Saturday, March 25, 2017

Tax Reform Easier Than Obamacare Repeal?

Secretary of the Treasury Mnuchin is optimistic about getting tax reform done by August--he says:
""We're able to take the tax code and redesign things, and I think there is very, very strong support," he said. "I think in healthcare, it's [a] much, much more complicated issue, where you start out with ObamaCare, which had all these issues, and you're trying to kind of get rid of it and make changes simultaneously.""
Minority Leader Pelosi was talking "rookie day" yesterday, mocking the difficulties the Republicans were having with healthcare.  I'd call Mnuchin another "rookie", given his optimism.  I remember the problems Reagan had in the 1980's with his tax reform, back in the days when he had Sen. Bill Bradley and Rep. Danny Rostenkowski in Congress to get the necessary Democratic votes.  Even with those advantages there was a lot of cliff hanging and logrolling and the final package came up short of the initial promises.

Remember, while healthcare affects 1/6 of the economy, taxes affect the whole thing.
 

Friday, March 24, 2017

Immigrants and Produce Production

When I was young during the summer when we'd drive to Greene for livestock feed, we'd see an old bus parked by the fields bordering the Chenango river, fields in which grew green beans, a bus which provided transport for those Negroes (as we said then) who picked the beans.  It was a moment of quickly passing contact with another world, strange to a child of dairy/poultry farmers. I've no idea where the pickers spent the night, presumably a tent or the bus.

These days the people who harvest our fruits and vegetables are almost all immigrants, mostly undocumented.  That leads to multiple issues, as described in this good Tamar Haspel piece for the Post.  If undocumented immigrants are deported and Trump's wall is built and is effective (big "ifs"), will citizens fill their places?  Could higher wages attract enough workers? Or would innovation come to the rescue, providing machinery and robots to do the harvesting, perhaps at the cost of changing the nature of the produce?


Thursday, March 23, 2017

Virginians Steal Pennsylvanian Glory

I've a ggggrandfather who served in the Revolution in the Pennsylvania militia.  While other researchers have come up with the idea he was at Valley Forge, the best I can determine is he may have commanded a company of York militia guarding prisoners from Burgoyne's army. 

Kenneth Roberts wrote some popular historical fiction about the Revolution, and Washington Irving wrote a two-volume bio of George Washington, both of which praised the "Virginia riflemen", often under Morgan.  But J.L. Bell at Boston 1775 suggests cautiously that history may have gotten it wrong, that there were more Pennsylvanian riflemen than Virginians.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Innovation in Farming: Software and Tractors

Farmer populism shows its face in a revolt against John Deere's attempt to protect its software running its tractors.  See this piece.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Moving as a Metaphor for Budget Cutting

In my view of government, legislation is a compromise among different interests and people, assembled by politicians to get a majority of votes.  Some laws are narrow in focus and effect, often driven by one or a few politicians under the stimulus of a narrow and small group of fervent believers.  Think perhaps of an earmarked program for research by NIH on an uncommon disease.  Call these the laws of passion. Other laws are broader in focus, meaning more politicians came together in a compromise, often through judicious backscratching and logrolling. Call these the laws of interest.

Once legislation is enacted, and appropriations made, there develops the familiar iron triangle, of  bureaucrats who administer the law, the interest groups supporting it, and the legislators who derive votes from passing and maintaining it. 

As time passes, technology changes, and society changes, some laws lose their relevance, or become a misfit with the environment. But because people are creatures of habit, it's easiest not to rock the boat.

I can argue that there's value to having a Trump come along with a drastic budget proposal simply because it forces the reevaluation of existing laws.  Is there still a valid coalition backing the law--does the old combination of passion and interest still live, does it still have the clout it had back in the days of creation?

I'd compare the situation to moving: a family buys a house and gradually fills it with things.  Time passes and they need to move, to downsize to an apartment. Then you discover which things are useful enough to take to the new place and which are not.  Or maybe instead of moving to an apartment you need to move to a McMansion.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Chevron and Regulations

One of the big things about Judge Gorsuch as he tries to be confirmed by the Senate is his position on
Chevron, not the oil company but the Supreme Court case which determined how much deference, if any, should be given to an executive agency's interpretation of laws which resolve ambiguities in the language of the law. The majority opinion said courts should defer; Judge Gorsuch says "no deference" (very short summary there).

