Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Reinventing the Wheel at the Federal Government

Buying in bulk.  That's the new idea, which is really an old idea.  If I remember correctly, Al Gore's Reinventing Government emphasized procurement reform, in part by giving government credit cards out to the field.  The idea was you cut the paperwork, the procurement delays, and you make government smaller and more responsive.  Of course that reform ran into problems, particularly because no one was watching over the use of the credit cards, so they got misused.  Now the Obama administration thinks we can save money by moving more of the procurement action back to GSA.  Perhaps.  And perhaps 15 years from now another administration will try again to decentralize procurement.

Obesity at Lake Woebegon

From Farm Policy, quoting an AP article on the new obesity report:
The article stated that, “The new survey shows that 84 percent of parents believe their children are at a healthy weight, even though nearly a third of children and teens are considered obese or overweight.”

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Good for the White House--Composting

Obamafoodorama posts on a video showing the White House compost operation. Although I sometimes mock parts of the food movement, composting is right down my alley.  It fits the Calvinistic/Lutheran piety I was brought up with: waste not, want not.  Inevitably if you're cooking there is some waste, trimmings and inedible parts of plants (although I eat baked potatoes skins and all).  And the larger the operation the more likely you'll have some spoilage.  So I like to see people composting, even though it's difficult to do the way the books say.  You don't always have the right mixture of materials and it can be difficult to keep the moisture and oxygen at the right level.

But all that said, composting is a good thing.

Obesity Is Sam Walton's Fault, Not Farmers

A report cited at Barking Up the Wrong Tree says there's a correlation between Walmart Supercenters and the rate of obesity.  (Of course correlation is not cause and in this instance there's probably a whole set of causal factors affecting obesity and the siting of Walmarts.)

Monday, June 28, 2010

Collision and Comprehensive From Different Insurance Companies?

Would it make sense for me to get my collision insurance from GEICO and my comprehensive liability insurance from Allstate?  (The companies agree it doesn't make sense for me to get my homeowners and auto insurance from different companies; they just disagree on which of them should provide both.)

That's the situation we have with crop insurance and disaster payment programs.  GAO recently released a report pointing out problems because of the different rules, in particular FSA gets reports of disaster damage long after the fact.  So they recommend:
To better ensure that payments under the Supplemental Revenue Assistance Payments Program compensate farmers who experienced eligible crop losses, we recommend that the Secretary of Agriculture implement procedures so that FSA county officials are notified at the time of crop insurance claims for disaster-related losses so those officials have an opportunity to verify that crop disaster payment applicants experienced losses because of an eligible cause.
I'm sorry, but this doesn't make much sense to me.  Data flowing the other way, from FSA to the insurance companies makes a little sense--you've got one source which theoretically can propagate the data to each company.  But having the data flow from the companies to FSA is problematic.

An addendum: this FSA notice shows the problems involved with having different shares reported to RMA and FSA.

So Much for the Innocence of Nature

Chris Blattman passes on a research report which he labels: "Are Whales Racist"? Once you start distinguishing between "us" and "them", it's a short slippery slope to racism and war.

Weingarten and National IQ's

Pulitzer-prize winning columnist Gene Weingarten uses his weekly humor column to pass on his commencement address to the Bronx High School of Science graduating class.  It's very good--first paragraph:
"I want to begin by apologizing for some of the many, many cruel things I've written over the years about this school. I was basing those comments on my time here, which was 40 years ago, and I can see right now that Bronx Science has improved enormously since then, particularly in the area of diversity. You're no longer all a bunch of Jewish nerds. Now you're all a bunch of Asian nerds"
That quote ties in with an interesting factoid from a research paper I ran across, hat tip Tyler Cowen, I think. The paper was looking at the immigration in light of the average IQ of the countries from which the immigrants came.  (I'd personally take it with a huge amount of salt--I can't comprehend how to obtain such a figure.)  According to the  table they used (in an appendix, but derived from other research), Hong Kong was 108, South Korea 106, and Israel 95.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Popcorn and Production Contracts

Way back when, popcorn growers were about the only farmers with whom ASCS dealt who had production contracts. There was an issue there: our definition of "producer", as in the person who was eligible for farm program payments, always required that the person share in the risk of producing the crop... But some production contracts could lessen the risk, thus raising the question of whether they should still be eligible. 

If I remember correctly, we tried to write the regulations to exclude producers with production contracts, but the popcorn people had the clout to get Congress (or a key Congressman or two) to lean on USDA and get the regulation reversed.  (This sort of thing is what will happen after the Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill gets enacted and the regulation writers get down to their work.  That's when it pays to have a Congressperson in your pocket to apply a bit of pressure below the surface, where the media won't notice.)

This meditation is spurred by a farmgate article, showing the rapid increase in production contracts: " contract production has been growing, all the way from 11% of farm production in 1965 to 41% in 2005." 

But the summary is also interesting: "Production contracts are being increasingly used to manage risk, however, when one tries to identify the commonality among farmers who use production contracts, it is difficult, if not impossible, to point to any given demographic, economic, or personality factor. Although the use of crop insurance would seem to have commonality with someone who wants to manage risk, that is not always the case, and many crop insurance users, do not go near production contracts."

Underground Electric Fences?

