Monday, December 31, 2007

The Value of Diverse Ideas

Apparently some libertarians are hoping to extend human life indefinitely. The prospect does not appeal, unless medicine can guarantee a 25 year old body and a 45 year old mind. But another reason for death is shown in this New York Times article on innovative minds:

IT’S a pickle of a paradox: As our knowledge and expertise increase, our creativity and ability to innovate tend to taper off. Why? Because the walls of the proverbial box in which we think are thickening along with our experience.

Those Fancy Jeans Go to High Income Folks

Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution links to research on the changing mix of products (i.e, why we used to be satisfied with Levis, Lees, Sears and Monkey Wards jeans, but we no longer are). To summarize a summary, if you've got lots of money you're willing to spend more for "quality", you aren't price conscious. Go back to Veblen for the explanation of what "quality" mean (hint--it's not Consumer Reports quality).

[Just thought--this is a rather negative note upon which to end the year, but I won't guarantee to post again. So happy new year to anyone reading this.]

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Some Familiar Problems in an Unlikely Place

From this link:

If personal incomes, working conditions and future development opportunities can be improved in underdeveloped regions, more and more talents will be attracted to work there, says a signed article in People's Daily. The following is an excerpt.

In the application process for the national civil servant test of 2008, many positions attracted over 1,000 applicants - one of these positions attracted 3,592 test-takers; but no applicants showed interest in 59 positions in underdeveloped regions.

Yes, it's China. Sounds like the problems in getting doctors to work in rural areas in the US

End of Year, End of Line for...

Netscape, after 13 years

A Bavarian beer hall, in DC area where Germans, Poles and Russians found unity

The last family owned matzo factory.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Procrastination and "Sharing"

Robin Hanson has a good post on procrastination here,
which I've shared below. I like Google's feature--as I understand it also works with Google Talk.

Individual Versus Rules

The NYTimes has an article today on the conflict between safeguarding senior citizens and preserving their free will. The focus is on one man, who between 73 and 81 completely screwed up his finances, loaning/giving hundreds of thousands to a sympathetic neighbor, then refinancing and finally selling his house for nothing. He was vulnerable because his wife had died, but he seems to have no mental illness. He's suing to break the sales contract on the basis that he was too old to be competent.

Meanwhile, over at Volokh.com they just wrapped up a guest-blog series on women in combat. The man against the idea argued that women, as a rule, were incapable, unfit for combat, disruptive, etc. etc. The woman for the idea argued that decisions should be made on an individual basis. (I just skimmed the arguments, but I think she missed a good one: female brains are still cheaper than male ones and a smart combatant is better than a dumb one any day of the week).

Anyhow, both issues tie back to the extent to which we use rules/guidelines/stereotypes/generalizations in our lives. Do we say that someone 75 needs to prove they're still a safe driver? Do we say they need to prove they're competent to execute contracts? Do we say that a woman needs to prove she's a capable fighter, but not a man? (In my time, the 11B MOS (military occupation specialty) was for the leftovers--those who couldn't be plugged into other slots.) It seems we make default judgments--anyone 21 and over is mature enough to drink, anyone 18 and over is worthy of being a voter, unless and until someone is able to take the person to court and have them declared incompetent. And there's a difference between incompetence and being a danger to others, as witness the Virginia Tech shooter.

Do I have answers? No, though I'm conscious of losing some capabilities as I age. And I'd observe that bureaucrats are usually the ones who have to administer rules.

Whatever--Merry Christmas.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Bah Humbug

My anal-retentive side rises to the surface (bad metaphor) in connection with the story of the father with 3 kids who went hunting for a Christmas tree and got lost for 3 days.

It touches a memory from childhood, when city slickers would come out searching for a tree on our land. The father was intending to steal something, and setting a bad example for his children. Not good.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Corn Prices Foam, Beer Doesn't

The high corn prices are cutting into hop production, meaning that beer is more costly. Link here, thanks to slate.com

Friday, December 21, 2007

A Faced Bureaucrat Retires

Every individual is individual, but this bureaucrat is representative of the people who man and woman the FSA county offices.

Another Whippersnapper Advances

According to this press release, Patricia Klintberg is now head of the FSA press operation. I remember her back in the Payment in Kind days (I think, might have been 1985 farm bill), working then for Doanes I think.

The world turns.

Canadian Programs

Amidst all the turmoil of enacting our farm bill, the Canadian process seems rather tranquil. The government and industry consult, after figuring out how much money to spend, and come up with a program, apparently without passing Parliament. I guess in the parliamentary scheme, much focuses on the budget process.

The Agrinvest plan sounds a bit like a 401K for farmers.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

I Don't Want the Whole World To Know How Senile My Husband Is

That was the best line I heard yesterday (yes, from my wife).

What was the trigger for it? I commented I needed to blog about it, and that was her reaction.

What was "it"? Damned if I can remember now. Her reaction just washed away the "it".

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Who Is a Farmer

FSA has just put out a renewal of the proposed rule for Cash and Share Lease Provisions for Future Farm Programs. (The issue has been: who shares in the risk of production of the crop. But with the price of land rising and people looking for new ways to split risk and reward between landowner and tenant, this is a hot issue. Apparently so much so people requested more time to comment.) I was surfing this site, searched on "agriculture" and stumbled on the document. Comments run for 30 days. I'm also interested to note that Salomon Ramirez is now in DC and a division director. I remember when...

I'm curious over the impact of the on-line comment process on the number and quality of comments.

County Committees

Ah, for the good old days, when county committees had power and were subjects of political struggle (when farm programs first started, the committees were all-powerful, now they aren't).

53 years ago:

Independence County’s Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service committee, which has served nearly four months longer than a regular tenure, has issued a statement that the committee welcomes an investigation of the election of county committeemen held in August.

The statement was issued in reply to a Guard story that the office of Compliance and Investigation of the U.S. Department of Agriculture had been asked to investigate the election after the state committee said it has had 10 or 12 complaints. The state ASCS committee has never certified the election of William P. Magness, Clyde Stewart and W.S. Finney. The men were supposed to have taken office Sept. 1.



From the Batesville Daily Guard.

Satan Working Overtime--Egypt, Zebibah, and Me

The Times has a fascinating article today on the zebibah in Egypt. Seems the zebibah is the name for the forehead callus caused by pressing one's forehead to the ground as one prays. The more you pray and the harder the impact, the more visible the callus. Egyptian society has, according to the article, become much more visibly pious in the last 2 decades. Women wear the hijab (head scarf), men display the zebibah.

Where does Satan come in? Where do I come in? Many decades ago I wanted to be visibly pious. I saved my allowance and made a big display in Sunday School of all the money I contributed. But I knew better. I knew that was egotism. That was a sin. That was Satan. Or, alternatively, maybe I felt it was conforming to society and I could feel rebellious (once every 2 decades or so). So I made a simple decision: stop going to church.

What will happen in Egypt? I don't know, but I don't believe a conformist society can last in the modern world. Satan and egoism are still at work.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Maturity--Age or Experience

The conventional wisdom seems to be that it takes a long while for the body to mature. Brain scans seem to prove you have to be at least 25 to achieve good judgment.

From personal experience, I might say it takes longer.

But on the other hand, since I'm contrarian, maybe not. Brain scans also seem to show that the brain is like a muscle, different types of experience leave their mark. For example, London taxi drivers have to study for 3 years to learn all the streets and pass the exam. Scans show the area of their brain devoted to spatial relationships grows over the 3 years. So, maybe we shouldn't assume that the brain scans devoted to maturity simply show the natural development of the body with the logical conclusion that we shouldn't expect mature judgment from 21 year olds. Maybe the scans reflect the progressive infantilization of Americans, the fact that children/adolescents/young adults aren't exposed to situations that test their judgment. We don't have 8-year olds responsible for herding their family's cows. We have (I'd guess) fewer teenagers working jobs and more studying. We have more students in college and post-graduate study. (You learn many things in college, but not necessarily good judgment).l

Philpott and Metz on Farm Bill

Monsanto sponsors a site, which has an interview with "Tom Philpott, the founder of Maverick Farms, a sustainable-agriculture non-profit and small farm located in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina. We also talked to Bob Metz, former president of the American Soybean Association and a fifth generation soybean and corn farmer in West Browns Valley, South Dakota" here.

Philpott would like a supply management program (once known as "production adjustment"--my area of concern) for corn and soybeans to reduce current levels of production for fear of environmental consequences.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Senate Passes Farm Bill

The Senate passes a farm bill, with no changes on payment limitation and which is unsatisfactory to the administration.

NYTimes and Locavore

The Times decided to jump on this bandwagon with two op-ed pieces.

