Thursday, August 31, 2006

USDA Does It Again (Updated)

As reported on AgWeb - Your Spot for Futures Trading, Commodities Info, Ag News, Successful Farming Tips & More, and many more media outlets serving agriculture:
"Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns today announced during a visit to South Dakota $780 million in assistance to help farmers and ranchers manage drought and weather related production challenges. "
Sounds good, doesn't it? But the reality is less impressive, particularly in South Dakota. Upland cotton, peanuts, and grain sorghum aren't really big crops in that state, and the bulk of the $780 mill is in accelerated counter-cyclical payments for those crops. There's no explanation of why the crops were selected, but perhaps because the economists were reasonably comfortable that the payments would be earned. (The computation of the payment rate typically requires collecting national weighted average market prices for a year. So when I worked cotton payments weren't made until February of the next year.) [Updated note: According to this,
the 2002 Act changed the schedule, partial payments are made in October, then February, then after the end of the marketing year. There's nothing I've seen to specify whether USDA is just moving the October payment up by a month or more.] If I'm right, there's no intrinsic relationship between the drought and the payments, except the fact this is a year divisible by 2.

According to this site, the severest drought is in Wyoming, western South Dakota and western Nebraska, which are wheat areas, and in Texas and Oklahoma which do grow sorghum and cotton. It would be interesting to know if there was any consideration of advancing the payments just to producers in the disaster-affected counties. It would be do-able, if legal.

It's also interesting to note that Johanns has just cost the taxpayers X million dollars. Moving up the payments means the Treasury Department has to borrow the money earlier than it would have, and 5 percent interest on $700 mill starts to add up. (Relax, it's not "real money" according to Senator Dirksen's definition.)

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Suicide as Signaling Device

Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution refers to this old Slate story:
Attempting suicide can be a rational choice, but only if there is a high likelihood it will cause the attempter's life to significantly improve.Marcotte couldn't test the relative "life improvement" of successful suicides—since they were, of course, dead—but he could study those who had failed at suicide to determine if their lives improved after the attempt. The results are surprising. Marcotte's study found that after people attempt suicide and fail, their incomes increase by an average of 20.6 percent compared to peers who seriously contemplate suicide but never make an attempt. In fact, the more serious the attempt, the larger the boost—"hard-suicide" attempts, in which luck is the only reason the attempts fail, are associated with a 36.3 percent increase in income. (The presence of nonattempters as a control group suggests the suicide effort is the root cause of the boost.)

A commenter links to this piece on a possible evolutionary link for depression. See Hagen

It seems to me possible that there's a correlation to the evolutionary explanation for such things as peacock tails and conspicuous displays, known I think as "handicapping". The idea is that animals do things that make no apparent sense except to send the signal that they are fit. The bigger the horns, the more striking the tail, the higher the jump, the more dangerous the exploit--each one is a social signal showing more evolutionary fitness.

Depression and suicide attempts might work similarly--the more you invest in showing your unhappiness, the more convincing the signal, and the greater the chance for reaction.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Why Move to DC?