Via Washington Monthly, Rand Paul is proposing an underground electric fence for the Mexican border.  Now I'm guilty of assuming that I know what "electric fence" means, so I'm laughing at the suggestion.  Back when I was a boy, an electric fence was a single strand of barbed wire, strung on ceramic insulators attached to metal fence posts spaced maybe 10' apart, which served as a temporary fence to keep our cows in the meadows.  Instead of going for multiple cuttings of hay, which on our soil and in our climate wouldn't happen most years, after we hayed the field, and the grass got a little regrowth, we'd turn the cows into the meadows. The "electric" part was that the barbed wire was hooked to a jobbie (I forget the precise terminology) which put an intermittent low voltage electric charge on the wire, giving a sufficient shock to any cow to deter them from pushing the fence over.  A problem with the fence was that it could be grounded, if something (weed, brush) laid against the wire while still connected to the ground.  Thus "underground electric fence" seems to be an oxymoron, but I'm sure Dr. Paul has a reasonable explanation.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Gardening Update

Since I've carped at the White House for not being more open about its garden, it's only fair I should open up a bit about our garden:
  • it's in one of Reston's community gardens, all of which are located on top of a set of pipelines which run through the community. The pipeline right of way has to be kept clear of trees and permanent structures so it gets used for the gardens, some soccer fields, and the occasional parking lot. 
  •  the garden is required to be organic, ever since I started back in 1977
  • theoretically we've got a 20'x20' large plot and a quarter plot 10'x10'.  That's on the plat of the overall garden, but actually the 20'x20' is more like 21' x 16'.
  • we grow vegetables (the usual and a couple less common) and flowers (glads, dahlias, and sunflowers)
  • the pipeline had to be repaired 3-4 years ago, which mean a total disruption of our plot, both the raised beds and the soil--we're still recovering.  At least, that's my excuse for our garden not doing as well as others.  
I don't know whether gardeners are usually as competitive as my wife and I; at any rate it's not something one usually sees in the food movement's writings.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Long Tails, Black Swans, and 3-Day Tennis Matches

I've read a fair bit about the subject.  As a fast summary, the bell curve distribution of events is what we think of as "normal".  But in reality some distributions have a very long tail, the graph extends very far to the right.  This is what Mr. Talibi calls a "black swan" event.  And we've just had an instance of it in the 3-day tennis match at Wimbleton.  It's much, much longer than any previous match.  Don't know what the British bookies would have given as odds, before this week, because no one ever considered the possibility of such an event.  Just as no one really considered the possibility of a big eruption from a broken oil well in the Gulf.

Who Says We Can't Reduce the Deficit?

Even the agricultural community is accepting the idea that farm program amounts will be reduced in the next farm bill, according to Farm Policy's summary.  Of course, the food movement side of the industry will be pushing for more.

Further down Keith Collins is worried about trying to replace crop insurance with ACRE. And chairman Peterson is talking about replacing farm programs with crop insurance and ending payment limitations.

"Originalism" and the Israel Court

This Politico story on Kagan and the chief justice of Israel's Supreme Court mentions that Israel doesn't have a (written) constitution.  Nor, for that matter, does Britain.  I wonder how the "originalists" see the role of a judge in such a nation?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Why Farmers Want Farm Programs

Given the structure of markets, prices can vary very widely.  Few other industries see a 50 percent drop in income in 3 years, as did dairy in PA.

Connoisseur of Bureaucracy Must Read

Not side-splitting, but (some) bureaucrats have a sense of humor, as in this Federal Computer Weekly post about how many bureaucrats it takes to change a light bulb?

Slyly Aggressive Cowen

I like Tyler Cowen, but today's post is definitely slyly aggressive.  He begins by saying he's cut back on his reading while in Berlin, then goes on to list 6 heavy books. 

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Sentence of June 23

"You don’t have to tell a bureaucrat twice to withhold information from a rival agency."  From Stewart Baker at Volokh conspiracy

Our Priorities Are Skewed

From the Restonian blog, commenting on the plans for Tysons Corners:

What's pathetic interesting is the new definition of "low-income housing."
The Tysons plan calls for 20 percent of housing to be devoted to those who make $51,350 to $123,240, or 50 to 120 percent of Fairfax's median household income of $102,700. In exchange, developers would be allowed to build 20 percent more units.

Lynne J. Strobel, a land-use lawyer with Walsh Colucci Lubeley Emrich & Walsh representing several Tysons Corner developers, urged supervisors to cut the lowest tier of workforce housing, for those earning 50 to 60 percent of the median household income in Fairfax. That would include annual incomes of $51,350 to $61,620. Starting salaries for teachers and police officers in Fairfax County range from $44,000 to $49,450.
Yeah, who wants those icky teachers or police officers as neighbors? All that chalk dust, handcuffs, etc. We're just happy that people who make the paltry sum of $123,240 are finally being designated as undesirables in need of special accommodations to afford their 800-square-foot "condominium" overlooking a shopping mall, the end.

Don't Like Chickens, Love Their Manure

That was my feeling growing up, at least as far as liking chickens goes.  Turns out one study shows their manure improves cotton yields over chemical fertilizer because it conditions soil.

In their study, Tewolde and colleagues figured the litter's value as a soil conditioner as an extra $17 per ton of litter. They calculated this by balancing the price tag of the nutrients in litter with its resulting higher yields, a reflection of its soil conditioning benefits.
They found that cotton yields peaked 12 percent higher with organic fertilizers, compared to peak yields with synthetic fertilizers. With all benefits factored in, they found that chicken litter has a value of about $78 a ton, compared to $61 a ton when figured by the traditional method.
This isn't organic farming, per se, but it's close.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

HHS--Can They Make Their Deadline?

