Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Greenhouse Tomatoes

I've become a bit obsessive about the myths of vertical farming, emphasizing that plants need sunlight. And I noted the White House garden was much less productive in the winter than the other seasons. So as I read today's NYTimes piece on greenhouse tomatoes I was becoming worried.  Backyard Farms, in Madison, Maine has 42 acres of greenhouse, in which they grow tomatoes all year round!

An excerpt:
 But with shoppers willing to pay a premium — even $4 to $5 a pound — for red vine-ripened ones with more flavor, greenhouse tomatoes now represent more than half of every dollar spent on fresh tomatoes in American supermarkets, according to figures from the Perishables Group, a market research firm in Chicago.
The article goes on and on describing the varieties, the culture, etc.--all of it very interesting. The tomato vines, which must be indeterminate varieties, grow to tremendous lengths.  It's only in the last third that the writer addresses the problem of light. As a side note, Leamington, Canada has 1,600 acres of greenhouses and it is further south than Madison. But the Canadians can't grow tomatoes in the winter.

I was relieved to read this:
it employs some 20,000 high-pressure sodium lights, fueled by cheap power from Madison’s town-owned hydroelectric plant. Switched on, the lights use as much electricity in 32 minutes as the average American household does in a year. 
And the writer closes by noting a British study that compared UK greenhouse tomatoes to ones grown in Spain, and found the greenhouse ones accounted for four times the carbon emissions as those shipped from a distance.

The Impact of Digital Photography

The NYTimes has a piece on the impact of digital photography on professional photographers: bottom line, good and/or lucky amateur photographers using digital cameras are cutting into their livelihood, as is the decline of magazines (the fewer ads, the fewer pages, the fewer slots into which to sell one's photos.).

An economist wrote a book on "the winner take-all economy" a while back.  His argument was that modern technology meant the very best talents got the lion's share of the compensation and crowded out other slots.  For example, in the old days every medium-sized town and city had its own opera house, which provided opportunities for many singers.  Then came the phonograph, and radio, and CD's and those niches were killed off--stars like Callas came to dominate their field.

That thesis has always interested me, though there are counter-arguments.  Reading the Times photography piece suggested another pattern of the impact of technology on arts, the wholesale destruction of economic niches, leaving only a handful of experts plying the trade.  Maybe it's something like buggy whip makers or sword smiths--there must be a few such people still out there, who perhaps produce a better product than anyone in the past.

A Bird Singing Contest

In Thailand, see the 5th slide here.  Somehow the idea of staging a bird singing contest is fascinating.  I suppose it's no more odd than a horse race.  You don't (or at least the younger I didn't) think of Asians being competitive.  Competing in which bird sings best fits my old preconceptions; competing in races--horse, dog, pigeon seems more Western somehow.  (Of course Chinese athletes at the Olympics show my preconceptions are best forgotten.)

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Locavore and Farmers Markets

Over 200 years ago my ancestors left the York, PA area for upstate NY, a fact which leaves me with a casual interest in York, an interest sparked by a couple interesting web sites.  Here's an article, with links to more articles, on  the old York farmers markets, and the new ones.

Republicans Should Have a Little Sympathy for Government Managers

I'm just saying, the next time you see a media report about how government employees have abused their government credit card, the Republicans might take a deep breath before attacking them.

Arne Duncan as Lucy

The Secretary of Education announced the two states who won his "Race to the Top" competition for reforming education.  It strikes me that he's like Charles Schulz's Lucy, tantalizing Charlie with the football.  On the other hand, anyone who has tried to lure an animal into a place they don't really want to go by using food, knows his strategy.  Just enough to tempt, not enough to satiate.  (Come to think of it, that's what strippers do.)

Monday, March 29, 2010

What's Up with Turkmenistan?

Via Matt Yglesias, Gallup has a global survey of nations which are thriving, struggling, or suffering.  It's color-coded.  Briefly US, Canada, UK, and Scandinavia are thriving, the rest of the world not so much.  But Turkmenistan sticks out like a sore thumb in having a higher score than any country within thousands of miles of it.  What's that about?

Farm Policy Today

Farm Policy has two interesting pieces: one on the possibility of rejiggering SURE to speed up payments (either making advances or changing the data used so payments could be made earlier); the second reporting an informal survey that wheat farmers would prefer to keep crop insurance and drop direct payments if they faced a binary choice.

FSA Awards Contract for MIDAS

FSA awarded its MIDAS contract to SRA  (It's what I would consider a "Beltway Bandit"--a consulting house with no particular background in USDA.  Made about $1.5 billion in revenue last year and has about 7,000 employees.  

I hope they do better work for FSA than they do for themselves: when I searched for "USDA" on their website I got a page which was unreadable because of the dark blue background to black letters. When I copied the text, this is what I saw:

Warning: mysql_pconnect() [function.mysql-pconnect]: Too many connections in /prod/webprojects/sra-prod/includes/db.php on line 7
Connection Failed

Sunday, March 28, 2010

One Personalized Government Website?

