Tuesday, March 31, 2009

How To Misunderstand USDA

The Obama Foodorama figures the taxpayer is paying thrice for the non-fat dry milk Vilsack announced the other day. Because their sources specify the NDM is being moved from CCC inventory to the school lunch program (FNS), I don't see how they misunderstood this, but they did. I guess it helps to have some background in the area. Buying milk products is the basic way USDA supports milk prices. Moving the NDM from CCC to school lunches reduces the stockpile but doesn't have much impact on prices.

Monday, March 30, 2009

New Dairy in Idaho

I knew the dairy industry in California had exploded since my days on the farm, but I wasn't aware the same change had come to Idaho. (Not sure whether it's the Dutch moving there, or those fleeing CA, or potato producers deciding to do some real farming for a change.)

This sentence has a nice euphemism for "made into hamburger":
"Since the buyouts began five years ago, the National Milk Producers Federation has shifted 275,269 dairy cows, including 75,000 in the last 12 months, into the beef industry."

What's This About?

Got an appeal from the kennedy-center for a woman-oriented event (I didn't read it closely). I did note what I thought was an interesting discrepancy. The women sponsoring the appeal were listed as:

Mrs. Michelle Obama
Mrs. Laura Bush
Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton
Mrs. George Bush
Mrs. Ronald Reagan
Mrs. Jimmy Carter

Now what is this? Why do our most recent first ladies use their first name, while the older ones use their husband's? Have we dissolved all rules of manners pertaining to women's names? And why didn't Laura and Michelle keep their maiden names? And what is a "maiden" anyway? Old geezers want to know.

Diversity at USDA--Not

I should have noted in my post on the diversity of Vilsack's staff appointments the lack of diversity in another respect: these are young whippersnappers most of whom served in staff positions on Capitol Hill or in political campaigns. In other words, the same backgrounds as staffers have had for many years. So the gender/ethnic diversity they represent shows the diversity of the political areas they come from, but there's no diversity in terms of occupational background: no organic farmer, no industrial farmer, no foodie, etc. etc.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Diversity at USDA

I missed this Post piece on Vilsack's staff appointments. I'm struck by the number (ever compare the USDA phone directory from 1963 to now) and their diversity. In 1963 it was all white males; today much more diverse.

Vilsack and Management

Government Executive says Vilsack wants performance-oriented management, IT, and new workers. On the second:
Vilsack also said that he and House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., both understand that achieving good performance at USDA requires modern technology. "It is frustrating to farmers and ranchers who want to be able to access information that we are still in a more paper orientation than a technology orientation. It is also frustrating that it seems to people it takes forever to implement the farm bill and the recovery and investment act, because we have to rewrite old, old software so that it is available to calculate the new programs."
Vilsack wants to measure results. The problem I have is definitions. Federal programs float in a penumbra of rhetoric, emanating from the over-promising of politicians. If a bureaucrat is realistic about what could be achieved, it automatically undermines her bosses.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

It's a Big, Multi-lingual Country--LA's Trahan

CED from Louisiana retires after 41 years--his language ability helped with the French/Cajun farmers and he's honored in the Acadian Hall of Fame.

The Tobacco Story, Continued

House Ag held a hearing on the tobacco industry. Skimming the prepared testimony, it seems the numbers of farmers are down (from 8,000 to 3,000 in NC, a 72 percent drop in KY to 8,000), but flue-cured is more competitive with Brazil. It fits with the impressionistic evidence from newspapers--the old tobacco programs did their job of slowing the process of change, keeping more people in tobacco growing. Ending the program looks to have speeded change, made the industry more competitive but more volatile. And the program wasn't keeping prices down and encouraging smoking.

Taiwan Does Things Differently

Via Tyler Cowan at Marginal Revolution, here's an fascinating description of life in Taiwan (a 7-11 on every block?)

More Bombs for Wall Street

Simon Johnson writes in the Atlantic on the growth of financial institutions in the U.S. economy. (HT Kevin Drum). He's the former chief economist for the IMF and parallels the U.S. case with the sort of crises the IMF deals with in Russia, Indonesia, Thailand, etc.

Stains in the Oval Office?

What stains did GW leave--inquiring minds want to know?

From the Post this morning, on Obama's meeting with bankers:
""Excess is out of fashion," Obama said, according to participants in the gathering.

The president held himself up as an example, saying that he had not yet renovated the Oval Office and was still using George W. Bush's furniture, even noting the stains on the carpet. He urged the banks to show comparable "constraint and responsibility," adding that the nation had undergone a cultural shift.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Meals To Come, Same Old, Same Old

Warren Belasco has a book, Meals to Come, which reviews debates over food during the last two centuries. It has lots of facts, but I'll try a brief summary. (Looking at Amazon, I'm guessing maybe he reuses his researches in several books, but that's a guess.)

Since 1800 or so, the poles of a debate have been symbolized by Malthus, arguing current food production and patterns are doomed, the dystophia, and Condorcet, celebrating the power of reason to come up with solutions, the cornucopia of engineered and designed food systems. Different viewpoints get caught up in the systems--racism, eugenics, the cold war, futurism, science fiction, egalitarianism,

Belasco believes different events and trends tend to trigger and reinvigorate the debate over the future of food: famines and spikes in the price of food, particularly in the 19th century, demography, etc.

When debate over food flares, it's characterized by urgency (war, gloom, and doom), lots of statistics, assumptions, all leading to missed predictions.

All in all, it's a sobering reminder of how fallible we can be when we talk about something as important to us as food.

