Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Whole Foods and True Organics

Tom Philpott worries about Whole Food, its proposed merger, and the inroads of big "organic" farming. (I own shares in Whole Food). I think it's the inevitable result of the free market--we're going to see the food market differentiate into lots of different categories: cheap, "industrial" food from the old-line Krafts and Safeways; ethnic foods (possibly organic) through ethnic food markets, Latino chains, and aisles in the Safeways; big "organic" (meaning herbicide/pesticide free, but not grown in an idyllic small farm environment) food in the Safeway aisle and Whole Foods; small "organic" sold through niche shops, farmers markets, and community supported ag; and organic food in restaurants. It's the result of enough people having enough money and locating closely together enough to support these specialty tastes.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Rural School Population II

I've now corresponded with one of the authors of the report on which I posted yesterday. I'm still not totally convinced, but I'll accept the concept that rural areas have had a big increase in school population, mostly minority and immigrant.

The Things You Find in Garbage, Er "Miscellaneous"

The Miscellaneous Title of legislation often contains some "good" stuff--earmarks, the pet ideas of various legislators and staffers, etc. Here's an interesting bit from the Senate farm bill (appears to be the report language, rather than the actual bill):

Sec. 11068. Prevention and investigation of payment and fraud and error.
This section would amend the Right to Financial Privacy Act of 1978 to require financial institutions to disclose the financial records of any customer to any government authority that certifies, disburses, or collects payments, when the disclosure of such information is necessary to verify the identity of any person in connection with the issuance of a federal payment or collection of funds, or the investigation or recovery of an improper federal payment of collection of funds.

No idea of the background for this.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Rural School Population

I'm totally surprised by this report on rural areas--I've bought into the idea that rural population is aging and declining. But not so, at least not in some areas:

"Between 2002-03 and 2004-05, enrollment in schools located in communities of fewer than 2,500 increased by 1,339,000 (or 15%)," write Jerry Johnson and Marty Strange, policy analysts for the non-profit Rural School and Community Trust. School enrollment in larger communities (populations over 2,500) fell by 2% in this same period.

The study calls "most startling" its finding that the number of minority students increased 55% in rural schools, "with some states experiencing increases of over 100%." Rural schools in the Southeast and Southwest are the most ethnically diverse in the nation.

[Update--When I noted this to my sister, a former teacher, I looked at the figures and said, they can't be right. It didn't seem right that rural areas would have roughly 10 million students. I'm not sure what's going on, but this table from the Department of Education seems to show less than 1 million students in rural areas (plus towns under 2,500) in 2002. It might be the authors just slipped a zero somewhere. Or it might be I don't understand at all.]

Keith Collins on Agriculture

Keith Collins, the chief USDA economist, testified before House Ag last week. Lots of interesting overview stuff, including a graph showing that farmland values have tripled in the last 20 years. So is there a bubble there?

Bureaucratic Turf War Sprouting

Government Executive reports on the Air Force's plans to handle cyber warfare. There's no discussion of the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps' plans, but I'm sure they won't be left behind and have good arguments for why they should be the front line of defense. Indeed, if I weren't rushing to catch up in my personal life, I might devote some time to imagining what arguments they might use.

Anyhow, it's a beauty of a turf war that sprouting right before our eyes.

Is a Farmer a Farmer a Farmer?

Gertrude Stein is famous for saying: "a rose is a rose is a rose". It's sometimes taken to mean that differences among things are trivial. But when it comes to farm programs, who a farmer is does make a difference. Personally, having grown up on a dairy/poultry farm, I have my reservations about whether field crop farmers (corn, cotton, etc.) really qualify as farmers. But, seriously, personal situations, crops, etc. all make a difference. Crops are obvious--cotton versus cows, carrots versus corn get you into different commitments of time, capital, labor, different markets. But even within the same crop a farmer of 75 who owns his land is in a very different position than a 25-year old renting hers. Their appetite for risk and vulnerabilities differ.

All of which is to say, when someone talks of the opinions of farmers, as here, [updated--I think it's an honest discussion, but often they aren't] take a grain of salt.