Via Govloop, here's an article on Prime Minister Brown's plan to provide a personalised web page for every UK citizen to access all public services online in a single location.

Two points on this:
  • Does it make sense? There's definite advantages--you presumably can set up some high-quality identity checking for such a site, the user has only one ID and password process to go through, you probably get a higher usage rate because it's more convenient for the user.  On the other hand, as with any centralized process the consequences of hacking, etc. are greater.
  • What does it tell us about the differences in government and society? It's pretty clear, I think, that Brown's not just thinking of one access point to Her Majesty's websites, but to all levels of government including doctors appointments.  Presumably Brown knows what's feasible, but compare that with the U.S.  Fairfax County and Virginia both are recognized as being progressive in their implementation of IT, but there's no way you could have one access point for both county and state.  As a matter of fact, Fairfax county doesn't have a common access point for the public library and the property tax.  Now consider adding in things like passports from State, Pell grants from Ed, veteran's benefits from the VA, Social security, bonds from Treasury, employee benefits from OPM, etc. These won't have a consolidated access point for decades.  As I've said before, in the US our government is decentralized and weak, and we like it that way.

How Much Is a Hundredweight?

I watch enough British telly and movies and read enough British mysteries to know that a "stone" is 14 pounds.  But until today I didn't know a "quarter" is 2 stones. (Prices of grain in Ireland in 1848 were quoted in quarters.) And a hundredweight is four quarters, making it 112 pounds, at least in the UK. (This relates to the "long ton" and the "short ton", etc.) This site has the conversions.  One of the many things for which we must thank the Founding Fathers is their partial metrification of US measures.

Times on Local Slaughterhouses

It's official: both the Post and the Times have now written about a shortage of local slaughterhouses, particularly in Vermont.  I'm waiting for all those farmers to beat a path to Walt Jeffries' door, either to ask him to slaughter for them or to show them how to build their own.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Good News for Dairy, at Least in China

From CAP Health Check
A couple years ago, while in Taiwan, I was amazed at the impressive increase in the demand of dairy products. At the time the existing statistics revealed that the Taiwanese per-capita consumption of dairy products was something like 50 times the figure for mainland China.
I thought Asians tended to be lactose-intolerant, but apparently that's not true, or at least it doesn't prevent a big increase in dairy consumption when standards of living rise.  

Creeping Pollyannaism

I've a tendency to be optimistic which can lead me into errors. There's enough good news in the world that I can become Pollyanna.  In this respect, I want to link to a post on Barking Up the Wrong Tree which summarizes several different studies on various aspects of discrimination, leading off with a reminder that it still exists, based on using job applicants matched as to characteristics, except for race.

The White House Garden

I don't know when they harvested their winter garden but the video is dated 3/24.  (Warning: at least on my DSL connection it's a jerky one.)  Some comments:
  • the hoops did survive the snow.  I wonder how deeply the ends were buried to withstand the lateral forces exerted by the snow load. (The time lapse photography is interesting--looks as if the snow slid off very quickly.  Maybe the WH hoops are higher than the ones used by a fellow gardener in our community garden who had problems with them.)
  • the ground looked a bit dry.  The covering was plastic sheeting, presumably impervious to water so I wonder if they ever rolled back the plastic to water.
  • as the caption says, the harvest exceeded expectations.  My impression is they seeded in early November so they did better than I expected.  Although one harvest for 4 1/2 months time should put a damper on dreams of locavore sustainability. Plants need the sun, and the sun goes south in the winter.  That's a fact difficult to work around.
  • I still think they would have done better to do as my wife does, plant earlier in the fall to get some growth and use the hoops to extend the harvest season.  That I think would maximize the output from the land.
  • they seemed to be harvesting all the beds, so I don't know where the winter rye which Obamafoodorama mentioned is growing.  It wasn't mentioned in the narration.  Maybe she got confused.
  • Sam Kass did the narration, and he did mention some peas being planted.  When and where wasn't clear, so it's possible the Obamas did beat me and my wife to the sowing this spring.
  • he also said Michelle wants to expand the garden, adding a couple more sets of beds.  That's a point where I segue into being somewhat critical.
Where were Michelle and the girls in the harvest?  It looked like the kitchen staff were doing the harvesting.  If Michelle and the daughters were really gardeners, they would have been curious to see how it had done.  (It's possible, but I think unlikely that the girls are really into it, but because their parents want to shield them from the press it wasn't appropriate for them to be on camera.)  The 1-year anniversary strengthens my early suspicion that it is very difficult for residents of the White House to be real; despite their best intentions what they do is more symbolic than real.

[Updated: A subsequent post on the White House blog reports the winter harvest was about 50 pounds.  Compare that to 750 pounds or more during 2009.  Also, the expansion is to be about 500 square feet.)