Decreasing Consumption of Corn

Dr. Pollan and other foodies decry our dependence on corn. Pollan would like us to return to more traditional foodways. In that context, here's a factoid from ERS:

From 1890 until 1920, the greatest increase in food consumption occurred with sugar, and the greatest decrease was in cornmeal. Rising prosperity led to a pronounced shift from cornmeal to wheat flour, especially in the South, and an equally important substitution of sugar for wheat flour. Sugar prices had been dropping sharply since the 1850s with the development of improved refining technology.
And again:
These trends helped increase per capita wheat product consumption in the United States for the last quarter of the 20th century.
I've said before and I'll say again, when it comes to agriculture and food, things are more complicated than any party to current debates admits.

It All Depends on How You Hold Your Tongue

I was reminded of this profound truth by Erin's photos here.

France Is a Different Country (L'Ancien Regime Still Mourned by Some)

We got rid of our Loyalists to Canada, but not so in France--an excerpt from Dirk Beauregard's post on religion:
In very traditional, and unflinching, intégriste, or fundamentalist Catholic circles, there is still a lot of nostalgia for the Ancien Régime. The 1789 Revolution is viewed very much as a cataclysm and a rupture with God and the natural order. However, the vast majority of Catholics are quite happy living within the republican scheme of things.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

A Good Paragraph

John Phipps says:
What I have learned as far back as the Apple/PC beginnings is waiting for a clear winner probably isn't the best choice. If nothing else, taking the plunge generates significant practical knowledge of an emergent technology that could be a significant advantage. This happened for early personal computer users regardless of which platform they eventually ended up with.
As long as you've got some margin for error (money-wise, etc.), this works for me. Learning is always good (except when it intrudes on an old guy's routine).

In Defense of Checking With IRS

Republican members of House Ag have written to USDA objecting to the requirement that producers sign IRS forms granting FSA access to their data (see this post). From the letter:

We did offer a choice to producers. Congress allowed for a verification of income statement, prepared by a certified public accountant or another third party acceptable to you, to be submitted every three years that confirms the producer’s adjusted gross income which makes he or she eligible to receive payment.

By forcing every producer to give USDA the power to verify with the IRS information submitted by the farmer or rancher takes away this choice, unnecessarily invades privacy and contravenes the intent of Congress. We, of course, do not want ineligible producers receiving payments, but Congress provided an explicit mechanism to address the problem without involving the IRS
So why would FSA bureaucrats do differently? Basically because it's easier, more accurate, less expensive and less revealing of private data. Other than that, the Republicans' suggestion would create jobs, increasing the employment of CPA's, so no doubt FSA should scrap its plan and go with the Republican one.

Shall I explain? (Note, I don't really know what FSA is planning, but I know the sort of proposal I would take to USDA management and IRS, if I were still there.)

Very simply put:
  • FSA would create a file of the tax ID's of the producers subject to the AGI limit.
  • FSA would give the file to IRS.
  • IRS would, from their data, create a file of tax ID's whose tax return shows an AGI amounts over $500,000 (or whatever is the appropriate figure). Note the actual amount wouldn't be on the file, just the fact the AGI level was exceeded.
  • IRS would match the data on the two files, and create a return file showing the tax ID's of the matches.
  • FSA would take the return file and sit down with the producers to resolve the discrepancy between their statement that their AGI was below the limit and IRS indication it was above.
That solution appeals to a DC bureaucrat--it treats everyone the same, all the work of handling people who are complying with the rules (i.e. 99 percent) is done by computers, and you only have to disturb people when there's a good possibility of a problem of fraud.

I'm not sure what appeals to a county office bureaucrat--is it easier to explain to a producer why he or she needs to sign the IRS form or why they need to get a CPA? My guess is the latter.

Far be it from me to suggest that any farmer would ever have a CPA lie, but as a taxpayer I'd sooner trust IRS's report.

It would be an interesting question to see if Pell Grants are checked with IRS. See this for required documents

Obesity and Fast Food

The Times has an article on a study which found proximity to fast food outlets was strongly correlated with obesity. It sounds impressive.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

New Farmers in Nebraska

U of Nebraska has a piece on ag students possibly returning to the farm and the hurdles they face. It's interesting, but would be discouraging for the alternative ag people--the only farming option discussed is the "factory farm", or "industrial ag"--no consideration of mini-farms growing fruits and veggies.

House Ag and Implementing Conservation Programs

House Ag had a hearing with NRCS and FSA, plus the OIG and GAO types, on problems with handling conservation program payments, including this GAO report. I briefly yield to my FSA partisanship and note the following excerpts from the IG's prepared testimony.
These problems occurred because NRCS lacked federal financial accounting expertise. Until 2004, NRCS had relied on FSA employees to help account for its transactions, and had not cultivated a staff of accounting professionals. Part of this problem also has to do with how NRCS understands its mission within USDA. Many NRCS officials perceive their primary role as providing technical and scientific assistance to producers. Training employees to correctly account for its activities was not the agency’s first priority.

We found possible noncompliance issues on approximately 40 percent of the[WRP] easement sites we inspected.
I'm wondering about the background of shifting payments from FSA to NRCS--presumably the NRCS interest groups had bigger clout on Capitol Hill than the FSA interest groups.

This area is of more than passing interest to me, given my guess that NRCS will be given responsibility for Vilsack's carbon offsets (remember, you heard it here first).

Best Sentence Today, Mar 25

"I have a firm rule - I eat the mean people." (From Walt Jeffries at Sugar Mountain Farm, on his culling policy.)

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Little Known Fact About Farming and Taxes

Trying to track down a cryptic bit on payment limitation and ACRE, I ran across this from a footnote in the Congressional Research Service report on the 2008 farm bill:
Farms overwhelmingly report losses for tax purposes (because of cash accounting, depreciation, and other practices), even though USDA farm income numbers are positive. For example, in 2004, two-thirds of all Schedule F tax returns showed a loss, resulting in a sector-wide net farm loss of $13 billion for all Schedule F returns. By comparison, USDA farm income data showed an $80 billion profit. Even for “large” farms with sales over $250,000, about one-third report a loss for tax

And Was Senator Lincoln in Attendance?