A commenter on my housing post asked:
Does the higher cost of housing in WDC discourage qualified civil servants from taking a transfer to WDC? Why transfer to WDC, fight traffic and parking spaces, while you could receive a comparable income from staying in fly over country. Both jobs provide the ability to do the people's work!
Good question for which I've some answers (using "DC" loosely to mean the general area): Why transfer to DC--
  1. Because you're an arrogant SOB who thinks you can compete in the biggest frog pond. Why did Alex Rodriguez move from Texas to the Yankees? Not only can you rise to the top in an agency, but you can switch agencies (though not the way Jimmy Carter envisioned when he pushed the Senior Executive Service).
  2. Because you can change the whole country from a post in DC. (Early in my first job I instructed the whole bureaucracy to change the way they referred to county offices--instead of "ASCS county offices" it was to be "county ASCS offices". Now that is power!!)
  3. Because you can look the bastards who are screwing you straight in the eye, rather than having to imagine what they look like.
  4. Because DC really is a great place to live, simply for the opportunities. Opportunities for the single person to indulge in culture, opportunities for children to get into something they love (whether ballet, swimming, science, whatever).
  5. Because in DC you have the wind behind you, rather than blowing in your face. (To see what I mean, read the book, "Denison, Iowa," to get a sense of what it's like to live where the wind is against you.)
  6. Because you can work the system--sacrifice now to get a house, then retire to a low cost region where your dollars buy much more. (I remember a guy from SCS who was transferred to Ft. Collins in 1991. He was having big problems with the move, simply because there wasn't a mansion in Ft. Collins big enough to absorb the proceeds from his DC house. Ft. Collins is highly rated for livability.)
  7. Because you're a romantic fool from the sticks who loves to see the Washington Monument every work day and to rub elbows with people from all over the world.
  8. Because it's an endless comedy show, watching the politicians come and go, posture and preen, but rarely come clean.
  9. Because no situation is perfect and people can adapt to most anything, even a 2 hour commute one-way. Like Gilbert's book, Stumbling on Happiness, says, it's hard to estimate the future because you forget the dailyness of life.
  10. It feels so good when you leave.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Housing Crisis and SRO's

Michael Grunwald had an article on the incredible cost of housing in the DC area yesterday. Today he hosted a discussion on it. He talked about government housing aid, zoning restrictions, and similar subjects. Some comments:
  • In the late 60's I was renting an efficiency in downtown DC--somewhere around $110 a month. I started off working for the government at $5K, so I was spending maybe 25 percent of my salary for housing. I ended buying in Reston for $55K at about the peak of the housing boom in the 70's. These may be wrong, but my impression is that starting salary for the Feds is around $30-35K (6 times mine), my townhouse is about 6 times more valuable, and rental rates may be a bit higher than 6 times $110.
  • I remember Reston was originally planned (in '64 or '65)to have lots of multifamily housing, but they ended up changing to have more single family houses and fewer townhouses, condos and apartments. Responding to the market they said.
  • The free market creates its own solution to housing problems--in some areas, including mine, immigrants are buying houses based on having multiple people rooming there. It may or may not be legal, but it works. It also represents another advantage of immigrants over natives in the competition for opportunity. Immigrant males are more willing to live crowded than are natives.
  • One positive sign of the change is there's less competition for parking spaces. :-) The new immigrants don't have money for cars; they ride bikes or buses or carpool.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Dependency Ratios for Countries and Corporations

The always interesting Malcolm Gladwell has a new article in The New Yorker: Fact, concerning dependency ratios (the ratio of workers to dependent children, aged, and disabled). A quote:
"But, as the Harvard economists David Bloom and David Canning suggest in their study of the “Celtic Tiger,” of greater importance may have been a singular demographic fact. In 1979, restrictions on contraception that had been in place since Ireland’s founding were lifted, and the birth rate began to fall. In 1970, the average Irishwoman had 3.9 children. By the mid-nineteen-nineties, that number was less than two. As a result, when the Irish children born in the nineteen-sixties hit the workforce, there weren’t a lot of children in the generation just behind them."
Gladwell argues that dependency ratios explain why Bethlehem Steel went bankrupt, why GM and Ford are headed there and why Ireland is booming. It further explains [much of] the differential between development rates in Asia, where birth rates in China and elsewhere have declined sharply, and those in Africa, where rates are still high.

I found it, as is often the case with Gladwell, a bit stretched but provocative. He rides the idea too far, particularly when he ignores any discussion of why differences in birth rates, as between China and the Congo say. Was it the case that the communist state of China provided cradle to grave security, hence was able to enforce its one-baby policy while the Congo essentially has a kleptocratic state providing no security and therefore the greatest of encouragements to have many children? But how about Taiwan or South Korea?

But to push the idea farther--how about classes--should we take more seriously than we do the differences in birth rates between classes in the U.S.?

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Threats to Privacy

Via George Buddy, see this for the ACLU take on future pizza ordering. As a long-time ACLU member (though I hasten to add I don't carry the card) I'm going to take this much too seriously and quibble with it.

