Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Eating Local

"Eating local", meaning buying food from local farmers, often through community supported agriculture (see USDA link) is getting trendy. (Of course, that's a way to put it down.) The idea is that the farmer profits by getting more of the food dollar, the environment gains because there's less energy used to move the food around the world, nutrition gains because there's less nutrient loss in processing and the consumer gains because the food tastes better.

I've no real quarrel with any of this, but I suspect it works better in the restaurant environment, as this article on the gains being made in the Washington suburgs shows. Why? Because the basic tradeoff (and there's always tradeoffs, as Robert Heinlein once wrote--there's no free lunch) is time for the benefits. It takes time to travel to the farm or farmer market, select the food, and come home and cook. It takes time to gain the expertise to make good meals from what's seasonally available. So it makes sense for the affluent to eat local at their restaurant, and to choose among restaurants based on that criteria.

Monday, July 30, 2007

FDR Wasn't Always a Liberal


Bureaucrats versus Founding Fathers--Classic Quote

I highly recommend "Sons of Providence: The Brown Brothers, the Slave Trade, and the American Revolution", by Charles Rappleye. The Browns of Providence RI were a prominent family of merchants--John traded in slaves and was a Congressman. Moses became a Quaker and an abolitionist and wrote a law regulating the slave trade which his brother was convicted of violating.

But from the bureaucratic standpoint, this quote, relating to the US Navy buying a ship from John Brown, shows the constraints that bureaucrats are always subject to:

pp313-4 "In ordering the purchase, Navy Secretary Benjamin Stoddert, a merchant in civilian life, agreed to John's price, but warned his agent, "Mr. Brown, who seems to be a complete master of the art of bargain-making, will probably ask more. You must do the best you can with him, and let the public be screwed as little as possible."

Sunday, July 29, 2007

What Happens When A Farm Program Ends

The report is that Virginia tobacco acreage has increased a bit, after falling after the end of the program. Of course, this means nothing. But just a few Sunday afternoon guesses at what would happen if farm programs were ended:

  • land values would fall very drastically
  • retired farmers and widows would have to reduce their standard of living
  • farms would consolidate, as those farmers with the capital take advantage of the lower land values to rent/buy more land
  • there would be some shifts in who produced what. But I'd guess that the pursuit of flexibility since 1996 has lessened the amount of shifting. Some land would go out of cotton and rice to other crops (perhaps marijuana?--I'm only following in the footsteps of those economists who focus on economic rationality)
  • if ag land values fall, then there might be more suburban sprawl, or maybe just lower housing prices
  • there'd be more volatility in farming, and perhaps more interest in mechanisms to reduce volatility (i.e., vertical integration, contract farming)
Notably, I'm skeptical of Oxfam and others who argue that ending the programs would cause prices to rise, at least, not in the sense of rising and staying on a new plateau. I'd guess the increased volatility would mean temporary price increases, and then decreases.

All of this is wasted electrons, because the farm program isn't going to end any time soon.

Friday, July 27, 2007

House Passes Farm Bill

What does passage mean? (It was interesting, watching Sec. Johanns at the National Press Club on one C-SPan channel while the final votes on the farm bill were happening on the other.)

What does it mean? For a bureaucrat, not too much. Theoretically, when both House and Senate had passed bills, you knew the boundaries of the world you had to plan for. That's because the conferees are supposed to compromise the differences between the two bills and are not supposed to create new provisions. But the reality was a bit different. The new could always happen in conference.

I can't even write that a change in payment limitation provisions is now certain. Likely, I'd say but the cotton and rice states have some powerful voices in the Senate.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Why Most Terrorists Are Incompetent

That's the title of a piece in Slate by Tim Harford. The focus is really on the background of terrorists, which turns out, according to one study, to be well educated, particularly in comparison to the milieu from which they come. The British doctors involved in the last attempts are an example. All of which accentuates the question--why is someone who is smart enough to get an MD incompetent as a terrorist?

My answer is --first, you never get it right the first time ("Harshaw's law"). Second, the brits seem to have been operating without close guidance from more experienced terrorists. (The Palestinian suicide bombers had a whole infrastructure in place. Even though the bomber was a first (and last) timer, the organization was not. Third, terrorism is probably harder than it seems from the outside.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Watching NPR's Honor Roll

The Lehrer News Hour regularly runs its "honor roll" of military members who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. It's hard not to watch, even though I keep remembering the bad weeks of the Vietnam war, when over a hundred would be killed. I can't help but compare the treatment in the two different times.


You look at the screen. I'm struck by the variety in ages. At least in memory Vietnam was a young man's war, the riflemen were young draftees and young recruits. This war affects a broader range of ages. Which is harder to take--the young kid who signed up just out of high school with his or her whole life ahead, or the 35 year old sergeant who probably leaves a widow and children behind?