Friday, March 26, 2010

Cherry Blossom Time

I'm a skeptic of Gov Gab, but this post on cherry blossom time is worth reading, if you ever plan to visit.

International Aid Is Like Piano

Via Chris Blattman, an interesting discussion of international aid and development, with a nice comparison of the whole effort to the universe of piano lessons and recitals. A cynic says we don't know what works; a wise person says if we stop trying, nothing works.

David Mamet Is a Troglodyte

He writes his rules for drama in all caps.  Hat tip: Marginal Revolution.  Though I hate the way he says it (all caps), I agree entirely with what he says.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Someone Has a Secret Savings Plan has a post reporting a Pew poll, showing 53 percent of people had lost some or all of their savings in the recession.  That implies, I guess, 47 percent of the people didn't lose any savings, which seems incredible. Or 47 percent don't have any savings, which also seems incredible.

Farmers Are Sexy

So says John Phipps in this post.

USDA's People's Garden

Remember last year when Michelle Obama made a big splash with her White House garden?  Well, Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack wanted his garden, or at least a "People's Garden" (he's too young to remember the 1950's China).  His loyal troops tore up some ground near the ivory tower, as Chet Adell used to call the Administration Building back in 1968, although I don't remember whether it was lawn or parking lot.  They blogged about it last year and posted better records than the White House on production.  But the blog has been quiet.  Since I tweaked the White House about getting our peas in the ground earlier than they, I wondered how the USDA garden was doing this year.

The bad news--you can't see much.  At least not much if you don't tweet. (As I don't.)  But they are using Twitter to update on progress and I gather they planted their peas last Friday.  Congratulations to them, both for beating Michelle and for getting into Web 2.0. And for their disgusting raised beds,

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

I Can't Resist

With no comment, from an email from my alma mater:
"Cornell Big Red had a phenomenal weekend! Men's ice hockey clinched a spot in the NCAA tournament and will play this Friday in Albany. Women's hockey lost 3-2 in the final minute of the third overtime to Minnesota-Duluth in the NCAA championship.
Saturday, two Big Red wrestlers were in the finals at the NCAA Championships, and Kyle Dake won the title! As a team, Cornell finished second behind Iowa.
Congratulations to all our athletes and coaches, plus the alumni, parents, and friends who have supported them over the years!
Cornell athletics has been all over the national media--just do a Google search and you'll see dozens upon dozens of articles! Also visit for details."

Post on Local Slaughterhouses

I'm late in putting this up--the Post had an article on the growth of small local slaughterhouses. It fits with my earlier post on the Creekstone beef outfit.

Rural Wages and Unemployment

A factoid buried in this Daily Yonder article, with a nice graphic showing wage levels in rural counties: some correlation between low wages and low unemployment.  For example, WV has high unemployment but the unionized (presumably) coal miners who are employed have high wages.

Natural Beef in New York City: Creekstone Farms

A long and interesting article in the Times today on Creekstone Farms, which is providing beef to a number of NYC's better restaurants.  An excerpt:

Close to a fourth of Creekstone’s meat is “natural,” meaning free from antibiotics and growth-producing hormones; cattle are given vegetarian feed and, as a quality-control measure, it is noted which ranch each came from. In 2005, after adopting stringent standards, the company won certification to provide its highest-end products to theEuropean Union, Japan and Korea.
“We want to know that the animals are raised responsibly,” said Riad Nasr, an executive chef at Minetta Tavern.
And customers do, too, because “they can’t trust the regulators,” said Malcolm M. Knapp, who heads a restaurant consulting company in Manhattan that bears his name. “These days, diners can use their phones right in the restaurant to check beef out on the Internet. And they do.”
It looks like a trend.  (Later on in the article they note the higher prices Creekstone has to charge.) There are those small livestock farmers who oppose NAIS, but there are those who are finding a niche by marketing a history along with the meat.  Maybe we'll end with a 3-tier system: the mass market meat, the quality market meat with a history, and the local market meat with a face.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Amish and Health Care Reform

The Amish have problems with insurance, as essentially the community self-insures.  Via Marginal Revolution, this article describes some of the complications they face, particularly as employers.  But the incidental information is interesting--who knew there was an Amish employer with over 150 employees?  And what does it do to Amish society to have an employer/employee relationship?

Using Technology as a Work-Around

Ajay Shah has a post on the use of cell-phones and texting to work around problems in taxi queues at the Bombay airport.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Comes the Revolution?

Say it isn't so: "“But we all thought blogging was going to transform academic life, and that didn’t really happen.”

Le Fooding and the Flymo

From Dirk Beauregarde, a long post on France and French (the language). The art of good food in France is now, if you can believe him, called "le fooding", following the pattern of creating a quasi-French word by adding "ing" to an English word.

And via Dirk, "hover mowers"   (as in hovercraft).

