Saturday, December 30, 2006

Gerald Ford's Legacy

Two contrasting posts on his legacy: one positive--his support for rescuing Vietnamese refugees over the opposition/disdain of some Democrats in this Post op-ed; the other negative, Tim Noah in Slate on his pardon of Nixon as either or both premature (should have waited for the indictment to specify what he was being pardoned for) or wrong (set a bad precedent, as when George H.W. pardoned Caspar Weinberger (who had been indicted).

Friday, December 29, 2006

Individual Values Versus the System

This Washington Post article is an interesting description of now-retired black men who bowl. (It's part of their continuing series on black men.) They're part of a generation that moved North and found good government jobs (post office/Metro), raised families, moved to the suburbs, put kids through college. Several of the generation (mostly but not entirely female) worked with me at one time or another. One of the things they debate is whether the younger generation has gone to hell, whether the kids blame the system when they should blame themselves (think Bill Cosby).

Over at Greg Mankiw's blog there's a big discussion, sparked by Tyler Cowen's NYTimes column from yesterday, on whether poverty is the fault of the individual or the system. The discussion seems to split two ways--one side says the poor are unwise and don't save, the other says it's the system.

What's interesting is both groups tend to take extreme positions. It's one or the other, but not both.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Cowen and Ownership Society

Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution has his column in the Times today, discussing universal 401K's. (As pushed by Gene Sparling of American Progress.)
The core idea is simple. The federal government creates tax-free retirement accounts for lower-income Americans, supplementing private accounts where they already exist, and matching personal contributions to those accounts. The amount of the match would depend on the income of the family and how much they save.
He seems sympathetic, but points out the likelihood of creating two classes of poor--the one that uses the savings in the 401K wisely, the other that gets sucked into misusing the money. I think that's true. Even for the EITC, which both liberals and conservatives agree is a good measure, there is a problem. Or rather two problems: one of fraud--people claiming the credit who aren't entitled; one of nonuse--people who qualify not applying.

This leads to the age-old question: is a liberal more concerned for equality of opportunity or equality of result. Typical American liberals have mostly said the first; many radicals, either of the Marxian or Christian variety, have said the second.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

From Cartel to ?, the History of AAA

In previous posts I referred to the idea that the farm programs started as a cartel. To expand: a good part of the "first New Deal", at least as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. diagnosed the economic problems as a surplus of production due to excessive competition. By permitting and encouraging different industries and management and labor to cooperate and scientifically plan their work, production could be brought back into balance with demand. So the National Recovery Administration set up codes industry by industry and boards with labor on them. Similar thinking influenced the agricultural programs. Different commodities already had had different groups working. Whereas the movement of the early 20th century was the development of the extension service and scientific agriculture, followed by the organization of the Farm Bureau (I was raised in the home of the first Farm Bureau, Broome County, NY) and then the development of farmer cooperatives in the 1920's. Some co-ops were for production, some for purchasing. For example dairy farmers got together in co-operatives to handle the marketing of milk, while such co-ops as the GLF (Grange-League-Federation) bought feed and supplies for resale to farmers.

The problem with farmer production co-ops was that they were subject to "free riders". If the cotton growers tried to limit production to raise prices, any grower who stayed outside the arrangement could grow all he wanted and benefit from any increase in prices. So a lot of the early New Deal farm legislation was putting the power of the federal government behind such arrangements--hence the agricultural marketing orders for fruits and vegetables and the marketing quota programs for tobacco, peanuts, cotton. The economists call such arrangements "cartels". (They don't call the Federal Reserve System a cartel, but that's what it is--it fixes the supply and price of the commodity known as money.)

IMO over the years the focus for the major field crops and now dairy has moved away from adjusting production to demand and setting prices and towards direct subsidies.

The Iron Triangle (Updated)

Morgan, Cohen, and Gaul (seems as if that's a different sequence than yesterday, it's got the rhythm of FDR's "Martin, Baron, and Fish") have another article on farm programs . This one outlines the various interests that come together in creating a farm bill, with particular attention to Rep. Larry Combest (R) (Texas) and the 2002 Farm Bill. They even searched out my old boss, Bill Penn, for a comment on the changing of the rules for "actively engaged" determination in 1987. (Bill and his wife-to-be wanted to require half a year's worth of work for management; Rep. Huckaby (D) (LA) said no, managers could do it in their spare time.) Following personnel is one way to follow the interlinking of interests, what the political scientists used to call the "iron triangle" (relationships between the agency, Congress, lobbyists and clientele).

For example, another old boss of mine was an assistant to Huckaby, or maybe House Ag--Parks Shackelford. He moved from Congress to USDA in 1993. This is a good piece in Gov. Executive from 1998 on the overall background, including the problems of combining agencies. Googling his name reveals that he now has twin daughters and a son on the way. His father-in-law is chancellor of Arkansas State U, and his wife is general counsel to the American Farm Bureau. He himself is working for a Florida sugar company after serving as President of American Textile Manufacturers Institute.

It's way too difficult to Google "William Penn", for obvious reasons. He first came to ASCS as a deputy director in the area office, indicating good Republican connections (he might have been a State executive director in Michigan before), showed his talents and moved up to Asst. Deputy Administrator. Moved to the field of law and Arents Fox around the early 90's, focusing on payment limitation, then back to Michigan for a farmers organization.

The same sort of thing goes on with all administrations and both parties: the ambitious come to Washington, move among Congress, the executive, lobbyists and legal firms until they become satisfied or reach their level of incompetence. Then they're shunted to "turkey farms" to live out their days.

The Post article closes with discussion of prospects for the 2007 Farm Bill.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Daylight on SS Retirement

A belated Merry Christmas to all.

I note a couple of articles relevant to the debate over Social Security. Sen. Sessions of Alabama puts my back up. But he has an op-ed piece in the Post
suggesting a bipartisan approach to SS reform. What's new, on a fast reading at least, is the acceptance of the pattern of the Thrift Savings Plan (the Federal govt's 401K equivalent) to give people individual accounts without going through Wall Street. In the past conservatives have used the bogeyman of the government controlling the economy through vast stockholdings to oppose this idea. Apparently Sessions, perhaps honoring the populism sometimes found in the South, is ready to abandon Wall Street. (Actually, the TSP system gets competitive bids from a financial firm to run its 6 funds; I think Barclays had the account for a while.)

The reason I'm encouraged by this concession is shown in a NYTimes article on the Chilean system. Apparently some in Chile have found their privatized system wanting, and propose some reforms. I was particularly struck by this paragraph:
In hopes of stimulating competition, the reform plan would let banks and insurance companies form pension funds. The six existing funds, down from a peak of more than 20, object. They appear especially fearful that the state bank will jump into a business that has yielded them a return on assets of as much as 50 percent annually.
With Wall Street getting record bonuses this year (an average of $600K per employee in one firm) I'm in no mood to give them any more business.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Takes All Kinds

Over at Marginal Revolution Alex Tabarrok posted on gift giving. Economists have problems with the concept--is there utility in exchanging gifts, etc. etc.. Anyway, I commented. Going back to read comments, I find that Virginia Postrel (who blogs and who has donated a kidney to an acquaintance) finds that O'Henry's "Gift of the Magi" (the wife cuts her hair to give husband a watch chain, husband sells his watch to give wife something--headband?--for her hair) a cruel story.

Big Farms and Foggy Language

Gaul, Cohen and Morgan have another article in their series in the Post on farm programs. This one focuses on the disjunct between our mental picture of farmers and the reality:

"Today, most of the nation's food is produced by modern family farms that are large operations using state-of-the-art computers, marketing consultants and technologies that cut labor, time and costs. The owners are frequently college graduates who are as comfortable with a spreadsheet as with a tractor. They cover more acres and produce more crops with fewer workers than ever before.

The very policies touted by Congress as a way to save small family farms are instead helping to accelerate their demise, economists, analysts and farmers say. That's because owners of large farms receive the largest share of government subsidies. They often use the money to acquire more land, pushing aside small and medium-size farms as well as young farmers starting out."
It's fair, although using John Phipps, who has an interesting blog, as an example might be a stretch, but he gives good quotes. There's the usual blurry (from a biased viewpoint) language. Discussion of "corporate" farming. I think it's true that most "corporations" involved in farming are composed mainly of farm families (and their city relatives). But I doubt that's the image evoked in people's minds. There's also mention of "income", but no description to say whether this was the gross income of the farming operation or the net income the farmer got, two very different things, particularly for someone like a dairy farmer.

And as my ag teacher pointed out many years ago (my high school actually was phasing out its ag instruction--the teacher took over driver's ed, which was inappropriate inasmuch as he was the most nervous man in the school (may have been after effects of war service)), income can be ambiguous for other reasons. Dairy farmers (IMHO the only "true" farmers) in particular have lots of capital invested in land and equipment and animals. When you're accounting for the invested capital on your books, you should really charge the operation for the interest the capital could be earning. In other words, if a man has 600 acres of land worth $4,000 an acre, he has $2.4 mill capital. If he sold, and bought bonds he could earn a comfortable 5 percent on his money, or $120,000 a year just clipping coupons (except that they've done away with coupons on bonds and only us old fogies understand it). But if Gaul, Cohen, and Morgan say the guy has $150,000 income, they don't point out that he's only earning $10 an hour for his labor (using a 3,000 hour year).

