Monday, June 30, 2008

Seeing the Future (of Oil, Wheat, etc.)

Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution has an interesting post on Julian Simon, an economist who famously bet Paul Ehrlich that prices of metals would drop. His logic was, the most important resource we have is the human brain--the more brains we have the better everyone (on average) will do and brains can remedy any shortfall in any seemingly scarce resource. His heyday was during the last run-up in prices of oil and grains and other commodities in the 1970's, when he was a contrarian voice who seemed for 25 years to have been more right than wrong. But with today's prices, Tyler asks whether people can believe his thesis, at least enough to short oil, etc.

As you might expect, it gets lots of comments. (Also as you might expect, Simon's outlook is not popular among the Bill McKibben's of the world.) Anyone who is interested in the argument might also look at the study from Humboldt U. (Berlin) which basically argues that Simon was right (at least for food over the 1870-2000 period) but we face a changed environment. (It's nice to get a perspective from outside of the usual parties in the U.S.--we often are blind to our own biases.) An excerpt:
European Union agriculture has long stopped producing homogenous commodities. Rather it has become “boutique agriculture”. Farmers produce a wide range of goods which are characterised by differing production cost and sold for differing prices in the market place. Domestic consumers and those from abroad choose those qualities that best meet their individual preferences and income. It is likely that sustained higher market prices for agricultural products will act to slow down the growth in the demand for organic food. Moreover, the price of organic food relative to that of other food has declined in recent years, making organic food less profitable to produce.
And from the conclusion:
In this study the driving forces of changes in agricultural world market prices and their implications for European Union agriculture have been analysed for the time period 2003/05 -2013/15. The mega-trend of declining world market prices, which is sometimes referred to as the Agricultural Treadmill, has ended. Since the turn of the millennium, world market prices for agricultural goods have been increasing. This trend can be expected to continue for at least the time period analysed here. Not only will prices have a tendency to increase, but also fluctuations of agricultural world market prices are likely to be higher in the future than they have been in the past.

The reason for the positive trend in agricultural world market prices is that global demand growth outstrips the growth in global supply, and this trend will continue in the foreseeable future. Global demand for food will continue to grow at a fairly rapid pace mainly for two reasons. One is the continued growth in world population; the other is the sustained growth in per capita incomes in developing and newly industrialising countries, with a corresponding increase of per capita food consumption.

Green Milk

No, it's not a belated St. Patrick's Day story, but a piece in the NYTimes on new milk containers, touted as more efficient and greener, because there are no milk crates to wash. The 1-gallon milk jugs must be shipped from bottler (jugger?) to grocery store in crates "because the shape of old-fashioned milk jugs prohibits stacking them atop one another. The crates take up a lot of room, they are unwieldy to move, and extra space must be left in delivery trucks to take empty ones back from stores to the dairy." And, in one bottling plant, it takes 100,000 gallons of water to wash the crates.

The article says Wal-mart and Costco are pushing it, but consumers have problems learning how to pour (if I understand, the new container is basically a box). But if I can adapt to coffee cans that are cubical plastic jobbies, consumers for the sake of the earth can learn how to pour milk from these. After all, I can remember lots of different milk containers, lots of improvements.

We used to sell (raw) milk to a couple of neighbors, who'd bring a stainless steel container, which we would fill. Other neighbors had milk delivered, in the glass quart bottles, which made interesting shapes when it was zero and the milk wasn't taken in promptly. That milk was pasteurized and homogenized and took a while for me to get used to the taste. (But my mother had TB, so you won't find me a strong defender of raw milk.) Of course, the glass bottles had a deposit and were returnable, just as the pop (soft drink) bottles were back then. When I went to college, the cafeteria I worked in dispensed milk from a machine, the milk arriving in a plastic bag within a cardboard box. The boxes were good for packing books in at the end of the term when it was time to head back to the farm. The Army may have had a similar system, but fortunately I didn't do enough KP to remember. (Youngsters ask: "KP? What's KP") Then in civilian life and married life we bought milk in the waxed cardboard cartons, then the plastic gallon jugs. (I don't remember when we switched--funny how we don't notice the small changes in our lives.)

But, as I say, there's always a tradeoff. At each step along the way the new system may be more efficient and maybe more safe, but it also requires dairy companies to invest in new equipment (rather like the old days when farmers had to get milk coolers to put their milk cans in--the next step was requiring bulk tanks). So it's also another straw on the camel's back for the dairy company that's just getting by, day-to-day, and which can't afford the new equipment to compete. People, at least those who drink milk, gain; those who work at the companies who can't compete, don't.

Bureaucracy and Farm Bill Implementation

Whenever there's a new program enacted, the question becomes which bureaucracy will implement it. The Sustainable Agriculture Coalition reports on the infighting in their weekly newsletter:

Farm Bill Implementation News: Two letters have been sent this week from Capitol Hill to USDA to clarify beginning farmer provisions in the new farm bill. On Thursday, House Chairman Peterson (D-MN) and Senate Chairman Harkin (D-IA) wrote to Secretary Schafer to provide a clear direction that the farm bill designates the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program to be administered by the Cooperative State Research Education and Extension Service (soon to be renamed the National Institute for Food and Agriculture). The letter came in response to surprising news from the Department that the program might be assigned to either Rural Development or to the new Office of Outreach and Advocacy. The clear intent of Congress, supported by SAC, was for this program to go to CSREES.

On Friday, a letter from Senator Feingold (D-WI) and Chairman Harkin was sent to the Secretary to outline their intent, as the Senate champions for the new Office of Outreach and Advocacy and its Small Farms and Beginning Farmers and Ranchers sub-unit, regarding the placement and mission of the new office. SAC has been working closely with the Rural Coalition on the implementation of this new office, which also includes a sub-unit for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers. The newly-positioned and enhanced office will be at the executive level of the Department, reporting directly to the Secretary, not through any department mission area and Under Secretary.

The program sponsors want it placed as high in the bureaucracy as possible and in as sympathetic bureaucracy as possible. If the sponsors succeed, the bureaucrats naturally feel gratitude to the sponsors. It's a very different process than a public adminisration-type analysis of the logic and appropriateness of the bureaucratic setup.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Pigford and Discrimination

The case of blacks who tried to maintain their family farms and failed, originally labeled as "Pigford", was revived in the new farm bill.

The NY Times has an update today--actually it's an AP story carried in the Times. It makes these points:

  • it summarizes the case--73,000 claimed to have missed the filing period under the original Pigford agreement.
  • the new provision in the farm bill passed only because the cost estimate was only $100,000. (The article cites possible costs of $1.5 to 2.4 billion.)
  • 800 have already filed suit under the new provision.
  • Rep. Davis seems to concede he deliberately low-balled the cost estimate.
In my own view, I think Rep. Davis is wrong--the costs will never get that high because the former black farmers who are applying have been sold a pig in a poke. It's another case of 50 acres and a mule. But if he admits the cost will be low, he becomes the bad guy who disillusions the potential claimants. If he pretends the cost will be high, the court system and USDA retain their roles as the bad guys.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Life Is Fragile

Remember our first view of the earth from the moon? See NASA's site, visible earth. The "blue marble" image stimulated the environmental movement, emphasizing the fragility of life on earth.