Now It's the Bureaucrats' Turn

Now health care reform has passed, it's the job of the bureaucrats to get to work.  My fervent hope is Obama and Sebelius are worrying about it already. (I have my doubts--politicians don't usually worry about nuts and bolts and implementation, particularly charismatic politicians, which I guess we can call Obama one again, now he's got a big victory.) If I were them I'd hire some people from MA who implemented Romneycare plus arm twist Mark McClellan into returning to government.  McClellan is the guy in the Bush administration who implemented Medicare Part D very successfully, given that the Dems were very much on the warpath as it was passed and in its early days.  But as time passed the criticism vanished, which is a good indication that McClellan is an effective bureaucrat.  There's nothing like having a bit of experience before starting a big job.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

World's Richest Man-1930 Versus 2010

In 80 years we've moved from this:
World's richest man is the Nizam of Hyderabad, 45-year old monarch of 13M Indian Muslims. Fortune is estimated at over $2B; during the war he contributed over $50M to the British govt. He is said to have over $500M in gold in his treasury. On a visit to New Delhi two years ago, he traveled in a special train of 22 Pullman cars; his luggage was sent ahead in four special trains, one devoted to carrying part of his collection of 400 cars.
Carlos Slim Helu, a Mexican telecommunications tycoon, has earned the title as the world's richest man, worth an estimated $53.5 billion. A self-made billionaire, Helu holds a controlling interest in several Mexican telecommunications companies, including American Movil, the largest mobile phone business in Latin America. His net worth climbed $18.5 billion just in the past year.

Incidentally, one piece on Mr. Slim (whose father emigrated from Lebanon, said he was the first person from a developing country to be the richest man.  As the piece on the Nizam shows, that's not true.  If memory serves, before Bill Gates, a big shot from Borneo was also the richest.  Else an oil man from the Mid east.  I may be foolishly optimistic, but it's possible more rich people have "earned" their money, rather than being the beneficiary of unearned wealth.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

We Beat the Obamas

To planting our spring garden.  My wife and I got our peas, onion sets, and some lettuce in the ground yesterday and this morning.  According to Obamafoodorama the White House garden has yet to be planted for spring. (Ground was broken for it this time last year.)  I've observed before they should be ahead of Reston: the White House is closer to the ocean and therefore somewhat warmer than we are.

To be fair, however, apparently they planted winter rye on some of the beds while still growing turnips, lettuce and arugula on other ground.  Rye is nice, rye is good.  We've never used it, too impatient.  But rye is good organic gospel; the roots improve the texture of the soil and when it's turned under, it adds organic matter. The problem with rye is, IMHO, to get the maximum benefit you have to let it grow some in the spring after it comes out of dormancy, meaning you get a late start on your garden, which doesn't work for us impatient types.

For the White House, for whom gardening is both personal and political, rye probably works okay.  After all doing the spring planting will certainly be another media event, requiring much coordination of staff and school(s).  And as any bureaucrat knows, coordination takes time.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Conflicting Mantras

The environmentalists who are worried about climate change trust scientists; the greens who are worried about food tend to denigrate science as in the service of "big ag".   [This random thought in lieu of content; a spring cold doesn't help thought.]

There's Always Those Who Don't Get the Word

Group files a FOIA request for the schema for a database (i.e. a description of what data elements are in which tables of a database).  The charge for it: over $110,000.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

A Bill I Can Support

Requiring public information to be online.  See this Next Gov post for details. 

And You Wonder Why Conservatives Oppose

Paul Hinderaker at Powerline quotes a message on the coming problems when health care reform is passed.  The message is based on the flak British PM's get at question time over British health care (shortages here, problems there).  My problem is the confusion of the writer, and of Paul for quoting it: the health care system we'll have after reform is implemented still won't look like the British system. Yes, it will have its problems, but they mostly won't be the sort of problems the UK has.  I say "mostly" because, as  T.R. Reid points out in his book, our current system is really a hodge-podge of different systems:  Medicare/Medicaid is one system; militar and VA are another (much closer to UK than anything else), different systems in Massachusetts, Maryland, and Hawaii. That's not going to change that much under reform; we may have a less diverse system, but we're still going with the hodge-podge.  That's the American way--decentralized, confused, and disorderly.

But as long as opponents don't understand, or willfully misunderstand, what we have and what's proposed, the quality of the public debate suffers.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Birth of the NRA

No, not the National Rifle Association, but FDR's NRA.   

From the 1930 blog, an editorial from the Wall Street Journal:
Editorial by T. Woodlock: It's clear the doctrine of laissez faire, laissez aller that has guided “classical” economists for a century, is now obsolete; the world economic system is so complex and interdependent that some coordination is needed. However, this doesn't mean that governments should do the planning, as is suggested anew with “each succeeding depression in recent times.” A better alternative would be, despite our antitrust laws and the vestigial attitude behind them, to find a way for industries to achieve better coordination and control, [emphasis added] without surrender of individual initiative.
That's for all those conservatives who blame FDR for cartels--the impetus came from Wall Street.