The dirty secret of government is that many legislated deadlines are not met.  Congress tends usually to ignore implementation once the bill is passed, so agencies really face few repercussions if they fail to meet the date.  This Politico article on HHS suggests the circumstances under which failure may not be an option: you're working on a highly visible,very controversial keystone of the program for a political party.  (If memory serves, Mark McClellan did a good job implementing the addition of Medicare Part D (drug coverage) back in the Bush days.)  We'll see how HHS does this time around.

The Cat Lady's Memoir

No, not Eartha Kitt's, but Laura Bush's "Spoken from the Heart".  Somehow she reminds me of a cat, self-contained, attractive, and mysterious.  As some reviews have suggested, the first part of the book is interesting: her parents and grandparents, her early life in Texas, the car accident, etc. The second part not so much: mostly a recitation of her activities as first lady of Texas and the U.S.  Some things which struck me:
  • the security scares, not only on 9/11 but the recurrent alarms.  I don't mean she was unduly worried, but she does pay attention to threats and scares which I don't remember in other memoirs.  I wonder how the Obamas are handling their scares. It must be draining, even if you know the odds are the scare is a false alarm, adrenaline must be racing.
  • alcohol.  She makes a point of the extensive use of alcohol in the Texas culture, even though Midland was technically dry it was routinely used and abused.  She doesn't say her father was an alcoholic, but in today's more puritanical times he might have qualified, at least as a heavy drinker.
  • friendship. She obviously has a gift for making and maintaining friendships.
  • a couple anecdotes about her in-laws: George H.W. in his bathrobe undoing the plumbing to retrieve the contact she'd lost down the sink (George wasn't much good at mechanical stuff, apparently); Barbara being sharp-tongued with her friends (Laura treats her very gingerly).

Monday, June 21, 2010

Hypocrisy Among the Scholars

From the American Historical Association blog, discussing university pressesr:
Almost all authors want to see their books published in print, but as consumers (both in the libraries and off-site in their research and reading) they are clearly gravitating toward the consumption of electronic publications. So how long can these two patterns coexist?

Technology Marches Onward: Inseminating Queens

No, I'm not talking of the crowned heads of Europe, but of the instrumental insemination of honey bee queens. Artificial insemination of dairy cows was a big advance, but bees?  I'm awestruck.

Humongous Farms?

Marcia Taylor at  DTN has a post on really big (where's Ed Sullivan when you need him) farms:
Giant farming companies--those with 250,000 acre scale and up--may be a new phenomenon to us, but they already are changing the competitiveness of global agriculture. Whether such scale can succeed here is still a big question, but it's becoming the norm in the former Soviet Union, Brazil and Argentina.
The current setup of the farm programs is something of a handicap to such large farms in the US, but as a commenter notes, changing over to crop insurance with no payment limitations would change the parameters. If such farms do come to the U.S., there won't be many towns left west of the Mississippi, at least not farming towns.

On Naming

Hat tip to Tyler Cowen--having tried to deal with a few of the issues with names in my prior live, only to discover after 9/11 my efforts were quite inadequate, I really liked this list of Falsehoods Programmers Believe About Names.

I wonder how long it will be before we all get email addresses at birth?  Of course, the younger generation no longer uses email, just Twitter and Facebook.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

How Bureaucracies Work--The Case of the "Wall"

Stewart Baker at Volokh Conspiracy has a long post, excerpted from his book, describing some of the background of the "wall", the barrier between criminal investigations and intelligence investigations in the late 1990's  up to 9/11.

The right blamed Jamie Gorelick, Reno's deputy AG, but it seems to have been a more bureaucratic story than that.  The wall was installed, but was permeable, because FBI agents shared information even though they had different missions (criminal versus intelligence).  In other words, their bureaucratic loyalties outweighed paper edicts.  But through a sequence of events, Judge Lamberth, Jesse Helms nominee to the appellate court and the head of the FISA court, essentially ended the career of a promising FBI agent who had signed an affidavit, falsely asserting the wall had been observed.  That got the attention of the FBI agents.  And it meant, as Baker tells it, that the last best chance to uncover the 9/11 plot failed because the agents in position of authority feared for their careers more than they feared the consequences of failure.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

NO Pay Database?

That's the word from the Post on a Friday Obama memo:

A memo Obama is set to sign Friday instructs the Treasury Department, Office of Management and Budget and General Services Administration to establish a government-wide database to ensure agencies no longer send government checks to dead people, delinquent or jailed contractors and other debarred or suspended firms, said officials familiar with the memo and not authorized to speak on the record. About 20,000 separate payments totaling $182 million were sent to dead people in the last three years, according to OMB.

If we were implementing this back in FSA in the 1990's (back in the day, my children, back in the day), we'd probably like to submit a file containing a tax id number(s) to someone, who would return a code saying whether the id was eligible for payment, and if not, why not.  That would hide the database and give everyone one interface routine to write to. The timing of the interface is going to be a problem, I'd suspect. FSA is probably one of the few agencies which would have several hundred thousand payments being processed at the same time; that is, unless they bounce payrolls against the database.

Non Organic Means to Organic Ends?

Here's a report from Iowa State on experiments growing corn with perennial ground cover.
After the first two years of the study, researchers have already discovered a system that allows for removal of up to 95 percent of the corn stover, increases the amount of carbon kept in the soil, increases water use efficiency in corn and also maintains corn yield.
Someone familiar with the arguments of organic advocates will see a lot of overlap in the experiment, yet the experimenters are not trying to be "organic" by USDA standards.  It's obvious they're open to chemical treatments and presumably genetically modified organisms so their inputs can differ from organic ones.  But the goal is close to the organic goal, conserving soil, building carbon, etc. 

Seems to me this sort of thing is likely to become more prevalent than strictly organic farming. We'll see.

