Sunday, July 30, 2006

Selective Memory--Dems Support War!!

The NYTimes today has a story, Partisan Divide on Iraq Exceeds Split on Vietnam
including this factoid: "An analysis by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that the difference in the way Democrats and Republicans viewed the Vietnam War — specifically, whether sending American troops was a mistake — never exceeded 18 percentage points between 1966 and 1973. In the most recent Times/CBS poll on Iraq, the partisan gap on a similar question was 50 percentage points."

But that's not the most surprising thing. Even though I lived through the 60's and should know better, I suspect I'm part of a vast majority of Americans who would say that Democrats started opposing the Vietnam War around 1966. But the Times includes a graph, which I couldn't find on-line, that shows that Dems didn't clearly move to opposition until 1971 (Cambodian invasion I suspect). It's an example of Dan Gilbert's (Stumbling on Happiness) thesis that we reconstruct memory.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Competition for Attention

As far from academia as I have been for 40+ years, I find bits like this report from to be interesting, concerning a recent academic conference and referring to the issue of laptops in college classrooms:
"Lots of the professors had their laptops with them, and one or two professors used the wifi to liveblog the conference. But by the middle of the day-long conference, it seemed to me that a large chunk (around half) of the professors in the audience were online checking e-mail, reading blogs, and surfing around to see what was up in Boston that weekend. Most were paying partial attention to the symposium, but they had a lot more going on than just the symposium."
Given the pervasive use of cellphones while driving, this sort of thing is going to be big over coming years. [Not sure what that means, but maybe that measures to mediate the competition will attract innovators.]

Friday, July 28, 2006

Farm Subsidies Good for Africa?

Thanks to Marginal Revolution here's an argument for farm subsidies, at least on food.
Africa does not need more expensive food:
"The trouble is that the truth is a little bit too simple to be credible. Farm subsidies in the EU and USA mean that we sell some kinds of foodstuffs (mainly grains, milk products and sugar) to Africa and other countries cheap. So cheap, in fact, that the Africans etc can buy our imported goods cheaper than they can produce them for themselves. This is good news.

No, stop, yes it is. If you can buy something for cheap, then that is good news. Food being cheap is good news for Africa. It isn't bad news. I promise you it is as simple as that."
Not sure I agree fully. We may be making life harder for African farmers and easier for African city dwellers. There's still many more farmers, see here.

Effects of Ending Farm Subsidies

What would be the effect of ending U.S. farm subsidies? I'm no expert, but when does that stop a blogger?

Economists seem to say that landowners capture farm payments. Their reasoning: if I can profit from growing cotton (for example), then I'm willing to pay more to rent land to grow cotton. If I own the land, then when I sell I can expect a higher price because buyers know they can make money growing cotton. So over time land rental rates and land values adjust to the flow of subsidy payments. That's what economists say anyhow.

The Economic Research Service of USDA studies the costs of production for various crops. As you'd expect, there's a distribution curve (bell curve) from low cost to high cost, with the bigger operators usually being more efficient. My impression is that for every crop, perhaps excluding sugar, low-cost operations can make money at current world market prices.

If that's true, then ending payments should cause U.S. land values and rental rates to fall. Only those (large, efficient) operators who can make a profit without subsidies would be willing to buy or rent land. So in the absence of subsidies we'd still have farms and the acreage of land being farmed might be much the same. But we'd have fewer farms.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Chinagate, Revisited

Remember the flaps during the Clinton administration about leakage of technology to China? Much ado about very little, IMHO. It's interesting to see that GAO doesn't like the Bush enforcement of limits on export of high capacity CPU's. Where are the right wing fearmongers when you need them?

(I tried to understand the report--I think the bottom line is DOD and Commerce realize the law the Republicans imposed on Clinton is foolish and unrealistic so they took some short cuts. GAO never appreciates short cuts. Without knowing anything about the subject except Moore's law, I'd say the law should just enforce a lag time (1 year lag for China, 10 year lag for North Korea or whatever).

