Friday, May 18, 2018

A Rocky Road for the Farm Bill

Apparently two sets of hurdles for the farm bill:

  • one is the fight over the provisions in the bill, most notably the tightened work requirements for SNAP, but also other issues.
  • the other is its status as close to must-pass legislation (it's not really must-pass--Congress could always kick the issue down the road by doing a one-year extension of the current farm bill.  But Congress doesn't have much going on, so the farm bill is the best bet to use for leverage on other issues, like the quest for a vote on immigration legislation.  That's what resulted in today's defeat of the bill.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Partisanship in the Past

Somewhere buried in my memory is an ancient view on partisanship, ancient meaning it dates to the Cold War or the rise of communism.  I think it was Graham Greene who said something like: "I'd rather betray my country than betray a friend."  Or maybe it was E.M.Forster who said "only connect"?

(Turns out it was Forster.)

I write this because in my twitter feed someone whose friend voiced support for President Trump denied the friend--threw him out of the house, maybe.  Quite a contrast of then and now (though I acknowledge Forster's sentiment was an outlier then, and now. )

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Why There Was No Collusion

The Senate Intelligence Committee has concluded that the intel guys were right: Putin ordered his people to hurt Clinton and help Trump.

We know that Donald Jr. at least wanted Russian help.

But the bottom line to me is the Trump campaign was too inept to collude with the Russians in any meaningful way.

Import Brains, Export Ideas

That's my formula to keep America great.

One quote, from AEI:
There is a stunting statistic that I almost always have to give these days since hearing it. If you look at all of the PhDs in the US in the STEM fields, 56 percent were foreign born. So we are able to attract very smart people from abroad, keep them here, and have them work.
Yes, a handful of those brains may spy for their original homeland, more of them will return "home" at some time or the other, but many of the brains will spend their most productive years in the U.S., years in which they do good science, create innovations and innovative enterprises, and generally make the  U.S. better, most importantly by making it a place where others want to come, to learn and maybe work. 

Other things being equal, it's better to export ideas and things, and to import people.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

"White" America

An excerpt from a  Vox piece on biracial identity in America:
"Before the election, we found that white people thought he [Obama] was “too black” and black people found him to be “too white.”
Those perceptions shifted significantly after his reelection. Only then did white individuals see Obama as being “white enough” for them and black individuals see him as being “black enough.” This switch suggests people did seem to understand that he was biracial but found it easier to claim him as a racial in-group member once he became a success story."
 The author goes on to say we have difficulty with ambiguity, so like to simplify.

What that means to me is that's one method by which America will remain "white": as members of current "minority" groups become successful, they'll be assimilated into "us". 

The Parable of the Forms

This paper is written by a law professor, so it's directed at legal procedures, but he uses the design and use forms as a way to make his point.   I'd say the logic applies as well to the design of agencies: one reason why we have recurrent efforts to simplify how USDA deals with farmers, and recurrent failures.  The view from on high is much clearer than the view at the grassroots, and the grassroots typically have more staying power. 

Recommended for bureaucrats.

Monday, May 14, 2018

What Are Barns Good For?

Abandoned barns are a fairly common site along I-81 in NY. Smaller farms are going out of business.  The old pattern of using summer pasture and winter hay is ending, so there's no need for a tall barn to store hay.  (I'm guessing today's big operations haul in feed as needed.)   So as one culture fades away leaving behind its unneeded structures, what do we do with barns?  One answer is to tear them down and use the barn siding wood to add a rustic feel to high-end houses.  Another is given here:
It’s wedding season, which means you now have a higher-than-normal chance of spending time in or in the vicinity of a barn. A survey from The Knot, which offers wedding services, reported that 15 percent of couples who got married in 2017 held their reception in a barn, farm or ranch, up from 2 percent in 2009. [https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2018/05/barn-weddings/560099/

Sunday, May 13, 2018

The Value of a Curmudgeon

Bob Somerby is a character.  He writes the Daily Howler, a long lived blog (started last century), critical and skeptical of media.  He was Al Gore's roommate at Harvard, along with Tommy Lee Jones, and taught for some years in a Baltimore school.  His posts are colored by his past, as any regular reader can tell. (The mass media's mistreatment of Gore's candidacy, the failings of young reporters, particularly their math illiteracy, the fact that American education does better than many media reports have it, and the fact that American education fails black students, the willingness of liberals to buy into myths, etc.)  He's long-winded and, an admission, I often skim the first paragraphs and skip the last paragraphs.  But all that said, he's an invaluable corrective who drills down into the depths of an issue.  We could use a couple more like him, as long as they had different bees in their bonnet than he.

A sample--a post on NYC schools points out:
"Good lord! In New York City, a school which is 9 percent white isn't just a "segregated" school; it's intensely segregated, an even worse abomination. 
Meanwhile, a school which is 15 percent white represents the "desegregation" ideal! On such slender distinctions our liberal language now rests."

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Kenya and Space

President Trump supposedly doesn't think much of African countries.  He might be surprised, as I was, at the news Kenya has its own satellite in space.

Even more surprising, Kenya's not in the list of the top five African space programs (Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, Egypt, and Algeria.

Friday, May 11, 2018

The Secret of Current Trump Support

To me, it's found in this quote in a New Yorker piece on understanding Trump:
“The truth is, virtually everyone who claims to know what Trump is going to do has been wrong at some point,” one sharp analyst told me. “The best indicator, in my mind, is to go back and read his core campaign pledges and speeches. Those have been far more instructive than anyone in Congress, in the Republican Party, or on his own team.”

FSA Has an Administrator!

Secretary Perdue announced three administrators today, including FSA's Fordyce, formerly SED in Missouri.  It's only 16 months since the inauguration, but who's counting?  I remember Randy Weber was acting Administrator for a number of months after Clinton's inauguration.  I suspect the appointment process is taking longer and longer; someday we'll see an administrator appointed when she has less than 2 years to serve.

(I see the president of NASCOE is also from Missouri, for what it's worth.)

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Mount Will Erupts

Beneath a slightly graying cap of hair, there lurks a sleeping volcano, a volcano named George Will, who erupted this morning in the Washington Post, devastating the VP.

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

A Veto for the Farm Bill

It's been decades since a President threatened to veto a farm bill--so long that the last time has escaped my memory.  (I'd be pretty sure that Truman may have threatened but I don't believe anyone since Nixon.)

But President Trump is promising a veto to ensure work requirements for SNAP.   This will be interesting.

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

They Made It

The Caps beat Pittsburgh last night to reach the conference final.  I wrote yesterday that the losing streak had to end, and it did.  Now we'll see what happens in the finals.

Monday, May 07, 2018

Caps and Brooklyn Dodgers

I'm old enough to remember when the sports jinx haunted the Brooklyn Dodgers.  They'd make it to the World Series nearly as often as the NY Yankees, but always lose.  Gil Hodges, their elite first baseman, wouldn't hit and so was often the goat.  Their motto was "Wait Til Next Year".  That streak lasted until 1955, when Johnny Podres led them over the Yankees in seven games.

I write this because the Washington Capitals, who I sort of follow, have a streak of losing in the playoffs, so they've never made the conference finals.  This may change. This must change.  This will change, but will it be this year?

(Someone has observed, what can't last forever, won't. I think that applies here.)


Sunday, May 06, 2018

The Swamp, John McCain and President Carter

Sen. McCain is attracting favorable articles now, for pure and understandable reasons.  After his death, whenever it comes, more commendations will come and slight criticism will be unbecoming.

So let me offer a bit of criticism and context now.

There's been much discussion of "the swamp" in DC and the need to drain it.  Very laudable I'm sure. But I've a vague memory, I think based on Timberg's book, that McCain was a denizen of that swamp for a while.  After his release from the POW camp, and recuperation from his injuries, and before he retired from the Navy and entered electoral politics, he was assigned to the Pentagon as a liaison to the Senate.