  • One praises the energy saving virtues of hunting in your own backyard (particularly white-tailed deer, to which I would add the Canadian geese who now overwinter, thanks to global warming).
  • The other challenges the casual and unthinking usage of "food-miles" to evaluate food, also making the claim that feeding 6 billion people (more conceived every second) will take some industrial agriculture, and ending with a plea to look at the big picture.
Looking at the big picture is always good, except when it isn't.

$4 Million Owed and Bureaucratic Rules

There's a North Dakota case where a farmer was got money fraudulently, was convicted of fraud, forfeited $3.9 million in assets and served 4 years in jail. Now FSA has sent demand letters to the man and his associates (who weren't convicted), asking for repayment of the farm program payments. Here's a version of the AP story.

What's not clear is whether the forfeited assets should have gone against the debts (in which case there's a bureaucratic foulup among Justice, USDA, and FSA) or not. In any case, it's not clear why FSA didn't send demand letters to the associates 4 or more years ago. Unfortunately, when you don't often have such cases, they tend to get messy because no one remembers how to process them.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Improper Payments--Medicare and FSA

Here's an interesting comparison in the Federal Times of the "improper payments"[updated]--Medicare has $13 billion of payments not supported by properly completed paperwork--FSA was hit on it last year but has greatly improved this year.
What I didn't like to read was the comment about FSA doing lots of manual work--surely after 10 years they should have gotten more integrated.

OMB Does It Right

Congratulations to a part of the Bush Administration for the way they put up a website, http://www.usaspending.gov as described in this article in the Post.

Instead of starting from scratch, going for perfection and falling on their face, they worked with their critics, OMBwatch, who already had a similar site. They put the site up, on schedule, and will be able to improve it as they learn more about what people want and how agencies can feed data to it.

They even included a wiki.

Well done.

Maybe I Wasn't Wrong

Here's a link to the press release the House Ag committee put out on the partial extension of the farm programs. I interpret it as saying it's pro forma, simply holding open the money for the farm programs without actually doing anything as far as the programs. So it's the budgetary game. Lesson: whenever you set up procedures, you run the risk of forcing behavior that is nonproductive just to comply with the procedures.

We Aren't All the Same

Occasionally it's useful to remind ourselves of the variety of Americans and their different circumstances. It's too easy in debates to have a picture in our mind of the standard, garden-variety American and not to test the picture against reality:

  • Some Americans don't have phones. See the graph in this piece, which is mostly focused on the growing percentage of Americans who have only wireless service, but the survey shows about 2 percent don't.
  • Some Americans don't have official proof they were born, and have a somewhat ambiguous status. See this piece on native Americans crossing borders.

Partial Extension of Farm Programs--I was wrong

See this link.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Earl Butz and Subsidies

A freelance journalist reviews "King Corn", a documentary of two Yalies growing an acre of corn and following it through the trade channels. The level of accuracy may be judged by this:
When they visit nonagenarian Earl Butz, the secretary of agriculture under Nixon who institutionalized subsidies for big agribusiness, they are positively gentle. From an assisted-care facility, Butz describes the subsidy system he helped set up for corporate agriculture as creating an “age of plenty.”
Butz is remembered, not so fondly by those of us old enough, as a Secretary who tried to dismantle the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service (FSA's predecessor) and the farm programs of the time. As Kevin Drum observes in a post I've shared, "we create our own reality".

The British Version of FSA Is Improving

I've posted before noting the problems the British "Rural Payments Agency" has had making payments under their farm program. It appears they are making progress, at least from this article.

I find the reference to the change in software systems particularly interesting. It almost sounds as if they have moved to an integrated system more like the one that FSA uses. It's the only way to go, if you can.

More on Closing FSA Offices

For some reason, Georgia, with two Rep. Senators, also has problems with closing FSA offices, as here.

Does Hillary have more clout on Capitol Hill and in the Administration Building than I thought?

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

More User Friendly E-Government?

The Post today reported on a planned hearing on making government sites more friendly to Google:

""It [unfriendly websites] could be unintentional oversight or incompetence," said Ari Schwartz, deputy director of the Center of Democracy and Technology, which plans to release a report today with OMB Watch, a watchdog group, that shows that basic government information often does not show up in results provided by search engines run by Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Ask.com.

Today's hearing comes nearly five years after the E-Government Act required government agencies to make information more accessible electronically. The law is scheduled to be reauthorized soon.

According to the report, simple queries -- about, say, small-farm loans, or visitation rights for grandparents -- miss critical information because many agencies do not organize their Web sites so they can be easily indexed by search engines. Some agencies embed codes in their sites that make certain pages invisible to search engines."

Makes sense to me. Of course, right now the Government Printing Office is undertaking an elaborate project to revamp its efforts. And the OMB official who testified started by plugging USA.gov. Too many agencies fell into the trap of thinking their web site is where people want to go (which is what I thought when I retired), when all too often people (i.e., me) want a Google search to find their answer and to hell with the nice introductory web site.

See here for a joint report by OMB Watch and CDT.

What I've Learned in the Last Three Days

  1. Megachurches need armed security guards
  2. $180,000 is the new $40,000, according to Harvard's measure of "middle-class" income.
  3. In 1910, a good vacation was 2-3 months (according to the President).

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Benefits of Being on the Inside

Something strange is going on. Former Gov. Johanns of Nebraska was, until very recently, Secretary of Agriculture. Senator Clinton is from New York. The last I looked, Johanns was Republican; Clinton, Democrat. FSA is closing county offices. According to this piece, 10 Nebraska offices closed today. I could swear that New York originally proposed to close about the same number, but some were removed from the list. So what's going on--does Hillary really have more power than a good Republican, is she that effective?

Former FSA Employee Has Op-ed

In an op-ed in the Post this morning, James Earl Carter writes about cotton subsidies. He was an employee of a predecessor to Farm Service Agency--Agricultural ADjustment Administration, doing measurement (presumably as a summer employee). Back in the 1930's AAA employed around 100,000 people doing field measurement. Then we got aerial photography, and planimetry, and spot checking and slides and now GPS/GIS.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

NASCO Sensitivities

From here,

Communication is the key to our organization and I hope that you are receiving information from your State President and/or Area Exec. Unfortunately, many of our members have become extremely fearful of using the government computer for any purpose. Thanks to Cindy Peterson, Jon Williams, and Darin Slack, the NASCOE Exec Committee has written a document entitled "Government Computer Usage". The Area Execs will be distributing this, it will be posted on the web site, and may be in this NASCOE Now! Our hope is that this will give everyone a little better understanding of when the government computer can and cannot be used.

I Just Follow the Crowd--Locavore

It's now the 2007 word of the year, according to this.

Slow Equals Good? Not Necessarily

Here's an article in the NYTimes that challenges the easy assumption that food grown locally is always the easiest on the environment, particularly when you consider the whole cycle (don't drive to the farmer's market in your Hummer). As a side issue, the author points out our increasing frequency of shopping. Once-a-week shopping is no more.

Developing the Internet--Bureaucrats and Gore

NY Times has an article on the development of the Internet. The whole thing's interesting, but here's two quotes:
..a number of scientists and corporate executives who met here said NSFnet remained a powerful example of how a handful of government bureaucrats in concert with an equally small number of scientists made a set of carefully considered federal policy decisions, in this case leading directly to the modern Internet...
...many of the scientists, engineers and technology executives who gathered here to celebrate the Web’s birth say he [Al Gore] played a crucial role in its development, and they expressed bitterness that his vision had been so discredited.
Maybe the media owes Al an apology?

Friday, December 07, 2007

Losing Farmers, Not According to the Farm Bureau

"Farm Bureau membership across the country has surpassed the 6 million mark for the second consecutive year – 6,231,176 member families. [emphasis added] The milestone was passed as state Farm Bureaus reported 30,838 additional members registered for Farm Bureau membership in 2007. " See press release

Problems of Organizational Change

A nice comment on another blog:

I suspect that all large organisations are “slow to change” if that means “adopt the path the leaders of the organisation have decided to move forward on”. In fact, this applies even to small organisations or dare I say it individuals. Certainly when I make a decision to try to change my own behaviour, I do sometimes experience difficulty in “driving through change”!

Thursday, December 06, 2007

A Woman's Work...

From "Feminine Ingenuity, Women and Invention in America" by Anne L. MacDonald, something to pair with the Life photo Bill Bryson alerted me to. It's a list of the necessities for a well-stocked laundry room, about 100 years ago. My mother had most of these:

Agate Pan or basin for starching
Bosom board
Clothes basket
Clothes boiler (tin with copper bottom)
Clothes horse
Clothes line
Clothes pins
Clothes pin bag
Clothes props
Clothes stick
Clothes wringer
Cup for measure
Duster for lines
Droppers
Flannel
Funnel
Heavy cloth for tubs and boiler
Heavy irons
Heavy paper
Iron holders
Iron rest
Ironing table and board
Pins
Polishing iron
Saucepan for starch
Scrubbing brush
Set tubs, three or four, or machine
Skirt board
Small pieces of muslin and cheese cloth
Small pointed irons
Sprinkler
Teaspoon
Wash board
Water pail
Wax

(Not to mention starch, soap, blueing,etc.)

