Friday, October 31, 2008

So When Will the U.S. Do a Wiki?

Canada has just launched a wiki for its government, according to this post.

I hope our next President will follow suit.

Another Liberal Joins the Club

There's a group of moderate and conservative Republicans who have endorsed Sen. Obama (Sec. Powell most notably, and just today Reagan's chief of staff, Ken Duberstein). They get called "Obamacan's", I think.

Maybe there's a club for liberals who think, as I do, that Gov. Palin will be a significant force in American politics, even if the McCain/Palin ticket is defeated. Eugene Robinson, columnist for the Post, just joined today. His last three sentences: "She has learned much in a very short period.

And she will learn more. I predict we'll have Sarah Palin to kick around for a long, long time."

HFCS, Corn Subsidies and Obesity

An interesting study of the relationship among sugar usage, corn subsidies, and obesity from Iowa State. Its abstract:
Major changes in the use of US sweeteners have occurred since 1970, in both the amount and composition. Increased consumption of caloric sweeteners, especially in beverages, has been linked to excess energy intake and lower-quality diets. We examine how US farm policies (specifically agricultural research and development [R&D] expenditures and commodity programs) have affected the consumption and composition of sweeteners in the US diet. R&D expenditures have lowered the unit cost of most commodities and increased their use in food production, ceteris paribus, although corn has benefited more than sugar crops in the technical progress. Commodity programs have raised the price of sugar and decreased the price of corn; high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) became an inexpensive substitute for sugar in food beginning in 1970. However, the effect of this change in the price of ingredients has become less important
over time. Today the farm value share in sweetened food is very small (below 5%), and HFCS has become a specialized input in many food items. Countries with different or no commodity programs experience similar increases in consumption of added sugar. We conclude that the current link between the US consumption of caloric sweeteners and farm policy is tenuous, although historically the link was stronger.
I would have liked more research on the next to last sentence, but it's good to read.

Counting Chickens--Sec of Ag

According to this piece, Tom Vilsack, Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, and Tom Buis are possible Obama Secretaries of Agriculture. Sandlin would cost a seat in the House, but helps on diversity.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Re-reading a Study

Sara at Down to Earth highlights a Cornell study which finds some meat/dairy in a diet is more efficient than a pure vegetarian diet, since it enables use of poorer quality land (study was done in NY and NY has lots of poorer quality land) for grazing.

Very interesting, but I'd like to highlight a different aspect of the study. The idea was to figure out, using a complete diet of only foods that can be grow in NY, the "agricultural land footprint" of the diet. "Locavore" isn't mentioned in the study but that's the definition. They compared 42 diets with different mixes of foods and found that one person takes .44 acre on vegetarian and 2.11 acres eating 3/4 a pound of meat a day. But the best case is NY land can support between 22 and 32 percent of its population. (I'd assume the study used all sorts of assumptions in terms of farming methods and agricultural workforce.)

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Errors in Acreage

Delta Farm Press reports USDA screwed up. Agweb provides some detail:

After the Oct. 10 reports were issued, FSA analysts noted a discrepancy between the raw data on its mainframe and the data it had provided to NASS on a system known internally as a “data mart.” The data mart correlates and organizes the raw data for presentation to FSA county staff, NASS and other users in a more concise and accessible format.

USDA analysts have confirmed that data mart information used in previous reports was consistent with the information in the FSA mainframe database. Database management experts will review the discrepancies in the October data, focusing on how the two systems interact and how the mainframe data are transmitted and translated into the format used in the data mart.

Interesting that the first report seemed to blame NASS, the second makes it seem like a screwup in FSA.

Only the Sharpest Become Economists

Or those damn older sisters:

Steven Levitt at Freakonomics:

That ["rogue" = bad] is not what my sister Linda told me when she gave me the moniker the “rogue economist.” She told me being a rogue is a good thing, and I believed her; just like when I was five and she convinced me that, since a penny is bigger in size than a dime, it is worth more. I happily traded all my dimes for all her pennies, cutting my net worth at the time roughly in half.

Monday, October 27, 2008


I blogged earlier about the problems USDA has in trying to get a reliable and effective reporting system for civil rights cases and issues (in the context of a critical GAO report).

