Thursday, May 31, 2007

And EWG Can Do It

I blogged a couple times about the USDA's payments database--it attributes farm program payments back to individuals (i.e., if the check is made out to a partnership, joint venture, corporation, the amount is split among the members of the partnership, joint venture, or stockholders). This is different from the data that the Environmental Working Group has been publishing for 10+ years in that it's more detailed. When USDA released it, they said it was too big to make available on-line. But an ag publication claimed to have done it and I tweaked my former co-workers at USDA about it. Now, EWG is promising to publish it by June 12.

Realism and Defeat

Does this statement by former Sens Dole and Daschle reflect the independence of mind resulting from being out of office or the poor judgment that may have caused them to lost their races?

Former Senate leaders Tom Daschle and Bob Dole suggested Wednesday that the nation's agricultural policy should be reformed, saying farmers should become more dependent on the marketplace.

Daschle, a Democrat from South Dakota, and Dole, a Republican from Kansas, proposed eliminating direct payments to farmers but retaining countercyclical payments, which pay farmers only when prices are low. They also suggested that farmers be encouraged to take part in emerging markets such as renewable fuels to help them stay afloat.

A Central Vision from the Brits

The British system of government is more centralized than ours, and more bureaucratic. Their professional civil service is much stronger and, from casual reading, their automation has been much more unified. (It appears that entire departments not only were using the same software system in the early 90's, but some systems were being shared across departments. Compare that with the problems USDA and other US departments have getting the same software to be used across agencies.)

In an apparent continuation of that theme, here's an excerpt from a newspaper:

Paul Wickens, General Manager of Steria in Northern Ireland said: “Records NI is one of the key components of a programme that is helping to realise the Northern Ireland government’s vision to create the ‘Office of the Future’. Its main aim is to set up a single storage location for all documents and records across all 11 departments which will save time, provide faster access to information and significantly reduce the amount of space currently required to store records and documents.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Unkept Promises and Laws

Via Agweb and John Phipps, Jim Wiesemeyer reports:
The lengthy time it took to get the disaster aid package completed is one of the reasons why House Ag Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) wants a permanent disaster aid program as part of the new farm bill. But as with any new program under that debate, funding has to be found and that is becoming increasingly hard to obtain. Some budget offsets could be found via reduced direct payments, but some farm-state lawmakers are fighting that suggestion, including Senate Ag Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).
Of course, Congress has repeatedly vowed, no more disaster aid. But "Congress" isn't a person so it can't make promises. Situations change, politicians change, and promises go out the window.

[Update: See this Omaha World-Herald article--disaster programs are in trouble when a paper in the heart of farm country is skeptical.]

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Food Stamps II

A commenter (ed. "A"--"the one and only comment, for which you ought to be truly grateful.)* on the posts about living on food stamps challenges me to think further. Perhaps a Q and A format is appropriate:

1 Do I think it's possible to live reasonably healthily on food stamps? Yes, I do. It requires a lot of work and thought, and a good bit of knowledge, but it can be done. I'm less sure of the "organic" lifestyle--I agree with the commenter that the writer was a special case.

2 If my wife and I were told today to start living on $21 a week each, could we do it? Yes. We've the background and knowledge and the free time. Even more important, we've got a starting inventory of staples, like cooking oil, flour, beans, rice, and sugar. And most important of all, we live a quiet, steady life (knock on wood), one that's adapted to long range planning and stable habits. That's very different from the hand-to-mouth life of someone living day-to-day--you don't have the money to buy a 10 pound bag of rice, it's just one vicious cycle after another.

3 Are food stamps intended as the sole source of food dollars for their recipients? No. USDA's Economic research Service has an interesting article on the whole issue of food stamp spending here. (I was surprised by the spending patterns--I had the usual preconceptions.)

4 Which is larger, $21 a person per week or $326 per month for a family of four? Mathematically, they're about equal, but feeding four on the budget is not four times as hard as feeding one. Both workwise and moneywise, feeding four should be more efficient.

5 Do we have irrational expectations of food stamp recipients? Absolutely, read Jason De Parle or the book I just finished, "Off the Books" for some insights. (Plan to post on "Off the Books" separately.)

