Monday, December 31, 2007

The Value of Diverse Ideas

Apparently some libertarians are hoping to extend human life indefinitely. The prospect does not appeal, unless medicine can guarantee a 25 year old body and a 45 year old mind. But another reason for death is shown in this New York Times article on innovative minds:

IT’S a pickle of a paradox: As our knowledge and expertise increase, our creativity and ability to innovate tend to taper off. Why? Because the walls of the proverbial box in which we think are thickening along with our experience.

Those Fancy Jeans Go to High Income Folks

Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution links to research on the changing mix of products (i.e, why we used to be satisfied with Levis, Lees, Sears and Monkey Wards jeans, but we no longer are). To summarize a summary, if you've got lots of money you're willing to spend more for "quality", you aren't price conscious. Go back to Veblen for the explanation of what "quality" mean (hint--it's not Consumer Reports quality).

[Just thought--this is a rather negative note upon which to end the year, but I won't guarantee to post again. So happy new year to anyone reading this.]

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Some Familiar Problems in an Unlikely Place

From this link:

If personal incomes, working conditions and future development opportunities can be improved in underdeveloped regions, more and more talents will be attracted to work there, says a signed article in People's Daily. The following is an excerpt.

In the application process for the national civil servant test of 2008, many positions attracted over 1,000 applicants - one of these positions attracted 3,592 test-takers; but no applicants showed interest in 59 positions in underdeveloped regions.

Yes, it's China. Sounds like the problems in getting doctors to work in rural areas in the US

End of Year, End of Line for...

Netscape, after 13 years

A Bavarian beer hall, in DC area where Germans, Poles and Russians found unity

The last family owned matzo factory.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Procrastination and "Sharing"

Robin Hanson has a good post on procrastination here,
which I've shared below. I like Google's feature--as I understand it also works with Google Talk.

Individual Versus Rules

The NYTimes has an article today on the conflict between safeguarding senior citizens and preserving their free will. The focus is on one man, who between 73 and 81 completely screwed up his finances, loaning/giving hundreds of thousands to a sympathetic neighbor, then refinancing and finally selling his house for nothing. He was vulnerable because his wife had died, but he seems to have no mental illness. He's suing to break the sales contract on the basis that he was too old to be competent.

Meanwhile, over at they just wrapped up a guest-blog series on women in combat. The man against the idea argued that women, as a rule, were incapable, unfit for combat, disruptive, etc. etc. The woman for the idea argued that decisions should be made on an individual basis. (I just skimmed the arguments, but I think she missed a good one: female brains are still cheaper than male ones and a smart combatant is better than a dumb one any day of the week).

Anyhow, both issues tie back to the extent to which we use rules/guidelines/stereotypes/generalizations in our lives. Do we say that someone 75 needs to prove they're still a safe driver? Do we say they need to prove they're competent to execute contracts? Do we say that a woman needs to prove she's a capable fighter, but not a man? (In my time, the 11B MOS (military occupation specialty) was for the leftovers--those who couldn't be plugged into other slots.) It seems we make default judgments--anyone 21 and over is mature enough to drink, anyone 18 and over is worthy of being a voter, unless and until someone is able to take the person to court and have them declared incompetent. And there's a difference between incompetence and being a danger to others, as witness the Virginia Tech shooter.

Do I have answers? No, though I'm conscious of losing some capabilities as I age. And I'd observe that bureaucrats are usually the ones who have to administer rules.

Whatever--Merry Christmas.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Bah Humbug

My anal-retentive side rises to the surface (bad metaphor) in connection with the story of the father with 3 kids who went hunting for a Christmas tree and got lost for 3 days.

It touches a memory from childhood, when city slickers would come out searching for a tree on our land. The father was intending to steal something, and setting a bad example for his children. Not good.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Corn Prices Foam, Beer Doesn't

The high corn prices are cutting into hop production, meaning that beer is more costly. Link here, thanks to

Friday, December 21, 2007

A Faced Bureaucrat Retires

Every individual is individual, but this bureaucrat is representative of the people who man and woman the FSA county offices.

Another Whippersnapper Advances

According to this press release, Patricia Klintberg is now head of the FSA press operation. I remember her back in the Payment in Kind days (I think, might have been 1985 farm bill), working then for Doanes I think.

The world turns.

Canadian Programs

Amidst all the turmoil of enacting our farm bill, the Canadian process seems rather tranquil. The government and industry consult, after figuring out how much money to spend, and come up with a program, apparently without passing Parliament. I guess in the parliamentary scheme, much focuses on the budget process.

