Friday, August 31, 2007

Some Medical Bureaucrats Can Help

I run a Google Alert for "bureaucrats". Here's a link to someone with a sense of humor, dealing with medical bureaucracy on a matter of life and death. People are amazing. And so is Quality Management.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Education States

The NY Times had a report on education statistics, including these numbers.

A couple things struck me--in 10 years there will be no majority group in school--whites will be a minority like everyone else. And about 40+ percent of kids qualify under the food lunch program. And 56 percent of college students are women.

Decline Is Everywhere

I almost linked to an article in the Herkimer NY paper about a meeting on the closing of the Herkimer office. But I'm tired of the stories, as important as they are for the people affected. Other things arouse emotion as well--including the timing of the 200th anniversary of the founding of the place, as described in this NYTimes article today. (They picked a date that happens to be Yom Kippur.)

But decline is also found among other organizations than FSA--this piece from the Jewish Forward describes the decline in Buffalo:
In the recent decades since advances in technology and competition from abroad sounded the death knell for the industries that provided employment for the Rust Belt states of the Northeast and the Midwest, states that have lost major parts of their population to the Sun Belt, once-thriving Jewish communities in those regions have seen thousands of members head south and west. The Northeast and Midwest, where 80 percent of American Jewry lived as recently as 1960, now is home to barely half of American Jews, according to the latest National Jewish Population Survey.

For JCCs, synagogues and other communal institutions, this drop in members and in income has meant drastic, often painful, belt-tightening measures: mergers, downsizings and property sales and closures.

“The local Jewish community,” a front-page article in The Buffalo News states, “is adjusting to dramatically reduced numbers.” That means less money for Jewish federation fundraising campaigns, fewer volunteers for synagogues and other organizations, and smaller enrollments in religious schools.
And just recently there was an article on the "Odd Fellows" a fraternal and charitable organization that's composed of old fogeys like me. It's the nature of society to have this ebb--not that it's any consolation to those being washed out by the tide.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Decline of Wonder Bread

LA Times has an article on Wonder Bread--it's closing its local plant. Californians prefer upscale, perhaps more healthy brands. Is there a convergence between French and Americans re: bread?

[The other question inquiring minds want to know: why the hell am I suddenly so interested in food?]

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Pigford Perspectives II

Apparently the theory of the original lawsuit is the disproportionate decline in black farmers must be the result of racism. From the EWG's 2004 report:
"In part due to lack of equal access to USDA loans, the number of farms operated by African Americans has declined dramatically over the past 20 years, plummeting from 54,367 in 1982 to just 29,090 in 2002."[My emphasis added.]
I'm not aware of, and can't google up, any reports on the reasons for the decline so there's no way to know whether racism is 99 percent of the cause or some lesser proportion. [Side note: The academic and government researchers I ran across in my casual googling seem usually to ignore race in their analysis. That may be a real bias--seldom asking the question of whether there is a real difference based on race. Or it may just be my incompetence at searching. ]

Let's say the drop in farms is caused as follows:

50 percent due to lack of equal access to USDA credit. A followup question is what caused the lack of access. I'll leave that for other posts.

50 percent due to other causes, such as:
  • general trend of declining farm numbers
  • smaller farms (i.e., blacks may have had smaller farms to begin with, and smaller farms may have failed more often than large farms)
  • less capital (a variant of the "smaller farms" argument)
  • poorer land (i.e., when black farmers were acquiring land from 1865 to 1920, they may have been less able to buy the good land)
  • less and poorer education (I'm assuming fewer black farmers went to college and perhaps those that did got a poorer education than their white counterparts--would you rather go to Texas A&M or Delta State?)
  • bias among the bankers (of course, Farmers Home/FSA was supposed to be the lender of the last resort)
  • bias among suppliers--the general agribusiness community (might particularly include co-ops, which have been important in farming. When did many white southern co-ops open their doors to blacks?)
  • poorer location (a variant of the poorer land, but this would consider things like access to railroads and roads to get crops to market, attractiveness to labor, etc.)
After listing all the causes, I'm not willing to rate the USDA/FSA problems as 50 percent of the cause. Are you?

On Reading RightWing Blogs

I do occasionally read right wing blogs. Take this excerpt:
"The central element ... is land ownership. There's nothing more primordially American, more conducive to the spirit of self-reliance and pride that fuels this country's origin myths, than cultivating one's own piece of land. Today more than ever."
A sentiment to warm the cockles of the heart of every libertarian (that's if libertarians actually had a heart).

Unfortunately, the omitted words are "in making urban ag sustainable, according to the Food Project," and the piece is from the green/lefty GRistmill.

My Fantasy Life

As befits a bureaucrat, my fantasy life is dull, dull, dull. One of the livelier parts is imagining returning to college (mostly to get free access to some interesting journal articles that aren't publicly available. Never have, never will.

But I might just follow Professor DeLong and his class on American economic history. Here's his lecture notes for the first class. One interesting point--he cites corn as having a 40 to 1 yield ratio, compared to wheat's 5 to 1. (At least back in 1800 or so.) Sounds questionable to me, but I never had to deal with either.

French Bread

Dirk Beauregard tells us lots about the current state of French bread, bakeries, and its price (rising).

The View from Europe

This is late, but here's an excerpt from a post on the blog of the EU's secretary of agriculture (that's how I interpret her role). It relates to a visit in February that she made to DC. (Her blog is interesting--she responds to the questions/comments of some of the farmers who write in.)

"I’ve just come back from almost three days in a freezing cold Washington DC.
It was an extremely educational visit – hopefully for my hosts as much as for me.
But it was also a reality check.
We have talked at length in Brussels about the importance of farm subsidy reform in the US for the future prospects of the Doha trade round.
We have looked to the new US Farm Bill proposals to give a clear signal that reform is on the horizon.
My discussions in Washington showed that the Farm Bill will be written very much with domestic concerns in mind.
DOHA does not seem to be high on the agenda in farm bill discussions.
This is a very different approach to ours, where we reform first and then look to lock these reforms into a WTO agreement.
I was also struck by the fact that many of the forces that today shape European agriculture policy – consumer interest, environmental considerations, budgetary pressure, development policy - seems strangely absent from the American debate. It’s farming interest – and increasingly also energy (biofuels) that is shaping policy. Could you imagine that in Europe?
I like the straight talking you hear on Capitol Hill. But it brings home to me clearly how different the political process in Washington is to that I know so well in Brussels.
Of course there were bright spots.
Crucially, my visit was an important exercise in confidence-building.
Deal-making is so much easier if the people facing each other across the table know and like one another.