Now the Ford and Carter administrations had a project for medium-sized aircraft carriers, conventionally powered and cheaper than the nuclear carriers the Navy and Rickover had been building.   As a naval officer McCain's ultimate commander was President Carter, but his real allegiance was to his bureaucracy, the Navy.  And the Navy, or at least many of the big shots, wanted the biggest and best of everything (pardon my cynicism).  McCain was an effective lobbyist with the Senate for the nuclear carriers, operating against the official policy of the administration.  It was a little reminiscent of the "revolt of the admirals" of 1949, except that McCain and the others were able to achieve their goal with less publicity.

That's how the swamp works, and Sen. McCain was once a swamp dweller.

Friday, May 04, 2018

Wendell Berry Meet Westby Cooperative Creamery

Washington Monthly had a piece on the Westby:
Westby is the exception, not the rule. It’s a holdout from an earlier era when co-ops helped farmers and rural communities keep a much larger share of the nation’s wealth than they do today. Most everywhere else across rural America, the powerful cooperative movement has either faded or, worse, become co-opted by giant monopolies that prey off the very small-scale producers they’re supposed to protect. In that way, they reflect a broader change in the economy. While pretending to represent farmers’ interests, these co-ops in fact dictate prices to farmers just as Amazon dictates prices to book publishers and Walmart to its suppliers. Cooperative Creamery in WI
Wendell Berry writes for the Henry County Local on the recent spate of creameries and distribution channels dropping dairy farmers and includes this:
The person interviewed in these several articles who makes clear and admirable sense is Gary Rock, a dairyman, one of Dean’s terminated, in LaRue County: “He would like to see a base program across the nation that sets production quotas in line with market demands.” He thus sees through the problem to its solution. He is advocating the only solution to the problem of overproduction. Kentuckians don’t have to look far for an example of the necessary solution, for we had it in the Burley Tobacco Growers Co-operative Association. That organization effectively controlled production, maintained fair prices, and gave the same protections to small producers as to large ones. The history of the Burley Association disproves, as its membership conscientiously rejected, the “inevitability” of the destruction of family farms by agribusiness corporations.
Of course Berry is wrong.  Production wasn't controlled by the co-op, but by your faithful USDA/ASCS bureaucracy (operating in conjunction with the co-op).  "Supply management", one term for the sort of program involved, is something Canada still uses for dairy and eggs and maple syrup. We dropped the tobacco and peanut supply management programs after I left, not that there's any relationship. :-)

Thursday, May 03, 2018

Working at USDA Is Injurious to Your Health?

Apparently USDA's South Building, where I used to work, is undergoing lead abatement work.  (Makes sense, given when it was constructed.)  Now employees are reporting health problems and tying it into the (non)availability of telework under Sec. Perdue's new policies.  See this GovExec piece.

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

Farmers Feeling Blue

From an outlook post from Purdue:
The undercurrent of concern expressed by producers in March became more pronounced in April as the trade dispute with key export customer China continued. For example, compared to February of this year, producers in April were more negative about future agricultural export prospects. In February 2018, when asked to look ahead 5 years, 13 percent of producers said they expected agricultural exports to decline. When the same question was posed in April, the share of producers expecting lower exports increased to 17 percent.

Those Stuck-in-the-Past Old Fogeys

Like me, many elderly don't like change.  But it varies, and we can surprise you if it's to our benefit:

"Elderly participants were most excited about the idea of autonomous vehicles, but only 36 percent of young adults were comfortable with the idea of riding in one. "

From the Rural Blog, discussing research into attitudes to self-driving cars.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Korean Tidbits: the Wall and High Speed Rail

Two bits from the blog on the Winter Olympics:

1  Korea once imitated China in many things, including building a wall (on top of the hill in this photo):

 

2  On high speed rail:
The amazing thing to me coming from California is that they built this 120 km extension and built six new stations in less than 4 years. So far, we have been working for 3+ years on a 191 km section of high speed rail (the first such project in the US) along highway 99 in the Central Valley (as part of an eventual system running from Los Angeles to San Francisco). So far, we have no continuous track or working trains at a projected cost of $10.6 B. To be fair, most of the rise in costs has been a pile of lawsuits by opponents designed to slow down progress and increase costs until they are so high that everyone will give up. Having ridden on these types of train in Italy and Japan, I hope we will persevere. 

Saturday, April 28, 2018

The Enemies of the Old

Thin pages of magazines and particularly newspapers which cling together, so you go from page 3 to page 7.

Shoelaces which have to be knotted.

Collar buttons which no longer seem to fit through buttonholes.

Eyeglasses with tiny screws which come out.

Attractive nuisances when driving, distracting one.


Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The Mines of France

Interesting tweet here on the lasting effects of WWI, particularly the former trench lines and the explosives buried there. A quote: "Today, French government démineurs still recover about 900 tons of ordnance every year, & in Belgium the amount is around 200 tons."

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Society Learns

I believe society learns (and forgets). I was struck by the learned reaction to the crack epidemic of the 1980's.  Usage of crack declined over time, as young people saw its impact on the older.  Since then, I've seen the learning phenomena in other areas.

One such area is comfort with technology.  Consider the cellphone camera--there's now an assumption that everyone knows how to operate one.  Strangers will ask you to take a picture of them with their cellphone.  How many years did it take for society to learn this operation--10 years maybe?  Society learning means a critical mass of people have all learned the same thing, creating the presumption that everyone knows/believes it.  This can be technique, as with cellphones, or beliefs, as with the idea that crack is bad.

For someone on the fringes of society this can be difficult. I don't use my smartphone as a phone that much, so I'm conscious of having a fragile attachment to society.  On the other hand, I know a lot about American history, and have experienced more of it than most everyone living, so there I feel a strong attachment.

Monday, April 23, 2018

White House Garden Lives!

From a post on plans for the state dinner welcoming French President Macron tomorrow night:
"The first course, using greens from the White House kitchen garden to represent a celebration of spring’s first harvest, will feature a goat cheese gateau, tomato jam, buttermilk biscuit crumbles and young variegated lettuces."
Our lettuce is up, but not yet big enough for salads.  Assuming the White House is a week-10 days ahead of Reston, this looks good.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

On (Mis)trusting an Inspector General

Here's the OIG report on Andrew McCabe:

I tried to get a screenshot of it, but failed.  My problem with it is aesthetic--they're using a very black thick sans serif type font. Its only redeeming feature is it's not monospaced.



Friday, April 20, 2018

Irony Alert

Somewhere in my reading today I ran across a brief mention that Gens. Kelly and Mattis found themselves opposing Gen. McMaster on some issues--it seems the split was between those who tried to rein Trump in (Kelly-Mattis) versus McMaster who was more willing to go along.

I can't wait for McMaster's memoir.  If I recall his dissertation, converted into a well-regarded history called Dereliction of Duty, was critical of LBJ's Joint Chiefs for not being straight with him, for going along with his policies rather than resisting the expansion of the war without being open with the public.  So if today's item was correct, it might be that McMaster found it hard to play the role of adviser than he thought it was back in his academic and youthful days.  Wouldn't be the first, nor will it be the last, person to make the discovery.

[Update: it was a New Yorker piece:  "On one side were Mattis, Tillerson, and Kelly, each of whom in varying degrees sought to push back against the President; on the other was McMaster, who made his natural allies furious for what they saw as his habit of trying to accommodate the President’s demands, even if they were far-fetched. “General McMaster was trying to find a way to try to execute, not to tell him no,” the former government official told me."

