Saturday, November 30, 2019

Produce Waste

The PBS Newshour is showing a piece on food waste, featuring an effort in California. It is part of a weeklong effort.  This particular one is laudable, featuring coordinators and software packages. 

But my contrarian side is present whenever I hear an estimate of "pounds of food wasted".  Looking at the produce shown, the pounds wasted include peach pits, watermelon rinds, etc.  I know measuring the "waste" is hard, and maybe there is a benefit to using fuzzy statistics: they stir up activism.  My instinct, however, is that better stats, more solid stats, are the way you build the base for a social movement, for changing norms. 

Friday, November 29, 2019

Technocrats and Bureaucrats

Interesting post here, arguing that Robert Moses represented the peak of technocratic government. As some of the costs of technocracy became apparent (see Jane Jacobs and Robert Caro) progressives turned against technocracy

Beneath America’s deep frustration with government is something else: a deep-seated aversion to power. Progressives resolved decades ago to prevent the public from being bulldozed by another Robert Moses—and the project to diffuse power to the public has succeeded. But the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. The left’s zeal to hamstring government has helped to burnish the right’s argument that government would mess up a one-car parade. The new protections erected to guard against Moses’ second coming have condemned new generations to live in civic infrastructure that is frozen in time.
The piece traces the history of attempts to reinvent Penn Station and the surrounding area, attempts led by a variety of strong-willed people, each with a piece of power, but none able to get past the veto points erected by post-1960 reforms.

As a former bureaucrat, I'm instinctively sympathetic to technocracy.  But I also recognize that power without restraints, like Moses', can result in misguided dreams and worse misdeeds.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

The Mystery of California Deaths

Articles today in the Post and Times on a new study of trends in US death rates.

Much information, including this:
Estimated Excess Deaths From Increasing Midlife Mortality, United States, 2010-2017

Note that while trends are terrible for the upper NE and eastern MW, California and Wyoming are going the other way with OR, NV, and NY not too bad. 

I'd like to know what's going on here, I skimmed quickly through the article and didn't pick up much.  Obesity and smoking are bad, recent immigrants and service industries are good. 

A guess--Asian and Hispanic immigrants might be particularly helpful.  But in the end it's a mystery.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Crime In DC

My title is a bit misleading--this is a report on a poll  asking whether people had, or knew someone who had, been threatened with a gun. 

Notably the results are broken down by DC wards, and as usual east of the Anacostia had the highest exposure/ 

Two things strike me:

  1. the difference between the best wards and the worst is not that great--46 percent versus 28 percent..  Yes, that's a big difference, but based on media reports I would have guessed maybe 85 versus 25.
  2. there's no difference between west of Rock Creek Park, stereotypically white, and the Northeast wards, more stable middle class black neighbors (my image, which may be outdated).
Bottom line: a reminder that one's picture of the world is likely to be wrong.

Monday, November 25, 2019

The Rich and Donations

Here's a Vox post on the donations to charity by the most wealthy Amercans. As Dylan Matthews notes, there are a number of qualifications and cautions in interpreting the figures.  For my purposes,only three billionaires, Bloomberg, Gates, and Buffett gave more than 1 percent of their wealth in the last year.

I may have discussed this before in connection with Warren's proposed wealth tax.  Anyhow, retirees are told they can withdraw 4 percent of their savings and likely not exhaust them before dying.  I think maybe that's a reasonable target: once a person reaches retirement age, between taxes and charity the total should be about 4 percent of wealth.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Where's the House

MSNBC and others have a story that intelligence officials briefed senators on a Russian effort to blame the Ukraine for 2016 election meddling.

That's all very interesting, but what happened to the House.  I understand that protocol, and institutional rivalry, says what you tell the Senate you have to tell to the House.  Why wasn't that followed in this case?

