Monday, May 20, 2019

Countervailing Judicial Power

Ezra Klein has a piece on Vos about "countervailing power", a concept from John Kenneth Galbraith. Briefly, he saw "big labor" as countering "big business", and "big government" as an essential balancing player.  So Klein summarizes his argument:
" If the [political] question is framed as socialism or capitalism, it’s difficult to state the obvious: We may need a bit more socialism now, even if that may create a need for more capitalism later.
But if it’s framed as the balance of countervailing powers, that truth becomes more obvious. There is no end state in a liberal democracy. There is only the constant act of balancing and rebalancing. The forces that need to be strengthened today may need to be weakened tomorrow. But first they need to be strengthened today."
I've always liked the Galbraith's concept.  I'm struck by a tweet from Orin Kerr, suggesting that if conservatives become dominant in the judiciary, it will evoke a countervailing response from legal academia.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

National Service Concerns

Some discussion these days from Dem candidates about "national service".

I guess I'm generally favorable to the idea, but with reservations, based on my experience with the draft.

The draft was good for:
  • getting me out of a rut (different people have different ruts, but I suspect the recent decline in American geographical mobility is partly the result of the ending of the draft).
  • exposing me to people from across the country and diverse backgrounds
  • challenging me to endure and master new experiences: like basic training, like serving as an instructor.
Those benefits came because the draft was not voluntary.  I'd worry that a non-military national service would not have the diversity nor the challenges.  Once you allow the person to choose, you start to lose some of the necessary difficulty.  Even in the Army, once I was past basic my cohort and co-workers were much more similar to me. 

The other vulnerability of a new national service program would be, I think, the difficulty of finding a purpose to the program's work.   While we draftees disliked the military, we knew it was important and/or significant.  But we were essentially unskilled labor, cannon fodder, and weren't qualified for much more than that.  And we got paid accordingly, so we were cheap.  So what work requires cheap unskilled labor  and is self-evidently important?

If the proponents can come up with an answer to that question, we can then talk about instituting "national service".  Until then, we need more focused things like Job Corps and Americorps.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Powerline and Althouse Wouldn't Qualify as Immigrants

Nor would almost all liberals blogging and tweeting.   See this NY Times calculator.

I scored 18 points, where 30 is required.  (The key, of course, in my case is age, income, and my college major.)

(Updated: I'm referring to the people behind the two blogs I follow which are on the right, although Ann Althouse might quarrel with that categorization.)

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Another Round of MFP Payments?

There's been discussion this week, and a promise by the President, that farmers will receive more money to compensate for losses due to the trade war with China.

That's well and good, but I'm not sure of the nitty-gritty.  Let me backtrack:

For the first MFP I initially thought USDA was tapping Section 32 funds.  Did a bit of research on that possibility.  (Roughly, Section 32 provides authority for USDA to use a portion of certain tariff revenues for certain aid to agriculture.  It dates back to the New Deal days.)  But that turned out to be a mistake of mine.  Instead USDA tapped CCC's borrowing authority, which also dates back to the New Deal.  CCC has authority to borrow up to $30 billion from the Treasury and spent it to aid agriculture in certain ways..

I've tried, half-heartedly, to find out how much borrowing authority CCC has left.  When it's tapped out, CCC has to stop its operations until Congress passes legislation to replenish the authority.  (I'm skating on the edge of my comprehension of these matters, but I do have a clear memory of a time when CCC ran out of authority just before we were to make deficiency payments, notably because my screwup cost the taxpayers a few million dollars. (A story for another day.)

Bottom line, I didn't find the answer. 

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

What 5G Can Do for: Dairy

Technology Review has a short post on a test of 5G and cows, in Britain.  Cows wear 5G collars which transmit biometric data and open gates to milking parlors.

(I'm not clear why 4G wouldn't work for this, but connecting fancy technology and cows has a certain reader appeal. )

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

The Return of Foreign Policy Issues

For the first two years most foreign policy issues didn't rouse much domestic concern.  That may be changing these days, between Trump's trade issues and the rising tension with Iran.  Looking at it from a political perspective, which Democratic candidate benefits? 

I'd suggest Biden does.  None of the other candidates have much background in foreign policy, but Biden has 8 years worth. Definitely the younger candidates are at a disadvantage.  Pete may speak seven languages (he'd might be only the second most multi-lingual president--I've seen a reference that J.Q. Adams spoke more, though that's not supported by wikipedia, though it does show a surprising number of presidents who were multi-lingual) but that won't count for much.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Another Error by a Harvard Professor

Making slow progress through "These Truths" by Jill Lepore. See my previous post.

On page 172 she writes of Jefferson: "As late as 1815 he was boasting that, as a result of the embargo, 'carding machines in every neighborhood, spinning machines in large families and wheels in the small, are too radically established to ever be relinquished.'  That year, cotton and slave plantations in the American South were shipping seventeen million bales of cotton to England...."

That's flat wrong.  We've never exported that much cotton, never grown that much cotton.  The statement is sourced to Sven Beckert's history.  https://www.sailsinc.org/durfee/earl2.pdf

I'm having fun with this, so I've added "Harvard" to my lables.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Driverless Cars: Setting the Bar Too High

Technology Review has a discussion of three factors impeding the adoption of driverless cars:

  • safety--cars being safer than human drivers (who don't drink or text)
  • useful--cars that aren't slow because too cautious, perhaps requiring regulatory changes.
  • affordable.
To me it seems they're setting the bar too high.  Going back to the Innovator's Dilemma new technologies evolve by finding a niche from which they can expand gradually, making use of the learning curve to reduce costs so existing technology can be undersold and to become useful in new ways.  I think that applies here, as I've said before:
  • a geezer like me isn't as safe a driver as the average person, even though we know enough not to drink or text.
  • a geezer like me is already a cautious driver, so making a driverless car that abides by the speed limits is not disrupting the norm (for us).
  • a geezer like me values driveability higher, highly enough to pay a premium to preserve the ability

Thursday, May 09, 2019

Those Who Ignore History: the F-35 and the TFX

The F-35 is our latest and greatest(?) fighter.  Apparently the lessons learned from its development will cause DOD to go a different direction for the next one.

As a layman I understand the key feature of the F-35 is its use by both the Air Force and the Navy.  After all, both need fighters so why not build one to serve both needs?

It's dream we've had before, most notably in the 60's, with the TFX program..  Back then Robert McNamara was blamed for the decision to go for commonality. The TFX was very controversial and, in my memory, it was never deemed a success, though judging by the wikipedia article it was more useful for longer than I remembered.

The lesson I took away from the TFX episode was twofold:

  • it's hard to do a project that meets the needs of two different organizations
  • be cautious when trying to do innovation top down.
The continuing mystery is why I forgot those lessons when applied to projects trying to eliminate USDA silos, like ASCS and SCS.

[Update:  see this GovExec piece on the next fighter after the F-35.]

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

Rural Fatties

My mother would be sad at the news that world-wide obesity is more of a problem in rural areas than urban ones.  Her basic belief was in the superior virtue of rural people and the better life in rural areas.

Tuesday, May 07, 2019

TFW You Find a Harvard Professor Wrong

Jill Lepore is a Harvard historian, New Yorker writer, and prolific author. 

Her most recent book, These Truths,, is an ambitious attempt at a one-volume history of the US. (I wrote she is prolific, so prolific that she has another book out this year.)

I've just completed her section on the Constitutional Convention, in which I found the error.  Discussing the conflict over the treatment of slaves, as persons deserving representation or as property supporting taxation, she writes: "The convention was very nearly at an impasse, broken only by a deal involving the Northwest Territory--a Northwest Ordinance...[prohibiting slavery north of the Ohio and not south] This measure passed on July 13.  Four days later, the convention adopted...the Connecticut Compromise [the 3/5 count for both representation and taxation]."

What's wrong here?  All the facts are right, so maybe "wrong" is too strong.  But the implication, and I suggest the meaning people will take from the passage, is that the Constitutional Convention passed the Northwest Ordinance.  Not so--Congress operating under the Articles of Confederation enacted the Ordinance. Because both bodies were meeting in Philadelphia the passage of the Ordinance may have been relevant to the proceedings in the convention, 


Monday, May 06, 2019

What Happens If We Win--the CRA

Commented in a twitter thread today or yesterday about what would happen if a Democrat wins the Presidency next year.  Part of the discussion was to the effect that the new administration would reverse a lot of the Trump administrations regulatory actions.  The impression was that it would relatively easy.

