Friday, December 31, 2010

Are You a Screwball? Metaphors

A post at York Town Square provides a definition of "screwball", the definitive one.  It sounds logical to me, though a fast search doesn't reveal any confirmation.  But I know filter screens can clog, and I can imagine bouncing balls could vibrate it enough to keep it clear, and such motion (brownian, perhaps) would be erratic, erratic enough to lead to the modern definition of "screwball".

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Food Waste

A while back I posted on the waste of food in the US, arguing that it was mostly due to our desire for choice.  I noted a contrast today in a NYTimes piece on the likelihood of soaring food prices in 2011:
China, which only really uses global markets for soybeans, is fretting over soaring shop prices for goods as diverse as pork and seaweed. In India, a fifth of the population is undernourished, according to the United Nations. Both countries have their own issues; for instance, in India, awful infrastructure means a third of produce spoils before it reaches the market. But something is clearly making the problem worse.  [emphasis added]
 For those curious, the "something" referred to in the last sentence is claimed to be an abundance of money.

Why Healthcare Is Costly

A nugget from a NYTimes article on the problems of providing adequate Wi-Fi connectivity to conferences, particularly of techies.
"“I’ve been to health care conferences where no one brings a laptop,” said Ross Mayfield, president of the business software company Socialtext and a technology conference regular."
 That's sad, and also revealing.  I doubt there's any conference in USDA where laptops aren't present, at least those conferences where there are worker bees.

Dan Drezner Decides to be Less Genuine

My takeaway from his post on being interviewed on cable news (taking off from Ta Nehisi-Coates post) is:

His fault: "I genuinely want to answer the question asked of me. "

His New Year's resolution: to improve as an interviewee.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

You Think?

From a post on sex at Barking Up the Wrong Tree:

"Taking the data set as a whole, almost the only way to make the men’s and women’s answers consistent is for there to be some women in the United States who have enormous numbers of sexual partners without reporting that fact in our survey data. It is possible that this is because of the existence of prostitutes. An alternative, and perhaps more likely, explanation is that men overestimate."[emphasis added]

Monday, December 27, 2010

Central Cities Safer Than Suburbs?

That's the gist of a Grist post, based on a UVA study. Turns out the risk from things like car accidents and drunk driving outweighs the risk from the crime we think of when "central cities" are mentioned.

Cash Leasing Increasing?

Extension reports an increase in cash leasing as opposed to shares, suggesting an increase in the use of crop insurance to handle risk means farmers are more able to accept the increased risk of cash leasing.  There's another possible contributory cause: the declining impact of farm program payments. Relatively speaking, such payments are less important these days; payments have gone down and prices have gone up.  When payment limitation is a problem, there's an advantage to share leasing. But with the lesser importance of farm programs, there's also less incentive to worry about payment limitation in managing your affairs.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas from a Procrastinator

Haven't finished a lot of posts I wanted to, but I wish you all a Merry Christmas.

Let All Populists Rejoice

According to this blog post of a study, Harvard Law students are no good (i.e., their free representation of indigents didn't help, and actually delayed decisions).

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

I Use E-Mail, I'm a Geezer

All that fits this Times piece: usage of email by oldtimers is up; by teens is way down.

What Gripes Me: The Golden Rule

As in this case reported in the Times:
"Deutsche Bank agreed to pay $553 million and admit to criminal wrongdoing on Tuesday, settling a long-running investigation into tax shelter fraud that prosecutors say generated billions of dollars in bogus tax benefits."

"... Deutsche Bank will avoid prosecution for helping 2,100 customers evade taxes through 2,300 financial transactions. The arrangements, which took place between 1996 and 2002, helped wealthy Americans report more than $29 billion in fraudulent tax losses, according to the Justice Department."
Them as has the gold, rules; or at least break the rules.  (I know, Republicans, this is class warfare.  The war of class on the masses. Can anyone guess I'm not in a holiday mood today?)

Bronze Star Cook

Via Marginal Revolution, this short post on the Army Ranger and Bronze Star winner who's also a great pastry cook: no. 3 in the world.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Render Unto Caesar

A friend argues we should not have any marriages recognized by the civil authorities; everyone should use civil unions and leave marriages to the churches. That almost feels like Matt Yglesias on Christmas: let's have a universal secular festival on the solstice and leave Christmas and Hanukkah to their respective religions.

Government Project Wastes Millions on Failed Projects

A big government project, announced with much fanfare 5 years ago, admitted today it had failed to achieve its objectives after spending $450 million of taxpayer money. Few would be surprised by such a story.  But it turns out that the sentence (mis)describes a Bill Gates project.  Best I can tell, the project was similar to something the government might have done, particularly if you had someone like Rep. Dingell pushing NIH and funding its efforts. It actually was a group of projects, mostly conceived as top-down efforts, some of which were successful but most of which didn't meet their objectives.  

To be clear, I don't regard this as a waste of Mr. Gates' money, but I am intrigued with the similarities and differences with similar government efforts.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Christmas Tree Exhibited in 1840

I follow a couple of York, PA blogs because one line of ancestors lived there for a while.  Here's a post on an exhibition of a Christmas tree in 1840, plus related bits and pieces.


I blogged on Senate passage of this bill but it failed in the House.  Brought up under suspension of rules, it failed to get 2/3 of the votes.  The incoming chair of Gov Oversight, Rep. Issa, has some problems with it because the Senate stripped his amendment requiring program-level goals.

New Type of Crop Insurance--Weather-Based

Via Farm Policy, here's the website of WeatherBill, which touts itself as a new type of crop insurance. I'm not clear how it works, but the leader used to work for Google so presumably it's based on better/faster access to data.   You do have to input some of the data from your crop insurance policy. And the policies are weather-specific: i.e., "rain on hay", "spring freeze", etc. Whether they can reinvent crop insurance, we'll see.

On Teachers and Education

Greg Mankiw passes on an estimate of the value added by a teacher who's one standard deviation better than the average: $400,000 for a class of 20.  Meanwhile, a comparison of the GRE (Graduate Record Exam) scores by discipline puts elementary educators 5 rungs from the bottom, with secondary and higher education above, but still below average.  (Public administration was just above elementary education, but I was happy to see, as a failed historian, history was third from the top--all rankings based on verbal scores.)

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Declining Usage of Productive Capability

This post at Calculated Risk has a series of graphs, one of which shows the usage of productive capability over the years. What strikes me is that usage was at 88 percent or so in 1967, but the peak declined to 85 percent in the 1980's and 1990's and to about 82 percent in the 2000's. I wonder what's going on?
  • Is there a systemic problem with the statistics?
  • Are companies investing too much in capabilities?
  • Have tax breaks for investment resulted in over investment?
  • Something else?

Madison Is Right Again: Joe Lieberman

I interpret Madison's arguments for a big republic in the Federalist Papers as predicting Joe Lieberman would be a darling of the liberals, at least for a day. I may be stretching a bit, but Madison foresaw a number of different interests in competition, which seems to me logically to result in overlap and cross-pressures.  So while Lieberman has been a hawk and a friend of McCain on many issues, so much so he was beaten in the last Democratic primary, he's been good on many domestic issues and turned up trumps on Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

I'm probably showing my age, but I've more tolerance for such politicians than many, such as the Republicans who go hunting for RINOS (Republicans in name only).

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Vertical Gardens Again

The Economist has a good piece on vertical gardens, which ends thus:
Rooftop farming may not be able to compete with other suppliers in a global market unless people are prepared to pay a premium for fresh, local food, says Mr Head. And it is much less glamorous than the grand vision of crops being produced in soaring green towers of glass. But, for the time being, this more down-to-earth approach is much more realistic than the sci-fi dream of fields in the sky.
Reihan Salam who is often a conservative I can listen to is duped  by Valcent.

How We Pay Teachers

From Ralph Luker's Cliopatria
Looking toward the AHA's annual job market orgy in January, one of our colleagues suggests Colonial Williamsburg's listing as a commentary on the state of our profession. CW wants a doctorate in early American Studies, with experience in museum-related historical research, and expertise in a half dozen or more programming technologies and languages. Must be both a self-starter and a collegial builder of community. Bring all of that to the job and you could hope to make up to $40 K.

Peter Hessler and Rapid Development in China

Been reading Peter Hessler's "Country Driving".  (I strongly recommend his previous books: "River Town" and "Oracle Bones".)  He is or was the New Yorker's correspondent in China, having first lived there as a Peace Corps teacher (River Town).  He's got a sharp eye for detail and for the culture, plus the daring to drive where he's not supposed to, and the ability to get along with people, although according to him in the Chinese countryside and in the new industrial areas people are uniformly welcoming, and friendly, except for the man nicknamed the "Shitkicker".

Anyhow, just read his description of the process of designing a 21,000 sq ft factory building (3 stories, with the dormitory for workers on the third floor) in southern China.  Guess how long it took?
  • 3 months
  • 3 weeks
  • 3 days
  • 3 hours
  • none of the above

The answer is "none of the above".  Actually took 1 hour and 4 minutes for the two bosses to design it with the builder, the builder committed to providing a bid by the next morning.  3 months is the time it took to build it.

