Showing posts with label bureaucracy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label bureaucracy. Show all posts

18 September 2014

What can a state employee do to fight corrupt policy?

I got this email from a little bird (LB):
After 3 years of having my head deep in ecosystem restoration and coming the the conclusion that our program is just chasing its tail (not addressing the real problem, but doing lots of hand waving so that it looks like progress on the surface), I want to know how to push the debate towards the real issues of water over use, farming in inappropriate soils, depletion of ground water, political corruption, etc.

In terms of the CVP & SWP, Westlands Water District (and other junior water right holders farming in salty soils on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley), Federal Biological Opinions for the pumps in Tracy that address environmental symptoms instead of the cause (over-allocation), and subsidized water deliveries to billionaire farmers who are very cozy with state and federal politicians... What can someone like me -- a CA State Government employee working to protect our natural resources -- do to fix a system that is, well, already "fixed" for the benefit of special interests?
In reply, I said:
Thanks for your insights. I'm surprised that I don't hear, more often, from state employees...

You're in a tough spot. There's a bit of robber barons going on here -- they stole the gold and laundered it into mansions, etc. How to get it back?

I agree with you that many policies (and employees) focus on details while missing the big picture, e.g, WHY are we sending water in huge aqueducts to huge farms?

Perhaps the best way to push back on the current system is to imagine -- and project -- two different futures: (1) with business as usual (collapsing aquifers and ecosystems; dust bowl, etc.) versus (2) with changes in flows, smaller farms, etc.

The vision thing can help people grasp an alternative which can THEN result in huge policy overhauls. It's like busting a dam and seeing a river revive. People THEN understand the point.
LB wrote back:
I think a reason why you don't hear from state employees more often is because they are either too busy in their specialized tasks to have time to come up for air to see the big picture or following the "state worker golden rule," i.e., don't make more work for yourself.

I agree that vision is a powerful tool. I'm not sure how to apply that in a department that is reactionary and can't keep employees long enough to build institutional knowledge to see the vision through.

I've often joked to colleagues that only Oprah can save the environment due to her ability to sway the masses and plant the vision... but then this is a conversation about water, fish, farms and money, not sexy celebrities. We ecologists are not allowed to contact elected government officials. They can ask for information from us, but it's not to be given unsolicited. It is very "chain of command" here, and I'm still figuring out how that end of the machine functions.
Can any of you offer advice, sympathy or ideas to help LB do their job and/or cope in an environment that is designed to minimize innovation and feedback?

16 September 2014

The practical ways in which laws are undermined

A water bureaucrat (WB) explained to me how laws that sound good in theory may be worthless in reality.

Water users in his state can pump groundwater with permission, without permission (exempt), or in excess of their permission (illegal).

Problems result from exempt or illegal pumping, so WBs (who want to represent/protect the public) should either monitor everyone (assuming adequate resources) or go after the largest abusers (prioritizing given a lack of resources).

WB told me that neither of these strategies are pursued. Politicians have withheld funding to monitor all uses, and they have directed WBs to monitor permitted uses. Given that most permits (say 90 percent) go to small users, these instructions mean that WBs spend 90 percent of their time on users who may account for 10-20 percent of total use (and very little abuse). WBs do not pay extra attention to large users, and they entirely ignore exempt users. The upshot is that the WBs are busy but useless.*

Bottom Line: Vague regulations and mis-prioritized enforcement can lower bureaucratic impact to zero, even with hard working, qualified staff. Pay attention to outcomes, and pay more attention to politicians who talk about sustainability but then hinder its pursuit.
* We would predict this result if we knew politicians condone over-use of groundwater. We can assume they do condone such over-use, given the predictable and known impact of their instructions.

06 September 2014

Flashback: 1-7 Sep 2013

A year later and still worth reading...

01 August 2014

Another flaw in energy-water nexus thinking

I've said that the energy-water nexus needs the same amount of management as the donut-coffee nexus (i.e., none) because each system can -- and should -- be managed separately for sustainability. This is relatively easy when the nexus refers to commodity ("private good") uses of both resources.

In other words, there wouldn't be a nexus if water companies paid scarcity and externality-adjusted prices for energy --- as they often do --- and energy companies paid scarcity and externality-adjusted prices for water, which they often do not.

...but I just thought of another reason to avoid "nexus" thinking: a tendency to focus too much on what's in the nexus and ignore what's not. Pundits have tried to counter this problem by expanding to the "food-energy-water-climate change" nexus, but they forgot fishing, environment, forests, etc.