The Agrinvest plan sounds a bit like a 401K for farmers.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

I Don't Want the Whole World To Know How Senile My Husband Is

That was the best line I heard yesterday (yes, from my wife).

What was the trigger for it? I commented I needed to blog about it, and that was her reaction.

What was "it"? Damned if I can remember now. Her reaction just washed away the "it".

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Who Is a Farmer

FSA has just put out a renewal of the proposed rule for Cash and Share Lease Provisions for Future Farm Programs. (The issue has been: who shares in the risk of production of the crop. But with the price of land rising and people looking for new ways to split risk and reward between landowner and tenant, this is a hot issue. Apparently so much so people requested more time to comment.) I was surfing this site, searched on "agriculture" and stumbled on the document. Comments run for 30 days. I'm also interested to note that Salomon Ramirez is now in DC and a division director. I remember when...

I'm curious over the impact of the on-line comment process on the number and quality of comments.

County Committees

Ah, for the good old days, when county committees had power and were subjects of political struggle (when farm programs first started, the committees were all-powerful, now they aren't).

53 years ago:

Independence County’s Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service committee, which has served nearly four months longer than a regular tenure, has issued a statement that the committee welcomes an investigation of the election of county committeemen held in August.

The statement was issued in reply to a Guard story that the office of Compliance and Investigation of the U.S. Department of Agriculture had been asked to investigate the election after the state committee said it has had 10 or 12 complaints. The state ASCS committee has never certified the election of William P. Magness, Clyde Stewart and W.S. Finney. The men were supposed to have taken office Sept. 1.

From the Batesville Daily Guard.

Satan Working Overtime--Egypt, Zebibah, and Me

The Times has a fascinating article today on the zebibah in Egypt. Seems the zebibah is the name for the forehead callus caused by pressing one's forehead to the ground as one prays. The more you pray and the harder the impact, the more visible the callus. Egyptian society has, according to the article, become much more visibly pious in the last 2 decades. Women wear the hijab (head scarf), men display the zebibah.

Where does Satan come in? Where do I come in? Many decades ago I wanted to be visibly pious. I saved my allowance and made a big display in Sunday School of all the money I contributed. But I knew better. I knew that was egotism. That was a sin. That was Satan. Or, alternatively, maybe I felt it was conforming to society and I could feel rebellious (once every 2 decades or so). So I made a simple decision: stop going to church.

What will happen in Egypt? I don't know, but I don't believe a conformist society can last in the modern world. Satan and egoism are still at work.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Maturity--Age or Experience

The conventional wisdom seems to be that it takes a long while for the body to mature. Brain scans seem to prove you have to be at least 25 to achieve good judgment.

From personal experience, I might say it takes longer.

But on the other hand, since I'm contrarian, maybe not. Brain scans also seem to show that the brain is like a muscle, different types of experience leave their mark. For example, London taxi drivers have to study for 3 years to learn all the streets and pass the exam. Scans show the area of their brain devoted to spatial relationships grows over the 3 years. So, maybe we shouldn't assume that the brain scans devoted to maturity simply show the natural development of the body with the logical conclusion that we shouldn't expect mature judgment from 21 year olds. Maybe the scans reflect the progressive infantilization of Americans, the fact that children/adolescents/young adults aren't exposed to situations that test their judgment. We don't have 8-year olds responsible for herding their family's cows. We have (I'd guess) fewer teenagers working jobs and more studying. We have more students in college and post-graduate study. (You learn many things in college, but not necessarily good judgment).l

Philpott and Metz on Farm Bill

Monsanto sponsors a site, which has an interview with "Tom Philpott, the founder of Maverick Farms, a sustainable-agriculture non-profit and small farm located in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina. We also talked to Bob Metz, former president of the American Soybean Association and a fifth generation soybean and corn farmer in West Browns Valley, South Dakota" here.

Philpott would like a supply management program (once known as "production adjustment"--my area of concern) for corn and soybeans to reduce current levels of production for fear of environmental consequences.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Senate Passes Farm Bill

The Senate passes a farm bill, with no changes on payment limitation and which is unsatisfactory to the administration.

NYTimes and Locavore

The Times decided to jump on this bandwagon with two op-ed pieces.

  • One praises the energy saving virtues of hunting in your own backyard (particularly white-tailed deer, to which I would add the Canadian geese who now overwinter, thanks to global warming).
  • The other challenges the casual and unthinking usage of "food-miles" to evaluate food, also making the claim that feeding 6 billion people (more conceived every second) will take some industrial agriculture, and ending with a plea to look at the big picture.
Looking at the big picture is always good, except when it isn't.

