Quotulatiousness

August 10, 2016

Sir Humphrey Appleby explains the organization of the EU to his new minister

Filed under: Britain, Bureaucracy, Europe, Humour — Tags: — Nicholas @ 03:00

In the Guardian, Jonathan Lynn and Antony Jay provide a new minister with the wisdom of Sir Humphrey Appleby:

Sir Humphrey The first thing to understand is that there is a European Council and a Council of the European Union.

Minister They’re not the same thing?

Sir Humphrey No. The European Council, whose members are the 28 heads of state of the 28 member states, defines the general political direction and priorities of the European Union whereas the Council of the European Union, on the other hand, develops the EU’s common foreign policy, in so far as there is any, and security policy, concludes international agreements and adopts the EU budget.

Minister Who’s in charge?

Sir Humphrey That’s an interesting question. The president of the European Council is in office for 30 months and is in charge of preparing the agenda and chairing the meetings of the European Council, whereas the presidency of the Council of the European Union is held only for six months each, by rotating states, hardly enough time for a part-time president to get his feet under the desk. Which is probably the idea.

Minister So who really runs Europe?

Sir Humphrey Another interesting question. Well done, Minister! The European Union is run on an intricate and sophisticated system based on an hierarchical structure of interlocking and overlapping jurisdictions designed to separate the powers whilst reinforcing the authority of the departments, institutions and agencies who collectively and separately control and supervise the diverse activities of the Union and its associated organisations. So Europe is not run by the president of the European Council or the Council of the European Union but by the president of the European Commission, who is akin to prime minister of Europe because he is elected for five years and heads a cabinet government whereas the president of the Council, on the other hand, is not elected but appointed, and presides over the meetings of the Council, which is not the cabinet.

Minister Who are the members of the European Council?

Sir Humphrey The European Council’s membership consists of the heads of member states while the Council of the European Union, on the other hand – which is often still referred to as the Council of Ministers – is the real voice of EU member governments, adopting EU laws and coordinating EU policies. Sometimes it is just called “the Council” in the interests of clarity. And they’re not even trying to be funny.

Minister It’s called the Council.

Sir Humphrey Yes – but the Council of the European Union should not be confused with the European Council nor with the Council of Europe – nor the Council of Ministers, which is also sometimes just called “the Council”, although it is not the same Council as the other Council and is in fact not an EU body at all.

QotD: “Pro-business” versus “Pro-consumer”

In popular discourse, America is said to be more “pro-business” than is France. When people use this term “pro-business” they typically have in mind some vague notion of a government policy made up of low-ish taxes and not a great deal of government regulation. That is, “pro-business” is commonly used to mean a free, or free-ish, market.

But such language is mistaken.

A true free market is at its core pro-consumer. In a genuinely free-market economy, businesses are valued only insofar as they serve consumers. The performance of a genuinely free-market economy is assessed by how well it satisfies, over time, the demands of consumers spending their own money and not by how well it satisfies the demands of business owners and managers.

Obviously, because businesses are a useful – indeed, practically indispensable – means of abundantly satisfying consumers’ demands, government policies that obstruct the smooth operation of these means are undesirable. But such policies that obstruct or discourage business operations are economically undesirable not because they harm businesses but, rather, because they harm consumers.

Anyway, for all of its faults, American culture and policy are actually much less pro-business than are the culture and policy of France. If you’re really looking for a government that is deeply pro-business – one that regards the protection of existing businesses as a worthy end in and of itself – one that forcibly transfers resources from taxpayers, consumers, and other non-businesses in order to promote the material interests of existing businesses – look at France. You’ll find there what you seek. In France you’ll find one of the most business-friendly policy regimes on the face of the earth. (HT Chris Meisenzahl)

Pity the French.

Don Boudreaux, “Pity the French Consumer and Worker”, Café Hayek, 2016-06-27.

August 2, 2016

The Old Third Vineyards wins their appeal against the VQA

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Cancon, Wine — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

The Ontario government granted the Vintner’s Quality Alliance (VQA) some regulatory power to police the marketing and labelling of wines made in Ontario, including (the VQA thought) the rights to restrict the use of certain geographical designators like “Ontario” and “Prince Edward County” to VQA-compliant wineries. In a recent decision, a non-VQA winery located in Prince Edward County won an appeal against the VQA’s over-restrictive order:

Yesterday (July 28, 2016) was a big day for The Old Third Vineyards, a small, boutique winery located in Prince Edward County. The Licence Appeal Tribunal ruled in their favour against the Vintner’s Quality Alliance Ontario (VQAO) compliance order that they remove “Prince Edward County” from The Old Third website.