USDA/FSA Burns "Bridges"

The Obama administration established "Bridges to Opportunity"--see the explanation here and a press release from January 2017 on the expansion. My brief explanation is FSA agreed with nonprofit organizations to refer farmers to them (i.e.  if someone was interested in organic ag, the FSA office could refer the person to organizations promoting organic ag, using a database of those with agreements) using a database.

Now the Trump administration is having the FSA offices to revoke the written agreements with these nonprofits.

The assertion is that the referral service is being incorporated into the "farmers.gov" website.  That seems reasonable, but what's not clear in the notice is why they need to revoke the agreement, if the change is basically incorporating the old "bridges" database into their new consolidated website.

I'd guess there was boilerplate language for the agreements with the nonprofits, but I can't find it anywhere. If I were really curious I'd submit a FOIA request for the language and for data on how many agreements were entered into.  If I were cynical, and I am, I'd suspect the Republican administration views the nonprofits with which agreements were made as likely leaning Democratic, many of them likely serving minorities and women.

Apparently the bulk of the "Bridges" was a replacement for the "Web Receipt for Service" software of several years ago.

Disaster Averted? --EU

I was struck by the chart below  (stolen from a tweet fussing about the fact only the US is predicted to see an increase in government debt over the next years, but what's more interesting to me is the fact that Greece and Italy stand next the top of the list in reducing their ratio.  This is how many years since we were all worrying about the nearly inevitable Greek exit from the EU, the collapse of Spain (also doing ok) and Italy and the resulting disaster for the European Union.  That didn't happen--there's still problems now and in the future for the EU, but on a sunny Friday afternoon it's worth noting the bad news which didn't happen.


From a tweet: 

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Why the Change in 1842 to FY?

Here's a piece on a proposal to make the government's fiscal year jibe with the calendar, something which was last true before 1842.  I wonder why Congress made the change back then.  Were they having problems passing appropriations bills timely even then?

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

For the Good Old Days of DVD Extras

The NYTimes had a piece on the fading away of extra features which used to be included on DVDs. My wife and I are long-term subscribers to Netflix, back in the days before streaming, and we (or I at least) enjoyed most of the features, particularly the director commentaries. The best movies seemed usually to have been models of teamwork: a lot of talented people working together for a common goal.  No doubt that was an exaggeration, or more kindly a rosy colored look back.

The commentaries varied widely: some directors would narrate the action on the scene--very boring.  Others would use the action as the launching point for little stories, discussions of technique, particularly the more cinematic types.  Some would make a point of praising the work of both the actors on screen and the members of the crew behind the scenes. Some series, like Breaking Bad, and Mad Men, would have multiple features and often two or more commentaries per episode.

I'll miss the extras.


Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Tabarrok's Great Post re: Facebook

Alex Tabarrok is the less prominent blogger at Marginal Revolution, but I think his post yesterday is great. 

He makes the point that much of the data Facebook stores is created by Facebook, or more accurately in my mind by the combination of our activities which are enabled by and only possible through Facebook.  As he says, speaking of a cousin in Dubai who he's never called or written a letter in over 20 years: "The relationship with my cousin, therefore, isn’t simply mine, it’s a joint creation of myself, my cousin and Facebook."

I tweeted about the post yesterday, not something I do everyday.  I got a response from one person, and we've gone back and forth a bit.  Let me summarize my position:

Like Tabarrok, I've a current relationship with a cousin which has been made possible through the Internet, email in the first instance, then shifting to AIM and finally to Facebook Messenger: a sequence of communication tools of better and better capability and more ease of use.  I understand that the data stored in the cloud has changed with each tool: now Facebook keeps the full text of our messages.  But the capability of the tool is an essential part of the relationship.  Given our personalities and ages we didn't and couldn't establish it based on snail mail. 


I (and my cousin) are interested in genealogy; she's writing a book (at 87) covering events in 19th century Ireland partly involving two collateral ancestors. For us, all bits of data are precious if they concern the lives of our ancestors, or the lives my cousin investigates.  Of course the data is almost all on paper with just a little bit on film.  What does the future hold for genealogists; how will they handle all the data which is now being stored and which presumably will be available?



Monday, April 16, 2018

Better Than We Used To Be

Kottke has a post with an aerial photograph of Edinburgh in 1920.  We don't know the time of year or day; we don't know whether the conditions were normal or abnormal.  But what it suggests to me is a memory, a memory of the great London smog of  1952 (most recently dramatized in BBC's The Crown and of reading about the PA smog of 1948.

Using coal to heat houses, as we did our house when I was growing up, produced smoke which killed, most dramatically in the right (wrong) geographic and climactic conditions.  That problem has been solved, at least for home heating.
 


Sunday, April 15, 2018

Incredulity and Impeachment

I remember Watergate.  In 1972 the conventional wisdom about impeachment was perhaps captured in JFK's Profiles in Courage--the impeachment of Andrew Johnson was wrong, very wrong, and the country was only saved by a Kansas senator's courage (IIRC--not bothering to look it up).  The country had skated up to the edge then but had wisely drawn back.  Impeachment was a constitutional dead letter, almost on a par with stationing soldiers in homes (Third Amendment), possibly used in the odd case of a judge, but not for presidents.

As Watergate unraveled, impeachment started to become possible.  Then in the summer of 1974 suddenly things clicked into  place and the avalanche started.

Will history repeat itself? 

I don't think so--Republican support of Trump seems too solid, but as Watergate shows surprises can happen.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Harshaw Rule in Aircraft Carriers

Another demonstration of the validity of the Harshaw Rule (first time fail) is in Robert Farley's piece on the worst aircraft carriers ever built (via Lawyers, Guns and Money).

Friday, April 13, 2018

Berkshire Hathaway and the Pay of Bigshots

From vox, in a piece on "pay ratios" the comparison of the pay of the CEO and the pay of the median employee in the company.  Some ratios are over 1,000.

Not all of the pay ratios released so far are so gaudy. Warren Buffett, the CEO of conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway, makes less than twice his company’s typical employee. 

[Updated:  Jeff Bezos earns 59 times the median Amazon employee according to this article.]

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Taxes Today

Finished our 2017 taxes today, using TurboTax.  Seems to me they were more complicated than previous years, especially the boilerplate at the end.  Although with Mr. Zuckerberg's testimony still fresh, I still clicked on "agree" without reading and understanding them. I'm sure there's reasons for them, but it doesn't make me happy.

What really makes me unhappy is this sentence: "In Sweden, you can see your tax forms already filled in and approve them on your cellphone." That's from a piece at Monkey Cage on the complexities of our tax system (John Sides interviewing a couple experts).  One point made there--our system would be simpler if we taxed individuals rather than households.   Kevin Drum has in the past pushed the idea of IRS preparing our returns from their available data, with the individual taxpayer responsible for confirming the correctness of the information and adding to it.  It's a great idea, which Intuit will lobby against to their dying breath, so I guess today I contributed to the continuance of our system.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Congress Reluctant on CCC Program

If China puts tariffs on soybeans and other farm commodities, there's been discussion by the Secretary and President of the possibility of providing help to affected farmers, using the authority of the Commodity Credit Corporation.  That's getting some pushback from some in Congress, including Republican bigshots according to this article by Chris Clayton .


Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Banks With No Cash?

In Sweden, according to Steve Kelman here at FCW: ". In what might sound like a joke if it weren’t true, many banks carry no cash on their premises." Kelman is writing about Sweden and China, which he finds to be ahead of the U.S. in some areas of adopting IT:

"First, other countries’ edge over us is sometimes due to technology developed first outside the U.S., sometimes to quicker user adoption (something that would probably surprise most Americans), and sometimes to a greater ability to make non-tech organizational adjustments, such as eliminating minimum transaction values on credit cars, to get the tech to work better. Second, there are clearly efficiency benefits to the new technologies -- think only of the decline in hold ups in stores and bank robberies thanks to the disappearance of cash. But there are also benefits in terms of the general social climate for innovation."

