Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Dan Zak on the Gentrifying District.

Dan Zak covers 24 hours in the life of a restaurant in Northeast.  His good article is focused on the new diner there, owned by an analyst for the Justice Department.  There's a nice bit about a family in town for the Beck rally, who stop there for a meal and about whom the owner worries (and tracks back to their rental to be sure they're safe).

On a somewhat related note, Matt Yglesias has a post on gentrification and why it's disruptive.

Meanwhile, in Lake Woebegone

From NYTimes article on Dr. Redelmeier: 
"“Every driver on average thinks he’s in the wrong lane,” Dr. Redelmeier said. “You think more cars are passing you when you’re actually passing them just as quickly. Still, you make a lane change where the benefits are illusory and not real.” Meanwhile, changing lanes increases the chances of collision about threefold."

Funniest Paragraph in August

Petula Dvorak notes that Glenn Beck's rally was white, Al Sharpton's black and asks:
What's that all about? It's not because folks only go to the Mall if the speaker looks like them. If that were the case, Lady Gaga would draw zero humans.

Monday, August 30, 2010

New Deal Ag Programs Didn't Come From Nowhere

FRom the News from 1930 blog (Wall Street Journal stories of August 29, 1931):
Farm Board has received "somewhere between 500 and 1,000" proposals for solution of the cotton problem in response to its plan to plow under every third row of cotton; "the Board has indicated that after it digests the various plans it may evolve and make public some other proposal."

America and Land Ownership

Ezra Klein comments on land ownership, the hook being a Forbes piece saying promoting home ownership is un-American.  I agree with him and Wilkinson: the colonies were founded by the landless, who saw in America the opportunity to own land.  And see Matt Yglesias.

Remembrance of Times Past: the Laundry Box

 Kids are going off to college, as many of us once did.  Kids will have dirty clothes, as we did.  How do clothes get washed? 

The answer to that simple question was, for many people in the late 1940's and 1950's, the laundry box. It was an ingenious way to extend the domestic slavery of women, forcing them to do their kids' laundry even after they'd shipped them off to school.  The kids would package their dirty clothes in an aluminum box and ship it by parcel post to the mother; the mother would wash and iron the clothes, put them in the box and ship it back to college. 

I reached college just at the time when the new dorm had coin-operated washers and driers, so the first small step to liberation of mothers occurred around 1958 or so.

I suspect the laundry box was a reflection of the post-war boom in college attendance.  Before the war people who attended college probably had enough money to engage laundresses around the college.  After the war, it was cheaper to ship laundry back and forth.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Vertical Farming Recap

In Treehugger here.

The SF-1099 Flap

The Post runs an article on the SF-1099 requirement, something John Phipps blogged about some months ago.

Here's the description:
The provision, which takes effect next year, will require businesses to file 1099 tax forms reporting any purchases they make of goods or services above $600 from any individual or business, including corporations. Currently, businesses only need to file 1099s when they buy services - and only when the vendor is an unincorporated person or business.
There are currently proposals to drop or modify the provision.

I'm sure I don't understand.  If I'm a business, I've a check book and a credit card.  And I have accounting software (Quicken or whatever).  So I know to whom I make payments and for how much, don't I? And I could run a yearly report showing payments by payee, couldn't I? And to make a payment in Quicken I need the payee's name and address.  So as far as I can see the only thing I'm missing is the payee's social security number or tax ID number.  Getting that, I admit, would be a pain. 

So based on my lack of understanding, what would make sense is:
  1. allow a small business to certify they do not use any accounting software and waive the requirement
  2. businesses which use accounting software would have to submit a yearly report of payments along with their tax return
  3. tell IRS they have to, when developing software to audit such reports, include a module to try to match the incoming name and address to their master file of tax ID's and SSN's.  
  4. give IRS the right to go to developers of accounting software and pay them to tweak their software if necessary to meet the requirement, assuming my ignorance hides some other complication. (I don't really like this idea; it would set a precedent, but if you're going to lose billions in taxes over ten years, spending a few millions is cost-effective.

Love of God and Country Reign at Beck Rally

The title should be in quotes, because that's the title MSNBC is using this morning for its coverage.

Without delving into detail, how can anyone quarrel with: a massive (300,000+) rally full of praise for God, country, MLKing, very little politics, a beautiful day, recognition for do-gooders?

I can't, except to say I find it a bit soft and mushy, like an overcooked eggplant.  But that's a personal taste.

Broder's column today recalled the anxiety with which white America, particularly white liberals, awaited the 1963 March ("will it be good for Negroes"?).  I think the hopeful aspect of yesterday's event is this: 47 years since much of America thought of the civil rights movement as leftist agitators, causing trouble, moving too fast, 30 or so years since people like John McCain and Ronald Reagan opposed an MLK holiday, a leader on the right is striving mightily to wrap himself in King's aura.  (It's a point also made in a Post column today.)