Or maybe Sen. Chambliss (in my mind, no doubt unfairly, I see Lincoln and Chambliss as the leading protectors of the current payment limitation rules)? So it may taken Lincoln only a nano-second to call Vilsack and point out Obama needs her vote on the 2010 budget so what the &***% does he mean by this response to a Sustainable Ag meeting:
"Vilsack said that he is aware of the need for a strong new rule on what it means to be “actively engaged in agriculture” for the purpose of commodity payments."

Suckers Born Every Minute [Revised]

NPR has a story on custom-gardening--outfits who come in and set up your garden for you. They claim a 150-square foot garden will keep a small family in vegetables for a year. I suppose it all depends on your definition of "keep". If you eat at home every other day, maybe. If you're eating lots of vegetables every day, I doubt it. Our garden is nominally 500 sq feet, though probably closer to 400, once you allow for the compost bin and path. It keeps us in salads from late April to November or December, but we still buy vegetables (like potatoes and jicama) during that period, and tomatoes up to July.

It's easy to over-sell this stuff.

Soil Testing

Extension.org has many posts each day which I skim as fast as I can spin the mouse wheel. But there's one on farming fundamentals which caught my eye--"soil testing". The writer noted that Extension Service has pushed it for 100 years.

A question, though: If modern technology can meter the fertilizer applied to the soil according to the GPS coordinates of the soil, can't the technology do soil testing better than the way it was done 100 years ago?

Monday, March 23, 2009

Two Different Earths

There's this earth, as described at Powerline:
Due to the efforts of Heartland and others, the public is beginning to catch on to the cosmic scam that Al Gore, James Hansen and others--mostly not scientists--have been perpetrating. Meanwhile, the Obama administration, seemingly determined to inflict the maximum possible damage on the economy in the shortest time, is trying to ram a cap-and-trade carbon tax through Congress before opposition can be mobilized.
And there's this earth (or at least this America) as described by Joseph Romm at Gristmill (one in which a survey says):
Americans say they are prepared to incur significant costs [to fight global warming], as the figure above shows. In fact, they "support policies that would personally cost them more," specifically (emphasis in original):
I'm not sure, I fear a schizophrenic society.

Undoing Reforms--Administrative Conference of the US

This post at OMBwatch records the revival of the Administrative Conference of the US, a body which was killed in 1995, by, if I remember, Newt Gingrich. It's a deep in the weeds thing:
"ACUS was created in 1968 as an independent agency with a small staff assisted by outside experts in administrative law, government processes, judicial review and enforcement, and agency regulatory processes."
Did things like worry about the Federal Register and the Administrative Procedure Act. (Only bureaucrats care about such things.)

More Intelligence, Less Money?

Robin Hanson linked to this old post, which gives a startling quote:

Here is the shocking conclusion: in the recent years of the GSS (1991 to 2004), for people whose highest level of educational attainment is a bachelor’s degree, there is a negative correlation between intelligence and income. In the 1998 to 2004 data, each point higher on the Wordsum test causes a $1,200 decrease in income.
Didn't have the patience to dig deeply, but part of the answer is in the "bachelor's degree" bit--if you're smart enough to get a graduate degree, then your intelligence is rewarded.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Government and Farming in Scotland

Musings of a Stonehead is a crofter's blog. He had a feed problem the other day, which resulted in an inspection and a report. His post(s) on the experience make for interesting reading. It seems they're a bit more highly regulated in the UK than the US.

Women in Agriculture

"Lady Landowners" group? Encouraging such groups is a good idea for FSA.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Reston, Somewhat Walkable

Via Freakonomics, that's the score for my Reston neighborhood at walkscore.com (a site which for some cities evaluates how far you have to walk to reach amenities), which is about the same for the Lake Anne Center, the first part of Reston to be built. Mr. Robert Simon, the "father" of Reston, must be twirling in his Lake Anne apartment, as he dreamed of separating pedestrians and cars so that Reston would really be walkable. He didn't realize how lazy modern Americans would be.

What Happened to the ABA?

Here's a discussion by Jonathan Adler at volokh.com of possible bias in the ABA's evaluation of judicial nominees. An excerpt:
"[maybe] the ratings reflect the perspective of a somewhat-insular white liberal elite that has a tendency to give higher ratings to those who are most like them in background, experience and perspective."
Back in the 1950's, the ABA and the AMA were two pillars of the establishment, which was moderate to conservative. (Malcolm Gladwell's new book has a chapter on how the establishment looked down on some Jewish lawyers.) I don't know what's happened in 50 years to change the ABA (not that I necessarily agree with Adler).

Second Guessing the White House Garden

There's lots of attention to the White House garden, so it's fulfilling its symbolic function. I can't resist some cracks/comments:
  • I'm a bit surprised at the kale/collards--we grow them as fall only. I guess they're buying seedlings.
  • I'm not sure what the First Lady is teaching the school kids--making them work for 15 minutes and then a cookie break. I don't think the mother of either of the Obamas would be that lax--standards are slipping. (Even I can work 30 minutes straight before taking a break, and I'm old.
  • 15 students, plus maybe 10 adults from the staff--that's 25 people for 1,100 square feet meaning each one does 40 square feet.
  • were they hauling off the turf--is that to be used for patching elsewhere on the lawn (maybe after the Easter egg roll) or maybe on the Mall? If they composted it, and where's the plan for the compost pile for the White House--surely that's going to cause lots of criticism from the organic people, maybe that would reduce the carbon released from the sod breaking. Or maybe not: if you plow native prairie you turn under the sod, but I haven't seen that mentioned as a redeeming factor in converting land to crops.
I'm not sure of the relation between the Clinton's rooftop garden and this--certainly the rooftop garden doesn't pose any security problem, while this one looks dangerously accessible from the street.