Achievement, Genetics, and Gender

Eugene Volokh has had some threads discussing the old topic of woman/man differences in scholarly achievement and their possible basis in genetics. See the last one here.
Because the discussion started when I was still doing catch-up, I'll restrict my comments to these points:
  • often such threads assume that one can make points about genetic influences by pointing to American data, as if "women" and "American women" were the same. We need to look across countries, across time, and across subcultures.
  • one possibility for a genetic influence would be an observed differential in risk-taking behavior as reported yesterday. It says: "Young men all over the world have higher death rates than women because of their riskier lifestyles, researchers said yesterday.Accidents and suicide are the leading killers in men 15 to 34 years old; deaths from heart disease, cancer and chronic liver disease rise sharply in those 35 to 44." So maybe men are more willing to go for broke career-wise by working harder and exploring more risky hypotheses? (Females are more mature?)
  • finally, the Scientific American runs a story on chess experts which suggests that it's study and more study rather than "genius" that gets you to the grandmaster status.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Deja-Vu, Disaster Program Weaknesses--I

Interesting testimony from GAO on the Risk Management Agency's operation of the federal crop insurance program. Briefly put, RMA reinsures private crop insurance companies for the policies they write and losses they take on crops, mostly field crops and fruits.

GAO found a number of problems, which take me back to the late 1970's when ASCS was operating a crop disaster program through its county offices, and I was involved in its administration in DC. The deja-vu ones include:
  • farmers getting indemnities in multiple years (sometimes because the coverage levels (yields) are set too high)
  • farmers dividing acreages into separate insurable units. There's a rational basis--for example hail on the Great Plains may cut a swath through the wheat. If you have 10 1,000 acre fields each insured separately rather than 1 10,000 acre field insured as one you increase the chances of having a loss on one or more fields. But there's also a reason to cheat. Because wheat is wheat, as Gertrude Stein didn't say, you can shift your actual production among different fields, possibly boosting your yield history (for future years) and/or creating a indemnifiable loss on another field

Shock, Shock--Dems Play Politics

It's not a high point in the history of the Democratic Party when they take umbrage at the Iraqi Prime Minister criticizing Israel. I see Brad DeLong agrees. But since al-Maliki is also a politician he should understand. Every politician has hot button issues among his or her constitutency to which obeisance must be paid [ed.--does one pay a button?]. Hopefully none of the posturing will affect serious issues.

Why Farm Programs--Blame the Founding Fathers

There are a number of reasons for farm programs. One is the Constitutional Convention, with the bargain between the small states and large States that gave us the bicameral legislature. While we no longer are an agricultural country, as we were in 1790, farmers still retain enough influence to affect Senatorial elections in most states. The result is bipartisan support for farm programs. There's no way to build a coalition against farm programs per se. You have to make the case on budget grounds or perhaps as part of the free trade discussion.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Openness in Government--Coburn/Obama as a Cure for Problems?

Senators Coburn and Obama have sponsored a bill that would "require the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to establish and maintain a single public website that lists all entities receiving federal funds, including the name of each entity, the amount of federal funds the entity has received annually by program, and the location of the entity. All federal assistance must be posted within 30 days of such funding being awarded to an organization. " See Coburn's website
(Obama seems less active and he's not much of a blogger). This proposal has been greeted enthusiastically by the NYTimes, and Wash Post. While the Post editiorial commends the proposal in the context of their recent articles on farm programs, it fails to mention that we've had a database of farm program payments for 12 years now. Granted, it's not run by OMB but by EWG,
a private entity, but it's based on USDA data. Not to be a gloomy Gus, but during the time the database has been available, farm subsidy payments have increased, not decreased.

Disaster Aid for Livestock, Wash Post Stories

The Post continued its series on agriculture programs this past week. See the links here.