$4 Million Owed and Bureaucratic Rules

There's a North Dakota case where a farmer was got money fraudulently, was convicted of fraud, forfeited $3.9 million in assets and served 4 years in jail. Now FSA has sent demand letters to the man and his associates (who weren't convicted), asking for repayment of the farm program payments. Here's a version of the AP story.

What's not clear is whether the forfeited assets should have gone against the debts (in which case there's a bureaucratic foulup among Justice, USDA, and FSA) or not. In any case, it's not clear why FSA didn't send demand letters to the associates 4 or more years ago. Unfortunately, when you don't often have such cases, they tend to get messy because no one remembers how to process them.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Improper Payments--Medicare and FSA

Here's an interesting comparison in the Federal Times of the "improper payments"[updated]--Medicare has $13 billion of payments not supported by properly completed paperwork--FSA was hit on it last year but has greatly improved this year.
What I didn't like to read was the comment about FSA doing lots of manual work--surely after 10 years they should have gotten more integrated.

OMB Does It Right

Congratulations to a part of the Bush Administration for the way they put up a website, as described in this article in the Post.

Instead of starting from scratch, going for perfection and falling on their face, they worked with their critics, OMBwatch, who already had a similar site. They put the site up, on schedule, and will be able to improve it as they learn more about what people want and how agencies can feed data to it.

They even included a wiki.

Well done.

Maybe I Wasn't Wrong

Here's a link to the press release the House Ag committee put out on the partial extension of the farm programs. I interpret it as saying it's pro forma, simply holding open the money for the farm programs without actually doing anything as far as the programs. So it's the budgetary game. Lesson: whenever you set up procedures, you run the risk of forcing behavior that is nonproductive just to comply with the procedures.

We Aren't All the Same

Occasionally it's useful to remind ourselves of the variety of Americans and their different circumstances. It's too easy in debates to have a picture in our mind of the standard, garden-variety American and not to test the picture against reality:

  • Some Americans don't have phones. See the graph in this piece, which is mostly focused on the growing percentage of Americans who have only wireless service, but the survey shows about 2 percent don't.
  • Some Americans don't have official proof they were born, and have a somewhat ambiguous status. See this piece on native Americans crossing borders.

Partial Extension of Farm Programs--I was wrong

See this link.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Earl Butz and Subsidies

A freelance journalist reviews "King Corn", a documentary of two Yalies growing an acre of corn and following it through the trade channels. The level of accuracy may be judged by this:
When they visit nonagenarian Earl Butz, the secretary of agriculture under Nixon who institutionalized subsidies for big agribusiness, they are positively gentle. From an assisted-care facility, Butz describes the subsidy system he helped set up for corporate agriculture as creating an “age of plenty.”
Butz is remembered, not so fondly by those of us old enough, as a Secretary who tried to dismantle the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service (FSA's predecessor) and the farm programs of the time. As Kevin Drum observes in a post I've shared, "we create our own reality".

The British Version of FSA Is Improving

I've posted before noting the problems the British "Rural Payments Agency" has had making payments under their farm program. It appears they are making progress, at least from this article.

I find the reference to the change in software systems particularly interesting. It almost sounds as if they have moved to an integrated system more like the one that FSA uses. It's the only way to go, if you can.

More on Closing FSA Offices

For some reason, Georgia, with two Rep. Senators, also has problems with closing FSA offices, as here.

Does Hillary have more clout on Capitol Hill and in the Administration Building than I thought?

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

More User Friendly E-Government?

The Post today reported on a planned hearing on making government sites more friendly to Google:

""It [unfriendly websites] could be unintentional oversight or incompetence," said Ari Schwartz, deputy director of the Center of Democracy and Technology, which plans to release a report today with OMB Watch, a watchdog group, that shows that basic government information often does not show up in results provided by search engines run by Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and

Today's hearing comes nearly five years after the E-Government Act required government agencies to make information more accessible electronically. The law is scheduled to be reauthorized soon.

According to the report, simple queries -- about, say, small-farm loans, or visitation rights for grandparents -- miss critical information because many agencies do not organize their Web sites so they can be easily indexed by search engines. Some agencies embed codes in their sites that make certain pages invisible to search engines."

Makes sense to me. Of course, right now the Government Printing Office is undertaking an elaborate project to revamp its efforts. And the OMB official who testified started by plugging Too many agencies fell into the trap of thinking their web site is where people want to go (which is what I thought when I retired), when all too often people (i.e., me) want a Google search to find their answer and to hell with the nice introductory web site.