  • I doubt there'll be a national ID number. Surely we'll have the sense to realize that we already have world identifiers (at least everyone with an e-mail account does).
  • No one would verify the information--by then the information would be accurate enough that verification wouldn't be cost-effective in this scenario. (I realize the verification is a means to emphasize how much info the pizza parlor has access to.)
  • There's no economic rationale for the parlor to link to some of the records shown; the customer is only going to get aggravated by it and a business wants to please its customer. Cui bono? That's always a good question, particularly when there's a cost to doing something. 10 years from now the cost of transfering data will be negligible, but there's still a major cost in establishing means to move data between bureaucracies (like an insurance company and a pizza parlor).
All of which is not to say that we shouldn't worry. It is rational to worry about things that don't make sense, like the Bush administration. Generally I think people like the ACLU and EPIC worry about the wrong things. I was particularly impressed by David Brin's book, Transparent Society, a few years back. To oversimplify, I'd allow public bureaucracies to maintain lots of data, provided they included their own data in the database and made it generally available as well as giving people access to their own data with a detailed audit trail.

But that's another day.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Kudos for Fred Kaplan

Ran across this prescient post on Slate from March 2003--read the whole thing.
How the Bush administration is botching the Iraq crisis. By Fred Kaplan - Slate Magazine: "It is becoming increasingly and distressingly clear that, however justified the coming war with Iraq may be, the Bush administration is in no shape—diplomatically, politically, or intellectually—to wage it or at least to settle its aftermath."

Reforming Bureaucracy--Empowering Operatives

Last night Lehrer Newshour had another in its series of interviews with people on immigration. The interviewee was an immigration lawyer. She mentioned a case where the waiting for legal immigration (from the Philippines?) would take 12 years, during which no visitor visa would be allowed. She mentioned another case of a high school student who would be sent back because she had no adult advocate here (parents split, father brought her here, then split, etc.) which even Immigration agreed was deserving.

That leads to a thought. With computers and databases, it's easy enough to track histories. So we could empower "operatives" (James Q. Wilson's term for the front-line bureaucrat) to make decisions and track how good or bad they are. For example, in the case of immigration, allow each frontline worker to let in two people a year under a special program. Track the history of the people let in and tie it back to the worker. So if Joan Doe lets in someone who runs afoul of the law, that should impact her ability to make future decisions, her promotability, her pay, etc. Contrarily, let in someone who becomes a good U.S. citizen and you get rewarded.

We could apply the same principle in other bureaucracies.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Caps Lock

Eugene Volokh here supports the campaign to remove the Caps Lock key. From the comments it seems that lawyers still use all caps (and in some cases monospaced fonts). But then, don't the Brits still wear wigs?

More on FBI Computers

George Buddy of Buddy's Bemusings alerts me to this article by Jonathan Alter in Newsweek critical of the FBI's computer efforts, which raises some additional thoughts:

  • No good liberal is surprised that a government contractor is in it for the money. When I was a government bureaucrat I always thought I could do a better job than the contractors, but then I always was a know-it-all. One of the problems with contractors is that they are basically used-car salesmen, by which I mean that they're con-men and women. More seriously, there's the same imbalance of information as the economist Akerlof famously identified with used cars and won the Nobel Prize for. The seller (the contractor) knows more about its capabilities and software than does the buyer (the government).
  • Having said all that, I don't buy the Alter's idea that the FBI's system is so simple that 12 contractors could have done it. It may look simple to us outsiders, but not to insiders.
  • But given the environment, Freeh should have hired a contractor to devote 12 man-years to the job of building a kernel system, that could have expanded and evolved as the FBI started to learn the capabilities of PC's and the Internet and the process of developing software and as software has changed over the last 15 years. Trying to do a big system all at once was asking for trouble. (NASA got us to the moon, but on an evolutionary path of development.)
I give Alter credit for citing Harshaw's rule one (without the credit): "If you’ve read even one of the 500,000 articles in the popular press about software development, it’s obvious that the first try never works."