Friday, November 22, 2019

The Hearings

Random points stemming from the now-ended impeachment hearings:

  • I took Fiona Hill as saying Russia interfered with our 2016 as a state project, directed by Putin (I'm intrigued by the possibility that the intelligence community has better sources of information than we know).  The project was hidden and had Russian resources behind it. The project included creating and spreading false information. Conversely, individual Ukrainians mostly openly opposed Trump's election. Their covert actions involved furnishing true information.
  • One of the attacks on the bureaucrats who testified was rooted in suspicion of their political views.  I've no information on that, but I do remember being a bureaucrat during President Reagan's tenure.  I called him the "senior idiot" (and my direct boss the "junior idiot".  I am now and was then a strong Democrat.  However, I reserved my epithets for the ears of my wife, and performed my duties to the best of my ability, getting some awards and some cash for my work, representing decisions by the Republicans heading our agency.  Granted my work was not as politically significant as diplomacy is, but I think it's very reasonable to believe that most bureaucrats, even those with strong political views, can keep their work separate.
  • I've some sympathy with those who aren't comfortable with impeachment based on the current evidence, because of missing witnesses (Bolton, Mulvaney, et. al.) (Also some questions not asked--like the usual process for authorizing and delivering military aid compared to that used for Ukraine).  But, on the other hand, I'm comfortable with the idea that circumstantial evidence can be enough for a guilty verdict in homicide cases.  And, I think circumstantial evidence is what we have here to fill the holes.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

The South and Race Relations

Had an exchange the other day on twitter: the gist was someone was surprised at  a Southern city which was less segregated than common (I forget which city) . I remembered a factoid from long ago suggesting that Northern cities were more rigidly segregated than Southern cities. There was a logic to the pattern which I can't remember.

Anyhow, I ran into this quote today from Rajiv Sethi:
"Fifth, and this came as a surprise to us, many states in the South, including the secessionist states of the former confederacy, have smaller racial disparities in exposure to lethal force than states elsewhere. Many of these Southern states have approximate parity between rates of lethal force faced by black and white civilians in the Guardian data. This is true of Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, Georgia, Arkansas, and Tennessee for example"
There's some caveats to the data, which is from Gunnar Myrdal's effort which produced American Dilemma in 194x. Interesting changes in patterns of homicide and police violence.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

The Guilty Fleeth

Daniel Drezner on twitter pointed out the significance of a question by Rep. Demings--Sondland asked President Trump: what do you want; Trump replied: "I don't want a quid pro quo".

The conversation came after the whistle blower report had come out, so Trump knew things were coming apart.  So it seems that Trump was fleeing before being accused.  My take.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Legalize Pot?

One of my most vivid memories from high school is my science teacher becoming very vehement and emphatic in warning us never to smoke pot.  I believe the basis was the "gateway drug" theory.

Some 20 years or so later, in the 1970's I was living in DC and got selected for jury duty.  At that time we reported to the judicial building every work day for a month and sat around waiting to be called.  One of the trials I was called for related to marijuana, don't remember whether it was for possession or sales.  I asked to be excused from serving on the jury, basing my request on an objection to our marijuana laws.  The request was granted.

I don't remember my views on marijuana laws.  I think I gradually came to support the downgrading of the penalties for possession to a simple ticket, like a traffic violation.  But I think I've always been reluctant to support legalization.  My puritan ethic cautions against it. 

Today it seems the nation supports legalization.  Certainly the Democratic candidates support it. 

Personally I'd feel more comfortable if we held off on national legislation, allowing the various states to do their thing, testing various approaches to legalization and control over the market, taation, etc.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Corporate Profits Up 66 Percent?

I think it was Kevin Drum who noted a big rise in US corporate profits--maybe 66 percent as a percentage of GDP.. If I remember right it was from 6 percent to 10 percent of GDP.  Don't find it now but here's  a chart from the St. Louis Fed showing after tax profits in non-adjusted dollars.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Stefanik and Partisanship

I had a knee-jerk reaction to Rep. Stefanik's actions in the Intelligence Committee hearings on Friday--I immediately followed her 2018 (and 2020) Democratic opponent.

I say it was knee-jerk, because Stefanik is the sort of Republican congressperson I'd like to see elected; that is, the sort I'd like to see the minority composed of.  Over the course of Friday her opponent picked up thousands of Twitter followers and hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions.

I don't know if we can continue to have a significant centrist representation.  Having said that, the reelection of Gov. Edwards in LA is welcome.  Even though his positions are not mine, he's  the most liberal that the Louisiana voters  will accept

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Laws on the Books Wouldn't Have Stopped It

Kevin Drum blogs against this meme as it relates to guns.  I'd expand the point
.
By definition, anything that happens wasn't stopped by the laws on the books.  The stock market setting a new record wasn't stopped by laws.  The 16-year old in Santa Clara wasn't stopped by the laws.  Trump wasn't stopped by the laws.

