Military Meritocracy

When I was at the Kennedy School, I taught regularly in an executive program for Army Colonel/Navy Captain level DOD people, including civilians, from all services. Having no personal experience in the military, I was fascinated by the look this afforded into a distinct and proud society. I learned a couple of things that may be relevant to the earlier discussion about military promotions.

First, the various services are really various. For example, the Coast Guard is a lot less military than the Navy, as one might expect. (It used to be called the Jewish Navy when the Navy was, or was believed to be, pervasively anti-Semitic and the CG allowed a lot of Jews with nautical ambitions to follow them; this has to affect culture.)

For another, all the services but one take pains to assure that all officers have direct experience of the core function of that service. All Navy officers serve at sea on ships, and most get to command a craft if only a small one; all Army officers have hauled shoulder arms through the mud and marched and fired various weapons; all Marine officers have climbed out of boats onto beaches and practiced hauling their dead and wounded back out of battles. The exception is the Air Force: it costs a fortune to train a pilot and it appeared that relatively few had ever flown an airplane. As it happens, very few people in the Air Force fly, or even fly in, airplanes except as passengers; most are engaged one way or another in keeping planes fit to fly and fueled up, so it’s actually an organization of parts clerks and mechanics. The personality difference between the typical Air Force colonel and a Marine (for example) in this program was striking. (Full disclosure: I have had the acquaintance of a fair number of Marines and ex-Marines (all male, as it happens) up to the rank of general, and from this happenstance sample I regard that service with real awe: the officers are gentlemen, wise, and gracious, and the leathernecks are competent, creative, dedicated, and it shows.)

Second, by assigning an exercise involving peer evaluation of performance, I once triggered a session of anger and vituperation that really astonished me. Upon inquiry, I learned that I had touched an extremely raw nerve with these folks, occasioned by a promotion system that operates on formal efficiency reports by superior officers. The highest grade is E for excellent (or was then); what made it fearsome was that almost everyone got E for almost everything almost all the time. As a result, every superior had the power to wreck one’s career with a single evaluation below E. At the same time, it was known that so-called “corridor reputation,” the informal, unrecorded, unappealable and unauditable evaluation that attached itself to an officer and circulated through gossip, anecdote, and winks mattered a lot as well. It was explained to me that putting performance evaluation on the table for discussion in this context had opened the door to vent a decade or two of anger and fear for almost everyone in the room.

Future of Music (and movies, and books…)

Earlier this week I attended the Future of Music annual “Policy Summit“, a conference of artists, recording industry execs, intellectual property lawyers, and academics. They gather to predict, view with alarm, recommend, and debate large questions of public and private rights and patrimony such as Lawrence Lessig discusses (for my view on his work, look here), and also the specifics of legal and business arrangements that might assure that artists are properly compensated for their work and also that we have lots of good stuff to listen to. The background context is of course the wheels coming off the traditional model, in which music was sold embodied in something physical like a CD and not copiable without a large investment in expensive equipment. The key image of the current crisis, I think, is the completely implausible business model of the amazingly successful iPod: (i) you buy a player that holds 10,000 songs for a couple of hundred dollars and then (ii) fill it with music from iTunes or legal, purchased CDs (iii) at a dollar a song, for about $10,000. At least part of this scenario has never actually occurred. 20 million-odd iPods are sold every year; guess which part.

The business players are, approximately, a few large record companies and the manufacturers of reproduction equipment (hi-fis, iPods, computers, etc.); innovative, hungry, lively companies offering different versions of web and stream music distribution, CD merchants large and small; and a lot of artists, including soi-disant artists and hopeful artists. Some in the latter two categories are really good and deserve a large audience; many more, no doubt, believe themselves to be. As usual, the “interest group” not at the table in any offical way, but in whose name everyone claims to speak, is the audience and the latent audience for music, meaning pretty much everyone.

The most important issues of the current debate seem to me to be the following:

(1) Marginal cost pricing. The idea that everything should be sold for what it costs to make the last one of it (that is, what it denies you for me to have it) is a cornerstone of what economics has to teach us. In the context of digital music, meaning (now) any recorded music, this principle means that the correct consumer price for listening to a recording is zero, because doing so leaves no less of it for anyone else. (Contrast a seat at a live concert, which does not have this “non-rival” quality). I was astonished, in two days of panels and plenaries, with a fair number of economists around and about, to have never heard this principle stated either in jargon or in plain English.