Bottom line--anything a politician does in Washington is subject to second guessing. Because people feel so strongly on this issue, they'll get a lot of carping.

Friday, March 20, 2009

A Blast from the Past--The Hammer Award

The Hammer Award was an Al Gore, Reinventing Government, idea to recognize bureaucrats who had been innovative. Al Gore, for those of you who are young, or old with bad memories, is the man who used to be Vice President of these United States before he was the man who used to be President.

I was trying to research procurement procedures, just being bored on a Friday afternoon and with nothing better to do, particularly as a reader had expressed frustration with the Government's process. So I did a search on "programming" on the GSA site and got this result, with the Hammer Award as the top result. Makes me real confident in the currency of the site.

Fast Tracking the Stimulus, Not So Much

The Government Executive has an article on the various problems the administration is running into with its stimulus package.

Dr. Shiva Again

Since I took one crack at Dr. Vendana Shiva, I might as well take another. This Post article today on the burgeoning middle class in rural India paints a different side of the picture than the poor, oppressed farmers committing suicide she has depicted in the past. An excerpt:

India's rural destiny still depends on good monsoon rains and robust agricultural production, but four years of bumper crops and heavy government investment in rural infrastructure have given birth to what some analysts call an emerging economy within India.

In the dusty market along a bumpy road in Yadav's village, 40 miles south of New Delhi, sales of microwave ovens, washing machines and 32-inch, flat-screen plasma televisions have risen in the past year. Branded-clothing stores called Rich Look and Charlie Outlaw have sprung up, looking to attract upwardly mobile farm youths.

I suspect the truth is in between--commercial, yes "industrial", farming with its chemical fertilizers produces winners and losers, Dr. Shiva sees only the losers, this article shows the winners.

Carbon Offset for the White House Garden?

The first lady makes the front page of the Times and the Post style section with the announcement of the White House vegetable garden.

As they're apparently digging up the lawn to create it, I think they might need to buy carbon offsets for it. If I understand correctly, and I may not, any conversion from permanent or perennial vegetation to annual cropping means a net release of carbon. But, all cynicism aside, it's a nice symbolic gesture.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Carbon Credits, A Pipedream?

Sec. Vilsack may be overpromising (I know, he's a politician so that's totally surprising) when he says farmers can replace direct payments with payments for carbon credits. That's the message of this Marcia Zarley Taylor post at DTN:

The number one challenge facing pro-carbon trading farm groups at the moment is proving that agriculture's contribution to carbon reduction can be real, "additional" and permanent, others Ag Carbon Market Group members say.
Here are two GAO products which are relevant

FSA Interfacing With IRS

According to Sec. Vilsack, FSA will now require producers to sign a waiver form to permit IRS to provide income data to FSA to check compliance with adjusted gross income requirements. (It's a followup to a GAO audit.) See the press release here.

Note: the public doesn't want bureaucratic red tape, but it wants payments made to eligible people and it wants IRS data kept private. How does a bureaucracy square the circle: a form.

So Much for Conservative Scare Tactics

I remember the great Panama Canal fight in the 1970's--a hot issue which Reagan rode to the nomination by demagoguery. Then in the 1990's when, under the treaty's terms, we were to hand the Canal over to the Panamian government, some conservatives got all outraged that Hutchinson-Whampoa, a Hong Kong firm, would operate a terminal at one end or the other. Well, almost 20 years on and the sky has not fallen. Indeed, the Illinois Corn Growers seems to be using Panamian management as a stick to beat the US with:
"[the ICG spokesman said]says that while improvements are still pending on U.S. locks and dams, Panama is improving their canal to grow traffic through that waterway.

"And the reason they are doing this, and they are spending billions of dollars, is because they want to bring Capesize vessels, which are the largest ocean going vessels out there, through the Panama Canal," said Lambert.

My Face

Finally got around to updating my profile, and including my official passport photo shot. I may be self-centered, but I'm not fond of my looks as a senior citizen. Fortunately, I don't have to look at the picture as I write a post.

One Cell to Rule Them All

The NYTimes has an article on the cellphone (i.e., Iphone) as a universal remote.

On its blog, there's a suggestion to convert cellphones into the SecurID device. As it says: "For those of you who don’t work for security-conscious corporations, a SecurID is a little LED display that goes in your wallet or on your keychain, that flashes a different six digit number every minute or so. You need to enter that number, along with a user name and password, to get into some computer systems."

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Dr. Shiva Is Wrong

At Blog for Rural America, Steph Larson reports on the organic farming conference. Including this nugget:

To a packed audience, Dr. Shiva remembered the roots of industrial agriculture, which was born out of a need to find different uses for the chemicals of war [emphasis added]. Now seeds are patented and controlled by only a few multi-national corporations, while producers are driven further into debt and suffer from hunger. As agriculture becomes more consolidated and fewer people control our food supply, Dr. Shiva asserted that the very health of our democracy is at risk.
The bolded phrase is ridiculous nonsense, though a meme popular among the left food community. (Dr. Pollan repeated a version of it in "Omnivore...". )

The reference presumably is to the Haber-Bosch process, which was developed before WWI in order to avoid the need to import nitrates from Chile. The nitrates were particularly important in European agriculture. Now gunpowder originally was made of sulphur, charcoal, and saltpeter (or "nitre" or potassium nitrate). And Germany's access to Chilean nitrate during WWI was cut off by the British blockade, so the Haber-Bosch process was used to make nitrate for explosives. "The Alchemy of Air" is a fast-moving narrative of the developments in this area.

Sentence of the Day:

From Dana Milbank, Post, describing a press breakfast on GM's prospects:
As Wagoner [GM CEO]described the company's gloomy economic forecast, the moderator, Dave Cook, [of the now on-line only Christian Science Monitor] was sympathetic: "We're from the newspaper business. We understand."