Friday, June 18, 2010

If Google Says So It Must Be Right

On explaining why they don't recognize feeds in Google Chrome:
"Given that most people are not familiar with and don't consume RSS feeds, we thought that RSS support would be a better fit as an extension, at least to begin with."
I guess it's just another example of how nerds don't talk to humans.  Nerds come up with these great ideas, the usefulness of which is self-evident, at least to the inventor.  They forget someone has to explain to the rest of us the benefits and get us over the learning curve, all of which can be a drag.  I'm saying "us", but at least with regards to RSS feeds, I'm an explainer and an adopter, not an "us".

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Subsidized Agriculture Is Inefficient?

Kevin Drum has a post on healthcare costs and productivity, citing some studies.  As usual, he's good.  But what interested me was a chart comparing the annual increases in productivity for different industries in the  10 years. 1995-2005  There were surprises: I would have thought IT would have been the best. It's good, increasing productivity roughly 6 percent a year, but it's only second to durable goods, which is roughly 7 percent.  That may be one reason for the rust belt--we're just getting more productive.

What was the third ranking industry: agriculture, at a bit over 5 percent increase per year. Presumably a lot of that is attributable to the use of GMO seeds and increased yields.  If I remember correctly, I read a history of US agriculture in the 20th century which cited the argument that government programs essentially provided the capital to invest in improved productivity.  Don't remember if the history confirmed the idea, but it would work in recently--farmers who have to cut corners would choose less expensive seed, those with the cash from subsidy payments could pay the more higher seed bill.

Good Article on the Media

Via Ezra Klein, a good article on the media, which ends thus:

"This is complicated! You’ve got the Church of the Savvy, The Quest for Innocence, the View from Nowhere, Regression to a Phony Mean, He Said, She Said, the Sphere of Deviance. These form the real ideology of our political press. But we have to study them to understand them well."

We Needed a Program for the Topographically Disadvantaged

I just realized my parents were in the category of the topographically disadvantaged--much of our farm was side hill, very steep, too steep to be farmed by horses or tractors, and the soil was too thin to be good pasture.  While justice will come too late for my parents, it surely is not too late to pass some legislation to give equal justice to the topographically disadvantaged as we already have for the geographically disadvantaged.

A New Politically Correct Category?

Looking at USDA regs, I find "geographically disadvantaged farmers" in the title of one regulation.  No doubt something passed by mentally challenged legislators.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Indispensable Bureaucrats

Kenneth Feinberg will run the BP claims account and Michael Bromwich will oversee the reorganized Minerals Management Service.

In the old days we had political elders who'd step in in emergencies.  In Britain they called on the "great and the good".  These days we seem to have experienced bureaucrats who act as troubleshooters. No longer faceless, but known and trusted.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Not Mice, But Bees Are What Elephants Fear

According to this Post article, elephants fear bees.

MIDAS Meeting

 FSA announced a meeting in the Jefferson Auditorium to discuss the MIDAS project:
The meeting is designed to provide an understanding of the MIDAS project goals, strategy and approach to USDA senior level management, agency management, contract partners and FSA employees. The kick-off meeting, which is open to the public on the first day, will be in the Jefferson Auditorium in the USDA South Building, 1400 Independence Ave. SW, starting on June 29 at 8:30 a.m., continuing through July 1.

Some off-the-cuff reactions: 
  • if I were a committed blogger, I'd rouse myself and get my rear down to USDA and try to blog the meeting, at least the first day which is the only one open to the public.  (Why is that, I wonder?  Isn't the public, in the form of farmers the ones who will benefit by this project and in the form of taxpayers the ones who will fund the project?  Are we saying the second and third days will have proprietary secrets?  Does President Obama know his stimulus package is spending $40 million on stuff and his executive branch is closing 2/3 of the meeting? [ed--you've got your tongue in your cheek, right? ]
  • I'm interested there's no mention of sister agencies.  So much for the service center concept, I guess. 
  • Back again to farmers--maybe they have plans to take their plans to the field to get farmer input. 
  • I'm hoping they have an audio feed, at least, because I'm too lazy to attend in person.  And, to be honest, I've made a point of staying away from the South Building since I retired: nothing more strange in my opinion than some old-timer wandering the halls saying "when I was young..."

Most Patronizing Words Today

Ann Althouse, in commenting on an article about college students switching to skilled vocations (plumbing, etc.) asked:
Why not prefer to work primarily with your hands (and your body) and keep your mind free so you can do what you want with it?
My memory of manual labor jibes with several of her commenters--you must use your mind even when doing manual labor. 

Monday, June 14, 2010

Ethical Questions for Farm Programs

A retiring agricultural economist raises some questions (my headings):

Poor Farmers?
In agricultural economics, at Purdue and elsewhere, it seems to me that our central challenge is how to be both mission-driven, responsive to our clientele in agriculture – and also true to our first principles as and as individuals. When the Purdue ag econ department was founded in the 1920s and as the department grew in the 1930s, farmers were much poorer than the average American. relative poverty persisted through the 1950s and 1960s, and at that time there was the added of huge disruptions due to rapid outflow of labor and consolidation of farmland. But for a of reasons, since the 1990s American farmers have been much richer than the average American, and there has been no further net outflow of labor or consolidation of farmland in America as a whole. So, from its hardscrabble roots, the agricultural economics discipline now finds itself serving a relativelywealthy and stable sector. Agriculture is a high-risk enterprise, but it’s not going away or even shrinking. This puts our discipline in an enviable if sometimes awkward position....
Nature of Farm Programs?
Now after decades of study, it turns out that government interventions such as crop
insurance, renewable fuel mandates, the conservation reserve program, land conversion restrictions and many others are not necessarily what they seem. Modern economics can explain them pretty well, but only as rent-seeking devices. These interventions are ways for farmers and landowners to obtain income transfers from the public in a way that is obscured from public view, hidden partly by their sheer complexity and partly by the claim that they exist to solve market failures such as credit constraints or environmental problems.
Organic Farming
People say they want to organic methods and traditional genetics to avoid health risks and environmental threats posed by industrial agriculture. People say they want to buy local and artisanal food so as to promote the local economy, or to avoid environmental damage from long-distance transport. But when scholars investigate these claims, they may turn out to be very fragile. What if organic, local, traditional and artisanal products don’t actually deliver a healthier, more secure and sustainable food system? This is not a hypothetical question. Right now, the preponderance of evidence is pointing in that direction.