(2) Price signals, or something like it, for artists and creators, about what kind of music to make in order to create the greatest net social value. In my arts policy course, class discussion usually settles on “more better art consumed by more people” as the appropriate mission statement for the art system. Creative people need to know what work is creating more value for society and what isn’t, so they can adjust their output accordingly.

In the departing system, these signals are extremely noisy. Everyone has CDs they play again and again, and others they put on the shelf after one try, but both sent the same price signal to the creators and publishers in the form of royalties and sales. If we could get away from a system of charging for possession of a file (iTunes or a physical CD) and start observing plays instead, we would all be better off. But obviously the key to cutting the Gordian knot of filesharing lies in being able to pay creators appropriately even if listeners are not paying directly for music.

(3) Compensation for artists. Artists of all kinds labor in a vineyard with two curses. The first is that they are trying to do for a living what other people do for fun, so there is constant labor oversupply of a type that does not afflict, say, bus drivers. The second is a “winner-take-all” marketplace of the type described by Frank and Cook with a few overpaid stars and a lot of also-rans, a situation greatly aggravated by recording technology. Despite these hurdles, it’s obviously essential for a society to assure its artists decent incomes so the good ones (not just the few “best”) can be laying down tracks for us to hear rather than waiting on tables or teaching (the correlation between artistic talent and a talent to maximize the competence of student artists is quite modest). Paying artists a living wage is conceptually distinct from the signaling function in (2).

(4) Search and selection. In a world in which the latent supply of music is enormous, it’s not a simple matter to decide how to commit your next three minutes of attention. Publishers of sheet music and record companies used to make this task manageable by allocating capital and marketing resources to a very few candidates. But in a world of free digital distribution (what we have now de facto) it’s not clear what enterprises (reviews? Amazon-type “people like you liked these CDs” algorithms? Informal networks?) can make the search and selection process tractable, and all the candidates have important downsides and deficiencies.

(5) Goose and gander sauce customization. I was amazed to see how completely the classical music niche has fallen beneath the radar of these music industry players. Classical music creation, distribution, and marketing have important differences from what works for popular music, but all the talk at this meeting was about rock, jazz, and popular/commercial forms.

As a scholar of art policy, I’m familiar with the odd tendency of arts advocates to seek (and, sadly, sometimes attain) policy goals that are against their real interests, like resale royalty rights for painters. But the discussions in the arena of music strike me as especially off-target. The recording industry is simply desperate, completely unable to think outside the box of suppressing file-sharing and copying by lawsuits, digital rights management schemes that can’t work, pained and self-righteous assertions about property rights, and similar rear-guard failing tactics. Artists believe themselves to be consistently cheated under current rules (very few CD releases ever generate any actual royalties after marketing and promotion costs are deducted) and are, perhaps understandably, afraid to think seriously about any alternative scheme. The listening community has no organized voice and just keeps voting with its mice. And though academics have made really promising policy proposals (my favorite, though I think it can be further improved, is Terry Fisher’s enforced license/fund distribution scheme), the kind of theoretically coherent analysis this industry desperately needs seems to be unable to penetrate the cacophony of recriminations and paranoia.

Bush Speech

To universal press agreement that the administration’s entire record, and perhaps Republican control of the congress, is at risk, Bush gave a typically awful speech last night. The man continues to have the blatant shamelessness typical of an enormous, cynical, ignorance protected by toadies and cowardly aides.

A précis, with my bitter thought balloons, follows:

All the loss and pain and damage resulted from the storm itself (and whiny Louisiana Democrats’ mistakes, not to be confused with Mississippi and Alabama Republicans’ competence and courage. Anyway, the hurricane came from the Bahamas. Do the Bahamas have a dictator I can overthrow? WMDs, winds of mass destruction, it has possibilities…must ask Rummy about this.)

I’m really really sad to see all the suffering it caused. (The more I say this, the less anyone has to actually do anything about it).

Anything that went wrong at the federal level is my fault. (Reagan taught me this really cool move: elevate blame high enough with a straight face, and no one actually has to face any consequences! Throwing Brown to the wolves was plenty.)

We’re going to rebuild everything… (Halliburton is already at the trough, so Cheney is happy and my friends are happy. When we start handing out this avalanche of pork, with all those hungry unemployed workers, no prevailing wage nonsense, and no environmental rules, campaign contributions will flow like water through a broken levee).

…just where it was, only stronger… (the next hurricane would be stronger too, if global warming were actually happening; glad it’s not!)

…and the federal government will pay for everything!

