Saturday, March 31, 2007

Cross Department Programs Don't Work

From a Washington Times report on the findings of the DOJ OIG:

A partnership begun in 2004 by the Justice, Homeland Security and Treasury departments to create an Integrated Wireless Network has "fractured" and is at a "high risk for failure," according to a government report issued yesterday.
Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine said that despite years of development and more than $195 million in funding, the project "does not appear to be on the path" to providing the seamless interoperable communications system envisioned.
"The causes for the high risk of project failure include uncertain and disparate funding mechanisms for IWN, the fractured IWN partnership and the lack of an effective governing structure for the project," Mr. Fine said.

Reminds me of the abortive USDA projects for cross-agency computerization. Same sort of problems, even though the issues were at the agency level and not the department level. Things like OMB and GSA were developed as cross-governmental institutions, but they took a long time to get going.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Hobby Farmers

The LA Times has an article on hobby farmers:
Hobby farmers — loosely defined as those whose incomes are derived not solely from farming — often bring little or no hands-on experience to their new avocation. Their business acumen and marketing skills from previous jobs, however, can turn their pastimes into gainful enterprises, said Karen K. Acevedo, editor in chief of 6-year-old Hobby Farms magazine, which has a circulation of about 81,000.

These "ruralpolitans" are willing to invest beaucoup bucks to pay for equipment to reap and sow organic vegetables; raise niche crops, such as herbs, grass-fed beef or organic pork; shear sheep or llamas for wool production; or harvest grapes for wine.
Based on the prices at the end of the piece, I'd define their hobby farmers as people able to afford $100,000 per acre. It's also true, I think, that most farmers rely on off-farm income of some sort.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Northern Ireland and Northern Iraq

In the last few days, Rev. Ian Paisley, leader of the Unionists in Northern Ireland, agreed to join Sein Fein in a government. I remember in the 1960's thinking that Paisley's continued existence was a proof for atheism. It shows that time changes many things, including some zealots. (Some of my ancestors seem to have tried to balance between the Catholics and the Protestants in Ireland--see Marjorie Robie's book. But even taking this development at face value, it's another step in a long long process, bridging divisions that go back hundreds of years. It seems as if the Northern Ireland peace process now has enough momentum not to be derailed by spectacular violence, like the Omagh bombing (killed 29).

But we know that the peace process in the Middle East (Palestine/Israel) has repeatedly been derailed by violence (intifadas, the killings of militants, the killing of Rabin, etc.). And we can see that even in Tall Afar, which was held up as a model by President Bush, spectacular violence leads to more violence. With this in mind, even if the "surge" succeeds in subduing violence in and around Baghdad, my guess is the result will be closer to the Palestine/Israel situation than Northern Ireland. In other words, the best Bush and we can hope for is "simmering" violence in Iraq, as opposed to "boiling".

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Mismanagement and Agency Culture

NASCOE (National Association of County Office Employees) is the organization for Farm Service Agency employees. I occasionally look at their web site. Today I skimmed some of the items that employees submitted for "negotiation" (i.e., the back and forth process that NASCOE reps conduct with FSA management. Several related to problems with current IT systems, both design and operation. Some made me shudder, because it seems as if the agency has repeated some of the same mistakes it (i.e., "we", i.e. "I") made back in 1985. Specifically, the "stovepipe" design of systems where the operator in the county office is forced to do extra work instead of having the system do it.

The problem at agriculture was that people lacked the background, mission, and authority to look across the board at what was happening in different offices and different programs and direct a rational approach to problems. This statement is true everywhere you look in government, whether it's the military or law enforcement. (Look at the recent news of the problems the wireless communication system that is to be shared by DHS, DOJ, and Treasury.)

I don't have any solutions. I wonder whether big corporations are any better at this. (My impression of GE is that separate units operate pretty separately.)

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Surprising Tidbit on Women

I was surprised to read in this Washington Times article on the predominance of women on college campuses that:
"In 1870, the first year a national survey was conducted, 7,993 men and 1,378 women received bachelor's degrees."
My grandmother graduated from Monmouth College in Illinois around 1884 but I was still surprised by the number.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Getting Privacy for Farm Payment Data

Ken Cook at EWG explains why they don't publish the names of food stamp recipients, as they do for farmers. Of course, times have changed since the court decision that forced FSA to give EWG the payment data with identities. Ken points out that adopting the $200K limit, as proposed by the administration, might reopen the argument that convinced the court.

