Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for June 13th, 2013

Privatization is more costly than having the government do it

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David Callahan at The American Prospect:

Is the National Security Agency wasting tax dollars by paying Booz Allen to handle routine intelligence tasks, such as the systems administration work that 29-year old Edward Snowden was doing for $122,000 a year? It sure seems that way.

A stack of studies has documented the apparent high cost of using private contractors compared to federal employees. In September 2011, the Project on Government Oversight—a Beltway watchdog group—released a reported entitled Bad Business: Billions of Taxpayer Dollars Wasted on Hiring Contractors. POGO analyzed compensation paid to federal and private sector workers and billing rates for contractor employees across 35 occupations covering more than 550 service areas.The study found:

the government pays billions of dollars more annually to hire contractors than it would cost to hire federal employees to perform comparable services. Specifically, the federal government approves service contract billing rates—deemed fair and reasonable—that pay contractors 1.83 times more than the government pays federal employees in total compensation (including benefits), and more than 2 times the total compensation paid in the private sector for comparable services.

That does sound like bad business. One particularly galling finding was that “Private sector compensation was lower than contractor billing rates in all 35 occupational classifications we reviewed.”

Let me run that by you again: Contractors didn’t just perform services for a higher cost than it would cost to pay federal exmployess to do the same thing, they also charged the government more than the going rate within the private market for such services. Of course, that makes sense because contractors earn profits by being the middleman. If Booz Allen hires a computer expert at the going market rate of, say, $100,000 a year, it’s not going to make any money if it then bills the government that same amount. It only makes money if it bills more and keeps the difference.

This is a great business model and explains why the consulting industry overall has boomed in recent decades. Places like Booz Allen and McKinsey scour top universities for smart grads, pay them handsomely, and then hire them out to corporations and governments at a far higher rate. Law firms, by the way, have been doing this for over a century: They pay young lawyers seemingly exorbinant annual salaries and then make a fortune by billing clients five times what they are paying their associates.

But the obvious question here is why should we taxpayers be underwriting private middlemen who live in mansions in McLean? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 June 2013 at 1:38 pm

Posted in Business, Government

Atoning for the Sins of Empire

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David Anderson has an interesting op-ed in the NY Times:

THE British do not torture. At least, that is what we in Britain have always liked to think. But not anymore. In a historic decision last week, the British government agreed to compensate 5,228 Kenyans who were tortured and abused while detained during the Mau Mau rebellion of the 1950s. Each claimant will receive around £2,670 (about $4,000).

The money is paltry. But the principle it establishes, and the history it rewrites, are both profound. This is the first historical claim for compensation that the British government has accepted. It has never before admitted to committing torture in any part of its former empire.

In recent years there has been a clamor for official apologies. In 2010, Britain formally apologized for its army’s conduct in the infamous “Bloody Sunday” killings in Northern Ireland in 1972, and earlier this year Prime Minister David Cameron visited Amritsar, India, the site of a 1919 massacre, and expressed “regret for the loss of life.”

The Kenyan case has been in process for a decade in London’s High Court. The British fought to avoid paying reparations, so the decision to settle is a significant change of direction. The decision comes months ahead of the 50th anniversary of the British departure from Kenya — once thought of as the “white man’s country” in East Africa.

The Kenya case turned on the evidence of historians, including my own role as an expert witness. I identified a large tranche of documents that the British government smuggled out of Kenya in 1963 and brought back to London. The judge ordered the release of this long-hidden “secret” cache, some 1,500 files.

The evidence of torture revealed in these documents was devastating. In the detention camps of colonial Kenya, a tough regime of physical and mental abuse of suspects was implemented from 1957 onward, as part of a government policy to induce detainees to obey orders or to make confessions.

The documents showed that responsibility for torture went right to the top — sanctioned by Kenya’s governor, Evelyn Baring, and authorized at cabinet level in London by Alan Lennox-Boyd, then secretary of state for the colonies in Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government.

When told that torture and abuse were routine in colonial prisons, Mr. Lennox-Boyd did not order that such practices be stopped, but instead took steps to place them beyond legal sanction. “Compelling force” was allowed, but defined so loosely as to permit virtually any kind of physical abuse.