[removed from early drafts: This will really need some tax increases ] (Nah, the deficit will pay now, and with no estate or capital gains tax, my friends’ kids will be able to make sure that our people don’t get hit when the bill comes in)

The suffering was especially severe for poor black people, and that’s bad. (I need to say this a lot too, because I haven’t the vaguest idea what to do about it. Anyway, my people have been very clear about wanting a docile labor force that won’t sop up their profits on all this reconstruction. Fortunately we don’t really need votes from blacks, we just have to keep saying we want them).

(Rove says this will work but I’m not sure. We may have to do another war, it’s the only thing that reliably shuts up the New York Times and the Democrats…and Iran practically admits they have WMD’s! For that, I can take most of the troops out of Iraq, which isn’t working for me any more anyway, and I bet we get a nice enlistment bump from all those homeless evacuees… I need to have Condi work out how to provoke them if we need to. One good speech from Bolton at the UN ought to do it. Being a war president is more fun than anything else I’ve tried, and this disaster stuff is really the pits…)

Giving without actually giving

The following astonishing remark seems to sum up a lot of the mendacity, or (generously) profound cluelessness, of the current administration:

[Bush] also promised to reimburse states for the costs associated with taking in people forced out of their homes by the hurricane, telling state leaders, “You should not be penalized for showing compassion.”

What can this possibly mean? Does Bush think charity entails some endless round of reimbursements so that when A gives B something, after the dust clears, A still has it? If that’s true, what’s to admire? Is the idea that people in, say, Minnesota will pay Texans for being useful–but then who protects the Minnesotans from being “penalized”?

Where does he think federal tax money comes from…some group completely different from state taxpayers, perhaps in a galaxy far away and long ago? Or is this just something else we can take from our grandchildren by borrowing? When your dad’s rich friends have always assured you a soft landing, perhaps you get the idea that a country probably has rich friends like that out there somewhere…where’s that list of Coalition of the Willing phone numbers!

Does he understand that all those houses, businesses, and power lines were really destroyed in the storm, just like the dead and the fuel and the ammunition and the humvees in Iraq? …that we’ve been irreversibly made poorer by the event, and that the American people deserve to know this? …that replacing it means we will give up a lot of stuff we could otherwise have had? The cost can be shared, and should, by spreading it across the whole population instead of just the locals, but that doesn’t mean it can be made to disappear in some endless chain of reimbursements and re-reimbursements. Bush’s refusal to ask for a tax increase for the war, or to directly ask people to volunteer for military service, is perfectly consistent with this kind of careless, irresponsible promise.

Churchill promised “blood, sweat and tears”, but he didn’t have Karl Rove to straighten him out. Mr. President, you’re no Churchill. Sacrifice for a good cause and showing compassion (as distinct from bleating about how much of it you feel) is precisely, exactly, accepting a “penalty”: doing without something you would otherwise have–your time, your money, your spare room. Leadership entails telling the truth, not serving up lies and eyewash. And the people who really are making sacrifices to be compassionate deserve not to be slimed by implying they expect it not to cost them anything.

Rebuild what?

Update: (29/IX/05) Lindsay Beyerstein disagrees (cautiously) and I reply.

Dennis Hastert has been backpedaling furiously from his question about the wisdom of rebuilding New Orleans, at least rebuilding it where it is. Too bad, because brave declarations of indomitable spirit and promises to “restore” the Crescent City need an extended, hard, look. It will be very sad if brave refusal to accept an almost unimaginable loss were to lead us into another tragedy. But exchanges like this, between Tim Russert and Marc Morial, former mayor of New Orleans, in which Morial answers a reasonable question with something more like a prayer than a real reply, are cautionary and unfortunately typical:

RUSSERT: Mr. Mayor, do you believe that the people of New Orleans will come back to their city? With– there are no housing. There are no jobs. Will they come back?

MORIAL: New Orleans must be rebuilt. It must be rebuilt as the diverse cultural gumbo that it�s always been….

It may well have been worth investing enormous sums to protect New Orleans while it was a going concern, with irreplaceable history, buildings, and culture alive and kicking. But it could at the same time not be worth it, now that so much of that is gone, to try to get it back, and most people seem to agree. The following rather lengthy post examines some of the reasons it may be better to rend our garments, mourn the dead, and accept that the history of New Orleans, at least on its present site, may be over no matter how desperately we try to revive it.