Monday, August 21, 2006

Most Ridiculous Bureaucrat Award

Cold War Missiles Target of Blackout: "The Bush administration has begun designating as secret some information that the government long provided even to its enemy the former Soviet Union: the numbers of strategic weapons in the U.S. nuclear arsenal during the Cold War.

The Pentagon and the Department of Energy are treating as national security secrets the historical totals of Minuteman, Titan II and other missiles, blacking out the information on previously public documents, according to a new report by the National Security Archive."

Perverts, Liars, Christians and Bush

An interesting collection of articles in the Times and Post today:

  • The Times' Eichenwald explores the online world of pedophilia here--From Their Own Online World, Pedophiles Extend Their Reach. He documents the extent to which pedophiles construct their own world, in which children come on to them and pedophilia is a civil rights cause.
  • The Times also carries this story about a painting of Jesus in a West Virginia school, raising church-state issues. (The painting is the version I remember from the 40's, a very handsome man with long hair with eyes uplifted. At that time, Jesus was the only long-haired person. I'm certainly no expert, but he doesn't look Jewish at all to me.) It includes a quote that the U.S. was a Christian country, founded on Christian principles.
  • Turning to the Post, Shankar Vedantam in his science column reports on research showing how much people cheat, and the excuses they give themselves as justification.
  • And finally, in the funniest article, the Bush administration has decided that the number of U.S. missiles in 1969 is classified.
Why link them together, other than to create a striking header? Because they all show instances of what I might call "housekeeping"--the very human and birdlike quality of straightening out one's environment to make it more to your liking. The pedophiles aren't any less human than the rest of us; they're just more obvious about it.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Discussion of FBI and Computers

Here's a link to the Post on-line discussion of today's article on FBI and computers. My comment is "Reston, VA", but all the comments were on target. Unfortunately it's not a sexy subject, bureaucratic systems seldom are.

FBI and Computers

I blogged on this back when the FBI project was scrapped. (See here , here, and here--matter of fact, it may be my favorite subject.) Today the Post reviews the fiasco here--The FBI's Upgrade That Wasn't placing some of the blame on the contractor who failed to hold the FBI's feet to the fire. But I liked this quote:
"The setup was so cumbersome that many agents stopped using it, preferring to rely on paper and secretaries. Technologically, the FBI was trapped in the 1980s, if not earlier.

'Getting information into or out of the system is a challenge,' said Greg Gandolfo, who spent most of his 18-year FBI career investigating financial crimes and public corruption cases in Chicago, Little Rock and Los Angeles. 'It's not like 'Here it is, click' and it's in there. It takes a whole series of steps and screens to go through.'

Gandolfo, who now heads a unit at FBI headquarters that fields computer complaints, said the biggest drawback is the amount of time it takes to handle paperwork and input data. 'From the case agent's point of view, you want to be freed up to do the casework, to do the investigations, to do the intelligence,' he said."

It's the old problem. People will bypass your system unless it accomplishes something useful for them. That means you either have to design it well, or have a system that has the users by the short and curlies (i.e., if you don't use the system, you can't get paid).

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Governmental Inefficiency at the FBI

The Post starts a series on the FBI in today's world with a look at the training program for new agents at Quantico here--Old-School Academy in Post-9/11 World:
"An obsolete computer system is also a problem for new-agents-in-training, or 'NATS,' as they are called at Quantico.

'That is one of the big frustrations here,' said Supervisory Special Agent Karen E. Gardner, chief of investigative training at Quantico. 'If the American people expect us to connect the dots, we've got to train to do it. We don't have the computer networks here to do that.'