Do we conclude there's problems with our laws?  No, of course not. Most things the laws aren't intended to stop.  In many cases the laws can stop 90 percent of cases but not the last 10.  Needless to say, we never notice the 90 percent.

(There are also laws poorly written so they don't stop some cases and laws poorly enforced or implemented. )

For any specific case, you need to figure out  into which category it falls.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Who Knew: Marine Heat Waves?

Jstor has a short piece on a paper discussing marine heat waves. 

It's disappointing for the layperson because there's no basic explanation--I never thought of such a thing until 2:30pm Nov. 15, 2019.

Turns out NOAA does research into them and there's a whole organization dedicated to them.  From that site:

WHAT IS A MARINE HEATWAVE?
We know that heatwaves occur in the atmosphere. We are all familiar with these extended periods of excessively hot weather. However, heatwaves can also occur in the ocean and these are known as marine heatwaves, or MHWs. These marine heatwaves, when ocean temperatures are extremely warm for an extended period of time can have significant impacts on marine ecosystems and industries.​ Marine heatwaves can occur in summer or winter - they are defined based on differences with expected temperatures for the location and time of year.
It seems that El Nino is a related phenomenon.  And I assume that since the air and the water are both fluids, you could have some of the same sort of variations in temperature occurring in each.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Bring Technology to Baseball

Reports that the Houston Astros have been stealing catcher's signs; normally okay but not using binoculars.  The Post today had a piece on the methods the Nationals used to counter any sign-stealing. Very elaborate, five different sets of signals, methods to specify which signal of a set was the real one, and methods to switch the set being used at any times.  Sort of reminds me of the code-breaking eploits in WWII.

Someone on twitter today asked about favorite football players to watch.  I'm old enough that Jim Brown, Johnny Unitas and Bart Starr would have been three of my top choices.  The two quarterbacks called their own plays; no mikes in the helmet for them.  Athletically I'm willing to concede that today's players are much more advanced and make more breath-taking plays, but seeing a veteran quarterback pick a defense apart is great.

But we've lost that with football and its mikes, so why not allow catchers a mike in the pitcher's cap so they can call the signal safely.  Might also speed up the game, since the messaging would be simpler and faster than using multiple sets of signals.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Learning in Naval Shipbuilding

It turns out there's a learning curve for shipbuilding, particularly as seen in going from building the first aircraft carrier with a new design to the second, as well as going from an experienced non-computer literate workforce to a younger, inexperienced but computer-literate workforce. 

The New Face of Farming

Farming is open to anyone with the ability to sustain 7 digit losses  year after year. It's called "lifestyle farming" in this Bloomberg article.

(I remember when IBM had its PC printer operation in Lexington KY (later sold to Lexmark), and farms were being subdivided into 5-acre farmettes, raising questions about handling of tobacco quotas.  Or consider the new money in the UK in the 19th century who bought country estates because of the prestige attached to the land. )

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Time to Put Teeth in Records Acts?


The responses say "yes" but there's no enforcement mechanism.   As it turns out, the Presidential REcords Act refers to amendments to the Federal Records Act, most recently  in 2014 to include electronic records on non-official accounts. Specifically: "The last provision forbids officers and employees of the executive branch from using personal email accounts for government business, unless the employee copies all emails to either the originating officer or employee's government email, or to an official government record system to be recorded and archived"

I'd love to see the Archivist of the US given police authority.  (My ex-bureaucratic persona speaking.)

Monday, November 11, 2019

It's Okay to Call Me "Boomer"

I'm at the age where it's nice to be considered as younger than I am.  So go ahead, say: "ok boomer".

Friday, November 08, 2019

Thursday, November 07, 2019

Parable of the Forms

As an ex-bureaucrat I'm always interested in forms.  Here's the link to an academic paper entitled "The Parable of the Forms". The author is trying, I think, to address some issues of legal procedure by translating them into the language of a university bureaucracy.  I was struck by some parallels in USDA history.

Very briefly, when the New Deal created the farm programs in the 1930's it seems each field crop had its own program and, sometimes, its own bureaucracy.  In addition, there were siloed initiatives for conservation, housing, rural regeneration etc.