(A personal note--I well remember Gerry Diebert being concerned about the prospect of losing the case. He was the liaison with our data processing people who had to figure out how to give EWG what they'd won. I also remember that I was, although not directly involved, rather aggravated. During my career I'd had some responsibility for implementing the Privacy Act of 1974. Effectively the court threw out a bunch of the work we'd done in the initial implementation--it was almost a catch-22 situation: farmers were covered by the Privacy Act until we'd done all the work; then they weren't covered by the Privacy act and FOIA required giving out the data. Make up your damn minds, policymakers.

In this context "policymakers" means those faceless bureaucrats in Congress and the courts who could tell us good guys what to do. :-) )

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Office Closing and Pandering

Another in a series, from the Aberdeen SD paper:

Sen. John Thune has introduced legislation that would stop any potential Farm Service Agency county office closures until the Secretary of Agriculture conducts a study on cost savings and/or efficiencies at the three FSA headquarters locations and all state FSA offices.

The legislation also requires that the report recommendations must be implemented at all FSA headquarters and state offices before any county FSA offices may be closed.

I've no doubt there's costs that could be saved at headquarters, but it's not a logical stand, it's pandering to the voters. (Of course, it's easy for a retired bureaucrat living in a thriving county outside of DC to mock, quite another matter for the people in the small towns who are affected, particularly those who have taken risks or invested heavily in staying in their particular town.)

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Why It's Hard to Cut Offices

Read this account from the Hays (Kansas) Daily News of a meeting discussing closing a county office. If each of the 223 people at the meeting write their Representative and Senators, don't you think that Pat Roberts and Sam Brownback will respond to the concerns?

Or read this account from the Emporia Gazette.

[Note: I've set up a Google Alert for Farm Service Agency items. From that haphazard sampling, it appears that Kansans raise the most hell about closings. Maybe they're all descended from Mary Elizabeth Lease, who famously talked about raising less corn and more hell.]

To govern is to choose, but mostly humans would prefer not to.

Structure and Systems Make a Difference

An article in the NY Times today reported this:
The Long Island Index, which is financed by the Rauch Foundation, a nonprofit group, compared per capita spending in Nassau and Suffolk Counties with that in Fairfax and Loudoun Counties in northern Virginia.

While the regions have similar demographics, housing prices and population densities, Long Island has a total of 239 counties, cities, towns, villages and school districts (and another 200 special districts), compared with the two northern Virginia counties, which have 17.

The extra layers, as well as more higher personnel costs, are a big reason local governments on Long Island spent $15.5 billion in 2002, more than triple what the two counties in Virginia spent.

Long Island residents spent $5,562 per capita for public services, 45 percent more than in the two Virginia counties.

But to the surprise of the study’s authors, 88 percent of those surveyed in Fairfax and Loudoun Counties said, for example, that services provided by police officers, firefighters and teachers were good or excellent, while on Long Island the figure was 75 percent."

It's inconvenient for libertarians, who believe the smallest and most local government is the least worst government.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Pet Peeve Time, or, Why Kyle Sampson Shouldn't Have Been Hired

One of my pet peeves is people who refuse to get into the 21st century. Even though the software industry has provided PC's with hundreds and thousands of fonts, they insist on using a non-proportional typeface like pica or elite, which trace their origins to the days of the typewriter. My problem dates back to the early 70's, when research for a better word processor than the IBM MT/ST led me to looking at the early CRT's (which made characters using a 5x7 or 6x9 grid of, if I remember, pixels). In trying to find out how important such differences were (I'm very easily distracted), I read some stuff on typography. Rather arcane (serifs lead the eye from one character to another) but interesting. It made me forever dissatisfied with pica and elite. But people hate to change, so 25 years after good fonts became available, a few benighted conservatives still use pica and/or elite.

Based on the excerpts from the e-mails released by DOJ in the dispute over firing attorneys, it looks as if Kyle Sampson, the now ex-chief of staff, falls into that category.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Love Our British Bureaucratic Cousins

One of the pleasures of reading things from outside the U.S. is coming across turns of phrase. For example, I'm reading a report on the British equivalent of FSA and come across this, well buried within the bureaucratese:
"Changes have been made in the governance of RPA since this review was launched. The Ownership Board has been replaced by a Strategic Advisory Board and a separate, temporary Oversight Group established. The new arrangements are still bedding down but, with other arrangements in place in the agency itself, are aimed at clarifying responsibilities which had become blurred in the 05-06 period. [emphasis added]"
Arrangements are bedding down--love it. [I realize only a true-blue bureaucrat would get pleasure from such reading, and only a weirdo would appreciate the idiom, but that's me.]