This page of a new manual for USDA agencies on GIS (geo-spatial information) systems shows what the problems are in a different context: three different agencies (NRCS, FSA, RD), three different approaches to GIS data. (Almost 11 years since I retired and 16 years since InfoShare, I can only laugh. Matter of fact, it looks as if the entire manual is, from the right viewpoint, great comic material for a computer head. ) More seriously, I can only guess at the problems the authors of this manual had, so a tip of the hat to them.

Clinton Is Out of Touch

When he became President, he admitted he didn't e-mail. It's not clear he's learned since. Certainly he doesn't keep up with grain prices on the Internet. See this bit from treehugger:

Speaking to a struggling food economy where grain prices have doubled and some food items in Haiti and Ethiopia are five hundred times greater than normal, Clinton said,

Food is not a commodity like others. We should go back to a policy of maximum food self-sufficiency. It is crazy for us to think we can develop countries around the world without increasing their ability to feed themselves.
Clue: corn was down to $3.80 the last I checked. (The link is to a UK scientist who in March predicted: "price rises in staples such as rice, maize and wheat would continue because of increased demand caused by population growth and increasing wealth in developing nations."

Nuanced Bureaucracy, Found in Social Security Administration

One of the legacies of the old days of bureaucracy is the binary evaluation: an application or whatever has to be evaluated. So every application goes through the same process, resulting in a yes or no decision. With the advent of software algorithms, it's quite possible for a bureaucracy to become more nuanced, to use different systems for different folks.

As an example, SSA is using a new approach to disability applications: claim you have ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease), if the diagnosis is confirmed you get your approval. Claim you have lower back pain, and it takes a good while. Of course, our legislators don't necessarily keep up with advances--there's still a mandatory 5-month waiting period for all claims.

Our Neighbors Care

Shankar Vedantam is back in the Post, reporting on an ingenious experiment based on the little-known fact that voting records are public (i.e., whether or not you voted is public). Academic researchers found people who knew whether their neighbors voted last time and who were warned their behavior in a current election would be publicized, increased their participation by 27 percent.

Some questions are unanswered: the base participation rate was about 30 percent voting (municipal type election, not national), so the increase was presumably to 40 percent. What would be interesting, in the light of the "Bowling Alone" thesis (Americans no longer join organizations, etc.) would be to identify differences among neighborhoods, perhaps as a measure of social cohesion.

McKibben Versus GMU Economist

As a lead-in to a debate between Bill McKibben, a guru of local food, and a George Mason U economist (who seem to range between moderate conservative and very much so), Russell Roberts (actually I like Marginal Revolution), is interviewed by a Vermont paper.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Race and USDA, an example of Mismanagement

From the GAO report which I noted earlier includes this:

In 2004, to overcome these conditions [customers identified by observation], ASCR published a notice in the Federal Register seeking public comment on its plan to collect additional data on race, ethnicity, gender, national origin, and age. While ASCR
received some public comments, it did not follow through and obtain
OMB’s approval to collect the data. In a January 2008 briefing document,
an ASCR work group stated that ASCR does not have the staff or financial
resources to proceed with this project. ASCR officials said, after meeting
with GAO in May 2008, they convened an interagency work group to
develop a revised notice to be published in the Federal Register. As of
August 2008, the draft notice is under review within USDA, according to
ASCR officials.
This seems inexcusable mismanagement--4 years go by without someone pushing the issue? In an office of over 100 people you don't have one or two to devote to it? No action by the head of the office, nor by the Secretary?

In partial defense of the bureaucracy, (to change my viewpoint quickly), USDA is a collection of independent agencies with tight ties to people in Congress, interest groups, and local communities, so imposing a system from the South Building, which is what GAO is asking for, would be a daunting job for the best of bureaucrats.

The NY Times 27 Years Ago, and Agriculture Now

Here's an agriculture story from 1981, hat tip to Info Farm, the National Agricultural Library's blog, for alerting me to the NYTimes categorization of stories from its archive since 1981. It's a downbeat article, seeing the end of the green revolution:
"agricultural economists who specialize in world food production,[say] there will be no dramatic leaps in food yields. Meanwhile, the rate at which more food is produced actually has been declining - while the world's population is increasing by 70 million people each year. Worldwide, the margin between these two factors is discouragingly narrow. In Africa it has already disappeared and the increase in the amount of food grown each year, despite the gains from the green revolution, is less than the annual population increase."
It's because I remember such stories (and even worse ones from the 1950's) that I appreciate the accomplishments of industrial agriculture, which was able, over the next quarter century, to improve the average diets of the world's populace even though the population increased by 2 billion.

