Sunday, January 31, 2010

Blinded by Ideology? Bureaucrats Come Through

From Powerline, in a discussion of the review of the legal work of John Yoo and Jay Bybee:
. But it is still an outrage that a lawyer who writes a memorandum arguing a legal position with which a subsequent administration disagrees can be threatened with disbarment.
As a bureaucrat, I sympathize with the position--no one likes to have the rules changed on them after the fact.  But what is missed is the fact that disbarment was raised by lawyers in the Bush Justice Department (admittedly the career types, not Bush appointees) and the Obama Justice Department softened the review significantly (again, admittedly the softening was done by a career man).  See this Post article:
A draft report prepared at the end of the Bush years recommended that Yoo, now a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley, and Bybee, now a federal appeals court judge in Nevada, be referred to state disciplinary authorities for sanctions that could have included the revocation of their licenses to practice.[Article goes on to explain the subsequent softening.  The Post article is an expansion of the AP piece, which didn't explicitly say when the draft report was prepared.]
So, the bottom line is Powerline's outrage is misplaced. 

Most Depressing Sentence Today

" Meanwhile, a master’s degree in education seems to have no impact on classroom effectiveness."  From University Diaries, an excerpt from an Atlantic article on what makes teachers effective.

My comment: if true, what a waste of time and money.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

It's Bureaucrats Who Save Lives

From Andy Rasmussen:
. The authors estimate that between 2003 and 2008, a full 80% of all deaths were due to illness among those displaced by the conflict. In other words, this crisis has been 20% violence, the the vast majority of which was done by mid-2004. For the past six years (or really five years in the data reviewed), the problem has been diarrhea.
As stark as these numbers are, this ultimately means that Darfur followed the common pattern of violent internal conflicts: Initial massacres were followed by massive displacement and the loss of protective health systems, and the problems of displacement ultimately affected the well-being of the population more than the direct experiences of violence.

My comment--it's basically the bureaucrats who provide clean water and sanitation. (Yes, I know I'm making an assumption about bureaucrats in Darfur, but someone who worries about the status of the village well counts in my eyes as a bureaucrat--he or she is contributing to the common welfare even if not paid by the government.)
Hat tip: Chris Blattman

Friday, January 29, 2010

Congratulations to VA and DOD

It seems I always find the problems in sharing information between bureaucracies.  So in interest of fairness I should congratulate DOD and VA on this report in Federal Computer Week:
The Defense and Veterans Affairs departments finally have achieved full interoperability for their electronic health records and are beginning to move forward on development of a joint Virtual Lifetime Electronic Record (VLER) for each service member, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.

French Food--Dominoes and Subway

Dirk Beauregarde blogs about many things, Friday afternoon in France, lunches, the 35-hour workweek, the jambon beurre..  But these two posts include descriptions of the invasion of pizza delivery and Subway

Cost Per Policy

According to this;
“Peterson suggested changes in the commission payments to agents. Under the current formula of paying crop insurance agents, commission is based on the premium to insure a crop. Thus, increases in commodity prices have raised the commission paid to an agent on average, from $500 per policy in 2004 to $1,450 in 2008. ‘You can’t defend’ that payment level, Peterson said, adding that he believes that paying agents a specific fee for each policy written may be a better system of compensation.”
From a comment on Chris Clayton's blog:

Guys: In 2006 the Crop Insurance Companies Insured 242 million acres of crops and received $1.79 billion for their work and investment! For the 2008 crop they insured 272 million acres and received $4.65 billion for their work and investment. 2.6 times more money to insure 30 million more acres or a 12% workload increase for 30 million more acres! A nice little increase, right boys or windfall is maybe a better term? Please credit your source. Alan Roebke (REB-key)

Thursday, January 28, 2010

And NASCOE Stirs

From the NASCOE web site, the
Bob Redding provided an extensive review of upcoming legislative issues and what could be expected from the issues that are on the NASCOE agenda. He informed us that 2012 Farm Bill talks will begin in February. A lot of field hearings are anticipated due to their political advantages. NASCOE will be calling on numerous people to attend these hearings. We will be seeking out producers, committee members, farm bureau supporters and other partners to represent NASCOE at these hearings. In addition, we will be hoping for a significant NASCOE presence.
The modernization of USDA is still an important issue. Chairman Peterson has stated that he “still wants to do it.” However, the health care issue and other major issues have kept the calendars full. The best opportunity for anything to happen will be in the spring on 2010.

Another issue that appeared completely dead was Animal ID. However, the Secretary has been having closed door meetings on this issue. A recommendation for a national animal ID program is expected to be introduced based on these negotiations. Bob felt during the development of the new crop insurance agreement was an excellent time for NASCOE to trumpet how FSA could more effectively handle portions of this program. NASCOE continues to see this as a major area where we could expand and will be looking for more compliance and administrative duties. Insurance companies have been receiving Billions to administer this program. FSA could provide significant budget savings if a portion of those dollars were diverted to our budget.