Why the Increase in Number of Administrators

That's a question answered in passing here:
Why are a larger and larger fraction of university staff full-time administrators? My
favorite theory is a ratchet model, which is a kind of evolution in which new administrative positions
arise to solve problems, but then the position remains even after the problem is resolved. In that view,
the answer to why we have so many administrators is that they solve problems we used to have.
 I think that works for me.  In my time at USDA I saw a fair number of activities and posts which didn't make much sense, except when you knew the history of them.  (i.e., if the deputy administrator is a politico and an idiot, give him an assistant to cover for him).   A similar logic was at work for rules/regulations: if an issue is raised for which the rulebook provides no answer, we don't feel comfortable considering the problem solved until we amend the rulebook to include our answer.  (Witness the oil blowout in the Gulf--we'll modify the rulebook to provide that drillers must have "top caps" on hand, plus other measures.  That's fine, but there's nothing in place to turn off the ratchet.)

"Data Cubes" and FSA Employees

Turns out by working through I got to the "data cube" showing federal employment (at OPM)--Iowa has 158 Federal employees out of roughly 5000 FSA federal employees.  Don't know how many county employees FSA has. A search of FSA notices doesn't produce the answer nor does a Google search. So I stooped to Ask FSA.

Now if only had the payments by state I might be able to compare the productivity of "private" crop insurance and the "Federal" government.  Dream on, I guess.

BTW, I think "data cubes" is a poor term to inflict on the public--it may be good for data warehousing or data mining, but it doesn't mean much to the layperson.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Matt Delivers Truth

"And yet when you go to the hospital, you don’t want to become a character in an interesting drama[like House], you want to be a character in a boring story about people not screwing anything up and you going home safe. You need a lot of nurses to make that work."

Saturday, June 12, 2010

From Farm Policy in the context of reporting on proposals to cut the subsidy for administrative expenses for crop insurance:

Philip Brasher reported yesterday at the Green Fields Blog (Des Moines Register) that, “Although crop insurance companies and agents have strongly criticized some of the proposals, USDA officials said they expect to make only small changes to the plan being submitted to the companies Thursday. Industry officials and congressional staffs were getting their first look at the plan this afternoon. Key farm-state lawmakers, including Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Ia., have expressed opposition to earlier drafts, citing its impact on agents and impact on spending levels for the next farm bill.”
Mr. Brasher explained that, “Iowa has more at stake than any other state. Iowa farmers took out nearly 159,000 policies in 2009 worth $9.2 billion in total liabilities, the most of any state. There are more than 7,000 agents in the state licensed to sell the policies, and another 700 people are employed by the companies in underwriting, billing and other jobs. Four of the 16 companies that handle the insurance nationwide are based in Iowa: John Deere Risk Protection Inc. and Rain and Hail LLC in Johnston, Farmers Mutual Hail Insurance Co. in West Des Moines, and Agro National LLC of Council Bluffs.”
This means the average liability per policy is $58000 and the average agent has 22 policies.  When I first saw those figures, I said to myself I'd find out the relevant stats for Iowa for the FSA side and compare the two operations.  Turns out federal employment numbers are hard to find, very hard to find.  So I'll merely suggest it would be good for concerned politicians and/or interest groups to request either CRS and/or GAO to look at such a comparison.  I vaguely remember back in 1996 someone, maybe GAO, looked at the costs for administering the CAT policies between FSA and the private companies.  Seems to me FSA came out okay, particularly as we were still in the learning curve.  Didn't make any difference though; the powers that be still decided to sell all CAT through the agents.

White House Garden and Rhubarb

Here's a short post from Obamafoodorama on rhubarb at the White House.  They used their rhubarb for rhubarb-strawberry crisp, which is okay, but I'd prefer a pie.  Being a contrarian, I'd also note the amount of sugar and butter used in the light of the chef's comments on healthy desserts. (Of course, a rhubarb pie should only be served to someone who's spent the day in the fields, or at least a couple hours weeding the garden.)

GWB and the Environment

Treehugger has a post on our greenest President, GWBush. (Greenest at least in private life and in Texas.)

Friday, June 11, 2010


Only old-time bureaucrats will get a kick out of this: Zero-Based-Budgeting is back.  Back at least in the news on Kevin Drum's blog, if not back in actuality.

ZBB was Jimmy Carter's entry in a long line of efficiency nostrums for government operation.  The idea was to force the bureaucrats to rejustify the program each year.

The Truth From an Old Guy

No, not me, but I guess Ta-Nahesi Coates qualifies as an old guy to his son, and perhaps some other people.