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Why Do Farmers Like To Swim?

The title's a smartass way of leading into a subject raised by the recent discussion of the Post's article on dairy. What's the subject--why dairy farmers and others like pools or cartels.

Imagine you're a dairy farmer. Twice a day [warning--this is based on information 50 years old] you milk your cows and put the milk in the cooled storage tank. You know the milk truck has to come to empty the tank, because the cows have to be milked or they'll go dry and there's no way to use the milk on your farm. You can't store it. You have to sell it or dump it.

Who do you sell it to--your local processor. Maybe you have a choice; maybe there are two processors within driving range. But even if you have a choice, you can't auction your milk off daily or weekly to the highest bidder. The processor will take all the milk you produce, knowing that cows produce soon more after calving than 6 months after, that quantity can vary by time of year (though I suspect less so now than 50 years ago when most cows still calved in the spring). So you choose your processor once and change very seldom.

The bottom line is that you've no leverage, no market power. Your processor doesn't have much more. If there's more milk than can be sold as fluid, it can be processed into butter, cheese, or powdered milk. That permits a temporary surplus to be stored.

So what do you do if you've no market power--you combine. It's a time-honored American tradition, whether it's a farmers cooperative, a labor union, an oil trust, or a steel cartel. You get yourselves together to pursue your common self-interest. That's why dairy farmers swim.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Surge or Not?

The Washington Post reports that some in the White House want to "surge" the troops; the military apparently is reluctant. If I understand, "surging" essentially means robbing Peter to pay Paul. You keep some troops on longer, you accelerate the deployment of other troops, and maybe you change some rules so you can use the Reserve/National Guard more often. Bottom line is you use assets today that you won't have tomorrow. So that gives some political logic to the WH position. Do the "surge". If it works, great. If not, even the right wing will say we've done all we could. That's cold logic for those who might be killed in the surge, but cold logic is the logic of statecraft.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

NY Times and Organic Agriculture

Two articles in the Times today seem to me to be relevant to the organic agriculture debate: one describes the effects of iodine deficiency; the other describes how vodka sellers are getting $60 per bottle by packaging it in bottles that look like perfume. How do they relate:
  • there's a fervency of belief in organic agriculture that can lead to mythology. The iodine article reminds us that just because we eat foods from nature doesn't mean that they're sufficient for our nutrition. We need to add iodine to our diet in most parts of the world because the food doesn't contain enough for mental development.
  • some of the marketing of organic food (full disclosure, I own stock in Whole Foods) is the developing of tastes that have nothing to do with good nutrition or even with good taste. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Vodka is just another example of it. Farmers in developed countries should push this all they can, as the vineyards have. Most of us could care less about wine tasting, but we spend more money for the higher priced bottle for special occasions anyway.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Lack of Bureaucratic Imagination?

The Post today reported that a judge wants FEMA to give explanations of rejections:

"Leon [the judge] ruled that FEMA mishandled the transition from a short-term housing program to a longer-term program this spring and summer. Instead of explaining why funding was being cut, FEMA provided only computer-generated and sometimes conflicting program codes, Leon said.

The judge ordered FEMA to explain those decisions so thousands of evacuees can understand the reasoning and decide whether to appeal.

"I'm not looking for a doctoral dissertation," Leon said. "I'm looking for a couple of paragraphs in plain English."

Sitcov [FEMA's attorney] said FEMA's eight-year-old computer system is set up only to produce program codes. "
I'm jumping to conclusions, but it sounds fishy to me. At worst, any word processing package can generate canned letters--you simply write a paragraph(s) for each code, then enter name and address and codes and you get the letter. Even better, possibly the program can create a file of this information. At any rate, it sounds like FEMA is more interested in defending their turf against judicial intrusion than in working out a solution to the problem.

(In the interests of fair play, I should note that the software program was designed in the Clinton administration. Even 8 years ago a good system designer should have provided for letters of explanation from the system.)

How It All Plays at the Local Level

I've blogged on the "erroneous payments" issue before. Two pieces from local papers show how the effort to fix the defects works out at the local level.

From the Hillsboro Free Press.

From the Murray County News.

Women and Introverts

Fake out title. Two interesting links, one to a piece on "Networking for Introverts". Like many advice pieces I find the contents logical and worthy, but getting the resolve to do is the problem.

The other is to a Christopher Hitchens piece in Vanity Fair on why women aren't as funny as men. Amusing.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Put Up Walls Against the Dutch

I was commenting at about the Post dairy article and did a Google seach on "Dutch dairy farmers". It is interesting--apparently Dutch dairymen have emigrated to a number of different states--apparently there's more freedom and cheaper land in the U.S. Yet British dairymen were envying the Dutch because they have more ownership of the whole milk chain (i.e., production, processing, distribution, sales).

I wonder whether they may not be more successful than American dairy farmers simply because they have a fresh start--a son (or daughter) taking over an existing dairy farm is bound by all sorts of tangible and intangible things and finds it harder to change and innovate.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Dairy Woes

Morgan, Cohen, and Gaul (almost sounds like an FDR speech) have an article in Sunday's Post on the dairy program, focusing on the "crushing" of an independent operator. If I understand, Mr. Hettinga started as a dairyman, expanded into processing, and eventually started selling his milk through Costco at $.20 per gallon below the price elsewhere. The story gets complicated very quickly. (Confession: though I grew up on a dairy farm and went to work for USDA, I never really bothered to understand how the program works. But here goes: in the beginning all the dairies in an area (i.e., Wisconsin, New England, etc.) were in a "pool" and everyone in the pool got the same price. The government, in the form of Commodity Credit Corporation, bought butter and cheese when milk was in surplus in order to maintain the price. In the last 25 years, particularly in the 2002 farm bill, there have been changes and additions to the program. There's also been a 75 percent loss of dairies.)

So two big issues are who is in the "pool" and whether production can flow from one pool to another. Hettinga was outside the pool, because he was both a producer and a processor. Long story short, through complex maneuvering on the Hill, he got forced into the pool. Such maneuvering is an old story--Nixon got dairy cash and Hillary and Leahy worried about milk pools, etc.

I can't cry any tears for someone with a private plane and his own lobbyist and Congressman. I'm more sympathetic for the 30 cow dairyman who is no longer operational. The problem is, dairies in the West are more efficient than in New York and big dairies with confined feeding are more efficient than small dairies with pasture. So you can't fight Progress.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

An Accomplishment of the Republican Majority (1995-2006)

I was googling on dairy and Watergate and hit this article in Reason .

I can't resist quoting the last paragraph:
"Dairy price supports will be phased out by 2000, thanks to the 1996 farm bill. But throwing programs that were ill-conceived and illegitimate to begin with out of the federal realm and into regionalized cartels is no improvement. As states and localities step forward to shoulder formerly federal burdens, they need to ask not just who should manage a given program but whether it should exist at all. For now, regional cartels seem prepared to make sure that famous milk moustache continues to hide the sly grin of agribusiness as it milks the public."
Of course, they were prematurely optimistic about the end of price supports. Indeed, the Republicans (and Democrats) in the 2002 Farm Bill seem to have added programs. In the old days (tell it, grandpa) FSA/ASCS had little direct contact with dairy farmers, except for cost-sharing for liming or farm ponds under ACP. The dairy program operated through the processors, not directly with farmers. That's changed.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Lame Excuses and Contracting Out

The Times has an article today (Post had one yesterday) on the Coast Guard's ill-fated Deepwater program for getting a new fleet of ship and planes. One thing I learned in the 1970's when I was programming (in COBOL). The computer does not hiccup. It may be frustrating, but when you're writing and testing a program, it's not the computer's fault when it doesn't work, it's yours. An excerpt:

"In September 2004, more serious flaws in the boat conversion program became obvious after the first one, the Matagorda, was launched. As it traveled in relatively heavy seas from Key West to Miami, large cracks appeared in the hull and deck.

Giant steel straps that looked like Band-Aids were affixed to the side of the boats, and the vessels were barred from venturing out in rough water. But cracks and bulges continued to scar the Matagorda and other converted ships, followed by a series of mechanical problems.

Bollinger, it turned out, had overestimated how much stress the modified boats could handle, a miscalculation it cannot fully explain. “The computer broke for some reason,” said T. R. Hamlin, a senior Bollinger manager. “Whether it was a power surge or something, who knows?” The cursory oversight by the Coast Guard meant the mistake was not caught in time."

That excuse is worse than: "my dog ate my homework". Any professional organization would have its power supply regulated.

Overall, the article is cautionary. If memory serves, the former deputy of Homeland Security was the admiral who used to head the Coast Guard. He got good ink from the media, which seems now to have been undeserved. To make a long story short: the Coast Guard lacks sex appeal so it's had trouble getting money to maintain and replace its equipment. So someone (the admiral? or an eager staffer) came up with an idea: package all its needs in one package that big contractors would bid on, spreading the work around to locations that would pull in enough members of Congress to get approval for the appropriations. It worked, except the contractors (a partnership of Lockheed and Northrup (and I'd cynically believe that the partnership in itself contributed to problems)) contracted out much of the work (i.e., to Bollinger) and the Coast Guard trusted its contractors. They forgot Reagan's advice about verifying.