Friday, October 26, 2007

The Way the Media Works

I think I've blogged before on this, but via Orin Kerr at Volokh Conspiracy, Al Qaeda people are mad at Al jazeera for reporting on conflicts within the ranks.

What it means is that the institutional incentives are at work: anyone who wants attention has to have a good story, and conflict makes a hell of a better story than communion. (That's why blogs like mine have low readership--there's no conflict.)

Your NRCS at Work

Washington Post has an article on the problems of working with Mennonite dairy farmers to reduce pollution of waterways. A reminder of the variety and complexity of the nation.

Hillary as Manager

Yes, I'm back home and back blogging again. The NYTimes has an article on Hillary's management style, which Ann Althouse commented on (basically comparing Hillary's tight circle and GWB's).

It's interesting. I think there's some relevant issues:

  • "How many mistakes has she made and how well has she learned from them?" If you never do anything, you never screw up. If you never admit and learn from your mistakes, you're an idiot. Seems to me Hillary's okay here, except perhaps for being slow to admit mistakes. it's tough for any smart and ambitious person. Anyone remember any admissions of error by others in the race?
  • Who would she appoint to her administration? Doris Kearns Goodwin got a book out of the fact that Lincoln appointed heavyweights to the Cabinet, and then managed them. Both parties will have a bench of talent to appoint (unlike Bill in 92--the 12 years in the wilderness meant talent was scarce). The idea that she has a tight circle doesn't bother me much--the issue is whether she'll expand it if elected. Her tight circle is better than GWB's was because they don't have an anti-Washington bias. The unknown is whether they have the balls to admit that GWB did some things right (Bush certainly had problems admitting that Bill had done some things right).
More blogging to follow as I catch up with papers and blogs.

Friday, October 19, 2007

RIP Bruno

I posted on Bruno Mangum, who worked for FSA and its predecessors in the North Carolina State Office. He died, after 71 years of service. RIP (Thanks, Jeff).

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Blog for Rural America--On Farmers

As I said, blogging will be slow. Here's an interesting post discussing farmers' attitudes to the farm program. (The blog's also not happy about the recent developments in the farm bill.)

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Slow Blogging?--Perhaps

I may not be blogging much over the next 10 days--my wife and I are taking a trip. On the other hand, I have a laptop to play with, so maybe?

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Two Iowa Counties

Tom Philpott has a long piece comparing two Iowa counties: Hardin which has lots of hogs, and Woodbury, which doesn't but does have local foods. I'm a bit skeptical of descriptions of new projects: too often a new idea gets going based on the drive and energy of a handful of people, but doesn't mature into a long lasting institution. I'd like to come back in 20 years and see what's happening. But it's an interesting comparison.

Immigration and Free Markets

The Post, Shankar Vedantam, reported yesterday that immigration cuts gas and grocery prices. The idea being, we natives get lazy and patronize the nearest gas station and grocery regardless of their prices. Immigrants, being more energetic and more price conscious, shop around. The shopping around is the element of competition that tends to drive prices lower.

(I think I've mentioned before a supermarket location that went through 3 incarnations, being too small for efficient Safeway/Giant operation. Now it's been open as a Latino themed market, with good vegetables at lower prices than our regular Safeway.)

John Tierney Explains South Carolina Politics

In the NY Times, John Tierney reports on a study of the impact of gossip on judgments. The bottomline, when it comes down to it, we believe gossip despite the evidence of our eyes. Or, more accurately, gossip sways our decisions even though we know the full story. (Of course, the study was a bit unrealistic--we rarely are in situations where we know we know the full story.) The only positive bit--positive gossip had as much power as negative gossip.

Maybe this explains the recent reports on the Obama is a Muslim urban legend, or the anti-McCain gossip in South Carolina in 2000--the gossip persists and spreads because we're tuned into it as intrinsically valuable, not only do some of us believe it, but it's worth passing on.