To compare incomparables, I had a reminder yesterday that life is fragile--screwing up my back while getting out of the car. :-) Now I'm gimping around the house, my routine disrupted, fussing at the cats, dependent on my better half. (I hate being dependent.) The good news is, behind the scenes in my lower back the damage is being repaired. Thank you, body. The bad news is, my body gets older and slower at repairs every day.

Friday, June 27, 2008

How Legislation Is (Not) Implemented

From a press conference at USDA, this exchange:

REPORTER: Thank you. Just quickly, I wanted to ask about the Lacy Act Amendments. Is USDA implementing the expansion of the Lacy Act for illegally taken plants? Or is that strictly a CBP function?

SEC. SCHAFER: Can you translate that into real language?

REPORTER: Sure. The expansion of the Lacy Act that essentially requires documentation to avoid any illegally logged tropical lumber, among other plants.

SEC. SCHAFER: And what was the other? You used an acronym.

REPORTER: Oh, the Customs and Border Protection. I wasn't sure given that APHIS inspectors had gone over there whether it's USDA that has to implement that part of the farm bill.

SEC. SCHAFER: I don't even know. Can't tell you. And you're drawing blanks from our expert team here, so you've stumped the panel.

What this mean is USDA is not likely to implement the provision. Customs may, assuming the reporter is poorly informed and it clearly fits within Customs jurisdiction. But if there's a genuine question, neither bureaucracy has an incentive to pick up the ball. If the Congressional sponsor doesn't push it, it may fall through the cracks.

Good Bureaucracy in the DC Government

I don't know who might be responsible, but I like the effort, as described in today's Post, to have one ID card that works for all functions of DC government. Apparently the ACLU doesn't have big problems with it.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Online ID and ID Cards

NYTimes has an article on an effort to simplify passwords online:

"The idea is to bring the concept of an identity card, like a driver’s license, to the online world. Rather than logging on to sites with user IDs and passwords, people will gain access to sites using a secure digital identity that is overseen by a third party. The user controls the information in a secure place and transmits only the data that is necessary to access a Web site."
Having recently scorned Medicare's refusal to take the SSN off their ID card, I think the government should join this effort.

Silos and the Lament of a Yellow-Dog Democrat

I'm a yellow-dog Democrat, at least since the Dems in Virginia got themselves half-way together, so I have no way of knowing the situation on the Republican side. But the situation on my side stinks.

What am I talking about? The decentralized, unbusinesslike way in which we Democrats work our campaign finances. I think Tom McAuliffe helped a little bit, but it's still bad.

Specifically, everyone and his sister solicits me because I have a long record of being a sucker, er--responding to solicitations. There's the DNC (the national committee), the DSCC (Senate campaign committee), the House committee, the individual campaigns (for some reason Clinton had my email address until she dropped her bid, but Obama didn't, but now he does), and then there's the Virginia Democrats and my various representatives and Senators.

I mentioned McAuliffe--once I used to get brochures and solicitations from the DNC every month or two. Then they made me an offer I couldn't resist--they'd drop the mail if I'd give them protection money, er--contribute on a regular basis. But, and here's my complaint, the DNC and the other Democratic units don't talk to each other. It'd be fine if they'd piggyback on the DNC's infrastructure, so they could ask me to boost my contribution and spread my money among the various units. But that's not the way the U.S. works--we believe in silos, everyone doing his or her own thing.

Delays in Program Implementation

Brownfield Network reports implementation problems for the ACRE program and permanent disaster:
"The data that is necessary to implement ACRE simply cannot be put upon the current computer system that is housed in the Farm Service Agency and there will need to be changes in that system before we can implement ACRE fully," Conner said.

Conner also emphasized the Bush administration is "working closely" with Congress to get "additional implementation resources" for the FSA. But Senate Ag Committee Chairman Tom Harkin disputed that statement Thursday. And Harkin told Brownfield he has little sympathy for USDA’s computer problems. According to Harkin, the Bush administration has known about the FSA computer problems for years, has never bothered to ask Congress for funding to fix the problem and still hasn’t done so.

"If they want money they should come up here and ask us for an emergency appropriation," Harkin said. "If they do that, we'll honor that. But where are they?"

ACRE isn't the only new farm bill program to face lengthy implementation delays. Schafer explained that permanent ag disaster aid program payments to producers devastated by flooding may not come for more than a year, mainly due to the fact Congress did not authorize USDA to speed-up the rulemaking process for the program.
I'm in no position to comment on either issue, though I did previously write about FSA/USDA computer problems. But I would note that the farm programs were operated without computers for decades, so what we're seeing is the symbiosis between bureaucratic technique and legislation--the more capable the bureaucrats become (using computers, etc.) the more complex the law.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Adaptability of People

That seems to be today's theme. Here's a NYTimes article on a weird custom in parts of Albania--a woman can choose to live as a man, and apparently it works. I've been intrigued by studies of the importance of peers versus that of parents in forming people. But here's a reminder that, provided society creates a set of roles and norms, people can be very flexible. (In the article, a 20-year old woman all of whose brothers were killed, leaving the family without male leadership, chooses the male/leader role with full acceptance from the society.) I suppose it's similar to people moving from one society to another: some are able to adapt to the new range of roles available and become successful; others drop in status to the more limited roles (taxi drivers, cooks, cleaners).

Everyone who announces a position about people should remember examples like these.

Gardens in Lesotho

Anyone who's skimmed the history of agriculture in different parts of the world won't be surprised by the gardens of Lesotho, as described here. The history is testimony to the ability of people to adapt to different environments, meaning they learn ways to make use of what's available. (Updated: see the nice piece in Slate on gardening.)

The Faceless Bureaucrat

See the picture there.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Feminism Score--Four Stars

The Post and Times have pieces on Lt. Gen. Ann Dunwoody, now nominated to be a four-star general, probably the first one to have graduated from Cortland State (i.e., upstate NY). And apparently a Scotch-Irish background.

A Weak Government and Weak Newspapers Equal No Sports Fanatics

I'm trying to link one of my themes, that, in keeping with Madison and Federalist 10, we have a weak government (despite the fantasies of the conservatives and libertarians), with an observation

Ilya Somin at Volokh Conspiracy contrasts American sports fanaticism with that in Europe, and finds ours lacking (our fans almost never kill each other over games):

Many European and especially Latin American soccer teams are also closely associated with governments. This often allows repressive and corrupt regimes to obtain propaganda benefits from the teams' victories. For example, the repressive Brazilian and Argentinian military governments of the 1970s increased their public support as a result of their national teams' World Cup victories in 1970 and 1978. In Europe, Mussolini, Franco, and the communist government of the Soviet Union derived similar benefits from their teams' successes. On a lesser scale, incompetent or corrupt local governments in Europe sometimes benefit from the victories of local clubs.