FBI officials said the bureau plans to build a multimillion-dollar state-of-the-art intelligence center at Quantico equipped with secure classrooms and classified computers. But it won't be ready for eight years."
FDR's War Department built the entire Pentagon in a shorter time, 16 months to be exact. I guess that's the difference between the "greatest generation" and the Bush(-league) generation.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Maids for Frosh? THIAH (To Hell in a Handbasket)

From a Post story today on new dorms for college students, being built privately:
Way-Out-of-the-Norm Dorm: "GWU's new freshman dorm has a maid service to clean the bathrooms and vacuum the rooms -- no more sticky beer patches on the floor."
I knew the world was going to hell in a handbasket when the Army contracted out KP duty (everyone under 50 will have no idea what it is). But this is the icing on the cake.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Native Americans, Immigrants, and the Religious Right

The Times had a piece today, How to Make Sure Children Are Scientifically Illiterate,
with links to the recent international survey of how many people believed in evolution (US just above Turkey at the bottom of the scale) and taking off from the recent Kansas school board voting:
"A key concern should not be whether Dr. Abrams’s religious views have a place in the classroom, but rather how someone whose religious views require a denial of essentially all modern scientific knowledge can be chairman of a state school board."
While my knee jerk reaction is to agree, sometimes old age causes my knee not to jerk. Today I'm wondering: liberals usually favor Native Americans and immigration (also a big story today) and oppose the religious right, as in this piece today. But when you think about it, I suspect many immigrants (particularly the non-college educated) and many Native Americans share with the religious right a disbelief in evolution. But we forget that.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Afghan Road Rage

The Post yesterday had another interesting memo from the front. This time it was from the command sergeant major in Afghanistan, counselling his troops on the best approach to the Afghan populace. Unfortunately, they haven't yet put the image of the memo on their web site, just an
introduction to it: "Indeed, U.S. troops have earned a reputation as 'negligent, offensive, rude, callous, occupiers, hostile, disrespectful . . . you get the point.' That description is found in the memo below by a senior sergeant in Afghanistan, signaling that the Army is thinking seriously about how to operate differently -- and more effectively -- in its counterinsurgency efforts."

It struck my eye for two reasons. It reaffirms what I knew from Nam--you put guns in the hands of big young males and they will try to prove Lord Acton's maxim: "power corrupts...." But it also proves the hold of the past--it's typed in monospaced type (i.e. pica or elite). The bureaucracy has problems believing that proportional spacing upper and lower case is the most readable font.

Staging Photography

Dr. Bernstein at The Volokh Conspiracy has commented extensively on evidence of staging and faking photographs from Lebanon. I commented, and will expand here. (I should look up Susan Sontag's book on the subject, but I'm too lazy.) There's are multiple continuums of photography, with many distinctions, some of which get overlooked in the current discussion:
  • at one extreme is the "snapshot", interpreted literally. The photographer is an observer with a fast trigger finger (like Col. Van Loan(?sp) shooting the Vietcong prisoner in Vietnam during Tet 68). Security camera footage and "candid camera" shots also qualify.
  • the planned "snapshot", where the subject matter is predictable but the photographer is still an observer. Think of the famous photo of Clinton and Lewinsky in the receiving line or JFKjr under JFK's desk--the photographers knew they might get a picture from the situation and did.
  • this grades over into "photo-ops" and ceremonies, where the subject plans an event to provide the predictable pictures.
  • there's also the photographer-posed events, like wedding ceremonies, handshakes, etc. The NYTimes had a photo in connection with the completion of digging a section of tunnel for the water system. A worker had one foot on the rail. While it seemed real, I suspect it was posed, because it was too good a picture to be caught naturally.
  • a new variation is the "realness" of the event. A wedding or a bill signing is a real event, usually but not necessarily. Realness also ties to "uniqueness"--presumably you can only get a picture once.
  • finally there's the photographer created events, like much art.
For Lebanon, perhaps there's less toleration of "posing", if any occured, because of the importance of the subject (as compared to the tunnel digging). There's an implicit contract between photographer/media and reader/viewer--what you provide is warranted to be a true reflection of reality in all important aspects. But there's also a contract between photographer and subject--you can take the picture if it's in my best interests. Sometimes the contracts are irreconcilable.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Bureaucrats and Info Sharing