Why did the British keep these documents, instead of destroying them? Plenty else was burned, or dumped at sea, as the British left Kenya.

The answer lay in the unease of some British colonial officers. Many did not like what they saw. When the orders to torture came down, some realized the jeopardy they were in. These men worried that it was they, not their commanders, who would carry the can.

They were right to worry. . .

Continue reading. As you read further, see whether any recent US initiatives come to mind.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 June 2013 at 10:05 am

Foods our corporations have made unsafe

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Tuna, for example. Corporations are free to spew pollutants that destroy a food supply, and the US government subsidizes them. Very strange and not what one would expect. Mark Bittman writes in the NY Times:

If you’re like most people (including me, up until a month or two ago), you know that tuna and other top-of-the-food-chain fish contain unsafe levels of mercury and that childbirth-age women and nursing mothers, especially, are warned off these fish. What you don’t know, probably (I didn’t), is the mercury’s source, or how it gets in these fish.

Turns out that about three-quarters of it comes from coal-burning power plants; it dissolves in water, where micro-organisms convert it to methylmercury, a bio-available and highly toxic form that builds up in fish. The longer a fish lives, the more mercury builds in its flesh.

You could, of course, eat less big fish, but there are other sources of mercury: increasingly, it’s being found in vegetables and especially grains like rice that are grown near older, and even no longer functioning, coal-burning plants.

It’s another of those situations where individual solutions don’t really cut it, because mercury is only one of about 80 (!) pollutants spewing from old-fashioned, unfiltered coal-burning plants[1]. And some of the toxins, which are deadly, are just plain unavoidable. Because, unlike mercury, they’re not in tuna and rice. They’re in the air.

It was for these reasons that the journalist (and mother) Dominique Browning started Moms Clean Air Force. “When I was a young mother,” she says, “and was told not to eat tuna, I didn’t make the air-to-food connection; but it’s outrageous that these issues are still being fought 21 years later. I was neither an environmentalist nor an activist, but I could no longer ignore important issues.”

Bravo. So important are these issues that, some time ago, the Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.) developed regulations to ameliorate them. Almost needless to say,  the industry — most of it, anyway[2] — and its representatives are fighting these regulations and trying to stall their implementation with all their power.

This history[3] , like many sagas involving the E.P.A. and industry, is dirty and depressing. In 1990, Congress asked the E.P.A. to determine whether hazardous emissions from power plants should be regulated. Ten years later, the agency said that it was “appropriate and necessary” to do so. (The Clinton administration did some stalling of its own.) The industry promptly challenged that finding; a panel of judges almost as promptly dismissed the challenge.

Regardless, in 2004 and 2005, the E.P.A. backed off its own determination and not only delayed and egregiously weakened the regulation of mercury emissions, but it completely exempted allother toxic emissions from power plants. The “why” of this has to do in large part with the cynicism and generally anti-environment stance of the Bush administration and its eagerness to make industry-friendly deals. This threw matters back into the states’ hands, and many quickly devised stronger-than-E.P.A. schemes to regulate pollutants from power plants.

To cut to the chase, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 June 2013 at 9:53 am

Libertarianism: Still a cult

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Interesting essay by Michael Lind in Salon. His title states that libertarians are a cult, but I would say rather that they are members of a cult, the cult being the belief system. His article begins:

My previous Salon essay, in which I asked why there are not any libertarian countries, if libertarianism is a sound political philosophy, has infuriated members of the tiny but noisy libertarian sect, as criticisms of cults by outsiders usually do. The weak logic and bad scholarship that suffuse libertarian responses to my article tend to reinforce me in my view that, if they were not paid so well to churn out anti-government propaganda by plutocrats like the Koch brothers and various self-interested corporations, libertarians would play no greater role in public debate than do the followers of Lyndon LaRouche or L. Ron Hubbard.

An unscientific survey of the blogosphere turns up a number of libertarians claiming in response to my essay that, because libertarianism is anti-statist, to ask for an example of a real-world libertarian state shows a failure to understand libertarianism. But if the libertarian ideal is a stateless society, then libertarianism is merely a different name for utopian anarchism and deserves to be similarly ignored.