Counting Chickens

I shouldn't be superstitious, but I am, so I approach this Politico article with a poor attitude, as it looks forward to an Obama administration and doubts the feasibility of promises of open government. The article reflects the youth of the writer, in that there's no mention of Jimmy Carter and his pledges, some of which he carried out, few of which did much to improve government. For example, a law (the "Sunshine Act", maybe) required meetings of federal bodies, like the board of the Commodity Credit Corporation, be publicized in advance. That might have had a small impact on the decline of the CCC board process. (The CCC used to be a big part of the USDA mechanism, but it's now degenerated--I don't see any Federal Register notice of CCC meetings.)

(Whoops--I blamed Jimmy Carter for it, but the Sunshine Act was actually passed in 1976, probably part of the good government reaction to Nixon's abuses.)


Elizabeth Rosenthal has an article on the potato as an answer to the question of how to feed the world. Because it's hard to store and transport, it's more or less a locavore food. No, I haven't done the figures, but potatoes are likely more distributed in growth than any grain and probably more than any vegetable.

Of course, as the Irish discovered 160 years ago, local isn't always better.

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Explanation for This Post Is...

Sex. According to columnist Kathleen Parker (don't know her) in the Post, men like McCain (and I?) don't have good judgment when faced with an attractive woman like Sarah Palin.

So, when I claim that I always felt Palin was important, my claim should be dismissed. :-(

However, Lois Romano's article on Palin as a new kind of feminist, also in the Post, deserves reading. I'd summarize it as saying Palin stretches the envelope for female politicians, showing one can attract support by combining feminism without pro-choice positions. I think she'll turn out to be a more important candidate than Ferraro was in '84, and hopefully have more effect on her party than Ferraro did on the Dems.

(I hasten to add, as a confirmed Dem, I'm glad she's making political history, but apparently without helping the Reps to win the White House.)

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Contra Michael Pollan--Farmers Comment

I'd like to note some comments on Michael Pollan's recent NY Times mag piece, mostly from self-identified farmers or farm-raised people



Rp, a farmer from Canada

Allen Hurlburt
, CA

Fred Schumacher
, MN and here

Overtaken by Events

From an April 17, 2008 Treehugger:
"Oil is setting record high prices. People are rioting over the price of food in Haiti, Egypt, parts of West Africa and the Philippines. Since March 2007 the price of soybeans is up 87%, and the price of wheat has risen 130%. Global grain stores are at the lowest levels on record. Amid this turmoil the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) released its report this week on the state of agriculture.

From farmpolicy today:

“The Midwest faces plunging crop prices [December corn futures, November soybean futures, December wheat futures] and stubbornly high production costs. Corn prices have dropped from $7.54 a bushel around July Fourth in central Iowa to just $3.81 a bushel on Tuesday. But growers are hearing from suppliers that fertilizer and seed costs could rise by more than 40% each for next spring’s plantings.”

Civil Rights in USDA

GAO has a report out criticizing USDA. See here for Post story and here for House Ag.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Those Brits Are Good

From Agweb:

There’s little doubt that farming breeds a competitive spirit. Take for example, the latest world record breaking harvest times coming out of England.
The record for bushels of wheat harvested in a single eight-hour time frame was contested and triumphed twice in two weeks. Early in September, a team using a New Holland CR9090 (Class 9 machine) harvested 16,571 bu.
On September 16, a team near Nottingham, United Kingdom, set the current world record with a Claas Lexion 580 Terra Trac (Europe’s version of the Lexion 595R). The Lexion 580 harvested 19,533 bu. of wheat in eight hours. This harvest stretched across six fields.

Sometimes You Don't Want to Lie to FSA

From the Moultrie Observer:

In addition [to a $5 million fraud charge], McKinnon was charged separately in the indictment with defrauding the United States Department of Agriculture and Farm Services Agency by dividing his farming operation into six separate entities in order to receive six subsidy payments when he was entitled to only one.

In addition to the prison sentence, McKinnon was ordered to pay $4 million restitution to United Agri Products. He also was ordered to pay $1.357 million to USDA Farm Services Agency in Douglas.