Monday, August 27, 2007

"One Stop Shopping"

I remember, vaguely, when the Farm and Home Center was built on Upper front Street in Broome County. This piece discusses the closing of the FSA office (no mention of the NRCS office's fate). The statistics are interesting--farms and acreage up, but program participation down. I suspect that's common throughout the area. The urbanites are buying land in the sticks for their hobby farms (lots and lots of vineyards around the Finger Lakes, there was one--Taylor--in 1959). "Hobby" is a bit pejorative, but it's the closest term I've run into.

European Subsidy Payments

Our friends in the EU (both "Old Europe" and "New Europe") have the same controversies over payments to corporations and large payments as we do. See here for their equivalent of the EWG payment database. ($20,000 per acre payment!!) One of the problems of going to a historical basis for payments is the development of discrepancies between acreages. (There's always a trade-off.)

French Education

I've noted Dirk Beauregard's blog before. This post describes the day before the French schools reopen.

Challenging Everyone in School

Patrick Welsh is a teacher of English in the Alexandria (or is it Arlington) high school who writes periodic pieces on the state of the public schools. He had one yesterday, discussing the problems kids have who are caught between the very gifted and the ones being targeted to meet the Virgina Standards of Learning (No Child Left Behind), as in:
"...TAG as in Talented and Gifted. And who is and who isn't -- or at least who's designated such and who isn't -- has been one of the most contentious issues in Alexandria since the school system raised the bar for the TAG program two years ago. The new rules have cut out about two-thirds of the students who once qualified: At George Mason, the size of the fourth-grade program went from 17 to six last year."
He closes thus:

"Shep Walker, a T.C. graduate about to enter the College of William and Mary, says the problem is that "gifted-and-talented programs get filled with white kids who have pushy parents, leaving a lot of black and Hispanic kids out in the cold and creating de facto segregation in the classes."

In its defense, Alexandria's school administration was probably trying to fix that situation. But the solution isn't to mark fewer students as gifted and talented. It's to challenge all our kids, all the time."

While that's a laudable sentiment, I don't think it works in the real world or the real classroom. I think the reality is that any teacher faced with 25 students, or even any manager faced with 12 employees, is going to find that teaching (managing) some of them is more rewarding than the others. (I think the reward is a matter of personalities hitting it off, not necessarily of bias.) So some are going to think Mr. Welsh is a great teacher, some are going to say he's okay.

A great school system will manage to provide everyone with great teaching once or twice in their 12 years of schooling, as different teachers connect with different students. For the rest, we'll muddle through.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

The Housing Bubble and Immigration

The popping of speculative bubbles needs nothing but a surplus of irrational exuberance, but there may be an interesting cross-over effect with immigration. The NY Times today talks about a national decline in the price of the average house. The Post today discusses declines in the DC area. Interestingly, Manassas Park, which I just highlighted as having turned majority minority with an impact on its politicians, is expected to have the steepest drop in home values in the area.

I don't think it's accidental. Politicians and government leaders tighten the screws on immigration, making it harder to get in. That cuts the demand for both temporary and permanent housing for the immigrants. (Which has often been met by group housing, which is a centuries-old pattern--look at Jacob Riis at the turn of the 1900's and his book "How the Other Half Lives".) And, we know in a free market, a cut in demand will cause a cut in price.

Saturday, August 25, 2007


Kevin Drum has had several posts on tacos--which have attracted lots of comments. His commenter has dug up a 1952 NYTimes article describing them, but Mexican food (or the American simulation thereof) didn't become popular until the 1970's.


McDonalds now sells more in Europe than in the U.S., per this NY Times article on how they're adapting to European tastes and upscaling. And I remember in the 1950's when they opened in the Binghamton area.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Pigford Perspectives I

I'd have to be blind, deaf, and dumb to deny the existence of discrimination in FmHA/FSA offices. But, I'd also have to be a coward to avoid discussing the Pigford lawsuit. That said, I'm also stupid, because it's obviously a complex issue and very much of a hot potato and I don't plan to spend a lot of time researching it. Just wing a few posts until I get tired.

First point: obviously people are polarized over the issue. The email (via Mulch), apparently circulating among some FSA employees, says the prospect of reopening the lawsuit makes her wish she weren't an employee of an agency.

That statement may be a statement by someone prejudiced against all minorities. That's the assumption made by Ken Cook, Barack Obama, John Boyd, and others. Their assumption may be true.

But, if you read the whole thing (and I give EWG credit for including the whole thing), a more reasonable assumption is that this is a bureaucrat who's complaining about the possibility of useless work being imposed by Congress. She passes on Ms. Cooksie's comment about the provision being "awful" and frets about being buried under workload, and being asked to provide information they don't have.

Now certainly it is the job of bureaucrats, when Congress speaks, to snap to and salute, just like their military counterparts do. It's not their job to worry about whether taxpayers money is being spent wisely, is it?

Pigford Sites

Among the Internet sites that relate to the Pigford lawsuit are the following:

PBS has background material on the history of black farmers here.

The settlement in the class action suit called for an arbitrator to make decisions with a separate, independent court-appointed monitor to look over the arbitrator's shoulder (no decision power as I understand). Here's the Office of Monitor's website

Here's the National Black Farmer's Association website, with a record of their actions and USDA's response (in more detail than I've provided).

The lawsuit was settled several years ago. In 2004 the time had run and there was a spurt of publicity about it:

The Washington Post did an article

The Environmental Working Group did a study with the black farmers association 2004 report
Carol Estes did a piece stating the side from the black farmer point of view.

