December 30, 2009

Technological fixes for terror

The response to the Northwest 253 attempted terrorist attack has been interesting. As after 9/11 and the Richard Reid shoe bombing attempts, one of the distinctively American response has been the reach for the technological response.

A common lament has been that if only there had been a body scanner or an explosive puffer, then Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab would not have gotten his flammable underpants onboard. Another lament, one I am more sympathetic to, is that if the data matching was better the existing screening system would have worked. After all, his name was in the big watchlist database, and then Abdulmutallab purchased a one way ticket with cash and showed up without any luggage. But again the lament is that technology will save us. Data matching is just another fallible technology. The fact that this suspect's names matched in some databases alerts us to one aspect of this case that could have been handled better with technology. But the next terrorist might have different names in different databases and elude easy matching. Americans seem to like technological fixes to their problems. In New Zealand the more common response to problems is that the government should do something, pass a law or establish an agency.

The response has also been interesting in that the technology and organization of suspicion that is encapsulated in screening airline passengers is pretty widely accepted by Americans. But the same logic that makes it OK to screen airline passengers also makes it OK to stop drivers to check for drugs or alcohol, install red light or speed cameras, or impose restrictions on gun use. But few of these interventions which would also save lives are politically acceptable in the United States.

Posted by eroberts at 3:13 PM

December 2, 2009

Predicting the future is hard

Now that Obama has given his big speech on Afghanistan we get the predictable debate between people who think that the June 2011 deadline is arbitrary and signals to the enemy how long they need to wait for America to leave, and those who think that's too long.

Really I sympathize with the idea that withdrawing from Afghanistan should be "conditions based" but there are few areas of human activity where open-ended commitments are a good idea (marriage is somewhat of an exception, but that's for another discussion).

People respond to deadlines. Although, as a professor, I get a regular stream of amusing excuses for why students haven't met deadlines, the striking thing is that most students meet most of their deadlines. Obviously there's a huge gap between a student assignment and the "world peace" scale problem we have in Afghanistan. The time it should take student assignments to be done is predictable; they've been done before and they are quite small. Afghanistan is a large problem we haven't met before.

Quite obviously the July 2011 deadline for U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is arbitrary. There is no previous Afghan war the deadline can be based on.

Deadlines, however arbitrary, concentrate the minds of the people affected by them. An open-ended commitment to war is good for defense contractors, but bad for everyone else, including the Afghans. If the U.S. said it was staying for some unspecified time, and withdrawing based on some concept of progress there would be fewer incentives for Afghans to take over their own security situation. The trick is that in situations like this—complex and unique—there has to be some flexibility in the deadline. Who knows if 18 months is long enough? The future is unpredictable. So it's no surprise that the morning after the speech the White House appears to be saying two things, there is a timeline for withdrawal, and that the timeline is flexible.

Sticking rigidly to a timeline or having no timeline at all are not strategies that work in any other area of 'complex' human activity. The timeline that can be altered is the only realistic way forward.

Posted by eroberts at 4:38 PM

August 5, 2009

Wankers in the Post Office and Fed Ex

When I read Paul Krugman's note about critiques of government services in America being a bit detached from reality I thought "sure, great point in theory, pity you illustrated it with the Post Office." Now, Krugman says "Maybe I'm living a sheltered life here in central New Jersey," and perhaps it's an metropolitan versus small-town thing, but the Post Office is not a good advertisement for the Federal Government providing customer service.

It has struck me that all of the Americans who have visited us in New Zealand this year have commented on how nice the staff are at the post office. One of the great things about Australasia is that small retail post offices are contracted out to book stores and newsagents, a class of the retailing industry where I think you tend to get decent service anyway (at least in my travels in the English-speaking world).

A few years back I recall the USPS proposed contracting out post offices to retailers, but stopped because it would give those firms an unfair advantage. Huh? If firms perceive there's an advantage in also providing postal services they could bid for the local rights to do it. Though it's quite possible that the rights might be worth less than the costs, and USPS would be paying them for it. Contracting out parts of the retail postal service might have improved the terrible location of many central city American post offices (not in central retail districts, not in malls; you have to drive them often). Probably rightly the USPS doesn't want to pay central city retail rents for space they are using for sorting and other operational needs. But there's no need that the selling stamps etc couldn't be done at more retail outlets.