PS: an added nugget from the same post--I guess we are making progress:
Friday the 13th passed without any untoward occurences, though in Wall Street's tradition of superstition, brokers report hundreds of their customers won't trade that day and some get out of the market the day before.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Idiocy of Rural Life

Does this sound like today's greens: "...[capitalism] has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cities, has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural, and has thus rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life. Just as it has made the country dependent on the towns, so it has made barbarian and semi-barbarian countries dependent on the civilised ones, nations of peasants on nations of bourgeois, the East on the West."

I'm sure you'd stumble over the "idiocy of rural life".  But this is from Mr. Marx, in his "The Communist Manifesto", although he said "The bourgeoisie has...."  It seems "idiocy" is a mistranslation; "isolation" would be better.  See the explanation  here (it's towards the bottom of the page).

Feds Need Their Cookies

Apparently a number of Federal agencies have gotten around the OMB ban on using cookies on their websites. I may be wrong but it seems to me in the early days of browsers (say 1995-2000) there was lots of concern over cookies.  Since then I believe the concern has subsided, which fits my general preconception that new things cause anxiety and the media tends to exaggerate such concerns (at least when they aren't failing to notice the new).  Cookies seem so yesterday, given today's Facebook and similar Web 2.0 stuff.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Rethinking History

When I went to college General Grant was regarded as a good general but a lousy President.  Imagine my shock when I read Sean Wilentz yesterday on why he might be one of our greatest Presidents. Yglesias posts on the article. Wilentz deprecates the corruption charges and focuses on civil rights.

I'm sure George W. Bush took great comfort from the article, as showing the way for his reputation to rebound.

Time to Reengineer Crop Insurance

I'm anxiously waiting for FCIC to adapt the strategy used in Kenya to insure crops--track seed and fertilizer purchases by cellphone to establish eligiblity, determine losses by geographic locale, and deposit indemnity payments to cellphone accounts.  See this post at the World Banks blog.  This would tie in neatly with the cellphone disaster reporting I mentioned in my previous post.

I'm in danger of having my tongue in cheek on these sort of posts, but the reality is that as phone become capable the potential for major changes in business processes grows. The only problem is that humans mostly don't like change.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Suggestion for USDA--Ushahidi Disaster and Crop Reporting

Here is a description of Ushahidi applications (briefly, it's a web process to accumulate and display geographic data provided by cellphone reports--used in reporting disasters in Kenya and Haiti).

For USDA--why not adopt similar applications to assemble crop yield and damage reports, supplementing existing reporting systems?

Saturday, March 13, 2010

NRCS Musings

Here's an audit report on NRCS.  Sustainable Ag has a post on the Senate Ag appropriations hearings, and Sec. Vilsack said:
In addition, Vilsack reminded Subcommittee members that the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which administers the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and EQIP, had been “under the cloud of an audit because it didn’t oversee and manage its resources effectively. We tried to do too much too soon, and now we have to be accountable to the taxpayers,” Vilsack said. “We don’t want people who aren’t qualified to get money under the program.”
Now I'm going to indulge in some dangerous speculation, dangerous because I really don't understand the audit nor do I know for sure that NRCS is in a worse situation than other parts of USDA, like FSA.  So the following is worth what you pay for it:

Historically Soil Conservation Service and then NRCS was an educational agency, teaching farmers how to conserve their land and water, developing and installing good conservation practices on the land.  I worked with them in the late 80's, as they were suffering from the shock of assuming some regulatory burdens by enforcing "conservation compliance".  That's the requirement that farmers not drain wetlands or cultivate highly erodible land without a conservation plan in effect.  Violation of the requirement was intended to make the farmer ineligible for USDA program benefits.  To oversimplify, the requirement has been watered down and, at least in the 90's, auditors were very dubious of how well NRCS and FSA were doing in implementing the requirement.

Through my time at agriculture, FSA would write the checks (actually CCC sight drafts) for conservation programs.  In recent years NRCS has been given responsibility for some programs, including responsibility for issuing payments.  My guess (here's the speculation) is that because NRCS didn't have the experience with the process, and perhaps because they had to rush to implement it, they didn't do it right the first time.  (Which is another instance of my rule: "you never do it right the first time".)  Hence the problematic audit.

From the OIG's Management Challenges report: "In 2002, the Secretary gave NRCS additional responsibilities to implement newly mandated conservation programs that deliver significantly more financial assistance to producers. NRCS has yet to establish the necessary management controls and processes to effectively administer and manage these new programs."

Vote for Murray Hill

If you're in the Maryland suburbs and Chris Van Hollen is your congressman, get a real representative.  (Dr. Soltan saves me the trouble of linking directly to the Post article.)

