Monday, December 31, 2012

Round Bales (of Cotton, Not Hay)

The cotton growers have discovered the virtues of round bales, according to this.  The piece mentions the changes ginners have to make, but nothing about the rest of the trade.  Back in the days of "King Cotton", we used to export bales on steamships.  I wonder whether we still export raw cotton today, and if so in what form?

It's Not All Partisanship in DC

Despite the headline news stories over the past week, month, year, decade from Washington, you'd be sorely slightly mistaken if you think the Capitol is solely devoted to partisan bickering.

The continuing saga of the farm bill is evidence to the contrary.  According to this Politico story from this morning, the four leaders of House and Senate agriculture committees are united in proposing a 1-year extension (i.e., through Sept. 30) of the 2008 farm legislation, but Speaker Boehner is opposed.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Battered Farmers and Extension

From a piece yesterday in the Times on prospects for an extension of the farm bill:
"Congressional aides say the extension could be for a year, giving farmers, who have been battered by the worst drought in 50 years, a reprieve after lawmakers were unable to come up with a new farm bill."
Funny, but I thought I'd seen some reporting showing that, at least for crop farmers with crop insurance, 2012 was a good year despite the drought.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Why There's People Talking Past Each Other?

Via MonkeyCage, here's a map showing school shootings in the US over the last 15 years. Not sure of the criteria, looks to be a rather low bar.  But two things struck me:
  • a lot more shootings than I would have thought because it's not limited to mass shootings
  • the wedge of states with none:  Montana, the Dakotas, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas look to have no shootings.  I'm guessing, but I'd suspect these states are mostly rural and mostly retain the hunting culture I grew up in, a culture where kids went deer hunting when they were old enough, having a 30.06 rifle was a mark of maturity, and handguns were things brought back from WWII.  I suspect it's also an area with strong NRA representation. 

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Why Milk Prices Shouldn't Rise: Break the Law

Usually bureaucrats think the law is sacrosanct, it's what we do.  But the dirty reality is laws aren't self-executing; there's lots of provisions enacted into law which become a dead letter.  The price of milk in 2013 should be one of them.

Without a new farm bill, the provisions of old law come into effect. That means for milk the government is supposed to support the price at a level which means $8 a gallon.  But suppose USDA doesn't do so?  Theoretically some group, presumably milk co-ops, could haul out their lawyers and file suit in federal court to force USDA's hand.  My theory is, by the time the suit is written and filed, and DOJ works with OGC to come up with a reply, new law will have superseded the old law, and Congressional attorneys will have put in a provision which essentially nullifies the suit.  Net effect: consumers don't see a rise in milk prices.

[Update:  This is an example of why there are dead letter provisions: if the bureaucracy doesn't act on its own to implement a provision of law, there needs to be someone who can take USDA to court and/or with enough PR clout to raise a stink about it.  In many cases there's neither.]

Wednesday, December 26, 2012


A small part of the recent report on Benghazi is that top state department management was restrictive on resources.
the report that Mr. Pickering oversaw suggested that there was a culture of “husbanding resources” at senior levels of the State Department that contributed to the security deficiencies in Benghazi. Without identifying Mr. Kennedy or other senior officials, the report said that attitude “had the effect of conditioning a few State Department managers to favor restricting the use of resources as a general orientation.”
I'm sure the Republicans who have been lambasting the Obama administration over their handling of diplomatic security and the fatal attack on our diplomats will use this as further ammunition.  What right does management have to control spending by the people in the field?

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Praise for

One of my hobbyhorses is more transparency on websites (excluding my own), particularly government ones.  We as a community don't know what works and what doesn't unless we see some metrics.  And if we don't know, we can't improve.

In light of that, I'd like to note has a post of its most posts, pages, links.  I wish more gov sites would do the same.

