Monday, February 28, 2005

John Grisham Can't Count

Just finished Grisham's "A Painted House", which is supposed to be semi-autobiographical. The 7-year old boy who narrates the story is the child of cotton farmers in Arkansas, with the story taking place during harvest in 1952. It's good, evoking the time and place, but not a thriller in his usual mode.

Turns out that Grisham is actually 50, so he's 10 years younger than the hero. That may explain the math errors in the book, which only a crazed bureaucrat would pick up on. Supposedly the family (3 generations) is farming 80 rented acres. The situation is that the crop is good, but pickers are needed to harvest the cotton. The pickers are a family of "hill people" and a set of 10 Mexicans (no blacks in the story, which was a surprise). Grisham gets a variety of characters and plot points out of the intermixture of locals and pickers.

Unfortunately, he says the cotton is 500 pounds per acre (sounds about right), so they have 40,000 pounds of cotton to pick. Given the workforce (10 Mexicans, 6 hill people, father, grandfather) and an average 400 lb per person, the cotton could have been picked in a week or 10 days. The book spreads the picking over a month or so, then a flood ruins a third of the crop, so the family heads to Flint to work in the car factories.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Summers and Idiocy

Only a total idiot would comment on the Dr. Summers controversy, so here it goes:

His first cause for the low number of women in science was the need for near total commitment to the profession/job, the need to work 80 hours a week to make one's mark. He called for consideration of: "Is our society right to have familial arrangements in which women are asked to make that choice and asked more to make that choice than men?"

One thing I don't understand is why scientists would be more apt to work long hours than other occupations, whether it's law, social scientists, business, moviemakers, or whatever. Even bureaucrats have been known to work long hours at times. I'm not sure Summers has data for this assertion, but it seems to have been skipped over in all the controversy over his other statements.

Added on Feb. 23
says, some women will always
I can understand why people work 80 hours--the desire to perform is addictive. But as Anne Applebaum says here some women will always choose to devote energy to children. That must mean that, unless women are on average smarter than men (quite possible), we won't ever have equality in the outcomes. Summers was speaking universally, but, except for Israeli kibbutzes, using American data. I wonder whether other cultures achieve excellence with a 50 hour week? I would if it's possible for us to become less competitive? (It's been a while since I read "The Winner-Take-All Society" but it might be relevant.)

Added evening of Feb. 23

According to an article in the New York Review of Books reviewing The Fly in the Cathedral (on splitting the atom by Lord Rutherford's in a race with Lawrence), in Rutherford's physics lab the rule was everyone out by 6 pm and 4 times a year the lab was closed for 2 week vacations. The lab won several Nobels.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Buggy Wheels, Automobiles, Bill Gates and Bernstein

Fair Warning: I'm about to violate the first commandment of blogging: Thou shalt only write what you know.

Professor Bernstein at has problems with this article on liability law and the introduction of cars. I am sure his criticisms of the literature are well founded, but my take differs from his and Prof. Clarke. I'm influenced by the writings of Profs. Henry Petroski, on the evolution of technology, and Clayton Christianson, notably "The Innovator's Dilemma". From them I take the lesson that technologies rest within a network of values, organizations, related technologies, etc. Innovations may evolve from experience and learning within a given environment, or break the context. Big innovations don't automatically represent progress, but a different package of costs, benefits and values than the dominant technology. And from Petroski, failure is necessary to learn.

The horse and buggy represented the dominant technology, with roads, watering troughs, oat fields, barns, manure removal, etc. all in place. The design of the buggy had evolved, and represented a compromise of materials for strength, lightness, cheapness, etc.

Comes the automobile and the roads are too bumpy, the gas pumps are missing, the oats are unneeded. Speeding along at higher speeds put new stresses on wheels and axles so that designs that worked for buggies wouldn't work for cars. Instead of being supported on four strong legs, the motive power is put in the carriage, increasing the load on the suspension and wheels.
Clarke states that: "Corporations thus faced a choice between acquiring the knowledge needed to design a safe product and exercising power in the market to impose the costs of defects on consumers...." and argues that they opted to impose the costs on consumers.

From the Petroski perspective, there was no realistic choice--in order to learn, the car manufacturers had to try and fail. In a theoretical world, they could have spent 20 years in the lab, testing the strength of materials. But in the real world, they relied on the early adopters to pioneer the systems needed for the car culture, the gas pumps, the better roads, the parts and service (remember the Jeff Bridges character in Seabiscuit). (Maybe, to males, the possibility of failure and accidents is an incentive?)

As I skimmed Clarke, there seemed a parallel to the world of PC's in 1975-95: lots of experimentation, lots of bugs, "never buy version 1.0 of anything", Bill Gates and his untested software. Just read your software licenses to see what rights you have as a consumer. What we end up with represents a compromise.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

City Dwellers Plow Money Into Farmland

According to the LA Times outside investors are buying farmland, hiring professional farm managers to manage the land, who in turn hire "farmers" to do the work. The "farmers" don't call the shots nor take the risk.