 From a post on a supposed epidemic of "hooking up":
"There was plenty of uncommitted sex when I was college.Uncommitted sex was one of the reasons many of us went to college. "

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Improving School Lunches

I've been a bit skeptical of efforts by the food movement to reform school lunches.  However, the sort of incremental improvements and changes in the food and the presentation described in this Post article make sense. Remembering the past I suspect school lunch programs never got much respect, so getting smart people involved can only improve things, even if it doesn't make major changes in our obesity problem. I have to admit I'm skeptical of how long chefs will remain involved, but I'd hope people will learn.

I wonder what are school lunches like in other countries?  I typed that, then said to myself I should do something to satisfy my curiosity.  This BBC piece from 2005 has interesting data, but what's even more interesting is the range of comments from viewers all over, not all over the UK, all over the world.  It's an incidental reminder of the scope of the British Empire and the legacy it left behind.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

The Field Versus the National Appeals Division

GAO released a report on FSA's 2001-8 disaster programs, page 20. This paragraph seems to say the FSA field offices don't respect the NAD, perhaps unjustifiably, given the statistics.  This sort of culture gap isn't unexpected in an organization like FSA.
In commenting on crop disaster payments that they believed were based on suspicious crop insurance claims payments, some FSA county officials stated that they did not challenge or deny the applications for these crop disaster payments because they expected the applicants would appeal any challenge to USDA’s National Appeals Division.16 These officials added that in their past experience with appeals, USDA rarely upheld FSA couoffice decisions to deny payments. One official said that USDA generally approved appeals related to crop disaster applications unless the FSA county office produced evidence that the payment applicant did not meet program eligibility requirements. The official added that he did not collect such evidence because, at the time of the crop loss, he did not anticipate that a disaster program would provide assistance for those crop losses. However, according to our analysis of data from USDA’s National Appeals Division, FSA was more likely to be favored in an appeal related to the 2001 through 2007 crop disaster programs than were the farmers. We found the National Appeals Division upheld FSA’s denial of crop disaster payment applications for about 72 percent of the appeals, and the division overturned FSA’s denial, deciding that the farmer should have received a crop disaster payment, for the remaining 28 percent.
This also sounds like the gripes you hear from police (as relayed by conservative media and/or TV shows--I don't have any aquaintances in the police) about the lenient courts which let criminals go free.  But I wonder if FSA will respond to the audit by publicizing such statistics.


Are they going Republican?

The Problem of Definition: Agency

The question is: what is an "agency"?  To OMB, when they say "agencies" or to GAO, I think it mostly means cabinet-level departments and the individual agencies (SSA, FTC, etc.).  To someone who worked in USDA, it means FSA, NRCS, FSIS, FNS, etc.  Although there's been a long push to build up department level resources and oversight, it's still true, I think, that the individual agencies within USDA are where the rubber meets the road. 

This was triggered by GAO's suggestions for OMB oversight of agencies, as outlined in this Federal Computer Weekly article.

The Amish Have Pollution Problems?

I'm stunned by this NY Times article:  it seems EPA is trying to work with Amish dairy farmers in Lancaster County, PA, to alleviate problems from pollution of the Susquehanna River/Chesapeake Bay watershed by manure running into streams.

Why am I stunned?  Because I grew up on a dairy/poultry farm in the Susquehanna.  Our farming was close to Amish in methods (horses until the early 50's, then a small John Deere tractor).  From reading Prof. Kraybill on the Amish, it seems they limit their equipment to horse-drawn stuff, going just so far as to have hay balers powered by a gasoline engine on the baler.  Those limitations keep the farm size down to family size--maybe 60-70 milkers.  That was a big farm when I was growing up, but they handled manure as we did.

First, during the growing season (early May to maybe October) the cows would be on pasture 20 out of 24 hours, so little manure accumulated in the barn.  During the months they were being fed hay in the barn, maybe 22 out of 24 hours, the manure accumulated in the barn gutters, so cleaning them was a daily chore.  But the manure went into a manure spreader, which we used to spread the manure on the fields.  If the snow got too bad, we'd pile manure and have to spread it in the spring.    In all of this, I wasn't conscious of any manure getting into the Page Brook (which ran into the Chenango, which ran into the Susquehanna).  So we weren't aware of being polluters; our hearts were pure, at least in that regard.

So how are the Amish screwing up?  My guess is three-fold:  (1) we weren't aware of the possibility of manure being washed away when rain fell on frozen ground; (2) we weren't aware of the urine seeping into the water table and then into the brook (we were aware Mom's organic garden profited by being down slope from the spreader); (3) we weren't aware of  rain washing the pile manure.  In our case, the pollution was probably minimal.  But with the Amish having bigger operations, each cause could be significant.  That's why apparently EPA is pushing manure lagoons and pits.  But my impression is that the farmer empties a lagoon into a big tank spreader, too big to be pulled by horses.  Unfortunately the article doesn't describe the emptying, just the building.

Also of some interest is the fact that the article mentions, in addition to EPA, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the NRCS (at least the Lancaster County Conservation District), and a consulting outfit.  That's lots of bureaucracy for the Amish to negotiate.

Finally, from the LCCD:
"Under Act 38, Concentrated Animal Operations (CAOs) are required to develop and implement a Nutrient Management Plan. CAOs are defined as agricultural operations where the animal density exceeds 2 animal equivalent units (AEUs) per acre of land suitable for manure application on an annualized basis." 
Seems to me that must indicate the Amish are importing feed, but maybe not.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

I'm Shocked, Shocked

To find cynicism in a blog.  Matt Yglesias on Sen. Bayh's next job.