You look at the list, and think about the work each item implies, and the expertise. (Is there anyone out there who knows how to use a "skirt board" these days?) Permanent press has made a big difference to women, second only to processed foods. Remember that, in those days, every man unattached to a woman would have to have his clothes laundered.

Most Ridiculous Sentence I Read Today

The fear of not measuring up as a man is highly motivating, but it is not one that motivates women.

From Volokh.com, Kingsley Browne guest-blogging on women in combat.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Amazon Is UNFAIR to Procrastinators

I'm a procrastinator, I freely admit. I'm usually fairly optimistic, crediting others with good intentions. But I've just become suspicious of Amazon. In the last few days I have twice gone to their site, put items in my shopping cart, then procrastinated over whether to buy then or wait and find more items. Net result, I left the shopping cart sitting. Each time, when I've come back to the cart to complete the transaction, I've been notified that the price has increased on the items in the cart.

It makes sense for Amazon, at least narrowly. They know a customer is either going to abandon the cart entirely, in which case raising the price doesn't matter, or is going to want to buy on a later date. Indeed, they may even know I'm a customer who often comes back and buys. Customers like me have a psychological investment in the transaction and are unlikely to back out. So it's an easy $2-4 per item for them.

I said "narrowly", because the suspicion immediately causes my customer satisfaction with Amazon to drop. They aren't operating in good faith if my suspicions are true. And the mere suspicion is damaging.

Guaranteed Loan Programs

Speaking of things that don't get the scrutiny of direct outlays (see previous post), guaranteed loans would fit, except for this very critical Post article on the rural development guaranteed loans.
Something I didn't realize, from a good farmgate post (Uof IL):
The advent of revenue insurance programs, which have been attractive to farmers, have greatly increased the business being done by insurance companies and the cost to the government has doubled over the past 7 years.
I think it's safe to say that the costs of subsidizing crop insurance, much like those of flood insurance, don't get the scrutiny that direct outlays do.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Peta and Tera--the Bytes of the Present

A piece yesterday on the new superfast computers, now up to 1,000 trillion computations per second--i.e. a "petaflop". And I see ads now for 1 terabyte storage systems (designed I guess to be network storage on a home network.)

Now my children, in the old days some 30 years ago, a COBOL program would run in a partition of less than 100K and the first PC from IMSAI had 4 or 8K RAM. Simply incredible, the speed of change (but then we've been saying that since the steam engine and telegraph.)

Why Corn Prices Will Fall

From a NYTimes article on OPEC's dilemma over whether to raise production:
"At the same time, new supplies are slowly making their way on the market. New oil and natural-gas liquid production from OPEC nations could reach 2 million barrels a day next year, and another 1.1 million barrels a day are expected to come from non-OPEC sources, like Russia or Norway, according to estimates by Deutsche Bank. Some OPEC specialists say these factors could substantially alter the balance between supply and demand after years of market tightness."
If the economy slows in the U.S. and more production comes on line and Iraq gets a hair closer to normality, the price of oil will drop more than the $10 it has already. That means ethanol is less attractive. That means corn prices drop.

Monica Davis Redux

Received a nice message from the Kansas City Star saying that her Nov. 20 article had never run in that paper. See my prior post.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Moving Government Offices--a French Perspective

See Dirk Beauregard's post for a perspective on the process of moving government offices in France. (Remember Madison's Federalist 10 and 51)

Farm Income Up 50 Percent, Household Income Less Than 8??

Although farmers are having a record year in 2007, farm household income is up less than 8 percent (still a good increase). Why? Because "farm" households get 87 percent of their income from off the farm. See this link to ERS.

Talking Out of Both Sides of My Mouth

The NASCOE site has a letter from the President, in which he says:
Please be aware there are numerous jobs available in WDC. If you are interested in working in WDC go to www.usajobs.gov and check it out. CEPD would also be interested in working with employees outside of Washington in flexible ways to test and develop software. NASCOE hopes to be able to work with them on that opportunity in the future. The MIDAS project will also be looking for folks to be detailed to WDC in the near future. If you have an interest in that keep watching the vacancy announcements!
I once was actively prodding people to move to the DC area. It's still a great place to live (Fairfax county has the best high school in the country) but not to buy. Unless the housing crash gets much worse, I don't see how FSA can get good people to come, unless they're singles who want the big city life or those who have a burning ambition to move up. Of course, the same applies for the teachers in those Fairfax schools.

Libertarian Meets Reality

Ilya Somin, one of the libertarian-leaning types at Volokh.com, had surgery and blogs
about the advantages of an extended family (someone can stay with you to help you over the first days of recuperation). As a friend told him, they're good insurance against risk.

Of course, if he were a good libertarian he'd go to the market for home health aides.

(Since my wife had her foot put in a cast on Wed, I feel a link.)

Thursday, November 29, 2007

You Can't Live There Any More

Washington Post buries a report from the Urban Institute on housing prices:
a medical services manager who earned $87,300 a year could afford only 14 percent of the homes in the Washington area last year, compared with 49 percent four years earlier, the study said.

households needed to earn $49,000 a year to afford the region's average monthly rent of $1,226.

All in Your Point of View

The Washington times has one take on a study of immigration, the Washington Post
has another. (One emphasizes the fact that illegal immigrants rely on welfare, the other that they don't rely on "welfare". The picture I get is that immigrants with families don't have health insurance so they use Medicaid in emergencies and food stamps regularly while they don't sign up for what used to be called the "dole".)

Who Is a Farmer, CRP Version

Farmgate has a piece, passing on concerns about whether IRS is going to require absentee landowners of CRP land to pay self-employment tax on the CRP payments. This is more complex than I can handle at my advanced age, though I'm amused by the possibility that retired farmers have been trying to have their cake and eat it too. (We expect better of farmers, don't we.) There's a reference back to the 1983 Payment-in-Kind program and IRS handling of those payments. (There was an option then to put your whole farm into the PIK program--which raised all sorts of questions about reducing numbers of tenants, which in turn twanged guitar strings that reached back to 1930's era questions about fair treatment of tenants, which involved some of the communists who then walked the hallways of USDA.) The issue then was, if the farmer doesn't have to do anything, is he or she really a farmer? To share in some USDA payments, you have to be really a farmer, but maybe the IRS says, if you're really a farmer, then you are self-employed and your revenue is subject to the self-employment tax.

Who knows. It's all an amusing mess for me, if not for the people who have to employ accountants and lawyers to straighten it out.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

No Farm Bill

Farmgate has a post discussing a Congressional Research Service analysis of what happens without a farm bill. I'm confused. As I've posted before, in the old days the administration used to threaten the imposition of wheat marketing quotas in the summer of the year the farm legislation expired. (I well remember having to come up with estimates of costs in the summer of 1985 if acreage allotments were implemented for wheat and we had to hold a referendum on marketing quotas.) I had thought that in the 1996 farm bill they'd tinkered with the wording of the law to remove that leverage. Apparently not, from the analysis.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Not Seeing the Bubble in Front of You

I like John Phipps, but I have to conclude his crystal ball has a bubble in front of it. In this post
triggered by the inability to buy a $300,000 combine, he says:
" In every bubble (which this well could be) the secret was to bet heavily early, and I think this is still early because we are not sure it's a bubble yet."
I think he's wrong--when most people agree it's a bubble, it's too late. (See the tech bubble, see the housing bubble.) It probably made sense to buy farmland in 2005, maybe even 2006, but not in 2007. (I keep remembering the state specialist in Iowa who almost bought a farm too far in 1979.)

Liberal Hypocrisy

A quote from a post on Gristmill, with reference to the need for action on global warming:
"So, will the next president be willing to act unilaterally with assertive, even aggressive use of executive authority -- like George Bush, except for nobler purposes? Who among the candidates is willing to promise, as FDR did, that "In the event that Congress should fail to act, and act adequately, I shall accept the responsibility and I will act."

So it all comes down to whose ox is gored. If GW does things I don't like, and I don't, I rail about abuse of Presidential power. If Hillary does things I do like, I praise her Presidential leadership.

SS Number Problems

DHS is revising its plan for using SSA's database in enforcing immigration rules, according to this article. SSA's IG reported that there's a high inaccuracy level in the data, which undermines enforcing strict rules on employers.

This is a symptom of the problem, which is we're trying to use the Social security number system for work it was never designed to do. It would be much better to start over, setting up an accessible system with proper updating and quality checks, and privacy safeguards.