Paragraph of Dec 18

From RecoveringFed: 
"One day, as I was tweeting on the hotel computer, I noticed that on the French computer one does not have to shift to use the exclamation point. I think that says something about the French."

Friday, December 17, 2010

"Bureaucrat", "Civil Servant", "Faceless Bureaucrat"

Back to the Google Ngram again.  The term::
  • "civil servant" starts occurring in 1800, in British  English, peaking in the early 1940's then declining.  It starts occurring in the 1880's in American English peaking in the mid 1960's, then declining. It's about 5 times more common in British than American.
  • "bureaucrat" starts earlier in British English (around 1840) than in American (late 1860's).  In American the peak is mid 1970's, then a decline.  In British the peak is the early 1990's, then a decline. Usage slightly more common in the U.S. 
  • "faceless bureaucrat" is 10 times more common in American English than British, though the pattern over time is roughly the same.
I've had Google alerts for "faceless bureaucrat" and "civil servant" for a few years.  The pattern is for the members of the former British Empire to use "civil servant" quite a bit, and their usage of "bureaucrat" is generally neutral, not pejorative.  The U.S. doesn't use "civil servant" much, and usage of "bureaucrat" usually has an edge.  So the comparisons made available by the Google tool don't surprise me, but I am puzzled by the variations over the last 50 years.

Government Performance and Results Act II

Government Executive reports on Senate passage of an update to the GPRA, sponsored in part by Sen. Warner (has yet to pass the House and may not make it before adjournment). It sounds to me to be fairly reasonable, except as follows.  This paragraph struck me:
When developing or making adjustments to a strategic plan, the agency shall consult periodically with the Congress, including majority and minority views from the appropriate authorizing, appropriations, and oversight committees, and shall solicit and consider the views and suggestions of those entities potentially affected by or interested in such a plan. The agency shall consult with the appropriate committees of Congress at least once every 2 years.
Based on schoolbook theories of government, it would seem that Congress should be initiating reviews of such plans, rather than the agencies initiating the consultation. 

And my big concern is definition: it applies to "agencies", which if I understand means USDA, not NRCS and FSA.  Unfortunately, as Sec. Vilsack has no doubt learned by now, his control and oversight of subordinate agencies in the department is rather limited.  You have a puzzle: how does USDA do a plan which makes sense at the FSA level? 

I should note under the current GPRA FSA and the other components of USDA do their own plans.  Of course, FSA hasn't updated its webpage since July 2007, so one can assume the new administration isn't much relying on the plan to guide the agency.

Telework and Televote

If Federal employees can telework, why can't Senators televote.  (Sen. Wyden is having prostate surgery.)

"Faceless Bureaucrat"

Via Kevin Drum, the Google Ngram Viewer. It's a database of text from Google Books together with software which searches and graphs the occurrence of a phrase. The phrase, "faceless bureaucrat" first appears around 1958.  Usage rises steadily from 1964 to the 1980's, then has been up and down but mostly up since then. I wonder what was driving the usage.  Anyhow, as Kevin says, it's a great time waster and the NY Times says it's been used for a scholarly paper.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Interest Rates and Competition

I shouldn't venture into this subject, but I'm confused.  If I understand, which I probably don't, the Fed continues to make money available to banks at a low cost but the mortgage rate is rising.  How does that happen? Shouldn't the banks be competing to make loans, and therefore keeping rates low?  Or is the home mortgage market subject to frictions and problems which make it not very competitive?

Why You Can't Keep Them Down on the Farm

Roving Bandit quotes a professor on 7 reasons you can't keep people down on the farm (phrased as "reasons urban growth is a reasonable and natural phenomenon". (economies of scale, centrality,diversity cover some of the seven). The same rules mean bigger cities grow bigger.

Meanwhile Megan McArdle had a recent visit to China and an interesting post on rural life, including observations on how the government is trying to slow the rush of people to cities:
Yet even this level of income is achieved by substantial government intervention.  In part to slow the pace of urbanization to a manageable level, in part because they're worried about food security, and in part presumably just because they don't want the farmers to starve, the government offers some pretty hefty subsidies to rural communities.  The crop prices are supported above market levels; the houses, appliances, and someday cars, are acquired with substantial discounts through government programs.  According to our hosts, without those subsidies, it's not clear that there would be anyone left on Chinese farms.  Chinese agriculture is amazingly productive, as I mentioned, but it's also amazingly labor intensive, and tends to be done on a small scale; they can't compete with the massive farms of North and South America.

Why the Food Movement Should Like High Estate Taxes

A common refrain against the opponents of the death estate tax is it will harm family farms. It will force the sale of farms which have been in the family for generations.  Assume a 1,000 acre in Iowa, valued at $7,000.  If husband and wife are the owners, then the exemption has to be at least $3.5 mill (which I think is what House Dems want).  But of course, some farms these days are larger.  So what happens if the estate tax is applied: presumably the owners sell off some land.  Selling land puts more land on the market and presumably improves the chances for aspiring farmers to break into the business.  That's what the food movement would like, more and smaller farms.   So the food movement should be pushing for lower estate tax exemptions.  And I don't see a free market rationale for preserving the larger farms--if bigger is better, as most commercial farmers think, the new owners will simply assemble land parcels into a new, big farm.

House for Sale

[Updated: Ipswich, MA]

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The NRA Is More Powerful Than the Farm Bureau

Why do I say that?  The Post has been running articles on guns, and yesterday's piece describes how, when the ATF revokes a gun dealer's license, games can be played so a relative gets a license and the gun shop goes on as before. Apparently these games  over who is the entity receiving the license are permitted by the terms of the relevant law(s) and the way Congress has directed the ATF to administer the law.

While the supporters of farm program payments such as the Farm Bureau have exerted influence over the payment limitation provisions of the law, including issues of who is considered the entity receiving payments, they don't seem to have been quite as successful as the NRA.  The last I knew, FSA was still looking for paper entities.  It may not be a great distinction, but when the issue is payment limitation, FSAers will take anything they can find.

A Juxtaposition

In today's Post there was a report that some hotel workers had their assignments changed because someone didn't want them working on the same floor where the party of  an Israeli cabinet officer had rooms. They were Muslem, apparently.  Separately an update on Richard Holbrooke's last words mentioned the names of an attending doctor and surgeon, one possibly Arab and one born in Pakistan.  One wonders what would have happened if the Israeli cabinet minister had been injured in a traffic accident and rushed to the ER where Holbrooke was treated.

A Liberal's Wet Dream

Via Matt Yglesias, NY Times has an interactive website for the new Census data.  Looking at the tract in which I reside (western Reston/eastern Herndon south of Toll Road BTW I think the center of the Internet) the racial ethnic distribution is:
white 39%
Hispanic 24%
black 14%
Asian 22%
other 2 %

Median household income $84K

Odd figures for housing: the median unit is at $507K, up 97 % from 2000 to 2009 but the median rent is $920, down 2 %.  I frankly can't believe the house price, unless it excludes townhouses.  The discrepancy between the rise in housing and the decline in rental rates is interesting.

Variety in School Lunches, A Thought

The White House has released a "before" and "after" school lunch menu. Obviously the "after" is both more nutritious and more attractive (at least to a geezer's eyes, perhaps not to those of a 10-year old).  One thing which strikes me about the menu is there's more items in every "after" menu than in the "before".   Just on a fast skim, the "before" averages about 4 items, the "after" about 7.  Just thinking about logistics, as a bureaucrat often should, the difference implies an increase in costs as you've got a more complicated inventory to procure and manage and a more complicated and more labor-intensive process to assemble the meal.  I wonder whether school lunch administrators were involved in creating the menus.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A Good Sentence for Dec 14

"And in those 20 years, he’s never been right" (from Matt Yglesias on Thomas Hoenig, the inflation-fighter Fed man from KC.

Words on Inequality from a Founding Father

Brad DeLong posts a letter from Jefferson to Madison which I remember reading in college.  It's of interest in many ways (sentiments which were the basis of appropriating the land of the Native Americans, botanical research, etc.) but here's one sentence:
I am conscious that an equal division of property is impracticable, but the consequences of this enormous inequality producing so much misery to the bulk of mankind, legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property, only taking care to let their subdivisions go hand in hand with the natural affections of the human mind.

I might link it with this Tyler Cowen post relative to Australia's equality.

Cleopatra as the Great Bureaucrat

Reading Cleopatra, one of the Times' 10 best books of the year.  Parenthetically I note the readers' reviews at Amazon average between 3 and 4; a rather surprising result which is explained by the fact many reviewers expected to find a biography full of sex, even a book of historical fiction.  Instead, they find a book which tries not to go too far beyond the available sources, which are few and untimely. (Consider trying to describe the Constitution from a book by Charles Beard and one by Glenn Beck.)