Not true, at least for those regulations which were killed by Congress using its authority under the Congressional Review Act.  The reason is the wording of the act--once a regulation is killed by Congress the agency is prohibited from issuing a substantially similar regulation, forever.  The out is that Congress can authorize the agency to regulate again. 

The problem I see for a new Democratic administration is presumably such a Congressional authorization would require 60 votes in the Senate to be brought to the floor for passage (assuming the legislative filibuster is still available.   For some regulations such authority might be included in a budget reconciliation act, but others wouldn't.

The alternative for a new administration is to kill the  legislative filibuster, at least with respect to CRA actions.

The bigger problem, of which CRA is only part, is a decrease in stability of laws and regulations.  If citizens can assume that laws/regulations are permanent, they can act on that basis.  If they assume the next administration of the party in opposition will undo what the current party has done, there's less stability, less certainty.

Sunday, May 05, 2019

Progress Being Made?

Back in the 50's and 60's whites were fighting to keep their neighborhoods white.  "White flight" was the predominant tactic, but rougher ones were used against the first one or two black families.

I'm often otpmistic, sometimes too much so, but I read this NY Times article  as saying those days are mostly behind us.  That's good.  Some thought we'd never get here.

I can read articles on gentrification as the market working as it did in white flight.  To do this I need to suggest that many whites fleeing from a block where blacks were buying were concerned more with their pocketbook than race.  The working of the market meant that if someone feared blacks, they would sell their house at a discount, especially if their fears were exploited, as they usually were, by the unscrupulous realtors.  One below-market sale could persuade market-oriented owners that to preserve their wealth they needed to sell, which of course started to destroy the value of their homes.

I think it's true that often the switching from all-white to all-black blocks meant property values ended up going way down, partly because people over-extended themselves, because they had to take in renters and subdivide the structure, and because they didn't have the money for maintenance.

Gentrification works through the market as well.  The first white pioneer who has no problems with blacks finds a bargain.  The owner, who may be black, sells at a profit, at least compared to prior years. So both white home buyers and existing home owners can see financial gains over what they had before gentrification started.  However, as property values increase taxes increase and the owners can have problems keeping their property.

It seems to me the key variable in inner-city blocks being gentrified is: who owns the property?  Do we think the owners are mostly the heirs of those who originally bought from the white flight?  Or are they the heirs of the exploiters, white and black, who profited by the white flight? Or has the property changed hands multiple times?  If the heirs of the original buyers there's a chance that what they lost by the block turning black is being made up through gains in value as gentrification increases.  More likely the score card over time shows red ink for blacks, black ink for whites.

My thoughts have now dimmed my pleasure at the message of the article, but we've still progressed  from 1968.

Friday, May 03, 2019

As a Country, We're Idiots

In 1953 I was 12 and there were roughly 150 million in the country.  Now I'm 78 and there are something over 300 million in the country.  The IRS today has roughly the same number of auditors as in 1953. See this ProPublica piece.  In real dollars our GDP has increased six times since 1953.

Thursday, May 02, 2019

Changing Standards: Tight Versus Loose

I think I've mentioned this book before.  It ties into my post of yesterday.  My memory is the writer believes there can be systematic differences in how tightly or loosely societies adhere to social norms.  To apply it to our history:
  • my memory is in the 40's-60's white middle and upper class Americans adhered quite tightly to a certain set of social norms, and as a counterpoint, we looked askance at those who didn't fit that description, either not being white middle class or not adhering to the norms.
  • over the next years that changed, partly the norms changed, partly the tolerance for non-conformity broadened.
  • more recently we've become more concerned about non-adherence to the norms, less tolerant of the less tolerant among the white middle and upper classes, still tolerant of those excluded from that universe. 

Wednesday, May 01, 2019

Changing Standards

Over my life standards of behavior have changed, a lot.

In my youth both cancer and homosexuality were not fit topics for discussion, cancer being just a bit more acceptable because more prevalent.  One addressed one's elders with Mr. and Mrs..' There were standards of propriety, at least for the white middle and upper classes.  Teenagers were viewed with alarm, as they/we got into Elvis and rock and roll and discovered the privacy of cars.  Everyone, at least every boy, wanted a car.  For any couple in a car the man was driving. College students still faced a hierarchy of classes and at least informal rules on dress.  Campus life still involved panty raids.  Serious students were concerned about nuclear war, though as the 60's started  some got into civil rights movement. And the remnants of "loco parentis"

The boomers started establishing new norms.  The Berkeley Free Speech movement seems in retrospect a turning point.  Notably the movement was still the Silent generation; the very first boomers were just starting college. The Cuban missile crisis was another, and the third was Mississippi Summer. In my memory the 60's meant the undermining and dissolution of old standards of conduct, of hierarchy, of dress, of how people could express their views and obtain some power.

Fast forward to the present.  It seems most of the changes have stuck, have been deemed valid and useful in our society.  What does seem different to me is what the conservatives call "political correctness". I could trace the idea back to the student left, perhaps imitating their parents, who had fierce debates over what ideological stances were proper.  But that was a minority view; more common was live and let live, chill, mellow.  Now however,, many, perhaps most, people believe there is something that's proper, and people should embrace it.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

The Four Somes Rule

Musing about reports on educational reform and progress.  My interest dates back to high school when "Why Johnny Can't Read" was a best seller and concern about education shortfalls skyrocketed after Sputnik went up.  More recently Bob Somerby at the Daily Howler, Megan McArdle, and Kevin Drum have often commented on reforms. 

I've come up with the "four somes" rule: some teachers in some institutions using some techniques can effectively teach some pupils.  The implication is some pupils won't learn,some teachers can't teach, some techniques don't work, and some institutions are the pits.  But innovations in one place will work some of the time, but may not apply across the board.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Guantanamo: 1800 for 40?

According to recent reports there are now 40 prisoners left in Guantanamo, an installation which has 1800 personnel.  The way the Times report was worded it sounded like therywere all military and all devoted to the prison but that seems absurd.

If the facts are true, in my opinion we should either do as Obama wanted, move the prisoners to max security prisons in the US which presumably wouldn't require extra personnel at all.  Or, if you don't like that, let's just release the prisoners.  They've been detained for 17 years. 

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Wittes on Mueller

"I see a group of people for whom partisan polarization wholly and completely defeated patriotism. I see a group of people so completely convinced that Hillary Clinton was the enemy that they were willing to make common cause with an actual adversary power at a time it was attacking their country to defeat her. To me, it matters whether the conduct violated the law only in the pedestrian sense of determining the available remedies for it—and in guiding whether and how we might have to change our laws to prevent such conduct in the future. 

Ben Wittes on Mueller

Friday, April 26, 2019

Taxes--the Rise of Intermediaries

There have long been tax-preparation services.  H&R Block was an early one.  One of the brothers who founded the firm, Henry Bloch, died recently.  His obituary in the Post says this:
business boomed in the mid-1950s as the Internal Revenue Service began discontinuing its free tax-preparation services, and the Bloch brothers began advertising their discount tax service in a local paper.
Who knew the IRS once did returns for free?  Now of course H&R Block is one of the firms lobbying Congress to be sure that IRS doesn't resume the service,.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Slaves in the North

Discussing with a relative the existence of slavery in the North.

I mentioned the idea/fact that New England settlers sometimes swapped Indian slaves (captured in war, particularly IIRC King Philips War) for black slaves by sending the former to British Caribbean colonies.   

On a  practical if very cynical basis, it makes sense.  Society recognized that when you won a war people were part of the booty.  Women to rape, men to work as slaves if they weren't killed.  (No conventions about treatment of prisoners of war back then.) But the problem with captures in the wars between the colonists and the Native Americans was it was relatively easy for the captives to escape and return to their people.  White colonists often did this, so would Native Americans.  The practical answer was to ship your war captives away to someplace where they were foreigners, where society was foreign.

(I suspect some part of the dynamic accounting for the capture and sale of black slaves to the slave traders was similar.  Keep your captives with you as slaves and they escape; sell them to the European trader who could provide weapons, etc. and it was a win.  Not for the slave.)

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

The Fruits of the Garden

Got my first planting in the garden in around March 15.  Spent a lot of time last fall trying to get spinach started and thriving.  Now we're being inundated with spinach (fall) and scallions (spring) and the spring lettuce is now big enough to eat the thinings.  