It's part of a larger trend, first seen in hybrid seed production (not sure when it started) for the risk to move away from the person getting his/her hands dirty. The seed companies had to prescribe very tight conditions to the growers to get quality seed, so in turn they assumed much of the risk. Poultry (beginning in the 50's) and now hogs are part of vertical integration, where a company contracts with a grower for x number of (birds/eggs/hogs). Part of this is reducing the number of decision makers in an industry so there's less of a free market and less volatility, therefore less risk. It's the rationalization of an industry, perhaps much like old John D. Rockefeller did with oil in the original Standard Oil trust.

The investment in land also reminds me of the land boom in the 1970's. As they said then, God isn't making any more land. But it's also true that the boom went bust in the 1980's with lots of heart ache for many people. It doesn't sound as if it's gotten to the bubble stage yet, but the professoriate does say that one of the effects of farm programs is to increase land value--land owners capitalize the programs I think is their terminology. It would be ironic if Bush in the next farm bill and the WTO negotiations achieves cuts that also trigger a severe drop in land prices.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Cotton versus Grapes, NYTimes Farm Subsidy

Michael Egan has an interesting article including this:

"most other farmers here [California--Central Valley] in the nation's leading agriculture state who grow fruits, nuts and vegetables - nearly half of all American crops - generally get little or nothing from the government, because they have been viewed as self-sustaining.

But growers of wheat, corn, cotton, rice, soybeans - the big commodity crops in the world market - received the bulk of more than $130 billion given to farmers in the last nine years, a record. The rationale for the payments has been to keep domestic agriculture, or at least one segment of it, stable and competitive."

It's a good article, comparing cotton and grape producers, and pointing out the possibility that, if subsidies were ended, land now devoted to cotton might be used for other crops.

But, there's always a but. Historically (i.e., New Deal) crops subject to the farm programs were those with large acreages, broadly distributed (hence able to attract broad political support) and storable. Grains and fibers, tobacco, peanuts are all storable. Fruits and vegetables are not. The basic economics of agriculture (which include the inelastic demand curve and the large number of farmers compared to the small number of buyers, which makes prices volatile and leads in a free market to surpluses) work particularly when the commodity is storable. A surplus one year gets stored, which means prices are likely to be lower next year, which means that farmers will expand their production to get the same return, and the expanded production further increase the storage. Fruits and vegetables are not stable, just look at the price of grapefruit last fall after the hurricanes. Some of their economics are the same as for the staple crops (inelastic demand, price taking instead of price making) but it depends on the crop--annuals versus perennials in particular. The New Deal adopted different measures for different crops, Section 32 support for potatoes, marketing agreements for many fruits, etc.

The threat of the cotton producer to invade the fruit and vegetable market is half real. The fine print of the Freedom to Farm Act of 1996, which supposedly freed grain and cotton producers to produce anything, included a provision to protect fruit and vegetable growers. So the growers fear the threat. It's only half real because land, equipment, markets and expertise aren't fully interchangeable.

As for the subsidies that grape growers don't get, it all depends on the meaning of the word "subsidy". If it means a government check, that's one thing. Although I remember our making disaster payments to raisin growers in the mid 80's. (If if rains on grapes drying in the sun, is that a natural disaster? Bureaucrats worry about such things.) Grape growers do profit from "indirect subsidies", such as Federally subsidized crop insurance, and research on grape varieties and diseases (592 hits on the Agricultural Research Service site.) Typically the NYTimes, particularly its editorial page, includes indirect subsidies when they attack world spending on agriculture.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

African -American Museum on Mall--Proposal

President Bush backed an African-American museum on the mall last week. Four sites are being considered--"The two possibilities on the Mall are the Smithsonian's aging Arts and Industries Building, on the south side of the Mall, just west of the Hirshhorn Museum, and an open block at 14th and Constitution, 250 yards northeast of the Washington Monument.

"The president's view does carry some weight, but everyone has to realize the realities of building on the Mall. The Arts and Industries Building would not be a signature building. Some people want a statement. The 14th and Constitution Avenue site might be controversial because of its proximity to the Washington Monument grounds," " said Sheila Burke, Smithsonian official quoted in the Post piece.

I've a modest proposal--take over the USDA Administration Building at the corner of 14th and Independence. The location is the best of any, being higher than the 14th and Constitution. I'm no architectural critic, but the Administration building is IMHO more impressive than the Arts and Industries building. Agriculture is the only department to have offices between Constitution and Independence. It would have a symbolic message as well, given both the historic connection of agriculture and blacks and more specifically the extensive litigation between black farmers and USDA. We could view it as symbolic reparations. As for any problems with USDA, the department is currently renovating the South Building on the south side of Independence, so plans could be changed to provide suitable space for the Secretary. (The northwest corner of the 6th floor has a great view of the White House and Mall, so the Secretary would still have prime real estate.)

