Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Making Acreage Report Data Public

I commented on this decision back in February, but this article gives a bit more detail from the FSA side. I remain confused over the lines being drawn between releasing FSA data on farmers and prohibiting the release of other data. As usual, our political/legal system doesn't produce the sort of logical results which would comfort a rigid personality like me.

Farm Bill Status

Lots of links available on the farm bill, particularly through EWG, who also released 2007 payments, but this from Politico is interesting. I'm still hoping someone will pick up my idea about graduated payment reductions. Seems as if by switching the terms of debate they could confuse everyone so everyone could claim a victory, then see what happens in the administration of it. Oh well--doomed to be ignored, I guess, alas.

Former ASCSer Bjorlie

Interesting obit for Arnold Bjorlie, whom I knew as an area director in DC, focusing on his involvement in Non-Partisan League politics in ND

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Loo Paper for the Bog

That's one of the hurdles in setting up a new English-language paper in Abu Dhabi--providing the infrastructure people are used to. ("Bog" being British slang for toilet") See the NYTimes article.

Interesting when the newspapers are reporting declines in circulation, someone thinks it wise to set up a new one in the Middle East and make it English.

I love the phrase, and I think it provides an insight on crossing cultural boundaries.

Slowly Up the Learning Curve--Video Seminars

Here's a discussion by John Quiggin at Crooked Timber of his experience holding a video-seminar.

On the one hand, that's the way to go. (John notes the traveling he would have to do to do the seminar in person, but not the energy involved. If "slow food" is good, so is "e-learning").

On the other hand, there have been many video-conferencing trials over the years. I remember doing video conferences between DC and Kansas City several times--it had too much overhead costs for the advantages. I remember trying a version of a video-phone in the late 80's--wasn't really useful. A few more years of Moore's law and maybe technology will be able to fulfill this particular promise. But still, , people are animals, and being there is part of our thing.

How Do You Tell the Farmer--A Big Belly?

That seems to be the implication of this story on the "Farmer Wants a Wife" series on CW. The 30-year Missouri farmer doesn't look like a farmer, because he's got abs. Another mark of change--I remember the day when no farmer of my acquaintance had a belly. Course, that was before tractors with enclosed cabs, etc.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Republican Has Kind Words for Dems

From Rep. Tom Davis's interview but read the whole thing:
"John Koskinen did a lot of this [work] {i.e., IT} under President Clinton, and he was excellent. The first thing I’d say to the administration is make sure management is an important part of OMB. Consult with leaders of both parties. Get people who understand government and understand how it works. Clay Johnson is a great guy and has ideas, but he has not been in government before. You need somebody who can mold [government and the private sector] together, and that’s something that has been lacking.

Steve Kelman understood it pretty well on a procedural side and on the contracting side, and Al Gore understood that you needed to change the way government works. Democrats believe in government. A lot of our guys just don’t want government, and that makes it hard because they’re just trying to tear down government. Well, government is here to stay, and a lot of us can see the wonderful things government can do. You just want to do it right. If you’re going to have government, and it’s not going to get any smaller in terms of its directives, let’s make it work and make it efficient.


For an interesting attack on agribusiness, read this.
I found this bit interesting:

When we were growing up, beef was, for the most part, grass fed and local. Family farmers took their sale cattle to either the auction barn or the stockyards, and there were a few in every county. The local stockyard then delivered the livestock to a larger facility in the closest city - St. Joseph and Kansas City, Missouri were cowtowns with bustling stockyards and as a child I climbed the pens in both. As a teenager, my best friend was the daughter of the local stockyard owner, and we frequently hitched rides with her brother who drove the semi to the stockyards in KC. (That's how small-town cheerleaders scored weed without ruining their reputations - to the three members of my high school graduating class of 18 who read this blog, now you know our secret.) Some farmers sold all of their beef to a specific butcher for a niche market. My maternal grandparents were kosher farmers and my Great Uncle was a kosher butcher.
The author covers lots of bases, many of which I disagree with. I'll only cite one point on health: there probably are no statistics available, but my sense is that a concentrated food industry makes screwups more serious and much more visible, but it may still be safer than a decentralized food industry of the past. My comparison would be to the aviation industry--one mistake can kill hundreds of people on a big plane and make headlines all around the world. But the reality seems to be that general aviation, the small planes, are much more likely to have fatal accidents and much more dangerous.

Identity Checks and Government Blogging

Here's an article on changes being made by DHS in handling their no-fly list and here's the DHS blog's post on it . (If I understand, Ted Kennedy gets stopped all the time, because there's a suspected terrorist (or at least someone on the no-fly list) with a similar name, so they have to establish Ted isn't the same person. Now, under the proposal, if Ted allows his date of birth to be added to the airlines data, he can go right through.)

The proposal makes sense to me, but not to the first four comments on the blog. Maybe they aren't into genealogy, where you have to distinguish among multiple John Rippeys or even worse, William Smiths. Much less try to reconcile the data between ASCS and SCS to determine whether each agency was dealing with the same people. But then, I'm just a retired bureaucrat who tends to trust bureaucracies, at least in some instances.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Economics Articles Today

Seems to be a big day for economics.

Roger Lowenstein has a very interesting article in the NY Times Mag on companies like Moody's which rated the securities backed by pools of mortgages. It's even clear enough for a codger to understand. What struck me was the play of wits between banks and rating agencies--banks want to get the highest rating for a mix of mortgages, so they game the system and the rating agency may or may not catch them. Then people got sucked into assuming the future would look like the past, which it didn't.

Tyler Cowen has a column in the Times arguing that free trade in rice would help everyone. I normally like his writing, but this was confusing to me. See for yourself.

And Anthony Faiola has the first article in a Post series called "The New Economics of Hunger". I liked it for its even-handedness, but especially for the graphics in the print edition. The most space was devoted to the comparative imports and exports of grains by world region (clue--North America exports the majority of the world's grain). But only in the area of 10 percent of each grain is traded, most is grown and consumed in the same country.

Most Interesting Sentence from Yesterday

Reading Aaron David Miller's book, The Much Too Promised Land, the sentence was something like: "Most Arab-Americans are not Muslim, most Muslim Americans are not Arab."