Secretary Gates, Meet Senator Helms

Secretary Gates spoke in Kansas, suggesting we needed to boost our diplomacy, specifically mentioning, AID and USIA, two agencies merged with State under Clinton. But as I remember the story, Senator Helms, then chair of Foreign Relations, held their feet to the fire until Sec. Albright and VP Gore agreed to the reorganization. The illustrious Senator from North Carolina (one of the few politicians I really, really dislike) thought the striped pants crew were a waste. So much for his wisdom. Of course, the Reps won't step up and take responsibility, nor will Bill and Hillary for caving.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Changing Contours of Class

Joel Achenbach has an article on class in the US in today's Washington Post. One thing toward the end of the article struck me. Someone is discussing current class lines: today, the rich have staff, a personal assistant or whatever.

I think it's true before WWII most upper middle class families had staff--i.e., maids/cooks. Electric appliances in the home, the spread of restaurants, and processed food reducing cooking time has had an impact. I wonder, is it easier to accept inequalities of income when there's no employer/employee relationship involved?

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Emulation and Envy

Robert Frank, an economist, has a liberal argument for higher taxes. Facetiously, the idea is that money is a positional good, used for ranking people and that gold stars would be just as good. More seriously, Alex Rodriguez doesn't care that much what's left in his pocket from his new Yankees contract after agent fees and taxes are deducted--what's important is that he maintains his rank as highest paid player.

Via Greg Mankiw, an economist writing for Cato takes on Frank's arguments here. I'm not up on the subject enough to offer much comment, but I did find the climax of Henderson's argument interesting:

It is true that we often want something when we see that someone else has it. But what doesn't ring true is Frank's view about why we want things. One of my earliest instances of an intense want was in 1955, when the coonskin cap came along after Walt Disney had made Davy Crockett famous. I saw some of my friends wearing them and I badly wanted one. My father, though, would not buy one for my brother or me. I remember the intense pain I had about not having it. But did I want that coonskin cap because I was competing with my friends for status and position? Not at all. I wanted it because it was so neat. Now, you might doubt the memory of a 56-year-old about his introspection 52 years earlier. Fine. Then consider this case. I also remember when the Ford Mustang and the Mercury Park Lane came along in 1965, when I was 14. I wanted either one of those cars badly. I tore out the full-page magazine ads picturing those cars, taped them on my wall, and pined for them every day. But the reason I wanted them was not that I saw people around me with them. I lived in a small town in rural Canada where you didn't see new cars as soon as they came out. I had seen the ads for these cars and started yearning for them long before anyone in my town owned one. So, why did I want one of these cars? Because they were just so beautiful. I've asked other friends why they want the new expensive gadgets when they come out and invariably the answer is that they're such neat toys. Few mention that they want them because they want to be higher up on the positional scale.
It seems that the invisible hand of the positional good market operates much the same as the invisible hand of the free market. Free market capitalism doesn't really require everyone to be price/quality conscious all the time. Many of us can continue to operate in ruts, buying what we always buy from the vendors we always buy from. But some people have to be different. That difference is enough to make competition operate.

So too with positional structures. Dr. Henderson wanted goods as a boy because they were beautiful. What he considered beautiful were the rare goods, the neat ones, the ones only a few of his friends had. What does that mean--they were expensive, they were above average in cost. So Dr. Henderson, even though he's pure of heart and doesn't envy others, is looking up the positional ladder.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Babies Recognizing Helpful People

New Scientist reports on research on babies, specifically that babies seem to recognize and prefer helpful characters in a puppet show.

Demanding Immigrants

Paul at Powerline has problems with a Washington Post article on delay in processing applications for citizenship. I take exception to his close:
To me, the most interesting aspect of this story is the sense of immigrant entitlement that comes through, especially in the quotations from the leaders of hispanic organizations. Even those who favor lots of legal immigration, as I do, should be concerned about the implications of that attitude for the future of our country.
I've no problem at all with people who pay taxes demanding good service from their government, especially since taxpayers don't pay for processsing citizenship applications, the applicants do via a fee.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Thank You for All the Faceless Bureaucrats

On this day to give thanks, it's time to say: "Thank you, faceless bureaucrats".

(Until now, it was what Gene Weingarten [Updated--my memory for names is going] of WaPo calls a "googlenope"--no hits on Google)

Think of it like thanking your mother, now dead, for cooking all those Thanksgiving dinners for you. (I know, now I'm getting silly, comparing bureaucrats and mothers.)

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Gun Control--Mr. Fischer's TAke

Marc Fischer, a local columnist for the Washington Post, has a column on the Supreme Court's taking of the appeal by DC of the Second Amendment decision. For what it's worth (nothing), I agree with his take--the court's going to decide that DC can't ban handguns but can regulate them. Which is about where we ought to end up. If we can take car keys away from senior citizens who can't drive safely, we can (and should) also take guns away from people who can't shoot safely.

I'd treat guns like cars. Every American, even including illegal immigrants, has the right to drive a car, once they've been tested.

Graduated Payment Limitation in Europe

Mulch notes the discussion in the EU of instituting graduated payment limitations (taking some credit because the EU has started opening up the data on who gets how much to the public, much as the EWG has done for the last 13+ years).

I made a similar proposal several months ago.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Mobility Rates--Shocking Downward Rates

Here's a link to a Brookings institution study on mobility across generations. What's amazing and distressing is that 33 percent of Americans are downwardly mobile (they end up lower in the income distribution than their parents were, i.e., falling from the top 10 percent to the bottom quarter). I hope some of our Presidential candidates will pick up on this. Where is the man or woman who will come forth and promise to reduce this rate to zero, to guarantee that no one will end up lower than his or her parent? Surely that's a goal we can all rally around. Whatever our race or religion, our background or aspirations, everyone wants to do better than our parent, to rise at least one rung on the ladder of success.

Write the candidates, strike a blow for clear thought and achievable goals.

Mobility--The Importance of Heritage

Henry Louis Gates, Jr, had an op-ed article in yesterday's Times citing the importance of a family heritage of success (my words). The article is "Forty Acres and a Gap in Wealth" and he says that of the prominent African-Americans he has studied, the big majority had ancestors who had been able to buy land. He takes off from that to the importance of middle-class values, and to a vague call for action.

Greg Mankiw, another Harvard prof, is skeptical. 3 generations means 8 grandparents, only one of whom has to have land to meet Gates' criteria.

I'm more with Gates, though he'd need a much bigger sample and to do the mirror image study to be convincing. (What proportion of inner city welfare recipients had ancestors who had property or position?)

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Why Does the No-Fly List Work So Well?

From an article in Government Executive, summarizing an IG report:
Skinner expressed concern that the manual procedures for TSA's watch list could pose a security risk. The agency currently receives data from the Terrorist Screening Center, standardizes this information and enters it into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, which is posted on a TSA Web site daily. Airlines can then download or print out the spreadsheet.

Skinner believes this system leaves room for problems to occur at many stages. For example, the watch list can be downloaded or printed out by unauthorized parties. Also, there are no standard guidelines for how airlines should use the information; some check multiple spellings of names while others use only exact spellings. Some smaller airlines manually check the names against the spreadsheet, which Skinner says can lead to human error.

Can lead to human error--no kidding! Apparently they reinvented the wheel when they put TSA together, lots of stovepipe systems as all the bureaucrats with their individual missions went to work and did their thing.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Lobbying for Jobs

The way government works:

“If you want to keep the office open, (get) out in the community and push the word,” the commission was told by Charles Zink, the director of the local FSA [Madison, NC] office. link

“NAFEC, an organization composed of and lead by farmers, nominated
and elected by farmers, and serving all farmers in each of their county
FSA offices, is indebted to Senators Baucus, D-Mont., Nelson, D-Neb.,
Salazar, D-Colo., and Thune, R-S.D., for their initiative and leadership
in the introduction and passage of an amendment to the Senate’s
proposed farm bill which will retain ‘Critical Access’ FSA county offices
for the duration of the 2007 farm bill,” declared Kuhlengel. “We also
owe our appreciation to Chairman Harkin, D-Iowa, Ranking Minority
Member Chambliss, R-Ga., and the rest of the committee for their
support of this vital provision.” link
Note the bipartisan mentions in the second.

Google Reader and Blogging

I follow a lot of blogs, often using them as the basis for posts. Now I'm going to try Google Reader's sharing feature. Hold your breath

Specious Arguing on Farm Bill Effects

Grist has this post by Britt Lundgren, on the faults of the farm bill and what changes should be made. Without addressing all of the points, I'd like to focus on the flaws in this excerpt, flaws which are recurrent in the green/locavore critique of farm policy:
Much of the debate over Farm Bill reform centers on spending priorities. According to the Environmental Working Group's Farm Subsidy Database, 10 percent of the beneficiaries of commodity subsidies received 66 percent of all the money spent on subsidies between 2003 and 2005. Because 6 out of 10 farmers don't get any subsidies at all (they grow vegetables, fruits, nuts or other crops that aren't eligible for subsidies), this means that during this period, just a tiny fraction of the farmers in the US collected over $22 billion in payments. Despite all of the money we pour into farm subsidies, most small and medium-sized farmers are still struggling to make ends meet.