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Second Thoughts about Working the Dark Side

Right after 9/11, Vice President Cheney talked about having to "work the dark side", to collaborate with unsavory characters in order to combat Al Qaeda. Given the temper of the times, he had no critics that were heard. We Americans were all in the heat of revenge, ready to commit to anything.

Today's New York Times carries an article suggesting that the CIA now feels a lack of support for long term retention of detainees and for interrogation practices that may border on torture.

This is a classic case of how bureaucracies work, which is how humans work: A flush of emotion and the politicians create a new initiative. (Actually, in this case, the CIA may have reverted back to the derringdo days of William Casey or Allen Dulles.) The cautions that may have been offered by bureaucrats and lawyers in the CIA who remembered the pain of past Congressional investigations were overriden. Compare this to the flush of a new love, which may override the cautions of conscience or counselors.

But as time goes by, the people involved in the effort are subject to other influences. Practical concerns that may have been ignored initially (what do you do with a terrorist after you've gotten all his information?) come to the fore, values that were forgotten and self-images that are precious (Americans are humane, not torturers, we give to tsunami victims, we don't waterboard) revive. The media that once egged on the initiative (consider what would have happened if our Vice President on September 20, 2001 had said it's more important to follow the rule of law than to get bin Laden) now find stories in the faults of the initiative. Compare this to the remorse suffered by someone who couldn't cope with the results of the initial decision.

Bureaucrats are sometimes the voice of reason, but they're sometimes the dead hand of the past.

Monday, February 14, 2005

The Sieve of Love

Three interesting articles on love Sunday and Monday, all of which touch on the fact that people are marrying later and later.

1 Here in the Post magazine a Washington Post editor describes the "Rules of Engagement" imposed in the very businesslike marriage counseling sessions in the suburban church she and her fiance belong to. Very realistic, very strict (almost like Bob Jones University rules for dating) and very different from the 1 day session my wife and I had in the Catholic Church 20+ years ago. The church appears to be one of the growing nondenominational evangelical churches that seem so common these days.

2 Here in the NY Times magazine is an article on three different modern matchmakers, two doing it for money. All seem to be working in the professional classes, professors, lawyers, stockbrokers and such. (One charges $20K for her services.!) They seem to function as screeners, winnowing out the unsuitable, nudging along the process, convincing people to be realistic and not unrealistically choosy.

3 Finally, William Raspberry, a columnist I like very much, in today's Post discusses the decline of romance on the Duke campus, where he's teaching. Dating is out, "hooking up" is in. I thought the key was in this quote: "Several young women said -- sadly, I thought -- that they don't really expect to find their future husbands in such encounters [hooking up]. They see it, they told me, as a college thing, a phase. Grad school is soon enough to start taking relationships seriously."

I think that's the key, with the emphasis on degrees and success, people don't plan to find their spouse in college, but after college. That means they have the world to choose from, but narrowing down the choices is hard, there's no convenient way to sieve the grain from the chaff. (See the Paradox of Choice, a book I mean to read, for discussion of problems resulting from having too many choices.) Some may do it by joining churches, others may invest in dating services, or if they have lots of money, a matchmaker.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

A Question of Type

To a bureaucrat, Richard Clarke's Jan. 25, 2001 Memo to Condi: is interesting on a couple of points.

First is evidence of scrambling to get the ear of the new administration, using any opening available. That's standard. It fits one picture of Clarke, as someone sharp, with sharp elbows, who pushes his position and himself. It's not clear from the press reports, nor from the fast read I gave his book, whether he's the stereotypical staff person, skilled in holding meetings and coordination, or someone who can get something done. (Note my biases--I view myself as the latter, not the former, though I held a hell of a lot of coordination meetings. The problem with coordination is that you end up dealing with human inertia, which leads to the second point.)

Second is that the memo is monospaced type, not proportional space. This is an obsession of mine. The tipoff that Rathergate's documents were forged was the fact that they were proportional spaced, rather than the monospacing typical of typewriters and most early word processors. It took the laser printer to make proportional spacing really feasible. So it's been 15 years or so--why is Clarke still using monospacing? (Proportional spacing not only looks better, it's more efficient, readers comprehend text in well designed fonts faster and better.) Answer: inertia. And the lack of competition to trigger a change.

The Burden of the Past

USAID in 1999 was still using all caps and Courier 10 according to this excerpt from their on-line instruction manual:

OFDA Cable Course: "
What are all the fields at the top of the cable? Why are all-caps used when writing a cable?

The cable is composed of two general areas: the 'header' and the 'content' areas. The header contains all the addressing information (for action and information), as well as information about who generated the cable, who authorized the cable to be sent, who was included on the cable's distribution, when and from where it was sent. Because of the relative antiquity of the cabling system, all-caps are used as a convention- the cable processing system is programmed to recognize these characters. For the same reason, cables must be written using Courier 10 font only. The State Department is working on a more updated system of cable generation and transmission, though this is still some time distant."