Thinking about my garden got me wondering about the White House garden.  Turns out it's still in operation, and you can tour it, though you've missed the spring one. You can see photos at Instagram, whatever that is, although very few of the photos there show the vegetable garden.  Here's one, though.  I suspect neither Melania nor Barron spend much time there--the regularity of the planting suggests a good Park Service bureaucrat is caring for it.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Thanks for a Beautiful Day

Today was about perfect: sunny, low 80's, low humidity, the trees are green.

The garden is doing well, although we've got a surplus of spinach from the plants which over-wintered and over which I sweated last fall.

I'm in no mood to discuss Trump, or impeachment, or bureaucracy.

Enjoy.


Monday, April 22, 2019

The Proliferation of Popular Culture References

My wife and I subscribe to Netflix and Amazon Prime and watch regularly.  Maybe I'm just feeling out of it these days, but it seems to me there are more and more popular culture references in what we're watching, more and more of which I don't get.

Sometimes it's musical, which since I've not kept up with popular music since the Beatles it's understandable I'll miss them.  Often it's what critics like to call "homages" or "call-outs" to other programming.  Those I miss as well.

I think it's "Billions", the third season of which we just finished, which made me particularly aware of this.  It's possible it's just the writers of that show who are especially into references to other pieces of popular culture, but it seems more pervasive.  Although there are fewer directors' commentaries these days now that Netflix is shifting from DVD's to streaming, they're another way I become conscious of things I'm missing.

It seems a logical trend in our culture: the more time people spend watching and listening, the more likely creators will cross-reference things.  I suspect the trend also means fewer references to the older sources of reference material: the classics and the Bible. 

Sunday, April 21, 2019

The Continuing Effects of the Irish Potato Famine

Stumbled across a piece on the Irish potato famine.  Its effects varied in different parts of the island, hitting particularly hard in the south and west, areas which were much more dependent on the potato and had fewer other resources.

While many died and many left, others moved within Ireland, moving north and east to Belfast and Dublin.  For the former, the writer observed that where Belfast used to be almost entirely Protestant, because of the internal migrants being Catholic it became a more divided place. (I'm not sure whether Catholics also moved to other places in Ulster.)  Those divisions led to the "Troubles" of the last pat of the 20th century, which led to the importance of the peace agreement in British and Irish politics, which led to the Brexit conundrum   Incidentally, it reminds me of the anecdote about the horse who get hung up jumping a fence.


Saturday, April 20, 2019

The Dilemma of Trump's Appointees

The Mueller report has shown the tightrope which Trump's appointees must walk, particularly in the case of Don McGahn.  It's a question of how far you go in appeasing your boss, versus compromising your own ethics. 

As an ex-bureaucrat who had some people among my superiors whom I didn't much respect, I've some empathy for the McGahns of the current administration.  That perhaps leads me to undeserved sympathy for AG Barr.  He's gotten criticism for his summary of the Mueller report, spinning the conclusions to be the most favorable to his boss.  That's deserved.  But we need to remember that he did succeed in getting the Mueller report released, although with redactions.  That's not something I would have predicted back when he was nominated.  It's possible he regards the release as serving the public interest, a release important enough to justify his tactics in getting the release past his boss.  (Will Trump start blasting Barr for the release?  Maybe.)

Vertical Integration for Dairy?

A comment in this twitter thread suggested that some form of vertical integration would be coming for the dairy industry, as it has for poultry and hogs.

That makes sense to me.  Dairy is under more and more pressure--the other day I found not 3 but 5 thermos of "milk" at the Starbucks counter--to the usual nonfat, milk, and half and half they'd added soy and another "milk" which I forget now.  

With the divorcing of cows from pasture and the proliferation of robotic milkers the capital cost is only going up.  

And finally there seems to be closer ties between outlets, like Walmart, and their suppliers. 

Maybe another 15 or so years there will be only smaller, "truly organic" dairies feeding a niche market and perhaps encouraging tourists who experience nostalgia, and the big operations with 5 digits worth of cows.  

Friday, April 19, 2019

The Answer Is Google, Always Google

Supposedly intelligent people still aren't current with the modern world.  Two instances:

  1. Mr. Kushner tried to find out the name of the Russian ambassador to the US (that's in the Mueller report) in late 2016.  So he called someone who might know.  
  2. Scott Adams tweeted out a reward of $100 to the first person who could tell him how to change the footnotes in a Word document from "i, ii, iii..." to "1, 2, 3".
In both cases simply typing the question into Google would have produced the answer in a matter of seconds.

I hope our young are learning this lesson better than their seniors (both of whom could be my children, God forbid).

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Score One for Neustadt

One conclusion from the Mueller report is that prof. Neustadt, author of the classic book on Presidential Power, wins again.

His thesis was that presidential power was not automatic, not like starting a car and driving it, but it was a matter of respect and reputation.  Certainly Trump has little of either, hence his attempts at obstruction were foiled by resistance of his subordinates to carrying out his orders.  Nixon had his "Germans", Erlichman and Haldeman, who'd carry out his orders.  Not so Trump.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Paul Coates

I followed  the blog Ta-Nehisi Coates hosted for several years and read his first book, a memoir.  So I found this interview with his father quite interesting, particularly as he's about my age.


Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Controlled Environment Agriculture

Quartz has this entitled "The Urban Farming Revolution has a fatal flaw. (see the source at the end of this post).

I'm sorely tempted to write "I told you so", since I've been skeptical of vertical farming and similar efforts in cities.   On a fast read it seems the drawbacks are: cost of urban real estate, cost of energy for lighting, low nutritional content of the greens usually grown, and the premium prices charged.  The study was of New York City "controlled environment agriculture" (CEA) farms, which gives me a new term for a label. 

I would think some of the factors are more serious than others.  Roof top farming in NYC might be susceptible to competition from other uses, like leisure  and recreation  I'm not clear how much cheaper and more efficient LED lights can be, but I'm hesitant to rule out further innovation.  The ability and willingness of people to pay premium prices is likely growing.

In a larger sense, CEA is what farmer have been doing since the dawn of agriculture: arrtificially changing the environment  for plants and animals to grow faster, better, more disease free, etc. etc.  Outside the city it looks as if "precision agriculture" (PA) is the approach taken. 

Will the CEA and PA sets of innovation start to merge at some point?  Stay tuned.



Source: Goodman et. al. “Will the urban agricultural revolution be vertical and soilless? A case study of controlled environment agriculture in New York City.” Land Use Policy. 2019.
This piece was originally published on Anthropocene Magazine, a publication of Future Earth dedicated to creating a Human Age we actually want to live in.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Community Effects: Measles Versus Eastern High

The outbreaks of measles have focused attention on community effects.  When a high percentage of the community has been vaccinated, there's herd immunity--the virus can't maintain itself.  So the choices made by individual families affect the whole community.

By chance the Post Sunday had a good article on the choice faced by a white family on Capitol Hill  Their teenage daughter was in an integrated DC intermediate school,but now is facing the decision of which high school to attend.  Does she go to Eastern, the local high school, almost entirely black (like the intermediate school) with known problems and the possibility it's on the upswing, or travel across town to a selective public high school.

On the one hand the daughter gets greater certainty of a good and challenging education with less risk of a bad experience; on the other hand she might be missing a unique experience and, more importantly, she contributes a bit to the community effect.

Recent research on upward mobility has shown the importance of community effects: the better the community by our customary standards (two-parent families, etc.) the better everyone does, particularly the poor. 

I'm not an anti-vaxer, but I think it's true a measles vaccination carries a risk, a very small risk, to the individual. But the risk to the individual is outweighed by the benefits to the community if everyone gets vaccinated, or at least in the neighborhood of 95+ percent.  So I've no problem in saying the individual should be vaccinated, and mandatory vaccination laws are good.  But why would I, and the liberal parents of the daughter in the Post article, hesitate to require her to attend her neighborhood school?  I think the answer is the probable cost to the individual is much higher and the probable benefit to the community, in the absence of many others in the same situation is minimal, meaning the tradeoff is unfair.

While that calculus seems to be convincing, it leaves the $64,000 question of how do we get positive community effects: how do you get a herd, a crowd, all moving in the same positive direction?