[give Lundgren credit for not throwing in an attack on corporate agriculture, which people often include here--contrasting small farmers with corporate farms.]
Okay, farmers who plant and harvest a bigger acreage of field crops get the bigger share of the dollars. But the argument is unclear--should we subsidize the small and medium-sized farmers of all crops and not the large? Who is a farmer? Most farmers get off-the-farm income. Most small farmers operate at a loss. Back in Kentucky in the 1980's around Lexington, IBM was building up its printer operation, later sold off as Lexmark. We had tobacco farms subdivided into 5 acre lots to accommodate the houses the IBM executives were putting up. They still had farmland, they owned farmland, but were they farmers? (They might well be included as farmers in some reports.)

Presumably we shouldn't be interested in subsidizing the 16% of farmers who are "lifestyle" farmers (those Lexmark executives, or the Barbara Kinsolvings of the world), nor the 16% who are "retirement" farmers. Clearly M. Lundgren doesn't want to subsidize the 2.2% of nonfamily farms (might be run by corporations, universities or monasteries, or whatever) or the 8.2 percent of large and very large family farms. That leaves about 10% limited resource and 25% small family farms as the target group.

Unfortunately for Lundgren, the lifestyle and retirement farmers are exactly the people who disproportionately receive conservation payments. The big farmers need their $4,000 an acre land to grow crops, not conservation uses. And the limited resource and small family farms also need their land for farming.

And the corporate farmers? They're disproportionately found growing stuff that's not subsidized: fruits and vegetables, "other livestock". Any implication that we should shift the focus of farm programs from big field crop farmers to growers of fruits and vegetables would have us subsidize corporate agriculture. (Of course, I recognize Lundgren and those who share these opinions don't want that. The problem is they, we all, argue based on assumptions and pretty ideas in our heads, not on the facts.

Source of all this info -- ERS publication. Recommended

Size and Scale

Megan McArdle has a good post on the problems of moving from a pilot program to production. In a way, it goes against my mantra: "you never do things right the first time". Maybe I need to adopt a corollary: "but if you do, you were lucky and your luck is going to run out in production."

Open Government--Judicial Branch

I'm a bit cynical about the open government effort and the "portal". (Who needs a portal when you've got Google?) But Congress is working on extending the CIO authority and even includes a requirement that judicial opinions be online. One and one-half cheers.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Organic Ag versus Industrial Ag: Greater Productivity?

Tom Philpott at Grist highlights an Iowa State study that showed greater productivity over 9 years from organic crop rotations as opposed to industrial ag cropping.

Although that's major news, and noteworthy, it doesn't prove what Tom wants it to prove. For organic ag to feed the world, replacing industrial ag, you don't need to prove that, acre for acre, organic is of equal productivity in a given year. You need to prove it over a course of years. In other words, organic ag rests on the idea of crop rotation. Corn one year, soybeans the next, maybe alfalfa years 3-5, then corn again. So over 10 years, the total production of the acre is 2 years worth of corn, 2 years worth of soybeans, and 6 years worth of something else. For industrial ag, it might be 5 years corn, 5 years soybeans, or even 7 years corn, 3 soybeans.

Oh for the Good Old Days

Farm bill consideration is stuck in the Senate. In the good old days (i.e., 1985) there was some leverage the executive branch could use on the Congress--threaten to implement the permanent provisions of the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938. Technically each successive farm bill suspended the operation of those provisions (for wheat marketing quotas, most notably) so when we got to a new crop year (i.e., the 2008 crop year for wheat has now begun, in that wheat has been planted) the old provisions were in effect.

Unfortunately, through a combination of causes, that leverage has evaporated. For one, because the farm program is basically decoupled from the production of a crop (as required by the WTO) farmers don't complain as much about not knowing program provisions before they make planting decisions.

Assumptions Will Kill You Every Time

The Project on Government Oversight cites an AP report on new helicopters for the Army. They were designed in Europe and have a slight problem: the AC can't cool the chopper enough on hot days, which means it shuts down. I suspect, on no basis whatever, that the European designers just assumed that their climate was normal, forgetting it gets hotter in the U.S.

Effective Management?

According to Government executive President Bush has issued an executive order on management. All sorts of good stuff, all except any recognition of other efforts, such as GPRA
(Government Performance and Results Act of 1993).

I suppose I'm just getting old and cynical, but if the government bureaucrats would spend less time managing performance and more time performing, we might all be better off.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Privacy and the Government

I blithely surf the Internet, leaving bits and pieces of my identity here and there. A deputy to the Director of National Intelligence argues that therefore I should be comfortable with a loss of privacy vis a vis the government. I've some sympathy with the argument, but I disagree. Though I personally may be comfortable with trusting the government, most people aren't, so our systems need to recognize that.

I've no problem with the government gathering gobs of data to do their work. But many times the data doesn't have to be tied back to an individual. So the first rule is collect the data but lose the individual. In some cases you need the individual. The second rule should be, when the individual is tied to data, you log accesses and make the log available to the individual. In other words, I should be able to call up, via internet, the job description of any government employee who looks at my tax information, my health data, even my name and address.

Cheap Food and the Difference It Makes

Megan McArdle is visiting Vietnam and blogs.

Cheap food coming from industrialized agriculture has impacts all the way through the society.

Cost of Farmland

To give a sense of the variation across the country, John Phipps recently blogged about the cost of land in Illinois, he paid his sister $4,500 an acre, a neighbor sold for $5,200, and there's a recent rumor of $9K. Compare this LA Times article on Ventura county, CA quotes a figure of $61,000 (orange groves are being replaced by strawberries and other high priced produce).

I remember the Iowa state specialist who back in 1981 was moaning about having bought a "farm too far". I wonder how many land buyers this time around will be caught out. Or have things fundamentally changed?

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Best Government Blog??

The people at volokh.com are licking their wounds after being beaten out for title of "Best Legal Blog". But their posting intrigued me, so I went to the awards page.

Imagine my surprise to find no category for "Best Government Blog". (One might argue that's an oxymoron, there can't be a "best government" anything. But that's a different subject.)

Gene Weingarten in the Washington Post has something he calls a "googlenope"--i.e., a set of words for which Google can't find a match. Turns out "Best Government Blog" has 3 matches, as of Nov. 10, 2007, before this post is published. But "Great Government Blog" had no matches, until...

Friday, November 09, 2007

This Rule I Like

Blog for Rural America has a tongue in cheek post about "big" farmers versus "small". The senate was debating the issue yesterday (I saw Sen. Chambliss try to engage in a colloquy with Roberts on the subject--big farmers contribute more production to the economy than small.

They propose a rule--no payments to anyone over 5'7". Now that's a rule a bureaucrat likes--clear and precise.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Usability and Gov Gab

To be fair to Gov Gab, which I've questioned before, I found this post to be interesting, particularly the bit on the usability testing Social Security Admin did on the drug benefit. Usability testing was a cutting edge tool in IT in the late 80's but it was difficult to implement. When you're in a time crunch, usability testing is the first thing to go (then training, then instructions, etc. etc.). It takes a lot of discipline to say: do it right the first time and you'll save time (resources) over the long run. It's also true that most times usability testing didn't show a smoking gun, so it's easy to minimize its importance.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Environmentalism versus Locavores

Farmgate has an article on the complications of corn after corn. Someone like Michael Pollan, Barbara Kingsolver, or Bill McKibbern would read it and say--you see, industrial agriculture, tweaking the inputs of chemicals, not natural at all. But the article is based on the higher price for corn, which is based on ethanol, which is a result of environmentalism.

Some times you just can't win.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Mr. Pollan Again

Michael Pollan had an op-ed on the farm bill in yesterday's Times. Warning--I'm not a fan of his, to put it mildly. I'm not impressed by the article (surprise!)--he hit the usual points of the "greens". I think he'd do better sticking to his books.

Payment Limitation for Real?

Just for the hell of it, I'd suggest if people really want payment limitation to work, you'd need to give the Justice Department funds for a team of attorneys to prosecute fraud cases. (Now I doubt anyone in Justice has much interest in prosecuting people for violating the U.S.Code in connection with farm payments, even if some conscientious bureaucrat in FSA comes up with some information that warrants referral to Justice. They've got bigger fish to fry.

(This is inspired by a provision in one bill to make farmers ineligible for payments if they're determined to have committed fraud. That's a step, but ask FSA how many farmers fit this description now.)

Absent such provision, payment limitation is like the speed limit.

[note to self--I seem to be in a dour mood today.]