The Reality of Hens

The romanticism of keeping a few hens meets the realities in this short piece at Treehugger.

Friday, March 12, 2010

A Tale of Two Organizations

The NY Times today carries article on two organizations:
  1. the Kansas City school system, which apparently has suffered from a total lack of leadership, so that now it has to close half its schools. "But a closer look at the school board’s recent history reveals a chaotic, almost nonfunctioning body that put off making tough choices and even routine improvements for generations."
  2. Lehman Brothers, which is kaput. "According to the report, Lehman used what amounted to financial engineering to temporarily shuffle $50 billion of troubled assets off its books in the months before its collapse in September 2008 to conceal its dependence on leverage, or borrowed money."
This encapsulates some of my thinking about organizations: The free market is fine for things and services that can be measured and priced, but it is subject to manipulation, fraud, and deceit.  Government is for services which can't be measured and priced, often because benefits and/or costs would overlap the bounds of any market, but it is subject to inefficiency, fraud, and corruption.

Senate "Virility" Lost Long Time Ago

From the 1930 blog:
Editorial: The Senate, by its "absurd rules" giving a single Senator the power to block any pending legislation for as long as his physical strength holds out, has "robbed itself of parliamentary virility." In most recent example, Sen. Thomas of Oklahoma took the floor on midnight of Tuesday last week to move for investigation of the oil industry, and held it until Congress adjourned, blocking action on several important measures without accomplishing anything.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Persistence, or Just Showing Up

Who was it who said: "most of life is just showing up"?  Well Sen. Lincoln keeps showing up, and the latest bill passed by the Senate includes her disaster provisions (from Farm Policy):

Also added to the bill is a $1.5 billion disaster aid package for the 2009 crop year being pushed by Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark. Farmers would be eligible if they suffered a crop disaster or are located in counties declared disaster areas that had at least one crop suffer a 5 percent yield or quality loss due to the disaster, the bill states. Payments would equal up to 90 percent of the farmers’ direct payments for 2009.”

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

House Ag and IT in USDA/FSA

House Ag committee held a hearing on the status of USDA and FSA IT, including GIS.  Only the opening statements of the witnesses are available online.  The USDA CIO and FSA Administrator testified.  Much of their statements sounded like 5, 10 or 15 years ago, addressing the same issues of outmoded equipment, stovepipe systems, decentralized chaos among the agencies.  The second session had the National Farmers Union, NASCOE, NAFEC, the National Association of Conservation Districts and the National States GIS council. 

I found the second session more interesting:  One question--why wasn't the Farm Loan organization (the old FmHA specialists) represented?  (To show how slowly things move in USDA, note I'm referring to an organization (FmHA) which disappeared 16 years ago.)  They certainly have IT concerns, although the Administrator seemed to say their systems were in the best shape of any.  A surprise--the NASCOE rep said GIS products were the single biggest workload item. An unlikely request--the National GIS rep asked for dedicated money for the NAIP (aerial photos/GIS) separate from FSA money, but was very complimentary of the Salt Lake City staff.  I wonder why that was--is it possible that because the Aerial Photography Field Office in Salt Lake is the only FSA office which produces real, tangible products (setting checks to producers aside), that it's easier for them to take a businesslike approach to its operations?

Al Kamen and Bureaucrats

Al Kamen in the Post reports on the end of Filegate (if you don't remember, you're lucky--a complete waste of brain cells).  Judge Lamberth calls it a bureaucratic snafu of no significance: "there's no there there."  (Lamberth is remembered unfondly by Dems as a Jesse Helms protege and a member of the panel which put Mr. Starr in as special prosecutor, so it's safe to say he's not usually favorable to Clinton.)

In the same column he has an interesting followup--in 2008 the Census Bureau reported we were exporting goods to Iran which were supposedly prohibited.  Now it turns out some of this was misreporting:  Census asked for a 2-letter country code and people thought that Ireland or Iraq might be coded: "IR", which is the Iran code.  ("IN" and "IQ" were right, in case you wondered.)  A reminder of the problems of collecting data.  One reason I suspect you see drop-down lists of states when you're filling out an address online is that people get confused: is "AK" for Arkansas; is "MS" for Minnesota? 

A Conflict in Mores

I'm assuming this condo is inhabited by many immigrants, based on this line in the quote from MSNBC:
"It's not uncommon for the residents at Vantage Hill Condominiums to leave their shoes outside to keep their homes clean..."
When the Salvation Army came through on a pickup run, those shoes were seen as donations to the Army.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

American Food History

James McWilliams has an interesting post skimming the American past and our views of food. I think there could be another post on how eating new and different foods has been a mark of culture and class.  (Is it just coincidence that Tyler Cowen and Ezra Klein are both very much into food?)

Community Supported Agriculture--the Limits of Locavore

The Post had a brief mention (today or yesterday) of someone who had had a CSA agreement with a farmer.  Paid $750 but the farmer had problems, whether weather or management it isn't clear in my mind, and she ended up unhappy with the deal.  She's trying again this year with another farmer.