The Delta Press did a piece from another side here

In 2007 the House reopened the discussion and EWG did several pieces here in July 2007
and in their EWG July Update on farm bill

Here is the testimony of John Boyd

This is the website of the FSA bureaucrats who work on farm loans: National Association of Credit Specialists

Straw in the Wind of Immigration

The Post yesterday had an article on Manassas Park, which is where my wife lived most of her youth. (A Levittown type community outside Manassas, VA, originally for WWII vets and families.) Recently an article said that in 6 years it had jumped from 33 percent minority to 50 percent minority, ranking third in the country for political subdivisions changing rapidly.


The Manassas Park City Council criticized "a small faction of citizens" this week for what it called "irresponsible and offensive" statements about local immigration policies, approving an official position that sets the small suburb apart from neighbors seeking to step up enforcement against illegal immigration.

The position statement, unanimously approved Tuesday night, declared: "The City believes most residents in Manassas Park are legally present and moved to this area to create a better life for their respective families." It added that the city of 11,600, bordered by Manassas and Prince William County, "will continue to work aggressively with federal and state agencies to address all criminal activity."
What's interesting is that these are Republican politicians! What's happening? The handwriting is on the wall--anyone who wants a political career in Manassas Park had better not be hostile to immigrants, who are the majority. (That's independent of judgments over what policy is best.)

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Believing What We Want--Food Miles

[Updated: Rich Pirog wrote me a nice note, essentially saying he's still checking, and giving this reference: ]

Someone asked Tom Philpott at Gristmill about the sourcing of a factoid apparently often used in the "slow food" or local food movement--that on average food on our table moves 1200 miles. To his credit, he did some research and found it wasn't a 1969 DOD study. Instead, he tracks down Rich Pirog at Iowa State who says it's a 1969 Department of Energy study:

"Rich did a comprehensive look at food-mile studies for his 2001 paper "Food, Fuel, Freeways: An Iowa perspective on how far food travels, food usage, and greenhouse gas emissions."

The only study he knows about that comprehensively estimates food miles nationwide is the 1969 DoE effort. Reader Steven, if you're still with me, the citation for it is: U.S. Department of Energy. 1969. "U.S. Agriculture: Potential Vulnerabilities." Stanford Research, Institute, Menlo Park, CA."

Unfortunately, DOE wasn't formed until the 1970's--Jimmy Carter in 1977. (Actually, it makes more sense to have been a DOD study--at that time there were still worries about nuclear warfare and the farther food traveled, the more vulnerable we might be.)

It's a Diverse America

Whenever my mind starts making assumptions, along come things like this (a Blog for Rural America Post on a 23,000 acre "farm" in Louisiana) to remind me of the differences among us.

Rights of Government Bureaucrats

Relative to the controversy over FSA employees using government PC's and Internet for their own purposes, Slate has this piece explaining the rules for the military. The New York Times recently published an op-ed by 7 enlisted personnel on Iraq. We don't know how they did what they did--whether they used personal PC's during off-duty hours or what. The Slate piece focuses on rights to publish opinions.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

What Is Happiness? Slow Food?

A commenter [who's fooling whom--the commenter] on my post on local food writes with evident longing of experiencing the small shops in Europe. It raises the question--what's happiness?

Certainly the idea of strolling the streets of France (something my wife remembers fondly), stopping in at the chocolate shop, or the bakery, or the pastry shop is fine. Maybe I'll experience the reality one day.

Some argue that Europeans are happier than we, having consciously decided to opt for a society that is slower, works fewer hours, enjoys life more, and has a smaller gap between rich and
poor. That may be true. But from my age, I suspect there's also a bit of "the grass is greener on the other side of the fence". There's no paradise on earth.

Not really related, but here's a NYTimes article on the overlap among religions in their concern for the way food animals are reared and slaughtered. And a Post article on "terroir"--the idea that where food is grown makes a difference.

Another Politician Heard From

Mulch reports another politician has written Secretary Johanns about the Pigford emails.

Washington Monthly and Rating Colleges

I like the Washington Monthly's rating scale for colleges. And this year it has a good piece on community colleges, particularly one in Washington. See here. (My liking is entirely independent of the fact that my alma mater ranks higher on their scale than on the U.S. News one.)

It's too bad the education cartel doesn't release data on student achievement. I'm tempted to tweak some of the libertarian/conservative economists I read about that fact.

The Proud Citizens of Mahomet, IL

One wonders if there's any pressure to change the name. One of their own was in the Lehrer News honor roll last night.

Improper Use of Government PC's--Northern Ireland

Bureaucrats in Northern Ireland got themselves into trouble by using government PC's to edit wikpedia. See this article

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Using Government Computers

I've not followed up on the Pigford flap of 2 weeks ago. Based on links a reader graciously sent me, it seems that the rules for PC/internet usage generally follow those for the phone: personal use permitted on a limited basis, provided you use your common sense (work comes first, use during personal time, don't run businesses or distract co-workers).

So, is the woman in VA in trouble? Maybe, maybe not. Seems to depend on how close she came to lobbying Congress. My reading would say that, if she had gotten an email expressing a political opinion (for or against the war, etc.) she would be in her rights to send it on to a friend. Multiple addresses and more direct criticism of Congress would be questionable.

Will be interesting to see what the "independent investigator" appointed by Administrator Lasseter comes up with, and whether Congress buys it.

The Revenue Option

The House version of the farm bill has an option for producers to choose between the current program structure, where payments are triggered by, and computed based on, the amount by which national prices for the crop is less than the target price for the crop. That is, if wheat has a $4 target price, and farmers get $3.75, there's a $.25 per bushel payment. (Lots and lots of specifics ignored in this summary.)

The option would say, if wheat has a $4 target price and the national yield target is 25 bushels (being unrealistic to make for easy computation), the expected revenue per acre is $100. So if the national prices for wheat and the national actual yield are such as to make the actual revenue $10, there's a $10 per acre payment. See these links for more specific discussion:
Brad Lubben at U of Nebraska.
and U Of Illinois extension

I can think of lots of complications, particularly as the bill is written to make this a one-time option. But then, since I've left USDA, FSA has had experience with one-time options, so maybe I'm wrong about the complexity.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Another View of Local Food

It's always instructive to see what's going on in other countries. We (Americans, humans?) so often think that we are the embodiment of wisdom. Anyhow, I question Bill McKibben and his dedication to local food (thought I did--it may be one of my unfinished draft posts). But here's how some Frenchmen do it (along with some nice pictures, once you get past the introductory logo).