Merry Christmas from Chris Clayton

He has a tongue-in-cheek thank you post to Boehner and Cantor looking forward to the 2013 farm bill discussions.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Hennessey or Brooks

Interesting: Keith Hennessey is an economist who worked in the Bush White House.  David Brooks is the columnist for the Times.  Hennessey is on record as saying Obama was bluffing about vetoing a fiscal cliff bill he didn't like; Brooks today says (sounds like an off-the-record interview with the President) it's no bluff.

Politics is so interesting.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Faults of Liberals

Kevin Drum has an interesting post reporting on a Haidt survey:

"what do people think? Answer: they substantially exaggerate the moral differences between liberals and conservatives. In fact, they exaggerate the extremity of moral concerns for both their own group and the other group. And there's bad news for us lefties: as the chart on the right shows, we were the biggest exaggerators. Apparently conservatives know us better than we know them."

He suggests some explanations.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


Not much to say except this: I'd like to see Congress focus more on the ATF.  Last I knew they hadn't had a permanent director for about 6 years, basically because NRA has enough clout to stall Obama's nominees and Obama hasn't had enough interest to try to push one through.  But that's no way to run a railroad.

Further, IMHO, it's ridiculous that they're prohibited from maintaining a database on gun purchasers--they have to destroy the data which is submitted for background checks. Given everything which is available on the internet and all the cross-checking which the government is now trying to do, such as e-Verify and the erroneous payments thing, this is ridiculous.

Set up an advisory board for the ATF database, stick an NRA rep on it, and they'll be in a position to blow a whistle if there's abuses.

No EEO on USDA Investments?

Here's the USDA's list of major investment areas for IT, reached from the site.  Don't I recall that Vilsack was supposedly redoing the culture of the Department, and hasn't his Assistant Secretary for EEO (not the correct title, but I'm too lazy at the moment to check) responded to OIG/GAO with proposals for better systems in the EEO area?

Where does that appear in the list?  Is Vilsack really putting money where his mouth is?

[Damn, as I age I'm getting more cranky.]

Non Land Costs on Small and Big Farms

Here's an Illinois study comparing costs among farms of different sizes.  The surprise to me: big farms don't have any cost advantage, at least among the farmers included in the study (which I would suspect is a bit biased towards the farmers with the best records).

The other surprise: the smallest farms are defined as under 500 acres.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

American Ingenuity

Did you know Ben Franklin invented mail order?  And Thomas Jefferson invented the swivel chair and the wheel cypher (think Enigma machine)  And Tabitha Babbitt invented the circular saw?

All these from this timeline.

Our Weak Government

I occasionally assert the weakness of our governmental system.  This professor of political science has a different name for it: kludgeocracy.

Is There "Pink Slime" in Bologna?

Tyler Cowen linked to an article on Newfoundland's fixation on bologna, which refers to "ham trim" and other "mystery meat", which caused me to wonder.

Monday, December 17, 2012

USDA Performance Measures

Forgive my asking,but aren't we now in FY13, nearing the end of the first quarter?  Having nothing better to do, I was trolling through the site for USDA.  

When I copy the data over, I lose the formatting but these relate to MIDAS and OCE, and they seem to be a tad out of date. Tsk, tsk.

Initial Operating Capability (IOC) Deployment IOC Release 1 acquisition and detailed planning will occur in FY11 Q3-Q4. Releases will follow SAP ASAP methodology (project prep, blueprint, realization, final prep and go live). Less

2011-07-01 2012-09-30 $119098
% of Field Offices with WAN Acceleration Monthly % 80 -- 2012-02-28 % of Field Office with centralized file services Monthly % 55 -- 2012-02-28 % of Field Office on centralized backup Monthly % 55 -- 2012-02-28 % of infrastructure components out of life cycle (goal is to refresh prior to out of life cycle so l More.. Monthly % 55 -- 2012-02-28 % End Users Satisfied with OCE-related IT Infrastructure Components Monthly % 55 -- 2012-02-28 % of Field Offices with Telephone systems upgraded Monthly % 75 -- 2012-02-28

The question is, is anybody looking at the measures?