In the United States, by contrast, pro sports rivalries are based on geographic divisions that have little or no connection to deeper social antagonisms over race, religion, or political ideology. As a result, even the most heated US sports rivalries, such as the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry, rarely result in violence between fans of opposing teams - and never in the form of the large-scale soccer riots that we sometimes see in Europe, Asia, and Latin America.
Where do newspapers come in? I read a report a few days ago, I think from a newspaper conference in Europe, that's relevant. As I remember it, European newspapers look at US papers and see lots of weak, local papers as compared to their setup where you have fewer, more national papers. For example, in France the Paris newspapers dominate the country; similarly in Britain the London papers are dominant. The closest we come is having USAToday, the Wall Street Journal and NY Times, but even those papers don't have the influence of the Times (of London). So the Euro papers see the problems US papers are having with the Internet and currently don't have the same problems, but anticipate they may down the road.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Potatoes, Co-ops, and Marketing Information

The potato industry has organized itself. Partially facilitated by modern technology, as in the Internet and conference telephone calls, the Idaho potato growers organized a cooperative in 2004. Under the existing law, farmers can organize without violating anti-trust law. The co-op was able to reduce production, in part by running a bid program, as well as coordinating marketing.
Abstract of a paper from SSRN:
High potato price volatility, decreasing demand for fresh potatoes and prices below the cost of production led to a decision of a number of Idaho potato growers to organize the United Fresh Potato Growers of Idaho, a marketing cooperative. The programs and strategies of the cooperative target both production and marketing of fresh potatoes. To evaluate the effectiveness of the programs implemented by the cooperative, we examine the level and volatility of fresh potato prices during two periods: before the cooperative was organized and when the cooperative is in the market. We find empirical evidence suggesting that fresh potato prices were higher and less volatile during the period when the cooperative was in the market.
The whole thing is interesting for those who remember farmers struggles to cooperate over the past 90 years or so.

Medicare and SSN

The NY Times reports that Medicare is resisting changing the Medicare card to remove the SSN.

Ms. Frizzera, the Medicare official, said that issuing new Medicare cards would be “a huge undertaking.” The agency would need three years to plan such a move and eight more years to carry it out, she said.

Medicare officials estimate that it would cost $500 million to change their computer systems if they issued new ID numbers to beneficiaries. Doctors, hospitals and other health care providers use those numbers in filing claims with Medicare, which pays a billion claims a year.

I regard this with the disdain it deserves. The state of Virginia has phased out SSN's as the drivers license number. I recognize that Medicare is not used to issuing new cards every 5 years or so, but I assume they have procedures for replacing lost or stolen cards. And they have procedures for handling erroneous numbers (i.e., if they give out a card with the wrong number they're able to reissue a new card with the right number). Those two capabilities can be the basis for the changeover because they supply the business logic for the change. The third and missing element is a process to generate a unique 9-digit number for Medicare recipients. All they need is a cross-reference file matching their number to the SSN. Match all bills against the file so the provider can bill using either the SSN, if already in the provider's database, or the Medicare number.

The bottom line is, they're going to have to do it someday, might as well do it now.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Two Nations Forever

Sometimes I'm optimistic about the future, but then I read this Post story about a southern Maryland church chorus, trying to bridge religious and racial differences and I conclude there's no way.

With just two weeks until their first performance, Jefferson [chorus leader] jumped into practicing the two songs the choir planned to sing at the concert. For the slow "Lord We Worship You," he told them, imagine a quiet candlelight dinner with God. For the upbeat "Blessed Be the Lord," use "your country voice," he said.

And learn to move, he told them. Clapping was not an option at this point, as past attempts had ended with the black members clapping on the second and fourth beats and white members clapping on the first and third.

But some aren't so easily discouraged:

"It's not in everybody's culture to do the moving, so be sensitive," Jefferson said. "We're a little, how do I say it, challenged in that area. It's going to take awhile. We're going to bridge it together. Bridge the cultures."

Start with baby steps, he instructed. Tap your foot. Or rock back and forth.

"Just try not to laugh at each other."

How Americans Do Things

Haphazardly, because our government is not a strong state. For evidence, read this NYTimes story on the levees along the Mississippi. (Almost wrote "levee system", but it's not a system.) The latest issue of the American Historical Review has an article arguing, unsuccessfully in my view, that the U.S. has a strong state. If the comparison is to France or other European models, I disagree.

Bureaucrat Dies

Well, he may not have been exactly a bureaucrat, but he dealt with people as part of his role in a big bureaucracy--the Fairfax County police force, and he's now dead, prematurely, at the age of 6.

The Monkey Cage picks up the story from the Post.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Surprising Factoid of the Week--Chinese Govt Worries About Customer Service

Al Gore, before he was elected President, worried a lot about the government and customer service. Apparently the Chinese (mainland, not Taiwan) do too, because Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution reports:
At the Beijing airport as the customs official questions you, you get to rate them - there is an electronic box, hidden from their view, that asks for your rating of service.
The idea of the Chinese government getting feedback from their customers boggles the mind.

Wetlands and Oil Drilling

Steven Pearlstein has a take on offshore drilling in the Post. To sum up:

The frustrating thing about this standoff is that both sides have it half-right. Republicans are right that we need more oil and gas drilling, more refineries and a revival of nuclear power. And Democrats are right in demanding that we finally get serious about conservation, crack down on speculation and market manipulation, and recycle windfall profits into alternative energy sources.

Unfortunately, they're both so thoroughly captured by their interest groups, and so determined to defeat the other's policies, that they haven't noticed we're now so deep in the hole that we have no choice but to do it all: Gas drilling off the coast of Florida and wind farms off the coast of New England. Curbs on speculation and curbs on CO2 emissions. Tax hikes for oil companies and tax breaks for solar.

I often like "a curse on both your houses" thinking (was that Shakespeare?). I don't like NIMBYism, which accounts for much of the opposition to offshore drilling. But I've also a knee-jerk reaction, a sort of romantic feeling that progress is steamrolling everything and wondering why we can't keep some things forever. I guess, contra Pearlstein, Dems are more right because drilling means tapping an expendable resource. If we don't drill now, nothing happens to the oil and gas. Our descendants can someday drill if they think it advisable. While the Democratic proposals are permanent--once we do solar, we can keep doing solar forever.

I would suggest, though, the possibility of "mitigation". The law permits farmers to drain one wetland by mitigating the damage by recreating another wetland. In other words, the law says we're going to always have X million acres of wetland, but it may not always be in the same place. I wonder whether it's possible to take the same approach to drilling. If an oil company exhausts one field, make it clean up its mess and then allow it to drill the same number of acres somewhere else. That approach might provide some flexibility for business and reassure people like me that drilling doesn't mean a permanent, forever, loss of the environment.