You look at the places. It's all too easy to romanticize, but the names of the towns and small cities could roll off the tongue. Several years ago CBS News used to run a regular feature, called "Everyone has a story". The reporter/writer would turn his back on a map of the US and toss a dart over his shoulder. Then go to the place closest to where the dart landed. The method meant that he was always visiting rural and small town America, the same areas where many of today's military seem to come from.

And you look at the names. I get the stereotypical liberal satisfaction when I see the diversity of the names--everyone should die for their country. But, perhaps because of my background, I grow sad when I see the Jr's and the III's following the names. Those simple letters speak of a pride in family, which I can understand, and the possibility of an end to a line.

More Bad Publicity on Payment Limitation

John Phipps at Agweb refers to two articles, here and here in the Springfield Journal-Register on cases where big payments were made to people who seem not to be actively engaged in farming. I was tickled by this quote:
"The book, the Bible that has all the rules, is 3 1/2 inches thick," Wold [an attorney] said. "We had a team of lawyers who couldn't understand it and had to hire an expert. There are very few people who understand it. The farmers are supposed to implicitly know all these details."
The truth, or rather the fantasy, is that the farmer isn't supposed to need to know any of the details. The theory is that the farmer does his or her thing, making the business decisions that make sense, and then accurately reports how he or she is operating for the year. The bureaucrat then decides what that translates to under the rules. It's like the tax code--you're not supposed to set up a home office so you can deduct part of your housing costs as building expenses.

Of course this theory is a fantasy--once you attach monetary rewards and penalties to action, people change the way they act. And now those poor souls in the USDA South Building may have to write a new bible, and a few may retire to become consultants on understanding the rules in the bible.

Sen. Roberts on Farm Bill

As chair of the House Ag committee, then-Rep. Pat Roberts (R-KS) pushed the "Freedom to Farm" component of the 1996 farm bill. It was sold as a transition to a free-market agriculture, with transitional fixed payments replacing the "deficiency payments" that were tied to market price levels. (You can tell from my tone, I wasn't impressed back then.)

The 2002 farm bill kept the "fixed" payments and reinstated "counter-cyclical" payments (albeit changing the basis for payment entirely to historical production).

This is what Sen. Roberts says now:

As a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, I look forward to the upcoming debate over the future of American farm policy. Next year [sic--the good Senator seems to be a bit late in updating his web site], the 2002 Farm Security and Rural Investment Act (P.L. 107-171) will expire. I voted against the current farm bill when it was approved by Congress in 2002. At the time, I registered my concern that the bill was full of empty promises, would lower assistance to Kansas producers and would not work during times of crop loses and slightly higher prices. Unfortunately, many of my strongest reservations with this legislation have occurred.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Apollo 11 and Graphics

The National Archives puts up a daily document from the files. This one from last week brought back nostalgia, showing the primitive state of graphic equipment (actually probably a mixture of type and cut and paste, that's real "cut and paste", as in using scissors to piece together a flight plan for Apollo 11.

Farm Bill Commentary

Most commentary on the farm bill passing the House divides into two categories: inside baseball and the uninformed. That may be a bit harsh, but it reflects the reality--those who are affected by the provisions, as farmers, bureaucrats, and some commentators, have an incentive to spend the time to understand the subject; those without the incentive have to learn just enough to fake it.

An assemblage:

Iowa professor on payment limitation.

LA Times editorial

Wash Post editorial

Ag web summary
(note the spouse change on pay limit--perhaps what the Iowa prof is hot about--for laymen, the issue is whether a spouse has a separate limitation, i.e., is a separate "person" for payment limitation purposes--an issue of perpetual controversy.)

Monday, July 23, 2007

Paying the Dead

This article in the Post notes that USDA paid farmers' estates, often without checking for compliance with rules, or paid entities like partnerships that included estates as members. Compliance was checked in 60 percent of the cases, but not in 40 percent, meaning some gross mistakes.

Here's the GAO report highlights (why the Post didn't provide it, I'm not clear).

When you dig into the details, and I start remembering, I think I share some blame. In the old days, before computers in county offices, after all payments were issued for a year, we'd run a series of mainframe matches on the deficiency payment files and give county offices data on possible problems. I'm pretty sure at that time that we matched social security numbers against the Social Security Admin's death file (at least, a bell tinkles in the growing obscurity of my memory).

As we automated, we started building more and more checks into the county software and relying less and less on the after-the-fact checks. And, frankly, the after-the-fact checks became less of a priority, meaning the best people weren't given the job of designing and programing them. So I tend to think the match with SSA fell through the cracks. We didn't add it for the county software. We may have discussed it for the new database being designed for NRCS/FSA usage, but that took so long to develop that personnel changed and the idea was probably lost.

This illustrates one problem of massive databases, whether they're proposed for national security, immigration, or whatever--they need maintenance because time is an everflowing river. And if you don't imagine what may happen, like people dying, you can't design for it.