Monday, April 09, 2018

Jefferson Versus Trump

Andy Seal has a post at USIntellectual History quoting Thomas Jefferson on the importance of public perception in maintaining ethical standards.

Good Things from Trump's Win

Two (sort of) good things from Trump's win:
  1. Reading Bill Kristol with a bit more openness to his opinions, since he's a never-Trump.
  2. Also George Will, and agreeing with him on civil forfeiture and felon voting.
I think it sort of validates James Madison's insights: multiple interests and viewpoints mean interesting overlaps on the Venn diagrams, resulting in safeguards against demagoguery and extremism.

Saturday, April 07, 2018

The Soybean and Grain Embargoes

I remember Jimmy Carter's embargo on grain exports to the Soviet Union.  IIRC farmers didn't like the later, and it played a role in Carter's defeat.  Until I googled, I didn't remember Nixon's embargo on soybeans which was part of his economic maneuvers against inflation, etc.   Earl Butz ate crow over it, according to this piece.

Problem for Trump is that farmers know that patterns of trade can change.  If China puts tariffs on soybeans and switches to other suppliers, even if a trade war is averted, or quickly settled, the effects may be long lasting. 


Friday, April 06, 2018

Four Is the Number

Breaking news:  important--Augusta National now has four female members according to this ThinkProgress post.  That's 100 percent increase over 7 years.  At this rate, adding 2 members every 7 years, it will be about 2095 for half the members to be female.

Thursday, April 05, 2018

Good News from Afghanistan

My title is four words, very surprising to find them in the same phrase.  Someone, I think Noah Smith, recently wrote there's an imbalance of news on Twitter; not enough attention is paid to good news.

The World Bank has a piece on how Afghanistan's healthcare system has improved over the past 15 years.  (Basically the government contracted with NGO's to handle care for specific regions, which has worked, and importantly Aghan professionals have been replacing the personnel who began with the NGO's.

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

MLK Remembered

Kevin Drum posts a chart showing Gallup's results for approval of Martin Luther King.  He notes the rising approval over the years from 1966 to the present. 

I was reading newspapers by the time of the Montgomery protests over segregated buses.  As I commented there, it's been interesting to see the evolution of his image. 

  • when he was alive, there were a number of major figures who were competing and cooperating in civil rights.  Malcolm X, Stokeley Carmichael, Roger Wilkins, Julian Bond, and many others.  In the beginning he was just one voice among many, gradually emerging as the preeminent voice. His competitors did not always welcome his contributions or support his efforts, and vice versa.  With his death he became the martyred figure we know today whom no one remembers disliking.
  • he had more failures (Albany, GA, and Chicago, among others) than we realize today
Vox has a post/interview with Jeanne Theoharis from which I'll quote this:

[Reagan (and America) created a fable of MLK which included these features:]
The first is the focus on courageous individuals, not movements. The second is the idea that King and figures like Rosa Parks shone a light on injustice, and [said injustice] has since been eradicated. The third is the act of putting the movement and the problem of racism in the past. And the fourth is the idea of American exceptionalism — the belief that the civil rights movement demonstrates the power of American democracy.

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Humans Can Be Evil

From Techmology Review piece on robotics:

But the trickiest foe these robots face while out in the world could be the most difficult to predict: teenagers. Hitch says teen shoppers have been known to kick the robots in Walmart, or even slam into them with a shopping cart.

Monday, April 02, 2018

Contrarian on the Census

I can't resist being a contrarian on the census.  We liberals dislike the decision to include a question on citizenship in the 2020 census.  The fear is that such a question will increase fear of the government among immigrants, particularly those who are undocumented ("illegal").   That fear seems reasonable. The result would be that immigrants would be undercounted.  Because population counts are the basis for determining electoral districts, immigrants would be underrepresented, and because the counts also are used for distribution of government dollars under some programs, immigrants would suffer.

I've no problem with this logic, so what's my contrarian take?

The Trump administration points out that the American Community Survey (an effort conservatives once tried to scuttle IIRC) has always asked about citizenship. The survey gets very detailed, and its results are used in sociological research and government programs.

My contrarian question is this: if immigrants would be fearful of government questions about citizenship, aren't they already fearful of the ACS?  If so, doesn't that impair the validity of the survey?  And if so, why hasn't the Census Bureau fixed the problem?  And if they have, why wouldn't that work for the 2020 census? 

If the problem can't be fixed, do the users of the ACS know of the distortion?

Sunday, April 01, 2018

1968 Remembered

Fifty years ago in January I moved to DC to work at USDA.  In February I was assaulted and robbed. Also in February the Vietcong launched the Tet offensive, hitting a road I had traveled a year before, and changing politics in the US. In March LBJ announced he wasn't running for reelection. In April Martin Luther King was murdered and DC was one of many cities with riots, which I traveled through. In June Robert Kennedy was killed. Meanwhile the US had the continuing demonstrations against the Vietnam War and student protests over race and college governance issues. And the US was in relatively good shape compared to the Prague Spring events in  Czechoslovakia with the Prague Spring, student unrest in France   and other nations. 

It was an interesting time.


Saturday, March 31, 2018

Importing Brains, Exporting Ideas

A quote from a Bloomberg piece:
Of the 1 million foreign nationals enrolled at U.S. schools, nearly one-third are from China -- double the number of any other country. Chinese students receive 10 percent of all doctorates awarded in the U.S., most of them in science and engineering. Some 80 percent of Chinese doctoral holders stay in the U.S. and work after they earn their degrees. There are more Chinese engineers working on artificial intelligence at U.S. technology companies than in all of China.
From Bloomberg

IMHO it's better for us to export our intellectual property to China while importing and keeping their best brains.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Janesville and Liberal Government

This book just won a prize for nonfiction writing.  If you don't want to read the whole thing, this New Yorker piece of last year will substitute.

I'm still reading it, but I want to note one failure of government: Obama came, promised help, his man visited, listened, did nothing before leaving for a better paid post.  It's an old lesson of bureaucracy--you need unrelenting pressure from the top to accomplish the difficult.  President Nixon, despite his flaws, knew this and his administration was successful in removing the WWI "tempos"

now the site of "Constitution Gardens". 

Much as I like Obama, and my regard for him as a person is only increased by comparison with his successor, I don't see him as a good manager of the bureaucracy.  (The most glaring failure was, of course, healthcare.gov.)

Liberals believe in the power of government to help, but Janesville is disappointing in that respect.  The conventional wisdom is that job retraining programs are a necessary part of global free trade and/or fighting recessions.  The results from Janesville don't support their efficacy.  The job retraining seems to have worked somewhat like farm programs, easing the transition from a good past to a dimmer future. 

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

DOD and the Wall?

Today's story is that President Trump wants the military to pay for his wall on the Mexican border.  He's being mocked for it, and deservedly so.  But I believe that a good liberal congressman once upon a time put money in the Pentagon's budget for medical research.
"The Office of Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs (CDMRP) is funded through the Department of Defense (DoD), via annual Congressional legislation known as the Defense Appropriations Act. For most programs, the DoD sends a multi-year budget request to Congress in the form of the President's Budget. However, dollars for the CDMRP are not considered part of the DoD's core mission, and are therefore not included in the DoD's requested budget. Rather, the dollars to fund CDMRP are added every year during the budget approval cycle by members of the House or Senate, in response to requests by consumer advocates and disease survivors."
"The CDMRP originated in 1992 via a Congressional appropriation to foster novel approaches to biomedical research in response to the expressed needs of its stakeholders-the American public, the military, and Congress."
CBO has an old post supporting the ending of this practice.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Two Small Livestock Farmers: Different Strategies

I follow a handful of farmers: a couple are gradually withdrawing from farming while two of the younger ones (i.e, maybe 45-50) are involved, but with different strategies:

Walt Jeffries at Sugar Mountain Farm (sadly no longer regularly blogging about his family) specializes in hogs, while Dan Macon at Foothill Agrarian does sheep.