All caps dates back to the days of the teletype. A Teletype model 33 could just handle all caps, using a 64 character sub set of ASCII. (That was the printer used for the first PC's, back before they were PC's.) Going to lower case doubled your memory requirement. As a result, some think that God spoke in all caps. Courier and Elite were the two popular mono-spaced type faces used on all typewriters before the advent of the IBM Selectric with its golf ball font element. With all the characters on the ball, you could change type faces easily, though they still had to be monospaced. Monospacing was also key to easy OCR (by the mid-60's, we had OCR that worked with special type faces. From the excerpt, it sounds as if State used OCR on their incoming cables. Of course, between 1965 and 1999 there's been 34 years of advance in OCR, so there's no excuse to using Courier 10 these days.

Why does it matter? Tests have proved that typeface design makes a significant difference in reader comprehension and the visual appeal of the printed copy. Maybe if Dean Rusk and McNamara hadn't been forced to read Courier 10, we never would have made the commitments in Vietnam that we did.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Klinkenborg, Revisited

Klinkenborg's column attracted 3 letters. One said diverse agriculture in Iowa needed to develop, one said Iowa needs to focus on getting people to return (as opposed to keeping the young) and one said the problem is bigger than industrial agriculture:

The New York Times > Opinion > Try to Imagine the Iowa of My Dreams (3 Letters): "I left Iowa after high school eight years ago in order to learn from a broader diversity of people and experiences than Iowa could offer. I cherished my Iowa roots, but I needed to see the world."
I suspect the original column and the letters partially explain the big expenditures on farm programs. All of us who left the farm are nostalgic and maybe a bit guilty about the decision. And those who never lived on a farm are still subject to the sentimentality. Interest groups are another part of the explanation.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Washington's Crossing Books: Washington's Crossing (Pivotal Moments in American History)

I recommend this book by David Hackett Fischer. Well written, thoroughly researched, and thought provoking. Essentially covers about a year, the spring of 1776 to spring of 1777, from Washington's loss of New York City, through the battles of Trenton and Princeton, then the "forage war" in New Jersey. It's thorough and balanced. One thing surprising to me was his description of the American emphasis on technology, they used proportionately more artillery for their formations than did the British. I'd been reared on the Green Mountain Boys capturing Fort Ticonderoga, then Henry Knox dragging the cannon from the Fort to Boston in order to drive out the Brits. That gave me the impression that Washington was always short of artillery. Apparently not true. Fischer ties this into the American way of war--an emphasis on avoiding casualties, particularly important for a democracy.

I've also seen arguments that in the 20th century we relied on overwhelming materiel to win, rather than the quality of our soldiers and generals. It ties into the idea that Europeans conquered the Americas by the intimidation of their technology (see Prescott's book on The Conquest of Mexico, a book I read several times growing up). But there's the counter argument that the technology wasn't that great--see Ben Franklin's argument for bows and arrows. There was also a note in the DVD of "Lonesome Dove" saying that the Indian-white wars in Texas were balanced until multiple shot revolvers arrived.

But back to Fischer--he also has an interesting essay on the historiography and iconography of the crossing that in itself is a window into American intellectual history.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Verlyn Klinkenborg and "the pollution of factory farming"

Mr. Klinkenborg writes periodically on the NY Times editorial page, mostly on nature and rural living. I usually enjoy him, as he's a good writer and often elicits my nostalgia for the farm of my youth. But romantic visions can be misleading, and today he went too far for my taste. He goes back to Iowa, where he was born, to talk about the loss of population:
The New York Times > Opinion > Editorial Observer: Keeping Iowa's Young Folks at Home After They've Seen Minnesota: "The problems Iowa faces are the very solutions it chose two and three generations ago. The state's demographic dilemma wasn't caused by bad weather or high income taxes or the lack of a body of water larger than Rathbun Lake - an Army Corps of Engineers reservoir sometimes known as 'Iowa's ocean.' It was caused by the state's wholehearted, uncritical embrace of industrial agriculture, which has depopulated the countryside, destroyed the economic and social texture of small towns, and made certain that ordinary Iowans are defenseless against the pollution of factory farming."
My problem is with the last sentence. "Industrial agriculture" is pejorative, not descriptive. "Market agriculture" is more neutral, with "mass market agriculture" close to what he wants to attack. Most ordinary Iowans, like most ordinary Americans, have embraced most aspects of the market economy for generations. Indeed, cities began when some farmers had a marketable surplus to sell to city people. Urban dwellers could spend their time on governance, war, justice, art, and writing editorials to be distributed through a network produced by industry, all made possible by efficient agriculture.