Because of the scarcity of sources, the author weaves in lots of detail about Egyptian society and Roman society, which strongly appeals to me. What surprised was the extensive bureaucracy the Egyptian state possessed, even down to tracking the amount of seed provided to a farmer and requiring the return of that amount after harvest, in addition to taking 50 percent of the crop. And Cleopatra served as chief bureaucrat, likely being a more hands-on administrator than such heads of state as Henry VIII and Khrushchev.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Sen. Warner's Regulation Proposal Is Wrong

Sen. Mark Warner of VA has an op-ed in today's Post on regulation.  Specifically, he's proposing legislation to require agencies to kill a regulation for each new regulation they write, alleging: " our current regulatory framework actually favors those federal agencies that consistently churn out new red tape. In this town, expanded regulatory authority typically is rewarded with additional resources and a higher bureaucratic profile, and there is no process or incentive for an agency to eliminate or clean up old regulations."

Although the regulations I wrote for ASCS/FSA were mostly not the sort of regulations Sen. Warner has in mind, iI've multiple problems with it
  • A nitpicky problem is one of definition: what is a regulation?  Is it a section of the Code of Federal Regulations or a part? Does it relate to a specific law, or perhaps a title of a law, remembering that many "laws" as passed actually contain multiple "laws", particularly in the case of such legislation as the farm bill? How about a regulation for a yearly program: if the 2007 direct payment program is different than the 2009 direct payment program, is that two regulations or one? Whatever definition is used, a sufficiently ingenious reg writer can work around it, by judiciously combining and splitting documents, or including the new regulatory provision in a revision of the old regulation.
  • "Old regulations" don't necessarily mean obsolete regulations.  AMS has probably not changed many of its regulations defining commodities for many years, but those regulations don't need changing or dropping just because they're old.
  • "Obsolete regulations" need not be oppressive regulations.  For example, suppose the government regulates the making of buggy whips. Well, IMHO there's few buggy whip makers around to be adversely affected by the obsolete regulation, and therefore little economic gain to using scarce resources to do away with them.
  • It fails to consider the Congressional role in rulemaking.  For example,  a recent NYTimes article described the regulatory work involved in implemented Obama's healthcare and financial regulation packages; I believe Sen. Warner supported both.  What obsolete regulations would he have Treasury and HHS drop?  When Congress creates some programs and sticks them in the farm bill, without killing old programs, what regulations is FSA supposed to kill?
  • It's a de novo proposal, by which I mean it's made without any recognition of past efforts in this direction.  (Sen. Warner's too young to remember the Carter administration and its love of sunset provisions.)  Someone fed Sen. Warner the OECD report on regulations and he saw a chance to make his name based on adopting it here.  I would be more impressed if Sen. Warner and his staff had looked at the existing inventories of federal program and rulemaking activities,  consulted with the people in the Obama administration who are working in the area of rulemaking, thought about public involvement, talked to GAO which did a report last year, and made some considered proposals.
  • [Updated: The proposal requires more work for federal regulation writers, without providing any funding.  Therefore we need to consider what the writers won't be doing if they carry out Sen. Warner's proposal: ignoring public input on regulations or taking longer to write new regulations (the GAO study already outlined how long it takes to get new things out the door). As a former businessman, Sen. Warner should realize there's no such thing as a free lunch.
Note: Sen. Warner is one of my senators, I voted for him, and I plan to vote for him in 2012.  But  he should take this back to the draft stage.]

    Flash: Farm Subsidies Popular in US

    That's the take-away from this Kevin Drum post, which says Wall Street bonuses are twice as unpopular as farm subsidies. (Which must mean that farm subsidies are more popular, right?)

    Sentence of Dec 13

    "Fortunately for America, Alabama has a legendary good-government political culture that’s allowed it to climb to the top of so many social indicator league table"

    From Matt Yglesias, commenting on the rise of Alabama politicians to power over finance.

    Sunday, December 12, 2010

    NYTimes Mag and Zuckerberg

    Virginia Heffernan writes about "The Social Network" and Mr. Zuckerberg in today's NY Times Magazine. A paragraph:
    The real Mark Zuckerberg has taken measured issue with the way “The Social Network” portrays him. He has disputed, especially, the filmmakers’ suggestion that he built the site as a means to worldly ends. “They frame it as if the whole reason I invented Facebook was that I wanted to get girls or to get into some kind of social institution,” he told an audience at Stanford University in October. “They just can’t wrap their head around the idea that someone might build something because they like building things.”
     I note the alternative motives here: sex or curiosity, not money.  The book, "The Facebook Effect", which I just finished, is consistent with the movie in this respect.  Zuckerberg is depicted almost as an artist with a pure vision of what Facebook could be, a vision which excludes lots of ads and commercialization and includes declining multiple opportunities to cash in for the big bucks.

    So what's the role of money as an incentive?  I'd suggest it plays a role in some choices, like an initial choice of occupation.  I'm sure some people choose to work on Wall Street instead of Teach for America because of money. And many people who go into medicine may choose a specialty partially because of money. But I don't think money is that important in the big scheme of things.  So why worry about the impact of taxes on incentives for work? The best answer is because taxes can be changed but you can't change sex or curiosity.

    White House Garden for Winger

    Obamafoodorama has a post on the White House installing hoop houses for winter.  One of our fellow gardeners has something similar, though she's had problems with it withstanding wind.  Snow may be the big challenge, based on last year's experience.

    Saturday, December 11, 2010

    How Far We've Progressed

    A conjunction of two articles in today's NYTimes: one describing Nixon's views of Jews, and different ethnicities, the other describing a video used to raise money for the American Jewish World Service:
    The film they commissioned, by the director Judd Apatow and the writer Jordan Rubin, is different from the standard nonprofit propaganda, different enough to have been watched nearly a million times since it made its debut a month and a half ago.
    Mr. Apatow’s short film features a medley of Hollywood stars, Jew and gentile, making light of Jewish stereotypes, suggesting that donors “send a self-addressed stamped matzoh,” and generally having more fun at a religious group’s expense than their grandparents might think proper.

    Regulating Eggs

    Post has an article on the complexities of regulating eggs for salmonella.  Two bits illustrate the complexities:
    [In the 1980's]For egg farmers, however, the problem was not so easily dismissed. Faced with bad publicity and multimillion-dollar liability claims, they voluntarily began testing for the bacteria, disinfecting henhouses, refrigerating eggs, removing manure and controlling rodents. But those farmers soon came to think that they were at an economic disadvantage against competitors who weren't spending money on prevention....
    The fact that the egg industry was on board [with draft regulations] didn't sway Dudley [GWB's person for regulations in OMB]. "One needs to be skeptical when an industry seeks regulation, because it often confers competitive advantage. It could be over other companies or over international firms," she said. "And it often raises costs and it's consumers who get hurt."
     Basic fairness says everyone in a market should be competing on an equal basis.  The government should set the rules and let the competitors fight it out. Of course, that raises the issue of  who is in the market?  Should someone with a thousand hens be considered a competitor the same as someone with a million hens? How about the person with 20 hens who supplies neighbors?  I think that's basically what Dudley gets at when she speaks of "an industry". She's really talking about the big boys in an area who have the bucks to come to DC and hire lobbyists, etc. The economics of regulation sometimes, not always, create additional costs; costs which if you're big can be spread over many units of production but if you're small can be make or break.  (I'm thinking of shifting from milk cans to a bulk tank, which was a hot issue for dairies when I was 20 or so.)

    So the tradeoff can be: draw the line in one place and you allow free-riders; draw the line in another place and you encourage concentration and kill the small producers.

    Friday, December 10, 2010

    Meat Consumption in the US

    Freakonomics provides a graph showing the US consumption of beef, chicken, pork, and turkey since 1909.  They highlight the drop in beef and rise in chicken, suggesting that chicken is faster to prepare and the rise relates to the rise in female employment (as well as the health concerns of red meat versus white).

    What I see is a steep rise in beef consumption from about 1953 to 1976 or so.  I guess that was a reflection of American prosperity, where eating steak was a sign one had arrived.  (Except for cube steak, which was sort of our staple steak when I was growing up.  Not sure you see much cube steak these days.)   I'm curious, though; the rise in female employment surely started earlier than 1975.

    And So Much for the Minimum Wage

    Apparently the recession and consequent loss of immigrants has enabled builders to cut the wages of their laborers down to the minimum wage. I wonder how aware of the minimum wage immigrants of any stripe are? And this seems to be an instance where wages are not "sticky", as the economists say.  Contrast the fate of civil service employees, or financial sector employees, whose wages haven't decreased at all in this recession.

    On the Intrinsic Superiority of Market-Driven Organizations

    See this post at Propublica, for a study comparing the death rates at dialysis clinics: profit versus nonprofits.

    Anyone knowing my biases knows which group does better.

