One dimensional prose

by Henry on April 24, 2005

And while we’re on the subject of Thomas Friedman’s latest burblings, isn’t it about time that someone brought up Edwin Abbot’s classic novel, Flatland and its hero and narrator, “A Square?”

Economics and Literature

by Henry on April 24, 2005

One for Daniel Davies from a book I’m reviewing.

“Monitoring, Rules, and the Control Paradox: Can the Good Soldier Svejk Be Trusted,” in Roderick M. Kramer and Karen S. Cook eds., Trust and Distrust in Organizations, New York: Russell Sage 2004.

One of the most fascinating and revealing forms of organizational sabotage is “working to rule” – precisely following rules while providing no voluntary effort beyond that required by the rules. An especially destructive form of “working to rule” involves applying the rules most carefully where they are least appropriate to the situation. This technique was perfected by Private Josef Svejk, a leading Czech cultural hero, and the eponym of Jaroslav Hasek’s satirical novel, The Good Soldier Svejk. … Svejk was taking advantage of a basic fact … it is simply impossible to specify in advance all the behaviors that the organization will require from its employees if it is to survive and thrive. This is the organizational manifestation of the phenomenon known as “contractual incompleteness” in economics (Coase 1937). … many organizational tasks simply do not lend themselves to outcome-based incentives. The rest of this paper discusses the alternative: close specification of desired behaviors by means of rules and commands, and sanctions to enforce those behaviors. In particular, I will argue that built-in inefficiencies may plague management by monitoring. The inefficiencies may be understood by picturing the monitoring relationship as a one-shot game with a Pareto-suboptimal equilibrium. … The paper will examine the nature of the “tit-for-tat” exchange that is capable of Pareto improvements in organizations in which labor contracts are based on monitoring of individual actions rather than measurement of individual outcomes. Furthermore, cooperation requires trust in that hierarchical superiors must yield some of their capacity for discovering and punishing shirking by subordinates.

A Voice on a Paper Cup

by Belle Waring on April 24, 2005

No one who has read the Gulag Archipelago or Sinyavsky’s A Voice From the Chorus can possibly read these words without a pang to the heart:

“It was just a short poem,” Badr recalled. “Something about how in life everything is possible and we should be patient because freedom is close at hand.” But it was enough to swell his heart with hope. “I was suddenly so happy,” he said.

Dost had smuggled the note to [his brother] Badr through an ingenious ruse. Every few days, representatives from the International Committee of the Red Cross arrived with forms so prisoners could write brief letters home. They were given only 10 minutes, but that was enough to dash off other notes on hidden scraps of paper cups. Prisoners then passed the messages between wire pens on pulleys made of threads from their prayer caps….

Eventually, he said, the interrogators seemed convinced that he had not meant any serious harm. [he wrote a satirical piece in which he offered to match Clinton’s $5 million reward for bin Laden with his own 5 million afghani (US $115) price on Clinton’s head.] In February 2004, Dost said, he was transferred to another section of Guantanamo where he had access to as much paper as he wanted.

He continued to produce hundreds of poems, translated the Koran into Pashto and wrote a text on Islamic jurisprudence.

In the meantime, Dost said, he was taken before a review tribunal, a brief procedure that he described as a “show trial,” even though it ultimately resulted in his release. To date, U.S. military officials said, 232 Guantanamo detainees have been released and more than 500 remain in custody.

Often, Dost said, the guards conducted raids when officials suspected a detainee had issued a fatwa — an Islamic decree against them. Each time, all inmates’ writings were confiscated. Dost said he was assured that his work would be returned to him on his release.

But when that day finally came last week, Dost said, he received only a duffel bag with a blanket, a change of clothes and a few hundred papers — a fraction of his writings.

This parting blow, he said, struck him harder than all the humiliations of confinement. On Friday, as well-wishers swarmed into his home, he said his only thought was how to recover his work.

“If they give me back my writings, truly I will feel as though I was never imprisoned,” he said. “And if they don’t . . . “

Look, my country is better than this. Or this. Just. Stop.

I know I’ve related this before on my own blog, but my grandfather was an OSS spy in WWII. In one of the letters he sent home to my grandmother he describes how he met up with US ground troops who had just taken a French village controlled by a particularly awful German captain. He relates how his first impluse was to beat the shit out of the guy, knowing what he did about what the man had done. But he just gave him a cigarette instead. I don’t remember exactly what he said in the letter, but it was basically that the German was surprised at his mild reception, and my grandfather told him that was what happened when you were taken prisoner by Americans, and that we were better than them, better by a long shot. Anyone who thinks Osama bin Laden is more of a threat to the US than the Axis is welcome to come to East Hampton to get hit on the head with a lead pipe by my grandpa. He’s still pretty spry. Also, just stop.