Topics of Rand Think Tank Range From Terrorists to Teachers

Times Staff Writer

The rise of Mikhail S. Gorbachev to leadership of the Communist Party, following the death last week of Konstantin Chernenko, was an event long expected by foreign observers, including Kremlinologists at Rand Corp. Analyzing and anticipating Soviet moves is only one of many disciplines and functions at the Santa Monica-based think tank. Here is a look inside Rand:

"A large part of our effort," says Donald B. Rice, president of Rand Corp., "is to turn answers into questions. The object is to make sure that we are dealing with the problem that needs to be solved."

Quiet, reflective and inquiring by nature, Rice, 45, is a muscular 6-footer who heads a staff of 1,000, including mathematicians, scientists, criminologists, lawyers, physicians, economists, engineers, educators, architects, sociologists and others.

The questions they deal with range from national security issues to domestic problems: What specific measures can be taken to combat terrorists and protect American citizens around the world? How strong is the Soviet economy? In addition to Mikhail Gorbachev, which members of the Soviet Politburo wield the most influence and how will their attitudes affect the United States? On the United States' domestic front, are the right moves being made to combat career criminals in American cities? How can health-care costs be kept under control without diminishing the quality of health care? How does the medical system deal with older people? Are the best-qualified schoolteachers quitting their jobs? Are juries handing out excessive awards in civil lawsuits?

These questions, and many more, are tackled day after day by Rand professionals. Their global concerns are occasionally lightened by irreverent humor. A treasured "collector's item" out of Rand's past is a series of maxims put together by physicist Amrom H. Katz, a retired specialist on arms control and reconnaissance. He advised his Rand colleagues to keep certain guideposts in mind amid dealings with the Defense Department, which ranks as the think tank's largest client. Among the maxims:

- "Where are the calculations that go with the calculated risk?"

- "Every organization is self-perpetuating. Don't ever ask an outfit to justify itself, or you'll be covered with fact, figures and fancy. The criterion should rather be, 'What will happen if the outfit stops doing what it's doing?' The value of an organization is easier determined this way."

- "Try to find out who's doing the work, not who's writing about it, controlling it or summarizing it."

- "Try to find out the real tense of the report you are reading. Was it done, is it being done, or is it something to be done? Reports are now written in four tenses: past tense, present tense, future tense and pretense. Watch for novel uses of congram (contractor grammar), defined by the imperfect past, the insufficient present and the absolutely perfect future."

Not much is sacred at Rand, beyond its serious effort to tackle problems. Rand depends upon fees from sponsors to meet its $50-million annual budget, yet sponsors are often told, in effect: "You've begun with the wrong premise and therefore you are asking the wrong question. The right question is. . . ."

Headquartered in a sprawling complex of coral-colored buildings diagonally across from the Santa Monica Pier, Rand's staffers work in an informal atmosphere. Many ride bicycles to the office, and they dress as they please: loafers, sweat shirts, denims, sport jackets.

Every day at noon, a Rand group holds a volleyball game on the beach. Others keep tanned and fit by year-round jogging on the sand along the ocean front, or on nearby streets. One frequent jogger is Brian Jenkins, a rugged ex-Green Beret who specializes in studies of worldwide terrorism, and he is often accompanied on his trek through the streets by Arthur Alexander, a wiry marathon runner who specializes in Soviet economics, research and development.

Rand's informality, however, does not get in the way of its search for the right question--a process once described by Rice as "standing a problem on its head, to find ways of making it more solvable."

The relentless search began immediately after World War II when the Air Force created Rand (an acronym for research and development) to work entirely on defense and survival problems. One of Rand's first major projects was a study of the feasibility, design and military utility of an earth-circling satellite; Rand delivered a preliminary design in 1946, 11 years before the Soviets launched Sputnik One.