The French as Bureaucrats

Dirk Beauregard (a Brit who's lived 20 years in France) has a great post, not only for an insight into French culture, and history, but into the vices and virtues of bureaucrats.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Pity the Poor Bureaucrat

Assume for the moment that the payment limitation rules in the current House bill pass and become law. (See pages 15 on of the Managers amendment.) Why should we pity the bureaucrats who have to administer them?
  • First of all, I don't think there's many people in DC in FSA who were there for the last major change of payment limitation in 1985--in 22 years most people have moved on.
  • Second, the provisions of the bill are longer, and probably more complex, than the 1985 Act.
  • Third, farmers have gotten used to much higher levels of payments than they were in 1985. It took a couple years for some farmers to figure out how much money they were leaving on the table beginning in 1983-5. If you see that you're leaving $10,000, then it starts making sense to call friends and strangers, anyone who may know what's going on and have an insight into what you should do or have the leverage to affect the way the rules are written.
  • Fourth, we're in a more legalistic environment today than in 1985, both in terms of rulemaking and in the application of the rules to individual farmers.
  • Finally, 1985 was pre-Internet, which makes all the difference.
What will happen? On one side there's the problem of automating the rules (I start with that because it's closer to my heart--I always tried to steer clear of payment limitation). That's major--if FSA is to get payments made correctly based on the paperwork submitted, there will be some major changes to files and software.

On the other side, the rulemaking process will be under intense scrutiny from everyone--the Hill, the press, the farmers, and the interest groups suspicious that FSA will be too friendly to farmers. In the midst of this, the poor bureaucrat has to write regulations and directives, set up training sessions for field offices, provide good information to everyone. The likelihood is, based on 1985 experience, management will change its mind a few times, meaning that the poor bureaucrat will end up misinforming farmers, press, field offices and get everyone mad.

In 1985 there were fewer channels of communication that operated slower than today. Now we have the Internet, which has shown its ability to spread rumors and misinformation. So if everything runs merely twice as fast today, the poor bureaucrats in FSA have to be twice as good as their 1985 predecessors.

Pity, have pity.

A Look Back to 1985

Now that the House Ag committee has passed its version of a new farm bill, including changes in the payment limitation provisions that date back to 1985, it's interesting to look back to the reporting following that act. From the NYTimes archives, a long excerpt [from a 1986 article
link added]:

The law [1985 farm bill] set out to restore United States competitiveness in international commodities markets by lowering prices, while shielding farmers from the blow through higher income subsidy rates.

That means many producers who in past years have received less from the Government than the $50,000 limit now are approaching that ceiling, giving them an incentive to look for ways around it.

And large producers who have not bothered with Federal price support programs in the past now feel economically forced to participate.

''Their attitude is, $50,000 will buy you a cup of coffee,'' said John Gordley, former agriculture aide to the Senate majority leader, Bob Dole, Republican of Kansas. Mr. Gordon is now a private public relations consultant. Definition of 'Person' Studied

Larger farmers and their lawyers have studied every line of Agriculture Department rules regarding payment limits and found numerous ways to multiply their subsidies. Most focus on the definition of what constitutes a ''person.''

The rules say corporations, partnerships, trusts and other legal entities can qualify as ''persons,'' in addition to an individual farmer, as long as the entity has a legitimate interest in the land or crop, exercises management responsibility and is liable for costs and losses as well as being entitled to profits.

Thus one Arkansas farmer, the chairman of the local committee of the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service, was able to get $150,000 from the Government in 1985 by spinning off two corporations from his original farm, one owned by himself and his brother, the other by the farmer and his mother.

The reorganization was approved by the local committee and at the state level. Investigators in the department's Office of Inspector General rejected the claim, saying it was merely a paper change and no real change in the farming operation had occurred, but not until the farmer had been overpaid $188,000 over two years.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Music Is Important, But This?

Via John Phipps, this factoid--DOD has more people in its bands than the State Department has in its Foreign Service.
Update on payment limitation:

The House Agriculture Committee on Wednesday adopted by a voice vote an amendment that would end the three-entity rule and establish a more restrictive means test for receiving farm program payments. The move is an apparent attempt to reach a compromise between those who want much more restrictive payment limits, as do many Midwestern and Coastal lawmakers, and those, like many Southern legislators, who want to preserve the status quo.

In addition to eliminating the three-entity rule, the amendment would prohibit payments to ag producers making more than $1 million in adjusted gross income annually. Farmers making between $500,000 and $1 million would be able to collect payments only if two-thirds or more of their income comes from farming and ranching investments. The current means test for farm program payments is $2.5 million.

Culture and Immigration

An odd confluence of articles this week in the Washington Post, and then a post by Marc Fisher on his blog:

Raw Fisher, reporting on an academic study showing race and class differences in attitudes towards immigration

An article on wedding styles among immigrants--some immigrants get married following the customs of their ancestral home and religion, but with modifications to adjust to the U.S. environment.

A Marc Fisher article, reporting on recent developments in the Virginia suburbs--first Prince William, then Loudon counties passed resolutions "cracking down" on illegal immigrants.