Crop Insurance Programs for Revenue

FCIC was initiating the revenue crop insurance programs just before I left USDA. Farmgate has an interesting piece on the current prospects for indemnity checks under them. What's most bothersome is this:
One of the uncontrollable issues is what the USDA’s Risk Management Agency does with the yield expectations. If your county yield is set too low, GRIP will never pay off. If it is set too high, GRIP is guaranteed income. Additionally, RMA's crop insurance ratings for some counties are not actuarially sound, and in some counties farmers will almost always get a payment and in others they almost always will never get a payment.
Too much chance for screwups here--hopefully this pessimistic picture is overdrawn.

Some People Are Born Romantics

Most romantics find their satisfaction in praising nature, but some people (like thecottonwife) have an expansive spirit which finds beauty in other things:
"And if the drying shed is close enough to the house (and it is to ours) it provides you with the best sleep you’ve ever gotten. That peanut smell… the sound of the fan… a clear star-filled sky… the windows open… there is no better sleep on earth. I can practically hear my mom and my grandma sighing at the memory of that right now."
Personally, I remember sleeping on the sleeping porch after a late summer thunderstorm, with the rain drops still falling from the leaves of the big maple tree.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Costly Fruits and Vegetables?

One of the recurring themes of critics of the current food system is that calories are cheap, while fruits and vegetables are costly. I stumbled over this factoid from ERS while researching something else:

"How Much Do Americans Pay for Fruits and Vegetables?—One argument for not consuming fruits and vegetables is that they are too expensive, especially when fresh. Yet among 154 forms of fruits and vegetables priced using ACNeilsen Homescan data, more than half were estimated to cost 25 cents or less per serving. Consumers can meet the recommendation of three servings of fruits and four servings of vegetables daily for 64 cents. The related data product is a collection of spreadsheets that contain all the data used in the report and are presented to show exactly how ERS arrived at the costs per serving figures."

I didn't dig into it, but it's a reminder things are more complex than we imagine.

POGO Recommendations

No, this isn't "Pogo", the Walt Kelly creation, but something not amusing at all--the Project on Government Oversight. They've issued recommendations for the new President here. They don't turn me on, but different strokes for different folks. (One comment--if the Pres could involve staffers from the hill in the review of program effectiveness, it might help.)

Shocked, Shocked I Say

That the administration is sending its appointees out to campaign under the guise of "official events". See here.

Believe me, it's what administrations do. (Though normally not State, DOD, Treasury, or Justice, the old-line posts, and that seems to be the rule this time as well.)

Monday, October 20, 2008

Government Policing Farmers

The 1985 farm bill instituted compliance with "sodbuster/swampbuster" provisions as a prerequisite for earning certain farm bill payments. This was a major wrench for the USDA agencies, particularly the Soil Conservation Service (as NRCS was then called). SCS was used to being the farmer's friend and educator, helping install farm ponds and contour cropping trips. Sod/swamp moved them more into the policeman role, determining what the farmer had to do to comply. An interesting history could be written of the next 23 years, as farm groups lobbied for changes, conservation groups fought back, SCS and FSA felt caught in the middle.

Now we can anticipate other changes. As my right-wing friends might say, an ever-encroaching government bureaucracy taking away farmers' freedoms. Here's an piece in Mulch, on the problems of controlling run-off pollution in watersheds (a problem already faced in the New York City watershed). The writer struggles to plot a course between purely "voluntary" conservation measures, which aren't that effective, and alternatives, trying to identify alternatives which aren't oppressive. For an old cynic, the struggle is most interesting.

Funniest Sentence of the Day

From Simon Winchester, who's written a book on the Oxford English Dictionary (among many others), writing in the NYTimes about the change in meaning of "subprime":
The current print edition of the O.E.D., for example, still sports this definition of the unusual word “abbreviator”: “a junior official of the Vatican, whose duties include drawing up the pope’s briefs” — which would clearly, after briefs-as-legal-documents transmuted into briefs-as-boxer-alternatives, benefit from some rewriting.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

How Legislation Is Implemented III

In a word, slowly. This appeared in the Federal Register:

Implementing the Patient Safety and Quality Improvement Act of 2005 Including How to Become a Patient Safety Organization: Interim Guidance Availability

Implementing the Patient Safety and Quality Improvement Act (of 2005): How to Become a Patient Safety Organization; Interim Guidance Availability

Don't Trust Mid-level Bureaucrats

The power of the bureaucrat who is politically-savvy and can forge connections to Congress is shown in Eric Lipton's story this weekend.