Monday, October 15, 2007

"Organic" Dairies

Interesting piece here--excerpt:

Watts Brothers, which started milking cows in December, is Washington's largest organic dairy with 2,200 milking cows.

State regulators and some small dairy farmers speak highly of it, but critics question whether milking thousands of cows is worthy of the term "organic."

In part, this is a lesson to those leftie liberals, who want to write laws to solve problems. You write a law setting up standards for things like "organic" and you have certain pictures in your head. (See Walter Lippmann's Public Opinion). And you write the law based on those pictures. But the reality is that smart and determined people want to make a buck, so your law tends to be evaded, at least in part. Far from the picture in textbooks, administering law is like a long conversation, back and forth, between two people, who might stay married for 50 years, or might get divorced in 6 months.

I was also tickled by this quote:
"People want to picture cute 50-cow dairies all over the countryside, but our economics don't allow for that everywhere anymore," said Georgana Webster, an organic-livestock inspector for the Washington Department of Agriculture, which determines whether dairies like Watts Brothers are following national organic standards.
Having been brought up on a very uncute, mini-dairy of 12 cows.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Philip Roth Does Not Know Dairying

Wife and I watched "The Human Stain" last night. An unsuccessful movie with great actors based on a good-selling novel by Philip Roth, who was passed over for the Nobel this year. It's not doing too badly on Netflix, probably because of all its assets in themes (racism, political correctness, cowardice, spousal abuse, cross generation sex, "crossing" color lines) and actors: Hopkins, Kidman, Sinise.

But, assuming the movie was faithful to Roth's book, which I haven't read, it's unrealistic. Kidman works on a dairy farm, but also in a store and as a janitor on the local college (from which Hopkins was fired). That's unrealistic right there--if you're doing two milkings a day you don't have the energy for two other jobs. And then Hopkins and she make love at all times of day and night. Roth's forgetting the first law of dairying:

"The cows have got to be milked"

Whatever else you do, they've got to be milked, and milked at the same times every day. You might indulge in a quickie. But you can't have a long night of sex then a leisurely breakfast--Kidman has got to pull on her clothes and get back to the barn for the 4 or 5 am milking.

(But how was the movie--I see why it failed commercially but it's worthwhile on Netflix.)

Friday, October 12, 2007

A "Tipping Point"?

I really hate to write this. I thought of it a couple months ago, started the draft 10 days ago, and only now got up the nerve. Here goes: Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea of a "tipping point"-- the idea that certain happenings in society, and in nature, occur as the result of slow subtle changes suddenly reaching a critical level, resulting in sudden and dramatic change.

In nature, the gradual lowering of temperature resulting in water icing over. Or adding sand to a pile to the point where the pile collapses in an avalanche.

In society we can have tipping points in fashion: men wear hats, until all of a sudden in the late 50's early 60's they don't.

In wars we can have tipping points. Looking at Iraq, it seems to me that one was averted early this year. The situation was deteriorating. The "surge" stabilized and reversed the deterioration, meaning we didn't have the sort of collapse we can see in South Vietnam in 1975.

Now, it's perhaps possible that we are seeing a possible "tipping point" the other way. Sunnis in Anbar province have changed their position. Today's Times carries a front page article on the souring of relations between the Shiites and the militias. For anyone growing up in the age of guerrilla warfare, as I did, that's important; for as Mao said--the guerrilla fighter must be as a fish in the water of the society. Another straw in the wind is, as Megan McArdle notes, an uptick in the Iraq Index on power.

It's too early to say, but it's possible for the appearance of things to change quickly.

President Hillary?

I post because two leaders of conservative opinion, Charles Krauthammer in the Post and David Brooks in the Times, both grudgingly note her:

Charles: "Nonetheless, if 2008 is going to be a Democratic year, as it very well could, Hillary would serve the country better than any of her Democratic rivals."

David: "No Republican would design asset-building plans the way Clinton does. No Republican would pay for them the way she does. But at least she has a middle-class agenda. Right now, the general election campaign looks like it’s going to be a replay of the S-chip debate. The Democrats propose something, and the Republicans have no alternative."