Over the years there were a number of reorganizations of these basic elements.  Also, over the years and underway when I came on board was a drive to generalize the crop programs.  When I started we had wheat and feed grains, upland cotton, ELS cotton, producer rice, and farm rice. Over time the programs were changed so by the time I retired we just had "program crops" and "ELS cotton", but then we'd added oilseeds, and a number of other categories.

The paper's author argues there's an ebb and flow to the forms issue, and to his legal issue: sometimes focused on the differences in situations and sometimes on the commonalities.  Perhaps there's a similar dynamic with programs.  Or perhaps I'm full of it.

Wednesday, November 06, 2019

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

Voting Today: One of the Fears of Some Trump Supporters

My wife and I just got back from voting in VA. Polls seemed busy, although it was a longer ballot than our June primary election so that might have skewed my impression.

Some photos taken from by the exit of the elementary school room (cafeteria) .

[Updated: who knew that Google photos can make a panorama for you without your asking:

The original photos below]



:






I could have made a pan around the room but that's not something I've learned yet.  I didn't notice the flags around the room at first.  Counted over 30, perhaps more hidden from me in the third picture.  I assume they represent the countries of origin of the students, which explains my reference in tthe title to the fears of Trump supporters.

I suppose in some sense many of the kids have a "dual loyalty".  My ancestors have been in country for 134-300 years or so.  Because I know where they immigrated from I've a bit more interest in Ireland/Ulster/Scotland and Germany than in other countries.  I've also a bit more interest in Vietnam where I served and in China where my aunt and uncle were in the YMCA than in other countries. That interest no doubt can affect my position on issues relating to the countries, as will the much closer ties of the students in this school to their countries.  But the bottomline is they're in the process of assimilating, of absorbing American culture even as the school recognies origins.

BTW, the ballot today had instructions in four languages: English, Spanish, Vietnames, and I think Chinese ideograms.

Monday, November 04, 2019

Farm Progreams: Insurance or Social Program?

I've likely written something on this before, but I'm too lazy to look it up.

There are multiple ways, "frameworks", for looking at farm programs:
  • as a social program. In this view payments should go to farmers based on their need, what they have to have to continue farming.
  • as a reform program.  In this view payments should reward farmers for doing "good" things, like sustainable practices, etc.
  • as an insurance program.  In this view payments should be like insurance, where the size of the payment is proportional to the size of the enterprise.  That is, when you buy homeowners insurance, the amount of coverage is tied to the value of the house.  The same when you buy collision/comprehensive coverage for a car.
It's usual, particularly among liberals, to use the first two frameworks. 

Saturday, November 02, 2019

Friday, November 01, 2019

Soaking the Rich--What's Triviial, What's Possible

I had an early response to Megan McArdle this morning--without doing a lot of work to reconstruct: she wrote that soaking billionaires as Sen. Warren now proposes as part of her financing of Medicare for All would contribute a "trivial" amount; I responded her definition of "trivial" must be different than mine.  Apparently (because I still don't understand Twitter fully) that became part of a bigger discussion.  Coming back to the exchange this afternoon, the points seem to be that billionaires may have between $2 and $3 trillion in wealth, and taxing them as Warren proposes would produce around 4 percent of the total cost. 

Meanwhile Kevin Drum has done a preliminary analysis of the proposal here.  It's a convenient summary but very preliminary.  Anyhow, over 10 years he shows total costs as $52 trillion, the contribution of a 6 percent tax on billionaires as $1 trillion.  That means a contribution of 2 percent of total, which would, I agree, qualify as "trivial".  (IMO 4 percent is a tad above "trivial".)

I should make it clear I'm as ambivalent about soaking the rich as I am about many things.  I've seen the reservations of many on the right, particularly about the difficulties in collection (bureaucratic efficiency is always a big consideration with me.)  But disregarding those issues, here's how I think of it today:

  • I'm told I can withdraw 4 percent of my savings (TSP, IRA) each year and likely maintain my capital.  Anything over 4 percent is likely to cause to me to exhaust my savings.
  • Based on that, it seems reasonable to hit billionaires with a 4 percent yearly tax--their fortunes wouldn't diminish, on average, and any especially productive or lucky entrepreneurs could increase them.
  • Going over 4 percent is killing the goose--you can be decreasing inequality, which is good IMO, but you need to plan to get an alternative revenue source (or finding savings) for the long run.
My opinions are subject to change, particularly as Drum updates his analysis.