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Once upon a time, Paul F. dreamed big dreams. While studying agricultural economics at Cornell, he wanted to end world hunger. Instead, after doctoral work at M.I.T., he wound up taking a job with a research institute in Washington, analyzing the weapons expenditures of the United States Navy. This was in 1962. After four years came more of the same: analyst jobs with the Bureau of the Budget, the Institute for Defense Analyses, the President's Commission on Federal Statistics. Still, he dreamed. He had ''potent research ideas,'' as he recalls them now, which the Environmental Protection Agency failed to appreciate. He developed a statistical means of predicting cancer clusters, but because he was an economist and not a doctor, he couldn't make headway with the National Cancer Institute. He still loved the art of economics -- the data-gathering, the statistical manipulation, the problem-solving -- but it had led him to a high-level dead end. He was well paid and unfulfilled. ''I'd go to the office Christmas party, and people would introduce me to their wives or husbands as the guy who brings in the bagels,'' he says. '''Oh! You're the guy who brings in the bagels!' Nobody ever said, 'This is the guy in charge of the public research group.'''
The bagels had begun as a casual gesture: a boss treating his employees whenever they won a new research contract. Then he made it a habit. Every Friday, he would bring half a dozen bagels, a serrated knife, some cream cheese. When employees from neighboring floors heard about the bagels, they wanted some, too. Eventually he was bringing in 15 dozen bagels a week. He set out a cash basket to recoup his costs. His collection rate was about 95 percent; he attributed the underpayment to oversight.
In 1984, when his research...