It's just a fact that people use water in endless ways that may be too difficult to track, let alone understand or manage. Don't try to understand. Just find a way to limit total demand.

Bottom Line: Studying the energy-water nexus as a means of rationalizing the use of both in society is like studying the goalie-striker nexus as a means of explaining how football games are won.* You end up with data, diagrams... and no clue of how the system works.

* Americans: Like the pitcher-batter nexus...

31 July 2014

Speed blogging

  1. I made four videos about Living with Water Scarcity (tap water, irrigation, bottled water and climate change). Check 'em out

  2. Colorado river math: Flows - rights < 0 means trouble

  3. Water prices are at "record levels" for California farmers. Good. Maybe they will protect their groundwater and use more markets

  4. California bureaucrats want $500 fines for water "waste." The idea is stupid compared to raising prices and allowing people to find ways to use less, but it's tragic for excluding irrigation of lawns and fields. FAIL

  5. The Santa Cruz declaration says the global water crisis is caused by injustice and inequality. Aquadoc has good reasons to disagree, but corruption does matter -- as I explain here
H/T to RM

25 July 2014

The Starfish and the Spider -- a (mini) review

Over-controlling CEO or empowering Catalyst?
CH sent me this book by Brafman and Beckstrom, which I started -- and stopped -- this morning.*

I stopped because the prose was far too excited for the authors' point, which is that a starfish has a decentralized "leadership" that allows individual arms (even polyps) to "decide" what to do, without consulting any center. A spider, OTOH, needs to keep the entire web in order if it's going to eat. The obvious figure at right "explains."

This analogy is meant to apply to organizations (hence all the CEO endorsements) that want to balance between centralized and delegated control.

I get it. You get it. The main question, then, is HOW to find that balance.

When it comes to water, for example, we can leave a farmer with a well or reservoir to decide how much of his private water to use. He knows how much there is and how much he wants to use, and his decisions do not affect the water of others.

Change that scenario to a bunch of farmers sharing the same aquifer or reservoir, and there's a need to coordinate their use. This can happen by allowing each the same quantity of water, auctioning rights to the "sustainable" yield, etc. A "spider" needs to keep track of aggregate use, but there's no need to track the "why" of use (trees, row crops, pools, etc.) because we can assume the farmers know what they're doing.

Take it one step further, to water prices in cities. Water managers can try to tell people how much to use, when and for what. Or they can move towards a starfish type of management by setting a price that will keep total consumption within an acceptable range. The managers will not know who uses how much water for what (except when sending bills), but their ignorance does not matter. They don't know who should use how much water, and they should not try to understand. They only need to keep aggregates in balance.

If you like airport business books, then check out Starfish. If you want better perspectives on these ideas, then read Two Cheers for Anarchism or the founding papers on these topics: Hayek's 1945 "Use of Knowledge in Society" [PDF] or Coase's 1937 "Nature of the Firm" [PDF]

Bottom Line: I give this book TWO STARS for lacking anything sticky to hold me.

* This is a mini-review because I didn't read the whole book. I may have missed a masterpiece (correct me, please), but I cannot spend too much time looking when one may not be there.

10 July 2014

Don't shoot the messenger

A LOT of people get upset when politicians, bureaucrats and managers tell them that -- due to a drought, contamination or bad day at the office - there's not enough water for people to use in the same way as in the "good old days."

Their reaction is childish, but it's even worse when people complain about the end of their subsidized water. Get real.

Bottom Line: He who lives by the sword (cheap water from the government) dies by the sword (government water cut-off). Reliable water comes to those who pay full price and learn how to live with real water flows.

07 July 2014

Anything but water

  1. "What you learn in your 40s" resonates with me, especially "there are no experts"

  2. An excellent example of science-design porn from India

  3. The attraction of university in the US is falling as fees and student debt rise to cover the cost of bloated administration

  4. The sugar industry bribes politicians so it can kill you

  5. Two (cartoon) views of the Anthropocene: humans control 90+ percent of mammal biomass and the catastrophic potential of climate change

  6. "The people who tend to prefer the Oxford comma [a comma at the end of a series of items] also tend to be the kind of people who will tell a survey that they think their own grammar is excellent." I use that comma when it improves understanding, parallels and long sentences
H/T to RM

01 July 2014

Watch this -- twice

Ernesto Sirolli (mentioned yesterday) wrote Ripples from the Zambezi years ago. It's the best book on development (for rich or poor nations) that I've ever read.