    Thursday, December 09, 2010

    Pigford II Is Signed, And Breitbart Digs Away

    I've been slow recently in following the Pigford II story.  Briefly, yesterday Obama signed the legislation.  It passed the House despite some speeches against it by Michelle Bachmann and Steve King. And it seems that Mr. Breitbart is promising revelations, including allegations that more than 50 percent of Pigford claims are fraudulent.

    I'd comment today simply that any discussion needs to distinguish between Pigford I and Pigford II claims, A and B claims, claims which were filed and claims which were approved.

    Earmarks and Congressional Clout

    Steve Benen posted a discussion of earmarks, on which I commented.  David Farenthold had an article in the Post on the lame duck House members, who have now moved out of their fancy offices into temporary offices in the basement until the House adjourns.  I see these two paragraphs as relating to earmarks:
    The departing members also remembered, fondly, their power to intercede for constituents. As lowly as a freshman is on Capitol Hill, he is a giant to a bureaucrat.
    "I was surprised by the extent of power that I had," said Rep. Anh "Joseph" Cao (R-La.). Cao recalled his ability to make Federal Emergency Management Agency officials help his constituents still recovering from Hurricane Katrina. "I can go into a federal agency, and people would jump."
    The point being, even if earmarks are banned, a bureaucrat is still going to jump when a member of Congress contacts her. So my fear is we'll replace earmarks which are in writing and fairly transparent with less transparent meetings and letters, all of which arrive at understandings, a wink and a nod as it were. Things might be helped if Congress agreed to post all correspondence with the bureaucracy and list all meetings on their web sites.

    Wednesday, December 08, 2010

    Bureaucratic Response of the Year

    Cass Sunstein to his future wife, Samatha Power, on their first date, as he recounts at the recent e-rulemaking symposium:
    "And she was trying to get to know me, so she said if you could have any job at all in the world, any job you wanted -- this is kind of a date-like question, isn’t it -- what would it be? And I found out many months later she was hoping I’d say play left field for the Boston Red Sox or be backup guitar for Bruce Springsteen. And I responded with apparently a glazed look in my eye looking off into the distance and in an imaginary sunset. I said OIRA." 

    Orin Kerr Reveals All

    Or at least the definitive theory of legal interpretation: " That doesn’t mean I don’t have my own normative theory of constitutional interpretation. I do: It’s called the Edsel X62 HutHut 1 Theory." 

    Clue: Edsel

    Tuesday, December 07, 2010

    Food Deserts

    James McWilliams discusses some options on reducing obesity, including this point:
    There’s plenty of evidence supporting a strong correlation between ease of access to healthy food and reduced obesity risk. Similarly, there’s proof that those with limited access to healthy food spend less on it. Causation, though, is another matter. A couple of things to consider: a) a study of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients found that participants lived an average of 1.8 miles from the nearest source of fresh produce but still traveled an average of 4.9 miles (most likely to a superstore) to buy their groceries; and b) sixty-eight percent of Americans are fat but—at the most—8 percent of us lack easy access to healthy food choices. Interpreting these points, Michele Ver Ploeg sums up their implications nicely: “Even though most Americans have fabulous access to healthy foods, on average, they eat only about half the recommended daily levels of fruits and vegetables.”
     The first sentence struck me: there seems to be a strong correlation between class/money and obesity/thinness.  Given that the U.S. tends to segregate by money, perhaps the pattern is the new suburbs are designed and built around the super supermarkets. So the rich are better able to maintain their waistlines and the poor less able to.

    Framing the Issue

    How issues are framed is important.  "Extending tax cuts on taxpayers under $250K" is different than "extending tax cuts on income under $250K"

    As an example of how easily even liberals slip into the wrong language:, the first sentence of a Huffington Post post:
    "Last week, CBS News released a poll finding that 53 percent of adults preferred to extend the Bush-era tax cuts only to those making less than $250,000, twice as many as preferred to keep the cuts for everyone."
    How difficult would it be to say "... only to income of less than $250,000, twice as many preferred to keep the cuts for all income."


    I get home delivery of the NYTimes so it often doesn't have the results of late games.  (The Post used to, but no longer, not since the cutbacks.) So I just finished reading William Rhoden's column in the Times about how the Jets were on the way up and the Patriots on the way down, I log on and see in the news headlines--Pats 45, Jets 3.

    Monday, December 06, 2010

    Procrastinators, Avoid Amazon

    I thought I'd pass on a warning to all my fellow procrastinators about the perils of shopping on Amazon. I've developed a habit; I often go to Amazon, find something I want, add it to my shopping cart, then get hit with an attack of the "slows", as I think Lincoln said about McClellan. Ultimately I log off without paying for the item. Which means, of course, that the item remains in the shopping cart.  And, it turns out, when I come back and check the cart, the item is still there, tempting in all its glory.

    Tempting, that is, except in the interim Amazon has figured me out.  Mr. Bezos says to himself: Harshaw is already emotionally committed to buying this item, he just is hesitating over pulling the trigger. Let's boost the price a bit, 10 percent or so, and see if he still goes through with the purchase. And guess what, as often as not Mr. Bezos is right and I pay a penalty for procrastinating.

    Wrongest Sentence of the Day

    From Ta Na-hesi Coates: "The people" is not a synonym for "all those who agree with me."

    At least as a description of how "the people" is used, this is 100 percent wrong.

    Clause of the Day, Dec. 6

    "If Congress does not extend the Bush-era tax cuts for the highest income levels, a typical worker who earns a $1 million bonus would pay $40,000 to $50,000 more in taxes next year than this year, depending on base salary.[emphasis added, from a NYTimes article on Wall street bonuses being moved up]

    Sunday, December 05, 2010

    What Do Bureaucratic Leaders Do?

    ProPublica has Secretary Geithner's schedule for several months on-line.

    Just skimming through them, without worrying about what was hot during the time, Geithner talks a lot with Rahm Emanuel and the White House economists (Summers, Romer), talks a lot with Senators, talks a lot with foreign counterparts, and, other than staff meetings, very little with Treasury Department employees.

    Why We Have Weak Government

    Tyler Cowen links to an article on the possible reorganization of the DC-area Metro.

    Saturday, December 04, 2010

    Cover Crops in Virginia

    The Cotton Wife takes some pictures.

    How Many Years Since WWII?

    Who knew there was a commander of the German military for the US and Canada? link 

    Is That the Best Ya Got?

    That's my reaction to Michael Lerner's op-ed column in todays Post, suggesting to save Obama the left must run someone against him in the primaries.  His suggested candidates:
    " Sens. Russ Feingold, Bernie Sanders, Barbara Mikulski or Al Franken; Reps. Joe Sestak, Maxine Waters, Raul Grijalva, Alan Grayson, Barbara Lee, Dennis Kucinich, Lois Capps, Jim Moran and Lynn Woolsey. Others include Jim McGovern, Marcy Kaptur, Jim McDermott or John Conyers. We should also consider popular figures outside of government. How about Robert F. Kennedy Jr.? Why not Rachel Maddow, Bill Moyers, Susan Sarandon or the Rev. James Forbes?"
    I don't see anyone there who should make Obama lose any sleep. On the other hand, I didn't think George H.W. Bush had anything to fear from Pat Buchanan either, but Pat (and later Ross Perot) deftly torpedoed the elder Bush.  The examples of Ted Kennedy in 1980 and Buchanan in 1992, not to mention Nader in 2000,  should be a sufficient caution to liberals against following Mr. Lerner's advice.  Yes, Nader was a different case, but the underlying logic is the same: go into the election united and you are likely to win, go in divided and you definitely lose.

    Friday, December 03, 2010

    Anthropology, A Blast

    My sister took an anthropology course or two in college so I saw the books she read in her courses--like Malinowski on Magic is one I remember, presumably Margaret Mead would be another.  Off and on over the years I've happened to read a handful of other books in the field--Marvin Harris is one I remember from the 1970's and 80's. I read Respectful Insolence's blast at the American Anthropological Association's proposal to remove the word "science" from their mission statement with surprise and regret. 

    I've no problem with being open to other cultures and other viewpoints. I understand anthropology often gets into description without much theory.  I've no problem with "valuing" other cultures.  But I do try to draw some lines: yes, I believe "science" in a broad sense is humanity's best method for learning and manipulating the universe; yes, I believe that some cultural practices should be beyond the pale. 


    Some thoughts from a reading of Pauline Maier's "Ratification":
    • doesn't seem much concern for the right to bear arms in the discussions.  So far I think only NH mentioned it as a right.  
    • VA was concerned about "arming" the militia, someone even proposed an amendment ensuring the states' right to arm their militias if the federal government failed to do so.  That suggests to me a recognition of the fact that depending on personal arms for the militia was not a consideration.
    • VA's resolution of adoption included a statement that the "people of the United States" were adopting the constitution, but always had the right to change their form of government.
    • opponents and proponents used whatever tactics they could to advance their cause.  For example, sometimes they delayed, sometimes they shanghaied their foes into the meeting to make a quorum.  
    • as for advocates of "originalism", neither proponents nor opponent agreed on a reading of the Constitution; there were lots of variant interpretations.
    • a stray thought: in one convention, I believe VA, an argument against a bill of rights was that such a bill would tend to limit rights.  By saying that A, B, and C were rights, a bill of rights would imply that X, Y, and Z were not rights.  I wonder if that's been born out over the years--I'm thinking specifically of the right of privacy.