As a bureaucrat you know I come down on the deference side.  One of my reasons isn't much discussed: the reality of Congress and politicians.  For a given issue politicians have to come to some consensus, some resolution, else they'll get blasted as "do-nothing" by Harry Truman or the Dems in 2018.  But the reality is resolution is hard in a democracy--there's no magic sauce to make everyone happy.  The result is that Congress cobbles together something to show the voters.  That "something" is often a law which straddles both sides of the issue, or fuzzes the issue with vague language or lawyerisms such as "as appropriate", "reasonable", etc. etc.In other words, Congress often doesn't make decisions, it kicks them over to the poor bureaucrats in the agency who have to implement the law.

IMHO the people who agree with Gorsuch are living in a dream, one where ambiguities in legislation are mistakes by Congress, mistakes which can easily be fixed if the Court, instead of going along with the agency's fix by regulation, kicks the problem back to Congress for an easy and expeditious fix. 

In my view ambiguities aren't mistakes, they are features of the democratic process of legislation.

Judicial Vacancies: More Than You Want to Know

Ballotpedia has a piece today.  Incidentally, I recommend the site.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Immigration: Surprising Facts

From a post originating from the National Academy of Sciences report on immigration:
" Indeed, today’s immigrants are more likely to have education beyond college than the native-born."
"We are a debtor nation — that’s what the existence of the widely discussed budget deficit means. This in turn means that the “average American” is a fiscal burden, receiving more in benefits than he or she pays in taxes."  [so both new babies and new immigrants cost the government more than they contribute in taxes.  However, that's true only if you give each person a per capita share of defense and interest payment costs, which don't actually increase with each new addition.]

Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Future Is California

An excerpt from a David Brin post:

From the Los Angeles Times: Californians are 30% less likely to die a violent death today than other Americans. Since 1980, California’s rate of reported crime overall has fallen by 62%. The state’s criminal arrest rates, too, have fallen considerably, by 55% overall, and by 80% among people younger than 18 — a population, it is worth noting, that is now 72% nonwhite. 

Violent crime in California has fallen by an impressive 50% in the same period. This includes drops in robberies (65%), homicide (68%), and rapes and assaults (more than 40%). That last figure is even more remarkable when you consider that the legal definitions of both assault and rape were expanded during these years.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Americans Share What?

Pew Research has a recent report on what people in different countries see as the keys to being of their nationality--is it shared language, birthplace, shared customs and values, faith, etc.  Interesting variations among the different countries surveyed, mostly Western countries plus Japan

I saw a reference to this earlier, then was struck by a talking head on Fox arguing that we should only admit immigrants who share our values.

Some random thoughts:
  • there's no universal rule applicable.  Canadians believe you need to speak either English or Franch, but Americans wouldn't agree to an English-Spanish rule.  Greeks are strong on religion, but that's no longer that important in most other countries.
  • adding some other countries, such as China, Russia, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, etc. would have further expanded our horizons.
  • in the past, many didn't believe that Irish Catholic immigrants could be good Americans: they shared neither birthplace, religion, nor customs with the then-current Americans.  That was even more true when the time came to admit immigrants from eastern Europe and Italy. 
  • when we look in detail at current "Americans" we find groups which don't share our customs and values but share the language (i.e. Old Order Mennonites,Hasidic Jews) and some which don't share the language but are somewhat closer in values, if not customs (some Latinos)
My bottom line is--if the adults work and pay taxes, and abide by the laws, fine.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Remote Mountain Villages

I've lost the date and newspaper but there was an interesting photo and article the other day describing something in a "remote mountain village"; the photo seemed to show a third world hut but with an internet connection.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Late 60's Were a Different Time

Just reading the Meacham biography of George H.W. Bush--very readable.  A couple bits from where I've gotten to:
  • Bush served two terms in Congress, 1966-70. During that time he supported LBJ on 55 percent of votes.
  • Bush wanted to reorganize the Interior Department to cover  Environment and Population.  In fact, he was so pro-population control that the Chair of House Ways and Means nicknamed him: "Rubbers".

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Laws Need Enforcers

Congress can pass laws and the President can sign them, and the supporters applaud and then....

If there's no bureaucrat taking action, nothing happens.