Saturday, April 13, 2019

On Recognizing Faces

Saw a piece in the Post about people remembering when schools in Arlington integrated. Several interesting points, but I liked this one:
"He chuckled as he recalled his reaction to so many new faces. “The only white kids I knew were the families on TV, like ‘Leave It to Beaver,’ ” he said. “They talk about all black people look alike? It took me months to distinguish one white face from another.”
IMHO facial recognition is a combination of experience and capability--that's my story..  I regard myself as having problems with both, so it's reassuring when I find others have similar problems, confirming my narrative.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Samuelson and Education

He concludes education programs have failed, because they haven't changed the gaps between ethnic  groups.

Logically it's possible that they've been successful, in that in their absence the gap would have widened.  It's possible over 60 years the amount of knowledge to be imparted has increased a bit.  A simile: education is like rowing a boat up a river.  Over the years we may have improved the oars, gotten the rowers more fit, etc., but meanwhile the flow of water down the river has increased, so the boat stays in roughly the same place.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Corporate Transparency: Canadians Are Ahead of Us

This article shows that at least one Canadian province is going where the US ought to be (and FSA is getting to):  recording the real people behind paper entities.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Do Toads Climb?--One of Life's Mysteries Solved

Was cleaning oak leaves out of one of our window boxes when doing so revealed a stone, rather slivery in appearance.  Strange, I thought, I've only put potting soil in the box in the past so how did a stone get there?

Looked closer and found it wasn't a stone, but a toad, immobile.  That's even stranger, I thought--how the hell did a toad get there as the window box is 8 feet or so off the ground.  Dropped by a bird, maybe, and finding refuge under the leaves?

Anyway, I cleaned out the leaves, realizing the toad would then have no hiding place from hawks or whatever and no cover from the sun, which is getting stronger.  So I got an empty plastic seedling pot and put it on its side in the window box.

An hour later the toad had retreated to the pot, so I could put my hand over the top and carry toad and pot outside and release it.

It turns out toads of various kinds can climb, some are tree toads and some just plain garden toads.

Virginia even has a society devoted to amphibians.

I'm going to say my  "toad" is this guy:

Tuesday, April 09, 2019

Good for IRS

In the midst of a not very good week, I was pleased by an IRS website.

It turns out that you can get your old tax returns from IRS, or at least the data from them, in case your house burns down or computer file systems crap out on you.  To do so you go to an IRS website which gives you options: online, phone, or mail.  I of course chose on-line and was impressed by the process.  They obviously require data to confirm you're who you say you are, but the process of getting it is easy and well-thought out.  (The only glitch was they weren't able to recognize a smartphone using Google FI--I assume there's a semi-valid reason for that.)  You end up creating an on-line account, which judging by the username which was available isn't all that well patronized.

If I had any ambition left after this week I'd suggest to Sec. Mnuchin that he have Treasury Direct scrap their log-in system, which hasn't changed for years, and have them use the IRS system.

I might write my Congressional delegation telling them I deeply oppose the legislation which would ban the IRS from creating a free online tax system, as reported by ProPublica.  I'm almost tempted to support Sen. Warren for president, since she proposes to beef up IRS. 

Friday, April 05, 2019

Combining Organizations

I tend to think of the outcome of two organizations combining as based on physics, sort of like two objects in space.  An asteroid colliding with the earth doesn't affect the earth's path through space much at all.  Why shouldn't the same be true of two companies, like Perdue and Niman Ranch, which combined a few years ago.

Turns out humans aren't solid brainless objects, at least not always.  John Johnson has an interesting piece on the results of the combination of a big poultry producer and a smaller organic venture.

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

Have I Lived Too Long

I confess these are two developments I never expected to see:
  • a vegan burger from a fast-food chain (as it turns out, more than one such chain). BurgerKing
  • a country which buys more electric vehicles than conventional.(Norway, which will in a few years, and they have cold weather, too.)
But I hope to live long enough to see even more surprising things. 

Monday, April 01, 2019

Laws Aren't Self-Executing

My title is, I think, obviously true.  But just to recap:

  • some laws are enforced by a bureaucracy, the police or an executive agency which can invoke legal sanctions, fines or imprisonment after due process.
  • some laws are enforced by opposing parties which can file civil suits accusing their opposition of violating a legal provision.
  • some "laws" are applied by one part of a bureaucracy against the bureaucrats within it
Most laws rely on voluntary compliance; people incorporate their understanding of law and justice into their consciences and abide by it, until it becomes too inconvenient or their understanding of the situation or of law changes.  That means that the bureaucracies and the civil lawsuits mostly serve as backups, at least in most "advanced" countries.

But that leaves a hole--it's difficult to enforce laws on heads of bureaucracies, the top level who set policy and who therefore supervise those who are charged with enforcing the laws.  

We deal with that hole in two ways in the US: 
  1. each agency (i.e. cabinet department) has an inspector general who's independent of the heads of the subordinate units  
  2. each agency has Congressional committees and the GAO (which works for Congress) with oversight responsibility.  
That still leaves the big hole at the top of the government: enforcing the President's compliance with laws.  This Just Security article discusses a big one--the Presidentiall Records Act.  The Act is part of the overall structure of rules on government records, none of which get much respect.  NARA can try to enforce the rules on the agencies, but as the article discusses there's no way, outside of politics, to ensure the President follows the rules. 

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Women, Cows, and Hens

Just skimmed this summary of research on economic history.  A couple paragraphs:
Given the obviously crucial role of endogeneity issues in this debate, we carefully consider the causal nature of the relationship. More specifically, we exploit relatively exogenous variation of (migration adjusted) lactose tolerance and pasture suitability as instrumental variables for female autonomy.
The idea is that a high lactose tolerance increased the demand for dairy farming, whereas similarly, a high share of land suitable for pasture farming allowed more supply. In dairy farming, women traditionally had a strong role; this allowed them to participate substantially in income generation during the late medieval and early modern period (Voigtländer and Voth, 2013).
My translation: women do better with dairy cows than plowing ground for grain, and if women do better, the overall economy does better.

A similar logic could apply to chickens.  You don't need a lot of strength to manage a flock of hens.  The one advantage dairy has over chickens is it's easier to store dairy products--cheese specifically, than it is eggs.

I suspect this may be over-simplified. I vaguely remember that the development of plows which could handle the soils of northwest Europe, soils which were heavier than the soils of southern Europe, was a big deal, at least in history as it was taught 60 years ago.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Reparations: the Booker Plan

Politico has a piece on Cory Booker's townhall..  On reparations he said:
He said he supports reparations for African-Americans who are descendants of slaves, pointing to his baby bond legislation, which would give newborns savings accounts worth tens of thousands of dollars by the time they’re 18 to address the racial wealth gap. 
How does this fit with my previous discussion?

Tne New Yorker had a discussion of the proposal late last year. Apparently the professor Darity who's been pushing reparations has come up with this plan as more politically feasible than reparations.  Notably the plan apparently applies to all infants, regardless of race, but with the money put into the bonds dependent on the family's income.

From the article:
His plan is not as precisely targeted toward people of color as it might be: because the federal government cannot determine the value of the assets held by any given American family, the amount children receive is determined by their parents’ wages, a scale on which black families tend to appear better off than they actually are. Even so, Booker’s staff has calculated that the average white child would accrue about fifteen thousand dollars through the program, and the average black child would gain twenty-nine thousand dollars—making it the largest asset for most black families.
My point in the previous post was there was a tension between apologizing to blacks and redressing their situation.   Booker's plan might be cost-effective in boosting the prospects of infants in low-income families, but it seems to me to lose the emotional impact of reparations.   

Thursday, March 28, 2019

I Warned the Trump Administration

DOD faced tough questions on the Hill over funding and the reallocation of money to Trump's border wall.

It's not good to have your committee giving your top officials a hard time.  It's worse to have your appropriators mad at you.

Yes, I'm saying "I told you so".

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

On Reparations

I find I've never published a post on reparations.  I'm sure I can find some draft posts, particularly commenting on Ta-Nehisi Coates' Atlantic article on the subject.  But that would be work, and I'm lazy.