    Thursday, December 02, 2010

    More on Wikileaks and State Department Cables

    Here's a story on the background to the Wikileaks episode, describing how the State Department linked up to the military's secure SIPRNET.  It doesn't change my previous feelings about the need to track the usage history of each person authorized to access the network.

    As a side note, back in the day at ASCS we were on the distribution list for State department cables, or at least some subset of them. Some were "Secret", some were not.  Because I didn't have a security clearance I didn't routinely see them, but they came into the records management shop under some arrangement with the defense preparedness people in the agency.  As I write, I'm becoming aware of how foggy my memory is, or perhaps how foggy my original understanding was.  Were these cables from agricultural attaches, perhaps, and not defense related at all?  Maybe.

    Republican Change I Can Support

    From Politico, Boehner is changing the House Parliamentarian's office with a women's restroom.

    Wednesday, December 01, 2010

    Funny Paragraph of Dec 1: White House and Econ 101

    From Brad DeLong:
    "I think that one of Christie Romer's predecessors as CEA Chair, Stanford economist and Republican Mike Boskin, says it best. Being Chair of the CEA and advising all the political appointees in the White House is, he says, a lot like teaching Econ 1 at Stanford. Only at Stanford your students do their reading, pay attention, and ask deeper and more thoughtful questions."

    Early Precision Agriculture?

    Here's an extension report on the savings from precision agriculture from better information on the farming operation and more precise application of inputs of fertilizer, seed, pesticides, etc. which cuts the amount needed.  Coincidentally I was reading a book, I think Bill Bryson's At Home, which mentioned Jethro Tull and the invention of the seed drill, which cut the amount of seed needed from the 3 bushels used in broadcast seeding to 1 bushel in the drill.

    Tuesday, November 30, 2010

    Cover Crops

    The NY Times has an article on how organic farmers combat pests. Not remarkable, except the next to last paragraph brought back a memory:
    As far as weeds on organic farms, the biggest help there may also be cover crops, things like rye and fava beans. Many cover crops aren’t seeded at a high enough rate, Dr. Brennan said. “We have five times more weeds in vegetables where cover crop is the accepted rate,” he said. “If we increase the seeding rate by three times, we have virtually no weeds. That’s extremely important because organic farmers have no herbicides.”
    My first boss at ASCS sent me to North Carolina for a month to see how the state and county offices operated.  I remember joining one county executive director on a drive to a local saw mill where for the first time I saw a veneer cutter.  At least that's what I'd call it: to describe it I'd say think of a pencil sharpener, except larger and instead of the blade hitting the cylinder of wood (pencil) at an angle it was parallel, so you got an a cylindrical wood shaving about 1/8" thick.  Cut the cylinder into strips and you have the materials to weave wooden garden baskets. 

    Anyhow, what the director was doing was signing people up for conservation practices under the old Agricultural Conservation Program.  ASCS would share the costs of things like farm ponds and, in this case, liming fields and sowing a winter cover crop.  The Nixon administration battled with Congress trying to end this governmental subsidy program, arguing that USDA was just encouraging farmers to do things which, if economical, they should do themselves.  By the mid 70's the program got extensively changed, with liming and cover crops dropped, and eventually it was given to NRCS to run.

    The director knew that some of the sawmill workers were farmers who, since it was November and the crops were in, were picking up some money by working at the sawmill. The director had an incentive: the better job he did in signing up farmers to participate, the better he looked in the eyes of the district director and state office.  And cover crops and limed fields improved agriculture in his county.

    Small Dairies Reviving in NY

    A reminiscence from Mr. Dubner at Freakonomics tied to a possible resurgence of small dairy plants catering to the food movement in NY.

    I can't resist noting that apparently Mr. Dubner's family had a miraculous cow which gave milk 365 days a year.  (No mention of a bull.)  Traveling 10 miles to a dairy farm sounds odd to me, although I'm probably imagining that he's my age and lived in my area of upstate.  And, unless the farm had Jerseys or Ayrshires, I really doubt the 2 inches of cream on a gallon of milk.  No way, no how.

    Monday, November 29, 2010

    Stovepipes, Silos, and Wikileaks

    Apparently the conventional wisdom  (i.e., my reading of the NYTimes today) is the State Department cables now in the news can be traced to Mr. Manning, the private who's accused of  also providing a bunch of military documents to Wikileaks.  And how was a lowly private in intelligence able to access both military and diplomatic material?  The answer seems to be after 9/11, in line with the recommendations of the 9/11 commission, there was a drive to knock down walls between bureaucratic silos.  In additon, State Department managers saw an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone: by piggybacking on an existing secure intranet developed by the military they could save the costs in time and money of developing their own system (State was still stuck in a pre-Internet world with their cables) and get brownie points for sharing information.

    Seems to me this doesn't show we should maintain silos and stovepipes; what it shows is good system designs need to track users and usage of data.  If my credit card company is smart enough to know when my usage is different than my historical average, and to call me it on, then government databases should know what sort of usage pattern is expected from a given job position and to raise red flags when it changes.

    Two Takes on TSA

    In the Times:
    • David Carr views the uproar over TSA's patdowns and body scans as a media-fueled tempest in a teapot. 
    • Ross Douthat uses it as the hook to build a discussion of how partisanship alters one's view of reality, reviewing controversies over the last 15 years where Dems and Reps have switched positions.
    I agree with them both.

    Sunday, November 28, 2010

    Men and Machines

    Confirming what I said in a recent post about the difference in cultures::
    Dana Milbank talks about Israeli security using people versus US security using machines:  their version costs about 8 times per passenger what ours does.  And the NYTimes runs a piece on the many robots being developed for our armed forces.

    Saturday, November 27, 2010

    Organic Dairy--How to Judge

    A set of bullet points from a study of organic dairy:
    • The average cow on organic dairy farms provides milk through twice as many, markedly shorter lactations and lives 1.5 to 2 years longer than cows on high-production conventional dairies;
    • Because cows live and produce milk longer on organic farms, milking cow replacement rates are 30% to 46% lower, reducing the feed required and wastes generated by heifers raised as replacement animals;
    • Cows on organic farms require 1.8 to 2.3 breeding attempts per calf carried to term, compared to 3.5 attempts on conventional farms;
    • The enhanced nutritional quality of milk from cows on forage based diets, and in particular Jersey cows, significantly reduces the volume of wastes generated on organic dairy farms; and
    • The manure management systems common on most organic farms reduce manure methane emissions by 60% to 80%, and manure plus enteric methane emissions by 25% to 45%. 
    I've some quibbles: how does quality of milk reduce volume of wastes? What's unique about organic manure management? (Presumably the organic dairies are small enough to spread manure on the fields, while the non-organic are too big for that?)  3.5 breeding attempts strikes me as high, particularly if we're talking actual inseminations. 
      But my bigger criticism is that these don't seem to me to be the right metrics.  What would be right?  Taking a dairy-wide view over years, standardizing the units for both conventional and organic. For example, take a 10-cow dairy (i.e., 10 milkers, plus appropriate replacements) over 10 years.  What's the total feed input and its cost, what's the total output of milk, and meat over the 10 years, what's the total manure output and their related emissions?  Throw in some metrics for quality of milk (is more fat better--it used to be but maybe not now).  Once you do that comparison you can proceed to the advantages of large versus small, as in the manure issue.

      John Phipps Disses Vertical Farming

      No surprise here--John states the obvious, the obvious except to a few enthusiasts.

      Friday, November 26, 2010

      Thoughts on the Return from Farming

      This is an excerpt from a farmgate post on the economics of corn in Illinois:

      With the crop contributing $321 from a 151 bushel per acre yield on continuous corn and $386 from a 161 bushel yield on rotated corn, a producer has to further estimate a return to labor, management, and land. The Purdue economists estimate $20 for USDA Direct Payments.
      From that income, the economists deduct about $80 for machinery replacement, about $15 for drying and handling, and about $55 for family and hired labor. Their cash rent estimate is $167 per acre, which leaves a $13 per acre earning for continuous corn and a $93 per acre earning for rotated corn. Those numbers could quickly turn negative with higher cash rent, higher fertilizer prices, seed prices, a lower marketing price, or any combination of those.
       Some random thoughts:  
      • Jane Smiley wrote a book called "A Thousand Acres"; the center of which was a thousand acre farm.  That's a nice round number, and Washington bureaucrats like me prefer to deal with nice round numbers.  So assume a 1,000 acre family farm.  According to this analysis, their return is $167,000 for the land,$55,000 for labor, and maybe $15,000 profit, giving a $235,000 total cash income before taxes, of which $20,000, or 10 percent, is farm program payments.  What strikes me is this is a reaffirmation of my mother's saying of long ago: farmers would do better to sell out and put the money in the bank.  1,000 acres at $8,000 an acre is $8 million, earning 3 percent is $240,000 annual cash income before taxes.
      • note the farm program payments aren't that significant in the scheme of things.  They do make the difference between whether the enterprise shows a profit or not, but farming isn't really about making "profits", as defined by accounting professors.  Farming, at least for farmers who own the land they farm, is about cash flow, the return to land and labor.