6 Is good food available in the inner city? That's an example of the sort of irrational picture in our mind we have--food stamp recipients and "inner city" are synonyms. It's just as difficult to get fruits and vegetables in a small town as in the big city, at least in the off season. Where I can walk to two big supermarkets, whole wards of DC and whole counties in rural America don't have one. (When I lived in DC, there were 3 small supermarkets (one Safeway in the basement of an office building around 11th and F, one about 1200 11th St, and one around 1800 P) I could use. I think they're all gone, although there is a Whole Foods in the area now that it's been gentrified. Small urban supermarkets don't carry large economy sizes, because people can't carry them, don't have the money to buy, and don't have the cars nor parking space to do pickups. We're talking close-in NW DC here, not Anacostia or east of Rock Creek Parkway.)

7 On the third hand, while we debate eating on $21 a week, much of the world lives on $1-2 a day.

* Adopting the habit of a few bloggers of splitting their personality in order to try to be funny.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Great Memorial Day Post

See this memory on Dwelling Place of Dragons: evokes childhood, the mystery and dread of the unknown, and recognition of the past.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

I Was Right, Right, Right

Wrote a post earlier in the week about living on food stamps. Today an affirmation of my position--that it is possible to live on them--in the Post. The writer not only lives on $25 a week, but makes lunch for co-workers and lives organically.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Dieting and Food Stamps

There have been a number of articles about people, mostly politicians, trying to subsist on $21 a week, the amount allowed by the food stamp program. This article in the LA Times is one of the latest. It seems to me many of the articles are unrealistic in several ways:

  • the first mistake is to say, you start the week with $21 and no food on hand and you end the week with $0 and no food on hand. A more realistic cost accounting would look at the cost of the amount of food consumed during the week. If you use a third of a bottle of cooking oil, then your budget is charged with a third of the cost.
  • a second mistake is not buying in bulk
  • a third mistake is buying processed, not ingredients.
Avoid those mistakes and I think it'd be possible to live on the food stamp allowance, reasonably healthily though not with all the fruits and vegetables now recommended. And certainly not enjoyably. Rather like living without TV; it's doable, but no one wants to.

Hats and Dust

Got the wash Post Sunday magazine today--it had an article on the building of the Pentagon, including a picture showing a bunch of workers building forms and pouring concrete. What was amazing was they are almost all wearing hats. I remember seeing photos of men going to baseball games, all in hats, but this is on the job.

Then Ms. Laskas in her column addressed the issue of dusting, as in: no one dusts any more.

Standards have gone to ??

Friday, May 25, 2007

Databases and Private Enterprise

Apparently private enterprise can do what FSA can't--put its database of farm program payments attributed to individuals on-line. Unfortunately, it requires a subscription, but see this link. From the article:

Echoing this perspective, Jaeger adds that historically, payment data has been published by lobbying organizations that have often presented the data in ways that support their agendas. “We know there are many who have well founded perspectives that differ from those propagated by these groups and our objective at Your Farm is to provide a venue for those views to be expressed,” he says.

The 1614 Database contains approximately 64 million records with information related to more than 2.3 million entities and individuals. The database provides information for $56 billion worth of benefits. Due to the size of the 1614 Database, FSA has indicated an inability to make the information available online.

“We like big ideas,” said Jaeger. “So we figured out how to put the information online. It’s about farmers. We believe they should have access to it.”

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

And the Rumors Started Flying in the South Building

This bit from the House Ag committee work on farm bill, via Brownfield:
As we've asked other committee members to withdraw their amendments 'til we get to the full committee, I would ask the gentleman to consider withdrawing it until next year," Holden urged Space. "And respectfully, the reason I say that to my friend is that, in consultation with the chairman of the full committee and with Mr. Lucas, next year we plan to have a reorganization of USDA."

Holden didn't say whether the USDA reorganization would focus specifically on the roles of FSA and NRCS in EQIP. But he suggested the reorganization would be much more sweeping.

