, the poor voters must form opinions of the impacts of bankruptcy in these very different circumstances, and may be applying the same word to different processes.

How accurate is our knowledge

I have had a recent interesting experience of reading a new book by an old friend. The book is about his family in the pre-1970 period. It includes a lot of information he discovered about his parents in the intervening years and ends with his rumination on how he could so have misunderstood his family in his youth. I knew his family for many years, and the book has shown me that I too misunderstood its members and their interrelationships.

Of course, in the four decades since the events in the book took place both my friend and I have matured and have come to understand the world in new ways. The book helps me exemplify the differences in both our views. However, the misunderstanding was more fundamental and resulted from conscious dissimulation by his family members.

The importance of such misunderstandings of course depends on the need to know. My friend had much greater need to understand his own family than I did outside that family.

But reading the book has made me think about the tentative nature of knowledge and understanding, and perhaps added to my caution in estimating my own falibility.

The White House Office of Global Communications: What does it do?

The latest news/Global Message of the Day issued by the White House Office of Global Communications is dated March 2005.

The home page of the office has a link for "Eid Al-Adha, 2005"

The last "Fact of the Day", dated March 11. 2005, reads:
El Salvador's Cultural Heritage Protected

The United States and El Salvador exchanged diplomatic notes extending a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) imposing U.S. import restrictions on Pre-Columbian archaeological objects originating in El Salvador. Archaeological sites dating from 1700 B.C. to 1550 A.D. throughout El Salvador have been severely damaged by looting. The MOU is in response from an El Salvadorian request for U.S. assistance in curbing pillaging and illicit trade in objects that represent its Pre-Columbian heritage. The newly amended MOU sets out new benchmarks for achieving improvements in the protection and preservation of El Salvador's cultural heritage and will expired in 2010.
Comment: Obviously nothing worthy of note has occurred in the past three years. JAD

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Innovation Versus Invention: A False Dicotomy?

The current edition of The Economist has an article with the following lead:
Confronted by Asia’s technological rise and the financial crisis, corporate America is losing its self-confidence. It should not.
The article cites those who worry that the United States is not training enough of the key people responsible for inventions, nor funding enough basic research in universities (and research labs) which will eventually lead to important new commercial products and technological innovations.

It also cites those who feel that the United States has a strong and robust system and process of innovation which is capable of accepting inventions and new technologies from anywhere they occur and successfully commercializing them. The article suggests that the concern for our innovation system may be misplaced.

I would suggest that we should worry about both our ability to invent and our ability to successfully innovate turning inventions into profitable products. Without the gatekeepers and the continuing stream of new fundamental knowledge the country's economy will not grow as fast as I would like, and the innovation system is not as well understood as it should be, but is surely more fragile than the article supposes.

The recession that we are starting will add to worrisome trends that already existed to threaten both our ability to invent and our ability to innovate technologically.

Why We Are In An Economic Crisis!

This graph of the reduction of the savings rate in the United States and the increase in household debt is from The Economist. I suspect it shows fairly clearly the root cause of the current U.S. financial crisis. I also think that the U.S. problem is triggering a global recession.

The blame obviously should be spread broadly. People should know enough to save and avoid debt, and the vast majority of American families have not been doing so.

Still, it seems obvious that public policies do influence peoples willingness to save and anxiety to avoid debt. Since the Reagan Revolution, with both Republican and Democratic Congresses and administrations, public policy has encouraged people to spend more and save less, and encouraged the private sector to cater to and further encourage those trends.

It is going to be painful to reverse course, but I think we must do so or our children will be condemned to live in a second class society.

Health and Economic Growth

The "Economic Focus" tutorial in this week's Economist is on the interrelationship between health and economic development. It seems intuitively obvious that the healthier you are the more likely you are to be able to learn and work well, and thus good health should promote economic progress. It also seems intuitive that economic development leads to better nutrition, better sanitation, better hygiene, better health services, and thus better health. The article cites research which challenges that idea:
Beginning in the 1940s, several medical involving penicillin, streptomycin and DDT made it easier to treat diseases—such as tuberculosis, malaria and yellow fever—that disproportionately affected people in developing countries. Because these ideas originated in the rich world and were spread by organisations such as the WHO, any improvements in health they led to would have been unconnected with prior improvements in the economic circumstances of poor countries.

