Monday, October 08, 2018

On Bureaucrats and the Government

One of the big differences I have found between Chinese and Taiwanese on the one hand, and Americans on the other, is that Chinese generally look to the government to solve problems, while many, perhaps most, Americans, seem to believe that the government can do nothing right. Of course we have ignoramuses like those who tell congressmen to keep the government's hands off Medicare, but that is only an extreme form of the idea that the government can do nothing right and should "leave us alone." This is an interesting libertarian, almost anarchist position that has deep resonance in the US, especially, of course, in the Republican Party, but not only there. As Mariana Mazzucato points out (see her Freakonomics interview here), that ignores the role of the government in funding most medical research, as well as creating the Internet, and GPS. Elon Musk is widely hailed as an entrepreneur, but few note that he has received $5 billion in government money for his various ventures.

The real scandal is so-called "entrepreneurs" who try to personally profit from government spending. For example, the owner of AccuWeather has been trying to prevent the National Weather Service from releasing weather information to the public. He says his company should not have to compete with the government. Sounds reasonable, except that AccuWeather does not do any data-gathering on its own: it uses government data! It actually wants to profit by repackaging government data. Thankfully, decades of efforts on his part have so far failed. But now, Trump has nominated him to head the National Weather Service, but even in these times, that has been too much for the Senate to stomach, so his appointment has been stuck in the senate, at least so far. But his case does illustrate the danger of corruption with government spending. This corruption would be less likely if we actually valued the governments' services.

It is not only in Asia that people value the services they get from the government. NPR's Planet Money did two stories on Denmark in 2010 in which they were incredulous that Danes did not mind paying relatively high tax rates; the second program was even titled "Please Tax Me", to along with The Awesomest Economy. Basically, the Danes felt they were getting a good deal: free education, good healthcare system, low crime. Yes, tax rates were high, but they were satisfied with what they got in return. In the US, on the other hand, it is common to treat all taxes as theft; there is even a Wiki page on "tax as theft" in addition to libertarian pages that make the argument (such as this one).

Michael Lewis is one of my favorite writers, and he has a new book on risk. It is called The Fifth Risk because when he interviewed people on what risks they were worried about, he said most could name three or four, but not five, and it is the risks we cannot imagine that are the most dangerous, because we will not be prepared. He shows that the Trump administration, by leaving hundreds of positions in government empty, and by naming unqualified and uninterested or conflicted people in charge of various departments and agencies, makes risks much greater than they were. He was interviewed in NPR's Fresh Air last week.

But at the end of the interview, Terri Gross gave him an open-ended question, asking if his understanding of the bureaucracy had changed in any way from his reporting. He became very animated as he replied:
Oh, my God. So I didn't know what I was going to find when I started knocking on the door of the Energy Department or the Agriculture Department or the Commerce Department. And I turned out having exactly the same experience that political people have when they're appointed to these jobs running these places and have these - some preconception but vague preconception of what the bureaucrats are like.
I expected to be briefed and be - you know, be kind of informed by these people. I did not expect to be inspired by them. The kind of person who is still working in our government despite all the abuse the government takes is a mission-driven person. They're not paid well. They're there 'cause they're interested in the task. The people in the National Weather Service are people who have had a passion for the weather since they were little kids.
 The people in the Department of Energy are scientists who've had a passion for their particular science since they were little kids. Essentially it's - essentially what they are - all these people are firefighters in spirit. And there's something really moving about groups of people who are doing what they're doing not for money but for mission. They have a purpose in life. And it just jumps off the page. I mean, it jumped - it's jumped into my mind dealing with them. And so I came away from it thinking, wow, I can't believe we as a society have treated this slice of our society - these kinds of people, who are really the best among us, as badly as we have.
And, yeah, the structure's screwed up. That's what's screwed up. It's not the people who screwed up. It's screwed up that it takes 106 days on average to hire someone new in the federal government, or that you don't know your budget when you're planning, or that you make a slightest mistake and you become public enemy No. 1. But you do something really great, and no one pays any attention. All that's really screwed up, but that's not their fault. That's our fault. And that's what sort of needs to be fixed because in a way what we're doing is wasting the greatest spirits in our society.
One can't help but wonder whether young people will continue to seek government jobs, or whether the growing wage inequalities and huge salaries earned in finance, plus the constant berating civil servants suffer, will lead many young graduates to choose other careers and thus undermine this hidden strength of American society. In Taiwan, many people still value and respect government jobs. In the US, on the other hand, they are accused of being "swamp creatures." It is difficult to address this problem if Americans do not even realize, or admit, how important the government is for the functioning of a modern civilized society.

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Observations on the Kavanaugh Affair and the Musical 'Oklahoma'

These ideas may not be politically correct or popular, but here are three observations about the controversy over the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh.

1) Dr. Christine Blasey Ford said she is completely sure it was Brett Kavanaugh who assaulted her when she was 15. After her testimony, no one doubts she was assaulted. A few have tried to suggest she might be misremembering, with Ed Whelan going so far as to name another classmate as the perpetrator in a tweet. He later deleted the tweets and apologized. Republicans have tried to suggest she is wrong about the perpetrator. Many Democrats and feminists are very angry and upset at any suggestion she might be misremembering. In fact, however, we should all recognize that memory is fallible and plastic. Our memory is not like a hard drive that records information; memory is re-recorded every time we think about it and talk about it, and can easily change gradually over time. There is much research that shows this, and Malcolm Gladwell devoted two episodes of his podcast Revisionist History to this important idea (see here and here). Trauma does not make memory become more seared in one’s mind; as in Brian Williams’ case, a story can evolve over time. Anthropologists write fieldnotes not only to avoid forgetting what they see and learn, but to avoid exaggeration and embellishment that happens naturally with memory.