As long as I'm on the French, my impression is that in both Britain and France people tend to go to the store very often, even daily. It's the epitome of local food--the bread is baked, the meat is butchered daily, the refrigerators are small, so you practice "just-in-time cookery". Very different from suburban and country patterns here, where you make one big shopping trip a week to stock up, have big refrigerators, etc.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Bureaucrat as [Biased] Umpire II

In contrast to the Will piece on Froemming (see prior post) the New York Times reports an academic study (somewhat similar to the previous one on NBA referees) which shows umps biased in favor of their own race.
"Specifically, an umpire will — with all other matters such as game score and pitcher quality accounted for — call a pitch a strike about 1 percent more often if he and the pitcher are of the same race."
Apparently the bias would seldom affect the game, particularly as umpires are less biased when the situation is tightest (and not biased at all when the new electronic device that checks their accuracy is running).

Bureaucrat as Umpire

George Will writes of the glory of the umpire, focusing on Bruce Froemming, the ump with the longest career:
"Consider Sept. 2, 1972, when Froemming was behind the plate and the Cubs' Milt Pappas was one strike from doing what only 15 pitchers have done -- pitch a perfect game, 27 up, 27 down. With two outs in the ninth, Pappas got an 0-2 count on the 27th batter. Froemming called the next three pitches balls. An agitated Pappas started walking toward Froemming, who said to the Cubs' catcher: "Tell him if he gets here, just keep walking" -- to the showers.

Pappas's next pitch was low and outside. Although he did get his no-hitter, the greater glory -- a perfect game -- was lost. Another kind of glory -- the integrity of rules [emphasis added]-- was achieved."

That's one cardinal virtue (and vice) of the bureaucrat, upholding the integrity of the rules.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Economists Reinvent the Wheel

Brad DeLong is an interesting guy, a former Clinton bureaucrat, an economics professor, and prolific blogger. He posts a handout for an economic history class to be given this fall. There's lots of formulas and logic, but I'll excerpt the two key pieces:

The Puzzle:
"In the context of Economics 113—American Economic History—we have a
definite puzzle: it was Britain that was ahead in technology and was where
technology was moving ahead the fastest in the first half of the nineteenth
century, and yet it was America that appears to have had the fastest perperson
economic growth. According to, British growth in real GDP
per capita averaged 0.50% per year in the first half of the nineteenth
century; American real GDP per capita growth averaged 0.86% per year
from 1790-1850.1"
The Conclusion:
The westward expansion—the Erie Canal, the steamboats, expulsion of
Indians from the near midwest and the inland southeast, et cetera—thus
looks absolutely key to the form that economic growth took in pre-Civil
War America.
(The reasoning involves looking at capital, natural resources, level of technology, and labor.)

Seems to be that was Turner's "frontier hypothesis" of American history.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Office closing--miscellaneous articles

Office closing--on Long Island--take the ferry to Connecticut is one alternative.
Closing ten offices in NE approved by Johanns--apparently he has no further political ambitions in his home state. And 16 in Georgia.

I'm still not seeing news of closing of NRCS offices at anywhere near the same rate as FSA. I don't know why--whether they aren't doing as much or it's not as controversial. The FSA mythology had the soil conservationist driving around to his clients so it might well be that office closings don't rate the notice. Why should I care whether the conservationist drives 20 miles or 40 miles to my farm?

Now You See It, Now You Don't

Via Marginal Revolution, here's an amazing set of pictures.
See also here.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Disaster Waivers

Much of the regulation on government is well-intentioned (maybe even all of it) and has a purpose. We can argue about whether the regulation is wise or effective. But as I thought after Katrina, and said in this very blog, there ought to be two sets of regulations--one that applies in ordinary times, another for emergencies.

Government Executive reports:

The Homeland Security Department inspector general is urging the Federal Emergency Management Agency to streamline information sharing to help law enforcement agencies locate missing children, registered sex offenders and fugitive felons during disasters.

A report released by the IG this week showed that after Hurricane Katrina, law enforcement agencies struggled to get information from FEMA that would have helped them track down missing children and criminals. Among those missing after the storm were 5,000 children, more than 2,000 sex offenders and a number of fugitive felons.

Slatalla and IT Systems

The Times' Michelle Slatalla tried to implement an IT system in her family (3 daughters, husband). Her attempt was prompted by conflict over a scarce resource (a car). So she tried to use the Google calendar software to establish coordinated calendars for each family member, with a master calendar. It failed. Her story is a reminder that humans, not IT, are in the drivers seat. Or, to change the metaphor, you need to win the hearts and minds of the people.

On the other hand, if there were an interface between the Google calendar and the car's ignition, such that the car could only be started by the driver who had reserved the time on the calendar, your IT system would have the people by the short and curlies, as the Brits say.

Actually, her story may be a parable of the dangers of overreaching--she apparently has fallen back to a calendar for the car and a spreadsheet for gas, which may have worked.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Farmers and the Internet

A paper on farmers, PC's, and the Internet is here. Broadband is spreading but still has a ways to go.

I remember Sherman County, Kansas (Colorado border) where we were doing an "Info-Share" project in 1991-2. Some farmers had PC's, but it was easy to overestimate. So many farmers are so old, and it's well established that us oldtimers don't like change. Judging by the fuss over closing county offices, it's clear that the Internet has yet to replace the need for warm blooded help from your local friendly bureaucrat.

(Buried in the depths are figures on the extent to which farmers in various states use the Internet to do business with USDA, or other websites. Amazon is doing lots better than USDA.)

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Bureaucrats Causing the Civil War

I'm reading a frustrating book by William Freehling, on the road to the Civil War. (It's frustrating because of his writing, not the content.) But he offers a theory on the causes of the war that's new to me: bureaucrats. He argues that Southern political leaders knew Lincoln might be elected, as he was. And if he was elected, he had extensive patronage powers (remember the "spoils" system?)--appointing postmasters and customs collectors, etc. And they knew that these bureaucratic posts would attract people willing to serve, even in the South. Thus Lincoln (who indeed spent much of his time after being elected and in the early months of his administration dealing with office seekers) could create a Southern Republican Party, through use of patronage. That would quickly erode the appearance of southern unity around slavery.