This international revolution in public health did lead to substantial increases in life expectancy in poor countries by the 1950s. However, the researchers found that income per head actually declined when life expectancy went up and did not recover for up to an astonishing 60 years.

The reason was that increased life expectancy led to a higher population using a limited stock of things like land and capital, thus depressing income per person. Over time, reduced fertility, more investment and the entrepreneurial benefits of having more people could reverse some of this, but the data suggested that reductions in fertility in particular took a long time.
Of course, the Human Development Index is a partial response to the recognition that increases in per capita GDP do not fully capture the improvements we seek through social and economic development. I think most people would gladly trade a little income for a longer, healthier life. Think about the increasing expenditures on health service with increased income!

The article also notes:
Some health improvements may not lead to a longer life, but may nonetheless make people more productive. Hookworm infection, whose eradication from the American South Mr Bleakley has studied, is a case in point. Getting rid of hookworm disease made children quicker learners in school, and increased their incomes when they started working. However, it did not increase life expectancy since the infection was not fatal and so did not lead to a rise in population, which could have prevented individual benefits from carrying over to the economy as a whole. Policies that improve health without affecting the length of life may well be the ones that have a bigger economic pay-off, and a focus on life expectancy may miss this.

Some of Mr Bleakley’s other work points in this direction. Studying the impact of the eradication of malaria in Colombia, he noted that parts of the country were affected by a species of the malarial parasite called Plasmodium vivax, which led to very poor health but was rarely fatal. The more lethal version, P. falciparum, affected other areas. He found that eliminating P. vivax led to significant gains in human capital and income; eliminating P. falciparum did not.
I am now retired. I know from personal experience that my needs for income are less now (at an age to which few could have aspired a century ago) than they were when I was younger. I am not paying to educate my son, and I am no longer saving for retirement. So one issue that might be considered is the need for income at different ages.

Think too about the demographic transition. Poor health, leading to high mortality rates, means people have lots of children most of whom don't survive to be adults to lead a long, economically productive life. Dependency ratios are high as the workers seek to support there many children. Lots of the investment in those children is "lost" when they die early, and yet the investment in the education of the surviving child is necessarily low.

Health economists have long realized that the productivity gains differ from different health interventions. Companies have long invested in preventive health services for their employees, recognizing that they can improve corporate profits. So too the impact of economic development on health is complicated by the fact that different forms of institutionalization of health services yield different health returns for the same health costs.

Complexity should not deter us from seeking to be "healthy, wealthy and wise".

Articles cited by The Economist article:

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Why Does The U.S. Pay More for Health Services

Ewi Reinhardt, a very good health economist, has a couple of articles (Part I and Part II) on why health care costs are so high in the United States, compared to other countries. The graph below is from the first of the two articles, with my added red line. The regression line (in black) is used to estimate an "expected" per capita expenditure on health as a function of PPP per capita GDP. While it seems reasonably close to the observed for most countries, there is a large "excess spending" on health, as measured by the difference between the expected and the actual expenditures.

In the second article he attributes a significant part of the excess to the high cost of administration of our health services, created by our substitution of commercial health insurance for the public medical services offered in most countries.

Note however, that the administrative costs represent only part of the difference. The United States also has had an inflation of input costs for health services, uses more expensive technology in the delivery of many health services, and there is a cost of the "defensive" health services made inevitable by our tort system.

I think his conclusions must be right. One point that should be made is that although we spend more per capita on health services, we do not have better life expectancy or health status than other developed nations. One can infer from the articles that we could cut costs without cutting the quantity and quality of health services by better organization of our health and medical institutions.

I would make a quibble, however. The linear regression line is more likely to be accurate in predicting expenditures for countries that fall in the middle of the range, and less likely for outliers, and the United States is the obvious outlier. If the willingness to spend money on health services varies non-linearly with income, then some curve such as that shown in red might better predict "the expected per capita expenditure".

The Final Days of the Bush Administration 2

"Top Scientist Rails Against Hirings: Bush Appointees Land Career Jobs Without Technical Backgrounds"
Juliet Eilperin and Carol D. Leonnig, The Washington Post, November 22, 2008.