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Wisdom of Engineers

For some reason, although the engineers (former engineers) whose blogs I follow are more conservative than I, they often have posts with which I agree, or at least appreciate.

John Phipps has a good post on "The survival rate scam" for cancer (i.e., better detection at earlier stages doesn't mean much).

The always impressive Walt Jeffries at Sugar Mountain Farm summarizes the year's achievements in building the butcher shop.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Blueberries and Innovation, Bipolar USDA

The local Safeway has had blueberries for sale every day for the last year or 18 months, I think. I've seen berries from Chile (now), Mexico (earlier), North Carolina, New Jersey, Michigan, and Maine. And probably other sources. They aren't cheap, but considering the distance they have to travel, it's worth while.

I get the extension RSS feed, and have seen posts on blueberry cultivation in the South. They're reporting the results from experiment stations, and from the field  Extension is, of course, partially funded by USDA.  But there's also this announcement -- USDA is spending $16 million to buy wild blueberries for school lunch and food bank programs.

So on the one hand USDA is promoting the spread of blueberry culture through the US, while on the other hand it's encouraging wild blueberry growers, partially to mitigate downward price pressure.  What's the reason for the downward pressure: I assume it's the development of cultivated blueberries in the US and to the south.

Not sure what the locavores would make of this--wild blueberries are pretty regional.

Friday, December 14, 2012


FCW refers to the 6-month review of the digital government strategy.  Via links, I come on this page from USDA.  From what I see, it appears USDA is bragging on the Office Information Profile system.

I'm amazed, really amazed. OIP was a result of work in the 1990's, Paul Whitmore from FSA and someone from NRCS and RD, which had actually evolved from Gerry Deibert's efforts to construct a database of USDA offices back in the day when Sec. Madigan was trying to consolidate field offices.

Unfortunately, it got done as a separate silo from SCIMS, which was unfortunate, or at least I thought so then.  Anyhow over the years I've occasionally looked at the OIP page(s) just to see what's happened.  I could swear, though I might be wrong, that NRCS had dropped the links to it, though it seems to be back now.  It's not evident on the USDA web page.

It looks to me as if maybe they blew the dust off the old software, added in the link to the Bing map  (which is good) and resurrected it.  I wonder what sort of usage statistics USDA maintains on it.  Pardon my doubts, but I think the design too closely reflects the bureaucracies involved, rather than meeting the needs of the user.  If I'm looking for an FSA/NRCS/RD office:
  • I might be looking for the closest one to my current location, or a specific location.  In that case, I'd be best off if office locations were integrated with Google maps (and Bing, etc.). In other words, if I stick Reston, VA in Google maps, and add the ": FSA office", it should flag the closest office.  Or if I add ":gov", it should show the closest government offices.  Seems to me this would be good for OMB or whoever to work on.  I tried this sort of search a few times and the results vary.  The closest FSA office to Reston is at 14th and Independence, but it didn't show the county offices.  RD and NRCS didn't get that result.
  • if I want to know which office services a specific geographic area, the OIP does okay, except for the fact you need to drill down through state, to county, to agency.  If you ask Google: "what FSA office serves Mills County, IA?, I get the state office, not the county office.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

bin Laden Alive: Would It Be Better?

Read a thoughtful op-ed by David Ignatius in the Post today, keyed to the new movie " Zero Dark Thirty" and the argument over whether torture works. He argues that it may have in the case of bin Laden, but we need to accept the idea that torture can work, can have benefits.  So in weighing whether to torture we weigh the moral costs versus the possible benefits.

The op-ed caused me to muse about another possibility: suppose we had never gotten the info on bin Laden so we never killed him.  Is it possible that would have been better for us?  Certainly his death satisfies the visceral need for revenge we feel, but are we better off?

As I understand it, bin Laden was having great difficulty communicating with his organization and in getting people to do what he wanted.  I'd assume as time passed that difficulty would increase, bin Laden would be more isolated, more out of touch, less effective.  But we killed him. So now what's left of the organization are perhaps free to form organizations more local in scope, with perhaps more effective leaders.  So in weighing costs and benefits, maybe we traded one big organization with an aging, out-of-touch leader for several smaller organizations with younger and possibly more effective leaders? 