In that pre-Sputnik era when little national attention was given to the global military potential of Russia and China, Rand economists began taking long hard looks, in an effort to keep current on such questions as: How strong are they? How fast are they growing? How formidable will they be? What are their goals?

'Wrong Question'

When the Air Force first developed strategic bombers, it asked Rand to devise a plan for the most efficient locations for overseas bases. "It was the wrong question," said Rand Senior Vice President Gus Shubert, a decorated former Air Force pilot who holds a master's degree in English literature.

The question was wrong, said Shubert, because early in the atomic age the Air Force had not factored the vulnerability of overseas locations into its thinking. The bases belonged in the United States, where the bombers would be safer, maintained better at less cost and serve as a deterrent to enemy attack. If and when the bombers were needed for retaliatory action, they could be refueled in mid-air to reach long-range targets.

Embarrassing Episode

Rice, then a 32-year-old assistant director of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget with a reputation for being exceptionally bright, was hired by Rand's trustees in 1972 in the wake of a deeply embarrassing episode that made headlines around the world. Disenchanted with the Vietnam War, Daniel Ellsberg, a Rand researcher who had helped prepare a secret history of the war, leaked the document--known as the Pentagon Papers--to the press.

Rand's reputation for discretion suffered a stunning blow. The Air Force, openly skeptical about Rand's ability to handle classified data, assigned an officer to take up special duty at Rand, monitoring all access to secret documents.

Staff morale sank. Rand President Henry Rowen, a distinguished scholar who had personally hired Ellsberg, resigned.

Rice approached the presidency of Rand "with my eyes wide open. I suspected--correctly as it turned out--that Rand's reputation for discretion would be restored in the normal course of events. We simply had to demonstrate that we took our security responsibilities seriously. And a couple of years later the Air Force did withdraw its special security officer."

Under Attack

But that was not the end of Rand's troubles. The organization on occasion has found itself under attack from critics.

Peace groups picketed during the Vietnam War, and in one tense period a rumor surfaced that Rand had been commissioned by the Nixon Administration to study the feasibility of canceling the 1972 national election in the event of civil strife. Rand issued a flat denial.

Headaches in Big Apple

One of the places where the Rand approach was felt was New York City, which called on the think tank during the administration of Mayor John Lindsay to recommend ways of dealing with a series of municipal headaches in the Big Apple.

Eighty Rand staffers were assigned to the task of probing and poking into police and fire services, the housing shortage, health and welfare services, water pollution.

After an intensive study combining on-the-scene interviews and observations with extensive data analyses, Rand's investigators jolted the city's administrative bosses with a series of surprising conclusions.

New York's police commission, for example, had been confident that it could make a serious dent in curbing crime, provided the budget for detectives was increased, and it asked Rand to calculate by increments the improved volume of solved crimes that could reasonably be expected to result from bigger budgets for detectives.

"But what we found," said Rand's senior vice president Shubert in an interview, "was that the detective budget was actually irrelevant because the detective force had only minuscule effectiveness in the solution of crimes."

A careful data analysis by Rand showed three main sources--none attributable to detective work--in the solving of New York's crimes: when a patrolman on the scene found evidence; when a victim identified an offender; when an offender, apprehended for a different crime, admitted to previous crimes.

New York's housing commission, faced with a perennial housing shortage, decided that new construction was the answer, and asked Rand to suggest ways of expediting such construction.

Rand's researchers looked into the problem carefully and then, as Shubert put it, Rand advised the housing commission: "You are starting with the wrong answer and you are asking the wrong question. If you depend on new construction to solve the housing shortage, you will still be working unsuccessfully on the problem at the turn of the century.

'Real Opportunity'

"But you do have a real opportunity to deal with the shortage by using the existing stock of housing. So the correct question is: What's happening to the existing stock?

"Our calculations," Shubert continued, "demonstrated conclusively that excessively stringent rent control had resulted in sharply reduced maintenance or outright abandonment of existing housing. It followed that the existing stock of housing would be increased if landlords were given the incentive to stay with their properties. As a result of our findings, New York City went to Albany and got the law changed to bring a fairer rate of return to landlords."