Friday, December 08, 2006

What Was I Reading This Morning

In the Washington Post, the headline reads:

'I'm Not Turnin' Loose of It Until We Get It Right'

At first glance you might think it was George W. talkin' about Iraq.

Then you read the article and this quote:
"It kind of tears me apart," [he] said in an interview. "In life I've had other times like this. You ask yourself: 'How did I get here? How do I get back? And how do I learn from this?' You have to face where you are. Don't be blind to the truth. Otherwise, you can't fix it."
and you know it's Joe Gibbs about the Redskins.

Joe Gibbs for President.

Progressive Lenses vs Bifocals

This week I got new glasses. I've been wearing bifocals for 20 years, but finally decided to spend the money for "progressive lenses"--$340. With bifocals you were either looking close or looking long, a binary condition. With progressive lenses it's gradations. In either case you adjust by tilting your head to adjust the line of sight, which I hope will become automatic after awhile. Amazing what humans can get used to if they have to.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

More Immigrants Less Crime?

That's the theme of an article in the NYTimes magazine last weekend:
The most prominent advocate of the “more immigrants, less crime” theory is Robert J. Sampson, chairman of the sociology department at Harvard. A year ago, Sampson was an author of an article in The American Journal of Public Health that reported the findings of a detailed study of crime in Chicago. Based on information gathered on the perpetrators of more than 3,000 violent acts committed between 1995 and 2002, supplemented by police records and community surveys, it found that the rate of violence among Mexican-Americans was significantly lower than among both non-Hispanic whites and blacks.
If I follow the argument, immigrants, at least some groups of immigrants, bring social capital, incentives, and relationships to the U.S. that makes them less likely to commit crime. That is, legal immigrants have their families and a strong family culture; illegal immigrants want to keep out of sight of the police because the consequence is going back home. (So much for locking them up.) The bad side of the argument is that as their kids grow up American, they commit more crime. It's interesting, though I'm not totally convinced.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Author Author (in the Family)

My cousin, Marjorie Harshaw Robie, has just published "Dwelling Place of Dragons: An Irish Story".

Despite the title, I understand it's based on the diaries of James Harshaw, a Presbyterian in Ulster during the middle of the 19th century. For more, see here.

I'm getting it for Christmas and will report on it when I've read it. But family loyalty says it's unfortunate the timing is too late for the NYTimes books of the year list.

Tit for Tat in Palestine

Over the years some supporters of Israel pointed to the schoolbooks Palestinian children are given. The books don't show Israel on their maps of the Mid-East, they show nothing or "Palestine". These supporters have scored points in the debate. Obviously the PLO and Arafat did not accept the existence of Israel as a state if they couldn't change the map.

It's always been my assumption, being the young and naive person that I am, that Israel's schoolbooks showed Palestine. Wrong. Israel always called the PLO a terrorist organization with which they could not negotiate so they got themselves into a map trap of their own. Today's Washington Post has an article showing that a minister in the government is trying to change the policy, but meeting resistance:

Israel's policy of not marking the West Bank began soon after it captured the territory from Jordan in the 1967 war. Most school maps now evoke Jewish history by labeling the territory by the Biblical terms "Judea and Samaria."

In defending her order in interviews with Israeli reporters Tuesday, Tamir [the minister] noted the difficulty in pressuring Arab countries to mark Israel on maps when the Jewish state does not designate the West Bank as a separate entity on its own maps. She told Israel's Army Radio that "if we don't show these borders, we will turn out very confused children."

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Contracting Out and the Learning Curve

George Buddy had a piece on contracting that started with peeling potatoes on KP (for whippersnappers, "KP" stands for "kitchen police" which means young recruits doing scut duty for chiefs in the days before it was contracted out). Separate pieces of news today say: we have 100,000 contractors in Iraq; the inspector generals of State and DOD say that the contractors doing training of police in Afghanistan haven't produced a good police force; the FBI is having mixed success with its new computer modernization contract.

IMO "contracting out" works okay when the agency doing the contracting understands what's going on and doesn't need to learn anymore (like peeling potatoes). If you don't understand how to do the job successfully or it's too difficult to learn, then the contract is just passing a hot potato; it's bad for the agency, bad for the taxpayer, and bad for the recipient of the service.

Monday, December 04, 2006

"Specialty Crops" and the New Farm Bill

Interesting, if confusing, piece in yesterday's NYTimes business section discussing specialty crops and an effort they're putting on to get more government aid. California garlic growers and Washington apple growers are feeling the heat from imports from China. They've constructed a coalition and are laying down a market in preparation for the new farm bill (2007).

When you research on, the bill referred to in the piece is HR 6193, Eat Healthy America Act. Most of the bill looks to be extensions and tweaks of provisions attractive to various constituencies, explaining why a whole mess of representatives joined in sponsoring the bill back in September (i.e., before the election--surprise!). The stuff for specialty crops looks mostly to be expansions of existing programs (for example, the 2002 farm bill had $2 million for technical assistance for exports of specialty crops, the new one bumps it up in stages to $10 million. ) There's also interesting language changes. Usually legislation authorizes
expenditures subject to the money being actually appropriated. If I understand section 802, in at least one instance they're trying to bypass the appropriation process and just use Commodity Credit Corporation funds. That's significant, because it's not unusual for Congress to authorize $20 billion for education (as an example) and just appropriate $5 billion. They've also included a $9 million transfer from CCC each year for AMS and market news services.

If you can judge the coalition's publicity by the Times article, it's people (like now defeated Rep. Pombo trying to convince farmers they're being helped rather than convincing the American public of the worth of the program.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Credit Score/Security Score

ABC does a followup piece on the "Automated Targeting System"--the automated tracking of travelers into and out of the U.S. that was revealed through a Privacy Act Notice in the Federal Register. As best we understand, the system gathers information on people (destinations, how paid for, etc.), accumulates it over time and generates an "assessment" which is capable of being expressed as a numeric score. Senator Leahy and others have problems with it.

I don't, not really. Yes, there's problems because the system was set up years ago and they just got around to publishing the required FR notice on "systems of records". That was wrong. But the basic idea is okay by me--tracking someone's history is a good and valid way of assessing them and the data captured doesn't seem particularly sensitive to me.

I do have problems with the Privacy Act itself--it should be updated in the light of the Internet to require government agencies to make accessible, ideally notify people, of the information they have on file. (It was written in the 70's.) Look at the credit scores that credit reporting bureaus keep. We've finally advanced to the point where people are entitled to a free credit report yearly. Social Security gives you a yearly report summarizing the wages they've recorded for you. Why shouldn't other agencies do similar things? If HSD were doing that, they'd have a lot more support and a lot less paranoia in the country. IMO transparency is key.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Consequences of "Perfect Payments"

I posted earlier on making a perfect payment system. Forgot to add--one consequence of the system is that it reduces the number of bureaucrats needed. Is that bad? Not if you're a taxpayer. But if you're in a county seat in a rural county that's been losing population for decades and fighting for every person, it's not good.

Shock, Shock--Democrats Renege on Promise

The worldly-wise Washington cynic is not surprised by this article in the Post .
The most important recommendation of the 9/11 commission was for Congress to redo its oversight structure. Currently there are the House and Senate Intelligence committees to provide oversight, but there are also subcommittees of Ways and Means and Senate Appropriations who provide the money. So Negroponte, Hayden, have 4 different bodies to deal with. The commission recommended a consolidation, the Democrats during the campaign promised to implement all the recommendations (which the Republicans had failed to do), but now they're backing off. Why--because someone would lose power.

Getting Congress to reorganize itself is almost hopeless. The structure of committees overseeing USDA still reflect struggles back in Theodore Roosevelt's day. Maybe someday people will realize how little effective oversight Congress provides. And maybe someday people will live to 110. Bet on the latter before the former.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Is Iraq in a Civil War?

This post was started several days ago. Meanwhile the discussion of whether Iraq is in a civil war has only accelerated. Lehrer News Hour had a discussion last night. Both the Times and Post have pieces today on the issue. The Post in particular has some good points on the relation between language and reality: If you call it a "civil war", that might tell potential participants it's time to pick up weapons and fight. On the other hand, if you don't call it "civil war" you run the risk of losing credibility. (On that point, I'm reminded of Vietnam in February 68. The administration had been optimistic for years. When Tet came, they lost most of their credibility among the center. This was true even though the military would say that Tet was a defeat for the Viet Cong/North Vietnam. Lesson: Words matter, just as reality does.)

John Hinderaker at Powerline posts on Iraq statistics, arguing the situation is not as bad as the media says and does not constitute a civil war. (See also here.) His arguments have included the idea that the casualty rate is less than in the U.S. Civil War, that most of the country is peaceful except for Baghdad, and that the violent death rate in Bagdad is close to or only a small multiple of the murder rate in American cities at some times.