The Old Third Vineyard is located in Prince Edward County. It is owned and operated by winemaker Bruno François and Jens Korberg. They make Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc wines, sold from their estates. Their wines have received ratings of 90 points or higher by esteemed wine experts Jamie Goode, John Szabo and Quench’s own Rick VanSickle. Each vintage – only one per year per variety – is bottled with a wine label that reads “Product of Canada”.

However, their website has a heading tagline that reads “Producers of fine wine and cider in Prince Edward County.” This is an issue for the VQA.

On February 3, 2016, VQA compliance officer Susan Piovesan emailed The Old Third with regards to the use of the geographic designation “Prince Edward County” on their website.

In other words, the VQA wanted to prevent the Old Third Vineyards from even revealing where in the country they were located because the legal designator for that area is also a restricted term for use by the VQA’s own wineries on wine bottle labels. Old Third wasn’t using it on a label, but as any common sense interpretation would agree, they have to indicate where customers can find them if they want to sell much of their wine … and they’re physically located in Prince Edward County, and said that on their website.

The VQA argued that The Old Third are trying to monopolize on the value the VQA has added to the term “Prince Edward County” by making it an official wine designation. The Tribunal disagreed: “The information conveyed in the banner … locates it geographically. Giving the words, in context, their ordinary meaning, they do not convey that the Appellant produces a Prince Edward County wine.”

The Tribunal’s ruling in favour of The Old Third shows that, even if an organization that regulates wine believes they own a term or regional name, it doesn’t mean they have the right to enforce their designations on those wineries that don’t wish to buy into the designation. The Old Third is a small vineyard in Prince Edward County and it will most likely remain that way.

And it’s these small wineries that first put Prince Edward County on the wine scene – there wouldn’t be a VQA designation for Prince Edward County if it weren’t for the wineries and estates that were producing quality wines long before the VQA came around in 2007: Waupoos Winery, The Grange of Prince Edward Vineyards and Winery, Casa-Dea Estates Winery, By Chadsey’s Cairns Winery, Sandbanks Estates Winery… the list goes on (and on).

July 17, 2016

QotD: Regulating Napa County

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Business, Quotations, USA, Wine — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

… at each tour we typically got the whole backstory of the business. And the consistent theme that ran through all of these discussions was the simply incredible level of regulation of the wine business that goes on in Napa. I have no idea what the public justification of all these rules and laws are, but the consistent theme of them is that they all serve to make it very hard for small competitors or new entrants to do business in the county. There is a board, likely populated by the largest and most powerful entrenched wine makers, that seems to control the whole regulatory structure, making this a classic case of an industry where you have to ask permission of your competitors to compete against them. There are minimum sizes, in acres, one must have to start a new winery, and this size keeps increasing. Recently, large winemakers have started trying to substantially raise this number again to a size greater than the acreage of any possible available parcel of land, effectively ending all new entrants for good. I forget the exact numbers, but one has to have something like 40 acres of land as a minimum to build a structure on the land, and one must have over 300 acres to build a second structure. You want to buy ten acres and build a small house and winery to try your hand at winemaking? — forget it in Napa.

It took a couple of days and a bunch of questions to put this together. Time and again the guide would say that the (wealthy) owners had to look and wait for a long time to find a piece of land with a house on it. I couldn’t figure out why the hell this was a criteria — if you are paying millions for the land, why are you scared to build a house? But it turned out that they couldn’t build a house. We were at this beautiful little place called Gargiulo and they said they bought their land sight-unseen on 3 hours notice for millions of dollars because it had a house AND a separate barn on it grandfathered. Today, it was impossible to get acreage of the size they have and build two structures on it, but since they had the barn, they could add on to it (about 10x the original size of the barn) to build the winery and still have a separate house to live in.