It's a version of the "iron triangle" (which I first heard used about a North Korean/Chinese area in the Korean War) where private interests, bureaucrats in the executive, and Congress types scratch each other's backs. What's unusual in the story is that the DOD bureaucrat was lower in the bureaucracy and more enterprising than one normally encounters. But the bureaucrat got dollars appropriated for programs that mostly weren't useful, except in keeping his bit of the bureaucracy going; the private companies got money, and the Congress types (Senators) brought home the bacon for the home folks. It's the sort of thing that McCain means in his attacks on earmarks.

Pure Sentiment--Cornell Photo

See here.

It's a nice photo.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Implementation (of FArm Bill)

I've commented on how long it takes to implement programs. Of course, USDA does much better. :-) (not really, I'm doing an oranges and apples comparison). Here's their report on implementing the 2008 farm bill. It makes a difference whether you're implementing a brand new program, or just an iteration of a program you've implemented before. It also makes a difference if the agency is used to implementing new programs.

Why the Amish Aren't a Role Model

I've done a fair amount of posting on the Amish, much of it based on Donald Kraybill's work. They seem, as a commenter on an earlier post said, to be a possible model for an alternative agriculture. Possibly, but I respectfully disagree.

There are many attractive aspects to the Amish way of life. The tight-knit community, the sharing of burdens, the evocation of a slower, more peaceful way of life, a way of life close to that which I experienced before 1951 (when we convert from horses to a tractor).

But the key to the Amish is they want to be "off-the-grid", not of "this world", outside the market economy. Their way of life is part and parcel of their religion, which ironically gives them advantages in competing with capitalistic, free market-oriented farmers. Consider:
  • no health insurance. They do cooperate with modern medicine; see this article in the Smithsonian magazine about a doctor and the genetic diseases to which Amish and Mennonites are susceptible due to in-breeding. If memory serves, they paid for the treatment of the children wounded in the schoolhouse shooting.
  • no social security. They rely on the close-knit community and the large families to take care of the children
  • no college tuition. They don't go to college.
  • no real estate loans. Their new settlements pay cash for land.
  • no utility bills (except kerosene) No cable, no electricity. Well water and septic tanks.
All this is in addition to the better known self-sufficiency in food, shelter, and clothing.

So, based on these facts, the Amish can afford to farm small, farm solar (in Pollan's new phraseology.) They simply don't need the cash flow of a big, industrialized farm. I remain to be convinced there's a "middle way" (to re-use a term from the early '50's for a different purpose) between John Phipps and the Amish.

My mantra: the way you farm, the way you live, and the way you eat are all intertwined.

Friday, October 17, 2008

McCain Opposes Some Farm Programs

Dan Morgan outlines his position, not just anti-ethanol, but also "market access" (trying to find export markets).

Evaluating Government

Government Executive has a piece on Bush's PART (Program Assessment Rating Tool),with comments by academics. Bottomline for me: programs are hard to evaluate, particularly because many represent an imperfect blending of different ideas and goals held by different sponsors in Congress (and the Administration). Which was/is our goal in Iraq?

And the fact that neither Congress nor the public buy in to the evaluations is critical. Bureaucrats in an agency will respond to what the appropriate Congressman wants, not to what is written on PART.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Who, Me Biased?

Not at all. We must not have the full picture of Michael Pollan's garden here. It looks rather small, certainly nothing to match his grandfather's garden, described here, in a piece I like rather better than his more recent work.

Of course, Pollan must be busy flying around the country promoting his books, too busy to maintain the year-round garden that must be possible in California. I'd hate to have his travel schedule over the next weeks, or his carbon foot-print.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Interesting Posts

As I continue to try to catch up, let me note aspects of some posts that caught my eye:

  • Jennifer M in Ethicurean on an Ohio meeting about preserving farmland quotes David Kline, an Amish farmer: "Though the Amish have long been seen as old-fashioned and too low-tech to be emulated widely, their methods work: from building soil fertility through the use of manure, to promoting advances in simple but efficient technologies (European-designed plows, horse power, small-scale operations). “There is no such thing as post-agricultural society,” he warned, and farming can provide job security if we remember that the goal is “honest living” and to leave the land a better place for our children. “We’re the last people to advocate you should do it our way,” he noted, but with a twinkling, self-deprecating smile, he added, “But it works.” He rounded out his comments with a call for diversity in farming — in ideas as well as in crops — and for an emphasis on community."
  • a summary of a panel in Ethicurean on the future.
  • a reference in Ethicurean to the blueprint. (Most interesting, as it was dated in 2003 and focused on the low prices for US farm products in 1996-2003 whereas other writers more recently have focused on the high food prices of recent years. It's one problem of agriculture, indeed of economics in general, you come up with a good theory and turn your head and it's been challenged by data.)