"Again, after consulting with the chairman of the full committee, we believe any amendments that would come either in this subcommittee or in any subcommittee or in the full committee dealing with the transfer of responsibility or authority," Holden explained, "we'd like to wait 'til next year when we have a reorganization of the entire Department."

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Those Despicable Bureaucrats

Shankar Vedantam in yesterday's Post has an article describing how we view others. Here's a quote:
Wesleyan University social psychologist Scott Plous said one dimension of the phenomenon is known as the actor-observer bias. When we do something wrong ourselves -- drive 60 mph in a 40-mph zone, for example -- we explain our actions in terms of situational factors. We say we are speeding because we are running late, or that we got held up at work. But when we see someone else do something wrong, we are far more likely to link the behavior to the nature of that individual.
It's described as the difference between "situational" understanding and "dispositional" understanding. I think it can apply to bureaucrats as well. When people cuss and moan about "faceless bureaucrats", I think it's true that they lack the bureaucrat's understanding of the rules being applied. So the bureaucrat knows the situation and applies the rules. The citizen, who just got screwed (or feels he did), only knows that some bastard screwed him by mindless application of some rules.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Welfare Farmers

The LA Times editorial page makes the linkage that many will make--between welfare (foodstamps) and farm programs.

But Jim Wiesemeyer has a nuts and bolts article on the actual crafting of the new farm bill that suggests opinion may swing towards a straight extension, which will disappoint many. (The logic is that "pay-go" rules mean new programs require new taxes or cuts in old programs, both of which may be too painful to pass. So simplicity is easy and an extension of 2002 may seem attractive.)

And All the Cars Are Shiny

I've another line to add to Garrison Keillor's lines about Lake Woebegon, but this one reflect modern times, not the egotism of the town. I was sitting in the parking lot waiting for my wife to finish grocery shopping (she picks up fruits and vegetables at the Hispanic supermarket after our regular Saturday lunch).
Ann Althouse has been on a recent kick of taking photos of cars, mainly classic cars, and that got me conscious of the cars in the lot. Compared to the vehicles in a similar lot when I was young (ed.--there were no Hispanic supermarkets within 125 miles of where you grew up) they looked newer and much shinier. Newer because I don't think exterior styling has changed as much since 1995 as it did between 1945 and 1960. Shinier because of improvements in paint.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Are US Bureaucrats Better Than Brits?

Far be it from me to say so. Comparing the farm programs in the two countries is comparing apples and elephants. And the British reorganized their bureaucracy and changed their payment system recently. But still, this article reporting that the British bureaucracy still hasn't made 22,000 payments for 2005 says something to me.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

A Tale of Two Vanities

I bought my house over 30 years ago, new. More than 15 years ago I replaced the vanity in one bathroom.

While I hadn't done such work before, I had watched my father do all sorts of work on the farm, carpentry, plumbing repairs, concrete, painting, fixing farm implements. The Army in its infinite wisdom considered my test scores and disregarded my college background in American studies to decide that I would best serve the country as a generator repairman. (They then decided I could teach, as they started running both day and night classes, but soon realized my monotone was putting all my night students asleep so shipped me off to a warmer zone.) After buying my house, I decided to save by building some of my furniture, which I did and reasonably well. We still have a couple of chairs.

Finally, although I couldn't refer to the Internet for help, I could go to the Reader's Digest "How To..." series. So I assured my wife and my self that I could do this replacement. Unfortunately I didn't realize how interdependent plumbing systems are. If you decide to replace a 24" deep vanity with a 21" deep vanity (small bathroom), the drain pipe is no longer aligned with the sink drain.

No problem, I went off to the hardware store to find the proper parts. Unfortunately, I failed to measure before I went. And I never asked for help, not on my first visit to the store, not on my second visit to the store, not on the third visit to the store.

The more problems I ran into, the more frustrated I got and the more urgent it was for me to finish the job. So I threw things together, installed everything, spent a couple days trying to remedy a leak at the connection between the sink drain and the trap, and finally called it good enough for government work. And I regret the job every time I look at it.