Finally, Marc held a discussion for local residents--open line. You'd think that the topic would be illegal immigration, but DC education probably attracted more attention. (The new head of DC schools is Korean-American.) That's probably because more Post readers fit the profile of those who are less concerned about illegal immigration--in other words, we aren't competing against them for jobs.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Farm Bureau Supports FSA

From a news article:

Kevin Paap, president of Minnesota Farm Bureau Federation, who just returned from a trip to Washington, said Farm Bureau has some concerns with payment limits and means testing.

On the other hand, the organization supports switching the administration of farm bill programs to the Farm Service Agency from the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

It makes sense to have those folks who are good at doing administrative stuff do that while having the folks who are good at technical assistance doing that, he said.

I suspect the outcome will depend more on accident and networking, than on logical arguments. You can (at least I can) hear the low level of interest Mr. Papp has in the issue. In the absence of great public concern, and with lobbyists on both sides of the issue, some one person who may feel strongly could sway the outcome. For example, should the Vice President decide to honor his father, who worked for NRCS, that could make a difference.

Farm Bill Cliff Hanger

For the handful of people who care about a piece of legislation, like the farm bill, its progress can be almost as suspenseful as a Harry Potter novel. [I wrote the sentence suspecting I was the first one to put "farm bill" and "Harry Potter" in the same sentence. But I googled, and found 40,000 cases where they're on the same web page. Darn.] All the farm blogs are providing updates on the progress, and we haven't even seen the Senate yet.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007


Both sides are going at it, trying to get support for their position on who should hand out the checks for conservation programs. The National Association of Conservation Districts has an "Action Alert" while the National Association of State and County Office Employees has provided a letter to be sent to representatives and is talking to the press. (I have to say, if Congress used the respective web sites to judge which group was more efficient, I'm afraid NACD would win. A Google on "NASCOE" produces this as the first entry: "AllWebCo Website Templates and Pre-Made Websites. Very reasonable prices and a complete setup." (Searching on the full term produces the right result, but it's still incompatible with the Firefox browser.))

NASCOE claims that they have statistics on their side--the percentage of total money spent on administration is much less for FSA programs than NRCS. That factoid sends me off musing about charitable organizations, where oversight groups tend to focus on that percentage. It's not a great measure, but it's about all we have.

The showdown comes this afternoon (and Wed and Thurs).

Monday, July 16, 2007

Cream Puffs and Twinkies

I blogged on the Twinkie Deconstructed book the other day. I've had maybe one Twinkie in my life but I fondly remember my mother's cream puffs. Mom wasn't a good cook but she did do a lot of good baking. Her cream puffs were great--light, with real whipped cream filling.

I'm no baker, and the book is back to the library, so my comparison is top of the head. Mom's cream puff has to taste better than any Twinkie, that is, at least on the evening of the afternoon she made them. Her batches probably ran 8-10, so we never finished them all. (Good Calvinists avoid gluttony.) So we'd finish them the next night. By then the whipped cream had lost its air, the crust of the cream puff was getting stale, and the whole thing was just a sad memory of the glory of the night before.

Thinking about what went into the cream puff--the whipped cream was probably whipping cream from local dairy farms--Crowley's or Dairylea (i.e., "Dairymen's League--the co-op) pasteurized and processed. But it contained vanilla extract, as do Twinkies and perhaps a little powdered sugar. (Vanilla and sugar are two of the chapters in the book tracing the route traveled.) The cream puff itself had flour, milk (ours), sugar, and baking powder. (Baking powder is one of the ingredients from mines--the author get good mileage from following that ingredient from its origin in mines to the shelf.)

So mom's puffs were, in part, the product of industry and manufacturing processes and don't fit comfortably into the concepts of the "slow food" movement. Twinkies, as the book's author makes clear, is that they have to stay fresh on the grocery shelves for weeks, not just last 6 hours in mom's kitchen. That difference requires a lot more science, a lot more additives, more globalizations and a lot more industrial processes. (I've started Bill McKibben's new book and have Barbara Kinsolving's one on hold at the library--I'll be interested to see how strictly they hold to local food.)

FSA's Far-Flung Web of Offices Gets Smaller

From the headline: "Feds plan to close a Farm Service Agency office in Mexico." Among the other six offices being closed are the one for the county in which I grew up. I can understand why--my uncle's (former grandfather's) old farm has houses on it. (One in particular very nice--with a great view looking southwest. As you move west from the Catskills, each range of hills is just a few feet lower than the one before, so the view to the south and west is impressive.) The "big" dairy farmer across the valley from ours has lost its barns and outbuildings and just has a few horses in the pasture. ("Big" was defined in my day as 50+ milking cows being pastured. Now when I visit my sister near Syracuse, the big dairy farms around Tully have several hundred and no pasture.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

New Blog

Just what the world needs--another blog. This one is focused on the genealogy of my family, and that of relatives. My cousin pushed me into this (thanks, Marjorie)--see her blog.