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Right to Work and Farm Programs

Brad Plumer at Wonkblog has a post on right to work laws which gets into their history.

If I remember my sociology professor in college had a take on the union shop and farm programs.  The idea was that viewed broadly, the government delegated some of its sovereign powers to collective entities or defined groups, whether it was workers or tobacco farmers.  If, after a campaign and a vote, a referendum, the majority of the people in the group voted "yes", the government gave the majority the right to impose rules on the minority. 

Today we see this as an answer to the "free rider" problem, though I don't believe that terminology was in vogue in 1962. 

Examples of this process would be labor unions, agricultural marketing agreements (for fruits and vegetables), agricultural promotion assessments, the old marketing quota problems for wheat, tobacco, peanuts, cotton, etc.


That's a new specialty on me, but Technology Review explains here.  (People using statistics on social patterns.)

Maybe related to this ( linguisticphysicist)  (applying statistics to language patterns).

[Updated with second paragraph]

Keep It Boring

Words of wisdom from Joel Achenbach on the fiscal cliff:

That’s the blueprint for a deal: Do stuff that people can’t understand or don’t really notice. Keep it boring!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Decline of Cursive

Saw an article on the decline of cursive writing, the sort my aunt, who was also my 2nd grade teacher, tried to teach me. Apparently since people are typing, not writing handwritten letters, we've all forgotten how to do cursive.

That's confirmed today by my personal Christmas card from the Obamas.  Barack and Michelle sign in cursive; Malia and Sasha print their names.

Just another example of change, if not of declining standards

Post Versus Times

Both newspapers had articles today on the same subjects; in both cases the Post article seemed a tad better:

Both reported the shooting death of a woman's rights advocate in an Afghanistan province. Both described previous deaths and both suggested Taliban involvement.  The Post, however, also described another possibility: the woman's male relatives might have been responsible.  No way to know for sure.

Both reported the results of an international test of 4th graders on reading and math.  US students were in the middle, below the usual suspects. Both reported that Florida was a state which volunteered to be tested as if it were a country, and its results were better than the U.S. as a whole.  The Post, however, interviewed a critic of Florida, who suggested that a policy of holding back 3rd graders who were below standards on reading had reduced the 4th grade population being tested (by a random sample) and improved the average ability.   Again, no way to know, but having the fuller picture was valuable.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Richer Is Worser

From today's Farm Policy,an article discussing Rep. Noem of SD
The Register article explained that, “Noem, now 41, said people today planning to pass a farm operation on to a family member are in ‘a much worse position than we were back then’ because of the increase in land values.
“When Noem’s dad died in 1994, an acre of land in Hamlin County in the eastern part of the state sold for $650 to $800 an acre.
Today, some of the same land is fetching $7,000 an acre.”

Comment on Comments

Until recently there haven't been many comments on this blog. Every few days I check for comments and usually respond.  But in the last few days it looks as if the amount of spam comments has been growing. If it continues maybe I'll have to adopt a spam filter. 

A Study in the "Iron Triangle"

Shortly after being reelected, Rep. Emerson of Missouri is resigning to work for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association .

I remember, sometimes I think that's all I do is remember, when President Reagan wanted to get rid of the Rural Electrification Administration.  Didn't happen, and this helps to explain why:

NRECA represents more than 900 rural cooperative utilities in 47 states that have a combined national membership of more than 42 million customers. When the group and its members come to Capitol Hill, they’re people who know the lawmaker’s district.
That base supplies a veritable army of 2,500 to 3,000 co-op members that NRECA brings to Capitol Hill every year, outgoing NRECA CEO and former Oklahoma Rep. Glenn English said in an interview.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