Most Surprising Sentence This Year?

It's missing from the on-line version, but in the print Post, car columnist Warren Brown ended his review of the new Jaguar with his standard line about comparable cars, which went something like:
"compare to X, Y, and Z, and believe or not, the Hyundai [something]."

Those South Koreans are fast learners.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Stem Rust and the Food Crisis

Norman Borlaug, the Nobel winner and father of the Green Revolution, has an op-ed in the NYTimes on the threat stem rust poses to wheat. Read the whole thing. I found this fact interesting:

From 1965 to 1985, the heyday of the Green Revolution, world production of cereal grains — wheat, rice, corn, barley and sorghum — nearly doubled, from 1 billion to 1.8 billion metric tons, and cereal prices dropped by 40 percent.

A Lesson in Log-Rolling and Back Scratching [updated[

Politico's report on the apparent deal on the farm bill is here.

A prime example of legislative log-rolling--one that deserves close study by any students of how government really works.

Jim Wiesemeyer provides some details.

Friday, April 25, 2008

The Dog That Didn't Bark

I like Charlie Peters. I may even have been a charter subscriber to his magazine, the Washington Monthly. But while I have sympathy for this, I don't expect anything to come of it:

As we mourn the fifth anniversary of the war in Iraq, the question begs: How could we have averted this tragic folly? As a journalist, I have naturally thought about what our profession could have done. It seems clear to me that an enterprising reporter could have discovered that the (alleged) evidence of WMD was manufactured, out of date, or relied on extremely dubious sources like the aptly named "Curveball."

I ask myself why we seem to find out what’s wrong only when a disaster has happened. After the coal mine explodes, we learn that proper safety procedures weren’t being followed. And only after a Hurricane Katrina do we learn how unprepared we were for a natural disaster. To encourage the media to find out in time instead of too late, Understanding Government is offering a $50,000 award for preventive journalism, for the best article that identifies inept leaders, misguided policies, and bureaucratic bungling in time to prevent another disaster.

Why? Read the Sherlock Holmes story--it's terribly difficult to identify the significance and the causes of something that didn't happen.

ID Cards for Government

Government Executive reports on the latest progress report on giving government employees and contractors fancy ID cards. If I understand, we went backwards from last year. And we're still falling short of Bush's objective. [smile]

Like to point out this line: "Agencies had blamed technical challenges to issuing the cards. For example, agencies had to develop solutions for integrating the IDs with support systems that maintain the data and provide an interface with enrollment and issuance functions."

In other words, your card is only as good as the underlying personnel system. If you don't have a good personnel system, it can't support a good ID card system. That's a small detail that program managers, like Bush (or, to be fair, like Gore before him) don't understand.

Disputing with the Dean of Duke

I've commented and re-commented on a post at Grist by Prof. Bill Chameides, the dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University. He's relying on Prof. Pollan for a description of the history of the farm programs in the 1970's.

I like my ending, which was to the effect the academics make the mistake that farm programs achieve the purposes for which they are intended.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Validity of Elections

Yes, elections are valid only if the votes are counted correctly. There's lots of concern over the touch screen machines and whether voters can verify the way they voted. See this post over at Project on Government Oversight.

But I'm a bit bemused--I voted for years using the old mechanical lever machines and wasn't able to verify my vote once. For all I know, it was all fake machinery and the real results were arrived at by the election workers. For some reason, the clanking of machinery seems more convincing and more reliable than the transfer of elections. I wonder why?

Secretaries Day

Here's a Slate article from the past on the day.

Run on Rice, the Gas Lines of the 70's

We now have panic, panic, I say, in the stores as people grab up rice and other staples because of fears of scarcity. See this LA Times story (also mentioned in Post and NYTimes today)--Costco and Sam's Club are putting limits on the amounts that can be bought. (Apparently restaurants go there for supplies.)

It reminds me of the gas lines in the 70's--no one wanted to run the risk of running out, so we all filled our tanks up whenever they hit the half-full mark, creating long gas lines. The available inventory moved from station tanks to car tanks, just as rice is moving from warehouses to pantries.

It's an interesting exercise--the economists would say that Costco should just double its price on rice again in order to ration supplies. But the reality is that food is an essential, particularly rice for a Chinese restaurant, so raising prices only slowly decreases demand; it's one of the reasons agriculture goes through booms and busts.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Still No Farm Bill

Apparently there's some movement but slow. A thought: this is one of the unforeseen consequences of delinking farm program payments from production--while farmers would like to know what the program is going to be before they do spring planting, it's not nearly as urgent as in the days when payments were more directly tied to production. (It's also true, with today's prices, the programs are less relevant.)

Poultry in France Is Regulated

I may have mentioned we had hens when I was growing up. I hated the brutes--their nips when you tried to take their eggs could hurt. That's probably why I've not written about poultry on this blog. But this bit in the Beauregard blog caught my eye (he's a Brit living in France teaching English) (he didn't bake something for his daughter to take to the convent for her pre-communion day of mediation):
Now, I have already written at length on the French and their skills as homebakers. This country might be the global gastronomic powerhouse, but French mums just can’t bake. Your bog standard cake stall at an British garden fete, beats the French effort hands down. This is also the country of strict hygiene controls. At a French school fete, you are allowed to bring along a cake bought in a supermarket, but woebetide you if you take along a home made effort, even if it is out of a packet. It’s all to do with the eggs. Powdered egg only. Anything made with real eggs is banned from the spheres of the school cake stall. This also explains why it is so difficult to get a plate of egg and chips in France. In all food outlets, only powdered egg is allowed. Which is why you can’t get an Egg MacMuffin in France.
I assume they've had problems with salmonella?