      Sidenote on TSA Issues, War, Building, Education

      I've noted a couple times in the hullabaloo over the TSA scanners/pat-downs a meme contrasting American approaches to European or Israeli approaches.  I think I'd summarize things this way:
      • Americans tend to rely on machines, whether in airport security, in warfare, or whatever.
      • Europeans tend to rely on people.
      This is probably all wrong, particularly since it doesn't account for most of the world, like Japan with its robots and China with its people. But this is a rambling set of thoughts.

      But I remember a conversation with a civil engineer major at college who relayed an observation by one of his professors.  It went something like: Americans tended to design big and simple structures while Europeans tended to design more complex ones.  In America building materials were always abundant while labor was expensive, so the designers had different constraints than in Europe where labor was cheap and materials were less abundant. 

      In warfare, at least beginning with the Civil War, military historians theorize that we rely on the weight of material to wear down the enemy.  We don't admit it, but valor and great generalship don't play that much of a role in our history.  For those conservatives who doubt me, read James Q Wilson's "Bureaucracy", which uses German small-unit cohesion and tactics as one example of effective bureaucracy.

      In education, we are awestruck by the latest innovation in technology, whether's it's filmstrips and overhead projectors back in the day, my day, or "clickers" and Powerpoint today.  Similarly, we tend to trust the technology of testing over the power of personality. 

      Just thoughts.

      So my impression is that Israel, for example, depends on people interviewing people, while we trust machines.  Does it follow that we don't trust "faceless bureaucrats", while maybe other societies do?

      British Exceptionalism

      From Ralph Luker at Cliopatria comes a hilarious video on all things British?

      Tuesday, November 23, 2010

      Conference Rooms and Potted Plants

      Reading the Steven Rattner book on the GM and Chrysler bankruptcies/bailouts.  As he used to be a reporter, it's a well written narrative, and I'm enjoying it.  I gather it was his first experience on the inside of a governmental bureaucracy, and he has a sharp eye for how it operates. A couple of the bureaucratic touches:
      • "potted plants", which is the internal name for the people who stand behind the President as he's giving comments or making an announcement.  Rattner mourns one occasion where he and his aides didn't even make that status, being pre-empted by assorted cabinet secretaries.
      • conference rooms.  Early on his group had a problem locating a conference room within the Treasury Department to hold a meeting in.  He says, or implies, there were a number of such rooms in the building, but each room was the property of a different agency within the department, so identifying a free one was difficult.  If I remember this used to be the case in USDA, but somewhere towards the end of my tenure there someone at the departmental level at least created a consolidated list for secretaries to work from, if not a single person in charge of scheduling.  Such things are an example of why the first priority of any ad hoc group leader should be to grab an experienced, top-flight secretary.

      Monday, November 22, 2010

      The Blinkered Conservative

      Scott at Powerline has a post attacking Obama's foreign policy in regard to nuclear weapons, and other issues.

      Based on my recent reading about Reagan's negotiations with the Soviets, I don't think Reagan would have much problem with Obama's view, particularly his: "...I will set a goal of a world without nuclear weapons..."  That's precisely what the Ronald the Great wanted.

      The Filibuster 35 Years Ago

      Just finished slogging through Jimmy Carter's Presidential diary book. 10 years ago I might not have used "slog", but my interest in political history is waning a bit.  Towards the end of the book, in 1979, he comments in passing that Sen. Jake Garn, Republican of Utah, threatened to filibuster any legislation to permit registering women for the draft (Carter was pushing a stand-by draft registration, which eventually passed in a male-only form).  To the best of my memory that was the only mention of a filibuster in the book; there's no entry for "filibuster" in the index. 

      Carter does have a complaint about his appointments being confirmed slowly.  There was a big expansion of the federal judiciary during his term, so he had 150 new vacancies to fill.  He mentions coordinating with Senators and being frustrated by their resistance to appointments of blacks and women.

      Sunday, November 21, 2010

      Simple Solutions to the TSA Scanner Policy

      I've two simple suggestions (alternatives) to offer for TSA to adopt.  They should either require passengers to go through their scanners, or through the pat-down process, or do one of the following:
      • allow up to 5 percent of the passengers on a flight to go without scanning or pat-downs, provided they wear a bright yellow vest with a big question mark on it from the boarding gate, through the time they're on the plane, until they get off.  That way their fellow passengers can keep an eagle eye on them, ready to jump them if they make a suspicious move.
      • allow a person to board a flight unscanned if they buy flight insurance indemnifying the airline against loss of plane and passengers against loss of life in case of a terrorist attack.  We've pretty much guarded against planes being taken over in flight to be used as weapons, so the big danger now is simply the downing of a plane. 

      Saturday, November 20, 2010

      How Time Flies

      "Twenty years ago this month, Tim Berners-Lee published his proposal for the World Wide Web."

      I can't believe that.  

      Pigford II Passes Senate

      As reported by the Post here.  Also includes money to settle the long lasting lawsuit over BIA's handling of Indian trust funds.  I must say, given the way ASCS/FSA and BIA pass information on payments for land owned by BIA Indians, I've never been surprised at how screwed up the accounts got.  Some historian will write an interesting book on the subject because it's a place where Native American society and the market-oriented, individualistic society of the European settlers interfaces, interfaces poorly.

      The Unmentionable in France

      Dirk Beauregarde provides more information than some will want, on excretion in France and the UK.  Among the items:
      "70% of French workers consider their toilets in the workplace « unfit for use », though 30% still use them – presumably out of necessity.
      In French schools a staggering 68,3% of kids never use the loos, either for lack of paper or lack of soap."

      Friday, November 19, 2010

      Dairy Management Answers Back

      The Post carries a letter today from the chief executive of Dairy Management, defending their position.  One point he affirms, which I thought I got from the AMS website but which wasn't clear, is:
      "The Post objects that the program wastes "government authority" by being administered by the Agriculture Department. But even here, dairy farmers actually pay USDA for all its costs of administering the program. It costs taxpayers nothing, which is as it should be."
       Of course, the tobacco program ran into a public buzzsaw, which resulted in a "no net cost" program.  But that never inhibited tobacco's critics from blasting the government for "subsidizing tobacco".  Similarly, I fully expect the food movement to blast the government for subsidizing obesity by promoting cheese.

      Transparency--Taking My Own Medicine

      I've stated my opinion that government websites ought always to have a link to a page which would give the metrics on readership/usage, etc.  I just visited the layout site in order to add an interactive poll to the site (I'm inspired by Ann Althouse, who is using polls regularly, albeit in her posts, not the the blog layout.)  When I did, I found blogger offers a gadget to show pageviews, so for consistency sake I felt impelled to add it to my blog. I did cheat a bit by putting it low down on the right hand column, so you'll have to scroll to get the figures, in case anyone is interested.

      What Will Happen to Farm Programs?

      Somehow Congress has to fund the government for the rest of the 2011 fiscal year.  The new Congress will have to appropriate money for the 2012 fiscal year.  And sometime there will be a new farm bill.  So there's lots of unknowns and I thought I'd try out offering a poll where any reader can predict the future.  The poll is in the right hand column, below the "My Blog List".  It's a little complicated--you should choose one or more program categories ("basic programs, like DFC/counter cyclical; conservation, etc.) and the amount by which they'll be cut.  My own prediction is for relatively small cuts in almost all categories.

      McArdle on Chinese Farming

      One visit to one farming community doesn't make an in-depth report, but McArdle's post is worth reading.  From the three crops a year, I assume it's southern China.

      Thursday, November 18, 2010

      The Right Run Into the "War on Terror"

      Dan Drezner, with whom I often agree, and Megan McArdle, with whom I sometimes agree, unite in opposing the new scanning/pat down procedures at some airports.  Kevin Drum passes on an apropo observation--this is the professional class being subjected to "government[al] humiliation".

      Bottom line--people arrested for good cause, or not so good cause (i.e., driving while black) get subjected to such patdowns and none of us professional types have much problem with that.

      I'm assuming the use of these scanners increasing the likelihood of detecting people with explosives in their underwear.  I'm also assuming we believe it's a good thing to keep people with explosives off airliners. People who object presumably have persuaded themselves there's no increased detection ability, or possibly they would never be so unlucky as to be on a plane with a fellow passenger who has explosives.  Or maybe they're just reacting with their emotions, and not their logic.

      [Updated: Dave Weigel in Slate says the right has always resisted big government's intrusions based on protecting society; it's just 9/11 and the Bush administration which temporarily changed their tune.]