Fast forward to yesterday, when my long-suffering wife decided she could put up with my replacing the vanity in another bathroom. After we bought the vanity and top, I went to the hardware store and asked for help. I got all the plumbing parts in about 10 minutes. And I'm doing lots of trial runs, dry fitting of the vanity and the plumbing together. I'm also taking breaks, as now, because I still get very frustrated (perhaps more than I used to) when I run into problems (like floors and walls not being perfectly plumb and square).

So I say with Ecclesiastes: Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Farewell Tony

Tony Blair officially announced the end of his prime ministership yesterday. I'm sorry to see him go.

I'm glad I wasn't writing a blog in 2002/3, because I wavered all over the lot on Iraq. Read the liberal hawks, like Kenneth Pollack, or the reluctant hawk Bill what's-his-face who's now editor of the NYTimes and I'd support Bush. Watch Bush or Cheney or Rice, and I'd start to remember Vietnam. I'd think, just because you were right (or so it seemed at the time) about Afghanistan doesn't mean that Iraq is a good idea. I'd think, what about Cap Weinberger (who set some famous criteria in the 1980's for using US troops), what about the Powell doctrine (which was a development of Weinberger's criteria) of using overwhelming force? How does that Republican doctrine fit with Wolfowitz's dismissal of Shinseki's warning?

But then I'd watch Blair, both in the US and in the C-Span coverage of Britain, and he was convincing. He didn't use Bush's simplistic, moralistic language of battling evil men. (Yes, I believe in evil, but analyzing one's enemies as simply evil is not the way to truth.) But he made a moral case, one that appeals to the moralistic liberal in me and that seemed more realistic about the effort needed.

What I failed to see was that Bush was in charge of implementation. Fatal error, fatal for many.

I'm not sure I mentioned reading the book "Long Way Gone" by Ishmael Beah, a former child soldier from Sierra Leone. Blair sent troops into Sierra Leone to stabilize the situation. That was an achievement, which one can appreciate from reading the book. (Though Blair isn't mentioned.)

The assessments of Blair in the papers haven't been particularly kind. They lean towards describing a glib politician who didn't achieve much and stuck too close to Bush. All that may be true, but I have to salute someone who got Paisley and Adams to the bargaining table in Northern Ireland.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Random Thought--Bonds and Sosa

I have the proper disdain for Barry Bonds and his effort to surpass Hank Aaron, whom I remember surpassing the unsurpassable (as it seemed in the 1950's) record of Babe Ruth. Steroids have no place in baseball.

Yet, and yet. Sammy Sosa is back playing and he and Barry are in the top ten homer hitters in their respective leagues. Now there seem to be two alternatives: either they're still on steroids, so the current testing routine is ineffective, or they're no longer on steroids, in which case their hitting exploits seem a bit more legitimate.

Why can't things get simpler as you get older.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Fruits, Vegetables, Blue Corn and True History

The May 8 Post has independent pieces with much the same point. Jeffrey Birnbaum outlines how the fruit and vegetable growers are hoping to get a bigger piece of money in the new farm bill. He says that they were long disdained as "specialty crops" but now are better organized and hope to have influence because they're strong in states often dubious of the farm programs (like CA and WA).

Meanwhile, over in Business a columnist for Bloomberg, Cindy Skrzycki takes up the cause of "blue corn" (usually used for tortillas), which hasn't met the definition of "corn" for the purpose of the farm programs. The lobbyist for the growers is testifying before Congress to get that changed:
He recounted the story of a Nebraska blue-corn farmer who went to his local USDA Commodity Credit Corp. office to apply for a low-interest, nine-month loan against his harvest. Clarkson said he was told he didn't qualify because he wasn't growing corn.
To oversimplify, the original farm programs were intended for field crops and dairy, commodities that could be stored (in the form of cheese and butter for dairy). They were intended to aid marketing by offering nonrecourse loans on stored commodities to keep them off the market until prices improved. They also had various measures to reduce production, to try to bring supply into line with balance.

Fruits, vegetables, and blue corn didn't fit into this picture. But by the 1990's things started to change. The supply management/production adjustment side of the programs was phased out (ending with the buyout of tobacco quotas this century). The phase out both complied with World Trade Organization rules on delinking subsidies and production and responded to the views of economists that allowing the market to give signals on what to produce, signals unclouded by subsidies, was the efficient way to go.