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Email and Health Care Costs [Revised]

The NYTimes bits blog covers a study of Kaiser Permanente:
The study, focusing on the experience of Kaiser Permanente in Hawaii when it implemented electronic health records, secure e-mail and a Web portal, found that patient visits declined 26 percent from 2004 to 2007.
Makes sense to me. Matter of fact, Kaiser has the same setup in the DC area and I've used email to avoid office calls. I think it works well for those who are averse to doctors (me) anyway but who also have a bit of hypochondria (me again) and who are into researching on the Internet (me). An ache triggers the research, but email allows me to scratch the itch without wasting the good doctor's face time.

This effect may be just as important as the other pluses: "The long-awaited transition from paper to electronic records is considered essential if doctors and hospitals are to improve coordination of care, manage patients with chronic disease, lessen the wide variation in how medicine is practiced and monitor quality." from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

[Had a comment on the original post I wanted to get rid of --hence the revision. But I'm taking advantage of it to add a comment on the Wash Post op-ed questioning health IT. While the arguments have weight, IMO one could make the same arguments against many of the advances over the last 100 years. There's always trade-offs and a learning curve. But basically I believe in progress.]

Republican Star Believes in Nationalizing Industry, Not Banks

That was my reaction when I saw this from brownfield (the piece mentions Bobby Jindal as involved in the negotiations):
Poultry processor Pilgrim’s Pride has rejected the latest offer from the State of Louisiana and Foster Farms for the plant in Farmerville, Louisiana. As part of Chapter 11 restructuring, Pilgrim’s Pride announced in February it is going to idle the plant which employs 1,300 people. The State of Louisiana offered to go 50-50 with California-based Foster Farms to buy the plant for $40 million. Pilgrim’s Pride rejected that offer saying it was not enough.

Most Amusing Sentence (for a Cynic of Goo-Gooism)

From a Farmgate piece:

"Recently an agricultural policy analyst for the Congressional Research Service also looked at the ACRE program in an effort to explain to Members of Congress what they had done in creating it."

Deprivatizing the Iraq War

This Post article from Monday reports on the phase-out of private contractors in Iraq, partially by converting from contractor personnel back to government. Much of it is due to Blackwater's being no longer welcomed by the Iraqi government. And to the fact the agreement between the US and Iraqi government doesn't cover private contractors, so their possible use of force is not protected.

Thus, the US is moving some work (and the experts) back into government. That way, the people are government employees protected under the US-Iraq agreement.

As I've said before, there's always trade-offs, in this case the flexibility of private contractors has both bad and good aspects.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Blogging Without Knowledge

A cynic might say my title fits all bloggers. But it fits this post. I've done no research into cryonics. But I do follow Robin Hanson at Overcoming Bias, who seems to have that bee in his bonnet. The problem I have with freezing my brain in the hopes of future technological advances is: my brain is used, not just previously owned, but used. It's got lots of miles on it. So my choice is: kill myself now, before my brain is entirely defunct in the hope of a future refurbishment which still preserves my memories (some I'd gladly forget), knowledge and personality or continue on. There's no mystery which I'd choose, and which choice most any human will take.

You Think?

From Power Line:
"The 2002 NIE estimate claiming that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction seems to have been wrong"

Vilsack, Congress, and the Pay Limit

Secretary Vilsack is still plugging the changes in payment limits according to Chris Clayton (wrote a letter to the Des Moines Register) and here, despite the fact the House Ag is four-square against
and here

I think (and since I started this 3 days ago, most have agreed) OMB or the Department screwed up the original proposal in the budget--it sort of makes sense that if the Census shows farms with gross income < $500,000 decreasing to tie your proposal to that metric. Except it doesn't, if you know anything about farming or had some history in the farm programs, so I agree with Peterson's guess that it wasn't really staffed with USDA. That aside, if you like the point of the policy, the metric can always be fixed. Use an AGI of $x. Or, adopt my pet idea, a graduated reduction based on AGI, following the EU.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Senators Are Like Horses

Publicity about "Sunshine Week"--making government more open. But a cautionary note pops up in a Post op-ed on the Charles Freeman fight (the pick for the National Intelligence Council who withdrew). The writer, in minimizing the importance of the council, notes the National Intelligence Estimate prepared before the Iraq war was read by only 6 senators, and 77 voted in favor of the resolution. So senators are like horses, you can make the document available, but you can't make them drink it in.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Decline of Garbage, and the Post

The Washington Post has an article on the decline of garbage (the Post itself is in decline--it announces it's doing away with its separate business section) because people are cutting back in the recession. A sidebar, not online, says the U.S. had 250 million tons of garbage, 12 percent of which was food, or 30 million tons. That means about 100 pounds per person per year. Sounds high, although I suspect it includes stuff like my grapefruit rinds, apple cores, and coffee grounds. But it's also my share of the fruits and vegetables which get rejected at the grocery.

Apparently most of the drop is in packaging, which is the single most common category of garbage--we're buying less so tossing less styrofoam and cardboard.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

And the Winner: Kansas State FSA Office (Stimulus)

It's the first FSA office to claim it has disbursed stimulus funds (for farm operating loans), at least whose claim has reached the media. See this link

Our British Cousins Have Their Own Problems of Identity

This is a post from Musings of a Stonehead, a "crofter" in Scotland dealing with his problems with credit rating agencies. I found it fascinating. Reading between the lines, in the UK the social security number (or its British equivalent, if any) is not used to coordinate financial data between the different credit raters (apparently the UK has the same ones we do). That puts the burden on matching names and addresses. As in the U.S., rural addresses are likely more free form than urban ones, which is the problem the Stonehead ran into. It's not clear whether the UK has the equivalent of 911 addresses. (For city readers, most, perhaps all, rural counties in the US have now assigned numeric street addresses to their rural residences so that responders to911 emergency calls can be given a specific destination.)