      Wednesday, November 17, 2010

      USDA Supporting Obesity?

      Not so, says this study:

      A careful examination of the linkages between farm policy, food prices, and obesity in the United States demonstrates that U.S. farm commodity subsidy policies have had very small effects on obesity. This finding is driven by three key factors. First, with a few exceptions, farm subsidies have relatively small and mixed impacts on prices of farm commodities in the United States. Second, the share of the cost of commodities in the cost of retail food products is small, and continues to shrink over time. Third, food consumption patterns do not change substantially in response to small changes in food prices.
      I don't expect the food movement to change their views; it's very hard to correct errors.

      Shifting Down a Gear--Government Management

      Gov. Executive has a post on the Obama administration's management efforts.  I'm reminded of the hill near which I grew up where tractor trailors would downshift (and downshift and downshift) as they hit the grade and lost speed.  Here the issue is accountability, seeing what works and what doesn't.  It's easy to say the previous administration had lots of stuff that didn't work, not so easy to say, we've been here 2 years and some of our stuff didn't work, didn't provide value for money. It calls for a different gear.

      I've seen comparisons of the health care industry and the airlines: in flying the culture has grown that pilots will report errors, because there's no stigma attached. In medicine doctors tend not to report errors, because an error can end a career, or at least raise your malpractice insurance premiums.  How do we get an atmosphere in government which allows for and reports errors, particularly with the opposition party salivating at the mouth over the prospect of holding hearings and issuing statements and running on the basis of mismanagement?

      Tuesday, November 16, 2010

      A Mysterious EWG Note

      From the cotton page:
      Crop totals are an estimate. In the data received by EWG for 2009, USDA does not differentiate Direct Payments or Counter-Cyclical Payments by crop as in previous years. EWG allocated the region's Direct Payments by crop for the 2009 calendar year using the proportion of that crop's Direct Payments in 2008. Number of recipients receiving Direct Payments for that crop were not estimated. Due to the way Counter Cyclical Payments are made - EWG was not able to allocate Counter Cyclical Payments to crops. Also included in the crop totals are the crop insurance premiums as reported by the USDA Risk Management Agency for that crop. The crop insurance premium is the amount of money that is calculated by USDA to make the program actuarially sound. Crop insurance premium subsidies are available at the county, state and national level.
       I don't know why the data in 2009 would differ in its coding from that in previous years.

      The Importance of Bureaucracy

      Via Tyler Cowan at Marginal Revolution, this interesting discussion of the gains in human development (i.e., education and health) in northern Africa, especially Tunisia.  (A blast from the past--I can remember when Habib Bourguiba was the very model of the modern post-colonial leader.)  A sentence from the post:
      The French colonial legacy and its emphasis on building a strong public bureaucracy may also have played a role here.

      The Grandfather Clause

      Michael Kinsley has some wise words on the "grandfather clause" in budget politics. He suspects the Republicans will use it to ensure that budget cuts don't adversely affect anyone today. 

      I have to note the clause is popular across the board.  After Reagan busted PATCO and as union power started to fade, there were lots of deals made with employers which included grandfather clauses.  Typically the current employees kept their benefits and salary levels, while new employees started lower with lesser benefits.  I believe that's how the UAW handled its negotiations with the automakers in the 1980's and 90's.  You can easily find other examples. 

      It's a shrewd move: the current employees (or beneficiaries of a program in the case of budget fights) are the ones who have the political power; the future employees or beneficiaries may not even know their status.  When they do, as someone who might have to work longer before being eligible for social security, the issue is down the road and much harder to get excited about. 

      But, as Kinsley observes, it's not fair, it's not just.

      Egg Prices: the Spread Narrows

      From a recent  Farm Policy:
      The release added that, “Perhaps indicating the weakness in demand for cage free and organic free range eggs, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that retail organic free range eggs are being advertised this week at $2.64 per dozen, 33% less than one year ago ($4.00); cage free eggs are being advertised at $2.50 per dozen, down 14% from one year ago ($2.90); and traditional egg retail prices are up 8% compared to one year ago ($1.02).
      The spreads are narrowing.  In hard times, it's hard to expect people to spend more for food.  That's particularly serious because switching to organic grain production, or cage free henhouses, requires a big investment in time for organic (3 years I think) or money for cage free. So you're asking farmers to make an investment, hoping the returns will not only cover their out-of-pocket costs when they get certified as organic or cage free, but will compensate them for the added risk.  

      The (Dubious) Economics of Organic Turkeys

      The Post had an article yesterday on a founder of Cisco who's using her money to subsidize an organic turkey farm in the hunt country of Virginia.  She sells a 22 pound bird for $230, sold half the 1,000 she raised last year, and lost money. The owner is a former 4-Her who vows to make her operation pay.

      My first reaction was to mock her for not understanding economics, and for waste, something upon which the food movement frowns.  But perhaps a fairer assessment is this shows the weak infrastructure supporting organic meat and dairy farms and the high hurdles organic farmers have to vault in order to make a profit and survive.  How can anyone pay $10 a pound for turkey, when a reasonable bird is one dollar a pound?  The only way is to sell to someone like the Inn at Little Washington, which is a famous and highly rated restaurant, and very, very pricey.  It's the sort of place an ordinary bureaucrat might go once a decade for some special occasion if the bureaucrat was very into taste and class. You couldn't hope to sell turkeys for that at Whole Foods, or even a farmer's market.  (Remember, this is a geezer speaking, and I'm out of touch.)

      Monday, November 15, 2010

      Moving to E-Publication

      The winner of the White House's contest for saving money suggested that the Federal Register should be distributed online, not in print. I agree and hope it means we'll see increasing use of online databases and less use of print. (For example, I just got a very big package from Kaiser, containing my materials for the 2011 year.  The charge for printing them is a small part of the bill taxpayers and I pay for health insurance.)

      Dairy, Cheese, and the Post

      Saturday the Post's editorial board weighed in on Dairy Management and cheese.  A paragraph:
      Constitutional is not the same as wise, however. Even if this national cheese-peddling corporation doesn't waste government money, it wastes government authority. Dairy farmers are perfectly capable of buying their own advertising. And shoppers are perfectly capable of deciding whether they want more cheese or not. The federal government's only role should be to disseminate objective nutritional information free from conflicts of interest, real or apparent. Working to increase the demand for certain commodities is the epitome of big, stupid government. We'll be very interested to see whether the new Republican House has the courage to say so.
      I believe they're wrong because they're ignoring the "free-rider problem" here. The only way for farmers to coordinate and to be sure everyone pays their share of the bill for advertising is to have the government enforce the rules. 

      Sunday, November 14, 2010

      A Liberal Solves the Budget Deficit

      The NY Times has an interactive page which permits you to try to solve the budget deficit by choosing among various options to reduce spending and increase revenues.  Here's my solution.  [Updated: here's another try at the solution.]As a good liberal I'm relying on cuts to military spending, returning taxes to Clinton levels, a carbon tax and some tax reforms, and relatively minor tweaks to Social Security and other programs (though I do chop farm programs--sorry  FSA. :-)

      As it comes out I'm roughly 60 percent taxes, 40 percent spending cuts.  If it for real, I'd probably phase in the changes gradually.

      [Note: When I tried to recreate my solution, thanks to my commentor for pointing out the failure, I probably made different decisions the second time through.]

      Why Less Pickpocketing

      Ann Althouse notes a report that the number of pickpockets is declining and those left are old.  I wonder why? Is it because of better police enforcement in NYC, there's a breakdown in the transmission of criminal skills from old to young, perhaps reflecting a general crisis in education,  or the fact people use less cash and more credit cards these days?

      What Is French for "Sex Toy"?

      "Sex Toy"--it appears from this Dirk Beauregarde photo.

      Saturday, November 13, 2010

      A New Freedom to Farm? How To Do It

      House Ag chair ( until Jan.) Collin Peterson raises the possibility of a new Freedom to Farm program in a quote from Farm Policy:
      "He  [Speaker to be Boehner] may be pushed and not have any choice because of his caucus to weigh in to try to do something like Freedom to Farm where they are going to phase out subsidies again.’”
      Okay, just suppose they truly want to phase out the direct payment subsidies, which in turn were supposed to compensate for the deficiency payments of the 1980's and early 90's.  How should they do it?
      • Graduate the total amounts.  Freedom to Farm hardly graduated the amounts at all.  Although the theory was that farmers were being weaned from subsidies, the "weaning" metaphor wasn't taken seriously.  Anyone who's weaned a mammalian baby (calves in my case) knows you accustom the baby to the new food and cut down the old food. So, if you start at $5 billion, reduce it by $1 billion a year.
      • Consider a ratchet.  In other words, tie the phase out to farm income.  If farm income goes up, payments go down.  If farm income goes down, payments don't change from the previous year.  That approach might soften the arguments it's no time to cut payments when farmers are in trouble because their income is down.  
      • Consider prorating reductions to make the net payments progressive.  In year one, everyone gets 100 percent.  In year two, the top 10 percent in payments gets reduced by 20 percent, the next 20 percent gets reduced by 15 percent, etc. etc.