I'd make some counter arguments:
1 The Iraq population today is about 26.7 million; the US population in 1860 was 34.3 million. Over the course of the Civil War, the killed in action averaged 3,846 a month, the October Iraq figure was 3706. See this LSU site on the Civil War.
2 Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address famously said: "We draw deep comfort from the fact that in July of this year, the country was peaceful except for small areas around Vicksburg, Mississippi and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania."
3 Lawyer Hinderaker should realize violent deaths within a legal system, however much the criminal justice system was challenged in DC in the past, damage the social fabric much less vigilante justice than the sort of militia violence we see in Iraq.

An additional note: I bolded "killed" because it helps my argument. Most of the deaths in the Civil War were from disease, not bullets. Whether the appropriate comparison for Iraq is KIA or military deaths is debatable, but I'd lean to KIA.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Attempting the Perfect Payment System

How do you make payments perfectly? My metaphor is you work upstream--to have perfect water at the mouth of the river you need to work your way up the river cleaning as you go, then work on major tributaries and then the minor ones. For example, how do I make perfect payments to my power company?

I started out long ago by reading the bill, getting my checkbook, writing the amount into a check and signing it. There were multiple sources of error: I could forget to pay the bill; I could fail to complete the check; I could misread the amount; I could lose the envelope on the way to the mailbox, my writing could be illegible so the check wouldn't be accepted.

A big step in improvement came as I bought a PC and Quicken software (and as Quicken made their yearly improvements in software). The software reminded me that the payment was due and ensured that I completed all the entries.

The next step was electronic payments--I could cut out the mail and send the payment electronically, thus cutting out the dedicated public servants of the USPS.

Then electronic billing--I can receive the bill electronically. And the final step is automatic payment by authorizing the power company's computer to deduct the amount from my checking account. (I've not taken the last two steps yet, but I expect to.)

FSA/USDA has followed a similar route from its beginning in the New Deal. The sequence was roughly: typing checks based on manually prepared payment documents with humans calculating the amounts; typing them in OCR font so the carbons could be sent to Kansas City for scanning and validity checking; having a computer print them; going upstream by getting the farm, crop, and producer share data into the computer to compute the amounts and print the checks; the next tributaries were getting data like payment limitation allocations and sod/swamp and "person" determination data into the computer after the forms were signed and determinations made so the computer could validate eligibility and handle special cases (claims and assignments). That's about where we were when I retired.

The problem with the 10 percent of "improper" (or as I prefer "defective" payments) is that the manually prepared supporting documentation, the forms the farmer signs to affirm his or her compliance with certain provisions or the accuracy of information, were found to be incomplete or inaccurate (at least, that's my understanding). So how does the agency go upstream from here?

[The following may well be erroneous, given the time I've been away.) The key is FSA's move to Internet (technically intranet) based software to update farmer data. Instead of an FSA employee showing the farmer how to complete a form, then updating the computer to reflect the completion (the current process), now the farmer could complete the form on line so software can ensure that she makes all entries and the data can be captured without human action. Theoretically FSA could have had their employees completing the forms on the county computer, which would at least ensure that they were completely and consistently filled out. But that's not much bang for the buck unless you can flow the completion of the form into the payment process.

Note however there's still the problem of matching "reality" with what's in the computer which is designed based on pictures in our head. Just because we have a consistent set of data in the computer that passes all validity checks and seems to match what Congress wrote into the legislation does not ensure a match with what's happening on the farm and nor that the program helps the farmer and his community.

Words & Reality, Civil War and Improper Payments

Got an email from a friend who still works at FSA asking why I hadn't commented on the improper payments at USDA. I was tempted to give a flip but true answer--that I was struggling with a post on whether Iraq was now in a "civil war" (do a Google on "Iraq civil war") and couldn't spend time on a mere $2.8 billion in "improper payments".

But the common theme here is the imperfect relation between the physical reality and the pictures in our head as evoked by the words we use. (See Walter Lippmann's "Public Opinion".) When Libby Quaid of AP writes the government "acknowledged improper payments", the headline writer who wants the hottest and sexiest title he can justify uses the stronger "admits", and some people discussing the piece on Yahoo jumped to waste, corruption, etc. etc. because they know the government and/or Bush is wasteful, corrupt, inefficient. Similarly, with Iraq each group has its own take on what constitutes a "civil war" and how closely or remotely the situation in Iraq matches that picture.

From what I've seen, "defective payments" would have been a better term, but "erroneous" is in the law and "improper" is being used as a synonym by the enforcing agencies.

Now, what's the relation to reality? That's a long story, because the legislators who wrote the laws authorizing the payments had pictures in their heads of farmers and how the programs should operate. (I hope they had more accurate pictures than I did when I wrote rules for them: I used to always use a farm with 100 acres of corn and a 100-bushel yield, just because it was easy to understand.) The short answer is that some of the payments that are not identified as "improper" are really fraudulent, while most of the "improper" but "defective" payments are not fraudulent.

[More to follow]

Friday, November 24, 2006

Google Docs & Spreadsheets--Free Ad

Just got into the Google beta Docs & Spreadsheets software. Seems good--my wife may possibly use the spreadsheet because she's treasurer of her knit group. I may use it to organize some of my genealogical research. I forget how I created a Google account, but it's worthwhile to do it.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Truthiest Thing in Today's Post re Holidays

"social anxiety decreases IQ" from a piece in the magazine on christmas parties. My drop must have been 50 points.

Happy Thanksgiving (and check Washington Monthly for cat blogging)
and Buddy's bemusings for a livelier take (except for Bailey).

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

My First Use of YouTube (Go--Big Red)

I've been slow to get to YouTube, but this was irresistible. (The "fifth-down game with Dartmoutn in 1940.)

GOPR, Kinsley, and the Capitalist Hidden Toy Game

I invented GOPR (good old populist rage) yesterday, and revisit it today, inspired by Michael Kinsley's tirade today in the Post against capitalism. Kinsley takes off from the recent craze for leveraged buyouts to argue the capital markets don't work--witness the fact that companies have 3 different prices/values--one today's value as expressed in stock price; one the (slightly higher) price that people are willing to pay to take the company private through a buyout; and the final the much higher price asked when the company returns to public markets. It's good, Kinsley is always good, and seems convincing.

But I'm not convinced.

What Kinsley misses is the capitalist hidden toy game. For example, back in time (maybe late 60's) the craze was for conglomerates--assembling companies under one roof added value. That lasted for a while, then the conventional wisdom decided that more conglomerates were failures and they needed to be split up. That's just an example of the constant churn of capitalist deals. Remember GM used to own EDS? Sears owned a stock brokerage? GE owned many things, until Jack Welch decided he only wanted to be 1 or 2 in a field? Even today, Altria (i.e. Phillip Morris) is preparing to spin off Kraft Foods. But that's just one side. On the other you have the whole merger and acquisitions area of finance; so popular that it's known as M&A and doesn't have to be defined in stories.

It's the old story of boys and their toys. You hide a boy's toy for a while, then bring it back out and it seems new and different and worth more. There's nothing more attractive than a "deal", whether it's taking a company private, doing an IPO, doing a merger, or doing a spin off. Each is a "deal", a deal to publicized, exploited, envied, finagled, conned. It's all a part of "finance", which good old populists love to rage against.

Monday, November 20, 2006

The "Goldilocks" Options in Iraq

I've been reading "Dereliction of Duty, Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam". (It's good, but I've not completed it yet.).

The author says after the Nov. 1964 election the administration set up a committee to develop options. It came up with three. From page 182:
Momentum formed behind Option C. George Ball observed that the committee had developed options on the 'Goldilocks principle'. Option A was 'too soft,' Option B was 'too hard,' and Option C was 'just right'.
Monday's Post has a lead article by Thomas Ricks beginning:
"The Pentagon's closely guarded review of how to improve the situation in Iraq has outlined three basic options: Send in more troops, shrink the force but stay longer, or pull out, according to senior defense officials.

Insiders have dubbed the options "Go Big," "Go Long" and "Go Home." The group conducting the review is likely to recommend a combination of a small, short-term increase in U.S. troops and a long-term commitment to stepped-up training and advising of Iraqi forces, the officials said."

One of the three authors of the review Ricks discusses: Col. H. R. McMasters, the author of "Dereliction of Duty". (As a captain, McMasters led an armored cavalry troop in a significant early battle of the Gulf war. He then went off to study and teach history at West Point, writing his book as a major. In the current war, he commanded armored cavalry at Tall Afar, and briefed in January on the results of his operation (Secretary Rice was promoting this as a model operation.)

Of course, the Goldilocks principle is well accepted in bureaucracy. When developing an options paper, you always include options more extreme than the one you favor. Option C in the Vietnam War was not a wise course; hopefully "Go Long" will be a better choice.

Good Old Populist Rage

Why do I feel GOPR when I read a piece like Greg Mankiw linked to (Larry Lindsey in the WSJ complaining about high tax rates)? I don't really know. Possibly because I'm sure that most highly paid people treat money as equivalent to gold stars--it's the status and the competitition, not really the goodies the money can buy. (Which means that a 92 percent tax rate, as when I grew up, doesn't inhibit production.) Or maybe it's the arrogance of someone who thinks he's "atlas" and an "entrepreneur", when he's really a modern witch doctor. See his web site.