So here's a brief summary of my views on a complex subject:
  • seems to me reparations can be (1) compensation for damages suffered in the past and (2) a symbolic apology for fault in inflicting damages. The apology may carry over to the idea of reconciliation between parties, where there may or may not be any balance of damages inflicted and suffered between or among the parties. I write "and" because I think both apply, in different proportions in different cases. 
  • examples of reparations include the payments made to Japanese-Americans who were confined to concentration camps during WWII, payments made by Germany to Jews who survived the Holocaust, perhaps the Pigford payments to African-American, Hispanic, and female farmers,  Reconciliation proceedings have occurred in Rwanda between Hutsi and Tutsi and in South Africa between black natives and white colonists. And, of course, we can't forget the Pigford payments to African-American farmers and the similar payments to Hispanic, female, and Native American farmers.
  • as a former bureaucrat I recoil at the prospect of some poor bureaucrats having to work out the rules and administer any program 
When we're talking about possible reparations to African-Americans based on the damages from slavery and past racial bias, it seems to me we're talking symbolic apologies.  Administratively there's some similarity between a program of reparations and  some policy programs, such as a disaster payments program.  In both cases you're looking at what has already happened to determine eligibility  to implement a policy.  The difference in reparations programs is the amount of time that's passed and therefore the evidence which is available to support a claim for payments.

This differs from prospective programs, where the recipient is going to perform some action, install a conservation practice or divert acreage from production as a quid pro quo for the money.

My own feeling is money proposed to be spent as reparations would be more effective devoted to some prospective programs.  The problem I have is, of course, we don't have good data on what programs are effective.  And proposing spending a trillion dollars on Head Start, free college, etc. etc. instead of a trillion dollars to those who can prove descent from an ancestor who lived in America in 1860, for example, doesn't carry the same symbolic energy.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Let's Be Precise

I see the statement that "Mueller didn't find any evidence of collusion" or words to that effect.  We don't know that. With a layman's knowledge of the law I think there are these possible points on the continuum of incriminating evidence:
  • no evidence at all, meaning the investigation was launched without solid cause.  (Might have been bias, might have been false evidence, might have been facts which seemed to point one way but actually pointed another.)
  • some evidence, but not enough for the prosecutor in the case to take to trial.  (I'm assuming that different prosecutors will be more or less cautious in what they take to trial, or try to get a plea deal.  I note Jerome Corsi was offered a plea deal, which he turned down.  Were the prosecutors bluffing? )
  • enough evidence to take to trial.
  • enough evidence to convict, given the prosecutors, defense attorneys, jury and judge in the case.
What the Barr memo says is Mueller couldn't get to the third level.

I also note the Barr memo includes the phrase "Russian government".  I assume that allows for possible difficulty in determining whether person X is an agent of the government, directly or indirectly, or is a "cutout" as we know from films and books is often used in spy thrillers.  I'm not clear, however, what difference it makes: there's a crime to conspire with a foreign government but not with foreign individuals?

Monday, March 25, 2019

Mueller Report--Turtle

I see I've never commented on the Mueller operation, so I can't claim any credit for prescience nor do I have to cover up any mistaken predictions.  Just call me "turtle".

The Barr interpretation of obstruction law fascinates me: apparently you need three things: a crime, acts which obstruct justice, and the intent to obstruct.  As of today it's not clear which of the three (one or more) Barr finds missing or not sufficiently supported by the facts as Mueller's presents them.  It might be the crime, it might be that no one lied to FBI agents (as Flynn did), just lied to the public, or it might be everyone in the Trump campaign and administration is so confused they had no clear intent.

I tend to lean towards the idea that all the people involved were babies, new to the political world, and thus experienced things as babies do, in the words of William James, as "blooming, buzzing, confusion."  Thus their collusion with the Russians was accidental, their attempts to cover up things were out of fear of embarrassment, not prosecution, and thus failed on the intent.

We'll see if that's that picture journalists and historians develop as the Mueller report becomes public and more analysis is done.


USDA FPAC Business Center

Time to look again at the FPAC business center:

From the Budget summary for FSA:
Savings will be achieved through a number of streamlining efforts that will reduce the cost of program delivery, while maintaining customer service. These efforts include Headquarters and Field organizational realignment and strategic reductions in staff years throughout FSA. Additionally, reductions in operating expenses and information technology investments will be made. Finally, increased funding will be provided to expand customer self-service for conservation, farm loans and farm programs through a common web portal. This portal, jointly managed by FSA, RMA, and NRCS, would serve as a launch point for farmers and ranchers to apply for programs and access customer information across the mission area.

And for FPAC:
In October 2017, the FPAC Business Center (FBC) was formed to consolidate back-office functions within the newly formed FPAC mission area. FBC will be responsible for financial management, budgeting, human resources, information technology, acquisitions/procurement, customer experience, internal controls, risk management, strategic and annual planning, and other mission-wide activities in support of the customers and employees of FSA, NRCS, and RMA. The FBC will be established in 2018 via a transfer of funding and personnel from FSA, RMA, and NRCS. The FBC will also provide administrative support for the CCC. Accordingly, the 2019 Budget reduces the direct appropriation for FSA, RMA, and NRCS and provides funding directly to the FBC. In addition, FBC would be funded through transfers from ACIF and Farm Bill conservation programs. In 2019, $272.7 million and 1,750 staff years will be available for the FBC. This includes, $131.5 million and 832 staff years from FSA, $17 million and 82 staff years from RMA, and $124.3 million and 836 staff years from NRCS. FBC will be funded by both mandatory and discretionary funds. [Emphasis added]

It looks to me as if the budget proposes to cut FSA personnel by roughly 1,000 (very quick estimate).

I understand the FPAC Business Center is operational, but I'd think the "will be" I underlined above should have read "has been", shouldn't it? 

I'm surprised NASCOE has had no comment on the Business Center.

Alabama Dairy

According to this Alabama has gone from 3,500 dairy farms 60 years ago to 50 now.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Analogy of the Day: Phipps on Farm Bureau

"To be sure, farmers as a whole are heavily clustered on the political right, although their actual policy preferences are a mix of blatantly leftist protectionism (sugar, dairy) and subsidies (crop insurance) scattered like chocolate chips in a cookie of free-market rhetoric."

Phipps has had qualms about the Farm Bureau and its representation of farmers for years.  (Its claim of 6 million members is inflated by its insurance operation.)  In this article he lays out his case for leaving it. 

Friday, March 22, 2019

Boyd and Equipment Prices

John Boyd continues to get into the national media.  Here's an Atlantic article citing his views on the rising prices of farm equipment.  Again, while southside Virginia isn't close to DC (roughly 200 miles from Reston), it's closer than Ottumwa, Iowa.  Boyd's activity seems to have picked up, as here his group is opposing a bank merger.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Trump and the Administrative Procedure Act

I've posted before about the Administrative Procedure Act and the Trump administration, most recently here.  Yesterday's article in the Post provides an overview of the extent of their problems, although still not pointing to the role of Judge Rao (she's been confirmed) in failing to do things in the right way.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Modernity Amazes Me: HD Delivery

I suspect that occasional posts on this blog show that I'm sometimes amazed by how things work today.

Another such episode today:

Yesterday I bought $300+ worth of 2 x 12 boards to replace the old ones forming the walls of my raised beds in the garden.  This morning they were delivered:

  • got a phone call from the delivery telling me she was on her way
  • drove to the garden plots to meet here.
  • the delivery vehicle was a tractor with a flat bed trailer and a fork lift (truck?) on the back end.
  • I told her where to drop the boards, she found a parking place, unstrapped the pallet with the wood, started the fork lift and moved the boards off the trailer to the spot.
  • took a picture of the boards, got in the truck and drove off.
The whole process took about 45 minutes and was accomplished by one person.  She wasn't a Home Depot employee, and the truck wasn't an HD vehicle, it was a Penske rental.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

College Side Entrances and Carl Van Doren

Somehow the current scandal on the "side entrances" for college admission through fake athletic credentials or fake SAT tests reminds me of Charles Van Doren.

Why?  Because some of the reactions to both see (saw) the episodes as undermining the prestige and validity of the elites of society.  Van Doren, for those who weren't born in the 50's, was a contestant on a televised quiz show which was a big hit.  This was back in the day where, if you were lucky, you could choose among three TV networks, but more likely were limited to one or two.  Van Doren was part of the educational elite, a young professor who was the son and nephew of prominent academics. Finding out that someone with such a background who seemed a model had stooped to cheating was a shock.

Van Doren and Sputnik are linked in my mind as creating and epitomizing discontent with US society of the late 50's, a discontent which both JFK and Nixon tried to ride.

Monday, March 18, 2019

How Big Is Denmark?