Another response to my essay has been to claim that a libertarian country really did exist once in the real world, in the form of the United States between Reconstruction and the New Deal. Robert Tracinski writes that I am “astonishingly ignorant of history” for failing to note that the “libertarian utopia, or the closest we’ve come to it, is America itself, up to about 100 years ago. It was a country with no income tax and no central bank. (It was on the gold standard, for crying out loud. You can’t get more libertarian than that.) It had few economic regulations and was still in the Lochner era, when such regulations were routinely struck down by the Supreme Court. There was no federal welfare state, no Social Security, no Medicare.”

It is Tracinski who is astonishingly ignorant of history. To begin with, the majority of the countries that adopted the “libertarian” gold standard were authoritarian monarchies or military dictatorships. With the exception of Imperial Britain, an authoritarian government outside of the home islands, where most Britons were denied the vote for most of this period, most of the independent countries of the pre-World War I gold standard epoch, including the U.S., Germany, France, Russia and many Latin American republics, rejected free trade in favor of varying degrees of economic protectionism.

For its part, the U.S. between Lincoln and FDR was hardly laissez-faire. Ever since colonial times, states had engaged in public poor relief and sometimes created public hospitals and asylums. Tracinski to the contrary, there were also two massive federal welfare programs before the New Deal: the Homestead Act, a colossal redistribution of government land to farmers, and generous pension benefits for Union veterans of the Civil War and their families.  Much earlier, the 1798 act that taxed sailors to fund a small system of government-run sailors’ hospitals was supported by Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton alike.

State and local licensing rules and trade laws governed economic life in detail, down to the size of spigots in wine casks, in some cases.

It was precisely these state and local regulations that the Supreme Court struck down, in Lochner v. New York (1905) and other cases, to promote the goal of creating a single national market. At the same time, sharing their racism with most white Americans, federal judges in Tracinski’s “libertarian” America permitted the most massive system of labor market distortion of all: racial segregation, which artificially boosted the incomes and property values of whites.

The single national market that Lochner-era courts sought to protect from being Balkanized by state and local regulations (other than racial segregation) was walled off by the highest protective tariffs of any major industrial nation. The U.S. government between Lincoln and FDR engaged in a version of modern East Asian-style mercantilism, protecting American industrial corporations from import competition, while showering subsidies including land grants on railroad companies and using federal troops to crush protesting workers.  This government-business mercantilism was anti-worker but it was hardly libertarian. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 June 2013 at 9:48 am

Posted in Government

Great art on-line

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Written by LeisureGuy

13 June 2013 at 9:43 am

Posted in Art, Technology

Defenders of NSA Surveillance Omit Most of Mumbai Plotter’s Story

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I referenced this article by Sebastian Rotella in ProPublica by title, but it really does show that the NSA is simply not to be believed:

June 12: This story has been updated with NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander’s Senate testimony on surveillance.

Defending a vast program to sweep up phone and Internet data under antiterror laws, senior U.S. officials in recent days have cited the case of David Coleman Headley, a key plotter in the deadly 2008 Mumbai attacks.

James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said a data collection program by the National Security Agency helped stop an attack on a Danish newspaper for which Headley did surveillance. And Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the Senate intelligence chairwoman, also called Headley’s capture a success.

But a closer examination of the case, drawn from extensive reporting by ProPublica, shows that the government surveillance only caught up with Headley after the U.S. had been tipped by British intelligence. And even that victory came after seven years in which U.S. intelligence failed to stop Headley as he roamed the globe on missions for Islamic terror networks and Pakistan’s spy agency.

Supporters of the sweeping U.S. surveillance effort say it’s needed to build a haystack of information in which to find a needle that will stop a terrorist. In Headley’s case, however, it appears the U.S. was handed the needle first — and then deployed surveillance that led to the arrest and prosecution of Headley and other plotters.

As ProPublica has previously documented, Headley’s case shows an alarming litany of breakdowns in the U.S. counterterror system that allowed him to play a central role in the massacre of 166 people in Mumbai, among them six Americans.

A mysterious Pakistani-American businessman and ex-drug informant, Headley avoided arrest despite a half dozen warnings to federal agents about extremist activities from his family and associates in different locales. If those leads from human sources had been investigated more aggressively, authorities could have prevented the Mumbai attacks with little need for high-tech resources, critics say.