Farming and Bananas

I'm always interested in farming, I found this bit on bananas in the Philippines at Freakonomics in the comments (general post on bananas):

I’m from the Philippines and we do grow a lot of bananas. Most of the banana plantations are in Mindanao because of the stable climate conditions and fertile soil. The crops from from these plantations are only for export, and they only grow Cavendish there. The bananas they pick are still unripe when harvested to keep them firm durig transportation.

About the condition of the employees. Right now, employees of large companies like Dole and Del Monte experience fair labor practices. Most of the land of the plantations were under Agrarian reform, so the farmers own the land, which they rent to the companies to plant. The farmers are hired as employees, so aside from rent from land, they also get wages, and they have a stable job. These gives them incentives to be more productive, and hence higher manufacturing efficiency.

But this was not the case 30 years ago, before land reform. Farmers were tenants, and they were planting the land which were owned by really rich families. They had no security of tenure. They were overworked and underpaid, and yes, there were no healthcare benefits. there was also child labor: children of farmers would rather skip school and help in planting to increase family income. Also sometimes, there were unjust land owners. They have control over the farmers and their families because they feared being thrown away from from the farms, their only livelihood and their homes. [Is the land reform significant--wish I could find a study of the land tenure arrangements across the world. I'm speaking as a descendant of someone who was a renter in Ireland but owned a large estate (by Irish standards) in Illinois by the time he died.]

And in the Philippines, bananas are staple foods, specially in the really poor provinces where rice and corn are very expensive.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Surprising Factoid of the Day--the French Export Food [Updated]

From the CAP Health Check (the blog on EU ag policy):
The UK runs a large trade deficit in food and agricultural products, at around 22 billion euros or 13 per cent of GDP (see table below). This makes global food price increases especially damaging for reasons that I’ll explain below. By contrast, France runs a trade surplus in food of almost 5 per cent of GDP.

I'm too lazy to check, but I doubt the U.S. surplus is that big.

[Updated: Turns out the French export more wine than we do soybeans or corn and the Brits export more beer/ale. (2004 figures). And our 2008 exports are only $91 billion (record high value) but that's tiny compared to GDP/GNP of $14 trillion. That differential explains why the French do more for their farmers than we do for ours--the agricultural sector is much more important.)

Wednesday, June 18, 2008


Via Down to Earth, this post on a project for organic, humane veal shows some of the problems of these efforts in mass society:
So, ironically, even though the chefs love the flavor and the Azuluna story and that the flavor and texture is excellent regardless of the size, many of them will stop buying it or complain to the distributor that it lacks consistency in size. This is a problem for the high end cuts only - as the chefs are fearful of serving chops of differing sizes and charging the same price. The solution to this problem is to get more producers raising the veal and to expand the market into NYC. This would balance out the size problem, as cuts could be grouped by the distributors according to size. However, in order to recruit more producers, I need to promise them a market.
So, we consumers want consistency--no surprises, please. But that implies production practices and a scale of operation that's difficult to develop. In a way, we want what we had years and years ago, but destroyed because our preferences valued consistency, uniformity, etc.

(This subject rings a small bell for me--we sold our bull calves at about a week or 10 days. The old quip goes that the dairy is the most feminist place around.)

Eating Your Own Dog Food, Or Something

There's phenomena among the chattering classes, I believe on all sides of the political spectrum, of eating their own dogfood. That is, when they have an argument to make, their citations tend to be to the secondary, or tertiary, literature, not to primary source material. What it means is there's a tendency to talk in an echo chamber, to repeat the same urban myths, and to ignore facts or alternatives.

There's an example here:
"The last time food prices shot up, in the 1970s, the U.S. response was to put more land into agricultural production. This was the infamous "fencerow-to-fencerow" policy of Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz that Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, has linked to the glut of corn -- and corn syrup -- that has so profoundly affected global diets. "
The whole piece discusses how North Korea was and is a canary warning the world of imminent catastrophe.

FSA's Problems with the New Farm Bill

Are implied in the discussion at the University of Illinois extension farmgate site.

Different members of Congress had different takes on the Average Crop Revenue Election Program, so the odds are that FSA will come up with an interpretation that someone disagrees with, and that someone may have enough clout to change the law on them. (I think it's true that a flood-caused spike in corn prices in 2008 makes the program more problematic in the long run, since it raises the likelihood of a fall in prices in the out years, and the revenue guarantee is based on history. In the old days for yields we used the "Olympic average", dropping high and low years which recognized that farming can be very variable. Something to consider.)

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

On Why We Need Health Insurance

See this post of Erin's.

Obviously, healthy ranchers in Montana don't need health insurance, right?

Improving Flow in the Oldest Profession

There's a piece in the Times today on something I'd never heard of--prostitution reviews. Apparently this guy has a website where Johns can rate their satisfaction with their prostitutes. Apparently it's just part of the impact of the Internet on the oldest profession--prostitutes are using it to connect with a higher class of customer (maybe even the former governor of NY).

Economists have written on the imbalances of information, as between the seller and buyer of a used car; here's another case where technology comes to the rescue of mismatched customers and buyers, improving the net happiness of the world. (I guess.)

Whose Property?

Shankar Vedantam in the Post wrote about property yesterday and Tyler Cowen and Ross Hanson links to it. Research seems to show that those people who decorate their cars with bumper stickers, regardless of the sentiment, are more aggressive drivers than those milquetoasts like me who have an unadorned car (almost put a Gore sticker on in 2000, but didn't) and who just fume inside when someone cuts me off or tailgates or whatever.

The researchers' explanation is people have difference senses of "property"--our sense of possession of our bedroom is "private", whereas walking down a city street is "public". So the theory is people who decorate their cars consider them to be private, or privatish, and take more offense when their property is impinged on. (Reminds me of a cartoon I saw yesterday, although I can't get the punch line right: it was someone in a sort of vehicle, explaining to the bystander it wasn't their new SUV, it was their new house.)

I was struck by the sense of property idea. One thing I've noticed, living in a townhouse cluster where one's yard extends about 3-6 feet from the house and the rest is common, my sense of property doesn't match my neighbors, or rather, it took a good while for me to adjust. In the country our farm was a bit isolated, so anyone appearing on one's land was sort of automatically an intruder, suspicious, perhaps a hunter, perhaps a city person, definitely someone whose business you'd want to know. (Didn't want hunters mistaking cows for deer or city folks scaring the cows and cutting their milk production.) This might fit with the imperialistic image of farmers, who don't want anything except the land next to theirs. And, of course, reinforced by the need for fences. Anyhow, it's a different sense of property than I see in Reston. There's no property markers evident.

I thought of that yesterday, but got interrupted from posting it. Then this morning I got reminded of how we are just animals, after all. Petting our older cat, whose mother was feral and who still retains a bit of edge, everything was fine until she decided to jump into her cardboard box and bulge over its sides and I continued to pet her. Wrong! For her, when she's in a box or a paper bag, that's her property and she defends it, even when the hand approaching the box or bag harbors only good intentions.