Some in USDA Also Serve

From the speech of the acting Secretary at the USDA awards ceremony:

I would also like to take a moment to acknowledge the special contributions of one of today's honorees, Paul McKellips from the Farm Service Agency. Paul has volunteered for three details to Iraq as part of the State Department's Go Team. He has helped draw attention to the plight of Iraqi farmers struggling to develop their own operations into a steady source of income for their families. Paul has willingly stood in harm's way in service to his nation and in service to agricultural producers. I do applaud that commitment, and I extend my gratitude to all of the USDA employees who have volunteered to help farmers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Currently we have eight agricultural advisors in Afghanistan and Iraq and another 18 advisors will be detailed by November. Last week, of course, I was saddened and we were all saddened to announce the loss of one of our brave USDA employees. Tom Stefani of the Forest Service was serving on a provincial reconstruction team in Afghanistan as an agricultural advisor when he lost his life in an explosion. Tom had worked hard to implement a number of improvements for producers in Afghanistan including a poultry rearing facility and a cold storage facility. Tom was a respected rangeland management specialist in Nevada, and his colleagues there and, of course, throughout our USDA family will miss him greatly.

On a different note, I see Willie Cooper, long time state executive director of FSA in Louisiana (most SED's change with the administrations, Willie doesn't) was leader of a team honored for responding to Katrina and Bob Manuel was a member.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

International Courts, 19th century

I didn't do well in my political science courses in college but the issue of the relationship of different governmental entities is always interesting. Add in slavery and it becomes more interesting. Here is a piece in the Boston Review on the efforts to control the international slave trade in the 19th century. The author claims that Britain devoted a significant part of its economic output to this effort.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Agony, the Agony

Josh Marshall at TPM has a piece that's about me, although he thinks it's about NY Times columnist Roger Cohen, whose meditations on liberal hawks he mocks. He ends:
It's a revealing sentence because it's one filled with a telling self-regard. He agonizes. And to agonize is to achieve merit. Cohen doesn't jump reflexively to one side or the other, but agonizes over the thorny complexities of the great questions. It's a serious pose because Cohen is a serious person who loves to mop up his own moral seriousness. Puncturing that bubble is a grave offense.
I plead guilty.

Regulation Ratchet and the Grasp of Government

Tyler Cowen in the NY Sun (via Volokh) reviews Naomi Klein's new book and says:
First, the reach of government has been growing in virtually every developed nation in the world, including in America, and it hardly seems that a far-reaching free market conspiracy controls much of anything in the wealthy nations
Robin Hanson at Overcoming Bias talked of a Regulation Ratchet--the idea that when bad things happen, government steps in with regulation, but there's no equivalent process for deregulating.

And today, Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution notes the short time between the physics discovery recognized by the Nobel and its usage in Ipods, etc.

Why do I put these three together? Because I think the mental model latent in the first two cases is contradicted by the third. I think Cowen would agree with the "regulation ratchet", the idea that government always expands and never contracts. And I think both Hanson and Cowen are unconsciously seeing society as fixed. ("Society" being the environmental niche in which the "reach of government" is growing.) But, as Tabarrok implicitly recognizes, change happens, innovations occur, things advance, and society changes and evolves with it. The Ipod rests on a technological advance, but the Itunes storefront depends on a network of governmental regulations which may, or may not, need to be changed to deal with digital rights management (DRM) of songs. If the FCC or Congress or the courts, or all three, change the rules for DRM, is that really an extension of the reach of government. How about the government's rules for Western Union, the old telegraph monopoly--have they not vanished into the past?

The Benefits of Government

This is an interesting article, from an interesting site, via the Drudge Retort.

"For most of us, most of the time, government is not some faceless bureaucrat [emphasis added] who is constantly ordering us around; it is more like a guardian angel: an invisible benevolent being that accompanies us throughout their day, easing us through potential difficulties and protecting us from impending harms. Admittedly, the angel analogy is a bit exaggerated, but the underlying truth is not: government has an extensive and overwhelmingly positive effect on our everyday lives."