Farmers Got a Raise

According to this Illinois study:
Farm wages, formally known as return to operator labor and management, averaged $171,507. Find yours by taking your net farm income, then subtracting a fair return to your equity in machinery and land. The statewide average was nearly $100,000 higher than 2006 and about $88,000 above the five year average. The labor and management return statistic has fluctuated as low as $38,707 in 2005, up to the $171,507 of 2007.
I'm not clear on what they consider a "fair return". When I took the ag course in high school some 50 odd years ago, the instructor used 6 percent. Mom always said farmers were foolish--they could sell out and invest their money and live nicely. (Figure 1,000 acres at $4K per, and 6 percent = $240,000 return on investment.) It's one of the things that makes talking about farming tricky. And what would you pay the manager of $4 million in capital. Mutual funds charge something around 1 percent, so that would leave $70,000 for labor. Now I have to admit, crop farmers don't work hard, like dairy/poultry farmers (my parents) did, at least not year round. If they work 50 days worth of 16 hour days in the spring, and another 50 days in the fall (which is an overestimate, I think, but it gives a nice easy figure to multiply by--that's 1600 hours. Add another 200 days of 4 hour days (and 4 hours in the coffee shop), that's 800 hours. So the hourly rate isn't bad, isn't great but it's comparable to teachers.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

You Can Fool Some of the (City) People...

A spike in readership led me to the Ethicurean site. Meanwhile Tom Philpott rails about the possibility high food prices will lead the EU to accept genetically modified crops:
Thus, the allegedly free market -- shamelessly rigged by U.S. and European biofuel mandates, which are jacking up the price of corn and soy -- overwhelms consumer desire.
But looking at some stories on the Ethicurean site, it's apparent the free market also helps the cause of organic farming and local food. For example, the farmer whom Michael Pollan devoted a chapter to in Omnivore's Dilemma is charging $1k (that's $1,000) for a personal tour of his farm. (There are cheaper alternatives.) That's easy for someone like me, who is somewhat skeptical, to mock, but city folks have the annoying habit of visiting just at milking time and having no appreciation for the rhythms of a farm, so I can't poke too much fun at it. Besides, as in the case of the "Carbon Farmers of America", if rural rubes can convince city folk to subsidize what they'd do anyway, it barely begins to counterbalance the con games originated in the city.

Secretary Gates and Bureaucracy

From his speech at Maxwell-Gunther AFB:
This new set of realities and requirements have meant a wrenching set of changes for our military establishment that until recently was almost completely oriented toward winning the big battles and the big wars. Based on my experience at CIA, at Texas A&M and now the Department of Defense, it is clear to me that the culture of any large organization takes a long time to change, and the really tough part is preserving those elements of the culture that strengthen the institution and motivate the people in it, while shedding those elements of the culture that are barriers to progress and achieving the mission.

All of the services must examine their cultures critically if we are to have the capabilities relevant and necessary to overcome the most likely threats America will face in the years to come.

For example, the Army that went over the berm about five years ago was, in its basic organization and assumptions, essentially a smaller version of the Fulda Gap force that expelled Saddam Hussein from Kuwait a decade prior. As I've told Army gatherings, the lessons learned and capabilities built from Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns need to be institutionalized into the service's core doctrine, funding priorities and personnel policies. And that is taking place, although we must always guard against falling into past historical patterns where, if bureaucratic nature takes its course, these kinds of irregular capabilities tend to slide to the margins. ...

[After discussing counter-insurgency and unmanned aerial vehicles...]But in my view, we can do and we should do more to meet the needs of men and women fighting in the current conflicts while their outcome may still be in doubt. My concern is that our services are still not moving aggressively in wartime to provide resources needed now on the battlefield. I've been wrestling for months to get more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets into the theater. Because people were stuck in old ways of doing business, it's been like pulling teeth.
In a way it's ironic that Gates is carrying this message. He won a certain amount of infamy among the left during the late 80's when he was at the CIA for being very skeptical of the reality of the changes in the USSR.

But the bit about UAV's reminds me of an article in Washington Monthly--if I remember correctly it pointed out that Israel had done well with them, some individuals in the US were interested and developing versions, but the armed forces were resisting. Perhaps it even took a Congressional earmark to push their development.

Monday, April 21, 2008

More Management Improvement

Government Executive has an article on the Bush Administration's plans and hopes for the future, performance management-wise. Pardon a jaded bureaucrat, but I've lived through PPB (LBJ's adaptation of McNamara's methods), Zero Based Budgeting (Carter), sunset Act, the Grace commission, MBO (management by objective), BPR (business process reengineering), GPRA (government performance results act), Reinventing government, and observed Bush from the sidelines with PART (performance assessment rating tool).

There are three weaknesses with these efforts:

  1. NIH (not invented here)--each administration has to have its own effort, so there's a lack of continuity
  2. Congress has never bought into the efforts. Yes, individual senators and representatives can push through something like paperwork reduction, but you don't get agreement. Even if the authorizing committee can agree on something, there's always the appropriations subcommittee with its own ideas.
  3. Government by its nature is not outcome oriented, and when it is, there are conflicts. There are limited cases--you can measure whether checks get out on time. But one effort of Gore/Clinton was to speed visa processing--that's measurable, certainly, but maybe you don't want to quickly process visas for potential terrorists. Do you want to build an impenetrable wall along the border, or do you want to allow wildlife to follow their historic migration patterns?

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Most Ridiculous Line I Read Today

From the NYTimes magazine, on carbon farming and mob stocking ("Better Living With Livestock"):
Meanwhile, the soil on his fields continues to deepen by a few inches annually, Collins claims, and his pastures have become so thick in energy-laden plants that he’s been able to eliminate grain inputs, saving tens of thousands of dollars a year.
According to the piece, by practicing "mob stocking" on his Vermont dairy farm, Collins is able to eliminate grain feeding. In effect, according to the article, he's invented a perpetual motion machine, producing topsoil and milk without importing grain onto his farm. That formula can't work. My geology 101 class and my years of gardening say soil develops from the breakdown of the bedrock (which takes geologic ages) and/or addition of organic materials. But if the only organic material is the hay and grass produced on the farm, you've got a closed system.

When I do a Google I get this blog (I hope he takes better care of his cows than he does his blog--the last post is 2006.) It turns out the NYTimes doesn't completely or accurately summarize the idea--so the line is less ridiculous when the missing context is supplied. The "mob stocking" is a method, not to increase fertilizer but better to handle an all-grass diet. The "deepening" of the top soil is supposedly done by subsoiling and converting subsoil to topsoil. And it wasn't, as of 2006, a completely independent operation--he admits that they haven't done much "winter grazing", meaning probably they're importing feed for Dec through April, or 5 months of the year (Vermont, remember).