The latest case of that: a revision in FOIA law:
"Among the new law’s requirements are giving those seeking information at least 90 days to file appeals of denied requests, not charging inappropriate duplication fees and informing requesters of their rights to advice from agency or governmentwide FOIA ombudsman offices"
 The GovExec article says a number of departments haven't implemented the law 9 months after signature, including USDA.   The lead office is in Justice.  I'm going to guess that there won't be 100 percent compliance by this time next year.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Why America Will Be "White" Forever

It's common to see predictions like the U.S. will become majority minority 30 years or so from now, just as California and Texas as majority minority now.  I've no problem with these predictions, or with the reality when it arrives (I'll be scattered molecules by then), but I want to note that the validity of the prediction depends on the definition of "minority" not changing between now and 2050.

But definitions of ethnicity and race are socially constructed.  Just ran across an interesting proof of this:
 This BBC News site is on the gender pay gap in the UK.  But what interests me are the ethnic breakdowns (because the gap varies by ethnicity):
  • White Irish
  • White Other
  • White British
  • Black Caribbean
  • Black African
  • Indian
  • Chinese 
  • Pakistan/Bangladeshi
To me it's a reminder that ethnicity/race is socially constructed.  Note that there are three "races" represented--Caucasian, Asian, Blacks, but that's imposing American categories as of 2017.  There's no discussion of the categorization, and I'm making the possibly wrong assumption that the UK often uses these categories.  Apparently for the UK the differences among the ethnicities are big enough to force race into the background. I'm certainly aware that the Brits were more prejudiced against the Irish than the U.S.  And because the U.S. has more immigrants from different countries (i.e., Vietnam, Philippines, South Korea) we don't usually divide Asians by country or religion (i.e. the Pakistan/Bangladeshi versus Indian and Chinese distinction.)

What I predict will happen over the next 30 years is this: the definition of "white" will change so that it includes the majority of Americans, regardless of their heritage.
  •  In part this will reflect the confusion caused by intermarriage.  In the Washington Post magazine an Indian-American woman writes: "But in 2017 America, my particular jambalaya of “features” frequently has me mistaken for Ethiopian. Trinidadian. Colombian. African American. It depends on which city I’m in, what I am wearing and, more often than not, who is doing the asking."  That's an example.
  • In part this will reflect the logic of discrimination--what is the purpose of a "minority"?It's to define the majority, meaning that a "majority-minority" nation loses the inestimable virtues of being discriminatory, of defining the "other".  So the solution will be either to shift the definition of "white" so it includes the majority (you can see that in attempts to define Obama as not really black) or to bring to the fore another term which applies to most Americans. I can't think of one now, which is why my bet is on "white".
This is what we've done before, successively redefining "us" to include more than Anglo-Saxons, more than Brits, adding Germans, Eastern Europeans, Southern Europeans, etc.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Is Our President Learning?

Despite my druthers, I've been a tiny bit open to the possibility our president will do okay in his four years.  This is based mostly on the idea that people learn, and surely the presidency is an intensive educational institution. Trump has a notoriously thin skin, which perhaps makes it more likely that he will learn, that the pain of public opprobrium and criticism will cause him to change his ways, maybe even adopt different ideas and goals. As they would have said in the days before political correctness took over: to teach a mule sometimes you have to go upside his head with a 2 x 4.

We don't know the answer to my question today; we just need the patience to wait and see, meanwhile administering 2x4's as appropriate.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Revisionists of the One-Third Thesis

I learned relatively early, perhaps even in high school some 60 years ago, that one-third of the white American colonists supported independence, one-third supported Britain, and one-third were confused moderates.

From this review of a book on the American Revolution comes a counter, arguing that the support for the Revolution was only about one-sixth and:
In their light, the Revolution looks less like a popular uprising than a coup d’etat. The always-mystifying questions of how a band of ragtag rebels dared challenge the mightiest martial power on the planet and how they succeeded in doing so loom even more mystifyingly in the light of such modest popular support. And the role of coercion and violence in the maintenance of the war effort seem more than ever in need of serious examination.
Looking at the Revolution in the context of modern use of violence, maybe one-sixth is more accurate.  Certainly a lot of revolts seem to have been the work of minorities (i.e., the "Troubles" in Ulster, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, etc. 


Friday, March 10, 2017

Obama Versus Trump

Obama hired a personal photographer; Trump hired personal security staff .

Both men have big egos, but the contrast is IMHO telling.