I realize that he's justified in his language, at least in terms of common usage in the circles in which he moves, and he may well be a nice guy. And how can I be opposed to anyone who got fired for a warning about Iraq? Historians have a concept called "producerism", which the old Populists and my mother fiercely believed in. That ideology said that those who produced things were morally superior to those who just sat around on their rears. You couldn't feel proud of earning a living by talking or writing, you had to do. That may be why Dr. Lindsey's piece touches a sore spot.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

After Elections: Lame Ducks Become Turkeys

NY Times has an explanation of "lame duck" (originated from broke investors lamely ducking out the back door to avoid creditors). I well remember the aftermath of 1994, when Democratic "lame ducks" became "turkeys" in the bureaucracy. That is, defeated Representatives and their staff found jobs in the executive branch. To be fair, we had one ex-Rep in FSA who just warmed a chair as an area director but another seemed to do a creditable job as head of the Tobacco and Peanut Division.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Hearing Loss and Paranoia

As I grow older I'm losing some hearing (happens to most I understand). I'm also reverting to childish emotions, so there's the odd moment when I'm sure that the person who just turned away from me and said something I didn't quite catch is deliberately torturing me. I'm still rational enough to suppress the feeling. But the existence of the term sotto voce is enough to say that there are times when people deliberately lower their voices. And that's just enough to keep the paranoia alive, simmering away on the back burner.

This is all by the way of referring to a Washington Post series, running occasionally, on being a black male in America. The most recent article focused on three entrepreneurs who'd founded an IT shop and were scrambling for business contracts. The main "suit" suffered from his suspicions--did he fail to get the contract because of an honest evaluation or because of discrimination? So I can empathize with the feeling.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Hypocrites All

The NY Times did an article on the complex of state-level conservative policy institutes today, including this little gem:
"Depending on one’s perspective, the Bluegrass Institute [one of the institutes] view of liberty can seem either steadfast or extreme. Walking to his car after a recent event, Jim Waters, the policy director at the institute, mentioned how he had recently survived a head-on collision thanks to his car’s airbags. A few moments later, describing the institute’s priorities, he said the Bluegrass Institute was fighting tougher seat-belt laws, which he called an intrusion on liberty. Car safety laws “did save my life,” he conceded when asked about the apparent contradiction."
Sen. McCain delivered separate speeches to GOPAC and the Federalist Society, telling them:
" 'I think they rejected us because they felt we had come to value our incumbency over our principles, and partisanship, from both parties, was no longer a contest of ideas but an even cruder and uncivil brawl over the spoils of power,' he said. 'I am convinced that a majority of Americans still consider themselves conservatives or right of center. They still prefer common-sense conservatism to the alternative.' " [In other words, the public thought Republicans had become hypocrites.]
And finally, House Democrats chose their Majority Leader--with many voting for an ethically impaired Represenative and the majority for a well-connected friend of lobbyists.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Fighting Terrorists--Applebaum and Karla

Anne Applebaum has a nice piece on Markus Wolf (Wpost and Slate), the East German spymaster who supposedly was the model for le Carre's Karla. She ends:
"As we now debate torture, or domestic spying, or other dubious methods that will allegedly help us defeat radical Islam, it's worth remembering that the West won the Cold War not by matching the nastiness of Markus Wolf—though some certainly tried to do so—but by being, and remaining, a more open society. "

What If--Hubris, Bay of Pigs, and Iraq

Just finished reading "Hubris" by Isikoff and Corn, focusing on the spinning of intelligence leading up to the war in Iraq. It was good, not too sensationalist. A main thread is the Niger uranium, Joseph Wilson and Valerie Plame, Scooter Libby and Karl Rove. I would have liked some speculation: did Bush have a "Beckett" moment--who will rid me of this priest--was it Cheney, was one or both doing the details, or did Libby and Rove work out their campaign together, or was it just the knee-jerk reaction of political operatives? We'll probably never know, at least until Libby's trial or someone writes their memoir.

There's a "what-if" scenario that intrigues me. If I remember Secretary Cohen was waving a 5 pound bag of sugar around on TV during the Clinton administration. And he and Albright were pushing an aggressive line until they ran into a buzz saw of questions at some college that they didn't have good answers to. So just suppose that on the final days of the Clinton administration George Tenet had completed the National Intelligence Estimate that was done in the fall of 2002? In other words, say the Clinton Administration on January 20, 2001 was where the Bush administration was on November 1, 2002. Then the Bush people come in. What happens?

There's a parallel in 1961--Ike leaves JFK the Bay of Pigs operation. JFK modifies it but goes ahead. A difference--JFK had hit Nixon for not being hard enough on Castro; Bush never mentioned terrorism. Another difference--there probably was more comity, more "establishment rule" in 1961 than in 2001.

So does Bush go ahead with the flawed intelligence and missing plans? Or does his team say--Not Invented Here--and tear it apart? I suspect, given today's atmosphere, the latter.

You Know You're Old (and Senile) When...

You know you're old when you happen on a newspaper report of your old high school (Chenango Forks, NY) winning a regional playoff game and you figure the hero is mostly likely a grandson of a classmate (or the nephew--it was a big family).

You know you're senile when it takes you 2 days to compute.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Bureaucracies, Codes--Separation and Integration

This is a fascinating piece in the Washington Post on a move among local police departments to end the use of "10 Codes"--as in "10-4". The major reason is that, when an emergency requires employees of more than one department to coordinate, they all need to speak the same language. Who knew that different bureaucracies would have evolved differences in their codes?

We should have, it's logical. This is just another instance of the general principle: you put any group of people to talk among themselves and they develop their own accent, or jargon, or language, depending on the circumstances. The mechanisms are the same as outlined here: the need for fast, clear communication among the in-group; the desire to mark off the difference between the in-group and the out-group. This is a simpler, clearer example than, say, the difference between the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service and the Soil Conservation Service (circa 1960-1994 USDA) or between FBI and CIA circa 9/11.

I'd predict that the effort will fail--there's too much geographical specialization and not enough times where integration is needed. That will sap the will of the people pushing the change, the bureaucrats will comply pro-forma, but when the change-pushers go, so will the move towards English instead of codes. (Reminds me of a piece I saw today--polygamy is coming back in Muslim parts of the old USSR--the Communists suppressed it, but it's now gradually returning.)

comments on the parallels with other technology.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Ravages of Time--Women and Veterans

Recently visited the Women's Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, NY. Interesting subject, interesting park, with knowledgeable Park Service employees, but of course I have to find fault. Two problems:
  • the visitor center had material on the place of women in American culture, including a 3-dimensional graph (the best description I can think of) comparing the numbers (percentages?) of men and women in various occupations over the years. The problem I have is the last figures shown were for 1990, almost 16 years ago. Women have gained in that time, in the professions and in ranking. (Since politics is timely, look at this boasting by Emily's List, which hasn't been updated to reflect the two additional women Senators just elected.
  • the web site (see above). It's "under construction", with the last performance plan posted being for 2003.
My guess is that the park and the web site suffer from faults common to bureaucracy: something happens (in this case probably the 150th anniversary of the 1848 meeting in Seneca Falls) that generates activity (the Women's Rights National Historical Park). And the Internet comes along and people want to have web sites. But the golden hour passes, the party in power changes, projects get reprioritized, and interest fades. Result: a park that will gradually lose interest year by year.

I repeat, it's not a unique problem. It's a version of NIH (not invented here)--as time passes the first blush of enthusiasm pales and the founders move on to other things, the people who inherit don't devote the same time and energy to maintaining the project.

The same applies to Veterans Day. The 11 minute of the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month can never mean the same to us as to those who fought in the trenches in WWI.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

So Much for the Italians

Speaker-to-be Pelosi is attracting some attention as the first female speaker, and the highest ranking female official in government. She's not attracting attention as the first (I believe) Italian speaker (see here for a list of past speakers). Such firsts used to be noteworthy. That they no longer are seems to me a mark of progress.

Paper Trail for Voting?

Maybe I'm stuck in the past, but when I see a comment in Kevin Drum's Washington Monthly
blog saying that until we have paper trails on voting, we won't have fair elections, I get real tired. I learned to vote on lever machines. I saw JFK, LBJ, and RFK elected on lever machines. I saw RMN elected on lever machines. I never saw a paper trail on any lever machine, nor was there the prevasive questioning of the electoral mechanics we have now. People should chill out and enjoy the fall colors (currently just past their peak in Reston).

Grim Reaper and the Democratic Majority

A modest prediction--look for the grim reaper to play a hand in politics during the next 2 years. Why: with a one-vote margin, the Senate can go back to the Reps anytime Sen. Byrd has a more serious driving accident, Ted Kennedy succumbs to the Irish curse, John Kerry breaks his neck windsurfing, Frank Lautenberg gets overexcited, or [pick one] dies in a small plane accident. Or the GR may revisit the Supremes.

(Why am I so glum after the Dems finally retook Congress?)

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Give Karen Hughes Some Love

The Post today provides the text of Karen Hughes (State's PR honcho) directive to embassies on doing local PR, "Karen's Rules". The accompanying analysis is rather critical--keying to the idea that Hughes, while in the White House, kept tight control on message and is not comfortable relaxing that control in her new job. Ms. Williamson quotes a couple academics on mixed messages.