James McCarthy, President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science
yesterday sharply criticized recent cases of Bush administration political appointees gaining permanent federal jobs with responsibility for making or administering scientific policies, saying the result would be "to leave wreckage behind."

"It's ludicrous to have people who do not have a scientific background, who are not trained and skilled in the ways of science, make decisions that involve resources, that involve facilities in the scientific infrastructure."
The WP cites examples:
Todd Harding -- a 30-year-old political appointee at the Energy Department -- applied for and won a post this month at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. There, he told colleagues in a Nov. 12 e-mail, he will work on "space-based science using satellites for geostationary and meteorological data." Harding earned a bachelor's degree in government from Kentucky's Centre College, where he also chaired the Kentucky Federation of College Republicans.

Also this month, Erik Akers, the congressional relations chief for the Drug Enforcement Administration, gained a permanent post at the agency after being denied a lower-level career appointment late last year.

And in mid-July, Jeffrey T. Salmon, who has a doctorate in world politics and was a speechwriter for Vice President Cheney when he served as defense secretary, had been selected as deputy director for resource management in the Energy Department's Office of Science. In that position, he oversees decisions on its grants and budget......

McCarthy at the AAAS specifically questioned Salmon's and Harding's qualifications........

Akers's career path within the DEA over the past three years has yielded considerable financial benefits. For nine years before joining the DEA, he worked for Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and as the director of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, where in 2005, his last year on the Hill, he made $39,000, legislative records show.

In his political "Schedule C" job at the DEA, Akers had a salary range of $115,00 to $149,000, depending on his step. His new senior executive position pays from $114,000 to $172,200.
Comment: I assume that there are sanctions in the laws establishing the civil service and the senior executive service that can be applied to those who contravene the legitimate processes to appoint unqualified people to career posts as rewards for political support. If so, I hope the Obama administration applies them forcefully to the people in the outgoing Bush administration who are facilitating the burrowing of unqualified people. If there are not such sanctions, I would suggest the Congress consider fines; a suitable basis would be three times the yearly remuneration (salary plus benefits) of the person that they helped burrow. A significant budget should be available for investigation and prosecution of offenders. JAD

Examples of Burrowing and its Tracks
Image Source: John S. Wilkins, "In the mud," Evolving Thoughts, January 12, 2007.

The Final Days of the Bush Administration

The Washington Post has an editorial today ("Bushed Regulations" which begins:
ACKNOWLEDGING "the historical tendency of administrations to increase regulatory activity in their final months," White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten issued a directive to federal agencies in May to release any final regulations before Nov. 1. The administration billed this as a bit of "good government." We would agree, were it not for new rules with broad implications that continue to churn their way to adoption long after Mr. Bolten's deadline.
Comment: Perhaps we need legislation that explicitly makes regulations issued in the final 90 days of one administration subject to suspension (and temporary restoration of previous regulations if they exist) for 90 days into the next administration.

In this case, the Bush administration is likely to be undermining environmental protections, imposing its political views on reproductive rights and civil rights and in other ways doing things that will be widely unpopular and detrimental to the interests of the American public. JAD

On the lighter side: Bush: The Final Days
See more funny videos at Funny or Die

Friday, November 21, 2008

United Nations Humanitarian Appeal 2009

The United Nations has launched its largest ever aid appeal, saying it will need US$ 7 billion to help 30 million people in 31 countries during 2009. The Humanitarian Appeal 2009 is the largest since the creation of the Consolidated Appeals Process in 1991. Sudan accounts for more than a quarter of all intended funds. The appeal comprises twelve consolidated appeals for the Central African Republic, Chad, Ivory Coast, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq and its region, Kenya, the Palestinian territories, Somalia, Sudan, Uganda, the West African region, and Zimbabwe.

The global burden of disease: 2004 update

The global burden of disease: 2004 update is a comprehensive assessment of the health of the world's population. It provides detailed global and regional estimates of premature mortality, disability and loss of health for 135 causes by age and sex, drawing on extensive WHO databases and on information provided by Member States.

