The observations and opinions of a person who has no discernible insights or ideas.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Our Title of Misinformation 

Last night, I finished reading a book titled Our Title of Liberty by Michael J. Snider. It is a book that attempts to explain what candidates/platforms all good latter-day saints should vote for. It is a self-serving treatise on this man's personal political beliefs, often accompanied by quotes from scriptures and general authorities (often from General Conference, to his credit). Never mind his blatant disregard for the church's oft repeated policy of not endorsing any political candidate or platform, nor his belief that the communists lost either of the Korean and Vietnam Wars (apparently North Korea and Vietnam have not been under communist control since then).

I am especially amused at a list that he gives of functions that the Federal government controls which he feels are not constitutional (primarily because they are not explicitly stated in the Constitution and therefore should be excluded under the 10th amendment). I present his list here, along with some thoughts about why one might consider them to be within the constitutional scope of the Federal government. He did include several examples that do not have an obvious connection to Federal powers, and I'll freely acknowledge those here.

For the record, I receive my entire livelihood from the Federal government, both directly and indirectly, but I do not think that this affects my opinion of separation of powers between the Federal and states, except in so far as I have a closer view of how the Federal government operates. I should also add that I am a federalist. I believe that many things are better under national jurisdiction than they would be under the control of the individual states. While this is not true of everything, things like education are improved in the worst areas because of Federal intervention.

On with the list!

Education: This is one area where the constitutionality of Federal intervention is highly questionable. I'm afraid that not much can be said here.

Welfare: Aside from the wording of the preamble (which one could argue is a coincidence, but nevertheless, raising the minimum standard of living is certainly within the scope of "the general welfare"), this one is suspect as well.

Healthcare (Medicare/Medicaid): This one essentially falls into the same category as Welfare.

Retirement Pension -- i.e., Social Security: This is another one that is difficult to establish as a Federal issue.

Environmental Protection: Elsewhere in the book, he calls for the disbanding of the EPA. This, of course, ignores the fact that environmental protection crosses state lines constantly. Polluted air flows from state to state. Polluted water flows downstream to other states. Even modern issues such as nuclear waste often transcend state boundaries. Protecting the environment is a job that only the Federal government can pull off, and often only with the help of other nations (which again must involve the Federal government).

(Note: It appears that at this point, he had finished picking the easy stuff and started grasping at agencies. With almost all of the rest of the programs listed, a very solid case can be made for Federal involvement, if not absolute control. In almost every case, the justification for Federal control is based on their jurisdiction over interstate commerce.)

Regulating farming and agriculture (USDA): Once upon a time, farmers grew food that was sold at the local markets. Today, if any food is grown that stays within the state where it is grown, it is almost always by coincidence. The real concern is probably with farm subsidies and the downfall of the family farm (the author believes that, "The family farm as a backbone of our economic system must be restored."). There is a much better case to be made that non-productive farms should not be subsidized than that farm production is not within the scope of Federal regulation and oversight.

Regulating food and drugs (FDA): As with farms, essentially all food is produced to cross state lines. While there is some small subset of food that is produced and consumed locally, it is far more efficient to have a single (Federal) agency monitoring food safety nationwide than to have token organizations that address the tiny fraction of foods that do not cross state lines.

Operating arts funding (NEA, National Endowment for the Arts): This one is harder to justify in general, although funding for arts that exist in a Federal realm is much easier to justify. I am curious to know (but too lazy to look up) the history of this organization, as I suspect that it was not originally a Federal program and merely got adopted.

Regulating energy/electricity (DOE, Dept. of Energy): Once upon a time, energy may have existed locally, but today all significant energy crosses state lines. The entire power grid of the nation is tied together. Gasoline and other fossil fuels cross state lines regularly in the process of refinement and distribution. Solar power is essentially local, but it is also so thoroughly insignificant as to not matter at all.

Operating home building and loan functions (HUD): This is another one that falls under the same category as welfare.

Regulating transportation (DOT, Dept. of Transportation): The national DOT only regulates interstate transportation. I'm not sure if the author realizes that things are transported across state lines, or that roads (and especially interstates) connect the states. The only really solid case one can make against the DOT is that Hawaii doesn't really need Federally funded roads on the grounds of interstate commerce (they do perhaps need some quality ferries though).

Writing employment law (Dept. of Labor): I'm not clear on just what labor laws are state laws and which are Federal laws. Almost everything that governs my employment is Federal in origin, but state laws come into play even with a Federal employee. A large, large number of companies hire people across state lines. This is a gray area, but there is much to be said for the homogenization of labor laws under Federal supervision, even while local customization occurs.