This bit quoted in Marginal Revolution struck me funny, regarding the need for subtitles in Danish movies to be played in movie theaters in Denmark?
Pedersen blames the necessity for subtitles on the evolution of the use of Danish in movies. Whereas in the past, actors were focused on articulating themselves in a way understandable for everyone, their main emphasis has now shifted to being as authentic as possible. Hence, many actors have chosen not to imitate more common dialects and have stuck to local versions of Danish. “It’s a small country, but there are big differences between the Danish dialects,” Pedersen explained.

A check of wikipedia shows Denmark to have 5.8 million inhabitants, about size of Wisconsin, but Wisconsin is about 6 times bigger. Where Wisconsin has lakes, Denmark has islands, 443 of them, some 74 of which are inhabited.  That likely explains some of divergences in the Danish language.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

The Market in Farmer's Markets

The market in farmer's markets is not good, according to this NPR story.  Too many markets chasing too few buyers.  Another case where the free market in agriculture is overly productive.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Kids Are (More) Less Mature These Days

Was reading a Slate article by a woman who thought she could pass on what she learned as a teenager navigating romances to her daughter.  Turns out, according to the woman, her daughter needed no teaching; she found the waters very different given social media but handled them just fine.

Then there's this NYTimes piece entitled Children Are Grown, But Parenting Doesn't Stop.

I like to bridge opposites, so I suggest that in different times/societies people develop different faculties at different rates.  Perhaps today's society provides more models of how to develop emotionally for people to learn from while simultaneously making it more complicated to maneuver through society.  Compared to my youth individual development is more emphasized and more important, while discussion of social forces is more restricted to race and gender.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Beto and the Bulletin Board

Philip Bump in the Post has an article describing Beto O'Rourke's background as a "hacker". 

It brings back memories, including when Jeff Kerby started running a BBS for ASCS, and the periodic upgrades of my modem--back then progress was real and tangible.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Mom Loved Her Hens, Or the Fox in the Henhouse

But I didn't.  Chickens can be vicious, particularly when you're trying to scoot eggs out from under a hen.  They use their beaks to grab the skin on the back of your hand, and then they twist it, hard.  Mean #%$^%^%

To confirm it, see this BBC report (via Marginal Revolution) on how the fox in the henhouse met his demise.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Dairy Supply Management for US?

Tamar Haspel, a food writer I follow on twitter, praised this article in Civil Eats about dairy supply management.  The article describes rising grass roots interest in supply management among Wisconsin dairy farmers and some other areas.  The Farm Bureau opposes it, of course. 

Canada has used supply management for dairy, poultry and eggs since at least 1972 according to this wikipedia article.  (I write "at least" because supply management was a feature of depression-era ag policies but I'm not sure Canada used it for dairy.)

Essentially supply management means assigning production quotas to farms, with penalties for over-production.  The US used to have supply management in place for wheat, cotton, rice, peanuts, and tobacco, rules which dated back to the 1930's.  Over time they've all been dismantled.   Judging by the impace of the change on tobacco farmers, the effect of supply management was to slow the decline of farm units.  In other words, it was harder to get bigger and easier to stay small, but the trends were the same.  The advance of technology and the power of markets still work, just slower.

Slow is what, IMO, the proponents want.  If you're a farmer in your 50's, you'd like to keep going until you can retire. Supply management might make that possible.  But if you're a young go-getter in your 30's looking to expand and adopt new technologies, you don't like the concept.  Politically there's always been more old farmers than young farmers.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

The Cost of Glasses

I've worn glasses since second or third grade, I think.  After I got my first pair I remember the revelation it was to see leaves and twigs on trees rather than a green blur. 

Now glasses are a technological marvel so obviously they are and should be relatively costly.  I think my last pair, with all the coatings and stuff were three or four hundred dollars.  But it's my eyesight, so I paid.

So I'm flabbergasted by this Vox piece drawing from an LATimes article.
"This week, the Los Angeles Times spoke with two former executives of LensCrafters: Charles Dahan and E. Dean Butler, who founded LensCrafters in 1983. Both admitted that today, glasses are marked up nearly 1,000 percent.
“You can get amazingly good frames, with a Warby Parker level of quality, for $4 to $8,” said Butler. “For $15, you can get designer-quality frames, like what you’d get from Prada.”
They attribute the high prices to having one big company which controls the industry.

Friday, March 08, 2019

Pork in DOD? Say It Ain't So

I think this story about how Congress highly regards certain construction projects in DOD bears out my warning to Trump back in February.

Thursday, March 07, 2019

The Virtue of Lynch Mobs

Yes, the title is bait.

I'm reading Richard Wrangham's The Goodness Paradox?, about 3/4 of the way through.  I like it and the argument he makes, having read the recent book on the experiment in Russia of rearing silver foxes selected for non-aggression, which seems to support a "domestication" theory.  After 40 generations the foxes were much like dogs, both physically  (floppy ears, changes in skull shape, etc) and in behavior.

So in the chapter I just finished Wrangham's discussing how humans might have developed a moral sense (as part of their self-domestication).  His basic theory is: lynch mobs, triggered by observations of chimpanzees.  The idea is, if and when an alpha male gets too alpha, the subordinate males discover by forming a coalition they can take him out.  From that we can evolve to coalitions which enforce social norms, and innate behavior which makes us hyper conscious of norms and therefore very moral.

That's a quick and dirty summary; no doubt one Wrangham would shudder at.

It's an interesting subject, and he's a careful writer.  I want to see if he explains why we still generate alpha males like our current president.

[I should note, Wrangham doesn't call them "lynch mobs", but his description would match a description of a generic lynch mob--a bunch of males converging to execute justice on someone who is perceived to have violated a norm.  He has some descriptions from anthropology of societies/tribes where there are strong norms covering such actions.]

Wednesday, March 06, 2019

Why Is Uber Like Farming?

Megan McArdle had an op-ed this morning arguing that Uber and Lyft were losing money because they weren't charging enough for rides.
Boosters of the ride-share revolution like to point out that most of the nation’s cars spend most of their time parked; there ought to be money in liberating all that unused capital. True enough — except that someone has to drive the car, including the time spent circling as they wait for rides.
In 2014, journalist Timothy B. Lee spent a week driving for Lyft. He drove for 50 hours but spent only 14 of those hours actually ferrying passengers. All that circling wears out the car and burns both gas and the driver’s valuable time.
The other day I noticed someone tweeting, I think, defending the usefulness of Uber.  The woman was divorced, supporting kids and with an odd work schedule (might have been an adjunct academic, I forget).  The point is that not only did she already have a vehicle, she had free time but at odd hours, odd enough she couldn't work a regular job, but she could drive for Uber and make money.

In a way she was similar to a farmer, someone who has land and equipment available and the decision is whether to use it to the fullest or not.  She, like the farmer, did, because that's what the market provides incentives for. When you look at what the farmer or driver is earning with the extra work, it may be very little, but as long as it covers the extra expenses incurred, if there's positive cash flow, the farmer or driver will likely work the hours.

A side issue:  I think cars are more reliable these days and last longer.  And in some cases, like mine, there's a mismatch.  All of my cars have become obsolete before they really became uneconomical to drive.  Repair bills were creeping up, partly because of age issues, not so much wear issues.  To the extent that's true for many people, Uber and Lyft will enable fuller usage of assets.  At least until the advent of self-driving cars which may change the paradigm again.

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

No Bloomberg

I'm glad Mike Bloomberg isn't running.  He'd be a good choice for a cabinet position assuming we can beat President Trump in 2020.  Now if some of the other "B" boys (Beto, Biden, Brown, Bennet) stay out, the more centralist lane will be less crowded.

Monday, March 04, 2019

Hickenlooper, Klobuchar, Bennet, Brown

Two have announced their candidacies; two have not.  Based on what I know now I could easily support any of the four  The other candidates need to convince me not only that they''ll win but also they can help candidates for the Senate and House.

What I want is pragmatism in achieving liberal goals.

Sunday, March 03, 2019

FSA Reorganization

I found two new notices from FSA interesting:

One was a reorganization into Safety Net and Program Delivery Divisions.  If I understand it correctly it splits program policy and automation into separate organizations.  The question of the best organization has been an issue ever since the original System/36 automation of county offices in the mid 1980's.  At different times and in different areas we've had policy and automation united in one person, or the responsibility in one section but with different people specializing in each, or in separate sections within the division.