A Comment on NYTimes Magazine Issue

I found this post in the Daily Yonder to be right on. [ed--even though he likes a lot of Pollan's ideas--Yes].

Bill Bishop criticizes the issue for ignoring, mostly, farmers. I don't think farmers have any direct line to wisdom, even when it comes to agriculture, but I doubt an issue on movies, or novels, or even auto-making, would so minimize the role of farmers.

(Note: I should hat-tip someone, but I moved too fast and lost the reference.)

Bureaucrats Prepare for Transition

And get advice here on handling the initial meetings with the appointees. I hope, vainly, the new President's people don't come to office suspicious of both what's happened the last 8 years and the career bureaucrats who implemented it. They've got too much to do to worry about the past.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Amish Take Over Farming

The Post had an article on the surging Amish population a few days ago. Professor Kraybill estimates a gain of 84 percent in 16 years. Keep that up, and pretty soon the Amish will accomplish what the locavores and organic farming types want.

Short-Lived Small Farms

Pardon the cynicism of a codger, but this post at Musings of a Stonehead confirms me:
"It turns out that, in his [the local attorney] experience, most incomers buying crofts and smallholdings in the area last about three years before giving up and moving back to a “more manageable” house and garden.

Food Co-ops

Stephanie Pierce blogs at Ethicurean about food co-ops she and her husband saw driving across America. Some good generalizations there, but I think she misses the most important element to a good co-op: finding a structure and a niche which ensures survival over the medium term. There were lots of producer and consumer co-ops in the 1920's and 30's, and again in the 1960's, but history tells us most of them failed or were bought out. A single smart, persistent, hard working person can initiate a co-op, attracting enough others to make it work for a while, but it's very hard to institutionalize that into a continuing organization which can outlive the founder (or her enthusiasm).

Polish Agriculture

From Grist and Erik Hoffner:
That's what I'd read in the New York Times this spring, in a story which reported that interest in buying local is thin, and the market for organic is even thinner. And this is largely what I saw there -- people preferred to buy vegetables from Germany, and farms I visited were wondering what their market would be in the future. Ironically, most of these farms were already organic because of the prohibitive cost of chemical amendments, but hadn't bothered with the paperwork. Most small farmers don't sell at all, but consume what they grow -- pure subsistence.
In my high school biology class, many years ago, we were taught something that's now discredited: "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny"--meaning the development of the individual retraces the steps by which the phylum developed, hence the presence of gills at one stage of the fetal development. I wonder whether that's sort of true for economies--an agricultural economy which the Michael Pollan's of the world regard as ideal must necessarily transform into an industrialized agriculture before, perhaps, and this remains to be seen, developing post-industrial crunchy green characteristics.

Monday, October 13, 2008

How Legislation Is Implemented II

Government Executive has a long post about the problems of implementing the "bailout": problems of designing the problem, getting the expertise, handling ethical and conflict-of-interest problems, oversight, enforcement, and the looming transition.

Best Blog Post Title in a While

Is here.

How Legislation Is Implemented

This post picks up the story of implementation--in this case the Biomass Crop Assistance Program included in the farm bill. It's not on a fast-track--requiring both an environmental impact assessment and regulations to be developed, likely it will take 18 months or so to implement.

The unknown not cited in the article is staffing. Someone in USDA has to be assigned to write the regs and do the assessments, or someone has to be hired (assuming the funding covers administrative costs). Hiring takes a long while, up to 6 months while moving someone from job A to job X often means getting a turkey. (Big boss says: I need a body from your staff to work on BCAP, small boss: says Jane Doe isn't busy now, I'll give her to you. Left unsaid, the reason Jane Doe isn't busy is that she tends to screw up what she does unless closely supervised. And because Big boss knows nothing about BCAP, and cares less, she's not going to give Jane much guidance..)

Some unsolicited advice for lobbyists: once you get a program in the law, you need to have a sponsor within the bureaucracy with the interest in the program and the clout to be sure it gets capable bureaucrats assigned to it. Alternatively, you can take to dropping by the office regularly to help the poor sucker (i.e., Jane Doe) figure out what needs to be done.