“The failure here is the failure to connect systems,” said a U.S. law enforcement official who worked on the case but is not cleared to discuss it publicly. “Everybody had information in their silos, and they didn’t share across the silos. Headley in my mind is not a successful interdiction of a terrorist. It’s not a great example of how the system should work.”

Officials from Clapper’s office reiterated this week that he was referring to the prevention of Headley’s follow-up role in a Mumbai-style attack against Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten newspaper, a prime target because it published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that many Muslims found offensive. To that extent, Clapper’s comment shed a bit of new light on this aspect of a labyrinthine case.

Separately today, NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander told a Senate committee that surveillance conducted by his agency helped disrupt “dozens” of attacks aimed at the U.S. and elsewhere. According to The Washington Post, Alexander cited the Headley case and promised to make more information public about the success of the NSA’s phone surveillance program, which captures “metadata” such as number, time and location of but not the content of calls.

In January, a federal judge in Chicago imposed a 35-year prison sentence on Headley, 51, for his role in Mumbai and the foiled newspaper plot. He got a reduced sentence because he testified at the federal trial in Chicago of his accomplice, Tahawurr Rana, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 June 2013 at 9:29 am

Relying on the popularity of an option as a basis for choosing

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We DE shavers have already learned that popularity is not a reliable measure of quality: DE shaving we know to be better and cheaper and more enjoyable than the much more popular alternative of using canned foam and a multiblade cartridge—yet even DE shavers are prone to ask things such as, “Which brands of blades are most popular?”, as though that criterion would establish quality.

Here’s at interesting look at the effects of using popularity as a guide—in this case, in the music industry.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 June 2013 at 9:11 am

Posted in Daily life, Science

Another obvious and gratuitous lie from the NSA

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The NSA doesn’t seem even to know now when it’s lying, especially given the utter obvious absurdity of the lie that the NSA Director, Keith Alexander, floated. Kevin Drum reports at Mother Jones:

From Gen. Keith B. Alexander, director of the National Security Agency, on its phone surveillance program:

We aren’t trying to hide it.

Really? You sure could have fooled me. In other NSA-related news, we learned a few new things today: . . .

Continue reading.

It’s amazing to me that such an enormous and obvious lie was spoken—I guess Gen. Alexander thinks we are utter fools, but perhaps he’s saying that Edward Snowden is guilty of nothing, since he simply revealed a program that the NSA isn’t even trying to hide. So what’s the problem? Snowden revealed it, but they weren’t trying to hide it. Everyone can go home now.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 June 2013 at 8:58 am

Too many experiments

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SOTD 13 June 2013

I tried too many novelties to be sure of what worked, but I did have a very good shave.

Guys have mentioned Corn Huskers Lotion off and on for a long time, so I finally bought a bottle to try as a pre-shave and as an after-shave. This morning’s use was pre-shave. The ingredients are Water, Glycerin, SD Alcohol 40, Sodium Calcium Alginate, Oleyl Sarcosin, Methylparaben, Guar Gum, Triethanolamine, Calcium Sulfate, Fragrance, Calcium Chloride, Fumaric Acid, boric acid, and here’s a comment on the ingredients.

Since glycerin is the biggest ingredient (after water), it seems as though it would work as a pre-shave. So I washed my beard with the Jlocke98 mix of Dr. Bronner’s and lanolin oil, then applied some Corn Huskers Lotion.

Where I went awry was combining the test of Corn Huskers Lotion with experimenting more with cocamidopropyl betaine, which I’m using to see whether it can improve the lather. Today I picked Sea Salt Soap, which as a shaving soap has what one would call a mediocre lather. I added 4 good drops of cocamidopropyl betaine to the top of the puck, then loaded my Vie-Long horsehair brush.

The lather was perhaps improved somewhat, but it did not rise to what I would call a “good” lather. Still, sufficient for the shave. Three very nice passes with the ARC Weber holding an Astra Keramik blade, with some very satisfying extra attention under the jawline and on the chin.

A hearty splash of TOBS’s wonderful Sandalwood aftershave, and I face the day with a BBS face. And tomorrow the experiment continues.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 June 2013 at 8:53 am

Posted in Shaving

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