I think this points to one of the issues with the new-ag type ventures and, perhaps, one of the advantages of the much derided "production agriculture".  I'd make the leap and say it's similar to the problems with charter schools and public eduction.  Or, it's like the 1960's again when no one got fired for buying IBM.  I guess for you youngsters the almost modern reference would be no one got fired for buying Microsoft.

What am I talking about?  Call it the dominant paradigm, to dress the idea up in fancy jargon.  Production agriculture, the chain of big farms, big wholesalers, chain groceries is the dominant, the majority way most people in the US get most of their food.  The public school system is the way most children get their K-12 eduction. The IBM main frame used to define the word "computer", as Microsoft defines "personal computer".  Some people try to come up with a new and better idea.  Typically that involves lots of experimentation, lots of learning by failing, lots of people who con others or con themselves, lots of adversity. When DC opened up to charter schools, the Post had horror stories of abuses and failures for several years.

To simplify further, the dominant paradigm offers the consumer safety: what's being sold is known and you know you're very sure of getting it.  Venture outside that paradigm and you increase your chance of rewards but you also increase your risk of disappointment.

Monday, March 08, 2010

What a Politician Loves to Hear

I posted the other day about Robert Kagan's praising the Obama administration for its foreign policy, arguing it had mostly continued Bush policies, which was good, as he's on the right.  Today Matt Yglesias writes on foreign policy: " For a mix of good and bad reasons, the Obama administration has mostly gone in a different direction from Bush without really challenging the legitimacy of Bush-era policies as within the bounds of the American political mainstream."

In other words, people coming from different positions on the political spectrum think Obama's policies are good.  I say that's what a politician loves to hear.  In democracies, most of a politician's work is trying to persuade people he or she is on their side, assembling a majority in support of a position.  (The worst thing a politician can hear is what Secretary Vilsack is hearing these days: complaints from production agriculture about being abandoned; complaints from the greens about things not advancing fast enough.)

Sunday, March 07, 2010

A Flashback Moment from Ezra Klein

Ezra Klein had a piece in the Post today, discussing reconciliation and the filibuster.  His piece, upon which I commented twice, brought back memories.  The Budget Reconciliation Act of 1974 was passed in a time of warfare between Congress and the President, and ASCS, the predecessor agency of FSA, was caught in the middle.  President Nixon made much more extensive use of impoundment than prior Presidents. If I recall correctly, he impounded the entire appropriation for the Agricultural Conservation Program, which was about $200 million.  Under this program ASCS shared the costs of performing "conservation practices" with farmers (yes, the principle survives in current programs).  Fiscal conservatives didn't like it because the practices sometimes (or often, depending on the viewpoint) increased production (like liming fields), which was at cross-purposes with the production adjustment aspects of other ASCS programs. For ASCS the impoundment was particularly serious, because commodity prices were high (Nixon had taken us off the gold standard and made the grain deal with the Russians and oil prices were rising--all of which boosted corn and wheat prices) so the agency wasn't busy.  Losing the ACP would probably have meant losing a third or so of the ASCS bureaucrats in the county offices.

It's my memory there was a court challenge to his impoundment authority, which he lost.  Impoundment looks very like a line-item veto, which the Supreme Court eventually disallowed. 

A separate historical thread was the "imperial Presidency"--in 1974 Congress had found its authority within our government waning.  It lacked staff, it was disorganized in spending and budgeting, Nixon was grabbing all the authority he could get.  So the 1974 Act was just one piece of the effort to make Congress operate better and redress the power balance between the President and Congress.  Of course,  Nixon's resignation in August confirmed the swing of the pendulum to Congress.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Good News from Africa

Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution links to two studies suggesting Africa is doing better than we expect, poverty is falling and statistics understate real improvements.

Turning the Soil

First day of working in the garden--spading one of our raised beds to have it ready for peas, onions, and lettuce.

Comity Because Congress People Stayed in Washington?

In discussions of why there is so much partisanship in Congress, one argument often heard is proximity: in the old days people stayed in Washington for weeks at a time travel was difficult which gave them the chance to get to know each other and develop friendships across party lines.

This bit from the 1930 blog doesn't undermine it, but it does point out the differences between now and the distant past--a 9 month Congressional vacation?
"The 71st Congress adjourned at noon Wednesday; the 72nd will convene in Dec., giving a 9-month respite from “legislative considerations.”

Friday, March 05, 2010

Normal Is Bankrupt

The Bank of Illinois, Normal, that is.

The Embrace of the Right

In today's Post, two conservative thinkers embrace the Obama administration's policies--Mr. Kagan on foreign policy and Mr. Gerson on education policy.  Toss in the possibility of a compromise on Gitmo and trying KSM in the civilian court system and the left will see Obama as running to the right.