Historical Ironies--Wallace and King Corn

Tom Philpott has a post at Grist on "King Corn" stating the food movement's usual case against " the companies that dominate the global agrichemical, seed, and grain trades: Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, Monsanto, Syngenta, BASF, Dow AgroSciences, Bayer CropSciences, and Dupont’s Pioneer agrichemical/seed business."

The food movement is generally seen as a movement on the left. But ironically, the Pioneer seed business started with the Wallaces of Iowa, notably Henry Wallace, the Secretary of Ag and later Vice President for FDR and the Progressive Party's candidate for President in 1948.  He was a good progressive, meaning he had faith in the ability of human reason to transform the world, just as his hybrid seed corn

Nostalgia for the Good Old Days of Early PC's

Via the American Historical Association blog, here's a link to James Fallows in the Atlantic in 1982.He describes his experiences with a $4,000 PC: 48K RAM, 2 tape drives, Selectric printer, etc.  But there's a sentence there which foreshadows the future, as described in today's NYTimes, in an article on a family that's consumed by its devices, and always on line:

Fallows writes:
"CAN HARDLY BRING myself to mention the true disadvantage of computers, which is that I have become hopelessly addicted to them. To the outside world, I present myself as a man with a business need for a word-processing machine. Sure, I have a computer: I'd have a drill press if I were in the machine-tool business. This is the argument I make frequently to my wife. The truth, which she has no doubt guessed, is that I love to see them work [sic: "love to make them work" would be more accurate.].
The Campbells in the Times article love to be online, checking their email, playing games, etc.  The $4000 PC has transformed in a bunch of network devices, laptops, IPads, Iphones, etc., linked to communications networks, but the addiction continues. And they are really really addicted.

Maybe that's one definition of human progress: we keep creating new ways to become addicted.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Obama as Executive

Richard Neustadt's book on Presidential power quoted Harry Truman on the futility of ordering things done: Presidents may order, but agencies don't necessarily jump to and ask how high.  That truth is demonstrated once again with Obama--from the Federal Eye
A March report by the National Security Archive found that less than a third of the 90 federal agencies that process requests have significantly changed their FOIA practices since President Obama ordered them to "adopt a presumption in favor"

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Obama Learns Bureaucrats Matter

That's the thesis of this politico article:

The Gulf crisis has shed light on the strengths and weaknesses of Obama’s unique management style, which relies on a combination of his own intellect, a small circle of trusted advisers and a larger group of outside experts. But it’s also driven home a more generic lesson all presidents learn sooner or later: Administrations are defined, fairly or not, by their capacity to control stagnant backwater agencies, in Obama’s case the Minerals Management Service, which failed to detect problems with the Deepwater Horizon well.
“This is a centralized government power guy from the word go, and this may be the best education Obama may get on the ineffectiveness of government and just how hard it is to get the bureaucracy to solve problems,” said John Sununu, the former New Hampshire governor who was an iron-fisted, chief of staff to President George H. W. Bush.

Read more:

White House Garden Progress

Don't see an update on the White House garden on the website, but Obamafoodorama has a couple posts showing people in it harvesting. Looks as if it's doing well; the greens are in good shape.  However, by now their peas are probably finished and some of the lettuce has bolted (judging by our garden in Reston).  And I wonder how they harvest: do they get a bit each day to feed the First Family or do they wait and harvest lots to serve at dinners?  At least on this the Obama administration isn't very transparent; fellow gardeners want to know these things.

The Fat Chinese and Not a Corn Subsidy in Sight

Prof. Pollan blames federal farm program subsidies of corn and soybeans for our obesity, at least in part.

The Newshour had a piece last week on the growing obesity problem in China, which doesn't have the same sort of subsidies.  The reasons include the one-child policy (lots of adults to spoil the kids), lots of cars and less exercise, urbanization, fast food.  To the best of my knowledge the Chinese don't subsidize corn production.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Government and Wikipedia (Warning: Off-Color Word)

This New York Times article describes a deal between the British Museum  and Wikipedia.  It seems the Museum has realized that people go to Wikipedia to look up information on the Museum, much more than they go to the museum's web site.  So the museum decided: if you can't fight them, join them (or something like that). By cooperating with Wikipedia, they can get more info and more accurate info into the browsers of the users, which presumably in the long run benefits the museum.

The lead guy says: "“Ten years ago we were equal, and we were all fighting for position,” Mr. Cock said. Now, he added, “people are gravitating to fewer and fewer sites. We have to shift with how we deal with the Web.”

I don't know why the same logic doesn't work for all official sites which try to push information--put a good deal of effort into upgrading the Wikipedia pages and, in a pet peeve of mine, making your pages accessible to Google.  Of course, Wikipedia is skeptical of having bureaucrats updating pages on their own bureaucracy, but this is, I think, the wave of the future.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Column on Pigford Claims

Interesting column in the High Plains Journal, with which I agree:

If the Ag Census data is correct, it still seems difficult to understand how the number of people filing Pigford claims could be more than double the number of black farmers in the U.S. Unfortunately, few people at USDA are willing to even discuss this topic for fear of appearing racist.
In the interest of transparency, it would seem helpful to have USDA provide the names and more information about who has or will be receiving payments under the Pigford cases. Adding more "sunlight" to this issue might help close another heart-wrenching chapter in farm loan history.
Unfortunately the "table" of payment data she refers to does not appear.

USDA Rulemaking

From Chris Clayton:
One thing I asked Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack about at the Rural Summit was the complexity of rules, and delay getting rules out. He responded there were a lot of rules that certainly have been issued from the 2008 farm bill and that the department had more than 600 such rules to issue from the bill.
That sounds high to me, but what do I know.  I hope that's 600 in all stages of completion, and that most have notices of proposed rulemaking.  I'd hope the new Administrative Conference would work on helping to streamline the process, but I doubt it.  Most Congress people are happy to pass stuff they can point to with pride, and are much less concerned about actual implementation.