Bottom line: Cats own property too.

The Most Unfortunate Wording I've Noticed Today

"There’s a fairly decent chance that we’re going to have a famine in hundreds of places all over the world, and hunger growing everywhere - including here - all for no reason whatsoever. "

Decent? decent? Please. (Note--while I read the blog I often don't agree with the author.)

Oh for the Days of Old--Destroyed FSA Office

The flooding has hit an FSA office in Bartholomew County, IN, according to this piece.

Reminds me of old times, coordinating with our Kansas City IT people on restoring files. (Not that we had more than 3 or 4 over 12 years or so, and not that I did much of any significance--it was mostly the IT types ("automation coordinator" was the title then) in the state office with help from KC. But it's the old, run to the pumps, instinct to help when disaster strikes.

(Given the changes in the IT environment and the unclear description in the piece, I can't even guess whether the office is in good or bad shape. I'd hope FSA isn't distracted from preparing for physical disasters by the emphasis on security of data from terrorists and hackers.)

Monday, June 16, 2008

Fly Boys and Cargo Humpers

Max Boot has an interesting op-ed in the NYTimes this morning. He notes the new AF chief of staff is neither a bomber pilot, in the mold of Hap Arnold and Curtis LeMay, or a fighter pilot, in the mold of the last 30 odd years, but a cargo man. He observes the differences it makes in how the Air Force works and runs, and what it buys (like two new fighter jets), mentioning the problems with pilotless drones and the A-10 Warthog (close support).

There were/are similar problems in the Navy--between the brown shoes and the black shoes--one set is the carrier types (who long ago vanquished the big gun battleship people) and the other is the submariners (Admiral Rickover's engineering heirs, like ex-President Jimmy Carter and Agweb's John Phipps).

"Culture" makes all the difference, whether it's in a big bureaucracy or a family setting--the Post has a piece on how hopeless engineers are in helping their kids do homework.

Technology and the Library of Congress Reading Room

For someone bookish living in the DC area I hate to admit my last visit to the Library of Congress reading room was 35 years ago (while researching CRT-based word processors, if you can believe it). It seems that the Internet, or our decline as a civilization, one or the other and take your choice, has resulted in a decline of readers actually physically using the reading room. See this piece from AHA.

It goes on to discuss other topics--how historians start their research (from the mountaintop, not from the path) and the dreaded "link rot"

(Every innovation has its downside, and link rot is one of the Web's)

Sunday, June 15, 2008


There's criticism of our industrial food system because it allows salmonella in tomatoes. But the raw milk system allows salmonella in milk (see this MSNBC piece).

Personally, I think the food system is rather like the transportation system. Commercial airliners are the safest way to travel: very regulated, very industrial, very centralized, very much scrutinized. Your private car is one of the most unsafe ways to travel (bicycles are worse): not very regulated, very decentralized.

So too for the food system--the centralized, industrialized food system is regulated (perhaps not quite as much as it should be) and very safe. But when someone screws up, the consequences are very visible, just as when an airline pilot screws up and the safeguards don't work. The decentralized system means the consequences of a screwup are limited, and not very visible.

I believe in Murphy's law--if humans are involved, someone will screw up. So keeping human involvement to a minimum in a system will result in a safer system. Mostly true.

Comparative Advantages in the Home

NYTimes magazine has an article on equality in parenting. Interesting, particularly the bit about the negotiations in same-sex marriages with kids. I've always wondered though if any economist has applied the "comparative advantage" theory of international trade to parenting. (The idea is that, all other things equal, two countries who trade with each other will end up specializing in the product/service which they're best at (even though their best may be worse than the other).

How Bush Ticks Off the Europeans

Remember when Bill Clinton shut down a LAX runway to get a haircut. Bush shuts down an airport with his aerial caravan, apparently causing cancellations of multiple flights. See Jim Manxi here. Or the direct link here.

Warning: this sort of thing is liable to be distorted and next year we'll find President Mcbama doing the same.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Dane County Trials and Tribulations

Ann Althouse is back in Wisconsin, so her pictures are short on NYC skylines and city streets and long on flowers. And she's interested in the conflict between the long time rural residents and the newcomers in Dane County, as described here.

(It's the same sort of thing that's occurred in Loudun County, VA and other nearby areas. Different strokes for different folks as we used to say. I've sympathy for both sides. I don't like change, I value history, and I like control--so I'd resent outsiders who want to impose their values. I'm also skeptical of those who search for a suburban dream house, most likely oversized, with a big yard and would prefer farms to suburbia. On the other hand, I don't have that much sympathy for NIMBY's who move in and either complain about smells or those who come after.

Sarkozy Has Tight Security

Interesting contrast in the security arrangements for President Sarkozy of France, as shown in this post by Mr. Beauregard. (Two cars? And two smallish cars? Are you kidding me? Amazing.)

Friday, June 13, 2008

George Will, Man of the Century

The nineteenth century, that is.

From his
column today, using "numbers" for each paragraph, the last:

2016.Assuming, not rashly, that Barack Obama wins, 2016 is the next time Hillary Clinton, who will then be 68, can seek the Democratic nomination. By then, the median age of the electorate will be 47, so for many millions of voters, Bill Clinton's tenure will seem only slightly less distant than Grover Cleveland's, the last Democratic presidency that did not make sensible citizens wince.

Dedicated Teachers

This was taken from our local freecycle site:
My classroom desperately needs a makeover. I'm hoping to find 2 to 6
gallons of colorful indoor wall paint. I can mix and match any colors
that would make a suitable learning environment--soft, neutral tones
or bright and bold! I can arrange a convenient pickup time. My
students next year will thank you!

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Funniest Mistake I Read Yesterday

From a NY Times article on the rising popularity of gardening:
Last year she kept a small garden. This year it has tripled in size into a five-by-seven-foot plot because, Ms. Gartin said, “The cost of everything is going up and I was looking to lose a few pounds, too; so it’s a win-win situation all around.”

What We May Assume--Women's Lib

Here's an interesting story, via someone I should recognize but missed, on women's lib, arguing that the advent of bicycles changed things and liberated women. It mentions riding sidesaddle. Now one could assume that the Victorian Age constraints on women were focused on the Anglo-saxon world, given Queen Victoria reigned over the British Empire and we concede that much of American popular culture followed the Brits. (Anyhow, that's the way my mind would work.)

But, separately there's an article in the NYTimes on Mexican rodeos ("a charreada") in the U.S. as Mexicans incorporate some of their traditions in their U.S. life. One of the features is a parade of women in petticoats riding sidesaddle. Whether Hispanic culture was as Victorian as U.S. was I don't know.

Straw in the Wind--Biofuels?