When Jerry Sitter was division director in the mid 80's he split out a branch to handle automation under Mike McCann, with the policy in other branches.  In a way this followed the personnel--the policy types were mostly established DC specialists, people who'd come in from the field before the System 36 arrived.  The automation types were the early "SCOAPers", mostly program assistaants brought in under 2-year temporary appointments (which turned into permanent slots as time passed).  It also, IMHO, reflected an attitude among management that automation was a subject they didn't really understand or feel comfortable with, so it was best housed in its own shop.  There was a similar setup in the commodity loan area.

I always had my reservation with that setup--my argument was that a program specialist needed to know the whole span of operations.  Just as in the pre-automation days we'd work with MSD to get forms designed and printed, procedures written, cleared and distributed, regulations written  and published,  automation was just another area to learn and manage.  Looking back, I was reflecting my own belief in my abilities to do the whole scope of activities, and I was probably unrealistic.  But I still think there's a kernel of truth there--sometimes policy issues and automation issues become one and the same.

Which leads me to the second notice: on a workaround to handle multi-county producers, which seems to me to be an example.  Here the history of ASCS/FSA going back to New Deal days has been to work with producers on a county by county basis, unlike FmHA which tried to consider all of a producer's assets and liabilities when making a loan.  FSA has gradually been forced to move away from a county basis with need to enforce payment limitation.  My point is that a policy decision to apply rules on a producer basis, as with loans, and to allow producers one-stop shopping at one office, or at one web page, as with this notice, has big implications for automation, both in the design of the database and in the operation of the software.


Saturday, March 02, 2019

Adam Smith on Slavery

I generally think of Adam Smith as explaining what was happening in the 18th century economy, not as a social reformer.  But there's this, highlighted in a recent paper.
There is not a negro from the coast of Africa who does not, in this respect, possess a degree of magnanimity which the soul of his sordid master is too often scarce capable of conceiving. Fortune never exerted more cruelly her empire over mankind, than when she subjected those nations of heroes to the refuse of the jails of Europe, to wretches who possess the virtues neither of the countries which they come from, nor of those which they go to, and whose levity, brutality, and baseness, so justly expose them to the contempt of the vanquished. (TMS 206–7.9) 

Friday, March 01, 2019

Eggs: the Vindication of My Mother on Her Birthday

The Post has an article today on the increased consumption of eggs along with the revival of their reputation, recovering from concerns about dietary cholesterol.

My mother died shortly after her birthday, which was March 1, 1898, some 30 years ago.  She had an origin story for her chickens: dad came home one day in the 20's or 30's, not clear which, and said they were going to add chickens to their small dairy operation.  The way she told the story she clearly was not happy about the decision.  But she lived with it, and  she became a fierce partisan of small flocks.  She griped about "city folks" coming out and going into the egg business when prices were good which created an oversupply and depressed the prices.

Given our supply of eggs, naturally we ate eggs for breakfast regularly (unless she did pancakes or french toast).  2 eggs a piece for dad and me, perhaps less for my sister who never would eat as well as mom wanted her to.

IIRC the 1960's saw the big concerns about cholesterol and a focus on eggs as one factor in arteriosclerosis.  That made my mother vent.  Eggs were the "perfect food". (You can google the phrase and find that is trending,.)  She was very defensive. I ddn't dare tell her I'd gradually lost the 2 eggs for breakfast habit over the years.

Happy birthday Mom--you were right all along.


Thursday, February 28, 2019

Deja Vu All Over: India vs Pakistan

It was 40+* years ago that India and Pakistan last fought a war,, but in my youth such conflicts, and the rumors and threats of conflicts, were a constant in international affairs. 
*  It turns out it's just 20 years, at least according to Wikipedia--there was a 1999 conflict in Kargil.  They count 4 wars, and innumerable confrontations and conflicts of a lesser nature.
It seems there are fewer such conflicts since the end of the Cold War--not sure there's any causal relationship but 1989 is a convenient date.  Obviously there's Iraq I and Iraq II and Agfhanistan forever but I buy Steven Pinker's thesis of a gradual decrease in violence over the ages.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Korean War--Who Fought

Feeling nitpicky today so this Times piece upset me.  It's a discussion of Vietnam and Korea relationships, quite good in most resspects.  But this:
Vietnam’s ties with North Korea were strengthened during the Vietnam War, when North Korea dispatched dozens of fighter pilots to combat the Americans. At least 14 North Korean military personnel were killed in action in Vietnam. (About 300,000 South Koreans fought on the American side.)
What's wrong? The last sentence.

Those of us old enough to remember know that technically the United Nations fought against the North Koreans and later the Chinese.  (The Soviets had been boycotting the Security Council so were not around to veto a resolution authorizing UN action against the invaders.)   It was a UN coalition fighting, including British and Turkish troops as I remember it.  (Wikipedia) 

But what really jars is the idea that South Korea fought on the American side.  The war was sold to the U.S. and UN as a fight against the North Korean invaders in which the UN was coming to the aid of South Korea, so we were fighting on South Korea's side.  Since then there have been challenges to that narrative by some historians, but I think the consensus still generally supports the original take on the situation.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Nixon: China::Trump: North Korea?

"Who lost China?" was a cry of right wing politicians in my youth.  It referred to the Chinexe Communist victory in their civil war with the Kuomingtaing, which eventually fled to Taiwan to rule there for some decades.  The allegation was that communists and pinkos in the State Department had undermined the the Chiang Kai-shek regime and weakened our support for him.

After the Communists took over the mainland we refused to recognize their regime, and kept them out of the UN.  That was a cornerstone of American foreign policy for 25 years.  No Democratic president or candidate could afford to propose to recognize the Reds, for fear of being "soft" (much like being "soft on crime" in a somewhat later time frame.

Then came Nixon, and Kissinger.  Despite much criticism from the right (Bill Buckley et. al) they were able to recognize China simply because Nixon's history gave him credentials as anti-communist.  Jimmy Carter completed the job of de-recognizing Taiwan and exchanging ambassadors with the People's Republic of China.

I wonder wherher there is a parallel between Trump and Nixon vis a vis North Korea.  As with China, our North Korean foreign policy has been mostly frozen in stone for 65 years. There have been attempts at breakthroughs; Clinton came the closest but he couldn't get enough support to fully carry out his agreement so it teetered and then collapsed, with GWBush finally killing it. 

As with China, there's a vocal group attacking any attempt to normalize relations.  Also as with China, there are geopolitical game-playing reasons not to deal; I mean the idea that a deal undermines policies (non-proliferation and human rights) we generally support and can't be seen to back away from.

Trump in many ways is Nixon's opposite in terms of style and decision making process, but it's possible that he ends up making a poor deal with North Korea, "poor" at least in the view of the policy establishment who've spent their careers on the issues, but a deal which over a period of time turns out to be acceptable to the US and the world.  If "period of time" is less than 18 months, such a deal might be enough to re-elect him.


Monday, February 25, 2019

Wisconsin Dairy

Here's a good  piece on the Wisconsin dairy situation, more in detail than many media reports. Many farmers going out of business, other farmers expanding their herds so the number of farms is way down (close to half in 4 years) but the number of cows is about even.  What strikes me is even though herds have doubled in size, they're still below 200 cows per herd average.  None of the Wisconsin counties are in the top 13 counties in the US in production (most are California), likely mostly because the big dairies (1,000+ ) aren't  in Wisconsin.

I suspect from a birdseye view the same forces which are leading to the big increase in the income of the top 1 percent and the top 0.1 percent are also leading to the big increase in the size of dairy herds and the big increase in the value of the top companies in the US.  That's just a hunch, without supporting arguments now, maybe later.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Brazil Grows Two Corn Crops?

Who knew that?  Saw a reference to it, probably from John Phipps or Chris Clayton's feed.  Here's the brief description:
Brazil’s second corn crop, or safrinha, has gained attention in world markets because this year’s dry growing season likely hurt yields. Safrinha corn accounts for about 65% of the country’s corn production.
It's planted in January to March after early-crop soybeans are harvested.  

The fact it's doable on a massive scale suggests to me Brazil has an advantage over US farmers, who are limited in their doublecropping to soybeans after wheat, mostly.   Of course, with global warming we may be able to change that in the future.  We still have an infrastructure advantage over Brazil, if I understand correctly--we've the transportation--rail and barge--to move crops to export ports easier than they currently do.  But that too will change.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Slow on the Uptake

Megan McArdle is just one of the commentators who are using the Justsie Smollett  "fake racist attack" episode to caution people to go slow in making judgments. The quick reaction of some Democratic politicians now looks foolish, as does the reaction of the left to the Sandmann video of last month.

