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Friday, October 11, 2002

Good Intentions

Jimmy Carter has finally got himself a Nobel Peace Prize. His record includes involvement in the Egypt-Israel peace agreement (although Sadat may disagree about the peacefulness of the outcome), the outstanding Habitat for Humanity, and several health-related endeavors in the Third World. His record also includes averting U.S. action against North Korea in 1994 by getting them to accept money, food, and increased nuclear capacity in return for pretending not to develop nuclear and chemical weapons.

Appeasement of murderers in return for false promises has been his modus operandi for years in fact, culminating in a shameful -- if not treasonous -- effort to unmake the first President Bush's Gulf War Coalition even as American forces entered harm's way. This sort of behavior led some to speculate that his peace-at-all-costs approach had as its end a Nobel Prize rather than true peace, which is to say, peace that lasts longer than the echoes of his shoes linger in a tyrant's marble corridors.

This speculation is a bit mean-spirited; my own belief is that Carter really has possessed good intentions all along. He is a Christian, though one who seems to think the nature of men has changed since the Bible was compiled, and whose forgiveness never seemed to go beyond tyrants and Democrats (his long-standing grudge against members of the Reagan Administration for reversing his entire foreign and military policy regime is well-known).

But he means well. When combined with ignorance of economics and boundless optimism about the powers of bureaucracy, this makes for a sorry U.S. President -- as Carter well proved. But in ample supply, and when combined with tireless effort, it can earn one a Nobel Peace Prize. There have certainly been less deserving recipients.

posted by Woodlief | link | (9) comments


*While the Congress has provided President Bush with War Powers against Iraq, there is a concerted effort by those who prefer U.N. inspections (most of whom live in areas unlikely to be the target of Hussein's weapons) to avert war. This is a commendable sentiment (which rings hollow coming from the French, who do billions a year in business with Iraq), but I think it's important to have a little skin in the game. So here's what I propose: all of the weapons inspectors must either agree to relocate their families to Israel, or sign a document authorizing U.N. security forces, in the event that a chemical, biological, or nuclear weapon traceable to Iraq is used, to execute their parents, siblings, spouses, children, and grandchildren.

Knowing one's own family is at risk might change one's perspective, I think. That's why gun control advocates tend not to act on the suggestion that they display front yard signs that read: "This home is gun-free."

*Remember when the Israelites spied out the Promised Land, only they got scared of the inhabitants, and tried to turn back to Egypt? Moses talked God out of striking them all dead, but in turn God decreed that none of the adults over age twenty would enter the Promised Land (except for Joshua and Caleb, the two faithful warriors). It will be forty years, He said, until the children of Israel get in.

Everybody remembers the forty years part, but they forget that God first said the Israelites would be restricted from the Promised Land until the last of the rebellious men over age twenty was dead. Now, the Israelites were a stubborn bunch, as proved by the fact that immediately after the chastisement, they worked up the chutzpah to try and take the land themselves, which led to a solid smack-down from its inhabitants. So I'm thinking the odds are that they must have heard those two decrees (until everyone is dead, forty years), and thought to themselves, "hmm, I wonder if we can speed this up a bit."

The point is, did you ever wonder what it must have been like for that last guy left from the original rebellious bunch? I mean, he knows everybody's waiting for him to drop so they can go into the Promised Land. He's pretty sure they won't just kill him, because back then murder actually led to swift punishment. But don't you think they probably did what they could to reduce his life expectancy a bit?

"Hey, Saul, what say you start the fire tonight?"

"Hey, Saul, mind helping me with this really heavy stone?"

"Have another greasy quail wing, Saul."

"Hey, Saul, I'll bet you 200 pita chips you can't climb up that cliff blindfolded."

Poor Saul. The pressure must have been unbearable. He knew the limit was forty years, and that he was coming up on it fast, but he never knew for sure if his kinsmen really did want his company all those times they invited him to join them as they sharpened knives.

The lesson, of course, is that when God tells you to go into the Promised Land, you go.