This is why the Napa Valley, to my eye, has become a weird museum of rich people. It seems to be dominated by billionaires who create just fantastically lovely showplaces that produce a few thousand cases of wine that is sold on allocation for 100+ dollars a bottle to other rich people. It is spectacularly beautiful to visit — seriously, each tasting room and vineyard is like a post card, in large part because the owners are rich enough to care nothing about return on capital invested in their vineyards. The vineyards in Napa seem to have some sort of social signalling value which I don’t fully understand, but it is fun to visit for a few days. But in this set-piece, the last thing the folks who control the county want is for grubby little middle-class startups to mess up their carefully crafted stage, so they are effectively excluded.

I know zero about wines, but from other industries this seems to be a recipe for senescence. It would surprise me not at all to see articles get written 10 years from now about how Napa wines have fallen behind other, more innovative areas. I have never been there, but my friends say newer areas like Paso Robles has an entirely different vibe, with working owners on small plots trying to a) actually make a viable business of it and b) innovate and try new approaches.

Warren Meyer, “My Nomination for Corporate State of the Year: Napa County, California”, Coyote Blog, 2016-07-08.

July 8, 2016

QotD: The rule of the faceless bureaucracy

Filed under: Britain, Bureaucracy, Europe, Government, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

I saw this firsthand as a senior advisor to Prime Minister David Cameron. After just a few weeks in office, I was struck by how many things the European government was doing that the prime minister and his team didn’t just not know about, but would have actively opposed. Every few days, the civil service circulated a pile of paperwork about a foot high, proposing regulatory or administrative government action.

In time-honored fashion, the process was stacked in the bureaucrats’ favor: proposals would be implemented unless elected officials objected within two days. I wanted to know where these “requests for policy clearance,” as the EU directives were known, originated. More importantly, I wanted to know the extent of their effects on the lives of British people. So I requested a detailed audit. I discovered that some 30 percent of the British government’s actions came as a result of the actions British people elected us to undertake. The rest were generated and mandated by the civil service machine, the majority coming from the EU.

These directives determined everything from employment law to family policy, all through distant, centralized processes that UK citizens barely understood, let alone controlled. To this day, British officials spend much of their time in the EU’s administrative capital, Brussels, trying — mostly in vain — to block policies they don’t want and which no one in Britain voted for, all of it wasting inordinate amounts of time, energy, and money.

Steve Hilton, “Here’s Why Britain Should Leave The European Union Today”, The Federalist, 2016-06-23.

July 2, 2016

QotD: They always get their man

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Media, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

There’s this notion, more and more, that if you’re male, you must be guilty.

Guilty…of what?

Not to worry — they’ll find something.

If you’re a man, some seemingly innocuous thing you’ve done is surely criminal. Not because it is. Because they need something you’ve done to be criminal and because they’ll just call you guilty first and work it out later. Um, maybe.

Maybe this sounds like paranoid craziness, but, from the news stories I read — and not just those of the hurt feelz crowd on college campuses — it increasingly seems like what it’s like to be male, if you’re one of the unlucky ones.

Amy Alkon, “We’re Looking A Little Too Hard For Criminals, AKA Men”, Advice Goddess, 2016-06-20.

June 27, 2016

The twisted incentive system for government bureaucrats

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Business, Government — Tags: — Nicholas @ 02:00

At Coyote Blog, Warren Meyer explains why bureaucrats so often make what appear to be incomprehensible decisions and then double-down on the decision despite any irrational, economically destructive, or humanitarian consequences:

I want to take an aside here on incentives. It is almost NEVER the case that an organization has no incentives or performance metrics. Yes, it is frequently the case that they may not have clear written formal metrics and evaluations and incentives. But every organization has informal, unwritten incentives. Sometimes, even when there are written evaluation procedures, these informal incentives dominate.

Within government agencies, I think these informal incentives are what matter. Here are a few of them:

  1. Don’t ever get caught having not completed some important form or process step or having done some bureaucratic function incorrectly.
  2. Don’t ever get caught not knowing something you are supposed to know in your job.
  3. Don’t ever say yes to something (a project, a permit, a program, whatever) that later generates controversy, especially if this controversy gets the attention of your boss’s boss.
  4. Don’t ever admit a mistake or weakness of any sort to someone outside the organization.
  5. Don’t ever do or support anything that would cause the agency’s or department’s budget to be cut or headcount to be reduced.

You ever wonder why government agencies say no to everything and make it impossible to do new things? Its not necessarily ideology, it’s their incentives. They get little or no credit for approving something that works out well, but the walls come crashing down on them if they approve something that generates controversy.