Are there problems with the current structure of agriculture? Sure. But we need to recognize agriculture for what it is, the result of the individual decisions of millions of people over the years. Now many people have the disposable income to pay premiums for organic and exotic products (and I hope they all patronize Whole Foods, I've got stock in it), but please don't demonize. The "industrial" farmers today are caught in much the same vice as those 150 years ago: get bigger, get more efficient, or go under. It's the economic logic of mass market agriculture. When the first farmer replaced the digging stick with an ox or horse drawn plow, he was starting down the road to the pollution of factory farming.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

EWG || Farm Subsidy Database

EWG || Farm Subsidy Database:
This shows the top ranking recipients of farm subsidies for 2003
"Rank Recipient* Location Total USDA - Subsidies
1 Riceland Foods Inc Stuttgart, AR 72160 $68,942,419
2 Producers Rice Mill Inc Stuttgart, AR 72160 $51,400,838
3 Farmers Rice Coop Sacramento, CA 95851 $17,914,254
4 Pilgrim's Pride Corporation Pittsburg, TX 75686 $11,401,045
5 Ducks Unlimited Inc Rancho Cordova, CA 95670 $7,078,200
6 Cargill Turkey Products Harrisonburg, VA 22801 $6,693,286
7 Ute Mountain Tribe Towaoc, CO 81334 $4,035,347
8 Dnrc Trust Land Management - Exem Helena, MT 59620 $3,106,805
9 Attebury Grain Co Amarillo, TX 79105 $2,971,143
10 Bureau Of Indian Affairs Horton, KS 66439 $2,655,353
11 Ute Mountain Ute Farm & Ranch Ent Towaoc, CO 81334 $2,606,189
12 Colorado River Indian Tribes Farm Parker, AZ 85344 $2,479,854
13 Dublin Farms Corcoran, CA 93212 $2,442,748
14 Richmond Farming Altheimer, AR 72004 $2,208,672
15 Dale Bone Farms Partnership Nashville, NC 27856 $2,106,825
16 Tyler Farms Helena, AR 72342 $2,102,799
17 Perthshire Farms Gunnison, MS 38746 $2,101,931
18 Phillips Farms Holly Bluff, MS 39088 $2,065,876
19 Catron Farms Helena, AR 72342 $2,025,697
20 Ak-chin Farms Maricopa, AZ 85239 $2,001,025"

1Riceland Foods IncStuttgart, AR 72160$68,942,419
2Producers Rice Mill IncStuttgart, AR 72160$51,400,838
3Farmers Rice CoopSacramento, CA 95851$17,914,254
4Pilgrim's Pride CorporationPittsburg, TX 75686$11,401,045
5Ducks Unlimited IncRancho Cordova, CA 95670$7,078,200
6Cargill Turkey ProductsHarrisonburg, VA 22801$6,693,286
7Ute Mountain TribeTowaoc, CO 81334$4,035,347
8Dnrc Trust Land Management - ExemHelena, MT 59620$3,106,805
9Attebury Grain CoAmarillo, TX 79105$2,971,143
10Bureau Of Indian AffairsHorton, KS 66439$2,655,353
11Ute Mountain Ute Farm & Ranch EntTowaoc, CO 81334$2,606,189
12Colorado River Indian Tribes FarmParker, AZ 85344$2,479,854
13Dublin FarmsCorcoran, CA 93212$2,442,748
14Richmond FarmingAltheimer, AR 72004$2,208,672
15Dale Bone Farms PartnershipNashville, NC 27856$2,106,825
16Tyler FarmsHelena, AR 72342$2,102,799
17Perthshire FarmsGunnison, MS 38746$2,101,931
18Phillips FarmsHolly Bluff, MS 39088$2,065,876
19Catron FarmsHelena, AR 72342$2,025,697
20Ak-chin FarmsMaricopa, AZ 85239$2,001,025

Some comments by number--
1, 2, and 3 are all rice marketing cooperatives--organizations that market rice on behalf of their members and therefore collect some subsidies on their behalf as well. Thus it's misleading to have them at the top. (I assume for whatever reason USDA hasn't given, or EWG hasn't tried to get, the data necessary to break the money down to the member level.
No. 4 Pilgrim's Pride got 99 percent of its money under Avian Influenza Indemnity program.
No. 5 Ducks Unlimited got 99 percent of its money under the Wetland Reserve program.
No. 6 Cargill got 99 percent of its money under the Avian Influenza Indemnity program.
No. 7 Ute Mountain tribe appears to be an Indian tribe, 99 percent of money under 2003 disaster.
No. 8, DNRC is the state of Montana, which retained a lot of public domain land from the 19th century and leases it out. States and some other public institutions have been exempt from the payment limitation in the past.
No. 9 Attebury Farm got most of its money under disaster--Karnal Bunt program.
No.10, BIA, is receiving subsidies on behalf of Indians who own allotment land (dating back to the days when the white man was breaking up reservations, alloting land to Indians with the hope they'd become "civilized". (Farm subsidies is a small part of the money that BIA didn't keep good records of, hence the lawsuit before Judge Sentelle.
No. 11--might be also Indian, see 7.
No. 12 sounds like a tribal entity to me--where checks are written to the tribe, which is then responsible for distributing the money.
No. 12 is cotton
No. 13 Dublin Farms is cotton and rice. (Note-- if you follow down and find its ownership interests it's owned by 17 corporations (all Irish names).
No. 14 is cotton and rice, again with corporations as owners
No. 15 Dale Boone is a newish corporation with individual owners
No. 16 Tyler fArms is cotton and rice with no ownership shown.
No. 17-20 look to be delta cotton and rice farms.