If I weren't trying to catch up from hardware problems, I'd blog a bit more, but these points strike me (albeit with minimal research):
  1. Neither program was a permanent yearly program, authorized by the 2002 farm bill. Instead there was a combination of administration action using the Section 32 authority (an obscure provision dating to the '30's, that's dusted off every decade or so for a one-shot deal) and Congressional action by sticking provisions in appropriations acts. That's different than the programs they covered last week--the continuing ones.
  2. Regardless of whether the policy is correct, it's harder for bureaucrats to implement one-shot programs. There are several reasons including: a one-shot program usually is late before it's started, the bureaucrats are scrambling to get it in place but have little or no experience with it, and there's little chance and no real incentive to improve and learn from mistakes. Even if the OIG and GAO look at the program, the bureaucrat will say: "yes, we messed that up. We promise, if those [expletive deleted] in Congress ever give us a similar program to try to do better.
I think there's a parallel with Congressional earmarks--

Friday, July 21, 2006


Well, my computer is fixed and I'm busily trying to catch up. Will probably take a couple days to do so.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Backup--Confessions of a Reformed Sinner

Yes, backup is important. I've had a home computer for over 16 years now and have not regularly backed up. But now I've lost both my new PC and my old (backup) PC. Although the new one is still under warranty, figuring out the problem has been slow. Before they would agree to replace parts I had to agree to reinstall the original software. That is, they restore the original software from the hard drive, wiping all of my programs and data. :-( Not wanting to do that, I had to get a new hard drive and pay to have the data copied from old to new. Now I'm waiting for next week and the arrival of the repair person. Meanwhile my whole routine is disrupted and being very anal, routine is critical to my happiness.

Lesson: backup is worth it.

Posting from the library, one of Franklin's better inventions.

Backup--Confessions of a Reformed Sinner

Yes, backup is important. I've had a home computer for over 16 years now and have not regularly backed up. But now I've lost both my new PC and my old (backup) PC. Although the new one is still under warranty, figuring out the problem has been slow. Before they would agree to replace parts I had to agree to reinstall the original software. That is, they restore the original software from the hard drive, wiping all of my programs and data. :-( Not wanting to do that, I had to get a new hard drive and pay to have the data copied from old to new. Now I'm waiting for next week and the arrival of the repair person. Meanwhile my whole routine is disrupted and being very anal, routine is critical to my happiness.

Lesson: backup is worth it.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Slow/No Blogging

Currently dealing with equipment problems at home, so will not be doing much blogging until those are resolved.

One thing I noted--the British suicide bomber who had his video played on Al Jazeera is described as having a Yorkshire accent. That says something about the different levels of acculturation.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

The Pollan/Critser Farm Program Narrative

A summary of Michael Pollan, Omnivore's Dilemma, and Greg Critser, Fat Land, as they deal with agriculture programs: farming was undeveloped in the 1920's, went into crisis in the 1930's when the New Deal came up with the "Ever Normal Granary" program, after the war farming became mechanized, industrialized, using nitrogen fertilizer developed by the scientist who developed poison gas, but still was mostly okay until Nixon and Earl Butz. Butz, the racist Secretary of Agriculture destroyed New Deal farm programs, encouraging full production "fence row to fence row". This led to cheap corn, which was used by big business using the Japanese invention of high fructose corn syrup to make big soft drinks. Cheap food meant the fast food outlets could "supersize" their meals to get more business. As a result, Americans overeat and get fat.

[This is based on memory, oversimplifies, but is not totally unfair to the writers. As you can tell from my tone, I quarrel with the narrative.]

Monday, July 03, 2006

Loan Deficiency Payments--WPost Ag Series

The Post's second article on agriculture programs is here: Growers Reap Benefits Even in Good Years. It's again well done, with some graphics that should be noted. The farm programs are so complex you almost have to draw pictures, and even then people will misinterpret what you write.

Today's article covers the loan deficiency program, focusing on corn. The following is of no interest to anyone, being too inside baseball. My memory, which gets worse daily and more cynical weekly, is that the cotton and rice people started "marketing assistance loans" and "loan deficiency payments" in the 1985 farm bill, partially to evade payment limitations. (Nonrecourse loans under the old loan and purchase program weren't subject to payment limitation because the hope was that the farmer would be able to pay them off. So you come up with "marketing assistance loans", which kick in when market prices fall below loan rates (roughly).