10 facts on the global burden of disease

  • Around 10 million children under the age of five die each year
  • Cardiovascular diseases are the leading causes of death in the world
  • HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of adult death in Africa
  • Population ageing is contributing to the rise in cancer and heart disease
  • Lung cancer is the most common cause of death from cancer in the world
  • Complications of pregnancy account for almost 15 % of deaths in women of reproductive age
  • Mental disorders such as depression are among the 20 leading causes of disability worldwide
  • Hearing loss, vision problems and mental disorders are the most common causes of disability
  • Road traffic injuries are projected to rise from the ninth leading cause of death
  • Under-nutrition is the underlying cause of death for at least 30% of all children under age five

"Obama's transition team raises hopes for developing world sciencel"

Mexican-born Mario Molina is
in Obama's transition team.

David Dickson and Paula Leighton write in SciDev.Net (21 November 2008):
Prospects for enhanced US interest in promoting science in developing countries have been substantially raised by two appointments to the team set up by president-elect Barack Obama to oversee the design and staffing of his new administration.
Comment: This is an example of how the Obama administration has an initial advantage in repairing the damage done to American prestige and reputation abroad by the Bush administration. JAD


Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World was prepared by the National Intelligence Council (NIC). Some of its preliminary assessments:
  • The whole international system—as constructed following WWII—will be revolutionized. Not only will new players—Brazil, Russia, India and China— have a seat at the international high table, they will bring new stakes and rules of the game.
  • The unprecedented transfer of wealth roughly from West to East now under way will continue for the foreseeable future.
  • Unprecedented economic growth, coupled with 1.5 billion more people, will put pressure on resources—particularly energy, food, and water—raising the specter of scarcities emerging as demand outstrips supply.
  • The potential for conflict will increase owing partly to political turbulence in parts of the greater Middle East.
Comment: We need to prepare a new generation to live and master a different world than the one in which I grew up. We also need to build a whole new set of global institutions capable of dealing with globalized markets, a global information and transportation infrastructure, global migration patterns, and global problems.

Patternicity: Why I See Patterns

Image source: Matthew Hutson in Psychology Today Blog
re: Skinners superstitious pigeons

Michael Shermer writes the great "Skeptic" column in Scientific American. In the December issue he discusses "Patternicity", "the tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise." Citing recent research he concludes
the evolutionary rationale is clear: natural selection will favor strategies that make many incorrect causal associations in order to establish those which are essential to survival and reproduction.
I would point out that there are many examples of evolution selecting strategies that are essential to reproduction and antithetical to survival; ask the black widow's mate or the salmon after spawning.

Too bad Shermer didn't have the December issue to read when he wrote his December column. Lizzie Buchen writes in "Patches for Faces":
For decades, scientists have debated the basis for our facility with faces: either human brains evolved specialized face-processing machinery, distinct from regions that deal with other objects, or they process all objects using an expansive, multipurpose network, merely developing an expertise for faces.
She cites research which indicates that the brain has evolved special areas and processes with the ability to recognize faces with a high degree of accuracy.

The point is that evolution has not produced a single facility to recognize patterns, but many. In the case of recognition of human faces, Homo sapiens evolution has been effective in evolving a system that avoids false correlations. Note however that humans are not able to distinguish gender in some species, even when the members of those species have no difficulty recognizing the other sex. So too, there are many sibling species that have defeated man's ability to distinguish one from the other (prior to DNA analysis) but which offer little problem to the members of those species. Different species have evolved different pattern recognition capabilities.

Still, of course, Shermer is right that the capacity to create and hold superstitious beliefs exists in Homo sapiens (and in other species), and certainly is a capacity that has resulted from evolutionary processes.

I would have liked Shermer to end his piece noting that superstitions may be "natural", they need not be dominant. Society too has evolved, and knowing our proneness to superstition we can take pains to avoid superstitious behavior on important issues and work to make evidence-based decisions.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

RecreationParks.Net: Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park is a World Heritage Site. The vast natural forest of Yellowstone National Park covers nearly 9,000 km2; 96% of the park lies in Wyoming, 3% in Montana and 1% in Idaho. Yellowstone contains half of all the world's known geothermal features, with more than 10,000 examples. It also has the world's largest concentration of geysers (more than 300 geyers, or two thirds of all those on the planet). Established in 1872, Yellowstone is equally known for its wildlife, such as grizzly bears, wolves, bison and wapitis.