Misunderstanding Farm Programs--Who is a Person II

Warning: Payment limitation rules change and are complex, so I may be wrong. See the FSA fact sheet for more. To follow on with the examples in the previous post.

Husband and wife are usually one "person", but not always. (The rule has been impacted by feminist lobbying over the years.)

For legal entities, a very general rule is that if the entity involves 2 or more people and IRS requires a tax return for the entity, it's a "person". If IRS has the entity's income pass through to the individuals, it's not. If there's an individual with majority interest, the entity and individual are one "person".

Monday, February 07, 2005

Misunderstanding Farm Programs--Who is a Person

The administration proposes to limit payments to $250,000 per person. What is a "person"?

I well remember in the late 1980's a farmer writing in to complain (probably to his Congressman) about a letter he received from his local ASCS* office saying that he had been determined to be a person! He thought he'd been one all along.

Payment limitations have been a feature of farm programs for over 30 years. Congress, in its wisdom, began writing the limitation as "xxxxx dollars per person". It seemed clear enough to them: a person is a person is a person.

But not so fast. Nothing is simple to bureaucrats, because they have to try to match simple-minded laws to complex reality (in my objective view. In your view, they may just be fulfilling their anal-obsessive compulsions and/or creating work for themselves. )

If you're a bureaucrat, you ask questions like:

Should husband and wife who operate a farm (think Grant Woods' American Gothic) count as two people?

What happens if two brothers have a partnership--are they two people?

How about a parent/son corporation, with husband, wife, and son equal shareholders?

How about the Methodist church, when a parishioner with no children wills his farm to the church?

* ASCS= Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service--the name of the agency that administered most farm programs between 1961 and 1994.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Misunderstanding Farm Programs (1 of X)

Here we go, according to a Farm Belt paper and the Grey Lady: "President Bush wants to slash farm payments to the nation's largest farms as part of a plan to reduce federal agricultural spending by 3 percent next year.

In setting a firm overall limit of $250,000, the president's plan would tighten requirements for the recipients of such payments to be "actively engaged" in agriculture, and it would generally prevent farmers from claiming additional payments through multiple entities.
There are a lot of issues with the farm programs we currently have, but the press does not do a good job in explaining them. As President and Congress fight over this issue I plan to comment and explain. A couple things to be careful of:

"subsidy" --the last time I checked the dictionary it meant a payment, but it's often expanded to include indirect subsidies, tariff barriers, tax provisions, etc. While that's a common tactic of interest groups, the Times, at least, has not usually made the distinction when it comes to farm programs.

"farmers"/"recipients" --one of the biggest areas of confusion is between what when I was in USDA we called "warm bodies" and those who aren't. No, we weren't talking about dead people but about legal entities, such as trusts, joint ventures, partnerships, corporations, etc. The other big distinction is between those with dirt under their fingernails and those with clean hands.

More to follow

Friday, February 04, 2005

Big Computer Projects--II, The FBI

Government Executive Magazine - 12/20/02 Inspector general blames top FBI officials for technology failures

Critics of the FBI, including historians and officials who have served on committees investigating the agency’s problems, have repeatedly cited senior officials’ lack of interest in managing technology as a top cause of its failings.

Trilogy and SAIC--Big Computer Projects

In a typical piece of grandstanding back in early February, the Senate subcommittee had witnesses on the Trilogy project to grab attention, but ran out of time for the testimony from SAIC.

SAIC: Arnold Punaro's Record Testimony, Prepared for the Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, State and the Judiciary U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations: "The September 11, 2001, attacks had as profound an affect on this project as it did elsewhere in the nation. Following 9/11, the Bureau faced enormous and sometimes conflicting pressures. Prior to the attack, the Bureau was dealing with revelations that a spy, Robert Hansen, had plundered FBI secrets. Security and integrity of information is a fundamental issue for the FBI. After the attack, it faced three often conflicting demands:

* The need to share information in the post-9/11 world so authorized personnel could both see and connect the dots to analyze and exploit intelligence.
* The need, in the post-Hansen world, to prevent all but a few specifically authorized people from seeing truly sensitive information.
* The need to ensure admissibility of investigative information in court in keeping with the complex body of legal, policy, and Attorney General Guidelines under which the Bureau operates.

Thus, the FBI faces a task of great difficulty and complexity in building an information technology system that simultaneously meets all three imperatives"

Big Computer Projects--I, The FBI

This dates back to February, but I'm trying to catch up.