So consider the situation of the young twenty-something woman across the desk from me at, say, the US Forest Service. She is probably reasonably bright, but has had absolutely no relevant training from the agency, because a bureaucracy will always prefer to allocate funds so that it has 50 untrained people rather than 40 well-trained people (maintaining headcount size will generally be prioritized over how well the organization performs on its mission). So here is a young person with no training, who is probably completely out of her element because she studied forestry or environment science and desperately wanted to count wolves but now finds herself dumped into a job dealing with contracts for recreation and having to work with — for God sakes — for-profit companies like mine.

One program she has to manage is a moderately technical process for my paying my concession fees in-kind with maintenance services. She has no idea how to do this. So she takes her best guess from materials she has, but that guess is wrong. But she then sticks to that answer and proceeds to defend it like its the Alamo. I know the process backwards and forwards, have run national training sessions on it, have literally hundreds of contract-years of experience on it, but she refuses to acknowledge any suggestion I make that she may be wrong. I coined the term years ago “arrogant ignorance” for this behavior, and I see it all the time.

But on deeper reflection, while it appears to be arrogance, what else could she do given her incentives? She can’t admit she doesn’t know or wasn’t trained (see #2 and #4 above). She can’t acknowledge that I might be able to help her (#4). Having given an answer, she can’t change it (#1).

June 25, 2016

Canada’s massively counter-productive protectionist racket

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Business, Cancon — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

At (of all places) the CBC, Neil Macdonald explains why the Canadian government maintains a ridiculously low limit on what Canadians can purchase from other countries without packages being subject to duty, tax, delay, and possible damage:

As any Canadian who’s ever naively bought anything on the American version of eBay (or, for that matter, any U.S. retail website) must by now know, Ottawa is determined to spoil your bargain.

If the purchase is a penny over $20 Cdn, a federal customs agent can intercept it, open it, delay it, add federal and provincial sales taxes, and, depending on the origin of the merchandise, perhaps pile on some duty charges — basically protectionist taxes.

By the time the government is done, the price of the package can easily rise by 50 per cent. And of course customs brokers usually have to wet their beaks, inflating the final cost of the average package by another 20, 30 or 40 per cent.

Basically, Ottawa has ensured that shipping across our border is such an expensive, paperwork-heavy pain that a lot of American merchants and eBay sellers simply don’t bother shipping to Canada.

The system actually seems designed to be burdensome and sclerotic.

Normally, you’d assume it’s all about increasing the federal government’s tax revenues … the CRA must be raking in the bucks, right? Not at all:

… by keeping that purchase threshold at $20 instead of giving Canadian shoppers a break and raising it to $80, Ottawa spends about $166 million to collect $39 million in additional taxes and duties.

Think about that: Ottawa’s customs officials spend a net $127 million of taxpayers’ money annually, basically to keep Canadians trapped inside the Canadian retail corral.

H/T to SDA for the link.

June 20, 2016

QotD: Commencement speeches

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Government, Quotations, USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

This is the season of college Commencement speeches — an art form that has seldom been memorable, but has increasingly become toxic in recent times.

Two themes seem to dominate Commencement speeches. One is shameless self-advertising by people in government, or in related organizations supported by the taxpayers or donors, saying how nobler it is to be in “public service” than working in business or other “selfish” activities.

In other words, the message is that it is morally superior to be in organizations consuming output produced by others than to be in organizations which produce that output. Moreover, being morally one-up is where it’s at.

The second theme of many Commencement speakers, besides flattering themselves that they are in morally superior careers, is to flatter the graduates that they are now equipped to go out into the world as “leaders” who can prescribe how other people should live.

In other words, young people, who in most cases have never had either the sobering responsibility and experience of being self-supporting adults, are to tell other people — who have had that responsibility and that experience for years — how they should live their lives.

In so far as the graduates go into “public service” in government, whether as bureaucrats or as aides to politicians or judges, they are to help order other people around.

It might never occur to many Commencement speakers, or to their audiences, that what the speakers are suggesting is that inexperienced young graduates are to prescribe, or help to dictate, to vast numbers of other people who have the real world experience that the graduates themselves lack.

To the extent that such graduates remain in government — “public service” — they can progress from aides to becoming career politicians, bureaucrats and judges, never acquiring the experience of being on the receiving end of their prescriptions or dictates. That can mean a lifetime of people with ignorance presuming to prescribe to people with personal knowledge.

