Wednesday, October 15, 2014

It Ain't What It Used To Be: 3 Pounds of Coffee

That's sort of a generic title to the post, which I could be using for a fair number of mine.

Anyhow, I'm a coffee drinker, though over the years I've dropped from maybe 10 cups of regular down to one Starbucks vente regular used to spike maybe 6 cups of decaf.  The point is, since I started at ASCS I was involved with the office coffee pot, that indispensable support for most bureaucrats.  I can remember when  a 3-lb can of coffee was about $3.  Then I remember when they went to "flaked" coffee, which reduced the weight without changing the size of the can.  Think that was about 33 oz.  But I noticed this morning, when I opened a new can, it was only about 2/3 full and the weight was down to 22 oz. (for about $8).

The logic is that existing supply chains are set up to package, ship, and store the old 3 lb container, so changing the container size doesn't make sense when the price changes, and maybe the customer won't notice the price increase when it's achieved by reducing the quantity, but there must be some point where saving the cost of shipping air (the empty space in the can) around the country makes a change worthwhile.  Isn't there?

Monday, October 13, 2014

Farming Drones

Piece on farmers wanting to use drones. They argue that the US will fall behind in the technology unless FAA immediately does rules. 

It would seem to me the usefulness of drones would be directly related to the size of the farming operations, so that would tend to favor US drones, once approved.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

5 Minutes to Pay Your Taxes?

That was the claim in a newspaper article this week.  Trying a short-cut search brought up this article in The Economist, which has a more reasonable estimate:
Estonia’s approach makes life efficient: taxes take less than an hour to file, and refunds are paid within 48 hours. By law, the state may not ask for any piece of information more than once, people have the right to know what data are held on them and all government databases must be compatible, a system known as the X-road. In all, the Estonian state offers 600 e-services to its citizens and 2,400 to businesses.
 As a bureaucrat I love the idea.  The reality for the US though is we're always going to trade efficiency for what we see as privacy and freedom.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Software Design Mistakes of the Past and Present

A couple of articles this week on the redesign of the Obamacare web site: among the major changes, reducing the number of screens and permitting the use of the "back" button.

Those are familiar problems--the Treasury Direct website, which has been around for this century, still doesn't permit the use of the "back" button nor is it particularly user friendly in its design.

Going back to last century, when the original software for taking acreage reports was designed for the System/36, because no one had the experience, there was one screen for entering the crop, one screen for the practice, one screen for the intended usage, one for crop share, etc.--if I remember a total of 7 screens to report one field (i.e. common land unit as it's known now).  Naturally there was mass rebellion in the field, people couldn't use the software, and there was mass evasion of the issue in Washington and Kansas City.  We all knew we'd done the best we knew, and our childhood fairy tales assured us that anything done with good intentions would turn out well. 

I'm not sure I ever fully learned the lessons that episode might have taught.  I did oversee a redesign of the software in later years, but I was too much a coward really to research whether it was as usable as it should have been--after all computerization should make life better, not worse, shouldn't it?

I think of these things when I read about doctors upset with their digitized medical records systems.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Small Dairymen These Days: 200 Cows?

A quote from Rep. Peterson at Farm Policy, on the new dairy program:
“‘I’m hoping that everybody signs up for the catastrophic coverage, pays the $100 administrative fee, and locks in their production base so they get adjustments going forward,’ said Peterson, an accountant by trade. ‘If you’re a smaller producer, below 4 million pounds, the $7 margin coverage is so inexpensive that I think it’d be a mistake not to take it.’”
Now if your herd is averaging 20,000 lbs (which still seems incredible to me), I think that means a herd of 199 cows is "small". 

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

John Oliver on Civil Forfeiture:Incentives Work

Vox links to a John Oliver piece on civil forfeitures (police taking assets on the basis that they're linked to a crime, usually drugs), a subject which has been in the news recently.

What's interesting to a bureaucrat is that usually the police department can keep most or all of the assets they seize.  But spending the money is difficult, because good management says you shouldn't depend on seizures for your operating budget.  So as one sheriff (I think) says, you treat it as "pennies from heaven" to buy nice-to-have stuff.

Keeping the money gives the police an incentive to, at the least, push the envelope, leading to abuses which are easy to mock, and Oliver does a good job.

One of the problems for bureaucracy is giving incentives.  For example, when the IRS collects delinquent taxes the money goes to the Treasury.  When a bureaucrat comes up with an idea which saves money, her agency doesn't get any of the savings, it's all buried in the established appropriation process. (A side note: one of the physicists who just won a Nobel worked for a corporation who paid him $200 as a reward for his work.  He eventually sued and got a settlement in the middle millions, nowhere near the importance of the work.)  Other bureaucracies live on fees--for example I believe it's true that parts of AMS and APHIS are funded by fees, which means when we have government shutdowns due to lack of appropriations (as we did a year ago), those employees can continue to work.