Monday, March 19, 2007

Rules and Side Effects--Who's a Farmer

From the Farm and Ranch Guide:
Many farm management advisors and university experts have been advising farm operators to look at negotiating “flexible cash rental leases” with their landlords as an alternative to paying very high straight-out cash rental rates on rented land. This strategy seems to make a lot of sense, given the high volatility in the current grain markets, and the high degree of uncertainty relative to future crop revenues.
The article goes on to advise that such a strategy may run afoul of the FSA rules on division of payments--very briefly, if you share in the risk, you're eligible for subsidy payments. So any shift from a straight cash lease, where the operator takes all the risk, both of whether the crop will be good and what the price will be, to give some of the risk to the landowner is likely to cause problems, at least if the FSA bureaucrat is doing her job.

Notable Bureaucrats--Milton Friedman

Another in my occasional series of salutes to those bureaucrats, alive or dead, who have contributed to making this world what it is. Today we recognize Milton Friedman, the economist (and right winger) who's popularly believed to have invented income tax withholding when he served as a Treasury Department adviser during WWII. As Brad DeLong says:

"In the late 1930s he hooked up with the National Bureau of Economic Research’s Simon Kuznets and Arthur Burns, worked for the U.S. Treasury during World War II (where he was one of the designers of our current system of income-tax withholding), earned his Ph. D. from Columbia University in 1946, and finally landed on his feet at the University of Chicago.
And Ilya Somin:
Somewhat unfortunately, Friedman (at that time still a left-winger) also invented the idea of income tax withholding while working as an economist for the the Treasury Department during World War II. Although Friedman intended it to be a temporary wartime measure, it soon turned into a permanent expansion of government power - a result that the later, libertarian Friedman would surely have predicted:)
It seems Somin may give him too much credit, perhaps because the irony is so great--the great believer in free markets helping to finance government. This detailed (and very hostile) discussion of the advent of withholding only mentions Milton Friedman once, while an Elisha Friedman and Beardsley Ruml get more ink. It also turns out that withholding had been authorized for government employees in the Civil War statute, so it was not a new concept.

I'm now reading the memoirs of Milton and Rose Friedman. He says he was involved in the development of withholding for the U.S., but both the British and Germans were already doing it (i.e., collecting taxes at the source). However, they differed in whether the taxes were on current income or past, but shared the characteristic that the withholding was final. This differs from the U.S. system, which makes the final tax subject to adjustment by April 15.

Bottomline: Milton was one of the designers of the system, and as such qualifies for the notable bureaucrat honor.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Virginia Postrel Meet John Phipps

Earlier in the week I noted the John Phipps post about the new welding tools, which made it easy for him to do good welding. Then I ran across Virginia Postrel's discussion
of do-it-yourself design tools (Adobe Pagemaker, etc.). Similar messages, very different technologies.

Friday, March 16, 2007


Finished the Lawrence Levine book, Highbrow/Lowbrow, which I mentioned earlier. He carried the thesis through opera, Shakespeare, and classical music: in all cases before the Civil War the audience was composed of a mixture of classes, was boisterous and participative (22 people died in the Astor Place riot, where class, religion, and nationality came together over an issue of Shakespearean acting). After the Civil War the arts became "sacralized"--treated more solemnly and religiously, with more exclusive audiences behaving more mannerly. Levine seems to say it was the elite and the purveyors who enforced this separation. In his epilogue he argues against Allan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind, who was very much in favor of elite arts and for the idea that the arts should be more popular.

I think this is a limited interpretation. Using a different perspective, one of a growing economy with more ecological niches, after the Civil War the number of people in urban places grew, the number who had the leisure and the dollars to participate in recreational activities also grew. So I'd see more of a process of differentiation of a market. In other words, I suspect a number of different sports and recreations grew--professional baseball I know, horseracing, college sports. From Putnam's work, Bowling Alone, the number of local theater and opera groups also grew. So those people who enjoy participation, booing and cheering, found outlets. Those who liked to focus intently on a performance found their outlets.

(I write this as someone who was raised to treat "culture" with great respect so I'm obviously prejudiced. But I still think my thesis is better than Levine's, by explaining more.)

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Transparency or NOt?