DC School Lunches

A Wash Times article here on Chartwell, which mostly dings them for lack of transparency on menus.  Ed Bruske comments and his post here completes the series.  Here's an excerpt:

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Agriculture continued to supply schools that qualified with free commodity products—truckloads of beef, poultry, cheese, potatoes. But schools found they could make better use of these commodities if they were shipped directly to large food processors. Now the schools trade those raw commodities for finished products that come with benefits: not only do the schools not have to pay for skilled labor to process raw foods, they face much less risk of diseases that sometimes accompany raw products. Liability issues transfer to the big processors, and what the schools receive is a finished, precooked, frozen meal item that only needs to be heated in an oven before it can be served to students. Furthermore, large processors can design on a grand scale foods that fulfill the nutritional requirements set forth by the federal government
He suggests that the rules should allow more fat and less sugar/carbs in school food. 

Personally, I don't have fond memories of the good old days when cafeteria food was cooked on site and USDA didn't support the process.  But then I mostly carried my lunch from home.  How, in today's world, you have nutritious, and appealing food that's also cheap, cheap, cheap, I'm not sure.

We Have a Weak Government

Matthew Yglesias comments on the number of elected officials we have.  I argue: the more officials, the weaker and more decentralized the government.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

"Freeze. What Freeze" Say Ag Leaders

Farm Policy reports Rep. Peterson is not concerned about a freeze affecting farm programs.

9/11 Problems--Communications

Those who read the report of the 9/11 commission know one of the problems in NYC was the first responders had different communications technology.  It's been a while since then, and one would have thought we'd be well on the way to fixing such problems.

One would have thought, but one would have been wrong.  See this Government Executive discussion.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Reinventing the Wheel

Federal Computer Week had a post on a site which: "allows aid organizations to post their needs and connect with would-be donors to get help in categories such as food, fuel, medical, telecom, and transport." 

Reminds me of the "Hay Net" site the FSA web manager put up a number of years ago.

One problem with smart people, we all think we are the first one to have an idea and/or we can implement things better than anyone else.

Mathias Dies, and the Moderate Republican Party Is Reborn?

Charles (Mac) Mathias died.  He was a moderate/liberal Republican from the 1960's to 1980's (that is, "liberal" socially, fiscally more conservative).

Meanwhile, it seems to me that wing of the party is being reborn.  Just yesterday, VP Biden's son decided not to run in Delaware, meaning a moderate Republican is likely to win that seat.  In Illinois a Republican who supports abortion is a likely candidate and possible winner for Obama's old seat.  We already know about Maine, and Scot Brown in MA is pro-abortion. 

So, if the Dems have a bad year this fall, we could wake up and find a group of moderate Republicans in the Senate.  You heard it here first.

Time Flies When You're Talking Farm Programs

Seems like just the other day GW was vetoing the farm bill. And now it's time for House Ag to start the groundwork for the next one.  Chris Clayton reports on Representative Peterson's plans.  Apparently he'd like to insure "cost of production".  I wonder how that would work--I once looked at an ERS analysis of cost of production for cotton and found there was a very wide range.  So a payment which would work for farmer A would leave farmer B facing a loss, and presumably going out of business sometime down the line.

Anyhow, it should be interesting, it always is.

Monday, January 25, 2010

IRS and Taxes

The Times had an article on having the IRS fill out 1040's, something which California has experimented with. Supposedly the problem is that IRS doesn't get W2 data from employers in time to do this. And Matt Yglesias also has a post that touches on the same subject.

Seems to me if people can figure out how to do electronic interchange of data so that a bill can be paid directly from one's checking account, then they ought to be able to figure out how to dump data from corporations into the IRS the same day they print W-2's.  And then IRS ought to be able to put up a simple 1040 with the available data and all the payers from last year (i.e., savings accounts, brokerage accounts).  Needless to say the people like H&RBlock and Intuit don't like the idea. 

This reminds me of something the head of the Sherman County ASCS Office told me 18 years ago.  Someone had left ASCS and set up a consulting firm to help farmers with (evading) payment limitation rules. Mike S. wanted ASCS to change and simplify and automate so that the firm would go out of business.  Unfortunately that's not going to happen.  Neither is IRS going to give taxpayers a strawman 1040.

School Lunches

I usually quarrel, or at least quibble with the stuff I find on Grist. But there's a series on school lunches in the District of Columbia, which is interesting.  I don't necessarily agree with everything, but he acknowledges some of the trade-offs involved. (There's 6 parts, and here's the links to:
  first, second, and third posts. fourth

Elect a Grain of Sand to Congress

That's right, in some cases your elected representative acts exactly like a grain of sand in a sandpile.  Proven by the scientists--see this Technology Review article. Of course, your Congressperson has better hair than a grain of sand.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Everybody Gets a Fair Shot?