Meanwhile the provisions for loans on stored commodities were also changed. Loan deficiency payments and marketing assistance loans became ways of circumventing payment limitation and WTO rules [perhaps a biased view of mine]. Loans on actual stored commodities diminished in overall importance.

So by 2000 the picture is: crop farmers are getting money that's not closely tied to commodities. So blue corn, fruit and vegetable farmers say--if Uncle Sam is handing out money, why isn't he handing any my way?

In my view, while these farmers may have better lobbyists now, and connect with the zeitgeist better (natural foods, eating well, anti-obesity), their probable gains in the next farm bill also reflect the change in farm programs.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Fat Is Genetic

Yesterday I blogged on a possible relationship between welfare reform and obesity. Today the Times has an article by Gina Kolata reporting on research that shows a very high correlation between heredity and obesity. Two big studies, one on identical twins reared in different families, the other line of research is fat people who lost weight (and then regained it) and thin people who gained weight to become fat (and then lost it).

I can, reluctantly, accept the research. There's a long history of things about which people have theorized, often finding moral lessons in the theory. Unfortunately science normally blows the theories up, or at least severely complicates them, so I can't claim be good because my weight is about what it was when I graduated from college and therefore can't look down on people who differ from me by 100 pounds or so. Life often disappoints that way.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Welfare Reform and Fat Kids

One of the continuing marvels of life is the epidemic of obesity. It strikes me that welfare reform may have played a part in recent developments. The logic is, as more "welfare mothers" find jobs, the time and energy available to cook decreases and the temptation to buy ready-made and fast food rises.. See this Economic Research service pub for some background information.

Friday, May 04, 2007

David Brooks and 90 Percent

David Brooks had a poor column in the NY Times on Thursday. It's couched as advice to Wolfowitz and other Republicans, saying that 90 percent of any bureaucracy they come into are Dems, 90 percent of the media are Dems, etc. Lesson: although some will be partisan, most can be worked with, so work with them.

I quarrel with his figures, as well as the message. The percentage of Dems depends on the bureaucracy (DOD and VA are different than HHS and Education, also much larger). I'd guess that the military is mostly Reps (are they bureaucrats--yes, according to conservative scholar James Q. Wilson in "Bureaucracy".) DOD civilians are likely to be marginally Reps. So was Rumsfeld undermined by the Democratic military and DOD establishment? Obviously not.

For most bureaucracies and most bureaucrats in government, politics are much less important than daily living. The better comparison is to changing managers/coaches on an athletic team. Bush naming Wolfowitz to the World Bank is like Steinbrenner naming a good college baseball man to replace Joe Torre. The new guy has to step carefully.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Shakespeare in Odd Places

Just finished reading Ishmael Beah's book, "Long Way Gone", about his life in Sierra Leone, including as a child soldier. I recommend it. The material is grim but the narrative flows without self-pity or dramatics.

Last night my wife and I watched "Bollywood/Hollywood", a movie by Deepak Mehta featuring Lisa Ray. Mehta did "Water" with Ray, which got an Oscar nominee as best foreign film. Ray is stunningly beautiful, and not a bad actress. The movie is fun if you don't take it seriously. It would help if I knew more about Bollywood films because it has some in-jokes, but it's still a pleasant evening. Plot: rich son needs someone to pose as his intended wife to get mother and grandmother off his back until his pregnant sister gets safely married.

How do these relate to Shakespeare? Well, Beah as a child recites Shakespearean speeches for family and friends. He also gets into rap, hip-hop, and reggae and treasures his cassettes of rappers whose names I barely recognize. After becoming a soldier, his lieutenant spends his down time reading Julius Caesar. In the movie, grandmother uses Shakespearean snippets in egging on her grandson.

So a barefoot boy from Avon writes language that 400 years later is part of the culture of both Sierra Leone and India. And rap evolves in the Caribbean and US and travels back to Africa. The world is strange and wonderful