From Agweb:
A 45-million-gallon biodiesel plant near Evansville, Wis. was planned to open this fall. But, plans have changed.
North Prairie Productions, LLC has discontinued the construction of their biodiesel project. The reason: high commodity prices.
According to information published by the North Prairie Productions’ Board of Directors on their Web site, the rising costs of the commodities needed to produce biodiesel eroded their profit margin in producing the fuel.
As corn prices set records because of the bad weather, we may see more of this. Ethanol has prospered, I think, not only because of the subsidies but because oil prices have soared. If corn prices stay high and oil recedes, ethanol might have problems. [Warning: one of many subjects about which I know nothing.]

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Public Servants Publically Identified?

David Kopel at raises the question. As I've said before, I don't see a reason to keep this data private.

Test for All--Tobacco Program-Less

Here's an MSNBC article on tobacco farming now the government program has ended. Tobacco farmers are doing well. I've seen this mentioned before, last year, I think. An excerpt and some observations:

On the ideas of the anti-tobacco people before the program was killed:
“The hope would be that by eliminating the quotas there would be fewer farmers then engaged in growing this crop,” Mulvey said.

In fact, there are fewer farmers since the end of the program. But there is more tobacco being grown. And companies are investing in growers like Rod Keugel to a degree not seen in the past. PhilipMorris USA picked up the tab for some of his equipment and a tobacco barn. Critics say the manufacturers value these relationships even more for the political benefits than the tobacco."

I think the experience confirms the idea the program worked--that is, it kept people farming tobacco who wouldn't be farming tobacco in the absence of the program. (lWhether that's good or bad is another question.)

The program also kept new entrants out of the industry. That's an unanticipated consequence of other farm programs--particularly those which raise the price of farm land, thereby making it more difficult for newcomers to enter.

From the excerpt there's a hint of a move towards contract farming, moving away from the old auction barn ("sold Phillip Morris")?

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Cuban Agriculture

Some, most recently Tom Philpott, have praised the Cuban agriculture system, its urban farming and organic agriculture. One thing to remember is Cuba is not self-sufficient, as this article indicates. It doesn't say what food is imported, but this article says:
Cuba has been importing food like rice and chicken from the United States since 2000, when cash-only food sales were permitted as a exception to the US trade embargo, turning Cuba's ideological foe into its top foreign supplier.

Cuba's food import agency, Alimport, this week signed new contracts worth $60 million with a delegation from the US state of Nebraska, to import mainly wheat, pork and soy beans.
I don't have a comprehensive picture of Cuban agriculture/food supply.

Stephen Dubner on Ice Cream and Locally Grown Food

When Freakonomics meets Michael Pollan, the comments fly. The subject is, should everyone grow their own food? Stephen Dubner says, "no". The post attracts many more commenters than they usually get.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Most Thought Provoking Line I Read Today

""It's hard to live here," says Meldin Morales. "The one thing I like about here is the work. . . . Day after day after day: work.""

This is from an article by David Montgomery in today's Wash Post about the "chain emigration" from Ipala, Guatemala to Langley Park, MD. One emigrant found work there years ago, and his relatives, friends and neighbors have followed in his footsteps. It's the sort of emigration I believe some of my ancestors engaged in back in the nineteenth, certainly it's the sort of internal migration that seems to have lead my ancestors to move from York, PA to Geneva, NY.

Presumably Mr. Morales doesn't mean just "work", but work that pays well ($10 an hour, mostly something to do with building or repairing homes). I wonder how many natives would say the thing they like best about America is the work?

A Life in Agriculture--What's the Future

Erin writes of her childhood, and her children, at "Raising Country Kids". While she has memories of her past, written better than I ever could, it seems even in Montana modernity has struck:
"Times are different now. It seems that kids are so overscheduled in the summer that they can hardly call summertime a vacation. My children are ages ten, seven, five, and two, and still we spend nine weeks of the summer in organized activities of some sort. I realize now that I will have to be cautious to ensure that my children do not perpetuate the problem of young people becoming disengaged from agriculture. After all, they won’t learn to love it unless they experience it, and summer is a perfect time to do just that."
I don't know. I really don't. "Engaged in agriculture" can mean ranching or farming--that presumably would give her children (and grandchildren) what she values. But when there's only one ranch or farm to inherit, it's hard for everyone to continue in agriculture. And why does she value it. Was it the unscheduled dreamy summers, full of work and time to read and dream? If her kids have nine weeks of organized activities, what would her grandkids have? As life gets more and more competitive, will parents have to preserve their children's options or, as with the Amish, limit their options (i.e., no school after 8th grade).

And why the organized activities? In Montana one might say (at least in my imagination--I've no idea of the truth)--it's the only way to socialize because travel is so far and, particularly these days, so costly so you have to have organized activities, you can't just try "dropping in" on people as we used to do in my day. And the pressure is on--with so few neighbors, you have to be neighborly and you can't say, well, X is not going to play T-ball this year. And you want X to play T-ball because he/she needs the socializing. "Being neighborly" is a euphemism for conformity (as viewed by a secular liberal) or for being a Christian good person (as viewed by someone else).

High Gas and Rural Life

The NY Times has an article on the impact that high gas prices have on rural areas. The focus isn't on agriculture, but on those who have to commute long distances. The data is tied to median incomes, and the percent of income represented by gas, so the poorest counties are the hardest hit. Here's a graphic, just in case the article doesn't link to it. Essentially lower New England through the Mid-West is less affected, the cotton South, NM, WY, MT are most affected (up to 15 percent of income on gas).

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Lawns and the Environment

Tom Philpott at Grist points out a NASA study on lawns. It seems that we were environmentally correct when I was growing up. Never watered the lawn, never fertilized, left the grass clippings on the lawn; so the bottom line is that our lawn was a carbon sink. Flash forward and we could have gotten paid under a cap and trade policy for carbon. Best of all, from the environmental standpoint, for many years the lawn was mowed using a hand mower. I can still feel the blisters on the inside of my thumbs and in the my palms which I got every year the first time I mowed. Because there were no emissions, we were absolutely correct. (This contrasts with the rest of the country, where you need to water and fertilize, at least according to the author, and with now, when everyone uses power mowers.)

That's one difference between the Amish and the "greens". The Amish, at least some groups, will permit standalone gasoline engines to drive horse-drawn balers or milking machines. A true-blue green would never permit a gasoline engine to cross onto their property. ()

CRP's Future

Here's an article outlining the tradeoffs faced by the Conservation Reserve Program in an economy very different than that of the early 1980's, when it was pushed into law.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Implementing the Farm Bill

The High Plains Journal carries an interesting article on FSA's implementation of the farm bill. (I wish she'd noted the payment limitation changes take effect in 2009 crop year. Cynic that I am, that's plenty of time for the lawyers to figure out how to change legal structures to maximize benefits. No need to bug the FSA offices this summer.)

We Really Must Get Organized

That's what I say to my wife, almost every day. And she quotes Tonto back at me: "what's this 'we'"?