I do wonder about the whole scheme--he's pushing the "Carbon Farmers of America", his new company, and suggesting that society pay farmers for sequestrating carbon, at the rate of $25 a ton. To quote:
"We are marketing Carbon Sinks to businesses and to the public, priced at $25 per ton. For every ton of carbon dioxide that a farmer transforms into just over half a ton of organic matter, which can be measured accurately in their fields, the farmer will be paid $19. One dollar is going to go for administration for the company. The other $5 will go toward equipping and training new carbon farmers. A priority for us is to create what in effect will be both a training program and a bank for new young grass farmers to get started. We want to build an army of young graziers who are going to create this topsoil we need so desperately. This will give an enormous opportunity for young people to get into a really meaningful livelihood and do a lot of good, and be able to make money doing it."
My reaction is that it sounds very dubious. Perhaps a one-time reward for converting subsoil to topsoil, but not on a continuing basis. No way. But if you want to donate to Mr. Collins, here's where you can buy.

A Bad Day for First Amendment Rights in DC

A neo-Nazi march on the Mall (maybe some of Obama's bitter people from Michigan?) against immigration was subject of a protest that resulted in arrests. From the Post article, one of the protesters:
"People marching in brown shirts and swastikas is a tool of intimidation and terrorism. We came out here to oppose them so they won't feel they can do it safely," said Dan Peterson, 23, a D.C. resident who was arrested.
I enrolled in the ACLU back in the 70's when Skokie was an issue. Mr. Peterson needs an education in civics.

Funniest Line of the Day

From Walter Shieb's (former White House chef) discussion of First Family recipes (re: the Cindy McCain deal) in the NY Times:
And while we’re on the subject [of White House cooking], isn’t the whole thing a tad sexist? I don’t believe that anyone has asked Bill Clinton what he’ll be looking for in a chef should his wife become president or what he’ll serve at his first state dinner. (As his family’s former chef, I can’t resist affectionately suggesting that this is probably for the best, given his predilection for comfort food.)

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Local Food or Global Eater?

The local food advocates say we should eat locally, save on food-miles that create carbon dioxide to add to global warming. I wonder, which is better, to import winter fruits and vegetables from Chile, for example, or to export oneself to Chile in order to eat there?

Friday, April 18, 2008

Rising Organic Food Prices

According to NYTimes, the organic food industry is being hit and hurt by rising prices, particularly the dairy and meat people who have to pay higher prices for organic grain.

(I really need to get off this kick, but I find it interesting observing the theories of the organic/locavore community and seeing whether they're borne out when the economic facts change.)

Earmarks, the Good and the Bad

Kevin Drum notes that "earmarks", which Sen. McCain (and the Dems) have vowed to attack, includes stuff like aid to Israel and military housing.

He has some sane comments as well.

As for me, I'm bitter about what I'll call the policy/legislative earmarks in appropriations (like one provision in many ag appropriations bills prohibiting USDA from releasing data publicly before they give it to Congress). The dollar earmarks are an invitation to corruption, as may have occurred with the highway interchange in Florida, put in by Alaska's representative's staff. (I like the idea of Alaska earmarking for Florida.) But, with some transparency, some earmarking gives a good way to bypass the bureaucracy, which does need to be bypassed occasionally.

Obama Shows His Youth

Here's a post with video of Gumbel interviewing Obama (from ESPN, ? maybe?). It's interesting, but Obama says he took up basketball as a youth partly because it was a "black" game. (He seems pretty good in the pickup game later.) But when I was a youth, 20 years earlier it was a "white" game--blacks were just the comic relief aka Harlem Globetrotters. Bob Pettit and that bald white guard were big scorers, along with Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman with Boston. Of course, then they got Russell and the Joneses and we were in a different era.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

A Sense of Humor at Farmgate

Farmgate summarizes weather, planting and crop conditions, state by state. (Most of Midwest had 1 hr to do fieldwork--too much rain. Conditions not much better elsewhere. The last two states in the list:

WISCONSIN: Soils are wet in Wisconsin with 48% having surplus moisture and the rest has adequate moisture, but no fieldwork was underway last week due to continued snow, rain, and muddy conditions. A few oats are in the ground, but not enough to reach 1% for the state.

HAWAII: (Just for comparison purposes) There were 7 days available for fieldwork, soil moisture is adequate, and all crops are in perfect condition, but field work will be coming to a halt due to volcanic emissions and smoke that have necessitated evacuation.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Environmental Working Group--Pioneer in Transparency

Having been there when ASCS was responding to the initial EWG FOIA request, I was struck by this comment (from an article mostly focused on Arkansas rice):

The group’s farm-subsidy database has played a pivotal role in the policy debates surrounding U. S. agricultural policy, said Sallie James, a trade-policy analyst with the Washington-based Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank.

“I’m lobbying for [Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group ] to get a public service medal,” James said. “I can’t think of anything that’s been done in the public policy arena in the last 20 years that has had as much of an impact as this seemingly simple Freedom of Information request.”
It's true enough, but you have to add in the Internet as a vital enabler.

Impact of High Costs

I'll bypass the links and just comment on a series of recent articles, all discussing the impact of higher food costs.
  • Pizza parlors are having trouble. Flour and cheese costs are up, as is fuel for delivery. And what's worse, they have few means to fight back, compared to...
  • Fast food places, which are going to "value" menus, like McD's "dollar" menu.
  • Sit down restaurants are fighting back by exploring ways to serve less food, but make it look bigger. Presentation, presentation... They can't have food costs of more than 30 percent and still make a profit.
  • School lunch programs are cutting corners wherever they can, including being less tolerant of nutritious but less popular choices.
And of course, as I seem to remember in the 70's, we now have truckers striking, because they're severely hurt by higher fuel costs.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Old Codgers and Bad Memories:G. Will and Me

George Will (who's, if I remember correctly, just a tad younger than I) displays a bad memory in his piece on Obama. He ends with this paragraph, after noting that Obama apologized in Munice, IN:

"In 1929 and 1937, Robert and Helen Lynd published two seminal books of American sociology. They were sympathetic studies of a medium-size manufacturing city they called "Middletown," coping -- reasonably successfully, optimistically and harmoniously -- with life's vicissitudes. "Middletown" was in fact Muncie, Ind".
Well, not quite. From Wikipedia:

"The Lynds did not study the African-American population of Middletown. They justified this because this group only composed 5 percent of the total population. However, modern critics argue that this was a racial oversight conditioned by the era in which the study took place. A similar argument applies to the fact that they didn't study Jews who lived in the city.