This TED talk summarizes his views with a passion -- and clarity -- that will bowl you over:

10 June 2014

Speed blogging

  1. Just to clarify: GHG emissions force "global warming" which changes "weather" which modifies "climate" -- in that order. On a related note, Canada may not "win" from global warming (weather disruptions will be VERY costly), but nobody will know because the Harper government is cutting science spending left and right.* In the meantime, Canada's "tradition" of placing no limits on use of "safe" water is threatened by stress on quantity and quality

  2. On a positive note, Calgary's CAWST (Centre for Affordable Water and Sanitation Technology) provides training, materials, etc. to local communities, worldwide, to improve their conditions

  3. The Indian government's next five year plan [pdf] includes an expansion of the successful move to reduce energy (pumping) subsidies to farmers, i.e.,
    5.16 There is a great need for significant changes in the way we price both water and electric power required to pump up groundwater. It may not be possible to levy a charge on the use of ground water for agriculture but the power used for pumping ground water can and should be economically priced. At the very least, State governments should levy a cess on all power for agricultural use and earmark the excess to fund ground water recharge programmes in the same aquifer.
    5.17 Another step that helps improve both the power situation and revive groundwater is the separation of agricultural feeders, which enables villages to get 24 X 7 three-phased power for domestic uses, schools, hospitals and village industries while farm pump-sets, which require much more power, obtain eight hours or more of quality power on a pre-announced schedule. The programme of feeder separation has to be carried through across the country. Gujarat has achieved very good results...
    The rest of that chapter (Sustainable Management of Natural Resources) is interesting, if aspirational. Read this report [pdf] on some groundwater governance victories

  4. Watch 12 archived guest lectures from Sri Vedachelam's Cornell course on "Water Resource Infrastructure: Assessment, Management, & Planning" here!

* This is no joke. Read this article on barriers to information from the Canadian government. Then consider these answers from a survey of government scientists:
  • 90% feel that they cannot speak freely to the media about their work.
  • 48% had seen information withheld, causing the public or government to be misled or misinformed.
  • 86 % could not report actions that might harm the public without fear of censure.
  • 43% had been asked to exclude or alter information in government documents for non-scientific reasons.
  • 50% had seen public health or safety compromised by political interference in science.
  • 37% had been blocked from answering media requests in the past 5 years.

H/Ts to KD, DL, CM and MV

06 June 2014

Anything but water

Send leftover change to your PayPal acct
  1. Is there a wonk bubble? No -- wonks are raising the quality of public debates and replacing academic outlets such as journals. Next in line: seminars and conferences (I just skipped a conference because I don't want to spend 6 hours -- and $100 -- on trains for a few talks) except for their social dimension of informal exchange. Speaking of virtual, the Mormons go big online -- and get believers through the relaxed interface of chats

  2. Speaking of wonks, I recommend fivethirtyeight.com for data-driven blogging, e.g., the importance of "cap" to cap and trade and tracing FIFA corruption

  3. Forget migrants stealing your job -- worry about the kids. Better yet, get off your butt and provide value

  4. Tienanmen was 25 years ago (many of my Chinese students did not know anything about it), but the forces that underlie it are strengthening again. The Party is trying to reform while holding onto power, but NGOs put citizens ahead of corrupt bureaucrats

  5. I finished three seasons of "Yes Minister," a genius BBC program that ran in the early 80s. The show's scathing portrayal of bureaucratic obfuscation and political opportunism is still relevant (and ridiculous). You can watch the videos here or here. Bring your dry humour

14 April 2014

Monday funnies?

This is funny in a pathetic way.*


Now I know that you looked at terrorism first, but just re-read that and try to understand WTF it's saying. Form 1116? Wow. Surreal.

* I'm so tired of the BS-bureaucratic corruption in the US. I tried to visit a friend in Washington State a few days ago but turned back at the ridiculous border crossing. What kind of country is this? The "economy" of Department of Homeland Security is double the size, per capita, of the economy of Luxembourg, home to the richest people in the world. This means -- I just realized -- that DHS is spending our money at a rate that even les Luxembourgeois would see as ridiculous.

12 April 2014

Flashback: 7-13 Apr 2013

A year later and still worth reading...

The nexus of bullshit -- don't try to manage energy and water until you can manage water!

Question of the week -- the generation gap may mean that people think differently. I'll add that they also learn and communicate differently. This can lead to confusion and inhibit cooperation.

To centralize or not to centralize? Depends on information, distribution of costs/benefits, politics, etc.