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Vertical Farming

This post described a proposal to stack farm acreage vertically. Sounds weird, particularly when they talk about "staple" crops. There's a book on economic geography I read once, where the author described a "natural" sequence of farms: closest to urban areas were the truck gardens and nurseries, then dairy, then livestock, then grain (that's rough and may be wrong in detail). The logic is fairly simple: transportation costs--what can be transported easiest and cheapest will be grown furthest from the megalopolis, then a continuum. It tracks with U.S. history, where Pennsylvania started growing wheat, but the wheat belt kept moving west and now it's vegetables and dairy.

If we ever come to vertical farming, the logical crops economically speaking should be "organic"--the highest cost, highest margin, locavore crops. Somehow there's a discrepancy there.

Women Are Monkeys, Sez NYTimes (?)

According to the NYTimes article:

“Monkey society is governed by the same two general rules that governed the behavior of women in so many 19th-century novels,” Dr. Cheney and Dr. Seyfarth [two scientists whose studies of baboon behavior are fascinating] write. “Stay loyal to your relatives (though perhaps at a distance, if they are an impediment), but also try to ingratiate yourself with the members of high-ranking families.”

Monday, October 08, 2007

Realism and Idealism

I forget who tipped me to this post, but it's a very interesting discussion of the suppression of the international slave trade in the 1800's. From the conclusion:

"The suppression of the transatlantic slave trade, and the role of law and the courts in its undoing, is a remarkable story about the complex relationship between political power and moral ideas. Most people who study international relations are realists of one sort or another, and in conventional realist wisdom states act to support intangible and idealistic goals like human rights only when those actions are relatively costless: whatever their rhetoric, nations choose money and power over their ideals.

Suppressing the slave trade was, however, extremely costly. By one modern estimate, Britain’s effort cost an average of nearly two percent of its national annual income for each year between 1807 and 1867, and the direct costs of its yearly efforts between 1816 and 1862 were roughly equal to the annual profits it had received from the trade between 1761 and 1807. Not only was it costly, but it required a very long national attention span. The resources expended on suppression required the continued commitment of successive governments over a period of decades.

...the weight of the evidence suggests that Britain pursued the abolition of the slave trade because most people in Britain thought it was the right thing to do."

Any student of government has to weigh the relative value of a legal mandate versus winning the hearts and minds. This piece comes down on the side of legal mandates.

When Is a Farmer a Farmer--II

Dan Owens of the Center for Rural Affairs commented on the previous post with this title. He pointed out the Dorgan-Grassley bill which changes payment limitation provisions to require 1000 hours of labor. The comment triggered a sad chain of events:

  1. First I remembered the tobacco legislation in the 1980's. The papers had found Sen. Helms (or his wife) had tobacco allotments which they were leasing out (something like that). And of course there was controversy over the government supporting tobacco, particularly when the Surgeon General was so against it. So the law was changed--first to the "no net cost" provision (allowing the tobacco people to claim the program didn't cost the government; second to require Sen. Helms to sell his allotments by requiring him to be actively engaged in tobacco farming. So I thought: all I have to do is go back and find the rules. Well, it took a while but it seems about all they did was to require the farmer to share in the risk of production of the tobacco. That's a let-down, because, at least in theory, that's always been part of the definition of a "farmer" for the wheat, feed grain, cotton, and rice programs. (Perhaps less so since 1996, because you no longer have to grow the crop to get direct payments.)
  2. Second I looked up the bill Owens [update--corrected] had mentioned. In the good old days, when I was on top of my game, I could assimilate such a bill quickly, find the problematic areas where decisions were needed, and identify the software to support implementation. But those days are gone. I've no idea whether, as the good Senators claim in this piece, lawyers would be put out of business or not. I tend to doubt it, but who knows. And do I care? Not as much as I used to. That's probably a measure of how much closer to the grave I am now than 20 years ago. (As I say, a sad chain.)
I do wish they had thrown in a "circuit breaker". What happened in the 1986 farm bill was that everyone was required to file a farm plan. That overwhelmed the county offices with paper, generally p***ed off the farmers, and did no good for anyone. Implementing Dorgan/Grassley would at a minimum require new language in the existing (CCC-502?) forms for farmers to certify. Giving the Secretary discretion to phase in the new forms would greatly help the county offices. I.e., require them for any changes of operation, plus the producers on the largest farms in the county (top 10 percent) or something similar.