Establishing laws over radio and television (FCC): Certainly the Constitution says nothing about regulating the airwaves, and yet this is a lock for Federal jurisdiction. Every communication covered by the FCC has the potential to cross state lines (usually for commercial purposes). Not only that, but one key role of the FCC is to regulate electromagnetic frequency allocation. Without national and international collaboration in this, a whole family of products would be unable to function from state to state, and the military's ability to communicate would be substantially impeded, as would the ability of airplanes to fly from state to state. There is no rational way for states to provide the necessary regulation that the FCC does, and there's no way that we could enjoy our advanced technical gadgets without it. I am absolutely flabbergasted that the author, later in the book, calls for the FCC to be substantially scaled back. What functions does he think that it performs that are internal to any one state?

Natural Disaster Management: While FEMA is not a part of the military, it arguably performs a function that we would expect the military to perform in its absence. Is it justification enough to keep an extra agency around for? Maybe not. Is it an explicit duty of the Federal government? Perhaps not. Is it something that should be done, which the states cannot do for themselves? Yes.

Regulating railroads (Federal Railroad administration): Since shortly after the invention of the steam locomotive, railroads have been crossing state lines. In the early days, each state established its own standard rail gauges and the results were disastrous. In order to facilitate interstate commerce via rail, the Federal government stepped in and standardized the rails, and everybody has benefited. This is a clear case of the Federal government taking responsibility for something that is clearly within its constitutional purview.

Regulating fishing and wildlife services: The short answer is that states regulate their own fishing and wildlife management, although with some broad Federal guidelines (such as protection of endangered species). The long answer is that the Federal government controls fishing and wildlife on Federal land, but then it still often follows local regulations in some places such as national forests, even if the enforcement is by Federal officials. (This is akin to state troopers giving speeding tickets for the city or county where the ticket is issued, even if the ticket is issued on a Federal road by a state officer).

Geological surveying and mining: I'm not sure what motivated the creation of the USGS, but it is impossible to doubt its benefit. I have a hard time seeing a direct connection to constitutional jurisdiction here, but it has helped define state boundaries (creating states is a Federal function) and encourage interstate commerce by standardizing the mapping of the country.

Operating a home mortgage business (Govt. National Mortgage): This one is part of HUD, so it's a repeat entry. Moreover, it is not necessarily a problem if the government creates a company that does not require tax dollars to operate to perform a function that is not part of its core mission.

Operating museum and library services: The bulk of museums that are owned and/or operated by the Federal government are parts of national parks, monuments, etc. (this includes the Smithsonian Museums). Archiving our national history is a fairly clear area of responsibility of the Federal government. Curiously, the Library of Congress is of questionable constitutional validity. It is the only agency that is operated by the legislative branch, even though it should arguably be a part of the executive.

Space Exploration: First of all, space exploration has been a part of the military from the beginning, and the military is explicitly a part of the Federal government. To this day, the military uses space extensively to help defend our country. Secondly, everything that is in space crosses state and even national lines. States have no jurisdiction in space, and only the Federal government can enter into the international treaties necessary to negotiate the sharing of the cosmos between all the nations of the earth. While space travel was not anticipated at the time of the Founding Fathers, the exploration and regulation of space is clearly and explicitly within the scope of the Federal government. (Perhaps he thought that space travel is a terrible waste of taxpayer money. That's because he apparently has no idea what space travel is about.)

Science and research: A huge portion of research in this country is directly related to the military. Our military would be unable to defend our country without keeping at the cutting edge of research (this was especially true during the cold war when it had to compete with Russia's research juggernaut). As for other research, there is often still a connection between the research and clear Federal responsibilities. If you wish to question any particular research program, the right way is to question the particular program driving the research.

Ocean Management: There are a few aspects of ocean management. One is defense of our oceans, which is a clear function of the military (through the Coast Guard and Navy). The other is the regulation of the ocean, which is either an environmental issue (see the section on the EPA) or a usage issue. Oceans cross state and national boundaries, and as such are often explicitly under Federal jurisdiction. I'm not clear on what the Federal/state division is in places where there is only one clear state involved.

Peace Corps/Americorps: The peace corps are international organization that arguably serves a diplomatic purpose by providing American volunteers to help other countries. While their mission was not explicitly stated in the Constitution, it is well within the scope of powers defined in it as a form of international relations.

Regulating and loaning money to small businesses: I'm not clear what they're talking about here. The government gives out small business loans, but the key point in terms of constitutionality is why are the loans given. Without citing any specific programs, I'm ill equipped to respond.

Public Television/National Public Radio: This one is a little vague, although it is worth noting that all broadcasts are inherently interstate in nature. It is arguable that this is beyond the scope of Federal powers.

Making handicapped and disability laws: This is a clear extension of the 14th amendment.

Regulating telephone companies and other communication systems: This is the same story as the FCC. All telephone systems now cross state lines. Requiring 911 access is another issue, which the author does not address.

There you have it. The bulk of the programs can be readily identified as being a part of Federal jurisdiction, and I'm pretty sure that sound arguments exist for all of them for Federal control/meddling. I think that some of them (education, welfare, healthcare) deserve more debate. Others (FCC, DOE, NASA, DOT, Railroads) are so obviously proper modern applications of the explicit language of the Constitution that it's embarrassing that he included them.