Our Laws So Weak

Virginia has a thriving export trade, a trade in guns. The Brooklyn district attorney announced indictments of 24 people according to the Times:
 "The indictment of 627 counts charged 24 people, some of whom have violent criminal records and ties to the Bloods street gang, with conspiracy and illegal weapons sale and possession. In all, the authorities recovered 217 guns, including 41 assault weapons like AK-47s, AR-15s and a Thompson submachine gun."

Wiretaps recorded comments such as:

“There is no limits to how many guns I can go buy from the store, you know what I mean?” he said."

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Delay on Perdue II

I blogged earlier about the delay in getting Sonny Perdue's nomination for Secretary of USDA to the Senate.  Today the Times had an article suggesting he has less than sparkling clean ethical history.

Terrorists Capture Building Blocks from White House

John Kelly writes a local column for the Post.  Today he excavates a page from ancient history, 40 years ago today, the takeover of the DC Municipal Building, past which I'd walk home every night, up to a year before, and two other buildings by the Hanafi Muslim group.

It's a reminder of the turmoil of the late 60's and 70's, and a caution not to take current times too seriously.

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Specialty Crops and Technology

A good piece on produce which avoids the usual crunchy critique that produce and specialty crops are so expensive because they haven't  been subsidized by the government.

The idea that junk food is cheaper than produce because of farm subsidies is so often repeated by food movement leaders like Michael Pollan that almost everyone assumes that it’s true. But the reality is more nuanced.
Subsidies on their own don’t explain why processed foods are cheaper than produce, calorie for calorie. Fruits and vegetables, first and foremost, are highly perishable, which makes everything about growing, harvesting, storing and shipping them infinitely more complicated and expensive. Many of these crops also take a ton of labor to maintain and harvest. Economists who’ve crunched the numbers have found that removing agricultural subsidies would have little effect on consumers’ food prices, in part because the cost of commodities like corn and soybeans represent just a tiny share of the cost of the food sold in the grocery store.

Mainly the piece is about the technology which is impacting the harvesting and marketing of these crops, kicking off with the recent advent of packaged spinach.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

The Delay on Perdue

A piece on AGweb notes the delay in getting Sonny Perdue's nomination to the Senate, but doesn't explain why he hasn't gotten his act together.

[Update:  Here's another piece which suggests either it's Perdue's fault or the Office of Government Ethics is snowed under in clearing the paperwork.]

Today's Great Sentence

" if there's anything we native-born Americans excel at, it's crime."

Kevin Drum in a long discussion on the statistics of immigrant crime rates.

Monday, March 06, 2017

Contra Free Market From Israel?

Conservatives tend to be more supportive of Israel these days.  The nation has long since put the kibbutz behind them and is now a booming economy, with particular expertise in IT, high tech and military equipment.  The World Bank has a piece on how that's happened, including this:
Hasson highlighted the key role played by public-private partnerships over the last 40 years. Those partnerships have resulted in the establishment of an innovation infrastructure — including educational and technical institutions, incubators and business accelerators —anchored within a dynamic national innovation ecosystem built around shared social goals.

Specifically, to reduce the risk for investors, the government has focused on funding technologies at various stages of innovation — from emerging entrepreneurs and start-ups to medium and large companies. Strengthened by that approach, the Israeli ecosystem is maturing: according to Hasson, mergers and acquisitions have increased and exit profits have almost tripled over the last three years, with more and more new projects being started by returning entrepreneurs.

What Scares You?

For Dan Drezner:

What scares me the most about the Trump administration isn’t what the federal government will do to me. What scares me is my own ability to look away if the federal government does things to more marginalized segments of the population.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

CrowdSourcing the Self-Driving Car

NYTimes had an article on the problems of creating the very detailed map needed by self-driving cars, which led to descriptions of the use of crowdsourcing to solve the problem.  

The idea is simple: have the equipment in each self-driving car update the imagery in the database that guides all self-driving cars.  To me it's a similar idea to my bottom-up car, or trainable car: the data from traversing a route at time A is available to be used to help traverse the same route at time B.




Saturday, March 04, 2017

Stockman and Mulvaney

This Politico piece on Republican libertarians such as Amash and Mulvaney brought back memories of another bright young congressman who knew all the numbers in the federal budget and took a job as OMB director: David Stockman, the inventor of the "magic asterisk".   One can only wonder whether he too will write a memoir entitled "The Triumph of Politics, Why the Trump Revolution Failed".