Walt has expanded his operation, using vertical integration, by which I mean he raises hogs and markets the meat, both directly and to stores.  Over the years he's changed from using a commercial butcher to building and running his own butcher shop, just recently receiving his USDA certification so he can sell across state lines instead of just in Vermont.  When you follow him over the years, his determination and drive and the obstacles overcome are amazing, For that reason, I don't recommend his past blog posts for new farmers--they might well be intimidated.

Dan's most recent post, linked to above, explains the logic which leads him not to do marketing, but instead sell his lambs live.  He also notes the economic realities which mean he isn't a full-time farmer.

I recommend both.

[updated to expand on Walt]

Sunday, March 25, 2018

USDA a "Lighthouse Agency"

That's from this FCW piece on some GSA IT contract awards:
"The awards support the first phase of work at five IT Modernization Centers of Excellence. Work will begin at the Department of Agriculture, which was selected as the government's "lighthouse" agency.
SIE Consulting Group will be working on cloud adoption, McKinsey & Company is tackling infrastructure optimization, ICF Inc. won two contracts for customer experience and service delivery analytics, while Kaiser Associates was awarded a contact center contract."
Don't know what "lighthouse" means--presumably a new bit of jargon that sounds good but turns out meaningless, like "tiger teams" back in the 90's. 

Friday, March 23, 2018

Drivers Monitoring Autonomous Cars

Two points on autonomous cars:


  1. China has just authorized Baidu to run their autonomous cars on the highways.  The piece I saw noted that Chinese roads are more crowded and chaotic than in the US, thereby posing a bigger challenge to the software.  I'd add--doesn't that give them an advantage in development--a higher bar to surmount?
  2. AEI notes that humans are poor monitors.  We get distracted and complacent and don't jump into action quickly.  I wonder if it would be possible to include a training module in the software--have the software test the driver by requiring intervention in a situation which is actually safe.  If the driver fails to react timely and correctly, do more testing.  If the driver continues to fail, discontinue the self-driving. 

[Added link]

What's 700 Points on the Dow Worth

Not a mention on the front page of either the Post or the Times.  Times have changed.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The Search for Buttermilk and Doom for Cows

My spouse was inspired by the recent St. Patrick's Day to bake Irish Soda Bread, for which she needed buttermilk.

She checked Trader Joe's: out.  I checked Safeway--not available.  Finally found a quart at Giant.

I was amazed, absolutely amazed though, by the pseudo "milk" on sale.  There were a couple upright coolers devoted to the usual 2 percent milk in gallons, plus a variety of milk of kinds and quantities. Next to them were two more coolers devoted mostly to half gallons and quarts of all the various kinds of "milk"--almond, soy, and I don't know what else.  There was another cooler partly devoted to cream products like half and half, whipping cream, etc. and at least another with specialty "milk" type products. 

Even with the authority of wikipedia behind them, dairy farmers are in trouble:

"In food use, the term milk is defined under Codex Alimentarius standards as: "the normal mammary secretion of milking animals obtained from one or more milkings without either addition to it or extraction from it, intended for consumption as liquid milk or for further processing."[22] This definition thereby precludes non-animal products which may resemble milk in color and texture (milk substitutes) such as soy milk, rice milk, almond milk, and coconut milk. The correct name for such products are 'soy beverage', 'rice beverage', etc.
Dairy relates to milk and milk production, e.g. dairy products.

Deep State? Shocking

I believe in the "deep state".

There's a poll out which shows support for a theory of the "deep state" is surprisingly high, surprising to some that is. 

Personally I think it's common sense, though I define "deep state" a little differently.  In my view there are a relatively small number (i.e. less than 1 percent of Americans) who routinely affect the way government operates in ways which aren't visible to Americans on a daily basis.  This would include all the riders and special provisions tucked into laws, particularly appropriations acts and omnibus or "must pass" legislation. It would include all the lobbyists, pollsters, and members of the "chattering class", as William Safire used to call them.  And of course it includes the bureaucrats and lawyers who are concerned with process and procedure, much to the dismay of some politicians.

In most cases the deep state is operating within the overall context set by the limits of public support.  An example on the liberal side--I could argue the "deep state" essentially legalized gay marriage. 

Monday, March 19, 2018

Teleworking and USDA

USDA made the paper this morning for cutting back on the hours employees can telework (here's GovExec's piece).

Teleworking developed after my time at FSA.  Obviously employees like it and environmentalists do as well.  Without any experience of it, I'm left with just opinions with no basis for them. 

But, as a manager, I would have had problems with it, just as I had problems with flextime.  Back when I was a young employee, we worked 8 to 4:30.  That meant first thing in the morning we might gather at the coffee pot to start.  It meant you always knew who was in and who was on leave.  It meant you could  easily schedule meetings (likely we spent more time in unproductive meetings than was good for us--I remember Roy "T"'s acid comments on the division director's staff meetings in the late 70's). 

The work of the unit I managed wasn't easily quantifiable--a manager could give work assignments knowing how much time it should take.

On the other hand, I often had employees in Kansas City working with the IT people on requirements and testing.  I had no problem trusting my employees with working a thousand miles away from the office, so why would I have problems with them working 20-30 miles from the office?  Two considerations:

  1. in Kansas City they were working face to face with their counterparts, not alone.  That meant I could get a bit of feedback from my opposite number manager in KC.
  2. the bottom line issue is trust  and it's the rare group of 6-10 people where all are equally trustworthy IMHO. So you either bite the bullet and trust all equally, or you recognize differences among the employees, meaning you don't treat them equally.
All in all, I'm glad I'm no longer a manager who has to make such decisions. 

Saturday, March 17, 2018

J. Edgar's Long Shadow

This is pure speculation, but I believe we can blame J. Edgar Hoover for Mr. McCabe's firing.

Why?

Back in the day, that's the 1920's, 1930's, 1940's, 1950's, 1960's, and only ending in 1972, Hoover ruled the roost at the (Federal) Bureau of Investigation.  He was a very political leader, using information to protect his position and advance his issues.  He had strict rules for his agents, because he was the one who could bend the rules.

My speculation is that the FBI culture retains that dichotomy: rules on the one hand, leaks to advance the agency or leader on the other.  And that seems to be what happened with McCabe.  He authorized a discussion on background to, he says, correct erroneous information reaching the public.  He claims it was something often done, but it seems to have also been against the rules.  So when OIG people interviewed him, he was caught in the middle, not admitting to something which was okay by FBI norms, but not the rules.

Again, speculation, but to me the culture of an agency lasts, and lasts.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Dairy at a Turning Point?

That's the question in this piece., specifically talking about the Northeast and Pennsylvania.  It gets into the nitty-gritty of milk pricing which I don't understand.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Vertical/Indoor Farms

Here's a Fortune article on an outfit in NJ.

Here's a Technology Review piece on farming in shipping containers.

It's possible that the advent of LED lights makes such farming economically feasible, feasible at least if the produce gets a premium from being "local" and "organic".  USDA has agreed that they may be labeled "organic", though the original organic community does not like the idea at all. 

Call me old, I am, but I don't call these "farms" or "farming".

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Humans Are Resilient

I back my assertion with three points:

  • my experience as a draftee in the Army
  • Chris Blattman in his interview by Tyler Cowen
  • Stephen Hawking.
That is all.

Keeping Up With Lawyers and Business: Contract Farming

Modern Farmer reports that SBA's inspector general has determined that poultry farmers operating on a contract with a processor (which 97 percent do) don't qualify as a "small business".