I remember when our IT guy in DC was working on the EWG's FOIA request for all farm program payment data. Part of the issue was whether the data was personal, and covered under the Privacy Act, or business, and not covered. (Part of the argument probably was that the data was all tied to the Social Security Number.) EWG (with I think the Washington Post) ultimately won their court case. Since that day more than 10 years ago EWG has put the data they got from ASCS/FSA/USDA on line. It's gotten a lot of use as people have become more aware of it.

Ken Cook's blog refers to this newspaper article discussing some of the results of this transparency. (The neighbors are jealous.) There are costs, to be sure, but I think transparency is warranted. As the government goes forward in implementing the Coburn/Obama bill calling for the same transparency for all funding, we need to remember what's been learned with this database.

Of course, I've never really figured out why a farmer's payment should be public when my pension amount is not.

Technology Obsoletes Skills

In the long learning curve that is human history, one constant is the incorporation of knowledge into technology (and the decorporation, much decried by Luddites and romantics, of the same knowledge from human bodies).

Here's another instance, as John Phipps, a jack of all trades as a farmer must be, discovers that new welding tools make him a better welder.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Culture and Shakespeare

Philip Kennicott, the Post's general purpose critic, whom I find a taste difficult to acquire, had an article today on a Shakespeare/America exhibit at the Folger Library, part of this year's DC Shakespeare festival. I mention it because I just started reading a book, "Highbrow, Lowbrow", on American culture, by Lawrence Levine. His first chapter is on Shakespeare in America, particularly the 19th century. Shakespeare was popular, and part of the "popular" culture as well as highbrow. (Though Levine's thesis here seems to be that culture wasn't subdivided into those categories, at least before the Civil War.) He has multiple quotes and cites--Walt Whitman of course. But also that U.S. Grant played Desdemona while waiting for action in the Mexican War. He cites a New Orleans paper, the Picayune, in 1840+ as observing the "playing going habits of our negro population" (that's close to verbatim); a striking quote on many levels--that New Orleans had theaters, that blacks went to the theater, that the paper would write on this, and finally that the language would be politically correct, 21 years or so before emancipation.

I hope the rest of the book is as good as the first 20 pages.

Monday, March 12, 2007

The Evil Ones

Shankar Vedantam in the Post has an article describing research on political partisans. It proves that my opponents are not well-informed, their conclusions are biased and self-serving, and their motives are totally malign. I, on the other hand, I am very well informed, I see clearly even when things aren't quite the way they ought to be, I form objective and soundly based conclusions, and have only the best of motives, wishing prosperity for all (except of course those evil enemies of mine).

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Owning Land

John Phipps links Hernando De Soto (The Mystery of Capital) and the new Chinese initiative on land ownership. It's an important point. For example, in Ireland for generations most land holdings were rentals, very long term rentals but still. Only by coming to the U.S. (or Canada, Australia...) could an Irishman own the land he farmed.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Walter Reed Problems

[Wrote the first two paragraphs on 2/23/07, the remainder today.] Walter Reed has been in the news since the Washington Post did a 2-part series on problems there [this gives Friday's piece, with links to earlier ones], then Lehrer Newshour included a couple pieces and then the whole world (defined inside the Beltway as the authorizing committees and appropriations subcommittees of Congress) landed on DOD and VA. If I understand, wounded soldiers are moved from the hospital when they are convalescents into a set of buildings elsewhere on the campus. They're in charge of NCO's who are also recovering. Many are in a sort of limbo--maybe needing physical therapy or other treatment but too well to be confined to a hospital. From a military standpoint, some may wind up fit for duty, while others may finally be determined to be unfit. In part the problem is accentuated because medicine is saving more wounded, so they're recuperating from more serious injuries.

The situation seems to be a classical bureaucratic problem--you have a bureaucracy, Walter Reed Hospital, that prides itself on great medical care of the wounded. You have another bureaucracy, the Army, that has rules for able-bodied soldiers. But now you have a growing number of people who don't fit comfortably into either category. So the bureaucrats in power don't take responsibility, the facilities suffer a bit from neglect, the NCO's are overwhelmed, and the soldier/patients don't get what they need.

There's further complications: many soldiers want to remain in the service, so want to minimize their injuries and maximize their chances for recover. The services want to retain soldiers (though I suspect there's some hidden prejudices against soldiers with "disabilities"). On the other hand, if a soldier can't, or doesn't want to, stay in, he or she wants to maximize the injury so as to increase the disability benefits (realizing that not all soldiers fit the economists' "maximizing utility" model).