To this failed historian, it seems just another step in the process of redefining historical reality, winnowing out unpleasant facts and creating weapons to use in the future, but it's also this process which ultimately creates a shared historical mythology most Americans can be moved by.  (And those words are soft and mushy too.)

Saturday, August 28, 2010

An Oxymoron?

"John Sides finds better educated Republicans grew most in believing Obama is a Muslim;"

From a Pollster summary 

I call it an oxymoron, and I call it *(##.

How Soon We Forget--"King's March on Washington"

Read the papers this morning and was struck by a phrase, I think in the Post, but I suspect it could be found in many places" "Martin Luther King's March on Washington".

Not many living are old enough to realize how wrong that is.  It wasn't his March, it was a group effort, initiated by A. Philip Randolph, the union leader, organized by Bayard Rustin, and sponsored by several civil rights organizations, led by the NAACP (which had been for 50 years the foremost organization).  And it was a "March for Jobs and Freedom".

Mr. Beck's rally today, and his appropriation of King's name, is just one more small building stone in raising MLK to preeminence, and casting people like Randolph, Rustin, and many others into obscurity, remembered only by serious historians and those geezers old enough to remember their complex reaction to the march.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Makes Everybody Play Better

That used to be the highest praise you could give a ballplayer.  Not any more.  Not since a study showed that Jose Canseco was the player in the 1980's and 90's who made his teammates better. Drugs.

Data Modeling

One of the things I learned to do while working at USDA was data modeling: specifically to figure out how different data items should relate.  In the old old days of 80-character punch cards, we knew each farmer/producer had a social security number, a name, and an address, with the latter fields restricted in length.  By the 1990's we knew a customer could have multiple ID numbers at different times and multiple addresses. 

Today I had my nose rubbed in the fact private corporations still have difficulty with data modeling.  Because there some security breach somewhere in their system, my credit card issuer sent replacement cards, with new numbers.  So I faced the problem of going through all the people with whom I do business online and updating my credit card number. So I had to go through 20 or so accounts, trying to change my credit card number.

Some companies, like Amazon, set up an account which can contain one or more credit cards.  Their modeling allows you to go in, delete the old card and add the new card.  I suspect this makes it easier for them to maintain their historical data.  Others allow you to change the card number,which works fine for the user, maybe not so much for data integrity.

The most aggravating companies are those, such as magazine publishers and my alma mater, which tie the credit card data to the end of the transaction for renewing a subscription.  Presumably they programmed a quick and dirty way: when you login to renew the subscription, the old record is copied to the new record and displayed.  What that means is I can't update the number today.  When it comes time to renew I'll either have to remember to change it then (not likely, not at my age) or rely on the company's validation process for credit card numbers.

Vilsack Blows My Mind?

The Post carried an email, supposedly from Secretary Vilsack to all employees in USDA, discussing the Sherrod episode.

What stuns me is the idea that Vilsack is able to email all employees in USDA, at least directly.  I personally doubt the IT folks have gotten that far.  It's also amazing that, while he suggests that employees read the blog post he wrote, he apparently doesn't provide the link or the URL.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

How to Curb Surpluses: Declare Marital Law

News from 1930 has its RSS feed back.  One of the big problems of the depression, perhaps its definition, was there was more production than demand.  Innovative states came up with a solution to the surplus of oil, which hopefully OPEC won't emulate. From August 19,(the item leads with concerns about the high cost of medical care):

Crude oil production has been reduced about 1M barrels/day thanks to martial law-enforced shutdowns in Oklahoma and East Texas; refiners in those two regions face oil shortage. Violaters in East Texas ordered jailed until martial law is lifted; no evidence of resistance reported. Texas Gov. Sterling says intends to maintain martial law at least 30 days. East Texas proclamation of martial law and complete oil well shutdown was much more drastic than the expected action of cutting production to the allowed quota there (270,000 barrels/day). Gasoline in the Oklahoma wholesale market is up 1 1/4 cents to 5 cents/gallon in the week ending Aug. 17, but at least two major crude oil buyers feel the situation is still too unstable to raise buying prices. E. Reeser, Amer. Petroleum Inst. pres., praises Texas Gov. Sterling's "courageous action ... in placing East Texas oil field under martial law"; scores of congratulatory telegrams received from oil operators across the country.

The Truthers, via Stanley Fish

David Brooks just lectured us about the beam and the mote (my words, or rather the old Bible's, not his). In his Tuesday column he sounds a good Calvinist note, urging examination of our own intellectual faults. Somewhat in that spirit, here's a report by Stanley Fish on the "truthers", the left wingnuts who believe Bush knew about 9/11 before hand and the towers didn't fall due to fire. My point is I recognize that people on the left often fall for the same sort of myths as those on the right, and even people in the center fall for myths.