It's an interesting theory, as well as a reminder that Presidents used to have much more power over bureaucrats than they do today, even though our esteemed [sic] current President has been accused of politicizing his administration.

I'm in the Elite

No, not that I have all but one of my teeth at age 66, though that's good. (Just got back from the dentist.)

No, I just found this factoid: "Well, Google Maps has 10396, not "millions of users" as you seem to
think." on the Google Maps troubleshooting group. I'm amazed it's so small though I suspect the true statement is something like: "of all the people who use Google Maps, only 10,396 have so far set up personal maps." I wonder how many users Google Earth has. What I've used Google Maps for is to track the places my ancestors lived. It seems a neat little application.

Monday, August 13, 2007


From a Post article today:

In 2003, the FBI used a $25 million grant to give bomb squads across the nation state-of-the-art computer kits, enabling them to instantly share information about suspected explosives, including weapons of mass destruction.

Four years later, half of the Washington area's squads can't communicate via the $12,000 kits, meant to be taken to the scene of potential catastrophes, because they didn't pick up the monthly wireless bills and maintenance costs initially paid by the FBI. Other squads across the country also have given up using them.

Given my tendency to generalize, I'd say there's a general rule at work here--called NIH, or "not invented here". This sounds as if it was a great idea, at least in 2003. But you give a kit to someone, it may not be used. That's particularly true if suspected WMD's don't show up very often. (I'd guess there's a strong correlation between the number of suspicious packages discovered in an area and whether the jurisdiction paid the maintenance/upgrade costs.) It's one reason for cost-sharing as a governmental/bureaucratic strategy--if someone gets excited enough about an idea to kick in some of their own money, they may stay excited enough to maintain the idea over the long run.

NIH is a problem with foreign aid, domestic aid, and probably children ("probably" since I don't have any). I remember playing more with stuff that I could create games (mostly war games) with than with the fancier toys I got. I wonder whether NIH is also more of a male thing?


Shankar Vedantam reports in the Post:

A new study by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital and other institutions affiliated with Harvard University provides empirical evidence for the first time that when it comes to heart disease, bias is the central problem -- bias so deeply internalized that people are sincerely unaware that they hold it.

Physicians who were more racially biased were less likely to prescribe aggressive heart-attack treatment for black patients than for whites. The study was recently published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

The research finding cannot be automatically extrapolated to the NBA or other domains, but it does suggest a mechanism by which disparities emerge. No conscious bias was apparently present -- there was no connection between the explicit racial views of physicians and disparities in their diagnoses. It was only when researchers studied physicians' implicit attitudes -- by measuring how quickly they made positive or negative mental associations with blacks and whites -- that they found a mechanism to explain differences in medical judgment.

Since the Pigford/USDA bias issue last week, I seem to be running into bias and race. I think this is about right. In our rational calculating side, most people aren't biased on most things. But it's the snap stuff that trips us up. (Going back to the article, I think Jerome Groopman in his recent book reported on a study that showed that physicians typically interrupted their patients with x seconds--they were leaping to conclusions, most of the time correctly, but not always.)

"I Kicked Him in a Very Bad Place"

That's a line from an interview used in a Post obit of Irene M. Kirkaldy. That kick was part of a sequence leading to a Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation on interstate transportation in 1947. (Think Rosa Parks, but more northern and earlier, and a different constitutional provision.)

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Is Government Necessary?

Via Greg Mankiw, there's trouble, trouble brewing in River City, whoops, Second Life (online game with an economy) Seems people are people, even when they're only avatars. And as the founding fathers said, if people were angels government is unneeded.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Kevin Drum and Steven Levitt Agree on Anti-Terrorism Logic

The Levitt/Dubner Freakonomics blog has just moved to the NYTimes server. Levitt's first post discussed ways possible terrorists could attack the U.S. cheaply. (First one, have 20 teams of snipers emulate the DC two, but truly at random.) He caught a lot of heat (surprise!). In his
response today he outlines two alternative interpretations, this is the second:
The alternative interpretation is that the terror risk just isn’t that high and we are greatly overspending on fighting it, or at least appearing to fight it. For most government officials, there is much more pressure to look like you are trying to stop terrorism than there is to actually stop it. The head of the TSA can’t be blamed if a plane gets shot down by a shoulder-launched missile, but he is in serious trouble if a tube of explosive toothpaste takes down a plane. Consequently, we put much more effort into the toothpaste even though it is probably a much less important threat.
Kevin Drum says the same, in the context of the Democrats and the bill on FISA:

Note the way the incentives work here. If you pass the bill, the results are ambiguous. Sure, a lot of people will be angry, but they'll probably get over it eventually (or so the thinking goes). But if you stall the bill and a terrorist strikes, you are firmly and completely screwed. Goodbye political career. So which choice do you think a risk-averse politicians is likely to make?

This same dynamic was at work before the war, too. If you favored the war and things went south, the resulting mess would be long-term and ambiguous. There would almost certainly be a way to weasel your way out of any trouble and stay in office. But if you opposed the war and then, after the invasion went ahead over your objections, the Army discovered a serious nuclear arms program or an advanced bioweapons lab — both considered distinct possibilities at the time — you'd be out of office at the next midterm. For risk-averse politicians, the choice was obvious.

Nobody wants to risk being proved wrong in a way that's so crystal clear there's simply no chance of talking your way out of it. It's this fear that gives national security hawks the upper hand in any terror-related debate. Still.

I have to agree--as far as I can see, the "terrorist cells" that have been captured weren't very scary. If you assume that our security can catch 90 percent of the threats, that means the threats generally aren't potent. If you assume a lower level of averted threats, where's the attacks?