The Old Congressional Shell Game

In order to get the bill scored right (i.e., for the Congressional Budget Office to evaluate the changes in farm programs under the farm bill and assign a dollar figure to the costs), Congress is engaging in its usual shell game tactics. What you do is look at the fiscal years, which is the basis of scoring. Then you move as much revenue as you can from the fiscal years beyond the period of the bill into the period and reverse the process with costs. It looks as if they're doing that with advance payments, and with crop insurance revenues (based on a quick review of the CBO summary of the bills).

It's much the same process with tax paying--if this is a high income year, any tax adviser will say, consider raising your deductibles, like move charitable contributions into this year.

Of course Congress will reverse their shell game down the road, once the "scoring" is safely in the past. Only taxpayers who indulge in fraud can do the same with taxes.

Greenspan the Libertarian Bureaucrat

I mentioned I was reading Greenspan's book. It's not as personal and detailed as I would like--the last part is discussion of geo-politico-economic issues, which takes some effort to plow through. A couple notable points

  • He is very complimentary of Clinton--brains, sustained interest in economics, a fellow devotee of facts with good economic policies. Other presidents suffer by contrast.
  • He's notorious as an early devotee of Ayn Rand, for whom I have little regard (which no doubt is worrying her as she suffers in the circle of Dante's Inferno designed for libertarians). But, as often seems the pattern, while he generally doesn't believe much in government, he praises the Federal Reserve highly. I say it's a pattern--it seems I often notice Republicans who come into government skeptical of the bureaucracy who, when they leave, say something like: my bureaucracy was able and effective.

Comparison of Farm Bills

Via Uof IL farmgate, the URL for the Congressional Budget Offices comparison of House, Senate, bills and current law.

Can States Have "Dutch Disease"?

Reading Alan Greenspan's book. He discusses "dutch disease"--the adverse consequences of having oil or similar natural wealth. Thought of it when I read this post on Alaska by Kevin Drum. Apparently Alaska is riding its oil wealth for all it's worth, and not developing the tax structure needed to support a good society once it's gone. Hence the "Bridge to Nowhere"--if Uncle Sugar will fund our infrastructure, fine.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Problems with Farm Policy

Tom Philpott at Grist writes:
From an ecological standpoint, the fundamental problem with U.S. farm policy dating back to the '70s is that it rewards farmers for maximizing yield at all cost.
I assume that his reference is to the 1970's, but the same statement would be true for the 1870's and the 1770's. As long as farmers are producing for the market, which they've been since Captain John Smith decided that pursuing gold in the New World was not a paying proposition, at least not in coastal Virginia, their incentives lead to short term over-production at the cost of long-term productivity. That's an issue in the cash lease/share lease controversy in Illinois, I just posted on.

Straws in the Wind--Uof Illinois

John Phipps comments on a policy change by the University of Illinois, which owns 11,000 acres of farmland (from donations) and has been share leasing the land. They've decided to switch to cash leasing, which means putting the lease out for bids, and may price the past operators out of the market. See this article, via John.

The Illinois Farm Bureau is opposed to the policy change.

John comes down on the side of the right of the owner to rent to whom he chooses.

Random observations:
  • the article comments that 3/4 of the IL farmland is rented, which is higher than I would have guessed.
  • There's no comment in the article about the possible role of payment limitation rules. UofIL would no longer be eligible for farm payments when they cash lease. I don't know what the current rules are, but educational institutions used to be exempt from payment limitation. According to EWG, the university got $450K in 2005. I don't know how they might be affected by the pending proposals.
  • John mentions the outdated notion that a leasor's labor and improvements gave him some sort of moral ownership of the land. That ties back to Ireland, whence came many of my ancestors, where you couldn't buy land and the best you could hope for was a long term lease. If I'm not mistaken, the English passed a law giving the tenant some right to his improvements. It also goes back to western New York in the early 1800's, where people hoping to buy land from the Holland Land Company also felt they had a right to their improvements. Unrest reached such a point that a Company's office in Mayville, NY was burned, destroying all the records.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

A Metaphor for Illegal Immigration

I'm driving along, in rush hour, in the right lane. Traffic slows, then stops. I look in the rear view mirror, and some idiot has pulled over to the shoulder of the road and is driving down it at 15 mph. And now he's ahead of me and trying to merge. Do I yield and reward the bastard or do I cut him off and risk causing an accident?

Friday, November 02, 2007

AGI Limits and Payment Limitation

Some discussion about reducing the adjusted gross income (3-year moving average) limit on individual earnings in order to be eligible for farm program payments, with references to other discussion here and here.

I'm not going to spend much of my remaining time on earth worrying about the details of this argument. I'd just make general statements:
  • (apparently) tight laws can be loosened by the right regulations and back-door pressure from members of Congress whose constituents are personally and greatly concerned. So where the advocates of lower payment limits will be tempted to fold up shop once the farm bill is enacted, either declaring victory or licking their wounds in defeat, the opponents will be on the job every work day until the next farm bill
  • my first statement applies both to AGI and payment limitation--in theory I don't know there's much difference between them. (In practice, at this stage of the bill, it's different.)
  • the law of unintended consequences applies, always
I'm still convinced that a graduated payment limit would be more effective. It could restrict the payments of more people, but give less incentive to work to undermine or overturn the provision. Even so, my three points above would still apply to that provision.

California Dreamin of Water and Alfalfa

Megan at From the Archives, always with an interesting voice, discourses on ag subsidies, water and growing alfalfa in California. Two points I like: it's lots easier to move water to good soil than good soil to water; changing the subsidy structure means social disruption. When the market does it, economists call it "creative destruction", emphasis on "creative". When it's done to you, it feels an awful lot like just "destruction".

Thursday, November 01, 2007

FBI and IT, Redux

Government Executive reports on the FBI's latest step forward in automation.

But is anyone bothered by this line?
Under Phase I, Lockheed Martin, which won the $305 million Sentinel contract in March 2006, built the front page of the Web portal, which features functions such as Google search and an FBI phonebook.
Presumably there's also a big security piece (which seems to be referred to later in the story), but gee, Google search and a phonebook? That's such a steal for a mere $305 million.

Unintended Consequences of Green

From Farmgate, a discussion of corn and soybean outlook:
1) Projections of corn use for ethanol continue to climb upward, putting pressure on corn prices, encouraging acreage shifts, and resulting in reduced supplies of other crops.
2) Higher US prices are encouraging crop production expansion in South America and elsewhere, with an impact on livestock production and the price of meat.
Of course, the expansion in South America is changing tropical forest into monocultural land. As Robert Heinlein wrote, there's no such thing as a free lunch.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Whole Foods and True Organics

Tom Philpott worries about Whole Food, its proposed merger, and the inroads of big "organic" farming. (I own shares in Whole Food). I think it's the inevitable result of the free market--we're going to see the food market differentiate into lots of different categories: cheap, "industrial" food from the old-line Krafts and Safeways; ethnic foods (possibly organic) through ethnic food markets, Latino chains, and aisles in the Safeways; big "organic" (meaning herbicide/pesticide free, but not grown in an idyllic small farm environment) food in the Safeway aisle and Whole Foods; small "organic" sold through niche shops, farmers markets, and community supported ag; and organic food in restaurants. It's the result of enough people having enough money and locating closely together enough to support these specialty tastes.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Rural School Population II

I've now corresponded with one of the authors of the report on which I posted yesterday. I'm still not totally convinced, but I'll accept the concept that rural areas have had a big increase in school population, mostly minority and immigrant.

The Things You Find in Garbage, Er "Miscellaneous"

The Miscellaneous Title of legislation often contains some "good" stuff--earmarks, the pet ideas of various legislators and staffers, etc. Here's an interesting bit from the Senate farm bill (appears to be the report language, rather than the actual bill):

Sec. 11068. Prevention and investigation of payment and fraud and error.
This section would amend the Right to Financial Privacy Act of 1978 to require financial institutions to disclose the financial records of any customer to any government authority that certifies, disburses, or collects payments, when the disclosure of such information is necessary to verify the identity of any person in connection with the issuance of a federal payment or collection of funds, or the investigation or recovery of an improper federal payment of collection of funds.

No idea of the background for this.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Rural School Population

I'm totally surprised by this report on rural areas--I've bought into the idea that rural population is aging and declining. But not so, at least not in some areas:

"Between 2002-03 and 2004-05, enrollment in schools located in communities of fewer than 2,500 increased by 1,339,000 (or 15%)," write Jerry Johnson and Marty Strange, policy analysts for the non-profit Rural School and Community Trust. School enrollment in larger communities (populations over 2,500) fell by 2% in this same period.

The study calls "most startling" its finding that the number of minority students increased 55% in rural schools, "with some states experiencing increases of over 100%." Rural schools in the Southeast and Southwest are the most ethnically diverse in the nation.


[Update--When I noted this to my sister, a former teacher, I looked at the figures and said, they can't be right. It didn't seem right that rural areas would have roughly 10 million students. I'm not sure what's going on, but this table from the Department of Education seems to show less than 1 million students in rural areas (plus towns under 2,500) in 2002. It might be the authors just slipped a zero somewhere. Or it might be I don't understand at all.]