Amazingly his wikipedia article doesn't mention the asterisk.

Friday, March 03, 2017

A New Farm Bill on the Horizon

Chris Clayton has a report on Rep. Conaway, chair of House Ag, and his outlook for a new farm bill.

My initial reaction is it's likely that Trump's budget outline will call for deep cuts in farm programs.  If not, people who want to defend other existing programs against Trump's cuts will start asking: "what about agriculture"?

But then I remember the Reagan administration. That's many years ago and my memory has faded.  IIRC the White House didn't really like farm programs and cut back where and when they could.  But their supporters, particularly conservative House Democrats whom they needed because the Republicans were still in a minority in the House, were able to make deals and fight drastic rollbacks. And the farm situation was rapidly going downhill, as farmers had overextended themselves during the boom years of the 70's and were now facing bankruptcy.  That led to one of the worst years ASCS ever had--1983 and the Payment-in-Kind Program: a jury-rigged program to use CCC-inventories to finance the biggest land diversion program we'd had, perhaps in our history.

And of course there's the freeze on federal employment, something Reagan also had.

Thursday, March 02, 2017

A Successful Four Years? Our President Learns?

Here's how Trump has a successful four years:
  • give cabinet members leeway to do their own thing
  • dominate the news media using his time-tested schtick
  • make proposals which sound good but which may not come to fruition
  • have a handful of real accomplishments
So lots of sound and fury which appeals to the Republican base while the executive branch handles the daily stuff, mixed with some real accomplishments to appeal to those outside the base.  This is somewhat like the Reagan formula.  He was never very involved in detailed policy or administration, and was more flexible than expected.

Newt Gingrich said something in the paper in morning about Trump being a good learner.  Others, including Gail Collins in the Times today, say he's very curious in small meetings and asks a lot of questions.  So here's a hypothesis:  Trump gets good reviews from acting Presidential Tuesday night.  That represents the "swamp" (aka the established political order) rewarding him for conforming to its norms.  If Trump truly does learn, which is to be proven, and he truly does crave praise, which seems well proven, then he will gradually alter his behavior so he's more like a conventional president.  So what we're seeing now is a process where the establishment is punishing and rewarding Trump for his behavior.


I think the hypothesis is reasonable.  However how likely to change is a 70-year old man?  Not very, I'd say.  On the other hand, he doesn't have a long history as a political actor, so maybe more likely than Nixon, who tried to change every few years.  There's also incentives to stay the course, maintaining faith with his supporters, and close associates. 

Conceivably if the hypothesis works, and Trump is lucky with the economy and foreign policy he'll have a successful presidency. 

Anti-Missile Defenses and Modern Ag Technology

We liberals had a long and eventually unsuccessful fight against various anti-ballistic missile systems. Back in the 60's it was the Nike-Zeus system which eventually got cancelled.  Then it was Reagan's Star Wars and finally it's the system now in place.   Part of the argument was that the technology couldn't work, wouldn't work, or at least could be overwhelmed by counter-measures.

These days we seem comfortable with the idea it works, perhaps because our faith in technology is greater these days?  That faith is boosted by reports such as this, which describes the test of a system of cameras and laser beams for zapping insects, specifically psyllids which attack citrus. Somehow that seems more impressive to me than attacking ballistic missiles, which as the name states have a path determined by gravity (though modern ICBM's launch maneuverable warheads so are no longer solely ballistic.)

Donal Trump Wants Me to Work

As a retiree, I'm included in the 93+ million people he considers to be unemployed.  NOT.

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Oscars and Butterfly Ballots

Vox has a good piece by Benjamin Bannister analyzing the design of the Oscar card.  It, along with the infamous "butterfly ballot" of 2000, shows the importance of design.  I won't say the Oscar card is a bureaucratic "form", but I won't say it isn't.

When I joined ASCS in 1968 it had a strong form design shop, with Chet Adell, Tom Sager, and Linda Nugent.  I remember Chet's pride in some of the forms they'd designed, particularly the Farm Record Card (ASCS-156) which moved historical data to a farm-based form from a series of listing sheets, so the clerk, as they were known then, could refer to one document for a farm rather than several. 

As someone has said, the "devil's in the details", and good forms designers sweat the details.