RecreationParks.Net provides information on Yellowstone National Park. Josef Carlo B. Velina has requested that we make the website known to our readers. It is one of some 60,000 parks in the United States he has described on his website, using USGS data and other sources.

Murrow on the Broadcast Media

“These instruments can teach, they can illuminate, and yes, they can even inspire; but they can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use them towards those ends. … Otherwise, they’re merely wires and lights in a box.” --Edward R. Murrow, October 15, 1958


Europeana – the European digital library, museum and archive – is a 2-year project that began in July 2007. It will produce a prototype website giving users direct access to some 2 million digital objects, including film material, photos, paintings, sounds, maps, manuscripts, books, newspapers and archival papers. The prototype has been launched in November 2008. Europeana may be a benchmark for efforts to put cultural objects in digital form and make them available to the public.

Unfortunately, the website is not handling its massive demand on opening operation.

Check out the Europeana development website.

"The Lives of Ingolf Dahl"

I have been reading The Lives of Ingolf Dahl by Anthony Linick, Ingolf's stepson and my old friend. The book is especially interesting to me because I knew Ingolf and his wife Etta quite well when I was a boy and a young man. The book is a portrait of a very unusual family, but it is also a view into the the community of artist-immigrants to Southern California that included not only Ingolf but Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky, and Tomas Mann.

Ingolf was very talented musically, and was known as a composer, pianist and keyboard artist, conductor, musical educator (at both the University of Southern California and Tanglewood), lecturer on music, author of articles on music, and educational and orchestral administrator. He worked with an amazing range of musicians, including Gracie Fields, Victor Borge, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg, and Richard Wagner. (He was also an enthusiastic outdoorsman, spending a lot of time hiking, skiing and mountain climbing, as well as a traveler.)

In terms of this blog, however, I want to consider the construction of a view of Ingolf's contributions to music. Anthony makes clear that Ingolf thought of himself primarily as a composer. His diaries, which are quoted extensively, are full of reports of the agonies that Ingolf went through in producing works of modern music that met his exacting standards of quality. Yet I must suppose that the other people thought of him differently. For many he must have be seen primarily as an educator, for others as a performer or conductor. He would record as a studio musician and fill in at concerts as soloist or conductor when the scheduled artists could not appear for some reason, which makes me think that a few people saw him as a musical "utility outfielder". He was an executive for a number of musical organizations. And, of course, he was a friend who helped many musicians to do their own work better, and must have been so regarded by people from Igor Stravinsky to his students such as Michael Tilson Thomas.

Anthony has done marvels in portraying the many facets of Ingolf's musical career, but I think must think of Ingolf first as his loving stepfather -- from Anthony's first memories about 1940 until Ingolf died in 1970. I hope that his book will serve as an important primary source for other writers of the history of American music and indeed of the artistic community in Southern California in the 20th century, and I am sure that those authors will have their own ideas about Ingolf's life and musical importance.

We know that tastes in music change over time. Stravinsky, whose saw early performances of his works met by riotous opprobrium is now recognized as a master with few equals in the realms of classical music. Wikipedia informs us with regard to Johann Sebastian Bach:
While Bach's fame as an organist was great during his lifetime, he was not particularly well-known as a composer. His adherence to Baroque forms and contrapuntal style was considered "old-fashioned" by his contemporaries, especially late in his career when the musical fashion tended towards Rococo and later Classical styles. A revival of interest and performances of his music began early in the 19th century, and he is now widely considered to be one of the greatest composers in the Western tradition.
On the other hand, some composers who were once very highly regarded are now seldom if ever performed.

The obvious conclusion is that there is a social process that takes place that determines the importance ascribed to composers, musicians and their works, and that results in decisions as to the compositions that conductors, soloists, orchestras and audiences choose to preform or to attend. That process must include individual study of the works and performances by experts, critical comment, the willingness of performers to master the works, and the willingness of audiences to attend (and pay for) their performance. The process must include elements of the education of the musical audience and its exposure to forms and works of music. It also seems to me that the social judgment at any moment of history is subject to revision by later generations.