27 March 2014

The Implement of Chinese Environmental Policy

W writes:*

So far, China is emitting the most carbon dioxide in the world. The Chinese government is saying that we have to lower the carbon dioxide. However, as the local governments carry out, local officers are implementing it in different purpose other than corruption.

As my family experience, the local officers in order to achieve the goal of reducing carbon dioxide, they shut down the electricity of the entire industry park in town, for example, every Monday, and Wednesday. Therefore, the factories could not produce any more during Mondays and Wednesdays. No production, no pollution, very “brilliant” decision. Actually, it is impossible for factories to stop working. They have their own generators. Generators burn diesels, then a shortage of diesels occurred.

That’s how the officers achieve their goal to reduce carbon dioxide. On the surface, the carbon dioxide is reduced because of no production. Statistical bureau collect data from local government not from individual factories. In fact, the pollution is even more, individual generators can’t be as efficient as power plant. We have to find out a way that can really help to reduce the pollution.

Bottom Line: The policy of reducing carbon dioxide is actually increasing carbon dioxide.

* These guest posts are from students in my resource economics class at Simon Fraser University. Please leave feedback on their logic, ideas and style and suggestions of how to improve.

16 January 2014

Canadian guilds

In my short time here, I've noticed that it's harder [than in the US or NL] for people to work in some professions (engineers need to be members of their organization to call themselves "engineers"), restraint of trade in some businesses, and so on.

Suppliers who face less competition often say that they can provide more quality. A certified engineer will be paid more but she will have more resources to build safer bridges. A lack of competition in beer retailing -- or higher prices via tax -- saves lives (I'll stop bitching about alcohol taxes; I don't mind paying more if fewer people die).

I was lucky to be exempted from most of these rules when it came to my visa (PhD with US passport and offer letter can get a NAFTA professional visa on the border), but others are not so lucky. They cannot work; they cannot deliver value at a bargain to customers.

My point here is not to blast prudence in the name of competition. It's to call attention to the benefits and costs of a "guilded marketplace." Let's look at them from a "negative" perspective.

Less competition means...
  • Higher prices for consumers (but more profits -- "monopoly rents" -- to suppliers)
  • Less innovation and more "convention"
  • Less opportunity for the restless and more power to the establishment
More competition means...
  • Less consistency on methods, outcomes and safety
  • Greater search costs to find a supplier
  • Harder regulation and oversight
These bullets (feel free to add your own points) should help you see how the Canadian system may be seen as "cozy and responsible" by incumbents, the rich, and bureaucrats but "costly and staid" by innovators, the poor and outsiders.

Bottom Line: Costs and benefits depend on where you stand.

11 January 2014

Flashback: 6-12 Jan 2013

A year later and still worth reading...

Who to blame? Blame the bureaucrat, not the businessman

Nile River Basin -- the review -- you may not want to read the book, but you would have wanted to read our analysis of the costs and benefits of Aswan High Dam in Egypt. We didn't write it, unfortunately, for time, but I'm guessing that the dam was a loser for the majority of Egyptians (but not the rich who made $ on construction or the army that got preferential access to irrigation water)

02 January 2014

The oversimplifying mind

Warning: Long, linked and thoughtful (I hope). We're all eager after the break, yes?

I just got back from three weeks in Ecuador and Colombia. The trip was fun and interesting. It also reminded me of the importance of keeping an open mind when it comes to new situations, people and places.

We all use stereotypes when thinking of people or cultures; we all simplify decisions and rationalize events.[1] These shortcuts can be useful when it comes to everyday situations and interactions, but they can also interfere with our progress by directing us to a path that's easier... and wrong.[2]

I've often ridiculed "planners" who assume that they understand enough about people and behavior to design systems that will be complete, robust and efficient in allocating water. I've tagged these posts "economics versus engineering" to poke fun at engineers (this version is funny), but I was wrong to use that phrase.

Mea culpa.

The truth is that economists are often guilty of oversimplifying (this and this), just as engineers often design robust systems. The real problem arises when individuals mix their biases into their work. I'd say that economists are more likely to make this mistake, as their "models" are rarely stress-tested in the same way as engineered constructs (everything from bridges to artificial knees to software algorithms).[3]

The Colombian bubble butt? ¡Si!
The fact is that we should all be cautious when guessing how people will behave. Oversimplification leads to bad planning, poor execution and gratuitous failure.

That's one reason why I've traveled to over 90 countries, to be surprised, to learn, and to appreciate the variety of human and natural ingenuity.

(This post is not about Ecuador and Colombia, but I was surprised by their urban creativity and sexuality, respectively. A little on the Galapagos, tomorrow.)