Today's NYTimes has an op-ed piece, All Terrorism Is Local, Too , by an Interpol official complaining that:
"ALTHOUGH last week’s disruption of a terrorist plot to blow up commercial airliners over the Atlantic was a great success, it nonetheless exposed a dangerous gap in global security efforts. The problem is that governments and security services in countries that arrest terrorists and announce their triumphs to the press often fail to alert national and local police forces around the world or share with them information that is crucial to protecting their citizens."
Nothing new here. It's the way people work and it's why "information sharing" is the name of a mirage.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Anti-Modern Elements Unite

Ilya Somin at The Volokh Conspiracy: has a post " on the religious right in Israel reaching out to Hamas:
[According to Rabbi Jakobovits], '[t]he Islamic world has deep concerns about the penetration of liberal, secular values and lifestyles into the Middle East. A major factor in the conflict between radical Islam and the Western world is Islam's opposition to secular lifestyle and ideology.

'The haredi community understands their sensitivities and mentality and feels threatened by the same phenomena. The haredi community could play a key role in dialogue between the West and Islam because we live in two worlds, one deeply religious and the other liberal and pluralistic. We understand that the secular mind is different from the religious mind."
Some of the religious right in this country also have deep concerns about the penetration of liberal, secular values and lifestyles in the U.S. (See this post in the Times about the push to change "dry laws".) I think it's fair to say that generally the left doesn't have such concerns, except to the extent that "liberal, secular values" overlap "free market, capitalist values"--i.e., some on the left are generally anti-Walmart, so might support the retention of dry laws.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Victory, Defeat, Lottery Wins and Stumbling on Happiness

Tom Friedman in the Times today makes a valuable point, The Morning After the Morning After: which he phrases like this:
"With every war there are two days to keep in mind when the guns fall silent: the morning after, and the morning after the morning after. America, Israel and all those who want to see Lebanon’s democracy revived need to keep their eyes focused on the morning after the morning after."
His point is that, while there will be claims of victory by Hezbollah on the morning after, the real issue is what happens after that. This ties into Dr. Gilbert's "Stumbling on Happiness". He says we overrate the importance of key events in the future--how happy or sad we will be when our team wins, our candidate loses, or whatever. What really happens is that the event bobs briefly above the waves, but then sinks to its proper level among all the day-to-day events of living. We were all sad (not true, but that's the historical myth) when JFK was shot. We were all ashamed when the last helicopter lifted from South Vietnam. We were all elated when Armstrong took one small step. But none of those events, in themselves, contributes to our current glee or tears. We deal with the effects of them, but they're in some perspective now.

The same will apply if we "cut and run" from Iraq. Certainly Bucheney is right to say it would be hailed as a victory for al-Qaeda, just as he's been hailing it as a victory for freedom for these many years. When Reagan cut and ran from Lebanon, it was a victory for Hezbollah. But you can win victories and lose the war. You can win a war and lose a peace. You can gain hegemony for a time and fall into decrepitude.

Of course it's better to win victories. But in the long haul what counts is the day-to-day effects, the work, the intelligence, and the morality with which one strives.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Our Exports--Punks and Posers

The Post yesterday had this article on the punk scene in China--Punks and Posers in China: "For Chinese punks today, it might take screaming to be heard. They make up a small slice of the music industry here, and they play to a largely underground scene. But their struggle to gain attention provides a glimpse of what it's like to be a rebel in a country that suppresses dissent and individuality, and an artist in a culture that worships money and Western fads."

It's the last bit that fascinates me. This was a culture that 25 years ago was still in Mao jackets. Now it worships Western fads. And maybe we should be relaxed about intellectual property rights--won't it be better to have a world in which the second most populous nation (China in 25 years) is strongly oriented to American pop culture and spending their money on our pop stars.

Or, as my old geezer side kicks in, maybe not. Maybe this is really Chinese subversion??

Handedness and Earnings

My father was a lefty, converted to write right, but ate left, which can cause seating complications for group dining. The subject's always been of interest to me.

There's new research out, here at NBER: "We examine whether handedness is related to performance in the labor market and, in particular, earnings. We find a significant wage effect for left-handed men with high levels of education. This positive wage effect is strongest among those who have lower than average earnings relative to those of similar high education". The Wash Post covers the story here.

Tyler Cowen comments here, Dan Drezner comments here.