Keith Collins on Agriculture

Keith Collins, the chief USDA economist, testified before House Ag last week. Lots of interesting overview stuff, including a graph showing that farmland values have tripled in the last 20 years. So is there a bubble there?


Bureaucratic Turf War Sprouting

Government Executive reports on the Air Force's plans to handle cyber warfare. There's no discussion of the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps' plans, but I'm sure they won't be left behind and have good arguments for why they should be the front line of defense. Indeed, if I weren't rushing to catch up in my personal life, I might devote some time to imagining what arguments they might use.

Anyhow, it's a beauty of a turf war that sprouting right before our eyes.

Is a Farmer a Farmer a Farmer?

Gertrude Stein is famous for saying: "a rose is a rose is a rose". It's sometimes taken to mean that differences among things are trivial. But when it comes to farm programs, who a farmer is does make a difference. Personally, having grown up on a dairy/poultry farm, I have my reservations about whether field crop farmers (corn, cotton, etc.) really qualify as farmers. But, seriously, personal situations, crops, etc. all make a difference. Crops are obvious--cotton versus cows, carrots versus corn get you into different commitments of time, capital, labor, different markets. But even within the same crop a farmer of 75 who owns his land is in a very different position than a 25-year old renting hers. Their appetite for risk and vulnerabilities differ.

All of which is to say, when someone talks of the opinions of farmers, as here, [updated--I think it's an honest discussion, but often they aren't] take a grain of salt.

Friday, October 26, 2007

The Way the Media Works

I think I've blogged before on this, but via Orin Kerr at Volokh Conspiracy, Al Qaeda people are mad at Al jazeera for reporting on conflicts within the ranks.

What it means is that the institutional incentives are at work: anyone who wants attention has to have a good story, and conflict makes a hell of a better story than communion. (That's why blogs like mine have low readership--there's no conflict.)

Your NRCS at Work

Washington Post has an article on the problems of working with Mennonite dairy farmers to reduce pollution of waterways. A reminder of the variety and complexity of the nation.

Hillary as Manager

Yes, I'm back home and back blogging again. The NYTimes has an article on Hillary's management style, which Ann Althouse commented on (basically comparing Hillary's tight circle and GWB's).

It's interesting. I think there's some relevant issues:

  • "How many mistakes has she made and how well has she learned from them?" If you never do anything, you never screw up. If you never admit and learn from your mistakes, you're an idiot. Seems to me Hillary's okay here, except perhaps for being slow to admit mistakes. it's tough for any smart and ambitious person. Anyone remember any admissions of error by others in the race?
  • Who would she appoint to her administration? Doris Kearns Goodwin got a book out of the fact that Lincoln appointed heavyweights to the Cabinet, and then managed them. Both parties will have a bench of talent to appoint (unlike Bill in 92--the 12 years in the wilderness meant talent was scarce). The idea that she has a tight circle doesn't bother me much--the issue is whether she'll expand it if elected. Her tight circle is better than GWB's was because they don't have an anti-Washington bias. The unknown is whether they have the balls to admit that GWB did some things right (Bush certainly had problems admitting that Bill had done some things right).
More blogging to follow as I catch up with papers and blogs.

Friday, October 19, 2007

RIP Bruno

I posted on Bruno Mangum, who worked for FSA and its predecessors in the North Carolina State Office. He died, after 71 years of service. RIP (Thanks, Jeff).

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Blog for Rural America--On Farmers

As I said, blogging will be slow. Here's an interesting post discussing farmers' attitudes to the farm program. (The blog's also not happy about the recent developments in the farm bill.)

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Slow Blogging?--Perhaps

I may not be blogging much over the next 10 days--my wife and I are taking a trip. On the other hand, I have a laptop to play with, so maybe?

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Two Iowa Counties

Tom Philpott has a long piece comparing two Iowa counties: Hardin which has lots of hogs, and Woodbury, which doesn't but does have local foods. I'm a bit skeptical of descriptions of new projects: too often a new idea gets going based on the drive and energy of a handful of people, but doesn't mature into a long lasting institution. I'd like to come back in 20 years and see what's happening. But it's an interesting comparison.

Immigration and Free Markets

The Post, Shankar Vedantam, reported yesterday that immigration cuts gas and grocery prices. The idea being, we natives get lazy and patronize the nearest gas station and grocery regardless of their prices. Immigrants, being more energetic and more price conscious, shop around. The shopping around is the element of competition that tends to drive prices lower.

(I think I've mentioned before a supermarket location that went through 3 incarnations, being too small for efficient Safeway/Giant operation. Now it's been open as a Latino themed market, with good vegetables at lower prices than our regular Safeway.)

John Tierney Explains South Carolina Politics

In the NY Times, John Tierney reports on a study of the impact of gossip on judgments. The bottomline, when it comes down to it, we believe gossip despite the evidence of our eyes. Or, more accurately, gossip sways our decisions even though we know the full story. (Of course, the study was a bit unrealistic--we rarely are in situations where we know we know the full story.) The only positive bit--positive gossip had as much power as negative gossip.

Maybe this explains the recent reports on the Obama is a Muslim urban legend, or the anti-McCain gossip in South Carolina in 2000--the gossip persists and spreads because we're tuned into it as intrinsically valuable, not only do some of us believe it, but it's worth passing on.

Monday, October 15, 2007

"Organic" Dairies

Interesting piece here--excerpt:

Watts Brothers, which started milking cows in December, is Washington's largest organic dairy with 2,200 milking cows.

State regulators and some small dairy farmers speak highly of it, but critics question whether milking thousands of cows is worthy of the term "organic."

In part, this is a lesson to those leftie liberals, who want to write laws to solve problems. You write a law setting up standards for things like "organic" and you have certain pictures in your head. (See Walter Lippmann's Public Opinion). And you write the law based on those pictures. But the reality is that smart and determined people want to make a buck, so your law tends to be evaded, at least in part. Far from the picture in textbooks, administering law is like a long conversation, back and forth, between two people, who might stay married for 50 years, or might get divorced in 6 months.

I was also tickled by this quote:
"People want to picture cute 50-cow dairies all over the countryside, but our economics don't allow for that everywhere anymore," said Georgana Webster, an organic-livestock inspector for the Washington Department of Agriculture, which determines whether dairies like Watts Brothers are following national organic standards.
Having been brought up on a very uncute, mini-dairy of 12 cows.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Philip Roth Does Not Know Dairying

Wife and I watched "The Human Stain" last night. An unsuccessful movie with great actors based on a good-selling novel by Philip Roth, who was passed over for the Nobel this year. It's not doing too badly on Netflix, probably because of all its assets in themes (racism, political correctness, cowardice, spousal abuse, cross generation sex, "crossing" color lines) and actors: Hopkins, Kidman, Sinise.

But, assuming the movie was faithful to Roth's book, which I haven't read, it's unrealistic. Kidman works on a dairy farm, but also in a store and as a janitor on the local college (from which Hopkins was fired). That's unrealistic right there--if you're doing two milkings a day you don't have the energy for two other jobs. And then Hopkins and she make love at all times of day and night. Roth's forgetting the first law of dairying:

"The cows have got to be milked"

Whatever else you do, they've got to be milked, and milked at the same times every day. You might indulge in a quickie. But you can't have a long night of sex then a leisurely breakfast--Kidman has got to pull on her clothes and get back to the barn for the 4 or 5 am milking.

(But how was the movie--I see why it failed commercially but it's worthwhile on Netflix.)

Friday, October 12, 2007

A "Tipping Point"?

I really hate to write this. I thought of it a couple months ago, started the draft 10 days ago, and only now got up the nerve. Here goes: Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea of a "tipping point"-- the idea that certain happenings in society, and in nature, occur as the result of slow subtle changes suddenly reaching a critical level, resulting in sudden and dramatic change.

In nature, the gradual lowering of temperature resulting in water icing over. Or adding sand to a pile to the point where the pile collapses in an avalanche.

In society we can have tipping points in fashion: men wear hats, until all of a sudden in the late 50's early 60's they don't.

In wars we can have tipping points. Looking at Iraq, it seems to me that one was averted early this year. The situation was deteriorating. The "surge" stabilized and reversed the deterioration, meaning we didn't have the sort of collapse we can see in South Vietnam in 1975.

Now, it's perhaps possible that we are seeing a possible "tipping point" the other way. Sunnis in Anbar province have changed their position. Today's Times carries a front page article on the souring of relations between the Shiites and the militias. For anyone growing up in the age of guerrilla warfare, as I did, that's important; for as Mao said--the guerrilla fighter must be as a fish in the water of the society. Another straw in the wind is, as Megan McArdle notes, an uptick in the Iraq Index on power.

It's too early to say, but it's possible for the appearance of things to change quickly.