Keeping Congress Honest

Congress people like to pontificate about the faults of the executive branch, but there's often some hypocrisy involved. That makes a provision of the stimulus bill noteworthy--see this OMBWatch post for details. As the writer says:
The LOC [Library of Congress] database, THOMAS, provides a lot of good information and gives access to full text bills and Congressional Research Summaries. However, it is outdated and lacks a decent user interface and persistent URL’s. Browsing and searching are difficult…don’t even think about asking for an RSS feed. GovTrack.us, OpenCongress.org, and MAPLight.org provide similar Congressional information but with a far more usable format. The downside to them is that they are forced to rely on THOMAS as their source of information. That is, until now.

Wealth, Not Scarcity, Was the Cause of High Food Prices

We got through a scare about food scarcity last year--prices soared. Some foodies thought it was a sign of impending disaster, as the industrialized agriculture system was starting to totter. Now things have changed and people have looked at data.

From Farm Policy:

“‘The report indicated world demand is going to be anemic this year,’ leading to more supplies than analysts expected, said Don Roose, president of U.S. Commodities Inc. in West Des Moines, Iowa. ‘It’s a very fragile world economy.’”

"In part, the Farm Foundation report stated that, “In 2008, Farm Foundation commissioned three Purdue University economists to write the report, What’s Driving Food Prices? Released in July 2008, the report had two purposes: to review recent studies on the world food crisis, and to identify the primary drivers of food prices. The economists, Phil Abbott, Chris Hurt and Wally Tyner, identified three major drivers of food prices: world agricultural commodity consumption growth exceeding production growth, leading to very low commodity inventories; the low value of the U.S. dollar; and the new linkage of energy and agricultural markets. Each was a primary contributor to tightening world grain and oilseeds stocks."
What it says to me is that last year the world (outside our borders) was wealthy, had money to spend, and spent it on food, driving up prices. That's what "consumption growth" means to me. The "low value of the U.S. dollar" simply says the world got richer vis a vis us.

This year the world is poorer and we are richer (those of us who are employed or living off Uncle via a pension).

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A Sardonic Smile for Grants.gov

Turns out the Bush Administration didn't give grants.gov enough horsepower to handle all of the Obama Administration's activity. See this NextGov article and here.

I guess the smile's actually on me--I've harbored a sneaky suspicion that many government websites, such as grants.gov, are overhyped and under-used. So the good news would be if Obama can crash a whole string of sites.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Newspapers, the End of

John Kelly has a cute piece in the Post painting the scene as the last newspaper and the last newsroom closes.

Stimulus Watch

An article in the NYTimes on the Interior IG who's moved over to oversee the stimulus mentioned this site as better than recovery.gov. I can see why. The voting pattern seems to favor big projects over small, but that's to be expected. When I checked, just before posting, the Laurel, MS doorbells were the top item. (After reconsideration,I removed "(the $155 doorbell)" from the title of this post--it's perhaps unfair. Let's see what the bid is.)

FSA and Stimulus Dollars

Here's the press release from yesterday issued by USDA on use of stimulus dollars (I used Tinyurl because I've heard a complaint about the length of the urls USDA generates). It went out yesterday. Here's the FSA reference:
The Farm Service Agency (FSA) will use immediately $145 million of the $173 million provided in the Recovery Act for its Direct Operating Farm Loan Program, which will give 2,042 farmers – almost 50% are beginning farmers and 10% are socially disadvantaged producers - direct loans from the agency. These loans will be used to purchase items such as farm equipment, feed, seed, fuel and other operating expenses and will stimulate rural economies by providing American farmers funds to operate. Currently, farmers are struggling with the high costs of running family farms, seriously affecting beginning and socially disadvantaged producers.
But there's nothing on the money for FSA computers. It's not clear from the release whether the 2,042 farmers already have approved applications with the agency, but that would be my assumption. (Otherwise, how do you know the number and the demographics?)

Taste for Porn

Marc Fisher has a post on various correlations of porn subscriptions to characteristics of states. Best I can tell, there's no "take it to the bank" correlation with anything.

First Reading

Understanding Government has a post in praise of the Sunlight Foundation's proposal that no bills should be passed before they have been available for reading for 3 days. It's the sort of good government reform I'm okay with (my lack of enthusiasm is based on cynicism).

Makes me wonder though. If I recall my days of reading the Congressional Record (back in college, when I got seriously lost in doing a term paper amidst the debates on naval building at the turn of the century), parliamentary procedure calls for three "readings" of a bill, once when it's introduced, once when referred to committee, and then upon consideration. (See this link for more precise information.) Problem is, the "readings" are pro forma and are waived. I suspect that practice evolved because people could rely on reading the printed page. And, where time became critical, people just acted on trust. I think now the pattern is--the clerk reads the title of the bill (or amendment) and it's considered read, and GPO inserts the text when the Record is printed.

My point: rules on paper can only go so far in making people use their heads. Cynically, thinking is hard work and people are often lazy. (Until their ox is the one gored [to use a good old agricultural metaphor]).

Monday, March 09, 2009

IBM, Farms, and Cities

The back page of the NYTimes has an IBM ad, which notes figures something like: in 1900 13 percent of the world's population lived in cities, now it's 70 percent. This leads to various profound thoughts supporting IBM's business strategy.

What that says to me is two things: "industrial" agriculture with its efficiencies has made the migration possible, and people prefer the opportunities in cities to the back breaking of "artisan" agriculture.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Mother Jones on Organic and Sustainable Agriculture

Via Kevin Drum, here's a long and good article in Mother Jones on the current and future state of organic and sustainable agriculture. It's challenged by some of the comments, but because it agrees with me, I think it's good. I do think he gives too much credibility to the urban agriculture possibilities and ignores the importance of market forces.