Thomas Sowell, “Commencement Season”, Townhall.com, 2016-05-24.

June 13, 2016

QotD: The absurdities of many occupational licenses

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Business, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

In 2012, the Institute for Justice — a public-interest law firm advocating libertarian causes — looked at the number of occupations that require licensing. Specifically, the institute looked at occupations typically filled by lower- and middle-income workers. These are not your airline pilots, your certified public accountants and your neurosurgeons; they’re the nations interior decorators, auctioneers and florists. (Yes, you read that right: In at least one state, these occupations cannot be practiced without a license.)

Why, you might ask, is the state requiring a license to decorate an interior? Are customers at risk of death from collapsing piles of pillow shams? Must we fear that they will be blinded by the decorator’s decision to pair fuchsia chiffon drapes with a chartreuse brocade sofa? Do we worry that without the threat of losing their license to keep them on the straight and narrow, these fly-by-night operators might be tempted into purchasing furniture from unlicensed auctioneers, and sourcing their floral arrangements from black-market florists?

Well, no. Mostly, these regulations benefit folks who are already plying the trade. They get helpful state legislators to protect them from competition by instituting tough licensing requirements. Their income goes up; the consumer’s wallet suffers. And people who want to follow their dreams into the industry get shut out if they lack the time to study for the licensing exams, the capital to pay the licensing exam fees (which can run in to the hundreds of dollars), or the social capital to know how to work the system.

Megan McArdle, “You’re Gonna Need a License for That”, Bloomberg View, 2016-05-17.

June 10, 2016

QotD: Against historical preservation

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Government, History, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Summers alludes to the regulatory thicket as a cause of the infrastructure slowdown but doesn’t have much to say about fixing the problem. Here’s a place to begin. Repeal all historic preservation laws. It’s one thing to require safety permits but no construction project should require a historic preservation permit. Here are three reasons:

First, it’s often the case that buildings of little historical worth are preserved by rules and regulations that are used as a pretext to slow competitors, maintain monopoly rents, and keep neighborhoods in a kind of aesthetic stasis that benefits a small number of people at the expense of many others.

Second, a confident nation builds so that future people may look back and marvel at their ancestor’s ingenuity and aesthetic vision. A nation in decline looks to the past in a vain attempt to “preserve” what was once great. Preservation is what you do to dead butterflies.

Ironically, if today’s rules for historical preservation had been in place in the past the buildings that some now want to preserve would never have been built at all. The opportunity cost of preservation is future greatness.

Third, repealing historic preservation laws does not mean ending historic preservation. There is a very simple way that truly great buildings can be preserved–they can be bought or their preservation rights paid for. The problem with historic preservation laws is not the goal but the methods. Historic preservation laws attempt to foist the cost of preservation on those who want to build (very much including builders of infrastructure such as the government). Attempting to foist costs on others, however, almost inevitably leads to a system full of lawyers, lobbying and rent seeking–and that leads to high transaction costs and delay. Richard Epstein advocated a compensation system for takings because takings violate ethics and constitutional law. But perhaps an even bigger virtue of a compensation system is that it’s quick. A building worth preserving is worth paying to preserve. A compensation system unites builders and those who want to preserve and thus allows for quick decisions about what will be preserved and what will not.

Some people will object that repealing historic preservation laws will lead to some lovely buildings being destroyed. Of course, it will. There is no point pretending otherwise. It will also lead to some lovely buildings being created. More generally, however, the logic of regulatory thickets tells us that we cannot have everything.

Alex Tabarrok, “Against Historic Preservation”, Marginal Revolution, 2016-06-01.

June 9, 2016

NATO’s peacetime border problems

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Europe, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

In Foreign Affairs, Elisabeth Braw discusses a problem NATO faces every time there’s a need to move troops across national borders within the alliance:

“NATO’s member states are willing to defend one another, and they have the troops and the equipment to do so. But quickly getting those troops and equipment to their destination is a different matter altogether. In some new NATO member states, bridges and railroads are simply not suitable for large troop movements. But one thing frustrates commanders even more: the arduous process of getting permission to move troops across borders.

“I was probably naïve,” admits Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, the commander of the U.S. Army in Europe. “I assumed that because these were NATO and EU countries we’d just be able to move troops. But ministries of defense are not responsible for borders.”