Reminds me of back in the day when ASCS determined that growers of seed corn, which operate under a contract with seed companies, didn't qualify as "producers" because they didn't share in the risk of producing the crop.  That determination was speedily reversed by pressure from Congress (not sure they put it in legislation or appropriations, but reversed it was).

The bottom line is people don't like risk, so for many many years people have been planning and scheming on ways to minimize it.


Tuesday, March 13, 2018

USDA EEO

Secretary Perdue is proposing to reorganize USDA civil rights offices--he's asking for comments on his proposal.  Strikingly, he's allowing only until March 25 for comments to be received.

I've long since lost my grasp of how USDA is organized so I don't really understand what he's doing.  One change seems to be giving each mission area (I think NRCS, FSA, RMA are now or will a mission area) one civil rights/EEO office.  That would mean taking the Office of Civil Rights out of FSA and putting it at the Under Secretary level.

It seems he's also changing the department level office. Given what happened under Reagan I'd suspect it would have less power, but that's pure speculation.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Traffic Control in Korean Restrooms

Can't resist blogging this from my cousin's Olympic blog:
"That gives us just enough time to hit the restrooms. I don't think I've mentioned them so far, but they are worthy of mention. Korea is one of the most technologically based countries on Earth so I guess that it is no surprise that the toilets have more buttons on them that seem possible. But did you know that they have a sort of air traffic control board in the front of the restroom? A video monitor shows you which stalls are open and whether each stall has a western style toilet or a traditional "squat" toilet. I can't speak for the women, but I notice that the men don't pay any attention to the video board and will often stand waiting at a closed door when the board says that there are clearly open stalls. The other interesting thing is that the women who clean the restrooms don't give you any advanced warning when they go in to clean, they just barge in."

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Appalachian Religion

This seems totally wrong, but I swear I got it from a tweet by Lyman Stone, who comes off as pretty knowledgable on both Appalachia and religion. But I can't find the tweet again.

"Statistically, Appalachia is one of the *least* religious places in America. It's as secular as a college campus in California."

Saturday, March 10, 2018

PDF's and Forms

A bureaucrat loves her forms, and so in the current climate, loves her PDF's.  Here's a piece at Motherboard on the development of the PDF.

Friday, March 09, 2018

Big Issue: Shape of the Table

I remember when the US and North Vietnam spent  months negotiating over the shape of the table at which to conduct peace talks in Paris (1968).  It may be an issue for the Kim Jong Un/ Donald Trump talks (i.e., is it strictly bilateral or does South Korea want a representative, and if SK is in, how about China and Japan--one of the papers had a photo of the 6-sided table China constructed for the last time there were negotiations, six-party negotiations.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

It's All in the Name

My mom would get very aggravated about margarine.  I vaguely remember her kneading coloring into the white brick, so it must have been at the end of WWII, when butter was in short supply and presumably my parents broke down and bought margarine as the cheaper, available spread (might have been rationed).  Despite living on a dairy farm, we didn't make our own butter.  A ban on selling margarine colored to look like butter was just one of the measures dairy farmers took across the country to limit its inroads on their market, and not just in the U.S., but in Europe and Canada as well.

Identity is big in food.  France and the EU fight hard to preserve the cachet of champagne, which can only be produced in Champagne.  Such fights over cheeses and other foods are  old hat.  More recent are fights over things like "soy milk" and "almond milk".  And the controversy over "organic" including hydroponic vegetables.  And the latest controversy  is "clean meat", which is meat produced in the lab/factory from cell cultures.

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Regulatory Costs and Benefits



I'm a little confused here. Something called E&ENews noted: "The White House Office of Management and Budget on Friday evening released its annual report on the costs and benefits of federal regulations, showing that the benefits of major Obama-era rules far exceeded the costs."

Vox caught the release, and went on to do an extensive analysis here. It's all good and heart-warming for a retired bureaucrat who believes that regulations can do good. They do.

But--when Vox links to the report, the link goes to the E&ENews site and brings up the : "2017 Draft Report to Congress on the Benefits and Costs of Federal Regulations and Agency Compliance with the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act".  I briefly looked and didn't find it on the OMB/whitehouse site, but it may be there, well-buried.

Googling for the title of the report brings up a Forbes piece, combating the Vox analysis in part.  I disagree with the thrust of the writer's analysis, which says that "final rules" should be considered in the analysis, as opposed to "major" rules.  It's a sad fact that the threshold for the major rule is obsolete, when one looks at its history (which I've done but don't remember writing up--someday maybe).  I seriously doubt that considering final rules would change the overall picture. He's on somewhat better ground to doubt how concrete the cost-benefit analyses submitted to OMB are.

Towards the end of the Forbes article there's a little discussion of the process of submitting this report to Congress--interesting for a nerd like me, but disconcerting for anyone who believes in simplistic pictures of how the government operates.

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

"The Bureaucrat You're Looking For?"

"My family and I have lived in Reston since 2001. My experience with the RA is probably just like the average RA Member’s. I’ve asked its blessing in buying, selling, and improving my homes. I’ve been dragged before the Design Review Board to straighten a few things out. Two sons were RA lifeguards. I am an FCPS substitute teacher and a Fairfax Dept of Family Services Volunteer. Mainly, though, I am a proud bureaucrat. I know from experience that cooperative bureaucracy is greater than the sum of its parts. As a Foreign Service Officer for over three decades, my own specific work fit the big picture of representing our country and advancing our national interest in Washington or at U.S. embassies abroad. When I then ran two embassies, it was my job to forge consensus among different USG agencies to promote common policy. I’m the bureaucrat you’re looking for"


How can I not vote for this candidate for the Reston Association Board? Both a sense of humor and a proud bureaucrat.

(From the candidates statements here.)

Free Speech Issues

Interesting analysis here of poll data over 1972-2016 querying whether speakers with specified views should be allowed to speak.  Americans seem to be supportive of free speech across the board, and have gotten generally more supportive over the period.  When divided by their political views, the more liberal people seem to be more supportive.  The writer sees this data as undermining the idea that liberal snowflakes are limiting free speech on campus.  I think that's stretching it a bit--too much variety in the U.S. and too much possible ambiguity in the definitions.  Still, it's interesting.

Monday, March 05, 2018

Shame on (Some) USDA Employees

Turns out the OIG found some USDA employees were using government computers to access inappropriate material on some websites (i.e., porn).  This week USDA is blocking access to some 400 sites, including Facebook and Twitter.  (I assume those employees authorized to post on the USDA Twitter and Facebook sites will still be able to.)

Friday, March 02, 2018

Good Thinking by Congressional Republicans?

Govexec reports on the resignation of a Treasury tax expert, who apparently struggled with the job of writing regs to implement Trump's tax cut law.
But some parts of the law as drafted “were not well thought out,” Trier, a Treasury veteran from the 1980s and later a New York lawyer who consulted to congressional committees, was quoted as saying. Trier revealed that people looking at pieces of the new law sometimes asked him whether lawmakers could have reasonably meant to write it the way they did. “We’re going to have trouble with about half the legislation if we apply that standard,” he said, according to the Journal
Implementing a big bill is always difficult, but it sounds as if the GOP gave the bureaucrats a more difficult job than usual, a job likely to be complicated if Congress can't agree on passing a technical corrections bill to fix some of the problems. 

I wonder whether Treasury will be able to live with the 2 for 1 regulation mandate of the administration when implementing this?

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Farm Consolidation: First They Came for Poultry

In the 1940's our family farm was small, small dairy (12 cows), small poultry (1,000 hens), but with our garden we got by. I remember my mother fussing, she was a good fusser, about people from the city (a milk deliveryman, IIRC) buying a nearby farm and building a two-story henhouse.  This must have been during a peak in egg prices, possibly tied to a war, WWII or Korea. (This has a chart of inflation and deflation in egg prices since 1947.  Note how the prices vary from year to year.)  She'd gripe that people would see good prices and would jump into farming, expanding production (of eggs, in this case), resulting in overproduction and low prices.  This would hurt the established producers, like us, while proving the naivete of the city  folk.