Although the Lynds attempted to avoid ideology, theory, or political statements, the focus of their initial study can be construed as an endorsement (however faint) of Progressive Era politics. Also, the study is sometimes accused of being elitist and old-fashioned, as it seems to bemoan the rise of "popular culture" such as films and the fall of farm culture.

Because the study took an anthropological/scientific approach to Middletown society, and because at the time it was the first large-scale attempt to describe a modern town in this manner, some critics claimed that it was inherently condescending and degrading to the town's citizens. First, by treating humans as objects of study, they argued that it was immoral and degrading. Seccondly, they argues the study implied that its denizens were no more advanced than a primitive tribe. The study's approach to religion was specially singled out on this count. For example, in the introduction to the first edition of Middletown in Transition, the Lynds recounted an incident where town leaders placed a copy of the first book in the cornerstone of a building. Several pastors from the town's more fundamentalist congregations angrily argued that the book deserved to be burned rather than praised because of how it described (and, from their perspective, insulted) the town's religious activities.

The second study, in contrast to the first, is extremely political in tone and openly critical of American culture in general. Also, the Lynds made predictions (i.e., on the possibility of a future American dictatorship) that never came to pass.

Furthermore, the second study is accused of "begging the question." Despite its title, there really was no real "conflict" within Middletown during the Great Depression. However, in reading the language of the authors, it becomes increasingly clear that they believed that there should have been class conflict. This is expressed in the frustration employed by the authors - they apparently hoped and expected that such a conflict would break out, and began the study with this preconception. However, this preconception was incorrect.

I think the lesson is it's very easy to come across as elitist when you take an analytic approach to someone/something. The Lynds did this, Obama did this, and so does George Will. Why Will? Because the Middletown books depict a city governed by the old WASP elite, all male, all white, all comfortable--all harmonious because the others were on the outside. It's Reagan's America (Will and Reagan both hail from small city Illinois). Mr. Wills has fond and pleasant memories of this America, so he think's the Lynd's description must also have been rosy. Am I being condescending to him? Yes, of course, perhaps somewhat mitigated by our shared age, race, and sex.

Food Prices and Free Trade

The locavore movement should endorse tariffs--they keep out competing cheaper produce from outside (as in the criticism of NAFTA--Mexican corn farmers are suffering from US corn and FL tomato growers worried about Mexican tomatoes). Now, via Farm Policy, comes a report that many nations are reducing agricultural tariffs as a measure to fight the rise in food costs.

It's all sort of reminiscent of the 70's. Speaking of which, Tom Philpott is reading Dan Morgan's Merchants of Grain, which was written in 1979, providing an excerpt mentioning the buying of American farmland by foreign investors, the expansion of irrigation, and the conversion of old soil bank land back to crops.

Of course, one remembers the 1980's as well, when a conservative Republican President did the biggest land diversion program ever (in 1983).

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Last Farm Bill?

Keith Good posts a Dan Morgan article on the farm, discussing the misfit between the current economic outlook for farmers and the programs of the past. He passes along this speculation:

The impasse has led some to suggest the unthinkable: This could be the last farm bill of its kind, and perhaps even the last farm bill.

That possibility was advanced privately last week by several serious policy analysts and former senior government officials attending Informa Economics, Inc.’s annual conference on food and agriculture policy in Arlington, Va.

Imagine, they suggested, that the current high prices are not just a blip but a permanent new condition, much like high oil prices. In that case, the commodity title of the farm bill will look increasingly irrelevant. Government price guarantees will no longer be operative at their current levels, and the billions of dollars in direct payments to farmers will become politically unsupportable.
I'm not convinced by the premise. Sure, the rapid rise of people from poverty to middle class tastes in Asia and elsewhere creates more markets for more food and more meat. The growing acceptance of global warming and the promotion of biofuel creates new markets for stuff that grows. The growth of locavore and slow food and organic creates new niches to absorb the products of the land.

But, it will take a while, but this too is a bubble like others we've seen. $20 wheat is growing to seriously focus the minds of growers everywhere. $20 wheat will pay for equipment and fertilizer and buying up land and putting under management that can grow. (Note: "$20 wheat" is just a symbol of the prices.) U.S. farmers need to make hay while the sun shines, because the one thing that's sure is that rain will follow sun.

Friday, April 11, 2008

STill More on Census Handhelds

From this post on NextGov comes a little further insight on the Census problems. Allen Holmes suggests conflicting goals: a more accurate count versus saving money. But there's also mention of a GPS enabled handheld, to more accurately map household addresses. (Seems as if a two device application, one GPS device and one handheld would have been simpler. But what do I know?)

I'd guess a problem for Census is the decennial aspect--if you have to work on developing IT systems every year you're going to get more skilled than if you do two or three over the course of a career in Census.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Lessons from a Past War--Korea

I've been reading David Halberstam's last book, The Coldest Winter,
a history of the Korean War. It's good, as one would expect of the author. (Since my early memories include following the course of the war, it's an exercise in nostalgia for me as well. I'm not learning much new about the political side from the American side (the UN is totally ignored) but the Chinese/Korean/Soviet side is newish to me.)

I just finished the account of the Wake Island meeting between Truman and Gen. MacArthur. MacArthur's at the peak of his glory, having pushed through the Inchon landing which created the most dramatic reversal in American military fortunes I can think of. (The North Koreans had succeeded in capturing 90 percent or so of South Korea, with the big issue whether we could hold onto the Pusan perimeter. Within 45 days of the Inchon landing, MacArthur's troops had crossed the 38th parallel and were close to conquering all of North Korea.) According to MacArthur, the meeting went very fast, no one raised big issues (how far north Mac should go, the likelihood of the Chinese intervening, etc.).