*I take a train for part of my commute. I'm sitting here trying to work, and on one side of me a fat man with a horribly loud and grating Jersey voice is yapping at the woman next to him, while across from me a woman is droning on and on into her cell phone. Everyone around them is giving them evil stares, but people like this are oblivious.

Note to self: either start packing earplugs, or the Beretta. Maybe both.

*Recent conversation in Virginia:

Me: "Caleb, do you need to go potty?"

Caleb: "I don't need to go poo-poo!"

Me: "Then why do you have your hand on your behind like you're trying to keep it in?"

Caleb: "No. I don't need to go poo-poo!"

Me: "It's going to happen sooner or later, man. Everybody poops."

Caleb: "Nope."

Considering some of the uptight people I run into on the Metro, I think he may be right.

*A good friend pointed out that I never provide any updates on Eli. That's because Eli says nothing other than "da-da-da-da-da." Frankly, he's been a bit of a one-trick pony.

But lately he is getting to be more interesting. One of his favorite things is to grab my ears and try to eat my face. He has two teeth now, which means this always carries a hint of danger. When it's chilly we put a little cotton cap on him; on each side it extends into a string so you can tie it under his neck. When we got home from a drive last week we discovered that he had untied it and managed to pull it over most of his face, so that he could only see partially out of one eye. He had his head tilted so he could make the best use of the half-eye, and was busy turning left and right in an effort to figure out where everybody went. I wonder if you traumatize children by leaving them in such predicaments long enough to take a picture.

posted by Woodlief | link | (6) comments

Thursday, October 10, 2002


My wife and children were yards from the site of last night's sniper attack an hour before it happened. What a vile thing to sit hidden in shadows, peering at people through your sights, deciding who will be spared and who will be torn apart by a bullet.

I hope he resists when the police track him down, and I hope they kill him.

posted by Woodlief | link | (20) comments

Wednesday, October 9, 2002

The Incompetence Tax

I've been thinking about something I call the Incompetence Tax. It's one of those taxes we often pay without realizing that we are doing so, like a gasoline tax, or a telephone usage tax. It seems that no good or service is exempt, though a handful of businesses have managed to secure exemption. Its rate as a percentage of your purchase varies; sometimes it can be less than five percent, but I've also paid it at a rate of 1,000 percent. It is levied at times in cash, though more often in labor and frustration, which an economist will tell you can be translated into cash terms.

My own informal research reveals that the Incompetence Tax is highest at government agencies and highly regulated companies (there's a whole organizational research literature that explains this -- don't make me beat you about the head and shoulders with it). When dealing with our credit union, for example, there is a probability approaching one (and they test the theoretical limits of the asymptote) that the teller will make some annoying little error -- funds deposited in the wrong account, a withdrawal amount wrong, etc. These errors are usually resolved after about an hour of my wife's labor, and one or two phone calls. Fortunately, we don't have to deal directly with the credit union much more than once a quarter. Factoring in the average hourly wage in the U.S. ($16.23 in 2001, as computed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics), we can thus derive a yearly Incompetence Tax levied on us by our credit union of $64.92. Given a membership of roughly 200,000, this amounts to a total annual Incompetence Tax of $12,984,000.

Other forms of the tax are smaller, but more frequent. All told my family eats out roughly 847 times a week. Okay, I exaggerate, but by less than I care to admit. The National Restaurant Association reports that Americans eat 54 billion meals out per year, or 187 meals per person. In my experience, all but the finest restaurants make a mistake about 15 or 20 percent of the time. You know, the fries are the wrong size, or your steak was cooked wrong, or the waiter forgets to refill your water until you ask, or you have to wipe off the table and chair yourself, and so on. Let's assume a 15 percent error rate, and an average amount of your time required to fix the problem equal to one minute. This yields a total U.S. Incompetence Tax on dining out equal to $2,191,050,000 per year.

Of course, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Think about the Incompetence Tax levied on the country every year by dozens of Congressmen with no understanding of economics. Baltimore no doubt pays an Incompetence Tax in the form of lost merchandise and ticket sales as a result of Peter Angelos' overbearing management of the Orioles. Detroit paid a disastrously large Incompetence Tax for the twenty years Coleman Young was in charge, likewise D.C. and Marion Barry (which goes to show that in many cases, people pay the taxes they deserve).