For example: "food miles". Whether or not it's more environmentally friendly to grow sheep in New Zealand and ship the resulting lamb to the UK is a question. But IMO the way to answer it is to ensure the cost of transportation includes all the externalities. In other words, a carbon tax. (I've more faith in a carbon tax than in trading carbon offsets under a "cap and trade" policy. My experience in implementing payment limitation rules suggests a tax would be better and more easily enforced.)

Car Seats Kill Innocents

Gene Weingarten has a very good article on how parents kill their children in today's Post magazine. It's called "Fatal Distraction" (through the Swiss cheese syndrome). (The rationale of my title--by moving young children from the front seat, which is where they rode (and died) in my youth, to the back seat, car seats have made children less visible and therefore more likely to be left in a closed car on warm days.)

The article introduces various parents, describes the inconsistent ways in which the legal system treats them, and notes the obsession we humans have with believing the world is understandable and operates by rules.

George Will Channels Michael Pollan

In his Sunday Post column. The "comments" are interesting, since Will ends up on the left, surprising many. As I've said before, I find Prof. Pollan to be a fine writer who's unforgivably careless with the facts. And Will's second paragraph is so sloppy as to be almost senseless. So, as usual, I find myself disagreeing with Mr. Will

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Too Late Wise

Our temperatures are in the low 70's, Monday's snow has melted, the garden calls. So I spent some time at our plot in the community garden, working on replacing two of the beds. That is, replacing the sides of the bed. Reston Association runs the garden and requires it to be organic. 30 years ago or so I was the first or second gardener to set up a raised bed. At that time treated lumber was fine for use in making beds, but over the years RA has changed the rules so new treated lumber is a no-no. So far they've grandfathered in the wood in the existing beds.

The site of the garden is on the right of way of a set of pipelines which run through Reston. A few years back the pipeline company ran their "pig" through the pipe and found some weak spots. So they had to dig down to the pipeline and fix them. Naturally one of the weak spots was below our plot, so we lost most of the good dirt we'd built over the years and had our beds deconstructed. After the repairs were finished, we rebuilt the beds, but somehow after doing the first 4 beds we ended up short of wood for the last 2. So, being too cheap to buy untreated 2"x10" lumber which would rot, I bought some man-made "wood" trim material and used it for a couple years. But it's not satisfactory, so this year I'm planning to replace it.

That was my goal today. So some digging of old sides, measuring new boards, (hand) sawing of new material, etc. ensued. Long ago, back on the farm, doing outdoor work the first days of spring I likely would have raised blisters on the sides of my thumbs. But today, not so. I'm home with hands which tingle a bit, but no blisters. Was it the wisdom gained by age that saved my thumbs? No, fraid not. Because I've lost whatever endurance I once may have had, my get-up-and-go left before my blisters developed.

Friday, March 06, 2009

USDA's Recovery Sites

Well, USDA now has an active link from the recovery.gov site. It's a good bureaucratic creation, lots of boilerplate and repetition, (as is the pdf file entitled "USDA's plans") but it does contain links to three agency sites, FNS, FS, and NRCS.

From the NRCS link you get another bureaucratic page, then a link to this page, which shows promise of tying dollars to projects. Unfortunately, none of the 3 links on that page work, which seems odd because my impression is the stimulus package gave NRCS money to do more work under existing programs, so I would have thought they'd be able to link to existing pages. I would have notified NRCS of the problem, but got discouraged by the number of links I was facing.

FNS, on the other hand, does well, at least for SNAP (i.e. food stamps)--providing a page of explanation of the increased benefits. Unfortunately the other links under their recovery page haven't been updated for the stimulus package.

FS does so-so--they look good, but the video is out-of-date (done before ARRA was signed) and is possibly addressed both to FS employees and to the public and the text page is bureaucratically vague. Additionally, the chief forester promises the work will be done in 2-3 years, mostly. I wonder if that's what they promised OMB?

Where's FSA? Not a clue.

Unemployment Statistics

Are out today, and are bad. Some discussion in the blogosphere (Brad DeLong and TPM among them, I think) about comparisons with the past. As between now and 1930, say, I think the following are true:
  • we may have fewer (proportionately) people institutionalized for mental problems
  • we definitely have more people imprisoned (there's an interesting argument that since the 1950's we've moved people out of mental hospitals and into jails, keeping the proportion in some sort of involuntary confinement roughly the same)
  • we have many more people in educational institutions
  • we have more women working outside the home
  • we have more people working inside the home (i.e., by computer, call-centers)
  • we have more temporary workers.
  • we have more older people able to work (i.e., better health and longer lived)
  • we have fewer old people working (Social Security)
  • we have more people in the military
  • we have more people in the government

Obama's Bureaucratic Problems

First he has problems in filling slots, just today three candidates (for Surgeon General and two posts in Treasury withdrew), that's after two withdrew yesterday. Prof. Light has been compiling figures on the number of nominees and the number confirmed, he needs to keep score on those withdrew. That's one downside of proclaiming high ethical standards.

Another problem is implementing good ideas, like "recovery.gov". See this Federal Computer Week article on the problems in feeding data from the agencies into the site.

A third problem is confirmations--two nominees for the Council of Economic Advisors are being held up in Congress.

North Korean Agriculture

The Post has an interesting article on North Korea, much of it on food. North Korea makes an interesting test case for theories on food and famine and economics. It turns out the international food aid has greased the way for free enterprise--North Korean bigshots grab the aid and sell it on the open market, encouraging the powerful and connected to support markets. But that doesn't do much for encouraging private agriculture (which isn't much discussed in the article).

North Korean is reverting back to organic fertilizer, i.e., night soil, since they've lost their access to chemical fertilizers which they were very dependent on, but is struggling to feed its population. (That surprised me--I would have assumed their agriculture was not that modernized, but I guess collective farms must have adopted chemical fertilizers.) So, my prejudices are reinforced, private "industrial" ag is the way to go to feed people, at least in today's world.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Thundra and Kundra

Vivek Kundra is the new Chief Information Officer of the Federal government--here
and here. He'd been rumored for a while, so I guess the new, tighter vetting didn't turn up any dirt. Should be interesting as he runs into the entrenched Federal IT bureaucracy. See this for an example of transparency in DC.