A couple things stand out to me:
  1. I've been in meetings like that. Bureaucrats, like people, don't like conflict, so meetings of bureaucrats from different bureaucracies (at Wake, there were Truman and his civilians, the Joint Chiefs representing the military, and MacArthur representing himself) sometimes dissolve into conflict, but often skate over thin ice to get to the end of the meeting.
  2. The psychology reminds me of our psychology around January 2002. We'd sent our Marines to Afghanistan and for a little while it seemed that our worst fears (following the Soviets and the British) were going to be realized. Then, all of sudden the bombing took effect, the Northern Alliance went forward, and the Taliban collapsed. So Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld had the prestige and moral authority to do what they wanted. MacArthur did what he wanted, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and an eventual stalemate.

Census Screwups--Further Thought

From a Government Executive article on the failure of Census project to use handheld computers for 2010 census.

"[the contractor rep] ascribed the program's problems to continuously changing requirements on the part of the Census Bureau, which delivered 400 new or refined requirements to Harris in January, two-thirds of the way through the development process. "We were informed that there was concern that the requirements given to us for nonresponse follow-up may not be complete," she said. "We have designed what the Census Bureau asked for, but what they have asked for may not be what they need."

Census Director Steven Murdock admitted that the bureau could have done more to ensure that the contract was executed on time. "Clearly, we didn't do everything we should," he said. He admitted that the bureau didn't scope the requirements for the project fully or effectively communicate with the contractor as much as necessary.

The decision to return to paper was driven largely by the bureau's comfort with the old way of doing things. "Census Bureau officials are more comfortable addressing any such challenges through the paper process, with which they are more familiar," Janey said.

Murdock said reverting to paper would provide more flexibility and minimize risk, and he cited the bureau's knowledge and experience with the paper-based system as a justification for the decision.
The changing user requirements is a familiar cause of problems (how many times I heard that from our IT type--you can't change these requirements!). Bad requirements means they didn't have the right people involved in specifying them and hadn't trained them in what's involved in IT. Which probably relates to the culture problems in the last two paragraphs. A familiar story, as with the FBI.

What I don't understand is two things:
  • Lehrer News Hour had a piece on the professional shoppers for Commerce (checking prices of products for computing cost of living index). The woman was merrily punching away on her laptop computer entering the data. So obviously Commerce has experience with hand-held applications that work on a distributed basis.
  • Given my faith in the 80/20 rule (80 percent of your work comes from 20 percent of the cases)--has census and the contractor ever considered a rather simple handheld application that would do most of the cases, with a fall-back to paper for the complex ones? Eat the elephant one bite at a time??

More on Gov Credit Cards

Here's an article on Steve Kelman, the architect of government procurement reform. And an opposing view from the Project on Government Oversight.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Al Gore's Dubious Legacy--Gov Credit Cards

The Government Executive and other mags have articles on the GAO analysis of government misuse of credit cards. I briefly saw Sen Coleman (R-MN) on TV being interviewed. He noted that the cards do save money over purchase orders etc. That was the idea back in the 1990's when procurement reform was a big part of "reinventing government".

Problem is, while the savings in paperwork and flexibility were real, none of the sponsors of the idea (including Mr. Gore) had read the Federalist papers, or were asleep in class when their profs discussed how one needed checks and balances in government. At least when I was there, I saw no sign of any oversight, either by the supervisor or a central office, no summary reports, no flags raised for purchases at questionable vendors, nothing.

I don't really hold Gore responsible for the problems; politicians don't get down into the nitty gritty. But it's cautionary for people proposing other reforms of the bureaucracy.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Higher Food Prices: Helps or Hurts Organic Ag?

Tom Philpott opts for the "hurts" side in this post. Some interesting comments.

Growing More Liberal as He Ages?

Does that explain Prof. Douglas Kmiec, a conservative legal pundit, who just this year has endorsed Obama and now writes in favor of women? (Our stereotype is that people grow more conservative as they age, yet, at least on social issues, society has grown more liberal over the years, not only because the children are more liberal than parents, but because parents have grown more liberal as well.)

He attributes his views on women in law in part to having 3 daughters (2 sons). (There was a piece recently that suggested that legislators with daughters were more likely to vote for "feminist" issues than those without.)

Note that Orin Kerr and others are posting at Slate's "Convictions" blog.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Conflicting Priorities

Keith Good covers the conflicts over the farm bill. At issue, does the nation want more money for food stamps (recognizing rising food prices and unemployment), for conservation (recognizing the trend to plant more acres and farm more intensively in order to take advantage of $6 corn futures, etc.) or for farm payments (recognizing ?).

Althouse on Heston

Two striking bits from this post by Ann Althouse remembering Charlton Heston:
  1. She's never seen his great films (Ben Hur, etc.). Somehow that amazes me--it shows there's less of a common culture than I had supposed. I would have thought anyone over 30 with a college degree had probably seen those films. How can you avoid Ben Hur on TV?
  2. She initially remembers Michael Moore as being unfair to Heston in "Bowling for Columbine" when Moore pressed him with questions on the NRA, then later (to her credit) adds an admission that after rewatching the clip, it wasn't unfair. That's significant--shows how we all compress and simplify our memories, and all too often have knee-jerk reactions on the basis.
(I saw "Bowling for Columbine" after "FAhrenheit 451" and anticipated a simpler polemical piece than I saw on screen. Moore put together a surprisingly complex story there.)

Finally, my wife will remember Heston for the galley slave scene. RIP

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Dairies in Poland

Elisabeth Rosenthal in the NY Times has an article on the problems of Polish dairy farmers. In the good old days, before EU, each farmer had a handful of cows (literally, since they milked by hand). The cows and the people may have lived in the same building (separate rooms). Under the EU's bureaucractic, industrialized agriculture regime, hygiene and sanitation become important, so dairies must either expand and modernize (a road that leads to 6,000 cow dairies and robot milkers), or revert to subsistence agriculture.

An excerpt:
[Farms are]"...a victim of sanitary laws and mandates to encourage efficiency and competition that favor mechanized commercial farms, farmers here say.