I've no idea what's right, but I'd offer another analysis, looking at it as a bureaucratic message. Hughes says she's visited field offices and promised them guidance on what they could do. I've been there, done that. It's easy to forget the distance there is between DC and Bangkok or whereever. We may think that fast communications resolve issues, but people don't work like that (witness all the marriages that break down over "communications" issues). So I project my own experience into Hughes' text: she got hit with questions from the field, particularly from people who know her reputation for tight control and for being tight with Bush, so really, really don't want to get on her wrong side (and are therefore likely, in the absence of written guidance, to over react).

So Hughes gets back to DC and writes down rules, mostly to reassure people that they do have some leeway. There's also a subtle tug-of-war going on: Hughes is pushing PR, public advocacy. But she's a staff person [I assume], not in the line organization of State. Anything said in public at the local level can raise a stink, so the line organization is going to want to restrict the message to what's safe. No head of an organization (Condi or Bush) wants people making waves. But Hughes knows that safety is not the end-all. So in her directive she offers freedom from "clearance" [meaning running it up the ladder] for some things and help in getting clearance in others. The fact that she has the clout to put out such a directive is good.

(I regret the article didn't refer to the recent episode where someone at State "misspoke" (i.e., said the truth that didn't agree with the official line), I think in an interview on Al Jazeera. State pulled it back, but with support for the official.) Of course there's mixed messages, and control from the center--that's the way bureaucracy operates. But at least she gives something in writing. The able can take some initiative protected by some of the contents; the more cautious will rest easier.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Senator Webb?

I've told my sister that Webb had too much baggage for Virginia, but I may be wrong. In the hope that I am, I predict, if elected, Senator James Webb will become a cross between Sen. Coburn and Sen. McCain, i.e., a party maverick who hits some pitches and misses others.

I've read his book on the Scots-Irish, being half S-I myself (though my forebears went to New York and Illinois, not the southern Appalachians) and would give it a lukewarm recommendation. I'd suggest David Hackett Fischer's book, Albion's Seed, over Webb's, if you're only interested in the S-I.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Our Health Care System

Had another encounter with our health care system on our recent trip--my wife had to have her gallbladder removed. It was a much more positive experience than my earlier one. A major reason was that her illness was quickly identified so the medical routines and procedures went to work. Another reason was that the Cayuga Medical Center at Ithaca, where the surgery was done, is a newer facility with a more cheerful atmosphere. While part of the difference may be the organizational culture and the difference in patients, another part may be simply the difference in congestion. The previous hospital had two patients to a room, CMC had only one. So the ratio of patients to square footage was much lower at CMC. I believe patient care in a hospital is heavily dependent on people--you need nurses, aides, houskeepers, doctors, maintenance, etc. And each patient attracts visitors. So the lower density of patients meant a lower density of other people, resulting in less conversation and less noise, producing a more peaceful and relaxed atmosphere.

Anyway, my thanks to all of the doctors and staff, particularly Dr. Cora Foster, the surgeon, and Kathy Hauss (sp?), a nurse.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

The Economics of Kerry's Words

The Post today runs a column by Uwe Reinhardt (prof at Princeton) pointing out that, whatever Kerry meant to say (and I believe his explanation of intent), some economists like Slate's Steven Landsberg would concur with what he actually said: that young people with good economic prospects through education avoid the military, those with poor prospects go into the military. It makes economic sense in a free market economy with a volunteer army.

So why the outrage? Maybe buried beneath the rhetoric and the political spinning is the feeling that it shouldn't be this way, that equality in a democracy means the burden of defending the nation should be allocated, not on economics, but on citizenship. I'd refer back to Cass Sunstein's "The Cost of Liberty" which made this argument. He said (as I remember) that a good polity needed the allegiance of all, therefore it needed to be fair and to seem fair in allocation of burdens like taxes and military service.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Noticing Change (re: Immigration)

While catching up on my newspaper reading I saw a piece saying that 1/3 of the population of Montgomery and Fairfax counties live in households where the first language is not English.

It's strange how "gradual" change comes not to be noticed. You have to get outside the frame to identify it. I spent the last week in Tompkins county, NY (Ithaca). What was very noticeable were the people who were maids in hotels, workers on construction, etc. They were almost all white (and presumably native-born Protestants). It seemed strange and not in the "natural order", as I've become used to Fairfax county where those jobs are filled by immigrants, especially Hispanics. It's a reminder that while the material culture of the country has become more uniform (witness the same chains of stores and hotels everywhere, the same cable TV channels), the people culture is not.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Reading Newspapers

First an apology--I'd intended to post a warning that I was on vacation beginning Oct. 20 so blogging was out. But I had a senior moment and posted it to a private blog instead. Sorry.

On coming home after 2 weeks I find a stack of WPosts and NYTimes, which I feel bound to read or skim, at least, before recycling. I don't know why--it's an ingrained habit since I was a child. Things like the A-bomb, H-bomb, Korean war, etc. were first reported in the paper.

I saw a report that newpaper circulation is down significantly during the last reporting period--a significant downtick from the previous slow erosion of readership. Seems to me there may be correlation between the rise of cellphones and the fall of newspapers.

I remember the old days when the paper was the source of news. Radio was just the headlines and TV wasn't available. The paper served to filter and highlight items of interest, as well as providing the detail that we needed. Now the functions are separated. I first learned of 9/11 sitting at my computer reading a brief bulletin about a plane striking the WTC--I think it may have been Yahoo picking it up. Today people are most likely to learn of interesting news through their cellphone, then the Net, then TV, so the filtering function is gone.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Atrophying Sociability? Or the Ultimate Aphrodisiac

Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution links to and comments favorably on the idea that modern advances will lead us to lose social skills. I strongly disagree. Look at everyone who's using a cellphone, while walking, while driving, while watching concerts... Compare that to 20 years ago--the total social interacting going on has increased dramatically, thanks to technology.

People are, after all, the ultimate aphrodisiac.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Elections--Musings of a Superstitious Bureaucrat

Kevin Drum refers to speculation on what happens if Dems win in 2006. George Buddy provides the URL for election projections. Even the Iowa electoral markets site shows things headed in the right direction (that is, left). But I'm sure that Kevin and others have now jinxed the Democrats in 2006. We're going to lose just like we did in 2000.

The good news is buried towards the end of the Electoral Vote site where there's a list of the Senate seats won in 2002, and therefore up for grabs in 2008. Republicans defend 21, Dems 12. That looks as good to me as current prospects look gloomy.

Don't Invest in India

The NYTimes has an interesting article on Americans who have been hired by Indian firms and are being trained in India. Another article describes looming shortages of well-trained engineers in India and the steps they're taking to fix them. India is booming and one might consider investing there, but this makes me pause:
Mr. Craig [an American hiree/student], who still calls home nearly every day, says he has made an effort to teach himself a few things about his new, temporary home. He has learned how to conduct himself properly at a Hindu temple. He makes an extra effort to be more courteous. He has learned to ignore the things that rattle him in India — the habit of cutting in line,[emphasis added] for instance, or the ease with which a stranger here can ask what he would consider a deeply personal question.
Although the Post gets lots of mail complaining about commuters who cut into line on the road, generally we Americans observe line etiquette. What does it say about a culture where they don't--they're into unfettered individualism and disregard of others?

Monday, October 16, 2006

CEO's and Stewardship and Calvin

Greg Mankiw discusses an economic analysis of CEO salaries:
"Another aspect of Xavier's work, however, should appeal to those on the left: In his model, high CEO salaries are pure economic rents. CEOs are paid what they are worth to their companies, and their high pay reflects the extraordinary value of their talent, but the supply of talent is inelastic, and the allocation of talent would not be affected if everyone faced high tax rates.

Xavier's model encourages people to think of CEOs as similar to Tiger Woods. Woods makes a lot of money because he is really, really good at golf. He is not stealing from those companies that pay him millions for endorsements. To the people paying Woods for his services, he is worth every penny. Yet if Woods were taxed at 50 percent, rather than 35 percent, he probably wouldn't give up golf or forgo the lucrative endorsements. (Response from the right: On the other hand, at a higher tax rate, Woods might play fewer tournaments each year. He might retire earlier. He might take more compensation as untaxed fringe benefits, such as a cushy private jet to fly to tournaments. And so on.)"
If I understand, CEO's aren't that good, but because they have great leverage, they earn the big bucks. That is, when you have a corporation doing $20 billion, you don't want some George W. running it, so you'll pay just a bit more than $400K for someone who's a little better.

The idea of talent as "economic rent" is intriguing. Resurrecting the old-time religion, men were intended to be stewards of the earth they inherited. Suppose we say that people are stewards of their talents? That might bring us around to Andrew Carnegie, who's an interesting study. (New bio just out I mean to read.)

[Back to Mankiw] What's a CEO going to do except CEO? Woods can cut back on his playing and probably increase his gross, because he'll win a higher percentage of those he does play. CEO's can only retire. (Of course, if you consider a CEO as a multi-talented person, then she can find something else to do, so there is some point at which taxes would become too high.)