FBI's Trilogy automation project has run into problems, with the Virtual Case File system being scrapped at a cost of $100+ million. FRom the SAIC statement:

"Probably the most damaging aspect of this development environment was the ever-shifting nature of the requirements. SAIC development teams would meet with the FBI agents assigned to the project to elicit system requirements, then SAIC would translate that into software designs. Often, however, the agents would look at the development product and reject it. They would then demand more changes to the design in a trial-and-error, "we-will-know-it-when-we-see-it" approach to development. The turbulence was not limited to the immediate changes demanded. They would ripple though the related parts of the software design. This cycle was repeated over and over again and prevented SAIC from defining system acceptance criteria and suitable test standards until requirements were finally agreed under VCF IOC this past summer. SAIC expressed concern over the affect of these changes on cost and schedule; however, we clearly failed to get the cumulative effect of these changes across to the FBI customer. We accept responsibility for this failure to elevate our concerns."
This sounds very familiar, from my experience in USDA. I suspect SAIC was trying to get requirements from agents who weren't used to self-examination, or to automation projects, or both. It's also likely that the agents the FBI assigned to the project were not the stars; you wouldn't become a hero in the FBI by knowing software, you'd become a hero by getting Dillinger or a capo.

I'd also say this shows a set of problems in contracting out work, specifically illusions/delusions on both sides. The government believes they know what they want, and believes the contractor can read their mind and do anything. The contractor/bidder believes they understand the government and is willing for the money to promise to do anything. The incentives are to enter into the contract, hoping one can get by.

In this case it appears that "mission creep" is the villain--SAIC was on board before 9/11 when the concern was partially to protect against more Robert Hansens, and stayed on board after 9/11 when the concern was to share information across the agency. Sharing information is also not a virtue in the FBI history.

On Timetables (Jim Lindgren on

"Jim Lindgren, at says:
When People Urge a Timetable, What are They Talking About?—

I frankly admit that I have no expertise in military strategy, yet I have been feeling particularly dense lately. When I read the calls for a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, I can't for the life of me figure out what the heck they are talking about.

The time to talk about a timetable for withdrawal is when the mission is over. Then you start asking: Why are we still there? Should we set a timetable for withdrawal? But our troops are sorely needed right now. Things are still pretty dodgy, as Harry Reid and Ted Kennedy surely realize..."

I don't know much about military strategy either, but as a (retired) bureaucrat I was familiar with doing timetables.

"Timetable" is a metaphor--a railroad timetable has three features; the destination, the sequence of stops, and the scheduled times of arrival and departure at each. My timetables started with Congress passing a law for a farm program--we had to sign up farmers and pay them X billion by date Y. To create the timetable you had to work backward from that destination.

The problem with the timetable metaphor (the "roadmap" has similar problems) is that Americans don't agree on goals and the situation. What is "winning the war"? Is the goal a democracy like Switzerland (also divided by religion and ethnicity) because we are dealing with a straightforward conflict with remnants of Hussein's regime, that will end with the killing or capture of the insurgents? Is the goal simply a state that is not friendly to Islamic fundamentalists, because Iraq is currently a battleground in the worldwide war on terror? Could we live with a Shia dictator like Mubarak or Musharraf?

Or are we dealing with an incipient Sunni-Shia civil war, somewhere on the continuum between the Catholic-Protestant clashes in Northern Ireland since 1968, the Balkans during the 90's and the Tamil insurgency in Sri Lanka? Can the US successfully be a neutral third party or will we end up like the British Army in Ulster?

If statistics show the number of insurgents increasing, is that because foreigners are flowing in for jihad, because Sunnis are getting pissed off at the disorder and destruction and holding the US responsible or because we're getting better at counting?

I suggest that if Jim Lindgren and the Democrats agreed on the answers to these questions they'd agree on whether a timetable is wise. By the way, Democrats could point to President Nixon for a precedent in setting a timetable in the midst of combat. In his national speech on November 3, 1969
" We have adopted a plan which we have worked out in cooperation with the South Vietnamese for the complete withdrawal of all U.S. combat ground forces, and their replacement by South Vietnamese forces on an orderly scheduled timetable.[emphasis added] This withdrawal will be made from strength and not from weakness. As South Vietnamese forces become stronger, the rate of American withdrawal can become greater. "
Alternatively, a cynic might say Kennedy is simply what Congressional opponents of a President do to score points. Everyone likes timetables, it's a quick sound bite without taking a position where you might be wrong. After all, not only did the Republicans beat up on Clinton about a timetable for Bosnia, they put it in the law. (See Section 1205 of the National Defense Authorization Act of 1998 Also, see Senator Hutchison ) It flows from the Constitution--Congress can posture and pout while the President has to exercise energy in managing war and foreign policy, just as the founders intended.