It could hardly be worse than the experience at USPS. Many Americans probably aren't aware of this, but sending an international parcel is something you need to put on your calendar it takes so long. The absurdly duplicative customs declaration forms, the total confusion of the stupid staff about where some foreign countries are (you work in a post office, you should know these things!), it literally drives me to Fed Ex some of the time.

At Fed Ex, as Nate Silver points out, the experience isn't much better. The staff are not so much surly like at USPS as disinterested, young, and not very well-trained. The USPS staff more often give the impression of knowing the rules and processes, but not caring to use them in your service.

So I've had lots of banal, lousy customer service at the USPS. But my single best story comes from a 1am trip to FedEx Kinkos to get copies done for a work presentation. In the hour I spent trying to get the printer to print properly (the totally disinterested 1am clerk had no ability to fix anything, but thankfully didn't charge me for all the paper wasted in trying to get the right printing done), I shared the computer space with a morbidly obese man who was talking to himself and masturbating through his shorts while surfing cherryblossoms.com (warning: obviously NSFW unless you're in academia and this would be research into multimedia).

It would have completed the picture of the ugly side of American life if he had been eating McDonalds and there had been an armed robbery (1am - 2am, remember), but sadly that was the whole of the story.

The Post Office isn't open at 1am for people like this, so I suppose that makes FedEx just slightly better ...

Posted by eroberts at 8:57 PM

June 24, 2009

Nixon is making sense

On NPR yesterday there was a discussion about Iran. To give balance to the programme, the guests were from the right wing American Enterprise Institute, and the right wing Nixon Institute.

What was most interesting was just that, the Nixon Institute. Has Nixon's reputation really been rehabilitated to the point where it's an acceptable name for a public policy institute? Apparently so.

What was then surprising was that the Nixon Institute guest actually did provide balance and lucidity on the issue, saying that America shouldn't try to intervene in the Iranian electoral dispute.

Posted by eroberts at 10:41 AM

November 17, 2008

Defining gaffes downward

It was, of course , the addition of Joe Biden that dealt an initial body-blow to Obamaland's disciplined corporate culture. Biden committed his first gaffe even before the end of his coming-out speech, referring to his new boss as "Barack America." In his early days on the trail, he publicly suggested Clinton would have made a better running-mate and mistakenly name-checked a future "Biden administration."
From Noam Schieber's New Republic piece on Obama's personnel management

This is ridiculous. Saying "Barack America" and referring to a future Biden administration are true examples of mis-speaking. String enough words together in the day, and chances are that parsed literally some of them will not make total sense. That chance rises when you're working long hours on an election campaign, dealing with people you don't know in many different places and talking about lots of different topics.

Perhaps, perhaps, you can say that Biden's statement Clinton would make a better running mate is a true gaffe, but even then it's so dependent on context. There are times when the right political answer is to be humble and promote someone else.

Posted by eroberts at 3:39 AM

November 3, 2008

Where in the world is Osama Bin Laden?

Seriously, no message from Osama on the eve of the election? Is he waiting for election day? Is he dead?

Posted by eroberts at 6:07 PM

October 15, 2008

Debate reactions

Here I am at Denver Airport (where, by the way, the free wireless has improved substantially) and watching McCain and Obama debate. The dial is interesting, it seems the undecided voters like what both candidates say for the most part; tho' I think McCain has gotten more extreme negatives and Obama more extreme positives from the dial.

But the crowd here at gate B55 for the flight to Minneapolis are silent. There are 50 people and no-one has clapped, no-one has hmmphed, no-one has laughed. I guess this demonstrates the more-American idea that you shouldn't talk about religion or politics with strangers. I would be interested to watch the debate in a bar (next election! come on 2012!) because that is my only point of comparison for watching political debates in public places. I watched a New Zealand election debate in a bar in 1999, and it was like being at a sporting event. People cheered, they jeered, they laughed.

Now, it's likely if you self-selected to be in a bar to watch a political debate you had a greater interest in politics than people who somewhat randomly ended up at the same gate for a plane together, but still. An airport seems like a slice of middle America, and I am not picking up any sense of how the average American is feeling about the election. Guess I'll have to rely on the internet, which you can do from overseas in your pyjamas. So, the audience is unusually quiet here. Partly that might be to actually hear the debate because unlike normal airport tv the sound is down at a frustrating just a little too quiet level, rather than the normal just a little too loud.

Posted by eroberts at 9:13 PM

March 8, 2008

This week's sign of the apocalypse

Athletics NZ has a quote from Newt Gingrich on their homepage. Newt Gingrich, well-known American athlete ... oh, wait!