At a price, the physical structure of the city can obviously be repaired or replaced, and the levee system strengthened to withstand the next large hurricane or, at a higher price, an even stronger one. But to sign up for this plan ignores the important lessons learned in the bad “urban renewal” days of the fifties and sixties, when we thought we were “improving a neighborhood” by expelling its residents and building new housing for, inevitably, a whole new population. If you fixed your coordinate system on the physical place, you could think things were better afterward, but if you fixed it on the displaced residents, you would not.

The result of an enormous investment in reconstruction in New Orleans’ current location will be quite different from what we might hope for. In the first place, most of the city will have been under water for weeks and almost everything in those areas will be a total loss. The rebuilding will therefore be an enormous Levittown of quickly built tract housing, one house after another distinguished only by paint color and superficial details, but nothing like the complex physical texture that characterized the city before the flood. More important, the people who live there will be fewer, perhaps by a third or more, and not randomly. Lots of evacuees are already putting down roots where they have landed and it’s a good guess that the loss will not be random. Most likely, the most vigorous, courageous, and adventurous among the city’s citizens will be selectively left in Texas and Arkansas when everyone else starts dribbling home.

When they come home, even if we can figure out a way for some to return to their former addresses, the social networks of friendship and habit that make a city alive will have been shredded and unused for months, perhaps years. It will be a city of deracinated people with new houses, new neighbors, new furniture, new schools, new (or no) local shops, no heirlooms, no familiar places, scarfiying memories, and no pictures of the kids or the grandparents. An enormous number will be bereaved–six mourners each for the ten thousand dead and missing that seem likely is more than ten percent of the city’s former population. All will be traumatized by the storm, and the profound economic and racial divisions of the city will be all the stronger and more bitter after the bungled evacuation. This is nothing like coming home to your rebuilt house after a fire, among your stable, helpful, neighbors and familiar sights. The evacuees won’t be coming home; they will be coming to something we, and they, have never seen before and whose viability we should consider with the greatest skepticism.

The same goes for the new economic reality. In the next several months, a lot of New Orleans businesses will also have settled down somewhere else. Will a faceless, new, expanse of ticky tacky suburb around the bits of the city that survived the flood (granted, including the French Quarter) have anything like the tourist appeal New Orleans had two weeks ago? Almost everything will be new…but new is not what New Orleans has traditionally had to sell.

Finally, this will be a city at the mercy of the next hurricane, or maybe the next one a little stronger and better targeted than Katrina, because no matter what is done about the levees, it’s below sea level and unlike almost every city in the world at risk of flood, it will then do almost exactly what it is doing now, which is to fester and decay under water for months rather than drain out when the storm ends. It’s worth noting (compared, for example, to San Francisco after its next earthquake) that hurricanes are independent events: after an earthquake, the probability of another goes way down and builds up slowly over decades; after a hurricane, especially in the current high-risk cycle, another is as likely as it was last year. Actually, with continued global warming and sea level rise, it’s not unreasonable to think that risk will get higher and higher.

New Orleans will also remain at the mercy of Mississippi floods, which are as natural a feature of the region as hurricanes, and which can drown the city, from a higher starting level than the lake, any spring. It will be at risk of a spring flood overwhelming the Old River Control Structure and diverting the Mississippi into the Atchafalaya, where it really wants to go, something widely regarded as a sooner-or-later certainty, an event that will end its life as a port.

Most daunting, it will be a city at risk of total re-destruction from an explosive charge placed by truck (or from the air) against any of a number of levees. Such a flood would come without warning or the possibility of evacuation, a level of destruction a similar terrorist attack can’t begin to threaten in any other city.

If we could get it back for a lot of money, the New Orleans of the last century and last month might be worth buying. But the best we can get for that money now is almost certainly not “New Orleans” as we understand the name, and whether that outcome is worth what it will cost is, as Speaker Hastert perceived, not at all clear.

River Access for Relief

A reason repeatedly cited for slow delivery of relief supplies to New Orleans after the storm, and slow evacuation, was the obstruction of the roads, and of navigation through Lake Pontchartrain owing to collapse of the bridges across its connection to the Gulf.

But the levees on the Mississippi River side of the city have held throughout the storm, and the highest land in the city is up against them and has been dry throughout the week. The Mississippi is navigable from the Gulf past the city for two thousand miles. Does anyone know why the city couldn’t have been evacuated and/or supplied with rations, water, and policing almost immediately by shipping from the Mississippi side, over the levees? Is the southern shore of the city a quay suitable for tie-up and loading?