Thomas Kuhn, in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions, made the point that there is a social process for the construction of science (albeit not in those words). At a given time there is a paradigm in which a community of scientists work, producing a body of scientific knowledge which is shared and taught. That paradigm includes the problems that are thought important to address, the evidence that is considered credible and important, the theory that interprest the evidence, etc. The process by which the scientific community and public construe the contributions of a scientist must be seen within this larger social construction process leading to paradigms. It also seems similar to the process by which the contributions of a musician are construed socially.

The big difference, of course, is that there is the gold standard of experimental verification in science. There is objectively verifiable evidence that a the predictions of a theory are validated or not, while it the aesthetic judgments of music seem much less objective and verifiable.

We do at least have the hope that ideas that are out of fashion at this time may be revived and recognized as important in the future. Ingolf, who wanted to be recognized as a great American composer may achieve that distinction by some future generation. And if not, we may still comfort ourselves with the understanding that the process of social construction is necessarily not "failsafe".

The Growth Commission has Created a Growth Blog

The Growth Commission, which has produced its major report, is continuing to provide interesting material on its website. It has now provided a blog with serious postings on international economics.

"Changes to Species Act Are Said to Be Near"

Article source: The Washington Post, November 20, 2008.

For the past 30 years the Fish and Wildlife Service has been responsible for scientific review of plans by any agency of the federal government that might affect endangered species. The Bush administration in August proposed changes in those regulations which would delegate many reviews to other agencies. It is now seeking to approve the new regulations before leaving office. Approval of its Office of Management and Budget is required.
Environmentalists have warned that the shift could undermine critical safeguards for vulnerable plants and animals.

Comment: This seems another example in which the Bush administration seeks to substitute other criteria for science in the management of environmental risks. Let us insist that either the OMB refuse to approve the chance, or that the Obama administration returns to the old regulation when it takes office until it can make an independent review of the need for change. JAD

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Help Build the Democratic Senate Majority

I received an email message from Montgomery County for Obama with the following:
Democrat Jim Martin needs our help in the December 2 GA Senate Run-Off

Challenger Jim Martin is running against incumbent Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss. Neither candidate received 50 percent in the November 4 election, so Georgia law requires a run-off on December 2. As you probably recall, in 2002, Chambliss ran a smear campaign against Democratic Senator Max Cleland who was disabled during the Vietnam war.

We know you Obama supporters still have energy for this important Senate race that could bring President Obama more muscle to pass his legislative agenda.

DONATE: Montgomery County can help Jim Martin by donating to his campaign. Please give whatever you can afford; we saw how small contributions added up for Barack:

PHONEBANK: If you go to, there is a Georgia Phone Campaign link - make calls from home.

TRAVEL: If any of you are still up for a trip out of state, Jim Martin can use you on the ground in Georgia. This link is to the volunteer form: The phone number for the Martin HQ is 404 347 9766.

For general information about Jim Martin, go to his website:

PLEASE make history again, help elect an excellent Democrat from Georgia to the U.S. Senate.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Bushies Fiddle FDA

Story Source: "F.D.A. Scientists Accuse Agency Officials of Misconduct," by GARDINER HARRIS, The New York Times, November 17, 2008.

Top federal health officials engaged in “serious misconduct” by ignoring concerns of scientists at the Food and Drug Administration and approving for sale unsafe or ineffective medical devices, the scientists have written in a letter to Congress......

The House Committee on Energy and Commerce will investigate the accusations, first aired when eight agency scientists wrote a private letter in May to the F.D.A. commissioner, Andrew C. von Eschenbach.......

The letter to Congress, dated Oct. 14, is part of a growing chorus of dissent from what had long been a tight-lipped agency. In decades past, scientists rarely disagreed publicly with their agency’s decisions, and any concerns they had about important decisions were whispered among veterans.