[…]

And there’s the complication. Moving troops across Europe requires permission at each border. “During the Cold War, we had pretty good plans to rapidly move across borders, but until [the 2014 NATO summit in] Wales we didn’t have similar plans for new NATO member states,” says a NATO official knowledgeable with the issue. “Right after Crimea we sent out a questionnaire about [border regulations] to each member states, and the results were pretty scary. Some countries needed to recall parliament in order to let NATO units cross their borders. And one country said, ‘we can only have 1,600 soldiers on our soil.’” In reality, that meant that NATO would be unable to use that member state, which the NATO official declined to identify, for passage.

Since then, NATO has made impressive progress. It has tripled the size of its 13-year-old NATO Response Force (NRF), which can muster up to 40,000 troops and is, at least in theory, able to deploy quickly to new NATO member states as well as old ones. And all of its member states have agreed to pre-clearance—the military version of a green card for troops and equipment—although it is not clear how the system will work in practice. As the NATO official reports, “some countries say ‘we don’t need any advance notice for pre-clearance,’ while others say they need four to five days’ notice.” According to the official, in most of NATO’s eastern-facing countries, getting the clearance would be a matter of five days or fewer, although one country—he declined to specify which one—still requires more time.

And so, although Hodges and his fellow commanders know how fast their troops can physically move, they have little idea whether crossing borders will take five days, two days, or perhaps just hours. “An official [in an eastern European NATO member state] told me, ‘I hope we can get this [clearance] done quickly,’” Hodges reports. “But you can’t plan based on hopes and wishes.”

H/T to Colonel Ted Campbell for the link.

May 31, 2016

“Illegal” British schools – “If this whole fuss were any more of a smear you could use it to test for cervical cancer”

Filed under: Britain, Bureaucracy, Media, Religion — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Natalie Solent uses up some past-the-use-by-date outrage over a report of “illegal” schools in Britain:

Here is a BBC story from a couple of weeks ago: Thousands of children taught in ‘illegal schools’. Similar pieces appeared in the Times, the Guardian, and other newspapers. When this story came out I listened on the radio to an interview on the subject with some Ofsted guy, either the Sir Michael Wilshaw quoted by the BBC or one of his minions. Whoever it was, he came across as so evasive on one particular point that by comparison even the BBC interviewer was plain-spoken. From the way Ofsted Guy spoke of these illegal schools as places where only “religion” was taught you’d think clicking on the BBC Bitesize GCSE Religious Studies page makes a red light flash in GCHQ, and from the way he spoke of “radicalisation” you’d think that all roots resulted in the same flower. Oh, and from the way he spoke of these schools being “illegal” you would think that they had been convicted in a court of being illegal. The BBC interviewer pressed him and eventually got him to admit that the alleged illegality was merely his opinion, not having been tested in court, and that “some” of these schools were Islamic.

That’s progress of a sort. The Guardian article linked to above does not mention Islam at all but has a quote from a disgruntled former pupil at a Charedi school. We should all be very grateful to the Charedim and the Belzers. When one simply must have someone other than the Muslims to point to, they are there. They ought to start an agency and charge for their services: “Jews in Hats: the safe option for all your denunciation needs.”

The Times says the unauthorized schools are “predominantly Islamic”.

So far this post has almost written itself. The usual pathetic fear of naming Islam from the establishment, the usual pushback from angry commenters, the usual opportunity for bloggers like me to use up old out-of-code packets of sarcasm from the bottom of the freezer. But now things get a little odd and diffuse and unsatisfactory.

I would like to offer a few scattered thoughts regarding three points. (1) Not for the first time, the efforts of the media to conceal that some minority are disproportionately involved in some disfavoured activity has resulted in the public overestimating the involvement of that minority; (2) this whole effort on the part of the so-called Office for Standards in Education has all the characteristics of a power-grab and a smear; and (3) there is no evidence that these little informal schools, including the Muslim ones, do any worse than the state schools at either education or terrorism-prevention. There is some reason to suppose they might do better in some circumstances despite worse facilities. Many children turn to these schools having suffered bullying at normal schools. The low number of people involved means that everyone, teachers and pupils, knows everyone else; no one can “slip through the cracks”. Another benefit is that the presence of an affordable alternative helps keep more traditional types of schools on their toes.