Going Gray

Both Post and Times have articles on Obama's graying hair. See MSNBC .

They say stress leads to gray. By that measure my life must not have been stressful, as I'm not much grayer than Obama. Course, he has more hair left than I do.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

On Snow Shoveling, Virture and Competition

Joel Achenbach is one of the Post's better writers, specializing in science and humor. In this post though he excerpts from another of the Post's writers, David Von Drehle, on snow shoveling (after tweaking Obama about snow and schools). It begins:

"I suppose a case could be made that snow shoveling is not a sign of virtue. That a man is not morally worthy simply because he cleans the entire sidewalk, edge to edge, as opposed to scooping a single shovel-width lane."
By this standard I admit to a lack of virtue. Given my advancing age, when I totter outside to clear the 5.4" of snow from my sidewalk, and the cluster's sidewalks out to the mail boxes, I count it a clear victory if I've beaten any of my neighbors. I used to have a neighbor, whom we called "Juan the Manic", who was stiff competition. He lived up to von Drehle's standards, clearing all 48" of the sidewalk, leaving not a snowflake behind. Me, I was satisfied just to clear the width of my shovel. "Clear", that is, meaning getting close enough to concrete that the sun and rising temperatures could take over the job of removing the rest of the snow. (That's known as "good enough for government work".) What I lacked in perfection I made up for in length of path cleared. I don't know where Juan is now, but he sold close to the peak of the housing boom. I hope he didn't over-extend. I miss him, miss the competition.

Grassley on Payment Limits [Updated]

Sen. Grassley disagrees with gross income, wants LDP's included in caps (hat tip, Brownfields)--from a conference call:

"Do you support his budget proposal to eliminate direct payments to any farm with more than $500,000 in gross revenue?
GRASSLEY: The answer is no. But for those of you that have followed me for the last several years, you know I am for great and restrictive limits on how much one operation can get. That's best expressed through the $250,000 hard cap that I've put in place. And, of course, he does have that in his program.

So from that standpoint, he and I are on the same page. We're not off the page. I'm not off the page with him on the $500,000, but it can't be on gross income. It's got to be on net income for farmers or let's say adjusted grow income for farmers because sales do not make a determination of whether or not you're making a profit or not.

So it's got to be related to capability of paying. So that would be one change I would make. Now, here's another consideration that goes beyond just a cap. And that is direct payment or include all payments. I would be one to include all payments. That's why my way of $250,000 is a better way of doing it because it -- a direct payment dollar, an LTP dollar, a countercyclical dollar, they all look the same. So you should have all of them included. And then you want to remember that some of this eventually has to be taken into consideration with our WTO and our negotiations. We want market opening. We get market opening. We're willing to change our subsidies that are trade distorting.

Direct payments and conservation and maybe some others are not trade distorting. LDPs and countercyclicals are a trade distorting. Maybe countercyclicals a little less trade distorting than LDPs. "

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

A Common Error

"Instead of solving the world's food crisis, [since WWII] the USDA's policies have only made it worse."

Jim Goodman in Grist

Goodman's obviously a whippersnapper with no memories before 1990.

Monday, March 02, 2009

NYTimes on Muslims

The Times does a piece on a Gallup poll of American Muslims.
“We discovered how diverse Muslim Americans are,” said Dalia Mogahed, executive director and senior analyst of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, which financed the poll. “Ethnically, politically and economically, they are in every way a cross-section of the nation. They are the only religious community without a majority race.”

I was struck by the fact the plurality of Muslim Americans are Africans. Otherwise, the results are about what one might expect--Muslim Americans are more satisfied than their counterparts in most other countries, but less so than other religious groups.

Politics and the Obama Budget

I was thinking about the immediate opposition Obama's 2010 budget has run into--various farm state Reps and Senators stating their disagreement. I'd been going on the assumption the opponents would be able to prevail, particularly because of the 60-vote "rule", but maybe not.

My vague memory is Pres. Reagan got his way in 1981 basically by putting everything into one package, so it was an up-or-down vote. Vote for the package and you took credit for his tax cuts. Vote against, and you were protecting special interests, opposing tax cuts, and going against a balanced budget. (Not that Reagan's package really was balanced, but they had Stockman's magic asterisk and the Laffer curve so their supporters could make the claim.)

The method was something called budget reconciliation. Also see this.

And that could change the terms of the debate--now the farm state Dems can wrap themselves in support of a popular President, saying they've done their best to preserve the farm bill, etc. etc. And Obama can get some Republicans in support as well.

It should be an interesting spring for those with an irrationally robust interest in politics.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Land Sales and GIS

Here's an article from the Imperial Republican I found of interest (the hook was an academic moving from ND to NE):
" The biggest factor was Nebraska’s full disclosure of ag land sales data. Shultz told participants at the Holdrege Water Conference in early February that in North Dakota, only county assessors have access to sale details.
Nebraska assessors must send detailed reports, including land prices and equipment sales, to a database for all sales that aren’t family to family. That data is used by UNO researchers to create Geographic Information Systems computer models that can sort and compare many variables.
One project involves mapping Republican Basin ag land sales and analyzing the value of water. Shultz said a goal is to identify the premium payments required to get landowners to retire parcels from irrigation."
My bureaucratic mind says there ought to be convergence of GIS layers and owners--why is everyone reinventing the wheel. But one obstacle is always the concept of private data. Until we get some community standards for what is acceptable use, the convergence can't happen.

Locavores in a New Field--Pot

Kevin Drum discusses a proposal to permit "grow your own" pot.