A Broad Range

From the moment he came aboard, Don Rice encouraged Rand's Domestic Research Division to embrace a broad range of social problems. Among its current projects:

--A study of career criminals and criminal careers. One objective, said Rice, was "to find out if a small proportion of offenders commit a very large proportion of crimes, meaning in some instances hundreds of felonies a year by the same individual. And on the other side of the coin, whether a great many criminals are relatively inactive.

"Our analysts and researchers pioneered a whole new source of data. By interviewing prisoners and by developing highly structured questionnaires, containing a series of internal checks for reliability, and by cross-checking all this against prisoners' own records, and other sources, the data has turned out to have surprisingly high validity.

"Rand's preliminary finding, based on questionnaires and interviews with 2,400 prisoners in three states, calls attention to the high-rate offenders and points to an important policy alternative--'selective incapacitation,' which has become the buzzword in the justice community.

"It means that if we can identify high-rate offenders, lock 'em up and throw away the key, and at the same time put lesser-rate offenders on probation, then the crime rate can be reduced without any increase in the prison population.

'Records Are Sealed'

"There are handicaps to identifying increasing numbers of career criminals," Rice conceded. "Many offenders begin as juveniles, but juvenile records are sealed and non-admissible to adult proceedings. Two other items have a high correlation with crime: drug use and bad employment records. There are, however, continuing differences among judges and among lawyers as to whether a person's drug use or employment record can properly be used to achieve 'selective incapacitation.' But our research is going forward."

--An analysis of the economics of organized crime, including illegal gambling, to gain insights into the underground world of finance and its effects on the nation's economy. Rand's investigators have noted that organized crime is making use of computers to increase its efficiency.

--A number of studies in the field of health sciences. "A fundamental policy issue facing the country," said Rice, "is: How do we keep health-care costs under control without diminishing the quality of care?" To get at some answers, Rand is conducting large-scale, controlled experiments in various cities. This includes a procedure whereby Rand collects data by providing a variety of health insurance plans--with premiums paid by the federal government--to participants in those cities; the goal is to see how the insurance is used and to measure the effects on individuals' health.

Continuing Probe

--A continuing probe of geriatrics, exploring such questions as: Precisely how does the medical system deal with older people? Do they receive less care or more care in ratio to their numbers? Rand's researchers know from previous studies that not nearly enough physicians are specializing in geriatric care to accommodate the increasing older population.

--An ongoing survey of the quality of public education. In one recent study Rand social scientist Linda Darling-Hammond found that recruits to teaching "are less academically qualified than those who are leaving" for higher-paying jobs, and the number of entrants "is insufficient to meet the coming demand." The coming shortage is so critical, said Darling-Hammond, that unless reforms are made, the least qualified will become "the tenured teaching force for the next two generations of American schoolchildren."

--A continuing study of civil justice, including a probe of monetary awards by juries, where Rand encountered claims that awards were skyrocketing, and counter-claims that awards were reasonable. For Rand it became a quintessential exercise of turning answers into questions, said Shubert. "Our researchers began asking, 'Where did you get your information?' It turned out the claimants on both sides lacked sources. Our people went out and developed a data base covering thousands of cases over a 20-year period from 1960 to 1979.

Lots of Noise

"They found that some high-stakes cases--involving product liability, professional malpractice, breach of contract--had made lots of noise and drawn lots of attention, but in fact the median award for run-of-the-mill cases, as expressed in constant dollars, had been essentially flat for 20 years."

At the same time Rand found some extraordinary inequities: People hurt at work or by defective products or medical malpractice received up to four times as much money in successful lawsuits as those who suffered similar injuries in traffic accidents, a finding leading to the suspicion that juries merely assumed "deep pocket" defendants--such as corporations and doctors--were more able to pay.

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