I'm Feeling Mean

Greg Mankiw, the Harvard economist, posted last week about the odds on which economist would win the Nobel. You'd think, if economists were wise, this is surely a field where their predictions would be good. To the contrary, Paul Krugman wasn't even mentioned.

As one gets old, one loses faith in all sorts of authority figures.

[yes, I realize I'm using bad logic in my second sentence.]

The Latest News from 1783

Via Manan Ahmed at Cliopatria, a recommendation to view the Onion.

I agree, a must-read for any one with an interest in our history.

"Energy Experts"?

"Energy experts believe prices could go even lower."

A line from an article on oil prices dropping below $78. Seems as if only yesterdaythey were predicting higher prices.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

10/10 or a Day in DC

On Friday, October 10, the sun was shining, the skies were clear, the air was fresh, even in DC. Reminiscent of 9/11, even though a month later, and 7 years of course.

In the District of Columbia on that day: a Vietnam veteran copped out from making his first visit to the Vietnam memorial, a cousin of a decorated World War II soldier was mightily impressed by the WWII memorial, surviving members of Bomber Group 401 were honored at a ceremony, including music by an Air Force brass group, two tourists passed by the District of Columbia memorial for "The World War" (built in the optimism of the 1920's), the widow of a Navy veteran of the Korean War era was not affected by the Korean War memorial. Uptown at the World Bank the finance ministers were meeting on the crisis, but the Federal Reserve Bank headquarters looked serene and remote in the sunshine, the statue of Albert Einstein near the sidewalk was invisible.

Also, National Park workers were busy keeping the gardens by the Tidal Basin looking good, even this late in the year, joggers jogged, an eagle landed on the fence on the Mall keeping tourists off grass that needs rejuvenation, tourists from all parts of the world took pictures of the monuments, and of each other taking pictures of each other. The Jefferson Memorial was very visible, the White House not. The cafeteria at the American Indian museum served very good pumpkin and acorn soup and a succotash far removed from the succotash found 50 years ago in early frozen food sections of groceries. A veteran of the Utah beach landings talked about his service (with the 9th Division) in WWII and Korea, his spine-tingling experience of a night visit to the Korean war memorial, and about his 20+ years researching genealogy.

A street evangelist, aided by loudspeakers, urged blacks to accept salvation and to reject whites (I think, the noise was rather overwhelming). An "Irish pub" served Guinness, and several males full of beer and testerone, and perhaps angst over the 1000 point down and up of the Dow. A man, young to an old codger but feeling the passage of time, talked of his interest in genealogy, the delights in mapping family trees and instigating family reunions. The Metro down escalators were static, but didn't hinder the rush of bureaucrats and other workers heading home for a long holiday weekend, celebrating the "discovery" of America by one Columbus, who wasn't greeted with pumpkin soup by the natives, who had discovered America 100 centuries or more before.

Finally, two tired people made their way to home and hotel.

Mainline Stores Versus "Fringe"

In this piece, a defense of supermarkets as opposed to food through "fringe" stores (not necessarily niche stores, but 7-11's, drug stores, etc. She mentions the decline in mobility among our aged (as well as sometimes a loss of interest in cooking and food) and the trend towards "agglomeration", which I noticed on my recent trip.

Bad Times for Agriculture Ahead?

Just getting back into blogging and have many posts on other blogs to catch up on. But I'm anticipating problems for agriculture: the dollar is stronger against the euro and pound, so I'm assuming it's stronger against the currency of grain importing countries. And stories such as this, about grain piling up in ports because the credit markets are frozen, are worrisome. And a general slowdown in economic growth means a cutback in meat consumption. So I'm expecting sharply lower grain prices, meaning bankruptcies as farmers who committed to land purchases at high prices or rentals at high rates, can't make ends meet. In other words, a rerun of the 80's, but from a base of fewer farmers.

I'll be interested to see what John Phipps thinks.

[Updated: This Brownfield post reports an economist's guess as to the impact of a world-wide recession on farm prices.]

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Words from France

I recommend the Dirk Beauregard pieces I've "shared" (some day I'll figure out what that means and whether I can do more with it).

Here's one I found interesting--the strategies he used to teach English to french law students (full disclosure: I didn't do well enough in college french to pass the language requirement, had to retake.) I admire the ability to do the sort of thing he describes.