That's from Ed Rogers in today's Post, in a collection of opinions about the Supreme Court's decision that corporations and other associations have free speech in election:
As long as we limit the party's donors and restrict how campaigns can raise and spend their money, we dilute an important connection between the governed and government. We should remove the limits and disclose everything. That way everyone gets a fair shot.
I like transparency so my first, knee jerk reaction was:  hey, this sounds good. Then I thought: is it fair if some have more money than others. Personally I think, along with Kevin Drum, let associations and nonprofits operate freely with full disclosure, but keep profit-making corporations on the sidelines. 

British Bureaucrats Are Different

The first two paragraphs from the Guardian:
David Cameron would retain Gordon Brown's top civil servant as his right-hand man in Downing Street if the Tories won the general election – as part of plans aimed at ensuring a quick, efficient transition to a Conservative government.
The Tory leader, who is desperate to avoid squandering his first term in office, intends to reappoint Sir Gus O'Donnell – the mandarin who has been more closely associated with Brown than any other in Whitehall – as cabinet secretary for his entire first term in office. Senior Tory sources confirmed that Cameron would be "very happy" to retain O'Donnell in the post as head of the home civil service, and would rely on him heavily if and when the Tories return to government after 13 years out of office.
Turns out Sir Gus was John Major's press secretary, but rose to the top under Labor.  Imagine this happening in the U.S.--I can't either.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Crop Insurance and Disaster--Sen. Lincoln

Chris Clayton posts on the proposals to cut federal reimbursement of crop insurance companies by $4 billion over the next 5 years.  He includes this:
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., and Committee Ranking Member Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., along with 24 other senators sent a letter to USDA's Risk Management Agency on Wednesday asking the department to "refrain from making deep cuts to the federal crop insurance program," citing that a vibrant crop-insurance industry is vital to the agricultural economy.
I don't exactly qualify as unbiased, but there's an interesting contrast here.  Sen. Lincoln has been pushing for special disaster assistance for her farmers because of losses this year. Part of the reason help is needed is farmers have settled for cheap CAT insurance coverage, and have failed to buy the higher priced policies from the private companies. That seems to indicate some problems somewhere in the crop insurance system.  And her proposal for disaster aid is one way to undercut crop insurance: presumably if farmers knew disaster aid was not available, they'd be more willing to buy crop insurance.  So Lincoln (like others) is talking out of both sides of her mouth: on the one hand it's important to have a good crop insurance system and have farmers buy policies; on the other we must help those who don't buy full coverage.  The poor taxpayer ends up paying both ways. 

Friday, January 22, 2010

Factoid of the Day

Via Ezra Klein, a video of a biologist at Stanford on Class Day:

chess grand masters uses 6-7,000 calories thinking during a match. (He begins at about 5:30)

Thursday, January 21, 2010

We Should Have Gone Metric Like the Founding Father Wanted

Thomas Jefferson was a metric nut. Unfortunately the U.S. only adopted metrics for its money.  Just think of the lives and money we would have saved if we'd gone metric from the beginning.  For a start, that Mars explorer that failed because of software that operated in feet rather than meters (or vice versa) would have succeeded.  And Sen. Grassley says we've a similar problem in healthcare sofware.

(At some point in the past I remember we actually had a metric law and the bureaucracy was tasked with the job of getting ready to convert.  But the impetus behind it faded.  Once again short term gains and convenience trumped long term advantage.)

How Do Bureaucrats Interpret the Law--a Test Case

One of the great myths of the old civics texts was that Congress writes the laws, the President signs them, and the executive branch implements them.  Why a myth: because it implies everything is clear and straightforward.  (IMHO it's of a piece with the originalist interpretation of the Constitution.)  In fact Congress often writes laws which can be interpreted multiple ways.  Sometimes that's intentional: when you're trying to compromise to reach an agreement coming up with words which mean different things to different people is a common tactic.  Another tactic is to use fudge words like "appropriate" or "as applicable".It's called kicking the can down the road, leaving issues up to the bureaucracy to resolve.

All that is a lead-in to issues raised in FSA's implementation of the new biomass crop assistance program. It starts with this post critical of FSA at Sustainable Ag.  Essentially the criticism goes that FSA is issuing too much money to old users of biomass to the detriment of developing new uses of biomass and these procedures accord neither with the intent of Congress nor the letter of the law. (In passing I've noted criticisms coming from others, including the Hill as mentioned in the post, but I don't have those handy.)

It continues with a comment by Paul Harte (warning: I knew and worked with Paul back in the day) taking the author to task.  His position is the wording of the law requires the procedures FSA is using, OGC (Office of General Counsel) and OMB signed off on FSA's regs, and the manager's report doesn't support the critics.