But now, via John Phipps, comes this site, where I can spend my time instead of really organizing myself. As in answering "yes" to most of the 21 questions to test whether I'm chronically disorganized. Growing old has one advantage, it gives one an alibi for one's forgetfulness and disorganization.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Friday Cat Blogging

Here's our two cats getting about as close as they ever do--watching something, probably a bird or squirrel, outside the window. They remind me of bureaucrats in different agencies, very protective of turf, quick to take offense, but sometimes willing to share space, particularly if there's some common focus.

Note the badly patched screen--Ginny, the cat on the left, still believes she's an outdoor cat and refuses to listen to our warnings about Mr. Fox.

Web 2..0 in Government

Government executive has an interesting article on the adoption of Web 2.0 technologies in the federal government. Some excerpts:

But the zeal of some early adopters of such tools concerns him. "The bloggers worry less about the mission than about getting more bloggers. Intellipedia is more interested in getting more users than in contributing to the mission," Wertheimer said. "We're not yet nudging the early adopters to tinker with the iPhone to see how the adversary will use it to subvert the intelligence community."

Wertheimer also said many analysts still are skeptical about new technology and Web 2.0. Analysts distrust technology staffs, believing they deliver only tools and toys rather than greater capability. His answer to the problem, of course, is collaboration. "We need courses [that include] both of them," he said. "We need to integrate tools. . . . Neurons need to talk to other neurons."

In addition, fear and distrust are impediments on the agency level, he said, noting that ODNI's efforts to convince agencies to share information and people often founder on the ambiguous legislative authority with which the office was created. Each agency is content to discuss other agencies' problems with ODNI officials, but unwilling to examine its own problems, he said. And few willingly follow actions recommended by the director's office for fear that cooperation will lead to more requests for change. "There isn't a sense of common purpose," Wertheimer added.

I don't know how one overcomes such obstacles. One way might be to blow up the existing organizations and start from scratch, but that doesn't work in the government. I think it was Steve Coll, whose book "The Bin Ladens" I just finished (strongly recommend), who commented in passing that the FBI seemed very good in collecting facts but horrible in accumulating them in one place and analyzing them, while the CIA was the opposite, good at analysis but bad at collection. That sort of reflects the cultures of the organizations.

D-Day Message

One of the first adult books I read was Dwight David Eisenhower's "Crusade in Europe"--I recommend it. Often as D-Day comes around we in the U.S. get reminded of his decisions--the drama of delaying D-Day for weather reasons and his writing a message saying the landing was a failure and his fault. That's good and fine.

What we don't remember is the ground commander was the Brit we oldsters love to hate (particularly in "Patton")--Monty. And so I'd never seen the message Monty sent to the troops, which Dirk Beauregard posts here.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Bureaucrat of the Day--Secretary Gates

DOD Secretary Gates has fired the Secretary of the Air Force and the Chief of Staff. The problem was security of nuclear weapons, which had been screwed up twice. But in the background was Gates' problems with the AF on unmanned drones--apparently the flyboys haven't been as enthusiastic about them as everyone else. (Sort of hurts the self-image of a flyboy to be flying from behind a desk. Can you imagine Sen. McCain or Pres. Bush being enthusiastic drone flyers?)

Gates gets a nod for firing big shots for poor performance, something that rarely happens, even in the private sector.

FSA Bureaucrats at Work

The farm bill has been enacted and those busy beavers at the South Building have issued a series of notices providing early info on its effects.

Notice PL-173 says, which I missed in the law, but which makes sense, that the new payment limitation regs will apply for the 2009 crop year. I don't anticipate following these changes in detail--I've already lost my memory of what's what and spending any portion of my remaining time on earth trying to absorb payment rules doesn't make sense.

Notice DCP-187
covers the direct payment program. The 10-acre base limit will be interesting. Is that going to be significant enough for people to try to evade it. Because you don't have to plant to get payments, the definition of cropland may become more important. That's the sort of thing I enjoyed, trying to figure out the implications and to stay abreast of the schemes and wiles of the people trying to outwit you (i.e., the lawyers).

How Much Do You Love Your Kids?

Considering today's gas prices, is it worth driving 140 miles to watch a T-ball game?

Someone (in the media) really needs to sign Erin up to write/photograph for them.

Signs of Hope for Locavores

Having put down locavores, it's time to toss them a bone of hope. Michelle Slatalla, one of my favorite columnists in the NY Times, has this article. If the future is California, we'll find the Internet becomes the intermediary in matching organic/local food growers with those customers who are willing to pay extra. Apparently there are already several operations going in her area.

Someone Anderson (senior moment) has written of the "long tail"--the idea that the Internet makes it possible for Netflix to have an incredible inventory of DVD's which they find people willing and able to rent. Even though the plurality of rentals are the most current and popular things, the distribution curve has a very long tail. The same thing may occur with food. Most people won't like the service Slatalla describes, but some will, just as most people don't rent "Kelly's Heroes", but a few will. (Snuck in my favorite movie.)

"Peter Rabbit Must Die" Says the Times

It's an interesting piece (a bit fluffy) on how people deal with those creatures which eat their gardens.

It brought back memories of my mother and her campaign against the woodchucks. I never quite figured it out--yes, they did raid her garden but she tried to gas those in our hayfields as well. It may have been memories from childhood of a horse breaking his leg in one of their holes.

Woodchucks, for those who have never killed one, burrow (particularly in gravelly soil such as we had) and make two kinds of entrances. One has all the excavated soil, it's sort of a front porch from which the woodchuck can raise up on his rear and survey the surrounding landscape for possible predators. While a woodchuck has teeth that can give a dog a nasty bite, they're basically easy prey if cornered away from their burrow. But the other hole is just a hole, very much hidden, and that's the sort of thing that's dangerous, particularly for a horse walking through grass.

It's a reminder, though, of the cross-currents that run through the organic/locavore movement, as is this piece in Slate entitled: "There Will Be Chicken Blood, The gritty truth about urban farming". To the extent that vegetarians are a part of the movement, there's a conflict with the battle to protect the fruits of one's labors. Life is not simple, but I suppose people know that already.

Pollan on the Farm Bill--Can't Beat Something with Nothing

Michael Pollan writes at EWG on what went wrong with the farm bill. His basic answer is: his camp didn't have a constructive proposal for replacing the current system. And proponents of the current system did a good job of "logrolling", also known as co-opting people by throwing them a bone.

I suspect that's about right, although I'd add another factor: the opponents made a lot of noise, but never showed a good, big organization. You get the attention of politicians by whacking them with grassroots support, not posts on blogs, etc., or even best sellers.

Finally, the history of farm legislation is that changes occur incrementally--the institution of the Conservation Reserve Program in the 85 bill and Freedom to Farm's direct payments were, in my opinion, the two biggest changes we've had since 1965.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

$4 Gas

Just filled up with my first tank of $4 gas. Long time since gas was $.30 and the stations competed for your patronage with freebies. (I guess I'm showing my age.)