NY Times Is Wrong on Farm History

I quarrel with this from the NYTimes editorial page:
For the past 75 years, America’s system of farm subsidies has unfortunately driven farming toward such concentration, and there’s no sign that the next farm bill will change that. The difference this time is that American farming is poised on the brink of true industrialization, creating a landscape driven by energy production and what is now called “biorefining.” What we may be witnessing is the beginning of the tragic moment in which the ownership of America’s farmland passes from the farmer to the industrial giants of energy and agricultural production.
This is like saying that government policy has created industrial dining, with nationwide chains like McDonalds, etc. Wrong! Economic forces, notably returns to scale and the importance of capital to farming, and the basic thrust of modern life have caused the growth of large-scale agriculture. Research has helped, but the farm bills have basically slowed and tempered the evolution. If the AAA had never been enacted, we would not today be a nation of Amish farmers.

One Nation under God

Some of my ancestors refused to swear an oath to the United States because its Constitution did not recognize God, and therefore swearing would be sinful. Hence I'm a bit bemused at the utter conviction with which some believe that the U.S. is truly a Christian nation, as here:

Last month, the U.S. Senate was opened for the first time ever with a Hindu prayer. Although the event generated little outrage on Capitol Hill, Representative Bill Sali (R-Idaho) is one member of Congress who believes the prayer should have never been allowed.

"We have not only a Hindu prayer being offered in the Senate, we have a Muslim member of the House of Representatives now, Keith Ellison from Minnesota. Those are changes -- and they are not what was envisioned by the Founding Fathers," asserts Sali.

Sali says America was built on Christian principles that were derived from scripture. He also says the only way the United States has been allowed to exist in a world that is so hostile to Christian principles is through "the protective hand of God."

"You know, the Lord can cause the rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike," says the Idaho Republican.

According to Congressman Sali, the only way the U.S. can continue to survive is under that protective hand of God. He states when a Hindu prayer is offered, "that's a different god" and that it "creates problems for the longevity of this country."

Thursday, August 09, 2007

More on Pigford--Use of Government Equipment

This article in Government Executive and this AP article give the current state of play on the issue I referred to yesterday.

Sidestepping the policy issues, the question of proper use of government equipment is interesting. When I was hired, you weren't supposed to use your telephone for personal calls. On your lunch hour you called from the pay phone. Over time that policy was relaxed--you could make and receive personal calls, provided you didn't abuse the privilege.

I'd guess that a similar evolution might have occurred with employees, their PC's and their Internet connection. Limited personal use may or may not be technically legal, but only abuse (like looking at porn) is going to attract punishment.

But the issue being cited here is the possible violation of laws against using appropriated funds to lobby Congress. The USDA has an explanation of what's allowed or not allowed here. Basically, big shots can lobby Congress, small shots can't.

However, I'm reminded of a similar flap early in my USDA career. Might have been the end of LBJ or the beginning of Nixon. The issue there was someone, perhaps the head of a state office, talked to Congress without talking to DC first. The flap resulted in a directive to everyone in the agency saying: you can't talk to Congress unless it's cleared by the office of congressional relations. A few days later they came back and said: of course, everyone has a first Amendment right to petition Congress and we didn't mean to infringe that. You just have to do it on your own time. (It's similar, in some respects, to Karl Rove having to have a separate RNC email account and Congress people having to leave their offices to solicit contributions.)

Without being a lawyer, that seems to be the key issue here. Was the email being written and distributed using government time and government money? Or not?

Tragic Teenager--What's the Meaning of This?

Courtland Milloy writes about a DC teenager:

Any kid from a crime-ridden neighborhood would deserve such a break, but Danny especially so. In 2003, at age 12, he and then-D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey were featured in an anti-violence public service video. Five of Danny's relatives had been shot and killed.

"Enough is enough," was the rallying cry. Flash-forward to April. Danny had teamed up with D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) to announce the kickoff of yet another violence-awareness program, this one featuring anti-gun posters on the sides of buses. By then, however, Danny had lost six more relatives to gun violence, a total of 11: his father, a grandfather, two uncles, two nieces and five cousins.

I suspect everyone will read into this what they wish. The futility of public outcry, the depravity of the area in which he lives, the low value put on life, the free access to guns even though they're outlawed in DC, perhaps even a question of how many people Danny's relatives have killed over the years. Regardless of all that, Danny himself deserves better, everyone deserves better.

But what strikes me, with an admittedly aging and quirky mind, is his connectedness. It seems that all these relatives live in DC (that's my assumption anyway). That seems odd to me, but yet it fits with other articles and books I've read about the inner city: people seem often to have loads of relatives and friends. It's almost tribal society, as in parts of Iraq or Afghanistan--you know a lot of people and it's important to know them--who does what, what will p**s someone off, who can help, who will hurt. It seems a far cry from some areas of suburbia, where people don't know their neighbor. Is this connectedness a part of the pathology?

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Republican Stands Tall for Crop Insurance

Ever since the 1970's, Congress has been messing around--torn between two imperatives:
  1. You must help your constituents when they are hurt by a natural disaster.
  2. A viable crop insurance program has no place for political action.
Several times Congress (mostly Republicans, but that may just be my partisan bias at work) has loudly claimed that new legislation has got it right--farmers will have crop insurance and Congress won't pass ad hoc disaster programs. But regularly, when drought or flood or hurricane strike, and enough areas are affected, Congress passes a program. And if the new program requires reversing past commitments and undermining crop insurance, so be it.

This describes the latest version of this political two step, brought to you by John Thune, stalwart Republican Senator from South Dakota:

According to a statement from Thune's office, without the clarifying legislation, many livestock and forage producers who suffered losses would be deemed ineligible for assistance. That estimate was echoed by the Sioux Falls, S.D., Argus Leader which earlier said the original provision would cause as many as 90 percent of South Dakota's 17,000 livestock producers to be ineligible for disaster assistance. This is because USDA's Office of General Counsel determined that the supplemental appropriations bill contains language stipulating that for producers to be eligible for assistance under the livestock indemnity program, they must have participated in either the non-insured crop disaster assistance program (NAP) or a federal crop insurance pilot program.

Facts and figures. According to USDA, nationwide participation in NAP during 2005 and 2006 was less than 13 percent. Thune says the reason the low NAP participation rate that payments for losses generally amount to only $1 or $2 per acre. "It is not sound policy to exclude livestock and forage producers from disaster assistance because they chose not to participate in what many consider an ineffective program," said Thune.