But increasing scrutiny of the agency on Capitol Hill has coincided with a growing willingness by some scientists to voice their misgivings. The disputes tend to pit agency managers, who often lean toward approving drugs or devices when the data are equivocal, against agency scientists, who want more certain trial results before allowing the products to be sold.
Comment: I keep trying to say something new about the willingness of the Bush administration appointees to substitute their ideology, or the interests of their constituency before the opinions of their appointed scientific advisors, but I am running out of comments. How about "Shame!!". JAD

Two New Reports From the European Union

Bush Republicans Burrowing at Interior

The Washington Post today tells us:
Just weeks before leaving office, the Interior Department's top lawyer has shifted half a dozen key deputies -- including two former political appointees who have been involved in controversial environmental decisions -- into senior civil service posts.....

Most of the personnel shifts have been done on a case-by-case basis, but Interior Solicitor David L. Bernhardt moved to place six deputies in senior agency positions with one stroke, including two who have repeatedly attracted controversy. Robert D. Comer, who was Rocky Mountain regional solicitor, was named to the civil service post of associate solicitor for mineral resources. Matthew McKeown, who served as deputy associate solicitor for mineral resources, will take Comer's place in what is also a career post. Both had been converted from political appointees to civil service status.

In a report dated Oct. 13, 2004, Interior's inspector general singled out Comer in criticizing a grazing agreement that the Bureau of Land Management had struck with a Wyoming rancher, saying Comer used "pressure and intimidation" to produce the settlement and pushed it through "with total disregard for the concerns raised by career field personnel." McKeown -- who as Idaho's deputy attorney general had sued to overturn a Clinton administration rule barring road-building in certain national forests -- has been criticized by environmentalists for promoting the cause of private property owners over the public interest on issues such as grazing and logging.

One career Interior official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to jeopardize his position, said McKeown will "have a huge impact on a broad swath of the West" in his new position, advising the Bureau of Land Management and the Fish and Wildlife Service on "all the programs they implement." Comer, the official added, will help shape mining policy in his new assignment.....

But environmental advocates, and some rank-and-file Interior officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of hurting their careers, said the reassignments represent the Bush administration's effort to leave a lasting imprint on environmental policy.
Comment: Sometimes people appointed by the White House to policy positions are seasoned professionals with broad expertise in the fields in which they serve but sometimes they are ideologs who impose their pet ideas over the advice of scientists and other experts. There is a case for allowing the former to transfer to career status after service as political appointees, but not for the latter.

Pardon me if I suspect that the Bush administration appointees to the Department of the Interior, who have been so controversial, should not be allowed to burrow into the civil service in the waning day of the administration.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The minds of the members of the next generation

The Economist has a review of Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing Your World by Don Tapscott. I quote:
In the past two years, Don Tapscott has overseen a $4.5m study of nearly 8,000 people in 12 countries born between 1978 and 1994. In “Grown Up Digital” he uses the results to paint a portrait of this generation that is entertaining, optimistic and convincing. The problem, he suspects, is not the net generation but befuddled baby-boomers, who once sang along with Bob Dylan that “something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is”, yet now find that they are clueless about the revolutionary changes taking place among the young.

“As the first global generation ever, the Net Geners are smarter, quicker and more tolerant of diversity than their predecessors,” Mr Tapscott argues. “These empowered young people are beginning to transform every institution of modern life.” They care strongly about justice, and are actively trying to improve society—witness their role in the recent Obama campaign, in which they organised themselves through the internet and mobile phones and campaigned on YouTube.
Comment: Intelligence is an odd concept. Benet invented the index to predict how well kids would do in school. The military developed a similar index to predict how well young men would do in military service.

Now days it seems clear that there are many different kinds of mental abilities. Mozart's brain dealt with music in an exceptional way, as Einstein's did with concepts of space and time, as Leonard da Vinci's with the depiction of scenes on canvas. It is hard to imagine that their minds were not very different one from the other.

Basically, intelligence is a measure of the ability of the mind to deal with certain kinds of situations. The situations that will face the members of the 11 to 30 year old generation in rich countries are quite different than the situations that faced their grandparents, or that face their poor contemporaries in the least developed nations. I am not sure that the measure of the ability to face one set of circumstances should be compared with the measure of the ability to face another, different set of circumstances.

Still, the kids today seem very with it, and the amplification of analytic and communications abilities that they have adopted through the use of ICT should make them very capable indeed. Their augmented mental abilities should compare to those of my generation as the machine augmented physical abilities of the beneficiaries of the industrial revolution did to their peasant ancestors. JAD