Coming This Week

No, not the last Harry Potter, but the full House Ag committee meeting on farm bill. Interesting discussion here.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Interesting Site and Post

I don't think I've noted the Farm Policy blog before. Seems to be mostly summaries of news articles.

And Dan Morgan, who has posted on the blog, has an article in the Post on farm policy, pointing out divisions among Democrats. Do the newcomer Dems support reform, or continuation of the current programs?

Bureaucracies and Measurement

Kevin Drum makes a good point in the health system debate. Because single-payer systems are bureaucracies, they measure things about the health care system, including waiting times for various illnesses/treatments. Their statistics are better than ours (we don't measure waiting times at all). That's no argument to change the system, but it is a warning when we discuss different systems-- we don't have comparable statistics.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Twinkies, Deconstructed

Libertarian economists have an essay floating around the web called "The pencil". It describes all the things and processes that go into the making of a pencil. It's a way of celebrating the free market--Adam Smith's invisible hand coordinates the efforts of people on all the continents to bring forth an ordinary no. 2 pencil

Just read the book: "Twinkie, Deconstructed", which does the same sort of thing for the Twinkie. It's an interesting read, though I got lost at times amidst all the chemicals. The writer isn't a Michael Pollan for style, or for bias against the agri-business-industrial system that provides our processed foods.

What's amazing, and a little disturbing given the recent execution of the top regulator for taking bribes, is the number of chemicals that originate in Chinese plants. Apparently, they do a good job competing in this area--perhaps because the value per pound is so very high. I'm waiting for the conservatives who raised a fuss during the Clinton Administration about Hutchison-Whampoa taking operating facilities in the Panama Canal to realize the insidious invasion taking place on the shelves of grocery stores.

Conflicting Priorities

An old IT mantra--there's three characteristics of software and IT systems that are mutually exclusive--you can have speed to implementation, low cost, and software that works, only if you choose 2 of the 3. (I'd throw in the rule that the first version of software never works well.) Our politicians don't know this: From Government Executive

House lawmakers had two specific messages Thursday for Homeland Security Department officials when it comes to issuing new biometric identification cards for port security workers: Get it done, but do it right.

Members of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee said they are frustrated that the Transportation Security Administration has not yet started offering the transportation worker identification credentials to port workers.

Under the program, up to 1 million workers with access to sensitive port areas are to undergo background checks and be given special IDs with fingerprint biometric identifiers. TSA just missed another deadline for the TWIC program, this time to begin enrolling workers at 10 of the nation's busiest ports by July 1.

But lawmakers also are worried about widespread problems when TWIC is deployed. "If we don't get it right, it's going to be total chaos," said Transportation and Infrastructure Coast Guard Subcommittee Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Md.

Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J., added: "When you do roll this out, I hope you realize that there is no reason for any excuse for why it doesn't work."

Maurine Fanguy, the department's TWIC manager, said the program is taking time to develop because of its scope. She said the program is on the forefront of biometric credentialing.

Bureaucrats--Go to Britain, Not China

China just executed their top bureaucrat in charge of enforcing drug safety. Meanwhile, over in Britain, they may fire someone for not executing on farm program payments, but:

The civil servant who oversaw the single farm payment fiasco has received more than £250,000 since being suspended over the failure to pay farmers on time. [From Farmers Weekly Interactive.]

Still Around, Earle Bedenbaugh

Earle was Deputy Administrator, State and County Operations while I was working. It's a political position, which sometimes gets good appointments and sometimes bad. (The first DASCO under Reagan was an absolute disaster.) But he's returned to FSA as a member of the State committee. (Another political appointment, but not a full-time position. The best I understand, having stayed far away from the politics of the agency, the committee members get to come to DC occasionally, get a title for their resume, make some decisions, and are a way for a political operation to co-opt community leaders and opinion shapers.

The Risks of Farming

The Life of a Farm blog is interesting. I found this bit particularly so:

The excavation [for foundation for possible poultry house] continues here on the farm. We are rapidly approaching a time when we will have to make a definite decision about the poultry houses. I’m still on the fence about this venture. My hunch is it would be profitable. It is a huge risk though. I finally got a copy of the contract we would be signing and I can tell you it’s certainly not a great contract. Cobb is paying for a lot of things that other companies aren’t, but it’s still a huge risk. The pay can be adjusted at any time and they can cancel your contract for a number of reasons. I guess the biggest reason I am having trouble making a definitive decision has to do with what is right for the land. I have such a bond with the land here. It’s beautiful land that could be used for so many other things it just seems a waste to put a commercial chicken house on it.
In the 1950's, poultry started becoming vertically integrated. Big companies would contract with growers to raise poultry. That had the effect of stabilizing prices for eggs and chicken, because the companies could implicitly coordinate to keep prices steady. (Same reason car prices don't vary by 50 to 100 percent from year to year.) The growers had the reassurance of operating in a more stable environment with much less risk day to day. The tradeoff was the loss of independence and control. (And, of course, the small growers, like my parents, went out of business.)

