By Steve Kelman
One might not think that questions of airport security and IRS scrutiny would be connected, but Steve Kelman finds a link. (Stock image)
In following the IRS Tea Party scandal, I've been struck by an analogy. The targeting of Tea Party applications for tax-exempt status and debates about whether, say, young male Muslims should be targeted for extra scrutiny at airports raise the same set of issues.
It is simply a fact that most terrorists threatening the United States, Europe or Israel are young male Muslims. A strong argument could be made that random extra scrutiny of airport passengers is highly inefficient – producing bizarre anomalies such as heightened scrutiny for 85 year-old grandmothers – and that ethnic profiling would increase the chance of catching a terrorist. Indeed, this has been Israel's strategy at airports.
Similarly, it is simply a fact that a group such as the Tea Party that is fundamentally a political organization is more likely to violate the (apparently very expansive) rules limiting political activity for social welfare organizations than is a Knights of Columbus chapter that might do a small amount of political activity on issues such as abortion. To treat both organizations the same way is inefficient. Indeed, if one wanted to use more dramatic language, one could say that treating both kinds of organizations in the same way would be an example of government waste.
If anything, targeting young male Muslims is more problematic than targeting local Tea Party organizations. Although most terrorists are young male Muslims, the vast majority of young male Muslims are not terrorists, so in targeting them, the government would be overwhelmingly targeting innocent people. By contrast, the chances that a local Tea Party organization would be engaged in political activity that would produce a failure to qualify for tax-exempt status would seem to be much larger. (To be fair, though, the downside of failure to pick out a terrorist is much greater than the downside of failure to catch an organization that shouldn't be getting tax-exempt status.)
But the demands for ethnic profiling at airports (which were rejected in the United States, even in the height of post-9/11 anxieties) and the IRS profiling of Tea Party organizations both remind us of the old saw that government is not just about efficiency. We are, and should be, willing to sacrifice some degree of efficient performance in government for protection and fair treatment of innocent individuals or groups.
There is an irony here, though, which is that I am guessing that Tea Party supporters and Republican conservatives are more likely than most to have supported ethnic profiling of potential terrorists. There is a second irony, which is that an important mission of the congressional government affairs oversight committees is to promote efficiency in government.
While I definitely agree – as illustrated by the IRS and ethnic profiling cases -- that efficiency is not the only goal in government management, it certainly should be an important goal. Too often in government, the correct statement that government cannot care only about efficiency morphs into a philosophy that efficiency is not important at all – a philosophy that then causes the same oversight committees to rail against government waste. And certainly the efforts to criminalize bad judgment by IRS civil servants here are unlikely to foster a mentality inside government that one should aggressively be looking for ways to be more efficient.
Posted on May 23, 2013 at 11:35 AM1 comments
The Air Force's "Every Dollar Counts" campaign intends to put the squeeze on costs. (Stock image)
My friend Jim Tisdale at Los Angeles Air Force Base has called to my attention a campaign that is going on this month (it started May 1 and goes through May 30) to involve frontline uniformed and civilian Air Force people in efforts to save money in a tight budget environment where the Air Force has taken $11 billion in sequestration cuts. Jim is a dedicated contracting professional who takes seriously the cost-savings mission of contracting.
The campaign is called "Every Dollar Counts," and you can learn more about it by going to the Air Force home page. There you will see the campaign as the "featured link" in the top left corner of the site (just above the second featured link, on Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention). If you click through, you will see an interview with Gen. Larry Spencer, vice chief of staff of the Air Force, a place to submit suggestions, and a listing of some suggestions that have been accepted so far.
There are several things I like about how this has been set up. First, the Air Force promises to quickly look at and respond to each suggestion – using a team of reviewers – so suggestions don't just disappear into a black hole. Second, they say that if a good suggestion requires a regulatory change that is within the service's authority, the Air Force will pursue it. Third, it is time-limited – unlike a classical "suggestion box" -- and doesn't drag on forever, increasing the incentive to act while the window is open.
Most importantly, this involves the frontline folks. This is good because the people doing the work are likely to be good sources of ideas, and also because it is really important in the sequestration environment than public servants don't get into a destructive -- and self-destructive -- mode of seeing themselves as victims.
I like the fact that the website gives examples of suggestions that have been acted on, together with names and pictures of those who made them. In a separate document Jim Tisdale sent me, these included efforts such as finding cell phones the service was paying for that no one was using; moving some training to a commercial wind tunnel at a fraction of the cost; and finding equipment missing from an inventory list so new equipment didn't need to be ordered.
I am hoping that other military services and civilian agencies will pick up on the Air Force's idea.
Posted on May 16, 2013 at 10:29 AM3 comments
In 2011, Daniel Kahneman published a book called "Thinking, Fast and Slow," which was a non-fiction bestseller. I write about it now because it just came out in paperback. It is a great read, and I guarantee it will teach you a great deal.
Kahneman is an emeritus professor at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and the first non-economist by profession to win the Nobel Prize in Economics. In his book, he tells us that our minds have two systems for making decisions, which he straightforwardly calls System 1 and System 2.
System 1 has arisen from millennia of human evolution and from repeated experiences people have over the course of their lives. System 1 is fast. It provides intuitive reactions to what we should do. System 2 is methodical and deliberative thinking, when we ponder evidence and weigh pros and cons. It is much slower, and it takes mental effort and energy. Often, Kahneman notes, System 2 acts as a check on System 1.
Academics like me and Kahneman are unsurprisingly (dare I say instinctively?) System 2 believers, though a minority of scholars who study decisions argue that such expertise has become largely intuitive.
Here's what Kahneman says: For many situations in which our reactions are governed by System 1, speed is essential. We are extremely sensitive to danger, quickly noticing and reacting to it because a microsecond advantage could determine whether our pre-human ancestors were eaten or not. Furthermore, in situations in which people have frequent experience — say, in playing basketball or diagnosing disease — and where feedback about the result of a decision is quick and unambiguous, the mind eventually develops good intuition that often cannot be expressed in words.
However, System 1 often does not provide an intuitive answer. To cite an example Kahneman provides, there is no System 1 answer to the question "How much is 49 times 27?" We need to develop and use System 2 to help us.
Beyond that, though, System 1 answers are sometimes just wrong. Our instincts lead us in a direction that generally makes sense but produces absurd results. These are the kinds of situations Kahneman became famous for studying. People will prefer being subjected to 10 minutes of severe pain followed by 5 minutes of mild pain rather than only 10 minutes of severe pain, though a moment's thought tells us this is irrational. Many experiments show that people are dramatically overconfident about how much they know or how successful their efforts are likely to be. And in situations in which there is not frequent, unambiguous feedback, expert intuitions have a poor record of success.
So, true to his status as a professor, Kahneman wants to see more System 2 in our decisions. But System 2 takes effort, and our minds prefer to be lazy. And often the times we most need System 2 as a check are those when we least realize we need it because System 1's message is so unequivocal.
At the end of the book, Kahneman extends his analysis from the individual to the organization.
"Organizations are better than individuals when it comes to avoiding errors because they naturally think more slowly and have the power to impose orderly procedures.… Whatever else it produces, an organization is a factory that manufactures judgments and decisions. Every factory must have ways to ensure the quality of its products in the initial design, in fabrication and in final inspections."
Sounds like a topic for another book.
Posted on May 09, 2013 at 9:39 AM1 comments