See here for a joint report by OMB Watch and CDT.

What I've Learned in the Last Three Days

  1. Megachurches need armed security guards
  2. $180,000 is the new $40,000, according to Harvard's measure of "middle-class" income.
  3. In 1910, a good vacation was 2-3 months (according to the President).

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Benefits of Being on the Inside

Something strange is going on. Former Gov. Johanns of Nebraska was, until very recently, Secretary of Agriculture. Senator Clinton is from New York. The last I looked, Johanns was Republican; Clinton, Democrat. FSA is closing county offices. According to this piece, 10 Nebraska offices closed today. I could swear that New York originally proposed to close about the same number, but some were removed from the list. So what's going on--does Hillary really have more power than a good Republican, is she that effective?

Former FSA Employee Has Op-ed

In an op-ed in the Post this morning, James Earl Carter writes about cotton subsidies. He was an employee of a predecessor to Farm Service Agency--Agricultural ADjustment Administration, doing measurement (presumably as a summer employee). Back in the 1930's AAA employed around 100,000 people doing field measurement. Then we got aerial photography, and planimetry, and spot checking and slides and now GPS/GIS.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

NASCO Sensitivities

From here,

Communication is the key to our organization and I hope that you are receiving information from your State President and/or Area Exec. Unfortunately, many of our members have become extremely fearful of using the government computer for any purpose. Thanks to Cindy Peterson, Jon Williams, and Darin Slack, the NASCOE Exec Committee has written a document entitled "Government Computer Usage". The Area Execs will be distributing this, it will be posted on the web site, and may be in this NASCOE Now! Our hope is that this will give everyone a little better understanding of when the government computer can and cannot be used.

I Just Follow the Crowd--Locavore

It's now the 2007 word of the year, according to this.

Slow Equals Good? Not Necessarily

Here's an article in the NYTimes that challenges the easy assumption that food grown locally is always the easiest on the environment, particularly when you consider the whole cycle (don't drive to the farmer's market in your Hummer). As a side issue, the author points out our increasing frequency of shopping. Once-a-week shopping is no more.

Developing the Internet--Bureaucrats and Gore

NY Times has an article on the development of the Internet. The whole thing's interesting, but here's two quotes:
..a number of scientists and corporate executives who met here said NSFnet remained a powerful example of how a handful of government bureaucrats in concert with an equally small number of scientists made a set of carefully considered federal policy decisions, in this case leading directly to the modern Internet...
...many of the scientists, engineers and technology executives who gathered here to celebrate the Web’s birth say he [Al Gore] played a crucial role in its development, and they expressed bitterness that his vision had been so discredited.
Maybe the media owes Al an apology?

Friday, December 07, 2007

Losing Farmers, Not According to the Farm Bureau

"Farm Bureau membership across the country has surpassed the 6 million mark for the second consecutive year – 6,231,176 member families. [emphasis added] The milestone was passed as state Farm Bureaus reported 30,838 additional members registered for Farm Bureau membership in 2007. " See press release

Problems of Organizational Change

A nice comment on another blog:

I suspect that all large organisations are “slow to change” if that means “adopt the path the leaders of the organisation have decided to move forward on”. In fact, this applies even to small organisations or dare I say it individuals. Certainly when I make a decision to try to change my own behaviour, I do sometimes experience difficulty in “driving through change”!

Thursday, December 06, 2007

A Woman's Work...

From "Feminine Ingenuity, Women and Invention in America" by Anne L. MacDonald, something to pair with the Life photo Bill Bryson alerted me to. It's a list of the necessities for a well-stocked laundry room, about 100 years ago. My mother had most of these:

Agate Pan or basin for starching
Bosom board
Clothes basket
Clothes boiler (tin with copper bottom)
Clothes horse
Clothes line
Clothes pins
Clothes pin bag
Clothes props
Clothes stick
Clothes wringer
Cup for measure
Duster for lines
Heavy cloth for tubs and boiler
Heavy irons
Heavy paper
Iron holders
Iron rest
Ironing table and board
Polishing iron
Saucepan for starch
Scrubbing brush
Set tubs, three or four, or machine
Skirt board
Small pieces of muslin and cheese cloth
Small pointed irons
Wash board
Water pail

(Not to mention starch, soap, blueing,etc.)

You look at the list, and think about the work each item implies, and the expertise. (Is there anyone out there who knows how to use a "skirt board" these days?) Permanent press has made a big difference to women, second only to processed foods. Remember that, in those days, every man unattached to a woman would have to have his clothes laundered.