Those experiences have honed and strengthened my belief that we must build imperfect understanding into our discussions of "fact" and design of policies. That's why I tend to rely on markets or other disaggregated decision mechanisms for allocating or managing resources (for example).[4]

Many people lack this perspective insight, which is why, for example, both George Bush and Barack Obama -- assuming they have good intentions -- have failed to help the average American. Economists may contribute to this problem by oversimplifying their explanations or policy recommendations, but politicians create greater harm when they mistake their power for judgement and their opinion for consensus.[5]

So, how do we overcome this problem within ourselves and when dealing with others?
  1. Nurture diversity, especially in schooling
  2. Respect our ignorance of reality
  3. Expect surprises with innovation
  4. Devolve power in the context of 1-3
Bottom Line: Every new year gives us an excuse to repent of past sins and choose a new path. In this year, I suggest that you give everybody more credit for knowing something useful while giving nobody the power to decide what is most useful.

  1. I've reviewed several books on this issue, i.e., The Black Swan, The Calculus of Consent, Death and Life of Great American Cities, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, Madmen, Intellectuals and Academic Scribblers, Predictably Irrational, Prophet of Innovation, Two Cheers for Anarchism, and Say Everything. On these topics, I recommend anything by Bill Easterly as well as the paper that explains it all: Hayek's "Use of Knowledge in Society."
  2. I am nearly done with Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow, which describes how thoughtfulness (System 2) may be ignored in favor of intuition (System 1).
  3. I've said that economists use math to "prove" their opinions. Read this brilliant 1966 essay [pdf] by Kenneth Boulding ("The knowledge of economics and the economics of knowledge"). Historians are wary of bias, as discussed here.
  4. These themes are central to my new book -- more on that next week.
  5. Ostrom and Ostrom (1971) [pdf] discuss the origin of "public choice" theory, which contradicts the earlier model of the perfect public administrator by integrating bureaucratic self-interest with the complexity of political debates. Read these recent essays on polymaths versus experts, the hubris of financial models and political mangling of markets and how machines may overthrow us while following our instructions.

07 October 2013

What kind of job do you do?

Cornelia and I were thinking of the different types of workers and jobs, and we came up with this scheme:


As definitions, I think these may work...

Types of workers:
  • Bureaucrats just do the job they are told to do*
  • Professionals practice craft, to do their job as well as possible
  • Intellectuals look beyond their job, to see a larger significance, which can result in poor performance as well as breakthroughs
Types of jobs:
  • Academic jobs may not be relevant to everyday life
  • Public jobs are relevant to the society
  • Private jobs are relevant inside an organization
Does it look complete? Can you find yourself in there somewhere?  Can you see how you may move around the grid and -- if you do -- how residence in one section may affect your feelings and conduct in another section? That's what I was getting at with my proposal for bureaucratic term limits.

* OMG, you MUST read this essay "On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs"! Excerpt:
But rather than allowing a massive reduction of working hours to free the world’s population to pursue their own projects, pleasures, visions, and ideas, we have seen the ballooning not even so much of the “service” sector as of the administrative sector, up to and including the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations. And these numbers do not even reflect on all those people whose job is to provide administrative, technical, or security support for these industries, or for that matter the whole host of ancillary industries (dog-washers, all-night pizza deliverymen) that only exist because everyone else is spending so much of their time working in all the other ones.

These are what I propose to call “bullshit jobs.”

It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working. And here, precisely, lies the mystery. In capitalism, this is precisely what is not supposed to happen.

03 September 2013

UNited in confusion?

Global bureaucrats and stakeholders are writing a post-MDG 2015 development agenda.

They've released a "water thematic consultation report" [pdf] that claims that 2 billion people have "access to an improved water supply" yet "1.8 billion of those who gained an improved source still use water known to be unsafe to drink" [p. 12] -- a failure that I noted long ago.

They also make this strange statement on a human right to water (which I oppose):
Indeed, to endure and reach everyone – especially the weakest, most remote, impoverished or unborn members in society – on an equal basis, parties felt reluctant to force water access unilaterally from above. Nor can rights take shape without due respect for local cultural, gender, political or natural context. Rather, it became clear through the consultation that secure access to water must be recognized as a fundamental right for all, which can’t be taken away. [p.5]
It's strange to me that their bold text contradicts the statements above about "unilaterally from above" and "local... context." Did someone forget to run the logic checker?

Bottom line: The UN and other bureaucrats cannot help people if they are too confused to see their own failings and contradictions.