Back to the forfeitures--I don't think originally the idea was to reward police departments, it was to take away ill-begotten gains.  Would be interesting to know how the rule that the police kept (most of) the money came to be. 

Bottomline: we haven't solved the problem of incentives for bureaucrats.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

APH Again--What Is Normal

Previously posted on the problems implementing the APH provision of the farm bill.  The issue continues to get a lot of attention, as witness today's Farm Policy.  Two paragraphs from there:

Ms. Taylor pointed out that, “Huie [a Texas farmer introduced earlier in the piece] and other mega-drought victims from Texas to Colorado had banked on a new 2014 farm bill provision forgiving Actual Production History (APH) yields that collapsed due to extreme weather. The APH fix forgave an individual’s actual yields in counties where planted-acre yield tumbled at least 50% below a 10-year average. Growers in contiguous counties would also qualify.
Because APHs are based on a 10-year history, the new rule would have erased Huie’s near-zero yields due to drought in 2006, 2009, 2012 and 2013. That would have lifted his 2015 cotton APH average 26% — with similar boosts for his dryland corn, grain sorghum and wheat. Establishing a realistic APH is doubly important now, since it is the basis for payments under the new Supplemental Coverage Option (SCO), an insurance rider that allows growers to buy up insurance coverage to 86% levels. Huie expects to need that option to supplement his base coverage.
I see this as illustrating one of the problems: the poor guy had zero yields in 4 out of the last 10 years, but he wants a "realistic" APH to get his coverage up.  What's the problem:  defining "normal".   For a farmer it's a good yield, not the sort of yields the Midwest corn and soybean people are getting this year, but a good, solid yield, one which rewards the hard work and the investment in land and equipment and fertilizer.  It's much like a Washington R*dskin fan, we'd like a good team, a team with a winning record, not necessarily a Super Bowl team, though that would be nice, but one whose season ends with some quiet satisfaction.  Certainly we don't want a team which only wins 3 games, we deserve better.

The reality Washington fans have to face is the team has not been good, much less very good, on a sustained basis for the last 2 decades. We don't have either the talent or the system.  It's possible that farmer Huie needs to face the fact that his land in Texas no longer has the weather needed to be a good farm.

If that's true, then Congress and RMA will be wasting money when they adjust the APH.

Speed of Delivery of Disaster Payments

This article points out the irony of the money FSA paid out under the Livestock Disaster Assistance Program, some $2.78 billion.
The payments come at a time when cattle are bringing record prices and corn used for feed is the cheapest it's been in years.

Don't blame FSA, blame Congress.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Old Men

Eugene Volokh at Volokh Conspiracy posts a Kipling poem, which I'm going to steal:

"And it put me in mind of one of Kipling’s poems, The Old Men:
This is our lot if we live so long and labour unto the end –
Then we outlive the impatient years and the much too patient friend:
And because we know we have breath in our mouth and think we have thought in our head,
We shall assume that we are alive, whereas we are really dead.
We shall not acknowledge that old stars fade or stronger planets arise
(That the sere bush buds or the desert blooms or the ancient well-head dries),
Or any new compass wherewith new men adventure ‘neath new skies.
We shall lift up the ropes that constrained our youth, to bind on our children’s hands;
We shall call to the waters below the bridges to return and to replenish our lands;
We shall harness (Death’s own pale horses) and scholarly plough the sands.
We shall lie down in the eye of the sun for lack of a light on our way –
We shall rise up when the day is done and chirrup, “Behold, it is day!”
We shall abide till the battle is won ere we amble into the fray.
We shall peck out and discuss and dissect, and evert and extrude to our mind,
The flaccid tissues of long-dead issues offensive to God and mankind –
(Precisely like vultures over an ox that the army left behind).
We shall make walk preposterous ghosts of the glories we once created –
Immodestly smearing from muddled palettes amazing pigments mismated –
And our friend will weep when we ask them with boasts if our natural force be abated.
The Lamp of our Youth will be utterly out, but we shall subsist on the smell of it;
And whatever we do, we shall fold our hands and suck our gums and think well of it.
Yes, we shall be perfectly pleased with our work, and that is the Perfectest Hell of it!
This is our lot if we live so long and listen to those who love us –
That we are shunned by the people about and shamed by the Powers above us.
Wherefore be free of your harness betimes; but, being free be assured,
That he who hath not endured to the death, from his birth he hath never endured!
This seems like Kipling in an unduly grim mood, and I don’t really buy the message, at least if taken at face value. Still, I think it’s a great poem."

The line particularly apropos for this blog is: "We shall make walk preposterous ghosts of the glories we once created"

Sunday, October 05, 2014