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.