The Power of the Food Movement?

According to this article (HT Farmpolicy), consumption of high fructose corn syrup is down by 11 percent from 2003 to 2008.  The only thing in the article to explain the drop is consumer, and hence processor, resistance.  I know corn prices jumped over the same period, so it might be that "pure sugar", nature's food, processed from sugar cane or sugar beets, became a better buy over the time period.  But regardless of the explanation, the food movement will take credit and thus become more powerful in the eyes of other players in the food arena.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Just Another Washington Bureaucrat, Lenny Skutnik

Lenny just retired from the Congressional Budget Office, as noted on the Director's Blog. He didn't jump in the freezing icy Potomac for some "polar bear" stunt, but to save people from the Air Florida crash.

Optics of Cotton and Chickens

Two items froms Farm Policy: (Drafted this a while back, just finished it today.)

“To wit: our crusading president is going to send $150 million of your tax dollars to subsidize the Brazilian cotton industry. Why? so that he can continue to spend several billion more of your tax dollars subsidizing U.S. cotton farmers.
Reps. Jeff Flake,R-Az., Ron Kind, D-Wisc., Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., and Barney Frank, D-Mass. (find the last time Barney Frank and Paul Ryan agreed on anything) have penned a note to the prez suggesting that perhaps the way to fix the problem is to end the U.S. cotton subsidies.”

Chickens are not nice people.
Scientists and egg producers warn that deadly skirmishes that start with feather-plucking and turn into bloody frenzies when a bird’s pecking breaks a flockmate’s skin will increase if those same aggressive hens are moved from small cages with five to 10 birds to open pens that can hold dozens.”

Who Do You Have to Outrun When You're a Cotton Farmer?

The Post gets around to writing an editorial on the compensation the US government is giving Brazil for violating WTO rules on cotton subsidies. As you might expect, they condemn it. 

For some reason this sentence hit me: . "Thanks partly to the subsidies, U.S. producers can outcompete lower-cost producers on the world market; American farms account for about 40 percent of global exports."  Now it's the way we usually talk about international competition.  While it's accurate enough for casual talk, when you think about it, and when you remember the joke about the bear in the woods, it needs refinement.

The joke about the bear?  Two campers were in the woods in their tent, just waking up from sleep. All of a sudden across the clearing a bear appeared, obviously feeling as mean and unhappy as Mitch McConnell after the Kentucky primary. The bear starts towards the tent.  One camper opens the tent flap on the opposite side, the other starts putting on his shoes. The first camper says: "Run, we've got to outrun the bear to our car."  The second camper says: "No, I've only got to outrun you."  [Bad joke, I know.]

What's my point? The US has some efficient cotton producers and some not so efficient.  Other countries, like Burkina Faso, or Brazil, have some efficient producers and some not so efficient.  The subsidies we give to our cotton producers help the less efficient (usually the smaller and older ones) stay in business longer.  They also tend to keep people in cotton, rather than switching to other crops, like soybeans, though that effect is much less true that it used to be, say in the 1960's.  To the extent that the subsidies keep our production up, it means the less efficient producers in other nations are under more pressure, either to switch crops or to give up and let more efficient producers in their nation take over the land.

Given these interacting relationships it's difficult to say how badly the subsidies may hurt producers in other countries. So my refrain: "it's more complicated than you think."

Tit for Tat: 110 Murders in DC

Buried in this interesting article, one of a series on a sequence of murders/assaults in DC, is this statistic: about 110 of the 143 murders in DC last year were part of sequence of tit for tat retributions.  Scientists have gamed the right strategy for evolving cooperation, which turns out to be tit for tat with random acts of kindness.  Apparently in DC that strategy is alive and well, except for the random acts.

What struck me though was the idea 80 percent of all DC murders involve these relationships, which doesn't leave many for killings within the family or random acts. 

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Peterson and USDA Organization

Sometime in the past the chair of House Ag, Rep. Peterson, was planning on working on a reorganization of USDA, specifically the county service end.  I'm operating on memory here, but I think that's right. 

But recently I've only heard about his hearings on what should be in the 2012 farm bill.  I don't know what that means--whether he's given up on the idea, whether he's planning on doing it next year, or whether he's waiting to see if he can kill the direct payment programs and replace them with crop insurance, which would probably impact the organization. 

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Brooks Is Wrong

David Brooks today in the Times has a column on the American public's ambivalence--we don't want the government involved in lots of stuff but when there's a crisis, like the Deep Horizon blowout, we want the President to be front and center.

Here's the sentence I disagree with: "At some point somebody’s going to have to reach a national consensus on the role of government." And closing with"
"We should be able to build from cases like this one and establish a set of concrete understandings about what government should and shouldn’t do. We should be able to have a grounded conversation based on principles 95 percent of Americans support. Yet that isn’t happening. So the period of stagnations begins."
My bottom line is it's an intellectual's fantasy.  We never, in all of American history, have had such a consensus by 95 percent of the American people.  What we've had in the past, and will have in the future, is a tug of war among our various principles and viewpoints, with the balance sometimes one way and sometimes another.  It would be too easy to say we never go all to one side.  We actually do: we decided over time that slavery was wrong, that hierarchical customs were wrong, that segregation was mostly wrong, etc.  But on the role of government we've gone back and forth.  And thus it will be in days ahead.