Disaster Programs and Crop and Flood Insurance

The Post Sunday ran more pieces by the same trio that's done their previous ag articles: Gilbert M. Gaul, Dan Morgan and Sarah Cohen on the agricultural disaster programs and federally subsidized crop insurance. (There's a main piece, plus separate ones on disaster loans, crop insurance on sweet potatoes, and a man who subdivided his operation to qualify for disaster payments.) It's another good job. I'd emphasize the point that "Congress" can't act rationally on agriculture if "reason" means sticking with a long term policy. The legislation that people debate and vote on, whether it's "Freedom to Farm" in 1996, crop insurance reform in 1980, or whatever is one thing. But there are too many ways, particularly riders on appropriations bills, to subvert those plans and grab some glory and some ink for looking out for one's constituents by responding to "disasters".

It's not partisan--Sens. Clinton and Conrad do the same sort of thing that Sens. Grassley and Hagel do.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Farm Programs Lead to Higher Prices?

Not necessarily, but they aren't absolutely correlated with lower prices either. (This follows up a comment at Dan Drezner's blog that, contra another commenter, the farm programs did not necessarily lead to higher production and lower prices. )

From an Agweb post (note the last paragraph):

USDA will soon begin issuing first partial 2006-crop-year counter-cyclical payments for producers with base acres enrolled in USDA's Direct and Counter-cyclical Program (DCP). The 2002 Farm Bill requires that these payments be made in October.

The 2006-crop-year projected first partial payment rates, equal to 35 percent of the total projected amount, are $0.0481 per pound for upland cotton and $30.45 per short ton for peanuts

First installment payments are not available for producers who have wheat, corn, grain sorghum, barley, oats, rice, soybeans and other oilseeds base acres because the effective prices for those crops equal or exceed their respective target prices.

The point is that commodity prices are still volatile.

Friday, October 13, 2006


A recent Gallup poll asked whether the respondent thought Americans were ready to elect a person of a given background: woman, black, Jew, Hispanic, Asian, Mormon, atheist, gay. It's an interesting question, particularly the categories used, because I'm remembering the categories we used to use.

Gallup didn't ask if we were ready to elect an Italian-American, Greek-American, Polish-American--apparently these ethnicities have lost their power and fall into the general category of acceptable white. (I haven't done research, but I think Jackson was our first "non-English" President, being Scots-Irish and we've still to elect someone from outside the British Isles.) Gallup also didn't ask about Catholicism or Islam. (I understand that Taft was a Unitarian, which was controversial in the day.) Nor did it ask about divorce (which was a weapon against Adlai and Rockefeller).

Gallup should have asked about single--Rep. Foley wasn't out of the closet, but I doubt, unless Father Drinan were permitted to serve again, that there's any single man over the age of 35 who could get elected senator, much less President. No more Buchanans for the U.S. So much for the idea that we grow more tolerant as the nation gets older.

The "lumping" is interesting--are we as eager to elect a Hmong President as a Japanese, a Korean as a Filipino? Is Obama more acceptable than a descendant of American slaves? And Hispanics--aren't there differences among the Cuban-Americans and the Puerto Ricans, Salvadorans and Peruvians, Brazilians and Mexicans? The answer, I think, is the immigrant process creates arbitary groupings, which then become our reality. In an alternate universe maybe we'd discriminate against a Salvadoran and for a Puerto Rican, but in the world we've got, once we're halfway ready to consider a Hispanic, we'll disregard nationality and go right to consider the merits and demerits of the individual. (Just as now we care more about whether Rudy is too liberal for the Republican base than his religion or ethnicity.)

We've also forgotten some of the balancing--look at Kennedy's cabinet A Jew, a Pole, an Italian, and no women. When Clinton tried for a cabinet that "looked like America", he didn't care about East Europeans and religion, he cared about blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and women.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Federalist 10 and Weird Bedfellows

I think it's fair to say that Mr. Madison predicted this sort of alignment of weird bedfellows: it's the sort of shifting alliance of diverse interests that he saw as saving us from mob rule. From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution series on cotton program:
Oxfam, Cato, the Environmental Working Group, Environmental Defense, American Farmland Trust and Bread for the World helped form the Alliance for Sensible Agriculture Policies, an ad hoc, politically diverse coalition preparing to fight the farm bill. Oxfam, along with Yum Brands, the Louisville, Ky.-based company that owns KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell restaurants in 100 countries, decries subsidies' impact on free trade. So, too, does the Food Products Association, the nation's largest food and beverage trade group.
The problem of farm programs and big farms is built into the program's genes: if a program intends to help "farming", then it starts off favoring those who do more "farming" than less. I remember when I started with USDA, the cotton allotment program had a special 10-acre provision. I think it worked that people who usually farmed less than 10 acres got program benefits without having to reduce their plantings in the years that plantings were reduced. The provision was dropped--few people farmed only 10 acres (which probably had originated as a sharecropper's share).

It seems a general principle that you can be equitable to people either by capping at the top end (payment limitations in farm programs, "progressive" tax rates for the wealthy) or by focusing on the low end (the earned income tax credit). But if you focus on the low end, you create inequities. The inequities might be lessened if you do a sliding scale, as EITC does. And with computers we might now have the bureaucratic capacity to administer such a program.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Cause for Worry--Kim Jong-il and GWBush

Causes to worry are always easy to find. Such as the one buried in today's papers (sorry, I've lost the cite) that said that Kim went into seclusion on the eve of the Iraq war, perhaps because he feared that Bush was going for a two-fer against the "axis of evil". Such paranoia and misunderstanding of Bush is worrisome, particularly since I've no faith at all that Bush understands Kim any better.

Marine in Iraq, Some Surprises

Kevin Drum links to a letter from a Marine officer in Iraq, including this bit:

"Highest Unit Re-enlistment Rate - Any outfit that has been in Iraq recently. All the danger, all the hardship, all the time away from home, all the horror, all the frustrations with the fight here - all are outweighed by the desire for young men to be part of a 'Band of Brothers' who will die for one another. They found what they were looking for when they enlisted out of high school. Man for man, they now have more combat experience than any Marines in the history of our Corps. [Italics added]
The last sentence struck me. It's a reminder of how long the war has lasted. [Pause to digest thought.]

It's possibly also mistaken. My wife's uncle was a Marine whose service spanned WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. (He wasn't in combat but I'm sure there are Marines who were.) So a Marine who served on Guadalcanal with the First Marine Division might have had several other landings, then the Chosin reservoir in Korea and then engagements in Nam.

Still, the Marine's points are worth noting--he finds O'Reilly a buffoon and the Iraqi police surprisingly resistant to terror so it's not a simplistic letter.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Slick Language and Giving Away the Farm

Stumbled on this article on the 2002 Farm Bill (referred to by Ilya Somin at in a post on how liberal Democrats could appeal to libertarians). For some reason it strikes me as an example of using slick language in an argument. Some examples:

  • "weaning" farmers away from farm programs (implying farmers are babies sucking on the teat of government programs)
  • "small family farms" replaced by "large commercial farms" (blurring the fact that the smaller farms of the 1930's were also commercial while the large farms of today are also family-owned and run)
  • playing "agribusiness" and "rich farmers" against "small family farmers" (blurring the fact that, given the increased specialization of modern agriculture, much of this is apples and oranges.) Small family farmers who have been growing field corn for the last 40 years get government checks; large operations who grow sweet corn for the last 5 years don't.
Oh well, I'm sure similar examples can be found on the other side.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Explaining the Rice "Blow Off"

Slate summarizes the situation described by Woodward's book, but neither the 9/11 commission nor previous books highlight the meeting--why?

Pages 49–52: On July 10, 2001, George Tenet and his top terrorism expert, Cofer Black, visited Condi Rice and warned that a major terrorist attack was coming. "It's my sixth sense, but I feel it coming," said Tenet. "This could be the big one." They felt like the then-national security adviser blew them off.

Page 79: "Rice could have gotten through to Bush on the bin Laden threat, but she just didn't get there in time, Tenet thought. He felt he had done his job, laid it on the line very directly about the threat, but Rice had not moved quickly. He felt she wasn't organized and didn't push people as he tried to do at the CIA." Rice has said the July meeting was not as dramatic as Tenet remembers. Woodward quotes Cofer Black: "The only thing we didn't do was pull the trigger to the gun we were holding to her head."

I think the answer lies in the workings of humans and bureaucracies. Remember these things:
  1. Tenet and Black have been focused on bin Laden for years. Rice has been on the job for less than 6 months. She was the foreign policy guru for a campaign that never mentioned bin Laden.
  2. There's no good solution to the bin Laden problem.
  3. Tenet and Black have been out of the administration for years, Rice is still in it.
  4. People like to make their stories consistent.
And a fourth: the old bureaucrat's saying "it's hard to remember your goal was to drain the swamp when you're up to your ass in alligators". New bureaucrats always focus on the goal, old bureaucrats fight the alligators.