GAO Report on Pigford

Here's the link.  And the two recommendations:
We are making the following two recommendations:
• To improve the internal control design, we recommend that the Claims Administrator establish and document procedures to provide reasonable assurance of identifying claimants who obtained prior judgments on their discrimination complaints in judicial or administrative forums, including reaching agreement with USDA on the Claims Administrator’s request that USDA check its records of judicial and administrative determinations.
• To help ensure that the design operates as intended to provide reasonable assurance of identifying and denying fraudulent or otherwise invalid claims, we recommend that the parties charged with carrying out the terms of the settlement agreement continue their efforts to fully and correctly implement the remainder of the internal control design, including measures to (1) identify duplicate claims and claims submitted on behalf of the same farming operation or the same class member and (2) verify timeliness

Raising Swine, and Not

Walt Jeffries at Sugar Mountain Farm in Vt and his family continue building their swine raising enterprise, and their own abbatoir.  Meanwhile Stonehead in Scotland just sent his last pigs off to the butcher. His problem was a smaller operation, bad luck with accidents and illness, and perhaps most of all resistance from customers.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Finnish Schools

I've generally been a quiet (on this blog) supporter of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.  The point being that while teaching to the test is a problem, we can't make progress unless we somehow measure how we're doing.  So the Bush and Obama initiatives seem better than the status quo, however many problems they have.  The idea of measuring value-added for teachers, looking at how much a class advanced during the year, rather than absolute scores also is attractive.

But then you watch this slide show on the Finnish school system and say, maybe I've got it all wrong. Or maybe it's interesting for a small homogenous country but not workable for us. Whatever is the answer, it's worth considering.

Before the Days of COLA

Back in 1950 Congressmen vied to introduce bills to raise civil service salaries.  That's documented in this Post look back at its Federal column from those days.

Also back in the day Congressmen vied to expand the coverage of Social Security and to improve its payments.

Finally back in the day Congressmen vied to enact tax cuts.

Clearly those times were different than now. How so?
  • we have 79 Congresswomen, rather than nine.
  • civil service salaries are indexed to inflation, removing the opportunity to pass regular salary increases as inflation raises prices.
  • Social Security is indexed to inflation, removing the opportunity to pass regular benefit increases as inflation raises prices.
  • income tax rates are indexed to inflation, removing the opportunity to pass regular tax cuts as inflation raises people to the next tax bracket and increases the take from income taxes.
Maybe, in consideration of the last 3, being a Representative is a less attractive job, which might explain the first item.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Big Dairy

Via Robin Hanson at Overcoming Bias, I come late to an Atlantic piece on dairy genetics.  Choosing the right bull now considers life span and pregnancy, not just pounds of milk.  (We got about 11,000 pounds when I was growing up.)  Interesting that big data can now pick the best bull in the country.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Movie Lines and Evaluating Government

FCW has an interesting piece on how government is evaluated: we get criticized for failures but rarely rewarded for successes, whereas the private sector gets punished by the market (sometimes) and rewarded both.

How To Increase Your Social Security? Kill the Ex

That's the advice the Business Desk at PBS NewsHour gives, entirely tongue in cheek.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Our Stalwart Forebears

Many conservatives, including a recent Presidential candidate, seem to believe we've lost our way and become too dependent on "gifts" from the government.   In reading a paper on the early days preceding the establishment of USDA I ran across this quote from the Commissioner of Patents, with respect to the seed distribution program:
It has been the special desire and object to provide and place within the reach of the
people, wherever scattered, the means of propagating such new and improved varieties of plants as they would not otherwise have had access to, and which are adapted to their
respective climates. It certainly was never the purpose of Congress to convert this O ce
into a common seed-store, intended to supply the public at large gratuitously with the
means of planting their ordinary vegetable gardens. This fact seems frequently overlooked by applicants to the O ce. It requires no little care and discrimination to guard against a growing tendency of this species of abuse. It would not only be overstepping the bounds of propriety, but would be doing injustice to the people at large, if, instead of their being accustomed to depend mainly upon their own e orts for the means of supplying their wants, they should be encouraged to turn their eyes habitually to the government, as a reliance for such purposes. If this were once established as the rule of action, it would be silently but certainly doing much to work a change in the very character of the government itself, by causing it to be regarded in this particular as the fountain of favors and bene ts. The   people would gradually be parting with that self-reliance which is the parent of energy and the main-spring of success in every undertaking, and which is so necessary to the preservation of individual self respect, and therefore of personal, and nally of national independence.
 This was in 1856.