The subject of handedness has been covered in a fascinating award-winning book--see the web site--Right Hand, Left Hand. The author covers the varieties of leftyism, tying in everything from genetics, fetal development, the road systems in European countries and the process of developing a nation (which side of the road do you drive on) to the structure of the universe (how do you determine what's left and what's right).

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

One's Deeds or One's Life?

The Post carries an article today that I had an emotional reaction to:
Killer May Be Unearthed From Arlington Cemetery: "The bill requiring the removal of Wagner's remains follows action by Congress last year that tightened restrictions on interring veterans convicted of any offense for which the death penalty or life imprisonment could be imposed.

Previously, the prohibition extended only to those who had been sentenced to death or life imprisonment without parole. This left open the possibility that people who were eligible for parole -- no matter what their likelihood of early release -- could receive military honors at Arlington or another military cemetery."
Seems to me the issue is the separability of one's life from one's deeds. Is it possible for evil men to do good things, or does the evil inevitably stain the deed? Can one enjoy Wagner's operas (I don't, particularly) even though he was anti-Semitic? My first, kneejerk reaction is that deeds should be separated from the life, and that someone who qualifies for Arlington shouldn't be disqualified by later evil. Like I say, it's a first reaction, subject to second thoughts.

Post Stories on Ag Programs--Followup II

This continues my response to DZ, who commented on the Post stories in early July:

4) Should recipients of farm program payments be means tested? DZ mentions the means testing for student aid. We could also mention the earned income tax credit, TANF (welfare), etc. In the farm area, most (all?) of the disaster programs are limited to operations with less than $2.5 million gross income (provision dating back to 1986) and what's left of the old "Farmers Home Administration" loan programs require collecting extensive financial data. (Essentially FSA becomes the bank of last resort.)

My thoughts--means testing could attract urban support for the program, but would drastically change the programs as they operate now. Bureaucratically, we know that such provisions are subject to abuse and fraud, more so than the relatively simple entitlement programs FSA is used to. Confidentiality of data, which DZ mentions as an issue, is tricky. One of the strengths of FSA offices is that the workers are part of the rural community. It's lots different than entrusting your IRS-1040 to some anonymous clerk you never meet at church or the store.

5) DZ says some local governments have required developers of ag land which had the far lower farmland tax assessment to pay the difference between assessments when they finally develop the land.

I guess there's a difference between tax breaks based on usage and establishing "permanent" agricultural zones like Montgomery county, MD has done. Bureaucratically, I'm dubious of some of this sort of thing. The Post articles mentioned that Texas counties looked to FSA for their definition of "agricultural use." One of the problems I'd see is that there's no check and balance (except for the occasional muckraking journalist); no one looking over the shoulder of the bureaucrat to be sure the rules are followed, like whether the amount the developer is to pay is computed correctly and is actually paid. Both MD and Fairfax county have had problems where builders built houses bigger than the rules allowed. (Of course, assessments in Fairfax are now online, so maybe new technlogy is handling the problem.)

6) From DZ: "While the story largely focuses on non-farmers who receive money for land not producing crops, it also devotes a fair amount of attention to farmers and investors who own land and get farm payments on land producing "program" crops. Given the latter focus, it's interesting that there's no mention of the impact of the Real Estate Investment Trust on farmland purchases and prices. I know that's been a concern in the Cornbelt where property owners - for example, those in Chicago - have sold property and then bought land at much lower prices per acre. That's made it more expensive for "large and established" farmers to buy farmland, not to mention any impact on small/young farmers with little capital."