May 25, 2016

QotD: Administrative bloat at American universities

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Economics, Quotations, USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Some commentators blame lazy, overpaid faculty [for the rising cost of tuition]. But while faculty teaching loads are somewhat lower than they were decades ago, faculty-student ratios have been quite stable over the past several decades, while the ratio of administrators and staff to students has become much less favorable. In his book on administrative bloat, The Fall Of The Faculty, Johns Hopkins professor Benjamin Ginsberg reports that although student-faculty ratios fell slightly between 1975 and 2005, from 16-to-1 to 15-to-1, the student-to-administrator ratio fell from 84-to-1 to 68-to-1, and the student-to-professional-staff ratio fell from 50-to-1 to 21-to-1. Ginsberg concludes: “Apparently, when colleges and universities had more money to spend, they chose not to spend it on expanding their instructional resources, i.e. faculty. They chose, instead, to enhance their administrative and staff resources.”

[…]

And according to a 2010 study by the Goldwater Institute, administrative bloat is the largest driver of high tuition costs. Using Department of Education figures, the study found administration growing more than twice as fast as instruction: “In terms of growth, the number of full-time administrators per 100 students at America’s leading universities increased by 39.3% between 1993 and 2007, while the number of employees engaged in teaching research or service only increased by 17.6%.”

Colleges and universities are nonprofits. When extra money comes in — as, until recently, has been the pattern — they can’t pay out excess profits to shareholders. Instead, the money goes to their effective owners, the administrators who hold the reins. As the Goldwater study notes, they get their “dividends” in the form of higher pay and benefits, and “more fellow administrators who can reduce their own workload or expand their empires.”

But with higher education now facing leaner years, and with students and parents unable to keep up with increasing tuition, what should be done? In short, colleges will have to rein in costs.

When asked what single step would do the most good, I’ve often responded semi-jokingly that U.S. News and World Report should adjust its college-ranking formula to reward schools with low costs and lean administrator-to-student ratios. But that’s not really a joke. Given schools’ exquisite sensitivity to the U.S. News rankings, that step would probably have more impact than most imaginable government regulations.

Glenn Harlan Reynolds, “Beat the tuition bloat”, USA Today, 2014-02-17.

May 17, 2016

Charles Stross updates a classic WW2 field guide – a dot-com sabotage manual

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Business, Humour — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Many people have noted that the sabotage techniques listed in a Second World War espionage manual seem to have somehow migrated into a lot of management texts in the last few decades. Here he imagines what an updated version of the manual might look like:

In 1944, the Office of Strategic Services — the predecessor of the post-war CIA — was concerned with sabotage directed against enemies of the US military. Among their ephemera, declassified and published today by the CIA, is a fascinating document called the Simple Sabotage Field Manual (PDF). It’s not just about blowing things up; a lot of its tips are concerned with how sympathizers with the allied cause can impair enemy material production and morale […]

So it occurred to me a week or two ago to ask (on twitter) the question, “what would a modern-day version of this manual look like if it was intended to sabotage a rival dot-com or high tech startup company”? And the obvious answer is “send your best bad managers over to join in admin roles and run their hapless enemy into the ground”. But what actual policies should they impose for best effect?

  1. Obviously, engineers and software developers (who require deep focus time) need to be kept in touch with the beating heart of the enterprise. So open-plan offices are mandatory for all.
  2. Teams are better than individuals and everyone has to be aware of the valuable contributions of employees in other roles. So let’s team every programmer with a sales person — preferably working the phones at the same desk — and stack-rank them on the basis of each pair’s combined quarterly contribution to the corporate bottom line.
  3. It is the job of Human Resources to ensure that nobody rocks the boat. Anyone attempting to blow whistles or complain of harassment is a boat-rocker. You know what needs to be done.
  4. Senior managers should all be “A” Players (per Jack Welch’s vitality model — see “stack ranking” above) so we should promote managers who are energetic, inspirational, and charismatic risk-takers.
  5. The company must have a strong sense of intense focus. So we must have a clean desk policy — any personal possessions left on the desk or cubicle walls at the end of the day go in the trash. In fact, we can go a step further and institute hot desking — we will establish an average developer’s workstation requirements and provide it for everyone at every desk.

This would explain some of the management policies at a few places I’ve worked at over the years…including the software company where I first met Charlie.

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