And still more: some soldiers are Army, some are National Guard, some are Reserve (presumably some may be Navy or Marine and some Air Force). Each one has, I'm sure, a different pay system, a different set of rules and regulations, and separate personnel offices. So Building 18 becomes the focus of a perfect storm, the point where multiple bureaucracies meet, and miscommunicate. And, because the VA services veterans where they live in civilian life, a surge of casualties resulting from the deployment of a Guard unit from a state poses problems for the local staff.

The number of investigations going on reflects the underlying complexity--each bureaucracy and its overseers have to do their own thing.

It's no comfort to the soldiers to know that some of this, as it relates to the Guard, is a direct result of the wisdom of the Founding Fathers.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Great Day for Cats

The sun is warm and bright, streaming in through the windows on the south, reaching farther inside the house than it will in the summer, stronger and more long-lasting than it was in winter. The cats bask in it, sleeping without a care in the world.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

More on FSA Computers

The High Plains Journal has a take on FSA's problems with its Web-based applications at the same time USDA is proposing to close offices:

"At the same time that FSA's national web-based program struggles, several state FSA offices have proposed closing selected county offices throughout the High Plains. FSA contends that these office closures will help provide more efficient service to producers. On one hand, FSA wants to jump into the 21st century by offering on-line program sign ups that reduce the need for producers to drive to county offices so often. On the other hand, they want to close marginally performing offices. The fatal flaw in this plan is the fact that the on-line program isn't working efficiently.

It makes sense for USDA to come out with an aggressive plan to fix their nationwide technology problems first or at least at the same time as they propose to close selected county offices. These two issues are not mutually exclusive. FSA has a long history of providing excellent service to producers in the field. Poor timing of reform proposals should not be a reason to tarnish such a laudable record."

(It's interesting that the web page seems defective.) This isn't exactly Catch-22, but in the ideal world farmers face the choice: drive more miles to deal with a bureaucrat with a face, or go online and deal with a faceless one.

Friday, March 02, 2007

History Repeats Itself at FSA

I never thought to see this:
The Associated Press story said that Teresa Lasseter, who heads the agency, complained that computers were so slow it sometimes took 10 to 25 minutes for a screen to come up. In January, the computer system worked sporadically or not at all, she said.

“It’s gotten better, but not as fast as we’d like it to be,” Kiel said.
Back in 1985-87 when the agency was first given minicomputers in the county offices, they turned out to be vastly underpowered for the stuff we were trying to do. IBM and the agency struggled for what seemed an eternity to try to get ahead of the curve, expanding storage, upgrading processors, etc. In the light of the power of today's PC's, it all seems ridiculous now. I forget what the parameters were then, but I think the biggest system had like 1.5 gigs of storage and maybe a meg of RAM. (These were IBM System/36's, supporting a number of terminals and printers.)

What seems to have happened today with FSA is that they've migrated applications off the System/36 (actually AS-400's which I believe are running emulations of the System/36) onto the web and their web servers aren't up to the task. Now if you ask me whether it's really FSA or it's the Department's IT people responsible, damned if I know.

There's probably only a handful of old timers there who remember the hammering we took on the Hill over the computer problems. Live and learn.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

"Actively Engaged in Farming"

I was in the FSA website, trying to find data on corn prices. (It used to be there, but they've revamped the site and their PDF documents and I can't find it so I had to revert to Google.) But while I was there I ran across this fact sheet on the Administration's proposal for capping payments to producers with over $200,000 in "adjusted gross income". (I've an alternate proposal.) (Background, Senator Chambliss in the Senate Ag hearings took Johanns over the coals on the proposal, talking about farmers who had to pay off their equipment. This fact sheet explains there are 25 categories of deductions from income to arrive at AGI. It doesn't say that Chambliss was wrong, but I infer it.)

According to the IRS, 38,000 filers had AGI over $200 K and received farm payments.
"These 38,000 tax filers received 4.9 percent of all farm program payments or approximately $400 million.

The 38,000 tax filers who had an AGI of $200,000 or more and received farm program payments in 2004 includes both Schedule F filers and Form 4835 filers. Schedule F is filed by farm proprietors. Of all Schedule F filers, only 1.2 percent, or 25,000, had an AGI of $200,000 or more and received farm program payments.

Form 4835 is used by tax filers who don't materially participate in running a farm to report farm rental income or expenses. Of all Form 4835 filers, only 2 percent, or 13,000, had an AGI of $200,000 or more and received farm program payments in 2004."

What's not noted is that IRS and FSA have different definitions of "farming". If I understand correctly, IRS doesn't consider Form 4835 filers to be "farmers". But FSA does, under the permissive definition of "actively engaged".