And there's a response to Paul posted on Sustainable Ag.

I don't have the energy or the interest to get into the weeds and decide who's right.  But I will offer comments;
  • you can usually find lawyers who will argue different interpretations of the same wording but my experience with USDA lawyers (OGC) is they're typical bureaucrats, not very adventurous in interpretation.  
  • Paul is right in pointing out that OGC and OMB review (and OGC rewrites, and rewrites) regulations.  That doesn't mean their view is right, but it does mean FSA isn't being arbitrary.
  • CBO and OMB have pictures in their head (in Lippmann's phrase) of how the program will operate but that doesn't mean the pictures match the way the bureaucrats and lawyers are going to interpret the language. And just because FSA, OGC, OMB and CBO are all part of the federal government doesn't mean they communicate welll, or at all, with each other.
So what happened in blowing a $70 million program up to $514 million.  There are logical possibilities:
  • the critics are right, FSA blew it  The question would be why: did lobbyists for paper mills etc.wield improper influence or are the bureaucrats and lawyers just incompetent?  Those seem to be the alternatives.
  • Paul is right, FSA is administering the law in accordance with the most reasonable interpretation of the wording.  Then the question would be why did the lobbyists for the sustainable ag people and the staff attorneys on the Hill fail to write the law better, or did the lobbyists for paper mills etc. stick an oar in?
  • neither is right or both are right.  FSA, OGC, and OMB made their decisions without realizing the potential for paper mills, etc. to get money and so did not alert the Hill to ask for a technical correction to clarify the language.
  • something entirely different.
(Paul by now is probably eligible to retire--I'm wondering what the USDA reaction to his comment will be.)

    Wednesday, January 20, 2010

    What Should Dems Do?

    (About health care reform). Damned if I know.  Just two comments:
    • it's a true fact, I believe, the House could decide to take up the Senate bill anytime between now and adjournment sine die.  So any decision now is not necessarily final.
    • all the bluster by liberals on blogs like TPM Cafe about supporting primary opponents against such people as Barney Frank is only proof there's some idiots on the left to balance the idiots on the right. (I remember the problems pushing meaningful civil rights legislation in the 50's and early 60's.)

    Don't Drive and Use Personal Electronics (While in a War Zone)

    Tom Ricks has a post.  It's probably a good reminder that most of war is incredibly boring.

    Brown for President

    I want to be one of the first to plug our new Senator from Massachusetts as a candidate for President.  His background and experience will be almost as good as Obama's when he ran, he's as good looking and equally impressive in the pecs, has an attractive family with 2 daughters and a professional wife, and an unlikely personal narrative.

    What more can America want?  Brown for President in 2012.

    Tuesday, January 19, 2010

    Lefties Originate in the Stars?

    My father was left-handed, which meant when we went out to eat (about 3-4 times a year at most), he needed to be seated in the proper place so as not to bump others.  Maybe that made me more interested in the book: Right Hand, Left Hand which takes the apparently simple issue of handedness, and traces it into history (how did societies agree on driving on the right or left) and physics (how do we define handedness, well you need to define north and south, and then you get into stars and galaxies) and chemistry (right handed and left handed molecules--but on earth biology has its preference).  Now there's a theory to explain the preference, not that I understand it (the galaxy formed in circularly polarized light), but anyone interested can go there..

    Haiti, a Language Island?

    Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution has been blogging extensively about Haiti, including discussion of possible reasons why Haiti is so poor. 

    I wonder if language contributes to it.  Here's my logic:
    • Haiti is almost the only French-speaking nation in the Western Hemisphere.  (Martinique is a part of France, Quebec is a part of Canada.)
    • Networks of communication and trade are very important in the development of economies. (Assumption)
    • Communication is easier when there's a shared language and harder when there isn't one.
    • So over the centuries Haitian people have been at a slight disadvantage in dealing with their potential trading partners in other areas, simply because of language. Over time, that disadvantage could add up.
    Meanwhile, over the years the people of the Dominican Republic or the Caribbean nations had no communication difficulties with their neighbors, so they could make deals and share ideas.

    Monday, January 18, 2010

    German Health Care

    Another chapter on health care from the T.R.Reid, this time on Germany.  Factoids:
    • German doctors are also unionized
    • Germany also uses smart cards for health care data
    • Bismarck was the father of social insurance.
    • So-called "civil society", the nongovernmental groups have always been big in German culture and society, and that's the way the insurance is worked, through your group affiliations.

    Sunday, January 17, 2010

    The Persistence of Silos

    Back in the day of ASCS and FmHA (i.e., pre 1994, Agricultural Stabilization and Stabilization Service and Farmers Home Administration), each agency had its own association of county employees.  Come the reorganization which merged the loan function with ASCS into FSA and one might expect a merger of the two associations in maybe 2 or 3 years. 