In trials, witnesses cannot admit they are mostly sure they’ve identified the correct perpetrator; you have to be completely sure. A friend told me that when she said she was 80% sure person number 3 of 4 in a lineup was the criminal, the police told her she had to be 100% sure or they would not proceed with the case, so she said she was 100% sure. Trials force everyone to take positions of extreme certainty. But we are often only 90% percent sure, if we are honest. And we should also recognize that even memories we are sure are accurate could, in fact, have been distorted over time.

2) Brett Kavanaugh was a minor (17 years of age) at the time of the assault. He should have known better, but in the US, we usually treat mistakes by minors as less serious than those of adults. In this case, the #MeToo movement makes us more sensitive to his alleged crime. His denials, however, make this line of defense impossible. He cannot claim he was young and foolish at the same time that he claims to be sure it did not happen. There is also, of course, the fact that indiscretions of a minor are more likely to be overlooked if your family is white and rich; poor and minority kids are regularly put in juvie or given a police record if they are caught drinking or using marijuana.

3) In some cultures, lying about embarrassing things is expected and accepted. Not so in the US. Honorable people, people with character, should be honest. For Americans, it is better to be honest and seek forgiveness than to lie. In the case of Watergate, it is not clear at what point Nixon was involved with the dirty tricks and the cover-up, but it is often argued that Nixon’s biggest mistake was lying about the break-in and leading the cover-up, not the break-in itself. And in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, it was Clinton’s lying that led to his impeachment, not the affair.

Kavanaugh has clearly been untruthful. He has dissembled about his work in the Bush administration, about his drinking, and even about the meanings of “boof”  and “devil’s triangle”. Many commentators have made the point that he is lying (see SlateCurrent AffairsEsquire), and a sociologist who studies class in American argues that people like Kavanaugh, who go to private prep schools and Ivy League universities, are told they are special so come to believe that rules and laws do not apply to them, and that they are lying for the greater good of the nation (see here).

Today, on the Monday after the Thursday testimony, it is not clear how the wind will blow and what will happen (it will seem overdetermined once we know the outcome). It will be interesting to see if the gradual realization that Kavanaugh has lied about so many things begins to spread an makes it impossible for Republicans to force through his confirmation. It is hard to say whether public opinion about lying is enough to overcome the raw will to power--expressed here as determination to confirm Kavanaugh--of the Republican leadership.

This weekend, my wife and I went to see the musical Oklahoma. In part it was for nostalgic reasons; I had played a part in our high school production. I thought I knew the show well, but given the #MeToo Movement and Kavanaugh Hearings, the show takes on new meanings and was actually uncomfortable to watch at times (though the acting and singing was great). Ado Annie, who sings “I’m Just a Girl That Can’t Say No” basically admits to being seduced by every man she’s with. (She literally says she loves whoever she’s with.) And Ali Hakim, the “Persian” peddler, is a sexually predatory character who in the end is forced to marry Bertie (with the heinous laugh) because her dad discovered them in the hayloft. (And don’t get me started on the anti-Semitic or even pseudo-Italian overtones of the character of Ali Hakim. Even though the subplot of Oklahoma supposedly centers on whether Ado Annie will marry the peddler or Will Parker, there is no doubt in the audience’s mind that she will pick Will; even though he is so dumb he cannot add, or keep himself from spending money, he’s white, and Ali Hakim is not.)

And then there is the lead, Curly, who goes into the smokehouse, where the hired hand Jud Fry lives, and bullies him by suggesting Jud might hang himself, and then sings about how great his funeral would be. He even calls Jud a rat living in a hovel. When we performed the play in high school, I thought of Jud as a bit socially awkward, a guy who did not know how to woo a girl. He seemed to have a chip on his shoulder, because in several scenes he accuses others of thinking they are better than him. I thought he was overreacting, and I did not have much sympathy for him when at the end of the story he became enraged like a psychopath because Laurie did not marry him but chose to marry Curly instead. Now seeing the story again, I see Curly acting like a bully, taunting Jud in his home, humiliating him by outbidding Jud for Laurie’s hamper in the auction, and speaking badly of Jud when he is not there. Jud was right; Curly did think he was better than Jud. And Curly was a bully; he wanted Jud to stay in his place, at the bottom of the social hierarchy.

Maybe our country has changed since I was in high school, and it is time to retire Oklahoma from the cannon of “frequently produced musical classics.” And I wonder if the revelations about high school drinking and partying change parents’ and teenagers’ ideas of appropriate teen behavior. In my high school days, I resented being considered a “nerd” for not drinking; as far as I was concerned, my classmates’ drunkedness made no sense and took away from the fun of watching high school basketball games. Some of the “popular” kids were a bit like Curly, and like Kavanaugh and his friends. I remember boys making “slut jokes” about a pretty cheerleader (which I realize now were done more to impress male friends than they were about the cheerleader). Some of Kavanaugh’s testimony brings back bad memories of high school. So it is also with a bit of surprise and schadenfreude that I look at these pigeons coming home to roost.