President Hillary?

I post because two leaders of conservative opinion, Charles Krauthammer in the Post and David Brooks in the Times, both grudgingly note her:

Charles: "Nonetheless, if 2008 is going to be a Democratic year, as it very well could, Hillary would serve the country better than any of her Democratic rivals."

David: "No Republican would design asset-building plans the way Clinton does. No Republican would pay for them the way she does. But at least she has a middle-class agenda. Right now, the general election campaign looks like it’s going to be a replay of the S-chip debate. The Democrats propose something, and the Republicans have no alternative."

Some in USDA Also Serve

From the speech of the acting Secretary at the USDA awards ceremony:

I would also like to take a moment to acknowledge the special contributions of one of today's honorees, Paul McKellips from the Farm Service Agency. Paul has volunteered for three details to Iraq as part of the State Department's Go Team. He has helped draw attention to the plight of Iraqi farmers struggling to develop their own operations into a steady source of income for their families. Paul has willingly stood in harm's way in service to his nation and in service to agricultural producers. I do applaud that commitment, and I extend my gratitude to all of the USDA employees who have volunteered to help farmers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Currently we have eight agricultural advisors in Afghanistan and Iraq and another 18 advisors will be detailed by November. Last week, of course, I was saddened and we were all saddened to announce the loss of one of our brave USDA employees. Tom Stefani of the Forest Service was serving on a provincial reconstruction team in Afghanistan as an agricultural advisor when he lost his life in an explosion. Tom had worked hard to implement a number of improvements for producers in Afghanistan including a poultry rearing facility and a cold storage facility. Tom was a respected rangeland management specialist in Nevada, and his colleagues there and, of course, throughout our USDA family will miss him greatly.

On a different note, I see Willie Cooper, long time state executive director of FSA in Louisiana (most SED's change with the administrations, Willie doesn't) was leader of a team honored for responding to Katrina and Bob Manuel was a member.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

International Courts, 19th century

I didn't do well in my political science courses in college but the issue of the relationship of different governmental entities is always interesting. Add in slavery and it becomes more interesting. Here is a piece in the Boston Review on the efforts to control the international slave trade in the 19th century. The author claims that Britain devoted a significant part of its economic output to this effort.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Agony, the Agony

Josh Marshall at TPM has a piece that's about me, although he thinks it's about NY Times columnist Roger Cohen, whose meditations on liberal hawks he mocks. He ends:
It's a revealing sentence because it's one filled with a telling self-regard. He agonizes. And to agonize is to achieve merit. Cohen doesn't jump reflexively to one side or the other, but agonizes over the thorny complexities of the great questions. It's a serious pose because Cohen is a serious person who loves to mop up his own moral seriousness. Puncturing that bubble is a grave offense.
I plead guilty.

Regulation Ratchet and the Grasp of Government

Tyler Cowen in the NY Sun (via Volokh) reviews Naomi Klein's new book and says:
First, the reach of government has been growing in virtually every developed nation in the world, including in America, and it hardly seems that a far-reaching free market conspiracy controls much of anything in the wealthy nations
Robin Hanson at Overcoming Bias talked of a Regulation Ratchet--the idea that when bad things happen, government steps in with regulation, but there's no equivalent process for deregulating.

And today, Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution notes the short time between the physics discovery recognized by the Nobel and its usage in Ipods, etc.

Why do I put these three together? Because I think the mental model latent in the first two cases is contradicted by the third. I think Cowen would agree with the "regulation ratchet", the idea that government always expands and never contracts. And I think both Hanson and Cowen are unconsciously seeing society as fixed. ("Society" being the environmental niche in which the "reach of government" is growing.) But, as Tabarrok implicitly recognizes, change happens, innovations occur, things advance, and society changes and evolves with it. The Ipod rests on a technological advance, but the Itunes storefront depends on a network of governmental regulations which may, or may not, need to be changed to deal with digital rights management (DRM) of songs. If the FCC or Congress or the courts, or all three, change the rules for DRM, is that really an extension of the reach of government. How about the government's rules for Western Union, the old telegraph monopoly--have they not vanished into the past?

The Benefits of Government

This is an interesting article, from an interesting site, via the Drudge Retort.

Theme:
"For most of us, most of the time, government is not some faceless bureaucrat [emphasis added] who is constantly ordering us around; it is more like a guardian angel: an invisible benevolent being that accompanies us throughout their day, easing us through potential difficulties and protecting us from impending harms. Admittedly, the angel analogy is a bit exaggerated, but the underlying truth is not: government has an extensive and overwhelmingly positive effect on our everyday lives."

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Vertical Farming

This post described a proposal to stack farm acreage vertically. Sounds weird, particularly when they talk about "staple" crops. There's a book on economic geography I read once, where the author described a "natural" sequence of farms: closest to urban areas were the truck gardens and nurseries, then dairy, then livestock, then grain (that's rough and may be wrong in detail). The logic is fairly simple: transportation costs--what can be transported easiest and cheapest will be grown furthest from the megalopolis, then a continuum. It tracks with U.S. history, where Pennsylvania started growing wheat, but the wheat belt kept moving west and now it's vegetables and dairy.

If we ever come to vertical farming, the logical crops economically speaking should be "organic"--the highest cost, highest margin, locavore crops. Somehow there's a discrepancy there.

Women Are Monkeys, Sez NYTimes (?)

According to the NYTimes article:

“Monkey society is governed by the same two general rules that governed the behavior of women in so many 19th-century novels,” Dr. Cheney and Dr. Seyfarth [two scientists whose studies of baboon behavior are fascinating] write. “Stay loyal to your relatives (though perhaps at a distance, if they are an impediment), but also try to ingratiate yourself with the members of high-ranking families.”

Monday, October 08, 2007

Realism and Idealism

I forget who tipped me to this post, but it's a very interesting discussion of the suppression of the international slave trade in the 1800's. From the conclusion:

"The suppression of the transatlantic slave trade, and the role of law and the courts in its undoing, is a remarkable story about the complex relationship between political power and moral ideas. Most people who study international relations are realists of one sort or another, and in conventional realist wisdom states act to support intangible and idealistic goals like human rights only when those actions are relatively costless: whatever their rhetoric, nations choose money and power over their ideals.

Suppressing the slave trade was, however, extremely costly. By one modern estimate, Britain’s effort cost an average of nearly two percent of its national annual income for each year between 1807 and 1867, and the direct costs of its yearly efforts between 1816 and 1862 were roughly equal to the annual profits it had received from the trade between 1761 and 1807. Not only was it costly, but it required a very long national attention span. The resources expended on suppression required the continued commitment of successive governments over a period of decades.

...the weight of the evidence suggests that Britain pursued the abolition of the slave trade because most people in Britain thought it was the right thing to do."

Any student of government has to weigh the relative value of a legal mandate versus winning the hearts and minds. This piece comes down on the side of legal mandates.

When Is a Farmer a Farmer--II

Dan Owens of the Center for Rural Affairs commented on the previous post with this title. He pointed out the Dorgan-Grassley bill which changes payment limitation provisions to require 1000 hours of labor. The comment triggered a sad chain of events:

  1. First I remembered the tobacco legislation in the 1980's. The papers had found Sen. Helms (or his wife) had tobacco allotments which they were leasing out (something like that). And of course there was controversy over the government supporting tobacco, particularly when the Surgeon General was so against it. So the law was changed--first to the "no net cost" provision (allowing the tobacco people to claim the program didn't cost the government; second to require Sen. Helms to sell his allotments by requiring him to be actively engaged in tobacco farming. So I thought: all I have to do is go back and find the rules. Well, it took a while but it seems about all they did was to require the farmer to share in the risk of production of the tobacco. That's a let-down, because, at least in theory, that's always been part of the definition of a "farmer" for the wheat, feed grain, cotton, and rice programs. (Perhaps less so since 1996, because you no longer have to grow the crop to get direct payments.)
  2. Second I looked up the bill Owens [update--corrected] had mentioned. In the good old days, when I was on top of my game, I could assimilate such a bill quickly, find the problematic areas where decisions were needed, and identify the software to support implementation. But those days are gone. I've no idea whether, as the good Senators claim in this piece, lawyers would be put out of business or not. I tend to doubt it, but who knows. And do I care? Not as much as I used to. That's probably a measure of how much closer to the grave I am now than 20 years ago. (As I say, a sad chain.)
I do wish they had thrown in a "circuit breaker". What happened in the 1986 farm bill was that everyone was required to file a farm plan. That overwhelmed the county offices with paper, generally p***ed off the farmers, and did no good for anyone. Implementing Dorgan/Grassley would at a minimum require new language in the existing (CCC-502?) forms for farmers to certify. Giving the Secretary discretion to phase in the new forms would greatly help the county offices. I.e., require them for any changes of operation, plus the producers on the largest farms in the county (top 10 percent) or something similar.