On Not Closing FSA Offices (How Congress Works)

FSA decided not to close 5 county offices in NY (including my birth county). Strange--while I've noted that other States have modified their plans, I think this is the biggest reversal I've seen.

(Of course, the article has this note: [Congressman] "Hinchey, who is a member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, has been fighting the FSA's proposal to close offices in New York, as well as across the country, since the agency provides critical services to local farmers and offers personalized attention and advice on an array of federal agricultural programs.") "

Sunday, October 07, 2007

How The Melting Pot Works

The Post had an interesting article on the cultural problems between Korean-American business owners and managers and Hispanic employees. What struck me though was the idea that often the "melting pot" is not native-born citizens and immigrants, it's among immigrants of different origins. And even though each may learn a bit of the other's language, the practicalities say that they'll both end up with English as common language.

Remember Saipan?

One of the WWII battles, but now the site of an FSA meeting, according to this piece.

The legacies of history.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Organic Farming, Some Realities

Via John Phipps, a Cornell professor's observations on some practicalities of going purely organic in Bangladesh. (A quick summary--organic nitrogen isn't available in big enough quantities and in a form that can be moved without animal/machine transport. Green manure crops compete with existing food crops.) He doesn't describe the existing mechanisms for producing and distributing nonorganic nitrogen (apparently the main nutrient needed).

Friday, October 05, 2007

When Is a Farmer a Farmer?

When he's a Fairfax trial lawyer earning $500 an hour and a candidate for county supervisor?

The Post reported yesterday Gary Baise collected $300,000 in program payments 1995-2005:
"Baise's farm, where he grew up, is operated by John Werries, whose brother Larry was a high school friend of Baise's and former Illinois director of agriculture. Baise said he makes all decisions on planting, marketing and sales, and visits five to 10 times a year. The acreage is evenly divided between corn and soybeans."
I wonder what it would do if payments were restricted to those living on the farm? (Baise says he doesn't like the program. He can't be fairly criticized for taking advantage of it. )

Immigration Linkage?

This Post article describes a linkage between immigration and housing--actually two linkages: immigration swelled as more jobs working in construction became available. As immigration swelled, more immigrants entered the market to buy houses, sometimes financing the high costs by renting rooms to construction workers. Now the housing bubble has popped, anti-immigration seems the predominant mood, and local housing prices are going to pot.

From what I see around, I can't disagree. (The Post also had an article yesterday describing a shortage of cooks for new restaurants--$20K doesn't cut it for a line cook. And Wednesday my local Safeway Starbucks was closed--no workers. That is going too far.)

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Prediction--This Blog Will Fold

The government has a new blog. I've been meaning to post on the redundancies in government outreach but I'm rushed today so I'll just record my prediction that the blog won't catch on--doesn't provide "added value" in the old consultant's catch-phrase. The information the posters are providing is available by Google, the personalities are rather opaque (I know, mine is opaque too, but these are active duty government bureaucrats).

"Legacy of Ashes"

Reading this history of the CIA--it's readable and seems authoritative, although rarely praising the CIA. It also doesn't put Presidents in a good light--so far Ike, Bedell Smith, and John McCone, come off the best (I'm up to Nixon).

Us Millionaires Are Too Damn Rich

From the Wall Street Journals blog, a report of a report on worldwide wealth:

Millionaire households (those with $1 million or more in assets under management) represented 0.7% of the world’s total and owned $33.2 trillion — or about a third of the world’s total.
I shouldn't claim to be a millionaire by this definition (though if you include the value of the house...). But it's obscene for less than 1 percent of the population to own a third of the wealth. (Remember this post when I appear to be moving rightward.)