Yes, I've seen mention of this issue when I surfed some discussion sites devoted to agriculture. I'm no expert on it, but it might illustrate one of the problems for journalists writing on farm problems--there's overlap between sectors, like agriculture and financial, and the journalist almost has to grow up with the topic to follow all the ins and outs.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Post Stories on Ag Programs--Followup I

Back in July, while my PC was down (and no, I haven't backed it up yet, :-( ), I got an email from D..Z.. (it was an email, not a comment on the blog, so I'm hiding the full name just in case he's concerned. He made very good points, which I promised to respond to when my PC was up. This is the delayed fulfillment of the promise:

1 DZ points out that the Post articles describe the 1996 Freedom to Farm Act as allowing farmers to grow crops without restrictions. That was the way the Act was sold to farmers and the general public. But buried in the fine print was a restriction (actually carried over from the previous farm bill, if memory serves) that prevented farmers from growing "fruits and vegetables" on land previously used for program crops. In other words, farmers were free to switch among "field" crops, like soybeans, other oilseeds, corn, cotton, rice, etc. But established fruit and vegetable growers were afraid of new competition, so the ban was included.

2 That many of the program recipients are widows. DZ heard a USDA official use 30 percent as the figure. I don't know the stat, but the point is true. From the beginning of the farm programs, the landowner has been eligible for payments if the owner shares in the crop. In other words, if I grow the crops on land I rent from Widow Jones for $100 an acre, cash payment, I get all the program payments. But if I rent from her on crop shares, with her getting one-third of the crop, she gets one-third of the payment. A controversy relates to what happens when the program prevents growing the crop--can Widow Jones get all the payment or can I get my 2/3's, even though I grow no crop? The issue arose in 1933 with cotton and sharecroppers, and continues to the present.

Back to widows: women outlive men, so they inherit land, rent it out, and still get payments because they own the land, which leads to point 3.

3 There is a stipulation in the law (since 1985) that payment recipients have to be "actively engaged" in farming. It's part of the payment limitation provisions. To oversimplify, in part because I no longer remember the rules well enough, contributing land and/or capital to the farming operation can qualify one as "actively engaged". So someone who inherited farm land years after they moved to the city and became rich can still be actively engaged in farming and receive program payments. It seems weird, but perhaps it's because our image of the farmer is the 160-acre man and his wife in "American Gothic".

To be continued (This just covers the first few of DZ's points.)

Deadly Modern Arms

A couple years ago there was a newspaper piece on the military's ordering a bunch of ammunition in order to avert a shortage for Iraq. The statistics on usage in the piece implied that our troops shot off 7000 rounds for every Iraqi killed (that's assuming that all of the estimated deaths were due to small arms fire; none were caused by artillery or bombs.)

As of August 2 statistics seem to say that Hezbollah kills one Israeli for each 100 rockets it fires into the country. (This probably changed since, as there were some rocket hits on groups.)

Be Very Afraid?

Orin Kerr has an interesting discussion of Sen. Spector's bill to revise FISA. It includes this scarey bit:
"If you don’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy in your cell phone calls, which those cases suggest is the case, Specter’s bill would mean that the NSA can tap every cell phone in the country of every US citizen, for entirely domestic calls, all without a warrant. This monitoring wouldn’t be “electronic surveillance” because (based on the cordless phone cases) the Fourth Amendment doesn’t apply."
Goes on to qualify the statement--read the whole thing.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Reps Back Down in War on Terror

As reported by the Washington Times, the Republicans are backing off their positions in the GWOT. No longer are we hurting the French.

"The fries on Capitol Hill are French again. So is the breakfast toast in the congressional cafeterias, with both fries and toast having been liberated from the appellation 'freedom.' "

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Fallible Statistics

The Times had an article yesterday on men who've dropped out of the labor force.
Men Not Working, and Not Wanting Just Any Job.

It raised some questions:
  • we compare favorably to European nations on unemployment rates. Would the comparison change if we used the percentage of the population working? Do all nations use the same rules to create unemployment statistics?
  • is this relevant (I assume yes) to the question of immigration's effect on US workers? (See comment on a Marginal Revolution post on a new academic analysis. Presumably it is--perhaps US workers don't drop down the status ladder to get work as much as they used to because the bottom is filled in?
  • is the phenomena related to the general social disdain of "low class" work and greater concern for status?
The article observed that some men lose contact with society as they reach their 40's and 50's, particularly the unmarried/childless ones. I suspect that's always been true. Maiden aunts would care for children and oldsters; bachelor uncles would sit further from the fire.