      Friday, November 12, 2010

      On Long Historical Memories

      Having restored the RSS feed for Dirk Beauregarde, some tidbits from his post on Armistice Day:
      "In small towns and villages all over France, officials, dignitaries, will have been laid wreathes at the foot of the local war memorial. All very official. There is however no popular and collective rememberance as we have in the UK and that is symbolised by the wearing of poppies.
      I like the poppy spirit, similar to the old War spirit where, everyone is doing his or her « bit ». We can all « chip in » and remember. Out here in France, the act of rememberance is official and institutionalised...."

      I asked the question of my trainees a few days ago – a group of young French army lieutenants – fresh out of military collège, and come down to Bourges for a year to learn their craft – logistics – thèse are the guys that have to get the supplies to the front line.

      « Can you work with the Brits » I ask
      « Are French army practices compatible with those opf the British army ? »
      General silence.
      One young lieutenant tells me that the British « betrayed » the French at Dunkirk. Another enters into an anti British discourse based on the évents at Mers el Kebir, and a third talks of Waterloo. De Gaule would be happy at the anti British sentiment, but in today’s world, we have a long way to go before we can hope to work together.
      [Updated: Maybe the Tea Party types will remember the Brits burned our capital? ]

      Japanese Agriculture

      An article in today's Post on Obama's trip to Japan mentioned the problems the prime minister faces, including this:
      But the sharpest acrimony came from the agricultural sector, the longtime granddaddy of Japanese politics, traditionally protected by high tariffs on imports such as rice and butter. With those tariffs obliterated, about 3.4 million farmers could lose their jobs, Japan's main agricultural group says.
      The figure seemed high, so I did a little googling and found this link which not only confirms the figure is too high (3.4 million may be the total number of farmers) but includes lots of details on  farming: some are similar to the U.S., aging farmers, part time farmers reliant on outside jobs, heavily subsidized and political.; some are different, as in the average size of a farm is 4 acres, or the "plant factories" for lettuce.

      [Updated: According to the NY Times story, the proposed changes might cost 3.4 million jobs.  The Post writer may have misinterpreted that as "farmers", not agriculture-related workers.]

      Thursday, November 11, 2010

      Keepseagle Site

      Here's the site for Keepseagle settlement. 

      Open Government and Its Limits

      Got a chuckle from this use of the USDA open government site (someone decided to tweak USDA over the NYTimes dairy/cheese article by posting a tongue-in-cheek suggestion there).  I commend USDA for showing the statistics on the site on the front page: they show it's not enough to "build it and they will come", particularly in as staid and settled an environment as USDA.  TSA got traction with their blog simply because security is sexier than agriculture. I don't know what USDA and its agencies need to get more usage of their Gov. 2.0 stuff, but something is needed.

      Wednesday, November 10, 2010

      Washington Monthly and the Food Movement

      The new Monthly has an article on ethanol and agriculture, incorporating many of the food movement's arguments: Here's a key paragraph:
      Let us suppose, for example, that we paid growers like Picht to minimize deep plowing and to plant winter-cover crops so as to prevent erosion, filter pollutants, and build up the soil; to practice rotations of alfalfa, clover, vetch, peas, and other nitrogen-producing plants to minimize the need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides; to grow not just monocultures of corn and wheat and soybeans, but more fresh fruits and vegetables, which currently receive almost no subsidies.
      There's two problems with this proposal I'd like to point out:
      • if you convert from a corn/soybeans rotation of some sort to include alfalfa...etc., over 10 years you're losing some percentage of your total production.  That means you have to find more land to grow corn and soybeans on.
      • the conversion also gives you a large quantity of alfalfa, ...etc. for which there currently is no use.  Either you destroy the prices received by current alfalfa...etc. growers or you have to find a new use for the produce.

      Secrecy Is Needed--If You're Rebelling, or Forming a Government:

      That's the lesson of our founders. As rebels, they signed a secrecy pact. (yesterday's National Archives document of the day); as constitution writers they worked in secrecy in 1787.

      Tuesday, November 09, 2010

      Hay Bales and a Blast from the Past

      During the 50's we mostly had our hay baled in "square" bales.  Square in quotes because they weren't really square--they were close to being square in cross section but  about twice as long as they were wide.  Think bricks, but larger, and scratchier.

      Extension talks about stacking bales as an almost lost skill.  Actually, it's the skill of arranging loose hay on a jay wagon so that it stays in place that's lost.  That's a skill I never mastered.

      Monday, November 08, 2010

      Dairy Management, Cheese, and a Lousy USDA Web Effort

      The Times has an article pointing out the contradiction between USDA urging a low-fat diet and "Dairy Management's" promotion of cheese usage, particularly in the form of cheese pizzas, working with Dominos. Dairy Management turns out to be the umbrella organization for dairy research and promotion efforts, thus receiving the checkoff fees from dairy producers. Although the article notes the bulk of the money the organization spends ($140 million) comes from fees, it claims it also gets several million from USDA.  It calls it a "creation" of USDA. It doesn't go into the details of how research and promotion efforts are approved (via a referendum of producers) and funded. 

      The article was, for a while, the most emailed article on the Times website. According to this Treehugger post Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle are outraged.  Given the article's tone and content, I'm not surprised.  Even knowing more of the background and growing up on a dairy farm I'm bothered by the conflict.  As an ex-bureaucrat, I'm more distressed by USDA's website for failing to provide good information. The Agricultural Marketing Service, which administers the research and promotion efforts for the various commodities, all of which are authorized by Congress, doesn't have a good, short explanation of such things in general, or dairy in particular.  Do a search for "Dairy Management" , using quotes, on the website and the first page gives you no hits for the promotion organization. 

      The best response I could find on the site was a generic statement that  the programs are fully funded by the assessment fees, which might mean the federal money the article refers to must be that used for oversight. But trying to troll through the reports to Congress seemed to indicate USDA was reimbursed for its oversight expenses.  So the "several million dollars" the article refers to might be research money funneled through ARS, but who knows.  I'd hope after the people in the ivory tower (USDA Administration Building) get through scrambling around to respond there will be a big improvement in the USDA/AMS site.  I hope, but I'm skeptical.

      On Evaluating Others

      One of the problems of the federal bureaucracy, at least the part I knew, and I believe one of the problems of the teaching profession and, as outlined in Dilbert, the other bureaucracies of the world, is how to give honest evaluations.  Part of the problem is the lack of clear standards, usually because it's difficult in a bureaucracy to set such standards.  And part of the problem is our human tendency to avoid conflict.  Maybe I see that tendency so clearly because it's such a big part of my own psyche.

      Anyway, all of the above is prologue to this blog post:  Historiann is a feminist professor in Colorado who's passing on an appeal for advice from another professor. Note the conflict between adherence to professional standards of excellence and avoidance of conflict with the student and her advisor.  (No, I won't go with "ze" and "hir", the feminist neutral pronouns.)  Easy for an outsider to judge this, not so easy if one's in the room.

      Sunday, November 07, 2010

      Deja Vu All Over Again

      There was a movie release in 1981 called "Rollover", in which the ticking bomb is the question:  will the Arab oil barons rollover their investments in US bonds. Sounds like current concern over whether China will keep buying US bonds.

      Ineffective Bureaucrats at Apple

      Apparently someone at Apple forgot about changing from daylight savings time to standard time and vice versa, so new I-phones misbehave when the switch occurs.  I can only imagine the glee with which conservatives would greet such a mistake by some government bureaucrats, but this episode won't lead anyone to doubt the efficacy of private enterprise.

      Inside Versus Outside

      Probably as long as we have had government, people have been critical of it.  And as long as we have had government, many such critics find it's different when you're working within government.  Here Ned Hodgman links to an interview of someone who moved into FDA, and learned that lesson.

      Saturday, November 06, 2010

      Horses. Bears. and Bison

      In the 19th century there was controversy over whether horses, when galloping, ever got all four feet off the ground.  One of the first time-lapse photographers proved they did.  (Foregoing based on aging memory).

      I was reminded of that when I saw the pictures of a bear chasing a bison down a road, CNN via Treehugger.
      When you're running for your life, or for your dinner, you get all four feet off the ground.

      And a Merry Christmas to Federal Employees from the Tea Party

      Via The Monkey Cage, here's a blog post outlining the logic for a government shutdown in December.

      Friday, November 05, 2010

      On Not Knowing the Negative

      One frustration of an RSS reader (I assume it applies to all, not just Google) is you never know when the feed stops working.  Is it that the blogger got tired, switched to Facebook or Twitter, lost his ISP, or maybe died?  Or did the feed stop working?  Or, worst of fates for a blogger, does one never wonder about them.

      Anyhow, I've discovered my Berry Deep France feed wasn't working, so belatedly found some of Dirk Beauregarde's posts, including this moving one on the death of his mother.