Contract farming is coming--it started with hybrid seed growing, then poultry, now hogs. It rationalizes and stablizes the market and spreads the risk.

The excerpt from Joel points out that the risk moves to the upfront decision--to sign the contract (and take out the loan to build the house and equip it). He also points to the "love of the land" which is real. You invest your time in anything, you're apt to come to love it.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

NRCS vs FSA II--Moving the Money

Found the provision of the House farm bill, on page 101 of the conservation title.

2 BY FARM SERVICE AGENCY.—Section 1244 of the Food
3 Security Act of 1985 (16 U.S.C. 3844) is amended by in4
serting after subsection (f), as added by subsection (b),
5 the following new subsection:
7 ‘‘(1) ROLE.—The Secretary shall assign to the
8 Farm Service Agency the administrative duties asso9
ciated with delivering all programs under this title,
10 including administrative responsibility for making
11 such benefits available to participants in such pro12

I've left out the key bit--the next paragraph allows the Secretary to move the money to support this. That is the motivating bit--jobs and money.

I'm hardly an unbiased observer, but returning responsibility to FSA makes sense to me. In the ideal world, something like former Secretary Glickman's proposal to merge the administrative tails of the agencies serving farmers would be adopted. But that was killed late in the last century. As I understand, the question is basically who writes the checks. FSA and its predecessors have always prided themselves on being good check writers; NRCS and its predecessor have always prided themselves on their science and their education work. In 2002 the conservation lobby was strong enough to get NRCS assigned the checkwriting role for these programs. They seem to have had their problems (Harshaw's law--you never do things right the first time). In their defense, it's particularly difficult for them because their IT operations were even more decentralized than FSA's.

Anyhow FSA's lobby, notably its "union" (National Association of State and County Office Employees--NASCOE, but don't try its website using Firefox, use IE), has urged the return of these responsibilities to FSA and apparently has enough support on the Hill to make it into the draft. Here's its position paper.

I fully expect this fight to continue as long as I live, or the separate agencies do.

Infighting--NRCS and FSA

Once again, there's infighting within the agricultural community. Apparently a version of the 2007 farm bill contains provisions NRCS and its supporting lobby don't like. So they're opposing, as stated here.

I'll have to check the draft to see what's proposed. But there's been conflict between the two agencies and the associated lobbies ever since the 1930's. Each agency has its own advantages in the fight.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Real Farming

George Buddy sends an article on "Farming for the fun of it". It's an interesting idea: would anyone write an article on "Bureaucrating for the fun of it". "Plumbing for the fun of it". We make avocations out of some vocations, but not others.

If you visit Oatlands, an old plantation house outside Leesburg, VA, they have a carriage house--full of carriages. At one time, maybe still, rich men liked "coaching", driving carriages instead of their hired help. If you can afford it, I suppose it's different strokes for different folks. But the bottom line, the one that makes the difference as to whether it's vocation or avocation, is whether your livelihood depends on it.

Monday, July 09, 2007

People Self-Justify

Shankar Vedantam has a piece in today's Post talking about social psychology. The idea is that, if I injure you, that's incompatible with my self-image, so I'll justify it by saying you weren't really hurt, not that bad, and you really deserved and you're really a bad person or maybe you'll learn from it. And, having worked the injurious act into a web of meaning, I'll soon forget it. Whereas, if you injure me, I'm going to remember it for a long time as something totally unjustified, that I didn't deserve, that shows you're mean, etc.

The psychologists are pushing the theory in connection with Bush (as in, he had to commute Libby's sentence because Libby is a good guy doing good work so couldn't deserve it).

I think it's a reasonable theory. I certainly remember the kids who taunted me in first grade about not being able to pronounce my "ch's", so my "chicken" came out "sh*tken", to the great delight of everyone except me. Showed me forever that people are no damn good. :-)

Lead and People

S. Vedantam had a piece yesterday on research into lead poisoning, specifically relating the presence of lead in the environment to crime rates. The theory being lead is a neurotoxin that causes impulsivity and aggression, so infants exposed to lead, either in lead paint or in the atmosphere from gas additives, grew up more apt to be criminals.

It sounds good in the writeup, as such pieces often do. Over at Freakonomics today , they are open to the idea, but aren't convinced (particularly because the proponent of the theory questioned their theory that legalized abortion might have impacted US crime rates. They include references to other researchers.

It's a little personal to me, since lead contributed to my existence. My father graduated from U of Minnesota in chemical engineering, went to work in a paint factory in St. Louis, became sick and was told to get into the fresh air or die.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

We've Advanced, We Really Have

Just finished Walter Isaacson's biography of Einstein. I'd recommend it. But what was interesting was the discussion of the understanding of science in 1920's America, as shown by polls testing the average person's knowledge. As a footnote, Isaacson provides this, on page 299:

Governor Channing Cox had been thrust a version of the test earlier that week, and his first three responses were: "Where does shellac come from?" "From a can". "What is a monsoon?" "A funny-sounding word." "Where do we get prunes?" "Breakfast."
I think our current crop of politicians, even our President, is more knowledgeable.