Pigford Dispute

The ins and outs of employee ethics, reality, racial politics, history are all on display in the "Pigford" case (short title for a suit by black farmers against USDA charging racial discrimination in FSA programs, particularly the farm loan programs originally under the old Farmers Home Administration.

This Shreveport Times article is only the start of a wave. (Actually, Ken Cook had it yesterday but I was slow to post it.)

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

My Intelligent Reader(s?)

Someone, who shall be nameless, read my mind in the post Aug. 6 about proving one's intelligence. I was indeed thinking of episodes dealing with IT people in ASCS/FSA. Perhaps I'll muster the energy to get back to the topic. In the interim, I hasten to add that many of my best friends were in IT.

Remembering the Past--Eugene Robinson

One of the penalties of getting old is you're forced to have some perspective on some issues. In today's Post, Eugene Robinson opines about the threat to privacy from all of the surveillance that we are under--he ends by saying:

The text messages we send back and forth on our cellphones are similarly long-lived. And if your mobile phone communicates with the Global Positioning System, it sends information about precisely where you are. What was that again about having to work late at the office?

Who needs GPS anyway? Think of all the security cameras that record your movements every day. Use an automated teller machine, fill the gas tank, drop into a convenience store, visit the mall or walk into the lobby of an office building and chances are you've been caught on videotape.

What if someone had predicted 50 years ago that someday all this once-private information would be captured and stored? Psychiatrists would have issued a quick and definitive diagnosis: paranoia.

Of course, 50 years ago some of us were still using party lines, so the eavesdropping was not potential, but actual; not a faceless bureaucrat, but your nosy neighbor; not of who you called and when, but what you actually said. Sometimes modern technology doesn't destroy privacy, it provides it.

Barchester Towers

My wife and I started the Barchester Towers DVD (a BBC series made in 1982, based on Anthony Trollope's series of the same name). I had forgotten how funny it was. In "The Warden"--the first book and first hours of the series--Trollope manages to slam the established church, the law, the mass media of his time, and overly earnest and theoretical reformers--quite a satirical four for one performance.

And for those Harry Potter fans out there, you'll see the first incarnation of Professor Snape, whose greatest and final performance is still in the future, as a young Mr. Rickman brings Obadiah Slope to life.

Monday, August 06, 2007

How To Prove Your Intelligence

There's two ways to prove one's intelligence:
  • Point out all the problems with a position or proposal, all the reasons it won't work and nothing should be done.
  • Figure out how to do something, particularly something that someone else says can't be done. Do so even if it requires a Rube Goldbergian contraption.
I'm particularly fond of the second strategy myself.

My Two Selves

This article by Shankar Vedantam outlines research on our two selves. He leads off with the paradoxes, including that of Sen. Vitter with prostitutes at the same time he was pushing bills on abstinence.
Studies have found that, for some reason, an enormous mental gulf separates "cold" emotional states from "hot" emotional states. When we are not hungry or thirsty or sexually aroused, we find it difficult to understand what effects those factors can have on our behavior. Similarly, when we are excited or angry, it is difficult to think about the consequences of our behavior -- outcomes that are glaringly obvious when we are in a cold emotional state.
Rings true for me. Even though my addictions in life have dwindled, get between me and my Starbucks and I'm pure emotion. I often think the same applies for sports and politics--we become irrationally attached to our team, our positions, and can't apply reason. I know the Redskins won't reach the Super Bowl this year, but I'll still believe. I know George W. is a worthy person (but I immediately ask: "worthy of what?") I hope I'm mostly "cold" on this blog.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Bureaucracies and Their Customers

Who polices the police? Or, more broadly, how does a big bureaucracy keep all its operatives on the same page?

The short answer: they don't, at least not in a nation as big as the U.S. An example, which I ran into while working at USDA, is the US Postal Service (and which I was reminded of while reading the NASCOE negotiation notes). USPS has written directives for its local post offices, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the local postmaster in Podunk, Iowa (why do we pick on Iowa?) has read, understands, and follows it.

When you bring two big bureaucracies together, like USPS and the Farm Service Agency, you reveal discrepancies. If FSA and USPS in DC reach an understanding of what directive A means, FSA tells its field offices to do X, Y, and Z based on that understanding. But when the field office operative reaches the local postmaster, he or she may have a different understanding. Result: confusion and inefficiency.

Mixed Signals on FSA Office Closings

The House seems to be giving mixed signals on closing USDA offices. On the one hand, this provision is included in the appropriations bill (search through Thomas):

Provided further, That none of the funds made available by this Act may be used to pay the salary or expenses of any officer or employee of the Department of Agriculture to close or relocate any county or field office of the Farm Service Agency (other than a county or field office that had zero employees as of February 7, 2007), or to develop, submit, consider, or approve any plan for any such closure or relocation before the expiration of the six month period following the date of the enactment of an omnibus authorization law to provide for the continuation of agricultural programs for fiscal years after 2007 [NOTE: I take this to mean either a new farm bill or a 1-year extension of current farm programs--they're trying to cover the bases]: Provided further, That after the expiration of the six month period following the date of the enactment of an omnibus authorization law to provide for the continuation of agricultural programs for fiscal years after 2007 none of the funds made available by this Act may be used to pay the salaries or expenses of any officer or employee of the Department of Agriculture to close any local or county office of the Farm Service Agency unless the Secretary of Agriculture, not later than 30 days after the date on which the Secretary proposed the closure, holds a public meeting about the proposed closure in the county in which the local or county office is located, and, after the public meeting but not later than 120 days before the date on which the Secretary approves the closure, notifies the Committee on Agriculture and the Committee on Appropriations of the House of Representatives and the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry and the Committee on Appropriations of the Senate, and the members of Congress from the State in which the local or county office is located of the proposed closure. [This is the procedure that USDA seems to have been following until this, so presumably the idea is, Congress does a new farm bill, we wait 6 months to close offices. If the farm bill causes lots of work, there's an opportunity to reconsider. If it doesn't, then the Reps can say they tried.]
But from the Report on the bill (this isn't binding on USDA, but it explains intent):

Further, we are concerned about the restrictive FSA office closure language included in the bill. In many cases, the USDA has completed required steps to close certain offices under provisions set forth in fiscal year 2006, and again in the Continuing Resolution that agencies are operating under this fiscal year. Members are urged to consider these facts: there are 58 FSA offices that have no staff; 139 offices that have one employee; 338 that have two employees; and 515 offices that have three employees.