And this one contains this passage, which is fascinating for what it says about the society:

All papers in France are distributed by the state-run, Paris-based company "les messageries Parisiennes" - the company distributes every paper and magazine that exists throughout France, this means that all national newspapers, however big or small are guaranteed a fair national circulation. They will get to ever corner of the nation, from Paris right through to the smallest mountain village. Nice idea. However, when the messageries go on strike, no one in France gets a newspaper.
And this one discusses the experiences of French and English in WWII (based on his in-laws and ancestors' stories).

But read or skim all his posts--he's eclectic, if incapable of spelling correctly.

Voter Registration Fraud and Voting Fraud? [Updated]

The Reps are pushing stories that ACORN has indulged in vote fraud (google "Acorn vote fraud". Some seem to be well-founded, at least those where indictments have been filed. I'd note a difference between "voter registration" fraud and "voting fraud" and make a couple comments, though:

  • I'm assuming ACORN pays people to register voters. So they have an "agency" problem--if their agent gets paid on the basis of names and addresses of new voters, there's an obvious temptation to sign up people who are already registered, are ineligible, or whatever. So fraud is relatively easy. (It's a familiar problem--how do you evaluate performance?) To avoid this fraud, we need to open the voter lists so ACORN or whoever can match supposed new voters against existing voters and ineligible people and only pay agents based on valid new adds.
  • The "fraud" of fraudulent registration is relatively harmless in itself. It simply means the voter turnout percentages appear lower than they should be. Granted it could enable "vote fraud", but I haven't noticed stories to that effect.
  • The serious fraud would be either multiple voting by a single person or voting in a district where they aren't supposed to. I would propose a simple remedy for multiple voting: as in Iraq, stain people's fingers when they vote.
IMHO making voter lists transparent and using finger stains would mean the parties and the people could focus on the issues, and the prosecutors could devote time to other crimes.

[Updated to make my point more clearly.] [Updated again to add a link to TPM's discussion--spun, yes, but the basic point is the same.]

Good To Be Home

After 2900 miles, it's good to be home.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

A Thoughtful Thread on Pro-Choice/Pro-Life

Todd Zywicki at instigates a thoughtful thread by asking for narratives where a pro-life position had changed (he hadn't noticed any, but had seen a lot of pro-choice moving to pro-life). The resulting thread is thoughtful, and an example of how people can miss stuff because it doesn't fit preconceptions.

[Updated with link]

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Thoughts on Housing

I've previously blogged about the connection I saw between immigration and the housing bubble.

One early morning on the road I got to thinking, always dangerous for a bureaucrat. What are the forces in the housing market?

Suppose some mythical day in the past the US had 150 million households and 150 million housing units, that is, everyone is housed and every house is used. What happens next?
  1. Disasters--houses get destroyed by fire, flood, etc. Need replacements.
  2. Natural increase--people have babies who grow up and want their own household. Need new housing.
  3. Immigration--people come to the US and want housing.
  4. Movement--people move to where the jobs are, abandoning housing units in the rural areas, the Plains, etc. Need housing in Vegas.
  5. Wealth--John McCain gets rich and decides the family needs another house. And another. And another. And another. And another. [Is the solution for our problems for everyone to follow his example?]
  6. Smaller households--people get enough money to establish separate households. Want housing.
  7. Part-time households--this may be a misnomer, economists may have a term for it and may even have statistics for it. It's the condo near the college for the helicopter parents to live in while visiting baby. I guess if we treat "wealth" as a factor, this would be included there.
  8. Moving up--people look at their wallets, at the cost of housing, and the Joneses and want a better house.
  9. Sharks--people find they can make money by persuading people to buy and sell--whether it's the mortgage brokers, the financiers, etc.
Given these sources of demand, builders build, people buy, and pretty soon you get a bubble going as everyone hears there's easy money to be made, not on Wall Street, not on Main Street, but on Housing. The buying and selling adds a final element: even though houses change hands quickly, the number of sales still (I think) lowers the occupancy rate a tad, so a few more housing units are need.

This list puts my immigration claim into perspective--it's a factor, but not a main factor. Good old-fashioned greed, the desire for more, is the main factor.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Rough Times in Sparta

As I mention in my report on our trip, we're staying 2 days in a very nice Holiday Inn Express in Sparta, IL. The local paper reports the local Chrysler dealer has closed and there's a big cutback (33 percent) in human services because of Illinois government problems.

With the coal mines mostly gone, it seems this area is pinning its economic hopes on recreation. Problem is, lots of areas are doing the same thing. Granted, it's the "idle rich", but even they have limits on how much time they can spend recreating.