My mother had German ancestry, so when she experienced schadenfreude when Hurricane Hazel in the 1950's came through and caused the collapse of that henhouse, she was doing what Germans do.  By then egg prices had dropped. Our neighbors never rebuilt.  After dad died, mom kept on with the hens into the 70's, but the infrastructure, the trucker, faded away.

I think poultry  was the first agricultural commodity where there was a turn from small farms to vertical integration through contract farming and large operations. The first, but not the last.  Dairy has followed, as have hogs.  Don't know about beef.  In field crops there's been a somewhat similar process of consolidation, though I think not with vertical contracts. Instead I think there's been a move to more sophisticated marketing, futures, etc.

What's the trigger for this post?  This dailyyonder piece discusses the impact of these trends in Iowa, including the observation that hog farms have decreased by 90 percent since 1977.

My title is from the mantra about the Jews from Martin Niemoller. He was saying to act early.  I'm pretty sure there was little or nothing anyone could have done to stop these trends. 


Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Be Fair to Historical Figures?

These days we judge historical figures very freely.  As a failed historian of an older generation, I get queasy with many of the judgments.  Too often they're made by applying current standards to the past, without allowing for the everyday realities people faced.

What are valid standards:

  • certainly we can criticize person A when comparable figures at the same time thought, wrote, and acted differently. The issue then becomes what's "comparable"? If Martin Luther King worked for integration as an activist, can we say all politicians, either holding or seeking office, were morally lacking if they did not work for integration?  LBJ worked for integration, but not as soon or fast or strong as MLK wanted.  Do we judge LBJ against MLK or against JFK or Ike or Nixon? 
  • there's another standard which can be applied.  I get this one from  a professor's lecture  on Jackson at Readex: if Indian removal was wrong, what was right, what was the alternative?
In some cases I know the answer is tragic, the conflict is irreconcilable.  

Monday, February 26, 2018

More or Less United Now?

Had an exchange with Megan McArdle which triggered some thoughts:  the issue is whether the US is more united now than in 1950's.  McArdle cited the decline of trust in most of our institutions  That was in response to my citing the exclusions of Catholics, Jews, blacks, etc. from society and battles over race and the Cold War. 

I think really there are different dimensions at play here.  In some respects we have a much more national society today; the differences among regions, among segments of society, are much diminished.  Strong regional institutions (think department stores or newspapers) have declined, while national institutions like Walmart and Amazon have come to the fore. 

But while we're more national in one sense, we're much more specialized in another.  In the 1950's there were three TV networks, three news weeklies, etc.  So there's much more diversity in other dimensions.

It seems to me people have an intuitive/ideal sense of the United States, of who "we are" and how close-knit we are. Who we include and who we exclude varies, both from person to person and from time to time.  Sometimes the decisions are conscious and can be explicitly stated; normally it's more of an unconscious thing. I think in the 1950's probably the average person excluded more people than they would today.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Billy Graham

Billy Graham was a Presbyterian growing up (although he became a Southern Baptist minister), my grandfather and two great grandfathers were Presbyterian ministers.

The obits in the Times and Post praised him,

In my memory my family were skeptical of him initially.  Evangelists had a poor reputation among mainline Protestants.  My grandfather had fought against fundamentalism in  Presbyterianism and Graham was Dismissing him as a press hound seeking attention was easy.  But he grew on them.  No scandals, relatively enlightened on race, appearing to be bipartisan.  We didn't know he was a prime mover in opposition to a Catholic president, though at least my mother would have agreed. We didn't know he was a suck-up to Nixon, going along with his anti-Semitism.

So he wasn't perfect, and he wasn't a moral leader like MLK.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Civil Rights at USDA

The Civil Rights office at USDA has a long and not lustrous history, undergoing a number of reorganizations, changes of leadership, and unfavorable audit reports from OIG and GAO.

There's more controversy today, as an employee in the office made a very public (in the Jefferson auditorium)  allegation of sexual misconduct:
Before an audience of USDA employees in Jefferson Auditorium at USDA headquarters, Davis said she was fed up by what she described as years of sexual harassment and retaliation by senior management in civil rights offices. She said she had had consensual sex with D. Leon King, a director in the Office of Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, in exchange for a promised promotion. Davis also named Brian Garner, director of the Farm Service Agency’s Office of Civil Rights, and several other top officials as contributing to a hostile work environment.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Josh Marshall on Collusion

Yesterday I posted skepticism about the collusion narrative.  Today Josh Marshall at TPM offers a reasoned rebuttal to the more prominent skeptics.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Contrarian Time: Trump, Russia, Guns

I'm feeling contrarian today so I'll voice two opinions which will be unpopular with my fellow liberals (most of them):

  • I don't think the Russians were really motivated to elect Trump as president; I think they wanted to cause trouble and weaken Clinton.  That fits my judgment that there wasn't serious collusion/conspiracy between Trump and the Russians--Trump himself is too disorganized and his campaign so catch as catch can that conspiracy doesn't work.  Instead, I'll fall back on Murphy's law, and a corollary: different people doing different things and not knowing what they were doing.  (If an alternate history could swap the personalities of the candidates, I'd judge there was collusion between Clinton and the Russians.)
  • I hope Congress doesn't act on gun control between now and November.  I well remember Clinton's crime bill in 1994, which included stuff for the right and an assault weapon ban for the left.  We lost Congress that fall.  The last thing we liberals need this year is anything which increases energy on the right.  (Yes, I may be misreading the climate of opinion; we may finally have reached that Holy Grail of a turning point on guns.  But I doubt it.)

Monday, February 19, 2018

Blast from the Past: J.K. Galbraith

Paul Campos at Lawyers, Guns and Money posts about reading J.K. Galbraith's "The Affluent Society" (it's been 60 years since its publication).  That was a very influential book for liberals back in the days of the New Frontier.  But then came Michael Harrington and his "The Other America" which (re)discovered poverty.  Between the two, they shaped much of my thinking back then.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Trump Budget Proposal

From here:
 The Budget supports the Secretary’s efforts to reorganize Agency functions to improve the customer and consumer experience. Under the new structure, the Farm Service Agency, Risk Management Agency, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service would be merged under the Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation. In addition, the Secretary has established an Under Secretary of Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs to sharpen USDA’s focus on increasing agriculture exports to foreign markets. The Budget also supports consolidating fair practices, standards work, and commodity procurement within the Agricultural Marketing Service. These, and other related reorganizations, are expected to improve the way USDA delivers its services. In addition, the Budget supports the creation of a business innovation center in each mission area that would handle support activities in order to avoid duplicative functions and maximize collaboration between agencies.
Improves Customer Service. Modernizing program delivery and improving customer service at USDA is an important focus of the Administration. USDA is partnering with the White House Office of American Innovation to modernize its systems undertaking four key strategies: strengthening strategic IT governance; consolidating end-user services and data centers; enabling a strategic approach to data management and introducing data-driven capabilities; and improving the USDA customer experience. The Budget supports these efforts to improve service delivery by requesting funds to develop a centralized customer service portal for customers served by the Department’s three service center agencies. This single, integrated, producer-centric web portal would provide expanded and more effective and efficient access to useful online USDA services to meet the needs of agricultural producers. By optimizing service delivery, USDA can support agricultural producers to reach their productive potential and advance the U.S. economy
The Budget proposes to optimize and improve crop insurance and commodity programs in a way that maintains a strong safety net. The Budget does this while also achieving savings, eliminating subsidies to higher income farmers, and reducing overly generous crop insurance premium subsidies to farmers and payments made to private sector insurance companies. The Budget includes a bold set of proposals, including those that would reduce the average premium subsidy for crop insurance from 62 percent to 48 percent and limit commodity, conservation, and crop insurance subsidies to those producers that have an Adjusted Gross Income of $500,000 or less. In addition, the Budget proposes reductions to overly generous subsidies provided to participating insurance companies by capping underwriting gains at 12 percent, which would ensure that the companies receive a reasonable rate of return given the risks associated with their participation in the crop insurance program. The Budget proposes to eliminate an unnecessary and separate payment limit for peanut producers and limit eligibility for commodity subsidies to one manager per farm.