    One might, but one would be disappointed. 

    Going on 16 years later, the two associations aren't merged.  Not only that, but the NASCOE website doesn't   recognize the other. See National Association of Credit Specialists and the National Association of FSA County Office Employees. Oh, and there's also the National Association of Support Employees of the Farm Service Agency.

    A Failure of Understanding?

    In an oldish article on Grist, Debbie Barker writes:

    It’s an industry-generated myth that ecologically-safe organic agriculture yields less than conventional agriculture. In fact, a comprehensive study comparing 293 crops from industrial and organic growers demonstrates that organic farm yields are roughly comparable to industrial farms in developed countries; and result in much higher yields in the developing world.
    But this says
    The performance of organic agriculture on production depends on the previous agricultural management system. An over-simplification of the impact of conversion to organic agriculture on yields indicates that:
    • In industrial countries, organic systems decrease yields; the range depends on the intensity of external input use before conversion;
    • In the so-called Green Revolution areas (irrigated lands), conversion to organic agriculture usually leads to almost identical yields;
    • In traditional rain-fed agriculture (with low-input external inputs), organic agriculture has the potential to increase yields.

    To be fair, the FAO says: organic agriculture has the potential to feed the world, under the right circumstances.

    My point: "decrease yields" is not the same as "roughly comparable"

    Stunt Vegetables?

    Obamafoodorama has a  couple posts on a small tempest--it seems Food Network had some sort of cooking challenge between teams of chefs who supposedly were cooking with vegetables from the White House garden.  Except that the show taped the vegetables being harvested one week and being cooked a week later, so it was revealed the actual vegetables cooked weren't the actual vegetables grown in the actual soil of the White House grounds.  Unless and until someone shows the White House has stretched the truth on the kind and volume of harvests from the garden, this strikes me as a non-issue, but it does yield the nice term "stunt vegetables".

    Saturday, January 16, 2010

    The Disaster Learning Curve

    If we have enough disasters, we may learn, but we're still low on the curve, coordination-wise:

    Technology Review and the Clinton/Bush site point to this site. It 's GIS based with different data layers.

    Google has a People finder site and the two ought to be at least cross-linked.

    Help for Haiti: Learn What You Can Do

    And of course the Red Cross is doing its thing.

    As a side note, I see Dan Snyder's private plane was reportedly being use to convey people to Haiti--don't know if it was one of the planes which the FAA had to order back because there was no traffic control at Port-au-Prince and no fuel on the ground. 

    Bottomline, everyone likes to rush into action, it will take some more disasters to climb a bit further up the curve.

    How Congress Works

    From FarmPolicy, concerning Senator Lincoln of Arkansas:

    “‘Many farmers had major damage to crops, and the need for help is immediate since banks will begin making crop loans in a couple of weeks,’ Lincoln said Wednesday.”
    The article pointed out that, “Chad Pitillo of Simmons First National Bank said last week the bank had already begun making crop loans and that some farmers would not have enough equity to continue into next season if financial assistance is not provided very soon.
    “Lincoln, who is chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, joined Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) to introduce legislation in mid-November that would provide quick damage assistance. In early December Rep. Marion Berry (D-Ark.) and Rep. Travis Childers (D-Miss.) introduced a companion bill in the House.
    “‘It will be important that we find a bill that we can attach it to that can pass quickly,’ Lincoln said. ‘Since we are not in session, I don’t know what bill that will be yet, but it is a high priority and I am focused on getting assistance to farmers as quickly as possible.’”

    If she attaches her provision to a must-pass bill, it bypasses the authorization process of the agriculture committees. It could, I think, be subject to a point of order that it doesn't conform to pay-go rules, but that assumes someone is willing to be the skunk at the garden party (Sen. Coburn, perhaps).

    A Great Anniversary for Bureaucrats

    Today's the anniversary of the signing of the Pendleton Act, which established the Civil Service Commission, and thereby the "civil service".  (This was after the assassination of a President by a job seeker.)

    A couple of the lesser-known provisions:
    Third, appointments to the public service aforesaid in the departments at Washington shall be apportioned among the several States and Territories and the District of Columbia upon the basis of population as ascertained at the last preceding census. Every application for an examination shall contain, among other things, a statement, under oath, setting forth his or her actual bona fide residence at the time of making the application, as well as how long he or she has been a resident of such place...

    SEC. 8. That no person habitually using intoxicating beverages to excess shall be appointed to, or retained in, any office, appointment, or employment to which the provisions of this act are applicable.

    SEC. 9. That whenever there are already two or more members of a family in the public service in the grades covered by this act, no other member of such family shall be eligible to appointment to any of said grades.

    The first provision was still in effect when I was hired, at least as far as the identification of my state. I think they'd given up on the actual apportionment but it was still technically in place.