Religion and Farming

This book review outlines some of the problems for farmers, dairy farmers, whose way of life is closely tied to their religion. The Virginians are members of the the Old German Baptist Brethern. It's an example of the persistence of culture, but also the challenges posed by free market capitalist society. Similar challenges are faced by the Amish.

Somewhere this week, on one of the economist blogs I frequent, there was an argument for greater use of the hormone that enhances milk production as a measure to reduce milk prices, which have risen recently. It's this tension between modernity and older values that's interesting (particularly if you're on the sidelines and have no personal stake in the matter--entirely different if it's your livelihood and your values.)

Today in FSA County Office

This piece in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch offers a refreshing change from the usual run of stories on farming and farm programs. Barb Burns is the county executive director (CED) in St. Clair county, and has her concerns: Land values, land being taken out of ag use, farmers signing up by computer versus the office (they're not), and handling pigheaded farmers.

(I remember visiting a county office in NC with a district director (responsible for oversight of about 10 county offices) way back in 1969 (tell it grandpa). After a week or so he decided he could trust me, even though I was a Yankee, presumably liberal and a troublemaker, as witness my long hair. He admitted to me he didn't really think that women should be in such positions as CED, because some of the farmers got pretty profane in the office. He resisted the idea of southern womenfolk being forced to deal with vulgarity. (He did admit, however, that the one woman in his district had no problem handling her farmers.)

Friday, July 06, 2007

Deja Vu, Warthogs, and Unmanned Aircraft

Government executive has an AP story on how the services are fighting over control of unmanned aircraft, both in Iraq and in the future. Brings back memories of reading Charles Peters' Washington Monthly in the 1970's and 1980's, which reported similar fights among the services. In fact, the struggle goes back to the 1920's--should each service: Navy, Army, Marine, have its own aviation or should it be centralized? The politicians thought and thought for many years, and came up with the only rational answer: Both.

Then, as the Monthly reported, there was fighting over tactical air and strategic air--the Army thought the AF was slighting tactical air in favor of the glamor of air superiority and strategic bombing. One area of controversy was the A-10 Warthog; a hideous plane designed never to appear in a Hollywood movie on the AF (but appears in movies on the ground forces as a modern version of the cavalry). It's slow, multiengined, armored to protect the pilot and designed for survivability and close ground support. During its development the Air Force tried to kill it repeatedly, only to have the Army and its Congressional supporters save it. Since its deployment the AF has tried to kill it, again to save money in the budget for more glamorous stuff.

So the fight over unmanned aircraft isn't new. How many services will fly them? Five (CIA plus the four service branches).

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Furthering International Understanding

Here's an interesting post from an ex-pat Brit in France about bureaucrats (er, civil servants) in France. The whole site's not bad either.

Our Neighbors to the North Get a New Farm Program

Google Alerts is a good way to track stuff (actually, it's a good way to overwhelm yourself when you're curious). But Canadian farm programs are interesting, not only the different methods they use to administer them, but the different process for developing them. In a parliamentary system, the executive seems to have more power. This piece announces the program for 2008+:

The business risk management programs that replace CAIS include:

- AgriInvest, a program where both producers and governments contribute to a producers' savings account that will allow producers to easily predict the government's contribution and have the flexibility to withdraw funds to help address declines in income or to make investments to improve farm profitability.

- AgriStability, a program that provides support when a producer experiences a decline in farm income of more than 15 percent.

- AgriRecovery, a disaster relief framework which provides a coordinated process for federal, provincial and territorial governments to respond rapidly when disasters strike, filling gaps not covered by existing programs.

- AgriInsurance, an existing program which includes insurance against production losses for specified perils (weather, pests, disease) is being expanded to include more commodities.

Closing Offices Reaches Indiana

Another piece on the effort to close FSA offices, this time in Indiana. These plans have dribbled out over the spring. Is that intentional, to diffuse the impact and lessen the likelihood of politicians getting together, or, more likely, accidental and an artifact of bureaucracy?

U.S. Won't Be Majority Minority II

I posted on this a few days ago. Today Freakonomics refers to an article, and an acronym, reinforcing my point. Mayor Bloomberg of NYC is called a "W.A.S.H."--white, anglo saxon, hebrew. The article referred to, in the Forward, describes how Bloomberg isn't really "Jewish" in the usual way in NYC. It's almost like some blacks describing Barack Obama as not really "black" (or the present and former mayors of D.C. who certainly aren't the usual "black" politician). Of course, this is all dealing in stereotypes, in pictures that we carry around in our heads).