Friday, February 16, 2018

An Originalist Second Amendment Proposal for Gun Control

A quick sketch of a contrarian position on gun control.

The Supreme Court's interpretation of the Second Amendment abstracts it from the original context in which the amendment was adopted.  Returning to its history would permit us to control guns effectively.

In the 18th century America, guns were a necessity for life on the frontier, if not in the cities.  But colonial governments, and I assume state goverments,were concerned that all militia members be well armed, going so far as to buy muskets and furnish them to the militia. 

Militias were geographically based; you went to war with your friends and neighbors, with your kin and fellow church members.  You typically I believe elected your officers, the captain of your company. 

My point: militia members knew the capabilities and limitations of their fellows.  They knew who were the klutzes and who the sharpshooters, who was slightly touched in the head, who drank and who was dangerous when drunk.   

These networks provided a social control on gun possession, a social control which current jurisprudence does not provide.

My Modest Proposal:  We require all gun owners to either:

  • have the signature of a person who knows them and has some status in the community. For example: an adult relative, a fellow church member, an NRA club member, a government official (Senator, congressperson, state rep).  The list can be expanded.
  • maintain his or her weapons in a repository operated by a gun club, NRA club, or firing range.
Requiring a co-signature on a gun purchase application could provide a better check on gun purchases than a database check, since it makes the co-signor liable for the misdeeds of the gun owner.  By putting the NRA in the loop, there's assurance that the measure isn't aimed at confiscating weapons. 

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Phantom Thread

Thursday and time for another short movie review.  This week it was Phantom Thread, with my spouse's favorite  actor (excluding beefcake types), Daniel Day Lewis.  As usual, he was very good, as were the two women. The cinematography was great.  It's getting lots of nominations for awards, and good reviews from critics. Having said all that, I was rather bored.    I'd give it 2 1/2 out of 4 stars.

My reaction to the writer/director's last film with Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood, was similar.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Program Costs and Farm Bill

From Illinois extension on farm bill:
Spending on Farmers: Commodities and Crop Insurance
The main components of the support system for commodity farmers are the farm programs in Title I of the Farm Bill and crop insurance. The information from CBO in Table 1 indicates that farm programs are currently on track to spend roughly $13 billion more than forecast in 2014. At the same time, the outlays for crop insurance are expected to be $11 billion less. Chart 4 provides a comparison of the outlays as projected in 2014 with outlays as reported and updated by CBO. Again year 1 corresponds to crop year 2014 and fiscal year 2016 for farm programs, but fiscal and crop years match for crop insurance.

What's Good for the Poor Isn't Good for Native Americans?

As I noted yesterday, what's proposed for SNAP in the way of food baskets seems similar to some existing programs, most notably one for Native Americans.  Liberals are mocking the administration proposal, which is fine, but why aren't we pushing to cash out the existing program?

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Infoshare: Once More Unto the Breach

Thought I was quoting The Charge of the Light Brigade, but it turns out it's Shakespeare's Henry V.

This is triggered by an FCW piece/ report on a GovExec conference, quoting  Chad Sheridan, the CIO of RMA, discussing USDA's plans to consolidate CIO's, combine mission support functions of FSA, NRCS, and RMA, and serve as the pilot for a GSA program.  See also this FCW piece.

The new website, farmers.gov, went online February 1.  They're starting small, very small, which is good.

This is what they promise:


"Check back monthly for new features, including:
Mobile-friendly service center locator
Program descriptions with an interactive requirements tool
Improved account login process for easy access to USDA accounts
Customer and mobile-friendly digital forms
Calendar of local events and program due dates
Customizable data dashboard
And much more"









Changing SNAP (Corrected)

Just posted my guess on the SNAP proposal from the Trump administration--turns out I'm wrong.  There are existing programs to distribute staple foods: 
"Search here to find product information sheets for USDA Foods available to households through the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR), the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP), and The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP). Staff who operate USDA Foods programs and participants often use this information to help prepare healthy meals. Each fact sheet includes a description of the USDA Foods product, storage tips, nutrition facts, and two recipes that use the product."
So the proposal is to expand the existing programs, not to piggyback on school lunch.  (The website even has recipes for using the staples, though the ratings on most of them are 3 stars out of 5.)

Changing SNAP (Food Stamps)

The Trump administration's budget includes a proposal to provide a portion of SNAP (food stamp) benefits to families in the form of a monthly food package of staples.

The proposal won't go anywhere--the grocers will see to that--so I'm not going to spend time on researching.  Instead, I'll offer the guess, only a guess, that within the USDA bureaucracy someone looked at the existing setup to buy and provide staples to schools (used to be government surplus commodities) and suggest piggybacking on the arrangements to expand and provide packages to families.  For anyone who wants to go further, here's the FNS link.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Cottonseed Makes It In

Cottonseed will be a program crop in the farm bill according to Keith Good.

I've lost any expertise I once had in this area, but this might be a way for the cotton people to get more federal money, without raising what we used to call the target price for cotton.  They might be trying to get around Brazil and the WTO, but that's only speculation.

The Great Blog Post Title Is:

https://www.technologyreview.com/s/610229/how-to-teach-a-robot-to-screw/

(

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Harshaw Rule at the Olympics

From the blog of a relative, who attends almost all Olympic games and writes about them for friends and relatives:
"A lot of people over the years have asked me how I tell which are the best Olympics. I usually tell them that a lot of things just don't go well for the first few days when 7 years of planning meet the first day of reality, but the good Olympics are the ones that spot the problems and rapidly fix them. We will see whether POCOG (PyeongChang Olympic Organizing Committee) can rise to the challenge."
(The Harshaw rule is: "you never do things right the first time".  Maybe there's a corollary: spotting the problems and rapidly fixing them is essential?)

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

The Great Switcheroo: Republicans

A quote:
"
Second, the Republican policy reversals are staggering:
  • Members of Congress who once claimed to be committed to debt reduction would increase debt by more than $2.7 trillion in just seven weeks.
  • Congressional Republicans would increase government spending by 50% more than they cut taxes two months ago.
  • The self-labeled fiscal conservatives in Congress, who had once insisted that all government spending increases be offset by spending cuts, would abandon that principle.
  • A party that just a few years ago proposed reforming old-age entitlement spending, the principal driver of government spending growth, would have no proposals to do so. If press reports are true, this bill may even increase Medicaid spending.
  • The Republican Congressional Majority, which built last year’s balanced budget plan on deep future cuts to nondefense discretionary spending, would be supporting big increases in that spending."
Who is saying all this: Keith Hennessey, CEA under Bush.

Trump's Parades and Nixon's Uniforms

Post had an article saying President Trump has told DOD to come up with plans for a military parade in D.C.  The idea is getting a fair amount of mockery among liberals.

Because it's such a serious topic :-) I want to offer a historical parallel, President Nixon's new uniforms for the White House police.  Nixon supposedly found the old uniforms to lack class, whereas uniforms on honor guards he saw overseas were classy.  The new uniforms didn't last long, because he was mocked for having a palace guard.   See Megan McArdle some years ago.  And the NYTimes on the unveiling