    Friday, January 15, 2010

    What Do You Know About the Founders?

    Everyone knows the Founding Fathers worked closely together, first winning independence, then creating the Constitution, and finally getting the government up and running before partisan politics reared its ugly head.

    So, to win the grand prize, answer two questions:

    1. How many documents are known to have the signatures of Washington, John Adams, Jefferson, and Madison?
    2. Name one document?
    See this link for the answers.

    The Blessing of the Phones

    Michael Nielson includes a link on a British canon who blessed the cell phones:
    On this day, the first Monday after Twelfth Night, farm labourers would bring a plough to the door of the church to be blessed… Men and women coming to [the modern] church no longer used ploughs; their tools were their laptops, their iPhones and their BlackBerries. So he wrote a blessing and [delivered] it before a congregation of 80, the white heat of technology shining from his every pronouncement. “I invite you to have your mobile phone out … though I would like you to put it on silent,” he said.

    Thursday, January 14, 2010

    "No One Goes to the Barricades for Efficiency"

    That's Robin Hanson yesterday.  (I like the post because he mentions my favorite movie, Kelly's Heroes.)  Sadly it appears that Obama is ready to apply the Vt. Senator's prescription for Vietnam to health care (was it Aiken, I think it was Aiken): "declare victory and leave".  At least that's the sad message I take away from this NY Times piece by David Leonhardt which describes all the problems bureaucrats will have implementing health care reform and notes Obama has yet to nominate anyone to run the process.  A big, black mark against his administration.

    Vertical Farming

    Picked up a comment from Charlie on my vertical farming post.  As I responded in comments, I still am skeptical, but I welcome descriptions of experience with such things (even trying to grow lettuce on windowsills, which I've never done but could be relevant in this context.

    Two Sides of an Issue--Growing Your School Lunch

    Mr. Freese at Grist takes on an article by Ms Flanagan in the Atlantic which is critical of the Berkeley and now California effort, inspired by Alice Waters, to have school kids grow gardens. She sees it as a fad which distracts from basic education.

    The tone of the article is demonstrated here:
    This notion—that it is agreeably possible to do good (school gardens!) and live well (guinea hens!)—bears the hallmark of contemporary progressivism, a kind of win-win, “let them eat tarte tatin” approach to the world and one’s place in it that is prompting an improbable alliance of school reformers, volunteers, movie stars, politicians’ wives, and agricultural concerns (the California Fertilizer Foundation is a big friend of school gardens) to insert its values into the schools.
    As you might expect, Mr. Freese is not happy with the article. He makes some points.  I'm not sure that 1.5 hours a week is all that significant.  And the logic for blaming gardening for poor test scores at the original school isn't particularly good. But on the whole I'm more on Flanagan's side than Freese's.  There's also a post at Yale Sustainable Foods attacking Flanagan, with links to a couple other sites with attacks, and lots of comments.

    Bottomline: while I concede gardening could serve as a way to teach lots of stuff, I very much doubt it's done that way in very many cases.  What you're asking for is a teacher who not only knows the academic material, but is also a good and committed gardener. We don't have a surplus of the former, and there's sure to be a shortage of the combination. So, any teacher who wants to do gardening as a teaching method, fine, more power to her/him, but not as a requirement in the curriculum.

    Wednesday, January 13, 2010

    Health Care Factoids from T.R. Reid

    I'm reading Reid's book on health care systems in different countries.  From his chapter on France, a few factoids which struck me:
    • a French doctor did the first joint replacement back in 1892 (a shoulder joint)
    • French doctors are unionized, low paid, but have no student loans and minimal charges for malpractice insurance
    • the French use a smart card to carry the person's health records.  (Dallas Smith--who once worked for ASCS/FSA in tobacco and peanuts and pioneered the smart card for peanuts--is probably somewhere saying "I told you so"). 

    Fraud Follows Program--Biomass Problems

    The Biomass program, fresh from a Wash Post article, now has a notice out warning about scams and abuse.

    This is all part of the bureaucratic learning curve. Of course, it's a little embarassing when the FSA state director is featured in a story that starts: "Forget gold—the biomass rush is on in California."

    And never underestimate the evil that lurks in the hearts of men--here's a Snopes post on a scam on aid to Haiti.

    A Good Bureaucrat: Ink

    See this writeup on Dwight Ink.

    Tuesday, January 12, 2010

    John Phipps Will Like Stenholm's Views

    Former Representative Charlie Stenholm told the Farm Bureau convention expenditures on farm programs will be challenged, according to Farm Policy.

    IMO that's not exactly earthshaking news.  One could write "expenditures on [any and every discretionary program and most entitlements] will be challenged in the coming years" and be safe in your prediction.