Basically what happens is as we come to know people, we start understanding the differences, the individuality. That usually leads to more mingling, fewer minorities and more individuals.c

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Electronic Money and Money [Updated]

Today's Times has an article on toll roads. In the old days, you had to stop every 5-10 miles to deposit quarters when driving the New Jersey Turnpike (which I did once or twice, going from Fort Belvoir home). Today, the EZ Pass system (for anyone not used to the Boston-DC megaplex, it's an electronic system of scanners tied to one's credit card--you can roll through at 35 mph legally, 65 for all the speed freaks). The idea of the article is that people hardly notice the fees; the result of which is, according to an economist, toll road authorities have jacked their tolls. This raises concerns--the taxes are unseen and perhaps hit poorer families harder than rich.

Now in the real old days, we didn't spend money on roads. Country folk had to work x number of days on the roads (we're talking early and middle nineteenth century here), using their own equipment and animals to improve them. In effect, it was a non-monetary economy, one that was almost gone by the time I was born 100 years later.

It also occurs to me that now our toll pays for two things: the roads we travel on and the time and aggravation we save by not having to pay money tolls. The richer we get, the more we value our time. Time is one thing that, by and large, the poor have as much of as the rich.

[Update] Piece in the Post this morning about credit cards--they make it so easy to spend money and go into debt. So liberals will complain about credit cards and conservatives will complain about EZ-Pass. Both innovations reduce the friction in the system, with good and bad consequences.

Farm Bill

Sounds from this Wiesemeyer excerpt as if the House Ag committee is operating strategically--extend the 2002 farm bill with some sweeteners to keep the ag folks happy, and force the green types (organic, fruit and vegetable, slow food, etc.) to come up with the extra money under pay as you go.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Letters to the Editor II

I blogged yesterday about letters to the editor and rules. I received a prompt (and polite) response from Prof. Boudreaux (the politeness surprised because I was just a little snarky). I'm not convinced by his reasoning, but he didn't give me permission to quote so I'll go on to the broader issue.

The Post sports pages now carry material from blogs. I've never looked at the sports blogs, but it appears they're rapidly blurring the line between print and electronic media. In this respect, sports is well ahead of the news desk. I suggest the Post look into a similar process on the news side--certainly there has to be material worthy of being raised to the prominence of the print pages.

Such an advance still doesn't answer the bottomline question--where do you write? The odds against getting a letter published are very high, but the reward in circulation is great. It's a trade off--a 100 percent chance of publishing where almost no one reads or a .0001 percent chance of publishing where 1000000 people read (made up figures).

Of course, if the Post would merely kick rejected letters to a web site, the problem might be alleviated.

Monday, July 02, 2007

GMU Economist Flouts Post Rules??

Just started to send a letter to the editor of the Washington Post on the Fairfax education article, but then I read their rules:
Letters must be fewer than 250 words long and exclusive to The Washington Post; they may not have been submitted or posted to, or published by any other media or web outlet. They must include the writer's home address, e-mail address, and home and business telephone numbers. Anonymous letters will not be considered, nor does The Post permit the use of pseudonyms.
Just after seeing that, I read this post at Cafe Hayek, written by the head of the George Mason University Department of Economics:
"Here's a letter that I sent yesterday to the Washington Post in response to this report on Congress's refusal to renew the President's fast-track authority to negotiate trade agreements.

Dear Editor:It is unfortunate that Congress refuses to renew the President's fast-track trade authority ("End Nears for Era of Presidential Trade Authority," June 30)..." (I've truncated the letter).
So we have these options:
  • Professor Boudreaux doesn't read the Post rules.
  • He reads them but doesn't follow them. Or rather, because the Post doesn't say: "don't send us anything you use on a web site" he figures it's up to the Post to enforce their rules.
  • He has talked to the Post and found out that the rules don't really apply to him or they don't apply to blog posts, or they don't apply as long as you write the letter before you post to the blog.
Anyhow, since I've already posted on the education article, and because my Presbyterian minister forebears are looking over my shoulder, the Post editor is getting one less letter. :-( However, I may ask the omsbudman for clarification.

Bad News in Fairfax County

A Post article reports on high school graduation rates. Almost 20 percent of Fairfax county teenagers do not graduate from high school. Actually, that statement is wrong, if I read correctly. 20 percent of Fairfax county freshmen do not graduate from high school, so those youngsters who were outside of the system entirely do not count. (And I mean that in about three different ways: not considered in the calculate, may be mathematically illiterate, and are excluded from our concern as a society.)

According to published data, 91 percent of Fairfax residents over 25 have high school degrees (or GED's). So Fairfax is importing more educated people and exporting less educated people. Whether this is a reflection of the statistical principle of "regression to the mean" or of class differences, I don't like it.

Flash--Scientists Discover Original Sin

From the Telegraph:

Whether lying about raiding the biscuit tin or denying they broke a toy, all children try to mislead their parents at some time. Yet it now appears that babies learn to deceive from a far younger age than anyone previously suspected.

Behavioural experts have found that infants begin to lie from as young as six months. Simple fibs help to train them for more complex deceptions in later life.

Until now, psychologists had thought the developing brains were not capable of the difficult art of lying until four years old.