That conflict obviously matters to Mr. Master. But it is also of broader importance, environmental groups and agriculture experts say, as worries over climate change grow and more consumers in both Europe and the United States line up for locally grown, organic produce.

For reasons social, culinary and environmental, small farms like Mr. Master’s should be promoted, or at least be protected, they say. They not only yield tastier foods but also produce few of the carbon emissions that contribute to global warming.

In part because Poland has remained one of the last strongholds of small farming in Europe, it is also a rare bastion of biodiversity, with 40,000 pairs of nesting storks and thousands of seed varieties that exist nowhere else in the world.

I think the European locavores/organic people can dream, but it's not going to work that way. The economic pressures are too great--first there will be consolidation of dairying. The modern world wants safety and consistency in its products and the best way to get them is through industrialized dairying. A few of the sons and daughters of the current dairy folk may be able to find organic/locavore niches, but only a few. (Look at France--over the last 50 years they've devoted much time and effort to preserving their agriculture, big subsidies and governmental regulation, but still the combinations and modernization has continued. Government can slow the pace and ease the pains of the transition, which I don't minimize, but not much else.)

Friday, April 04, 2008

What Will They Be Able to Do Next? (Cows)

This is a blurb, from Brownfield Network, on the robot milkers at dairy show in WI:

The cow is identified by individual neck tags, lasers are used to locate the teats, they are prepped individually and then the teatcups are applied individually. On average, the whole process takes about 8 minutes so Rugg says one robot can do around 160 milkings in a 24-hour period. Now because a cow can choose [emphasis added] to be milked 3 or 4 times a day, the total number of cows milked will vary. “In a typical robotic facility, the average milking is 2.7 to 3.2 milkings per cow per day.” Rudd says that works out to 55 to 70 cows. The robot is also able to identify treated cows and will discard the milk, then wash the milker before the next cow enters. “It has a very, very sophisticated herd management system.” He says while the cow is milking, she is weighed, milk flow and quality is measured from each teat, “There is just a whole slough of management reports the farmer can utilize.”

Rugg says the robot is not for everybody, if you have good hired milkers and you like dealing with those workers, that is fine. “The advantage of the robot is it is very consistent.[emphasis added] ” Rugg points to the fact it is always there and it milks the same way every time. Another advantage he feels is udder health in that heavy producers can choose to be milked 3, 4 or more times per day. “It really depends on the labor situation and each individual farm.”
I like the fact that cows can choose (I assume a typo, though our cows could be damned choosy). And I think the consistency is key (as long as the equipment is reliable).

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Modern Dairying

EWG highlights an article on dairy and manure (the two are inextricably linked) from Ithaca, NY. It's mostly on the pollution from a large 6,000+ cow dairy. But I found this quote interesting (and explaining why the robot milkers I linked to earlier):
"Why larger dairies?" said David M. Galton, a dairy management professor at Cornell University. "Well, why Wegmans? Target and Circuit City and Home Depot and Lowe's - they're doing it to dilute out cost and to maintain or improve standard of living. It's like every other segment of our economy. Larger dairies are trying to address the ever-rising cost of producing milk and standard of living."
In 1993, farms with 200 or more cattle made up 3.6 percent of the state's dairies, according to USDA statistics. By 2002, they made up 9 percent.
"The larger the dairy farm, the lower the costs are. And so, as the costs keep rising - fuel costs, feed costs, taxes - it puts more economic pressure on the individual farms to produce more milk,'' Galton said. "If you take the milk price of 1980 and adjust it for inflation, the milk price would be $38.92 per 100 pounds. The milk price today is approximately $20 per 100 pounds."
I don't like the statistic in the middle (is the writer saying 3.6 percent of the dairy cows in the state were in dairies over 200 cows in 1993, and 9 percent in 2002--that would be the best fact to offer.

Sec. Spellings Gets My Praise

This week the head of the Department of Education announced a long-overdue change in statistics: standardizing the process by which the high school graduation rate is computed. I love it. The only way to discuss issues intelligently is if everyone is using the same words with the same meaning. Currently, states use different processes to compute a graduation rate. (If I remember correctly, my high school class had about 56 kids in 9th grade, by graduation we had 37 or so. The issue is the extent to which the rate accounts for dropouts. Because we don't have a system for tracking every child, that's difficult for the school bureaucracies--one system's dropout can be another system's in-transfer. I'll be interested to see how accurate the statistics can get.)

I have to say, this is a change that GW should have insisted on in the "No Child Left Behind" legislation. But then, his first Education secretary had played games with statistics in Houston, so Bush understandably didn't want to draw attention to statistics, particularly if they might undermine his major claim as Texas governor. (There--I had been too silent on GWB for a while--nice to get some criticism off my chest.)

But, progress is made in steps, and this is better late than never. Sec. Spellings should be commended.

Another Computer Project Bites the Dust

Via Government Executive, NextGov reports Commerce Department/Census Bureau is dropping a project to develop handheld computers for the 2010 census (for followups where the mail form was not returned).

'“I am here today because the Field Data Collection Automation project has experienced significant schedule, performance and cost issues,” according to Gutierrez's testimony. “A lack of effective communication with one of our key contractors has significantly contributed to the challenges.”

In his statement, Gutierrez calls the situation with the handhelds “unacceptable.”

He points to a dress rehearsal held in May 2007 as when “development and scoping problems emerged.” The bureau then identified “more than 400 new or clarified technical requirements,” he said, which were delivered to Harris on Jan. 16.

At a March 5 hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Gutierrez said, "significant miscommunication concerning technical requirements between the Census Bureau and Harris" were a main reason for the failings.

In a statement sent to Nextgov, Harris officials said, "The handheld devices are one part of a larger, multifaceted process to move from a 'paper culture' to an 'automation' culture appropriate for the 21st century. We understand that such a significant cultural shift presents organizational challenges to any organization, and Harris is encouraged that automation is moving forward, even if in a more narrowly focused fashion.""

Communication and culture--the recurring nightmare for any change agent.

One wonders if they'd aimed lower at the start whether they mightn't have gotten something that would help.