    Farm state Senators who wish to protect their farm programs will fight any idea for a special committee to come up with answers to the budget deficit problem because farm programs would inevitably take a hit.

    Monday, January 11, 2010

    Want to Stay Married--Rise High in the Military

    Obamafoodorama has a post on Obama's dinner for the military big shots tonight. The guest list is only about 21 or 22 couples, but only one general is unaccompanied, one couple has different last names, and the rest are married.  Not sure whether it's very hard to get promoted if you aren't married, or whether the military life is good for marriages.

    Vertical Farming in Time

    The people at Time have made the vertical farming system of Valcent the 16th best invention of 2009.

    Now the writeup says: "pioneering a hydroponic-farming system that grows plants in rotating rows, one on top of another. The rotation gives the plants the precise amount of light and nutrients they need, while the vertical stacking enables the use of far less water than conventional farming."

    The picture seems to show 6 racks of lettuce growing, though I don't see the mechanism to rotate them.  But assume it's there--then if you rotate the 6 racks through the 24 hours of the day, each rack gets 4 hours of direct sunlight.  I find it conceivable that lettuce could grow with that much sun--greens usually require less than vegetables.  What I do find inconceivable is that there's any place on this green earth where the sun shines overhead for 24 hours in the day.

    Now I may be misunderstanding, instead of a vertical rotation they may be talking about a horizontal rotation. Again, I don't see the mechanism in the photo, but if you rotated the whole stand then each plant would get 1/4th of the available sunlight.  Again, I've my doubts.

    Looking at the data on the company, I observe the stock price of Valcent, which is publicly traded, is much lower than in the past--not the profile of a promising company. Nor do the various releases cite any real concrete achievements, just a bunch of golden futures to come.

    Sunday, January 10, 2010

    A Surprising Sentence

    From Dirk Beauregarde's post on French introspection, a site to debate what it means to be French (the values Liverty, Equality, Fraternaity) in the context of winter snow and burqa wearing:
    "However, contrary to popular belief, the Republican Trinity was not coined on the barricades during the French Revolution of 1789 – the idea of brotherhood (fraternité) was not added until 1880."

    Is the Air Force Unconstitutional?

    Inasmuch as the Constitution only provides for an army and a navy, it would seem anyone who is an originalist in constitutional interpretation would have to say that Truman should have initiated an amendment to legalize the Air Force.  (Comment triggered by a NYTimes review of two books annotating the Constitution).

    Saturday, January 09, 2010

    Whither the Food Crisis?

    From the FAO's Food Outlook:
    The agricultural market situation today is different from that of 2007/08. World cereal stocks are at far more comfortable levels than they were two years ago, with the stock-to-use ratio at almost 23 percent, 4 percentage points more than at the time. Evidently, the balance of world supply and demand is not even across all commodities, with some markets facing tighter conditions than others. But, in general, supplies held by exporters are far more adequate to respond to rising demand than they were during the price surge period. For example, the wheat stocks-to-use ratio in major exporting countries has risen from 12 percent in 2007/08 to 20 percent this season.

    A reminder things can change quickly and the conventional wisdom of today is often like the winter's snow, vanishing with the brighter sun and the longer days.

    Transparency in Government--State and Local

    Do you know that building codes and fire safety codes and similar material are not available for free?  I'd like to see that changed.

    Friday, January 08, 2010

    The Past Persists

    A couple factoids--the Presbyterians around 1900 were still dealing with "Freedmen", some 30 odd years after the 13th Amendment was ratified.

    And it seems the U.S. didn't require passports for women until well into the 20th century.

    Terrorist Tipoffs and an Evolutionary Arms Race

    Josh Marshall at TPM wonders something which I wonder too.  Namely, when we identify things as tipoffs, as suspicious circumstances warranting more investigation, what stops the terrorist organizations from adapting?  For example, John Doe is committed to blowing up an airliner.  So he boards an airliner paying cash for a one-way ticket with no luggage and using a false name.  All sorts of sirens should be going off, right?  But assuming some resources, what's to stop him, knowing what we consider as red flags, from using a credit card, his correct name, and a full set of luggage on a round trip ticket?

    And Ann Althouse points to the Newark incident:
    "The fact that these two individuals kissed and walked hand-in-hand does not and should not wash away suspicion. If it did, terrorists would know how to stage a security breach. Have male and female confederates. The woman passes through security and then lets in the man, who has whatever weapons/bombs on him that may be desired. The two act like lovers, and the TSA workers sit back and think ain't love grand. A few hours later, hundreds of human beings are blown to pieces."
     Biologists point to arms races in evolution where prey and predators, the eaten and the eater evolve defenses and counters. Maybe that's what we have here.  We come up with a profile of the likely terrorist, the terrorist organization figures out what it is (not a hard job) and how to counter the profile (carry luggage, travel with a female companion, whatever).  A successful attack, or at least one close to success, tells us we need to change the profile and the process continues.