It is also worth noting that the funding level included in the bill for FSA salaries and expenses is $102 million below the President's budget request. As a result, the Democrat majority has significantly cut the appropriation below the request while prohibiting the FSA from closing unneeded offices. There are many States that, while not necessarily happy with proposals to close some offices, are willing to work with the FSA to close offices that should no longer be open. The minority worked with Chairwoman DeLauro to modify the language in the bill in order to continue making progress on this issue. Ranking Member Kingston offered an amendment that would allow FSA to close those offices that have zero employees, and the amendment was adopted by the full committee. People often ask why government can't run more efficiently. Closing FSA offices provides a good example. It's hard to run an agency with 435 managers second-guessing all decisions.

I interpret the Report language as saying--we recognize that Representatives want to protect their offices, but: be real--we can't keep all the offices open.

As a final note, there's no specific restriction on closing NRCS offices (except for generic restrictions elsewhere about not closing offices unless you notify Congress). So, if I'm reading it right, in New York where both FSA and NRCS offices are scheduled for closing, the one will be delayed, but the other could go through right away.

Your political system at work.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Katrina Cottages

It's intriguing that Lowes has developed a series of plans for "Katrina cottages". They'll sell the plans, you get the land and permits, and they'll sell the materials. See here for the smallest cottage plan. When I think that my great grandfather and family lived in a house smaller than this (as did all our ancestors, down to relatively recent times, it's amazing.

How Do You Make a Bureaucrat Honest?

That's the challenge in China. So they ( news story) created a computer game:

The Disciplinary Commission of the Communist Party in the well-off city of Ningbo in the province of Zhejiang financed the development of the game which stands at the vanguard of its campaign against corruption.

The hero is an 'honest and upright civil servant' who kills corrupt officials, their children and bikini-clad lovers with weapons, torture and even magic.

The children appear as monsters with names like 'son of corrupt official' or 'daughter of corrupt official.'

With each dead dirty civil servant, the player wins points that improve his or her abilities in areas like moral character and ethics.

The aim of the game is an 'honest paradise free from corruption.'

Thursday, August 02, 2007

What Happens After a Farm Program Ends? II

I blogged the other day about what might happen if farm programs were ended. Today's NYTimes has an article on what happened in New Zealand to the dairy farmers when their subsidies were ended.

It's mostly positive, though between the lines you see that there was consolidation--more large farms, fewer small (opponents of US farm programs say that the program helps large farmers, but the free market may be more helpful) and there would have been a lot of bankruptcies when the program ended if the banks hadn't given relief.

Because New Zealand dairy is mostly export, it's hard to do a real comparison. Nor does the article discuss any fluctuations in the 20+ years since the program was ended. My guess is that NZ may, in part, be "free-riding" on the dairy programs in the rest of the world--there would be more volatility in price if the world dairy market was entirely free, and volatility in price leads to humans hurting.

Aerial Photos from the Past

I'm guessing, but this story from the Post mentions aerial photos from 1937 (link to comparison shots) as part of a national agricultural surveying effort. Whether that related to the Agricultural Adjustment Administration I don't know, but in general this reminds us that data created by one bureaucracy can become useful in unexpected ways.

The contrast between the mostly farms of 1937 and the development now (this is well inside the Beltway) is striking.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Two Views on Terrorism

Mitt Romney wants to redo the DHS to focus on intelligence and attack prevention, rather than recovery from attacks.

This is from Princeton's blurb for a new book:
Many popular ideas about terrorists and why they seek to harm us are fueled by falsehoods and misinformation. Leading politicians and scholars have argued that poverty and lack of education breed terrorism, despite the wealth of evidence showing that most terrorists come from middle-class, and often college-educated, backgrounds. In What Makes a Terrorist, Alan Krueger argues that if we are to correctly assess the root causes of terrorism and successfully address the threat, we must think more like economists do.

Krueger is an influential economist who has applied rigorous statistical analysis to a range of tough issues, from the minimum wage and education to the occurrence of hate crimes. In this book, he explains why our tactics in the fight against terrorism must be based on more than anecdote and speculation. Krueger closely examines the factors that motivate individuals to participate in terrorism, drawing inferences from terrorists' own backgrounds and the economic, social, and political conditions in the societies from which they come. He describes which countries are the most likely breeding grounds for terrorists, and which ones are most likely to be their targets. Krueger addresses the economic and psychological consequences of terrorism. He puts the terrorist threat squarely into perspective, revealing how our nation's sizeable economy is diverse and resilient enough to withstand the comparatively limited effects of most terrorist strikes. And he calls on the media to be more responsible in reporting on terrorism.

The egghead seems to me to have much the better argument. The US may be attacked by terrorists once for every 10 attacks on EU nations and 1 in 10,000 attacks in Iraq. While some attacks may be scary, and some damaging, we have much more to fear from mother nature. Our general policy should be to do intelligence and defense reasonably well, but respond to disaster very well.

Changing Times

Things I could not have imagined at some point in my past (relevant time specified in parens):

Red State/Blue State

A new version of the red state/blue state map is now out--much more realistic in that it ignores state boundaries, so the color is proportional to the number of votes. Via Brad Delong

Another Eating Local Venture

This article describes a NC venture. Because the article is limited in focus, it misses some bits of information. It doesn't say whether the nonprofit organization is paying market rental to the parents. (Presumably the parents are still getting tobacco buyout payments.) It repeats unchallenged this statement:
“It’s one of the big problems for farmers that they don’t have health insurance and retirement plans,” Alice Brooke Wilson said. “That’s why farms get sold.
In fact, farmers are covered by Social Security and Medicare, assuming they've been conscientious about paying in.

The five people are not taking a salary. Actually four people, because one has left during the 3 years it's been in operation.

All in all, the mixture of idealism and naivete means to me that this is more likely a niche than a great new frontier. Of course, the nice thing about a free society is that you can have lots of such efforts, a handful of which may hit upon the right formula.