A highly salient Incompetence Tax, at least right now, is levied daily on travelers by Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, who is to the Incompetence Tax what Alexander Hamilton was to the import tariff. And let's not forget U.S. auto companies, who still churn out over-gadgetized junk with a significantly lower average resale value than Toyota or Honda. The worst thing about all of these forms of the Incompetence Tax is that unlike our state and federal taxes, which go to pay for fine things like a Lawrence Welk Museum in North Dakota, the Incompetence Tax is the purest form of a deadweight loss.

It is important not to confuse incompetence with the occasional error, or with an inability to solve a difficult problem. Even Kobe Bryant misses an open 10-foot jumper from time to time, while Thomas Edison needed several hundred tries before he produced a light bulb that lasted more than 15 seconds. One problem with the Incompetence Tax, indeed, is that its ubiquity causes many of us to assume it is being levied whenever there is a gap between our expectations and the received outcome.

As is true of many taxes, repealing the Incompetence Tax is probably well-nigh impossible unless a large number of Americans prove willing to sacrifice time and money in pursuit of a noble cause. (I.e., it is impossible). Protests would have to be held not at IRS offices, but at school board meetings (indeed, schools themselves), a majority of churches, and a good many homes, because the Incompetence Tax is a consequence of poor education and inadequate upbringing (probably more the latter -- one doesn't need phonics to get a McDonald's order right, but one does need a modicum of self-respect and attention to detail).

In short, the Incompetence Tax is something we've passed on ourselves in a sort of slow-motion, decades-long referendum marked by near-universal willingness to cede responsibility for our children to government teachers and minimum wage daycare workers (responsibility, but not real authority -- we reserve the right to be the ones who don't discipline our little darlings). In this regard it is one of those nefarious levies the bulk of which falls on future generations, like Social Security, Medicare, and the various neighborhood improvement projects, usually advanced by busybody PTA moms (conservatives against women working outside the home haven't adequately considered the damage wrought by this breed), which work their way into your property tax bill in the form of special assessments.

Perhaps the hardest hit are those who impose the tax, the legions of slovenly, poorly trained people who man our grocery stores and shopping malls, our post offices and security posts. What an unpleasant life it must be to labor without the basic ability to produce value on a consistent basis. But perhaps value is an alien concept to many of them, there is simply a set of procedures to follow in order to receive one's paycheck, and numerous customers who have to be endured -- and what's their deal, anyway, getting all bent because they didn't get the pizza topping they wanted, or because I brought out the wrong size shoes twice? Customers. What a pain.

So to those who inflict the tax, like many of us who pay it, the cost is hidden. It comes in the form of an absence of dignity and social value the worth of which they are unable to conceive.

But not all is hopeless. While we probably can't reverse the Incompetence Tax on a global scale, each of us who cares might be able to do so on a personal scale, i.e., among the businesses we frequent. I'm thinking of a university psychology experiment in which several students who sat in the front of a certain professor's class agreed to smile whenever he evinced a particular facial expression. By the end of the semester they had trained him, via positive reinforcement, to produce the expression every few seconds.

So, when you encounter excellent customer service, do you provide positive reinforcement? Do you ask to speak to the person's supervisor in order to commend him, or better yet, write a letter to the owner? Do you look him in the eye and give him genuine thanks? You might be surprised how far this sort of thing can go. We might not be able to convert the crusty university cashier to the cause of creating value, but we can certainly encourage the excellent service providers when we encounter them.

So be especially kind to the people who do great work, should you be fortunate enough to cross paths with any of them today. And if all you get today are the duds, have a little pity. There, but for the grace of God, some good upbringing, and Sand in the Gears, go you.

posted by Woodlief | link | (15) comments

Tuesday, October 8, 2002


As you've probably heard, there's a sniper in my neck of the woods. Well, not really my neck, though he did make an excursion down near Fredericksburg recently. He specializes in shooting people who are going about their everyday business in public places -- gas stations, shopping malls, and as evidenced by his latest victim, grade schools. The previous victim, the one shot before the child, was a mother of two loading bags into her minivan. Most of us find the targeting of children and mothers especially despicable, though sniping in general seems reprehensible. I recall in Shelby Foote's excellent Civil War series the recounting of an officer's admission in his diary that he was glad whenever a sniper from either side was eliminated by the means of his own trade.