Posted by eroberts at 8:59 PM

February 14, 2008

What's wrong with a Bush-Clinton dynasty anyway?

I started this blog in the 2004 U.S. presidential election campaign with a comment on presidential polls. Recently U.S. politics has hardly been a feature here. Not because I haven't been thinking about it, both professionally and personally, but because there's so much that could be said and I'm not sure I have anything particularly unique to say very often ...

The question of Presidential dynasties has inevitably come up in this campaign, with Hillary Clinton seeking to take over from George W. Bush. There are some good democratic, republican arguments against dynasties. But the founders of the American republic conceived of republicanism as a mixed form of government. This emphasis on mixed forms—democracy, aristocracy, and Amonarch—was heavily classical, influenced by Greek and Roman thought. The President was the analogue of the monarch.

Monarchy, of course, is dynastic by design. The typical rules of monarchical succession favor the son or grandson, and so has the American republic (Adams, Harrison, Bush). But restoring the Queen would hardly go against monarchical ideas. Thus, I wonder if a Hillary Clinton Presidency really does go against republican ideals. It merely harks back to earlier notions of a monarchy embedded in a republic that America was founded on.

Though she would never phrase it that way herself, Hillary Clinton is clearly running on her time as Queen. Her campaign's invocation of experience leans heavily on her time as First Lady. It's unfortunate, as it makes the Clinton's marriage a legitimate part of public debate. I'm not talking about their sex life, which is neither here nor there. The thing is, the public has no-way of evaluating Hillary's political experience without inquiring into how Bill and Hillary Clinton worked together during the Presidency.

It's quite possible that Hillary made important contribution to decisions in the Bill Clinton White House. But we don't know whether her arguments carried the day, or whether her instincts were the right ones, because they were hidden. When you're not actually elected yourself, the political consequences of being right or wrong are not as substantial. Your arguments in private are largely free of the responsibility to publicly account for your actions and their consequences.

Hillary Clinton wants us to believe she was intimately involved in political decisions in the Bill Clinton White House. That is entirely plausible. It's easy to imagine that being both intensely interested in politics they would discuss Bill's decisions. But think for a moment how much you know about your spouse's job. Even if you were in the same occupation, could you step in and do their specific job? What do spouses actually discuss about work? It might be the substance, the decisions that have to be made, but it might also be weighted towards the frustrations, the office politics, the grievances. Being married to someone does give you a unique insight into their job, but it's quite possibly biased and slanted. Arguably, being secretary or chief of staff is better preparation for actually doing the job.

Now think of some married friends. For arguments sake, let's say they work in basically the same occupation, so they might seek each other's advice about their work. How much do you really know about how much your friends discuss work matters? Even in the best case scenario where they work in the same area, they might choose not to discuss work much at home. Generally speaking I'm unaware how much and in what way my married couple friends share the details of their jobs at home. I'm sure it varies, and in ways I don't expect. And I know those people! How I'd be able to guess what the Clintons shared I really don't know. Other people's marriages are hidden to us (thankfully). Think of times you've been surprised to hear about friends breaking up, who seemed quite happy together in public. How we relate to our spouses or friends in public can hide the true relationship. But this is what the Clintons are both inviting for public discussion, and at the same time providing little detail on: how much and in what ways Hillary was involved in Bill Clinton's Presidency. Some of that answer is obvious from the public functions she performed as First Lady. But the First Lady's evolved public role is—as the Queen—to be ceremonial rather than cerebral. The relevant experience that Hillary Clinton is claiming, having been part of decisions, is necessarily private and wrapped up in the specifics of the Clinton's marriage.

The most specific preparation for taking decisions in elected office, is having held other elective offices. Neither of the Democratic candidates—Clinton or Obama— have great experience in this regard, but the candidate with the most conventional outline of a biography for a Presidential nominee, Bill Richardson, who had been a Congressman, Cabinet Secretary and Governor, went nowhere fast. One might discount Obama's record in the Illinois Senate as being merely part-time state politics, but he has a longer record than Hillary Clinton of having to publicly account for his votes and decisions. Perhaps none of this will matter in the end, as the average American voter doesn't think like me, and John McCain's "experience" in the Senate has not resulted in terribly much important legislation. But restoration politics relies on the people believing the ancient regime was more than its head. A Clinton restoration would signal an American acceptance of the monarchical element in the republic, that the King and Queen were one.

Posted by eroberts at 8:45 PM