When you look at Europe you find $8-$9 gas so I'm not complaining, but I understand the anger of those who have no choice but to put diesel in their 18 wheelers and tractors. As I've said, I think the high prices will dampen demand enough that prices will fall for a good while. But back in the 1970's we thought we were seeing a permanent change in our economy. Turned out that oil was below $20 for several years, before the latest rise.

How Bureaucrats Are Made--Kris Koth

One of the things I find fascinating about bureaucracy is how it is staffed. I'm going to make a generalization--for 100+ years the role of the USDA has been to provide jobs for children of farmers. Instead of farming full-time, they leave the farm and go to work for USDA, in the last 50 or so years after going to college and graduating from their state's land grant university. Sometimes they stay in their home state, sometimes they move elsewhere, to DC or Hawaii.

I don't mean that everyone who works for USDA in the field was raised on a farm, but that's the pattern. I suspect other bureaucracies have other patterns (like the Catholic church used to attract one boy from a large Irish family).

Here's a piece on someone who's following the pattern in Iowa.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The Iraq Index Today

Here's the May 29 version from Brookings. It's interesting--lots of the tables haven't been updated recently. I suspect it's because people have lost interest in the subject. (The people at Brookings just assembled data from various governments and organizations, they didn't do research themselves.)

The headline news is, of course, the 19 U.S. deaths in May are a low for the war since the first year. And there's been several optimistic articles and op-eds in the past few weeks, even though most of them don't get the attention of the past. I don't think that's liberal bias particularly--it's mostly the idea that conflict and bad news is lots more newsworthy than good news. It is true, though, that we liberals have a hard time fitting the news into our overall narrative so it's often easy to ignore.

Personally, I've a bureaucratic narrative--there's a learning curve, it's taken us 4-5 years to learn, but we're at last much improved over what we were at first. (You can see this in Vietnam, the last few years under Abrams were much more effective than the first years under Westmoreland.)

A couple factoids, without links: NYTimes had an article on the US prisons in Iraq--we're holding over 20,000 prisoners, of which about 1 percent are foreign. It's possible we killed most of the people who were willing to come to Iraq and die, or people just got tired after so many years, but it doesn't fit with a war against international terrorism. Attacks against oil infrastructure are way down this year--good news for the Iraqi economy and for our gas prices.

The Process of Certification and Proofing

I posted yesterday on the Iraqi bureaucrat whose signature is known all over. I post today on the explanation (in part) for the screwup on the farm bill. (The trade title was omitted in the version sent to the President.) This article from Politico describes the process by which a bill is sent to the President and blames Newt Gingrich for the penny-pinching which opened the loophole resulting in the problem. In brief, instead of printing two copies on parchment, proofing one, and sending the other to the President, he had them print the bill twice, once on plain paper. Somehow, between the first and second printing the title was dropped. Probably because each title was being treated as a document (or perhaps a subdocument with a master document). And the usual bureaucratic routine was being upset by the call for haste. As mom always said: "haste makes waste".

Forgive my enthusiasm for this detail--but it recalls the days when my office had to certify true and correct copies of regulations to be published in the Federal Register.

DC Gets Organic Fast Food

One of the interesting developments since the 1950's when mom first subscribed to Organic Gardening is all the cross-cutting currents in this area. There's the development of big food chains like Whole Foods that focus on the organic area, there's the development of Community supported agriculture chains, there's the "locavore" movement that would seem to reject organic food shipped in from abroad and accept hothouse food grown locally, there's the infighting among the various elements of the organic community over what the term means, there's the possibility of genetically modified organic food. And now, coming to DC, is organic fast food.

(I recognize this is an oversimplified summary. The bottom line is folks should be happy at the confusion and conflict--it all means people see a bandwagon passing by and they're jumping on.)

Monday, June 02, 2008

A Faceless Iraqi Bureaucrat

The Post has a fascinating (to me) article on an Iraqi bureaucrat:

The looped and dotted script of Abdul Ghani's signature is etched in rubber and slicked with ink. His signature is the final stamp of approval for many foreign matters involving Iraqi citizens.

"Every embassy in the world has a record of my signature," says Abdul, 28, leaning forward on his thick arms.

Apparently, he and other "authorizers" have to sign documents, like high school diplomas being used to apply to college abroad.

What's fascinating? Well, he is a faceless bureaucrat, but as he says, his signature is known. And before bureaucrats had signatures, they had seals, authenticating a document (i.e., like the Great Seal of the U.S. or the "signet" ring which was a more personal seal). Some movies make a big deal of the application of seals--like the warrant for execution of someone in British politics (Queen Mary, Cromwell, whoever). So on the one hand you have the anonymity of the bureaucrat, the document stating a bureaucratic rule without a hint of the author, but on the other hand you have the authentication, tracing the document back to some process with legitimacy.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

There's Always Tradeoffs

From Saturday's LA Times:
Law enforcement officials estimate that as many as 1,000 of the 7,500 homes in this Humboldt County community are being used to cultivate marijuana, slashing into the housing stock, spreading building-safety problems and sowing neighborhood discord.

Indoor pot farms proliferated in recent years as California communities implemented Proposition 215, the statewide medical marijuana measure passed overwhelmingly a dozen years ago. A backlash over the effects and abuses of legally sanctioned marijuana growing has emerged in some of the most liberal parts of the state.

For example, in neighboring Mendocino County, a measure on Tuesday's election ballot seeks to repeal a local proposition passed eight years ago that decriminalized cultivation of as many as 25 pot plants.

The experience of Arcata, a bastion of cannabis culture, reveals the unintended consequences of the 1996 Compassionate Use Act, designed to provide relief to AIDS patients, cancer victims and others.

Why We Have Fast Food

This excerpt from 100 years ago says it all, via a Christian Science Monitor article on alternet:

"In 1907, Laura Clarke Rockwood wrote poignantly in The Craftsman magazine about the need to simplify housekeeping: "This mother of to-day hurries from kitchen to nursery and over the other parts of the house, performing as best she can the many home duties of our times. But she is so overwearied in the doing of it all that the deep well of mother love which should overflow, flooding the world with happiness and cheer, runs well nigh dry at times."

As one solution, Mrs. Rockwood proposed moving meal preparation out of the home: "There should be food kitchens easily accessible to every home where cooked foods can be bought cheaply because of consolidation, and delivered hot to our homes with promptness and regularity in pneumatic tubes perhaps, or by whatever means the master mind shall decide is the cheapest and the best.

A quote such as this tends to discredit ideas that fast food has been foisted on an unwilling populace.

High Gas Costs Hurt Rural Areas

This story about a rural district going to 4 days a week because of high fuel costs reminds us of tradeoffs. (If you remember, back in 1993 the new Clinton/Gore administration was pushing a carbon tax, then a gasoline tax, for environmental reasons. Their big opposition came from Western Democrats whose constituents need to drive long distances. Particularly on the High Plains you have to drive distances incredible to an Eastern city dweller.)