At least my job is solidly within the Federal scope defined by the Constitution.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

"If you don't like your job, you don't strike!" 

One of the primary responsibilities that I have at work is to review technical documents that are submitted by various companies that we do business with and either give them my blessing or turn them down. This last week, I have had six documents pass across my desk. I rejected all six. Two of the documents were especially rejection-worthy. They were source approval requests.

When a company wants to do work for us, a standard course of action is for them to seek approval as a source, either to manufacture the part or to repair it. This approval process is typically guided by a document that in legal-sounding terms states that they can either a) build (or repair) one or more of the part in question, test it, and satisfy us that it meets our requirements, all at their own expense, or b) write us a letter telling us how their previous work is similar to the work that they would do on this part and therefore, they should be able to do our work as well. The latter approach is almost universally followed, after which we pay for the building and testing (see, everybody wins!)

These two source approval requests were different from what one might expect. Instead of explaining how they have worked on similar parts in the past, they went on at great length (20+ pages each) about the wide variety of different parts they have worked on. Neither document made any reference to the part in question after the first page. One of them had a ten page list of parts that they had worked on, all of which were fundamentally different than the part in question. On the first page (and in the only place that they actually named this part), they misspelled the name of the part (to their credit, they just perpetuated a typo that we originated, but it shows that they didn’t even bother to figure out what the name should have been). The other one had an obvious lie as its very first sentence and repeated another obvious lie in two separate places in the document (I called them up to verify the second lie, and sure enough, it was a falsehood).

It was clear that both companies had a broadly written capabilities document that they just slapped a cover page on and sent out, hoping that I would just rubber stamp it rather than read it and try to make sense of its contents. In fact, it took me a while to figure out why I couldn’t make any sense of the contents (it is customary to have about half to three quarters of these documents describe things that are not actually related to the parts at hand, so the total disconnect between the title pages and the rest of the document wasn’t immediately apparent). What galls me is just how lazy that is.

These companies are trying to win us as a customer for these parts, but it looks like they didn’t even take the time to look at the top level drawings to see what the name of the parts really are. I suspect that they have become accustomed to our engineers just granting approval to these sorts of shoddy, half-baked proposals (in fact, I approved one of these two companies for a part recently, and I’ll bet that if I went back, I’d find that the two SAR documents are virtually identical, but in my defense, the part then was actually relevant to the content of the document), and they don’t figure that it’s worth their while to do more work up front. They probably didn’t count on having me comb through their documents and realize that they had made no case whatsoever that we should accept them.

Part of me thinks that I should keep on them so that they’ll learn that they have to actually prepare things before sending them to us, including maybe even thinking for a minute about how the part matches with their skill sets. Another, more cynical, part of me thinks that they’ll just keep on submitting half-bottomed documents and wait for me to proofread them (often for glaring grammatical errors!) and tell them what to do to get approved. I’m getting angry with them, and I’d blacklist them entirely if I could, but such is the nature of my work that I’ll have to keep dealing with these people for some time to come.

So, I give them an open letter: Stop being so lazy! The next time that you submit a letter to a (potential) customer asking to be considered for something, give them the consideration of preparing something meaningful and relevant. When you submit a document as a required delivery for a contract, check with the contract requirements first to see if you’ve met them. The next time you produce a formal document, have someone read over it to catch some of the more outrageous spelling and grammatical errors. I have to be fair to everyone, but I don’t have to trust you, and if I don’t trust you, then you can count on it that I’ll read your papers very carefully, and no one wins when that happens.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Seven Dreadful Blunders 

I have some coworkers who are avid readers. They have read many of the great modern works, such as Crichton, Grisham, Ludlow, and the likes. Well, one of them (at his wife's suggestion) read a book titled Seven Deadly Wonders by Matthew Reilly (called Australia's Crichton, which apparently means that Aussies like their technical thrillers to be ridiculous, overwrought, and unbelievable). After reading it, he gave it to the other guy to read. He made it about 80 pages in before giving up. They then handed it off to me.

It read like the Da Vinci Code. Actually, in some ways it was better (at least in the sense that it got to the action a bit faster). Both books are broken into narrative blocks of about 2-3 pages on average. Both feature vague references to things that will somehow not be as impressive when they are finally revealed later.

I find the literary style rather choppy. For example, consider the use of paragraphs that are sentence fragments (since it's more suspenseful to have to wait to the next paragraph to find out how the sentence will end), or the use of exclamation points and ALL CAPS in the third person narration.

Then there is the scientific details. And the historical details. And the blatant rip-offs from other works. And the one dimensional characters (at least the ones that got fleshed out). And the puzzles/riddles.

I'm not saying that this is the worst book in the world, but to Mr. Reilly, I say, "I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul."

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?