Going slow is always good advice.  But advice is often ignored. Daniel Kahneman wrote a good book on the subject.  We all jump to conclusions and less often are we willing to reconsider, to apply reason and/or wait for more evidence.

Anyone remember McVeigh?  IIRC President Clinton cautioned going slow and not blaming international terrorists.  (That was before 9/11, but if my memory is correct we were hyper aware of terrorists even then.)

But then it's possible to overreact to the overreaction, which is the interesting take here.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Beneficial Ownership for All, Not Just Farms

If I correctly understand current payment limitation rules (dubious, at my age it's questionable what I correctly understand) farmers are required to identify the beneficial owners of the legal entities which receive farm program payments.  "Beneficial owner" meaning the live body, as we used to say, who actually gets the money in the end.

That seems to me to be right and proper, so right and proper I come to agree with AEI, not something a good Dem often does, that this should be required for all legal entities.  Without such a requirement the rich and powerful can hide behind a paper veil of dummy corporations, fake partnerships, and trusts.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

From the Ag Outlook Conference

Some items from this year's Ag Outlook conference  via Illinois extension--Farm Policy..  For those who might not know, there's an annual confab in DC where USDA types and ag people get together to assess where agriculture is and where it's going.  Typically the chief economist for the department gives an overview (I think this is one of the positions proposed to be moved from DC under the plans for relocating ERS , etc.)

From the slides we see that the states with the highest rate of bankruptcies for 2018 are ME, NY, and WI, with GA fourth.  I think this is likely the result of the consolidation of dairy farms, a subject on which I've posted fairly often recently.

Also interesting is this graph I copied from the Farm Policy.  While the line depicting the Chinese share of our export sales drops sharply, the total values don't.  This may reflect the higher value of the dollar in 2018/9--our sales volume drops but the money we get stays flat?  (I don't know, just guessing.)



Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Advice to Trump: Don't Play Games With Congressional Appropriators

When I joined ASCS one of the things to learn was the relationship of ASCS and CCC.  Essentially the Commodity Credit Corporation was a way for USDA to put on another persona, a corporate one, allowing it to bypass the annual appropriations process.

It had the most impact for me when we were trying to impact new farm legislation and were on a very tight schedule.  Lew Calderone, the head of printing, would ask whether the program specialists could justify the rush job as fitting under the CCC's responsibilities.  When the answer was "yes", he could bypass requirements to go through the department and GPO and send the work to a printing contractor. (At least, that's the way I remember it.)

I was also aware that CCC and ASCS had separate inventories of personal property, depending on whether the item had been bought with appropriated funds (ASCS) or corporate funds (CCC).

The agency's ability to switch between ASCS and CCC personas was the envy  of other agencies,like SCS and FmHA.  

In the mid-80's through into the 90's ASCS and USDA began to use the CCC authority more widely, which is where the agency came to grief.  As I understand it, the procurement and automation people used CCC funds to buy a lot of computer gear.  What's worse, the computer projects didn't work out--success might have had a different result

Anyhow, the bottom line was the House Appropriations Committee put restrictions, tight restrictions, on ASCS and USDA on their spending, including spending of CCC money.  As far as I know those restrictions remain in the current law.

This leads to my advice to Trump: any effort to reprogram money to build your wall runs the risk of stepping on the toes of the appropriators.   If that happens, and I'm sure DOD will try to avoid touching anything in the districts of the members of House appropriations, the committee is perfectly capable of putting tight clamps in the appropriation act.  


Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Spring Is Almost Here

Weather forecast for tomorrow is for snow, along with rain, and sleet, but I'm looking forward to spring and being able to garden again. The winter has been mild enough, except for one cold spell in February, that the ground is not frozen.  After 40 years or so gardening in the same plot of the Reston gardens the soil is good enough that it can be worked relatively early. And beyond tomorrow's snow the forecast looks pretty good.

I wonder whether people who grew up in town (i.e., suburbs/cities) have as strong a sense of cycles as do those of us who grew up on farms?  I doubt it, but don't know.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Salute to the Ballantines

Betty Ballantine died at 99, following her husband Ian.  They were very important in my life, because they founded the Bantam and Ballantine lines of paperbacks.  In the 1950's I could find a rack or two of their paperbacks in a couple stores in Greene, NY, and at $.35 or $.50 they were affordable for a teen.  I know I have a bunch of their books packed away in boxes.  I remember their line of WWII books, one by Adolf Galland the German ace, and one by C. Vann Woodward on Leyte Gulf.

And the science fiction, though I can't be sure the books I remember were Ballantines, nor some of the fiction, like "God's Little Acre", the risque book of the times.


Friday, February 15, 2019

The Extremes of Farming: Enlightenment Versus Romance

Having just blogged about Netherlands agriculture and precision farming, I was struck this morning as I was skimming Twitter by a proposal to combine small farms with a small town (sorry but I didn't note the tweet and can't find it now).  It seems to be that we can see the long time contest between the Enlightenment and the Romantic eras being reenacted today in farming.

On the one hand you have the increasing consolidation of farming in the US and elsewhere, consolidation being driven by investments in technology which increase the amount of commodities per acre and per hour of labor, with decreasing inputs per unit.  It's the application of intelligence and human control to farming.  On the other hand you have the less tangible byproducts and the emotions elicited by the process of organic and/or small farming.

I guess with that summary there's no hiding which side I basically favor.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

"Flerds" Are the Coming Thing?

See this piece. 

Short explanation:  a "flerd" is a "flock" + a "herd", the idea being by mixing different types of animals (usually sheep/goats with cattle) you reduce predation.

Trump's Own Words

Great analysis of what Trump has said about his wall/barrier/fence and who will pay for it.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

A Case for Intensive Farming: the Netherlands

National Geographic has a piece on Netherlands precision farming.
From his perch 10 feet above the ground, he’s monitoring two drones—a driverless tractor roaming the fields and a quadcopter in the air—that provide detailed readings on soil chemistry, water content, nutrients, and growth, measuring the progress of every plant down to the individual potato. Van den Borne’s production numbers testify to the power of this “precision farming,” as it’s known. The global average yield of potatoes per acre is about nine tons. Van den Borne’s fields reliably produce more than 20.

I've viewed with skepticism reports about the Netherlands high value of exports, figuring it was mostly flowers of all kinds.  But it's the top exporter of potatoes and onions. I've been skeptical about proposals for vertical farming and urban farming, but this article is changing my mind. 

What I'm taking as the bottom line is intensive farming can work in the market place.  It's not clear what the additional equipment and the inputs cost, but the adoption of the techniques in the Netherlands means you likely have positive cash flow. 

I do retain a bit of skepticism--Netherlands is cited as being in the top exporters of potatoes and onions, both of which strike me as unlikely to be exported over long distances because both have high water content.  

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Is a Democratic Victory in 2020 a Cinch?

Some twitter traffic suggesting that President Trump will be defeated in 2020 by almost anyone the Democrats put up.

I violently disagree.  Let me count the ways:

One: I remember the late 70's when it looked as if we liberals might be lucky enough to face Ronald Reagan in 1980.  We knew we could beat him with Carter or with Kennedy.  Look how that worked out.

Two:. Even if today's polls are reasonably accurate, and I don't doubt them, there's the issue of fundamentals:  right now Trump is riding the best overall economy in years, perhaps better than Clinton's late 90's boom.  He's also seeing "successes" in foreign policy--defeat of ISIS, withdrawal of troops from Syriana, and likely Afghanistan (by 2020), possible agreement with North Korea, renegotiated NAFTA, NATO countries responding to his harangues, etc. etc.  (I put quotation marks on successes because they mostly aren't, but as of now they can be sold as such.)  Those fundamentals would guarantee any normal person reelection.

Three: There's always the possibility of rally-round-the-flag episodes, a black swan event which rallies the US around its president.

Four: The reality is that some of the Democratic candidates and potentials can beat Trump, unless he has a real run of luck (somewhat like he had in 2015-16)and some can't.  Right now we don't know which is which.

Five: Because we don't know the future, we need to work, and contribute, and vote as if we're underdogs.

Six: My mantra is, even if we win the presidency it doesn't do much good unless we keep the House, gain the Senate, and take some more state legislatures.