    Thursday, January 07, 2010

    The Problem With Statistics--Crime Waves and Falls [Revised]

    Mathew Blake at Understanding Government links to a Wall Street Journal piece on the fall of crime rates. The piece quotes some experts who say that the graying of the boomer generation is partly responsible, since people over 50 are unlikely to commit violent crime (as opposed to financial crimes, perhaps?) and that age group  is the most rapidly growing.  Mathew has some doubts, but I have a different question. Suppose we went back to the high crime days of the 70's and 80's and normalized the statistics for the age distribution--what would the statistics look like?  I'm sure it would reduce the amplitude of the the peaks, but by how much?  And if public discussion and the media had used those statitstics rather than the gross figures they did use, would California today be spending more on public schools and less on criminal schools (i.e., prisons). That's a factoid which caught my attention today--Schwartzenegger wants to decrease the money spent on prisons because they do spend more on prisons than schools.

    [Revision: thinking more about this issue, it strikes me the statistical adjustment would need to be tricky, not just for the number of young in the population, but probably also for the percentage of young.  Seems to me the boomers in the 70's gained confidence from being such a large generation, while those of us in the "silent" generation realized we were outnumbered. I suspect everyone has experienced the intimidation factor of a group of young, rowdy males on a public street where there's only a handful of adults around.  Conversely, a large crowd of middle-aged and old people can establish a standard of behavior that cows a handful of teens/twenties.  So the question would be, in this hypothesis, how often each scenario occurred. ]

    Chris Clayton on Actively Engaged

    Chris Clayton summarizes the debate on the FSA final rule on "actively engaged". Unfortunately he's a victim of the stupid GPO system, which doesn't give you a permanent URL for the document, so his link doesn't work.  And, it turns out, is no help, because, as of 4:30 pm, it hadn't been updated with today's issue of the Federal Register.

    Fortunately, the expert bureaucrats at FSA have already updated their website with the link to the regs.
    Way to go, JK and JB.

    Best Sentence of Jan 7

    " Coordination is the impulse of bureaucrats" from Chris Blattman's Blog on Development, a post about Clinton's speech on development.  (I'd also recommend the post on the other Clinton's Foreign Policy interview. Say what you will, the guy can be impressive.)

    Wednesday, January 06, 2010

    Another Party Heard from on Iraq

    I recommend Thomas Ricks blog, The Best Defense.  He used to be the WPost defense correspondent and seems to have good sources in the military, particularly from lower levels than you see in the mainstream media.  My recommendation is odd, because I've always boasted of being a natural-born civilian, something reaffirmed by my involuntary service in LBJ's Army. 

    That is preamble 1.  Preamble 2 is the observation I put up a short post recognizing no combat fatalities in Iraq in December and giving GWBush credit. 

    But, as Mao supposedly said about the French Revolution, it's too early to tell about the overall policy.  Ricks has a post passing on a prediction by someone that Iraq will disappear in the next 5 years, which almost sounds like the policy our current Vice President was pushing back in 2007.  We will see, or maybe our descendants will see.

    He's Back

    The bogeyman to scare all industrial farmers, Michael Pollan, has another book out: "Food Rules."  The one-star review at Amazon says it disappoints, in that it's a boiled down version of "In Defense of Food". There are 5 star reviews.  And it costs $5.50

    Tuesday, January 05, 2010

    Whoopsie--Was FSA One of the Agencies Which Goofed?

    Here's an example of a bureaucratic screwup, along with a somewhat exaggerated story. In sum, a 1996 law required executive branch agencies to send their final rules to Congress, but many appear to have failed to do so. (The law gave Congress the right to disapprove the final rules after being notified of them.)

    In theory, the rule isn't effective until sent to Congress.  And, the answer to the question in my title is "yes", both CCC/FSA and NRCS failed to send several of their final rules over, one of which is a payment limitation rule and one an EQIP rule. (See page 20  of the CRS report.) It strikes me as a Mickey Mouse rule, as we used to say in the old days.  If an agency does something which is controversial and could be disapproved by Congress, the thing will have a life of its own.  If it's not that important, then it's bureaucratic routine.  It's not important in itself; Congress is able to read the Federal Register, after all so the appropriate staffers know when the final rule goes out.

    Restored Service, Back to Blogging

    Verizon has restored our service, so I'll resume blogging just as soon as I catch up with my online reading.

    Saturday, January 02, 2010

    Props to W

    Via Starbucks WiFi (my Verizon repair order is still waiting to be assigned to a technician--somehow I had thought all utilities worked day and night to restore service, so even at my late age there's opportunity to learn the reality of the world), I'm obligated to start the new year by acknowledging no combat deaths in Iraq in December.  I could add caveats, but I won't. GW wasn't always wrong in everything.