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Bureaucratic Meetings

I realize the title is sort of redundant. Mr. Munger describes "The Five Sorry Rules of Lateness"


The Religion Writer has a post discussing the Amish, the shooting at the school, and the relationship of forgiveness and 9/11. Also refers to the new Donald Kraybill book on the subject. I liked his previous book, which gave me enough knowledge of the Amish to be able to use them as a comparison to mainstream society.

For example, when the locavores praise local agriculture, I can think of the Amish and say, yes, but. There's tradeoffs and there's tradeoffs. Do I, proud progeny of a line of teachers and preachers, really like the idea of ending school at the eighth grade?

And forgiveness--I admire the way they dealt with the blow. (Of course, the wounded got good medical care that depended on advanced schooling.) But do I really want to be that forgiving?

Questions--no answers.

Pigford Again--the Lawyers Relief Act

MK, faithful reader, points me to this post, describing the current state of play on the Pigford provision in the new farm bill. The major issue seems to be estimating the number of claims that will be filed and will ultimately succeed and what the dollar amount of those settlements will be.

Only a cynic would note this sentence: "In contrast [to the prior legislation], the House farm bill would allow late-filing Pigford claimants to file a civil action, where claimants are unlikely to have the same success rate...." Why might it be noteworthy? What do you need to file a "civil action"? A lawyer. How does a lawyer get paid? Presumably (based my extensive legal education reading John Grisham and Scott Turow) on a contingency basis--a third or a half. So this provision might be providing, depending on whose estimate turns out to be right, from $33 million to $1.5 billion for underpaid lawyers.

What Do We Expect of Government Employees?

I'm prompted by a scattering of factoids in today's press, which I won't even bother to link to.

  • Item. GAO reports some government bureaucrats are flying business/first class. (One being a deputy assistant undersecretary for USDA (those job titles keep getting longer).)
  • Item. A mention of the starting salaries for law school grads ($160K).(More than all but a few federal employees.)
  • Item. Blackwater head defends his employees, who earn multiples of what the retired Gen. Pace did, in front of Congress.
  • Item. NYTimes has a diagram showing the "old boy network" (my terminology) of how the up and coming wheeler dealers in finance relate by school ties (clue Harvard Law and MBA and undergrad, Yale, and the other usual prospects).

I guess the lesson is, government employees give stable service for middle of the road benefits. If you want the big bucks, and the comfortable seats, you have to take the risks inherent in being part of an old-boy network.

Old Structures and New Trends

A post on Grist attacking the new crop insurance pilot program, whereby farmers cut their premiums if they use certain Monsanto seed corn led me to interesting testimony before Congress on problems with crop insurance here.
Scott Marlowe is apparently based in North Carolina and makes interesting points:

"The fastest growing segments of North Carolina’s farm economy - livestock produced under
production contracts, specialty crops like greenhouse, nursery and Christmas trees, and emerging value-added markets such as organic and specialty livestock - are all underserved, if served at all, by current crop insurance programs. We are moving rapidly from crops with extensive risk management and disaster programs to enterprises with ineffective or no risk management."

"The challenge for crop insurance is that the emerging markets and differentiated products do not come with the uniformity and automatic data collection that provides the underpinning of conventional commodity crop insurance. The very aspects of these markets that make them vibrant and exciting and profitable – the ability to respond quickly to a wide variety of specific niches of quality and production – are the same aspects that make it extremely difficult to program for them. The traditional product development approach of developing a crop specific
risk profile and then releasing a crop-specific insurance product is unable to address the diversity of emerging products, enterprises and markets."

Organic producers pay a 5 percent surcharge for crop insurance, but get coverage at conventional prices, not the premium prices they can command.
I wonder--will private insurers independent of RMA fill these gaps, as free-marketers would expect, or does the RMA/private colossus preempt such innovation?