Progress on Farm Bill?

Politico reports the House and Senate ag types are working out their differences, meaning there might be a way to get a farm bill passed.  I don't know if Nate Silver has any predictions on this; I suspect he's postponing that challenge until after he figures out how to predict earthquakes.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

The Epitome of Bureaucratic Architecture

And named to honor one of the great all-time bureaucrats: J. Edgar Hoover.

As the Washington Post article this morning says:
The Hoover building was constructed at a time when the government needed room for fingerprint records, investigative reports and files, a requirement computers have rendered largely unneeded.
 GSA is proposing to trade the building to the private sector in return for a new FBI campus somewhere in DC or suburbs.

It's constructed in the "brutalist" style popular in the 1960's, goodness knows why, except we were idiots then.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Corey Booker Revisited

Politico has an article on Corey Booker's menu on food stamps, at least one they suggest. The menu shows all the faults I assumed in my previous post on the subject: prices which don't allow for bulk buying, which is the way to go.

I also have to wonder about the prices they use: they say 2 Safeway eggs would be 53 cents, meaning they're allowing $3.18 for a dozen.   That seems high, I think our last purchase was about $2 and 18 eggs are even cheaper.  Maybe eggs are pricier in NJ?

"Welfare Queens" and Crop Insurance

Ronald Reagan made a career out of the welfare mother who financed a Cadillac and other abuses.  That thought, because I don't really like Reagan, sprang to mind when I read a post at Environmental Working Group, which led with these paragraphs:
"Marcia Zarley Taylor recently posted a blog aptly titled Extreme Insurance. As executive editor of DTN, which publishes The Progressive Farmer magazine and website, Taylor is one of the more cogent observers of crop insurance and this year’s drought.
Her post highlighted the happy experience of Seth Baute, a 26-year-old farmer in Bartholomew County, Indiana. As Taylor reported, the combination of a private sector insurance policy on top of a federally subsidized 85 percent Revenue Protection policy “will push [his farm’s] income to at least 110 percent what they had projected last spring when corn was supposed to tumble to $4 a bushel at harvest.”
 I haven't been able to access the post referred to, but EWG is not known as a friend of production agriculture so I would anticipate they will eagerly highlight anything in 2012 results which puts crop insurance in a bad light.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

When China Was a Role Model

From the report of the Commissioner of Patents in 1843:

The wonderful skill of the Chinese in improving their soil not so good as most parts of our own naturally by which they are enabled as it is now well ascertained to support a population of more than 300,000,000 throughout their vast empire is owing to their wisdom and care in adapting their manures and modes of cultivation to the peculiarities required by the soil As they separate its enriching elements rejecting the parts that can have no effect they are not constantly exposed to a new growth of weeds and the seeds of which are sown among the loads of compost had other manures carried out into the field Hence a weed is a rare thing in their fields and as soon as it makes its appearance is easily seen and eradicated The time is not far distant when the ammonias silicate of potash phosphates &c which render a particular manure valuable will be prepared and used in the form of salts or in a liquid form sprinkled over the soil instead of whole loads being carted out from the barn yard and compost heap for this purpose

Saturday, December 01, 2012

South Versus the West in Ag

Sen. Roberts says he'll accept target price supports for southern crops if he can get crop insurance for his crops.  See this Politico article.  Back in the old days we had separate programs for each crop, but we gradually simplified the programs and legislation down to cover almost all crops the same.  But realities sometimes break through the best plans of bureaucrats, legislators, and simplifiers.