Again, this is outside my expertise even when I knew anything, but this is how it evolved. Say the loan rate for cotton is $.55 a pound. In the old days the farmer would harvest the cotton and then take out a CCC price support loan, getting $.55. If market prices never got above $.50 at the end of the loan period the farmer would forfeit the cotton to CCC and keep the $.55. When the marketing assistance program came in, the farmer had a new option--redeeming the cotton for $.50 and keeping $.05 in "marketing assistance loan" benefits. That meant CCC didn't have to worry about disposing of surplus, which meant that the next year we wouldn't require (as big) an reduction in planted acreage. But the net effect was to revert to the 1930's--a two price system where we'd dump surplus cotton on the world market. (That's my cynicism.)

But where do "loan deficiency payments" come in? To simplify operations, instead of going through a loan process on paper, just allow the farmer to pick a date, then compute the $.05 payment and give it to him. So "loan deficiency payments" were "in lieu" of marketing assistance loans. But still outside payment limitation. (They aren't now, but they were for years. And even when Congress instituted limitations, they came up with a separate amount.)

An irony--Al Gore trumpeted his "reinventing government" program--I think the only two programs ended under it were the wool/mohair and honey programs. Of course, Congress always has the last word, so when attention strays, guess what? That's right, welcome to the honey, wool, and mohair loan deficiency payment programs.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

WPost on Farm Program Pays $1.3 Billion to People Who Don't Farm

Washington Post is running articles on farm programs, in advance of debate over the 2007 Farm Bill, is here--
Farm Program Pays $1.3 Billion to People Who Don't Farm:

I didn't catch major errors. (There was a misunderstanding by at least one payment recipient--if someone wants to refuse the money it would not go to others. As an entitlement program, FTF differs from appropriated funds.)It emphasizes the personal and the attention-grabbing--for some reason the media like to get readers. If I get the energy to read other blogs I'll probably see some other misinterpretations--like the distinction between cash-rent tenants and sharecroppers, even though it's in the article. Someone will swear that the government is paying some foreigner, I'm sure. One thing about today's article--it didn't lead with big payments to big producers as many such articles do.

It would have been less interesting, but fuller if the writers had pointed out (which they might do tomorrow):
  • Freedom to Farm payments were more expensive than payments under the predecessor programs. The increased money was supposed to be part of the "buyout" of farm programs. (I can't say that a simple extension of the programs before FTF would have been cheaper than FTF, but we taxpayers sure didn't get what Pat Roberts promised.)
  • the big impact of WTO negotiations. WTO rules frown upon payments directly tied to production, another motive to shift to payments based on history (in FTF) (Ironically, today's paper also carries a story about the breakdown of the latest round of WTO negotiations, all because of agricultural subsidies
  • the farm lobby was able to consummate the buyout of tobacco and peanut programs in the last few years.
Bottomline--it's difficult to square the circle. Make sure that payments go to current farmers, don't tie payments to current production so they don't aggravate surpluses, don't help absentee landowners who don't have dirt under their fingernails, help the small farmer more than the large one, protect tenants (that's a fight that began back in 1933 with the socialist/communist left strong on the tenant side, just another historical irony). If you can create a program to do that, try tackling world peace.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

"R.A."--Blast from Past

Was talking this morning in our community garden to a neighbor about the damage wrought by this week's rains. She said that 3 of her neighbors in the row of townhouses had basement flooding. In some cases it was because their gutters were blocked; the water backed up into the ceiling and attic and ran down inside the walls. She started to explain that her husband had said that they had been smiled at for having their gutters cleaned so often. She's originally from Vietnam and she stumbled a bit in the telling. At first I thought she was having trouble with the English, which is unlikely since it's good, but when she came out with the phrase "[smiled at] for being so R.A.... I realized she was afraid I wouldn't recognize it, but really it brought back memories.

For anyone under 55 or so it's a meaningless phrase and it doesn't come up in Google's top ten results. Back in the days of the draft, and before the GI's serial number became their social security number, the Army assigned 8-digit serial numbers to every new recruit. If you enlisted, you got an R.A. number, meaning "regular army", while if you were drafted you got a U.S. number. Anyone who bought into the army's ways wholeheartedly (or even quarter heartedly, given the times) was mocked for being "R.A."