As for me, I'm not terribly concerned about any of the above.  Some of the changes reflect lack of political support, some lack of realism about the world while campaigning, and some the more conservative side of his campaign. The "trick" for political leaders is to tack back and forth while still progressing towards their goals, to evoke a metaphor from reading Horatio Hornblower novels.  And so long as the choice on the Republican side runs from Mitt to Sarah, Obama has lots of running room.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Surprising Factoid of the Day

According to Joel Mokyr's The Lever of Riches, the Koran was first printed in the 20th century (i.e., Islamic or Arab culture resisted the printing press).

Challenge to White House and USDA--Your Gardens

The snow has finally melted in our garden, so it's time to start work.  Since we live in the suburbs, about half a zone colder than DC, I'd expect the avid gardeners at the White House and USDA to be working the soil and close to planting.  (I bought onion sets today--together with peas they're the first things we grow in the spring.  Some years we've had peas in the ground for a couple weeks by now, but March 15 is the target date.)

Since I'm cynical, I wouldn't be surprised if there's less PR about the WH and USDA gardens this year.  But I'd like to be surprised. So, a challenge--tell your devoted public every day you plant something.  And I hope the WH is making less use of transplants this year.

Least Surprising News from Yesterday

From Farm Policy:
Reuters writer Charles Abbott reported yesterday that, “The House Agriculture Committee on Wednesday rejected President Barack Obama’s proposals to reduce crop subsidies to higher-income farmers and federal support for crop insurance.
“There was little discussion as the committee refused farm cuts requested by the president for the second year in a row. With elections in November, the committee approved a letter saying benefits ‘should be maintained’ at current levels.
“‘We are united and I think we have over-whelming support in the House not to open up the farm bill’ enacted in 2008, said Agriculture chairman Collin Peterson, a Democrat.”
And people think Obama has power. Not so.

Words Not Often Found in the Blogosphere

From Ezra Klein, re: Rep. Ryan:
But in the meantime, let me say how much respect I have for Ryan's willingness to engage with substantive critiques. And the reason he is willing engage like this is that he's confident that he knows his stuff. I've not been convinced by his position, but I always walk away from our talks with more respect for his position. Congress needs more like him.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

I Like Transparent Government, But Not This

Tom Ricks posts on an Israeli raid which was canceled because a soldier put it on Facebook.

Funniest Line Today

"In fact, it was the best kind of profile: the kind that confirmed everything I already believed."  Ezra Klein, in a post commenting on a profile of Rahm Emanuel.The content is pretty good too.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

The Value of Those Fries

Via the Google News most viewed, here's a graphic and article showing the fast food outlets in the US, with an interesting description of the different strategy used by McDonald's versus all the rest (basically relying on their fries to pull people everywhere).

The 5 Percent (Disaster Payment) Solution

John Phipps earlier expressed his disbelief, so I'm late to the game:
Ken Anderson reported yesterday at Brownfield that, “The chair of the National Cotton Council says disaster assistance for farmers will be included in the new jobs creation bill in Congress.
“Eddie Smith says little is known about the proposal, but speculates it could look much like earlier offerings—most likely tied to a disaster declaration by the Secretary of Agriculture, with producers receiving a payment similar to a direct payment. They would have to prove an economic loss of five percent for at least one crop of economic significance.”
From Farm Policy today.  A five percent loss is well within the natural volatility of agriculture.  The only thing which might, I say "might", make this halfway, or a quarter way reasonable is if the yields being used are still frozen from the mid-90's.  They might be, I've lost track and am too lazy to check.

Government Websites

Matt Yglesias highlights the Senate Finance Committee website, which is optimized for browsers over 10 years old.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Gallup and Job Satisfaction

Ann Althouse links to a Gallup poll which shows most people in most occupations think their jobs are ideal for them.

This seems dubious to me, except as an example of people adjusting to reality.  If an interviewer asks the question: is your current job ideal for you? what are the alternatives:
  1. You say "yes".
  2. You say "no".
"Yes" means you get rid of the interviewer without raising any unpleasant emotions in yourself.  And possibly you're pleasing the interviewer.

"No" means you have to ask yourself what job would be better, and why you haven't done anything to get the job; in other words, you open a whole can of worms.  And you gain nothing by doing so. It's not as if you were sitting down with a counselor at the beginning of your working life to determine what job is ideal and how to get it.

Personal note: no, I never had an ideal job for me.  For a time there was a good fit between my abilities and the demands of the job, at least in my opinion, but not ideal.

I Learn English from an Economist

Is it: "get one's just desserts" or "get one's just deserts"? I learn, via Greg Mankiw.

It's humiliating, is what it is.

New Fangled Stuff Never Works

That was Cliff Stoll in 1995, as I paraphrase his deprecation of the Internet.  (Stoll won same fame by tracking some Internet hackers and writing a book about it.  Good book, bad prediction.)