Or, going back to bureaucracy, one could look to the latent function of my timetables. They were distributed to our field offices. Field employees liked them, I was never sure whether it was the information or because they gave the impression bigshots in Washington knew what they were doing (always a dubious assumption to field level bureaucrats). From that standpoint, Democrats have little faith in Bush, just as Republicans had little faith in Clinton, so timetables seem useful.

Or, it's simply a rhetorical device, like the pose of not understanding an issue in order better to attack one's opponents.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Bureaucratic Chutzpah--Catch 22

Re the post on bureaucratic chutzpah: It's been decades since I read Catch 22 (is it still popular). My memory is that "catch-22" fits my previous discussion--two bureaucracies with separate rules intersecting. One bureaucracy is the Army Air Force (see James Q. Wilson's Bureaucracy for the view that the military is just another bureaucracy). It says--pilots must be sane. Makes sense to me. The other bureaucracy is the medicos. It says--anyone who fears combat missions and wants out is sane. Also makes sense, at least on first impression. Put the two together and you have catch-22.

Bureaucratic Chutzpah

Israel Seizes Palestinian Land in Jerusalem Cut Off by Barrier (

"Israel has quietly seized large tracts of Jerusalem land owned by Palestinian residents of the West Bank after they were cut off from their property by Israel's separation barrier, attorneys for the landowners said.

The land was taken after the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided several months ago to enforce a long-dormant law that allows Israel to seize lands of Palestinians who fled or were driven out during the 1948-49 war that followed the establishment of the Jewish state. "

Based on the report, this strikes me as a early contender for bureaucratic chutzpah of the year. The implication in the article is that the "landowner" is present, but legally "absentee" because he can't cross the separation barrier. (You remember the definition of "chutzpah"--the son kills his parents then begs for mercy because he's an orphan.)

But, what may really be going on is two different bureaucracies at work--one the Israeli military/security system determining the path and rules for the barrier and the other the justice system rousing* itself to enforce a law. That would be consistent with the chutzpah definition: we have rules for what an "orphan" is and how an orphan is to be treated, we also have rules for handling murderers. Put the two sets of rules together and you have a joke, the sort of joke that often occurs at the intersection of two bureaucracies.

(*Update: The New York Times has more detail.
Apparently "rousing" isn't correct, the law is being stretched. )

(Updated II: The NYTimes says Israel's Attorney General has nixed this.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Making Sense of the News

[Warning–this piece applies stereotypes from my school days, close to 50 years ago. A nod to the late Meg Greenfield, Washington Post editor, who observed all Washington was variation on high school.]

Items from today's (2-1-05) NYTimes and Post: Bernie Ebbers is on trial, immature teenage brains don't mature until the mid-20's, religions compete for adherents, and the former science editor of the NYTimes recounts her unpleasant experiences as a woman in male-dominated science.

Scientists have shown by MRI's that teenage brains are awash in a sea of emotions, ungoverned by wisdom and thought, highly susceptible to peer influences, aiming for eminence and distinction, yet dependent on the comfort of the group. Now they're saying we don't mature until 25 or so (some people, humorists especially are never mature).

Mr. Ebbers is reported to have denied any accounting expertise by pointing out that he was a phys ed major in college. This is intended to distance himself from responsibility for the accounting frauds that took MCI-Worldcom into bankruptcy.

Take yourself back to the 60's–the young Bernie Ebbers in high school is one of the jocks, who are the apex of the social pyramid. The jocks look down on the brains, who are interested in such things as math and science. Some of the jocks have brains, some of the brains can jock, but to occupy safe and secure social niches they minimize similarities and accentuate the differences. The male brains, being in a lower position, then become macho, although in a suitably subtle way, in pursuing their interest in math and science, thereby marking off their turf from being invaded by females. (50 years ago the female brains were genetically programed towards marriage, that mutations have since disabled that gene and the one that made females throw from the elbow.)

The women, who've been discouraged from math and science all along, have been winnowed down to a small number. That means the theory of the "tipping point" applies, the intellectual neighborhood has gone to the dogs, and the few remaining women flee to more comfortable intellectual pursuits.

Years pass, and Bernie (do we use the diminutive at his request, or to express our own resentment) has money and position. But he's still maintaining the distinction between him–he's the glorious leader able to hire and fire the brains, who know those accounting mysteries. Real men don't count, they lead. (Thinking of the new personnel system proposed for the Homeland Security department–wouldn't Ebbers have done Sullivan's performance evaluation, so wouldn't he be responsible regardless of how well he understands accounting? )

Take a wider picture–the jocks and nerds and women have settled into ruts, but some miss something, something that a church, a religious belief can fill. Searching for an answer, they look for churches with clear identities, as clear as the identities of the groups in high school. One way for a church to make a mark is to capitalize on anxieties caused by scientific and technological advances. Where some on the left go for radical environmentalism and opposition to genetic modifications, others take the course of attacking Darwin and evolution. It's a rewarding course–there's no need to give up any of the benefits of modern science. But it's easy to take modern science as claiming the high ground of knowledge, and very human to believe anything that will undermine that claim.