So, Tenet and Black rush off to see Rice with a hot potato for which they've no clear solution. But Rice knows her boss isn't good on coming up with solutions, and certainly doesn't want to do anything Clinton did before him. She also knows Dick Clarke and other bureaucrats are trying to put together an overall plan to drain the swamp (which they'll have ready in early September). So, at best she may have sent Tenet to Ashcroft (Freeh has left, I think, and Mueller won't come on board until September). So much for the meeting--just another case where the linkage between career types and political types breaks down during the transition.

How about the new prominence of the meeting? People are loyal to their fellows. Woodward's earlier books and the 9/11 commission were working right after Tenet and Black had retired. I suspect their residual loyalty to the administration meant they didn't highlight the "blowoff". Now, though, it's 2 more years later. Rice is still loyal to the administration but Tenet and Black have had more time to nurse grievances. Rice's story is consistent: because she took no action, she couldn't have been given any information that should have caused her to act. That tends to shift the onus back to the CIA, which rubs T and B the wrong way. So now they start to highlight the urgency of the meeting and the failure of Rice to act. No one says there was a failure of imagination or a lack of capacity to act.

There may not be any lying going on and, absent any tape recording or contemporaneous notes, we may never know the truth.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Technorati Claim

Technorati Profile
This claims?

Payment Limitation in Georgia

Cox and the Atlanta Journal Constitution have another article on payment limitation .
I had to register to see this article, but not the earlier article.

It's a complex story, with USDA's Inspector General, FSA's county, state, and DC offices, the Senator who leads the Ag Committee, and Justice all playing a role. The bottom line is:
  • if there were no payment limitation rules, McNair would be farming the same crops on the same acreage but without the superstructure of paperwork and fake accounting. ("Fake" is pejorative, I know.)
  • if his neighbors thought he were cheating on his income taxes they wouldn't be as likely to condone the schemes. But since it's FSA bureaucrats depriving hard working farmers of money, McNair will be at least tolerated by the community.
  • because McNair and his fellow farmers (on the county committee) are pillars of the community, they pack a lot of political clout. So Congress isn't really serious about enforcing payment limitations (ask Senator Grassley). Can you imagine how dispirited Jim Baxa might feel about the task? (Full disclosure--I used to be his wife's boss.)
I hadn't thought about it before, the issue of whether IRS auditors and USDA bureaucrats should coordinate is interesting.

And to be fair to Sen. Chambliss, Clinton's first Secretary of Agriculture had his chief of staff convicted of an offense because of mishandling of payment limitation cases.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Payment Limitations and College Students

Cox News service has a good article on payment limitations in farm programs. A couple of notes--they could have added Queen Elizabeth to the Crown Prince of Lichtenstein in the summary of the background of changes in the mid 80's and it's unclear how much money is "actually left on the table". Ag committees argue that it's effective; cynics disagree.

Foley Hypocrisy

Always love a good serving of hypocrisy but this is overdoing it. Curses on all concerned in this mess.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Farmers and the Future

The Times has an article today on the Kansas farmer who owns the geographic center of the U.S. and his concerns over whether his son will leave the farm. It's nicely written, but with the standard themes. Lebanon, KS has lost 25 percent of its population (now 278 est) in the last 15 years. (Median resident age: 52.4 years; median household income: $23,056 ; median house value: $10,100. )

He farms 3,000 acres, which probably means that there used to be 15-20 families, each with a quarter section, farming where he is now.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Clinton Failed and I Failed

Clinton said he failed to get bin Laden and I failed in the project to get USDA agencies to share data. Here's an excerpt from an article on crop insurance fraud:

In 2003, government investigators found that the Risk Management Agency of the USDA had incomplete information on ownership of 21,000 of the nation's largest farms, so it lost a valuable tool to determine whether farmers falsified production figures to file unwarranted claims.

"It's really a shell game ... to show a loss that probably didn't occur," Bertoni said.

Another branch of the USDA had the ownership information but didn't provide it to the RMA. Up to $74 million in possible false claims resulted.

The difference between Bill and I is that I never headed the project. Well, there are other differences.

What Does The Future Hold?

The Times has an analysis of the new legislation on terrorism which includes these thoughts:

How the measure will look decades hence may depend not just on how it is used but on how the terrorist threat evolves. If a major terrorist plot in the United States is uncovered — and surely if one succeeds — it may vindicate the Congressional decision to give the government more leeway to seize and question those who might know about the next attack.

If the attacks of 2001 recede as a devastating but unique tragedy, the decision to create a new legal framework may seem like overkill. “If there is never another terrorist attack and we never obtain actionable intelligence, this will look like a huge overreaction,” said Gary J. Bass, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton.

The last paragraph is what I'm inclined to think.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Why Catholics in the FBI?

Reading Mr. Wright's "Looming Tower" on the rise of al-Qaeda. It's good. One interesting side note is John O'Neill, the retired FBI agent who died on 9/11 who was quite a character. Wright mentions that Italians and Irish predominated in the ranks of the FBI. I wonder why and when? Was it from the beginning or was it after J. Edgar?

Perhaps it was a generational thing: the sons of policemen who went to college wanted to follow in the steps of their fathers and do law enforcement. Perhaps it was a prejudice thing in that early graduates of Catholic law schools (Fordham, Notre Dame?) found it easier to get admitted to the FBI than to existing WASP law firms?

Why Is a Fighter Pilot Like a Farmer?

This piece in the Times on how the fighter community beat Rummy to get more F-22's (at $350mill a crack) prompts me to compare pilots and farmers:
  • Both are robed in the rags of former romantic glory: fighter pilots as the gallant solo aces of one on one combat; farmers as the gallant son of the soil fighting nature.
  • Both have strong, bipartisan lobbies on the Hill
  • Both get taxpayer money for programs of dubious value (a jet designed to outclass the Soviet jets; direct subsidy programs that do little for conservation or production adjustment)
  • Both are wedded to past methods that are fast losing potency (I predict the manned fighter jet will be successfully challenged by pilotless drones; individual farmers are being replaced by contract farmers (as in poultry and hogs).

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Republican Management--An Oxymoron?

Perhaps the most significant long term aspect of the uproar over the National Intelligence Estimate is buried at the end of the Karen DeYoung/Walter Pincus piece in the Post, after noting the NIE was transmitted to the Senate and House committees in April:
In the House, "there was a bit of a snafu with this particular document," said a spokesman for Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), the intelligence committee chairman. "We had a massive computer failure on our classified side." The first that the committee knew of its existence was late last week, when "it was requested specifically by a member. That was when it was found and scanned into our system."

Whether the document was ignored or disappeared into cyberspace, however, it seemed to have made little impact on Capitol Hill at the time. No one in either chamber, on either side of the aisle, requested a briefing or any further information on its conclusions until now, the sources said.

If the Republican administration can't communicate with the Republican-led House, what hope is there for the CIA and FBI to communicate with each other? The failure must be both systemic and political.
  • Systemic because even the USPS offers "return receipt requested" service. Any electronic transmission system should have the same sort of safeguard to ensure that recipients have received the transmission.
  • Political because surely any new/updated NIE on the war on terror should have been discussed between the Congressional staffers and Negroponte's office, who should have been waiting for the report to arrive and raising flags when it didn't.
This is just an instance of the broader failure of Congress to carry out its oversight responsibilities. Can you imagine a similar lapse during a shooting war like WWII? (Whoops, we are in a shooting war.) But the Republicans can't take all the blame. If the incumbent Democrats were really out for blood they would have been on this earlier. Perhaps the answer is that incumbent House Democrats feel safe this year, thanks both to custom tailored districts and the political climate.

A final nod to a Republican--the NIE has revived the Rumsfeld question of a couple years ago--are we capturing and killing more terrorists than we are creating. It was the key question when he wrote it and it's key now.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Why I Drink

From a paper trying to prove that male drinkers make more money than nondrinkers, via Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution:
"Whether abstainers choose not to be as social or whether organizers of social occasions involving drinking exclude abstainers is unclear. Abstainers may prefer to interact with other abstainers or less social people. Alternately, abstainers might not be invited to social gatherings, work-related or otherwise, because drinkers consider abstainers dull."
The argument is that drinking benefits one's social network and the paper is one of two that show a correlation, at least for male drinking. A separate stereotype says females tend to be more social than men, perhaps meaning men rely more on crutches. For me at least that's true--I use(d) drink as a social lubricant, depressing my sense of social unease while participating in a social ritual. So drink is both an indicator of my social participation and a facilitator of it.

I wonder though whether this is as true today as it used to be. My impression is that drinking, at least liquor, is down. Certainly the bars at the Kennedy Center don't seem to be doing the business they used to. Maybe someone should do a study of coffee drinking?

Monday, September 25, 2006

As Close as I'll Come to Making the Front Page of NYTimes

That's today's article on "generator men" in Baghdad:
"In offices across Iraq, a ritual plays out every morning during the hottest months. Haggard employees drag themselves into the room, mumble a pleasantry or two and slump into their chairs, moaning about what a bad night’s sleep they had: the power went out, the backup generator was broken, the heat was unbearable, the baby would not stop crying, mosquitoes were everywhere.

Inevitably, these grievances, like hornets, will gather in a single cloud of fury and swoop down on one target: the generator man, probably the most vilified figure in Iraqi society after Saddam Hussein."

I was a "generator man" in the Army. We had power (a pun).