Far worse than enduring the minimally greater risk of being shot while in public, of course, is enduring the certainty that one will have to listen to government officials, and the reporters who cover them, mangle both the English language and the rules of logic. After the first round of attacks, for example, when law officers were first realizing that several shootings were related, a Maryland county official gave a press conference that started with the basic details most people want to know, namely, what do the police know? Because the police knew so little at the time, however, and because politicians and journalists seem incapable of not talking even when they have little knowledge of the topic they are discussing, the session quickly degenerated into something from a Monty Python skit:

Reporter: "What should citizens be doing to protect themselves?"

Official: "We are advising people to take extra precautions."

Reporter: "What does that mean?"

Official: "The most important thing is that people go about business as usual."

Reporters: (scribble scribble scribble)

Official: "We are also advising parents to take extra precautions with children. Be careful, be alert."

Because alertness can stop a high-velocity round, you know. While you're being alert, go about business as usual. Protecting children is one thing, but there's no need to jeopardize tax revenues in the process. Get out there and shop. But wear your Kevlar and be sure to serpentine. Has anyone noticed, by the way, that the secular mantra in a time of crisis is to "go about business as usual"?

Far worse than pronouncements of public officials, who have to say something, after all, if only because voters won't tolerate Tony's version of a press conference ("Guy out there with a rifle. If he's aiming at you, you'll probably get shot. If you see him first, aim for the upper body and save the taxpayers some money. Have a nice day"), is the breathless coverage by journalists. This morning I heard a local journalist interviewed on NPR. Apparently he has his finger on the pulse of the region, because he was using the familiar tactic of referring to "people here," which can be translated into "my friends, none of whom have a blue collar job or go to church."

Immediately before this report, an NPR reporter provided an interview with a psychological profiler, a job which, after "Silence of the Lambs," replaced bounty hunter as the thing I most wish I had spent my wasted college years learning to do. The profiler detailed how his profession uses things like location, characteristics of victims, time of day, etc., to dig deep into the psyche of the killer and discern facts that help nab him. Unfortunately, the reporter noted, as if explaining why profiling hasn't yet yielded a suspect, the sniper hasn't left any evidence that might identify him, there are no witnesses, and none of his victims appear to know him.

In other words, a psychological profile will probably be especially helpful. The reporter's use of "unfortunately," however, suggests that she hasn't internalized a lick of her own report. Her observation was akin to concluding a report on wilderness foraging techniques with: "unfortunately, there are no grocery stores in Yellowstone. Back to you Bob."

The reporter also noted that serial killers "often" target people on the basis of gender or minority status. Leaving aside the judiciousness of using "often" to describe the characteristics underlying a very rare activity ("suicidal religious cults often drink poisoned Kool-Aid"), I wonder if this claim is supported by data. Journalists often genuflect to received doctrine on white male oppression without bothering to verify, you know. Hey, this unsupported "often" technique can come in handy.

Speaking of drawing inferences without adequate data, one of the experts interviewed by NPR noted that some armchair detectives are clogging bandwidth with useless speculation about the sniper's motives. He mentioned by way of example speculation that the sniper was someone rejected by the Green Berets or the Navy SEALs, and with seasoned disdain observed the lack of facts to support such a conclusion. And just to show you an appropriate use of the word "unfortunately," I'll note that unfortunately, the expert's caution against speculation was preceded by his speculation that the sniper's recent targeting of a child was fueled by coverage of measures schools are taking to protect students. "He wants to show that we can't protect ourselves from him."

Apparently one has to be a certified expert to offer unsupported inferences.

All of which is to say I'm back, with two hours a day on the train to write my novel betwixt missives to you, faithful Sand in the Gears readers.

posted by Woodlief | link | (11) comments