Remembering 40 Years Ago

A lot of commemorations of the death of Martin Luther King. I had started work at USDA in Jan. 1968. I'd heard the news of his murder on the radio (didn't have a TV yet) in my efficiency apartment on 13th St NW. The next morning I went as usual to work--sometimes I'd walk through downtown DC and across the Mall to the Auditor's Building (right across 14th Street from the USDA South Building). Other times I'd go over to 14th St and catch the 50 or 52 bus. Don't know which I did that morning.

By 10 or so the rumors were flying. A bit later you could look north east across the Mall (it was a great location) and see smoke rising. Supposedly someone had set fire to Hecht's, one of the big department stores at that time located on 7th street (I think). I tried to ignore the commotion, finding security in keeping to my routine. (Or rather, since I'd spent 10 weeks circulating among the branches in the division, to understand the work and figure out where I should work, I was still getting used to the work in the Directives Management Branch, and to my co-workers. There were only a handful of blacks in visible posts in the Administrative Services Division, one clerk-typist who'd been hired 2 years before in my branch, a veteran who worked in printing (he later retired to Germany), and a couple others. There were others, not visible--a moving crew, mailroom staff, and file section.)

By 1 or so word came down that the government was closed and we were to go home. (That was my first experience of the government closing.) I knew the buses wouldn't be running on a rush hour schedule, assuming that they would run (at that time I seem to remember the drivers on the 50/52 routes were white). So I ended up walking up 14th street.

The first looting I saw was on Franklin square, between 13th and 14th--a D.J.Kaufmann's store was broken into and two or three people (young men) were moving in and out. I averted my gaze (if I didn't see them, they wouldn't see me) and walked on pretty quickly. I got to my apartment without incident, perhaps hitting the small grocery next door for food, and didn't leave for a couple days. The government resumed work only after the National Guard had been called in and was patrolling the streets.

The riot wasn't a particular surprise, or shouldn't have been. I'd been in Rochester in 1964 which suffered an early riot ("early" that is, in the sense of being early in the 1960's series of riots). Martin Luther King had to maneuver between the anger on the streets and the resistance and inertia of the society--something he managed to do for a while, something we like to mis-remember him as doing throughout his life.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

What, Me Talk With Them? No Way

That's the effective reaction when bureaucrats are supposed to cross agency boundaries, as witness this report in Government Executive:
" Jay Cohen, the department's undersecretary for science and technology, said first responders were not always enthusiastic about sharing communications.

"We have some communities where the police chief only wants the police to talk to him ...," Cohen said. To a large extent, "technology is not the problem with interoperability ... it's the culture," he said. Cohen said that although the department was preparing to test a "phone-home" interoperable system for first responders, the jury was out on whether it would be widely accepted."

NYTimes and Pollan Disagree with Me

It shouldn't be a surprise that the NYTimes has an article suggesting that higher food prices will turn people away from bad food and onto good food (i.e., locally grown fruits and vegetables). An excerpt:

"Along with some other critics of the American way of eating, he [Michael Pollan] likes the idea that some kinds of food will cost more, and here’s one reason why: As the price of fossil fuels and commodities like grain climb, nutritionally questionable, high-profit ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup will, too. As a result, Cokes are likely to get smaller and cost more. Then, the argument goes, fewer people will drink them.

And if American staples like soda, fast-food hamburgers and frozen dinners don’t seem like such a bargain anymore, the American eating public might turn its attention to ingredients like local fruits and vegetables, and milk and meat from animals that eat grass. It turns out that those foods, already favorites of the critics of industrial food, have also dodged recent price increases."

They may be right, but I doubt it. (The same issue contains a story on how a big tomato grower in PA isn't growing this year for lack of immigrants to pick the crop.)

I suspect the biggest question is how people think (always a good cliche). Do they have a food budget, so that if Coke becomes more costly they will switch to apples? Do they have a standard of living budget, so if meals at restaurants become more costly they switch from Ruby Tuesday to Wendy's? Or maybe eat one big meal at Mcdonalds instead of two meals at home?

The cheapest calories are still going to be the ones the foodies don't like, so if a consumer feels a squeeze on the overall budget, the logic should drive them to the cheaper stuff.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Semper En Obscurus

The Times has an interesting article on a guy who's collected badges from various super-secret agencies/projects. One I particularly like has this motto and the image of a mushroom on the badge (means: "always in the dark"). We used to joke that the big shots treated us career bureaucrats as mushrooms.

(It wasn't merely that we wanted to know what was going on, and resented our second-rate status as embodied by the lack of information; we had the excuse that good implementation of programs required being in on the ground floor of a program.)

New Deal Was More Than Emergency Programs

The Washington Post runs an article today, by Cindy Skrzycki, on grapes and grocers. While many think the New Deal is long gone and long dead, it actually lives on in unexpected places, such as the marketing of grapes. And others think that our food has gone to hell in a market basket, as the influence of big industrial ag takes over the food stores. And others, particularly conservatives, used to like to compare the federal regulations for [a commodity, like cabbage, or whatever] to something like the Gettysburg Address, as in: "It takes USDA 20,000 words to define a cabbage and Lincoln only took....

This quote from the story is for all those people:

"For the past three years, California growers and produce wholesalers have been feuding over whether the standard for U.S. Grade No. 1 should be changed. Buyers say permitting more loose grapes will lower the quality and make the fresh produce harder to sell.

Now Department of Agriculture officials, who set quality standards for 240 food products, are proposing to increase the number of loose grapes without considering them defective. The debate is over image and the bottom line in the $2 billion fresh table-grape market, which has grown as Americans each eat 7 to 8 pounds of grapes a year, up from 2 pounds a person in 1970."

The legislation for marketing orders, which stabilize and standardize and regulate and render less competitive the markets for fruit and vegetables dates back to the New Deal (and before, actually). The increase in volume has resulted, presumably, from the use of plastic bags to pre-package grapes and the creation of standards for the contents. It certainly makes grocery shopping easier--you can grab a bag of grapes with minimal attention to the contents, being sure that the contents are, in our phrase, "good enough for government work".

Consider the Date...

When you read this post on Greg Mankiw's blog and maybe this post on Government Executive? (The latter is entitled: "IBM suspended from new federal contracts".)