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

FArm Bill Status

This post seems a good summary of the status of the farm bill while our neighbors to the north still support supply management. I'm not clear on what all crops are supply managed (i.e., have quotas as our tobacco and peanut crops used to, or diversion/set-aside/acr production adjustment as our big 8 field crops had until 1996). So I went googling and found this summary. Because it's wrong in my unhumble opinion about US agriculture, take it with a grain of salt, but it's an interesting contrast.

[Updated--And then there's the EU, where the minister is bragging that she got her rules for 2008 (no set-aside and suspending import duties) in place. (She doesn't note that US wheat farmers are planting winter wheat with no program in place. She could.)]

Modern Dairies

The Wisconsin virtual dairy tour is here--(note--the link gives you an overview). There's a wide variety of farming operations, with a variety of legal mechanisms, but they almost all seem to be what I would call "family farms". Huge, some of them, and obviously reliant on hired help, but as long as a husband/wife or siblings run the operation and one family lives on the farm, I think they qualify.

Monday, October 01, 2007

The Role of the Media

Here's a piece from Government Executive, on a speech by Hayden:
"CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden said he has "very deep respect for journalists and for their profession." But then he devoted a healthy chunk of his address to critiquing media coverage of the agency.

"Just as they report on the terrorists, it's the job of journalists to report on how the war against terrorism is being fought," Hayden said. "And when their spotlight is cast on intelligence activities, sound judgment and a thorough understanding of all the equities at play are critically important. Revelations of sources and methods, or what seems to me to be an impulse to drag anything CIA does to the darkest corner of the room, can make it very difficult for us to do our vital work."

I think the bureaucrats in many places would have similar complaints: Journalists don't understand the ins and outs, skip over the necessary tradeoffs, and focus and dragging things to "the darkest corner of the room". Is there an answer? No.

And Peanuts Are Moving

There was a newspiece a while back about new farmers producing tobacco (i.e, in southern Illinois) under contract with companies. I blogged on it here. And the dairy farms are going out, or hiring immigrant labor to work the 15 hour days. (Actually, that's a lie--dairy farmers just want your sympathy. They don't actually work 15 hours every day. Their workday ends 15 hours or so after it begins, but there's down time and meal time in between. Another reminder: don't trust anyone.)

And now the peanut farms are moving, from Whitesboro (NE Texas on the OKlahoma border) to west Texas, according to this lament.It seems to be a pattern similar to that for tobacco--the old FSA quota program effectively locked in the farms that were growing the crop. End the program, or replace it with a nonquota program, and different farmers in different areas will grow the crop. In the lingo of the economists, it's "creative destruction". In the memories of the people, it's a lost heritage.

A sidenote: both the peanut piece and the dairy post previous refer to horses coming in. I guess all the rich yuppies with their ranchettes also want their own saddle horse? Trying to recapture the heritage of the cowboys (or the Plains Indians)?

Again on Dairy Farming

As the man says, "you're essentially married to your cows". And it's a 15-hour day, week in, week out. For those reasons, the Poconos are losing dairy farms according to this piece.

Cash Lease, Share Lease, Allocating Risk

A USDA press release of Friday:
The Agriculture Department today announced that it has issued an advance notice of proposed rulemaking seeking public comment on the treatment of lease agreements under various USDA programs. Mark Keenum, USDA's under secretary for farm and foreign, Agricultural Services, said "by reviewing our current rules, we hope to provide producers with the ability to adjust their lease agreements to take advantage of changing market conditions while also letting USDA have the controls needed to ensure that program integrity is maintained as required by applicable statutes."

At issue is whether regulations governing whether a lease is considered "cash-rent" or "share-rent" for a USDA program purpose need to be revised or defined more specifically. The goal is to solicit comments on the feasibility of USDA's Farm Service Agency (FSA) and Risk Management Agency (RMA) establishing a standardized treatment of leases containing variable or flexible provisions under the programs administered by those agencies.
I personally suspect the resolution will be like the long-time concern over FSA and RSA having different crop reporting dates. As far as I know, the differences have not all been resolved. I think crop insurance requires an "insurable interest" while FSA requires a "producer" to be someone who shares in the crop, or the risk of producing the crop (except for people like seed corn producers).