Most Ridiculous Sentence I Read Today

The fear of not measuring up as a man is highly motivating, but it is not one that motivates women.

From, Kingsley Browne guest-blogging on women in combat.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Amazon Is UNFAIR to Procrastinators

I'm a procrastinator, I freely admit. I'm usually fairly optimistic, crediting others with good intentions. But I've just become suspicious of Amazon. In the last few days I have twice gone to their site, put items in my shopping cart, then procrastinated over whether to buy then or wait and find more items. Net result, I left the shopping cart sitting. Each time, when I've come back to the cart to complete the transaction, I've been notified that the price has increased on the items in the cart.

It makes sense for Amazon, at least narrowly. They know a customer is either going to abandon the cart entirely, in which case raising the price doesn't matter, or is going to want to buy on a later date. Indeed, they may even know I'm a customer who often comes back and buys. Customers like me have a psychological investment in the transaction and are unlikely to back out. So it's an easy $2-4 per item for them.

I said "narrowly", because the suspicion immediately causes my customer satisfaction with Amazon to drop. They aren't operating in good faith if my suspicions are true. And the mere suspicion is damaging.

Guaranteed Loan Programs

Speaking of things that don't get the scrutiny of direct outlays (see previous post), guaranteed loans would fit, except for this very critical Post article on the rural development guaranteed loans.
Something I didn't realize, from a good farmgate post (Uof IL):
The advent of revenue insurance programs, which have been attractive to farmers, have greatly increased the business being done by insurance companies and the cost to the government has doubled over the past 7 years.
I think it's safe to say that the costs of subsidizing crop insurance, much like those of flood insurance, don't get the scrutiny that direct outlays do.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Peta and Tera--the Bytes of the Present

A piece yesterday on the new superfast computers, now up to 1,000 trillion computations per second--i.e. a "petaflop". And I see ads now for 1 terabyte storage systems (designed I guess to be network storage on a home network.)

Now my children, in the old days some 30 years ago, a COBOL program would run in a partition of less than 100K and the first PC from IMSAI had 4 or 8K RAM. Simply incredible, the speed of change (but then we've been saying that since the steam engine and telegraph.)

Why Corn Prices Will Fall

From a NYTimes article on OPEC's dilemma over whether to raise production:
"At the same time, new supplies are slowly making their way on the market. New oil and natural-gas liquid production from OPEC nations could reach 2 million barrels a day next year, and another 1.1 million barrels a day are expected to come from non-OPEC sources, like Russia or Norway, according to estimates by Deutsche Bank. Some OPEC specialists say these factors could substantially alter the balance between supply and demand after years of market tightness."
If the economy slows in the U.S. and more production comes on line and Iraq gets a hair closer to normality, the price of oil will drop more than the $10 it has already. That means ethanol is less attractive. That means corn prices drop.

Monica Davis Redux

Received a nice message from the Kansas City Star saying that her Nov. 20 article had never run in that paper. See my prior post.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Moving Government Offices--a French Perspective

See Dirk Beauregard's post for a perspective on the process of moving government offices in France. (Remember Madison's Federalist 10 and 51)

Farm Income Up 50 Percent, Household Income Less Than 8??

Although farmers are having a record year in 2007, farm household income is up less than 8 percent (still a good increase). Why? Because "farm" households get 87 percent of their income from off the farm. See this link to ERS.

Talking Out of Both Sides of My Mouth

The NASCOE site has a letter from the President, in which he says:
Please be aware there are numerous jobs available in WDC. If you are interested in working in WDC go to and check it out. CEPD would also be interested in working with employees outside of Washington in flexible ways to test and develop software. NASCOE hopes to be able to work with them on that opportunity in the future. The MIDAS project will also be looking for folks to be detailed to WDC in the near future. If you have an interest in that keep watching the vacancy announcements!
I once was actively prodding people to move to the DC area. It's still a great place to live (Fairfax county has the best high school in the country) but not to buy. Unless the housing crash gets much worse, I don't see how FSA can get good people to come, unless they're singles who want the big city life or those who have a burning ambition to move up. Of course, the same applies for the teachers in those Fairfax schools.

Libertarian Meets Reality

Ilya Somin, one of the libertarian-leaning types at, had surgery and blogs
about the advantages of an extended family (someone can stay with you to help you over the first days of recuperation). As a friend told him, they're good insurance against risk.

Of course, if he were a good libertarian he'd go to the market for home health aides.

(Since my wife had her foot put in a cast on Wed, I feel a link.)