But, not to be too virtuous, here's a haphazardly chosen poll, which seems to show the Reps are justly slightly crazier than the Dems.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

FSIS Is Slow To Move to Web 2.0

Here's their post of their updated small slaughter facility and small cattle farm maps. As best I can tell:

  • there's no way to contact the writer of the post 
  • there's no way to comment on the content of the post
  • FSIS has not considered the idea of at least cloning the map to Google Maps and then allowing the public to update the map and comment on the facilities.
In sum, FSIS is still in the old: Washington collects and publishes the data, which is a top down paradigm better suited to the last century than this.  But at least they're changing, if slowly.

Blame It on the Hog Farmers

I was Googling to see if Sec. 32 had been amended recently and came across this 1999 Congressional Research Service report.  In that year the hog farmers got $145 million through a directive in a supplemental appropriation, perhaps being one of the early precedents for the proposed Lincoln/Emanuel disaster program this year.

The Post had an editorial today dissing the whole proposal.

Note: I still don't understand Sec. 32's relationship to the appropriation process so my prior comments may be wrong.

Customers and Clients

Long piece in the Post today tracing the evolution of the Mineral Management Service's relationship with industry. There's a brief mention of "customers" and "clients" and the Clinton/Gore reengineering of government, which pushed that perspective and partnering with "stakeholders".  That whole ethos doesn't look quite so good today.

It appears to me the problem for MMS (and the SEC, etc.) is one of expertise: the industry has the expertise, so how do you establish an independence that can challenge bad practices? 

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Virtues of Slowness

A quote from Interfluidity on a meeting with Treasury and bloggers (via Marginal Revolution):
The conversation next turned to housing and HAMP. On HAMP, officials were surprisingly candid. The program has gotten a lot of bad press in terms of its Kafka-esque qualification process and its limited success in generating mortgage modifications under which families become able and willing to pay their debt. Officials pointed out that what may have been an agonizing process for individuals was a useful palliative for the system as a whole. Even if most HAMP applicants ultimately default, the program prevented an outbreak of foreclosures exactly when the system could have handled it least. There were murmurs among the bloggers of “extend and pretend”, but I don’t think that’s quite right. This was extend-and-don’t-even-bother-to-pretend. The program was successful in the sense that it kept the patient alive until it had begun to heal. And the patient of this metaphor was not a struggling homeowner, but the financial system, a.k.a. the banks. Policymakers openly judged HAMP to be a qualified success because it helped banks muddle through what might have been a fatal shock. I believe these policymakers conflate, in full sincerity, incumbent financial institutions with “the system”, “the economy”, and “ordinary Americans”. Treasury officials are not cruel people. I’m sure they would have preferred if the program had worked out better for homeowners as well. But they have larger concerns, and from their perspective, HAMP has helped to address those.
Sometimes the best thing is to kick the problem down the road, or to slow the inevitable.  In a way that's been the hidden purpose of farm programs from the beginning, not to preserve the small farmer, but to slow the inevitable decline in numbers and to cushion the adverse impact on rural areas.

Military Bands and the Persistence of Institutions

Walter Pincus has a story in the Post today exploring the number of military bands.  The hook is a statement there are more people in military bands than in the Foreign Service, which seems to be true.  It's also true a member of a military band may get paid more than an entry level Foreign Service officer.  (The Foreign Service used to have the reputation of being the toughest government career to get into.)  I wonder whether the Reps who have been pushing the idea government workers are overpaid would agree that band members are probably overpaid.  After all, how many paid bands exist in the private sector?

I think military bands evolved from the ancient need to coordinate actions of many men on the battlefield.  Before electronics, the methods used were couriers/staff officers/runners (Hitler was a runner), flags and ensigns, and music.  The trumpet called "charge" and "retreat"; the drummer kept the rhythm for the marchers. I'd love a book on how the colonial drum and fife corps evolved into the modern military band of today.

Fighting the Last War

That's what bureaucracies do, whether it's the Army or the Coast Guard and Interior.  There's a good interview with Adm. Thad Allen at Government Executive, which explains the Gulf spew.  Part of the explanation: the system was dominated by the lessons of the Exxon Valdez spill.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Mitch Daniels Takes a Hit?

Mitch Daniels, former OMB head and now governor of Indiana, has been talked of as a possible Presidential candidate (appealing to the good and small government types).  Here's a post describing how government reform really works, even in his Indiana:
I spent two years working for such a dedicated team within Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels’ Office of Management and Budget. The group, “Government Efficiency and Financial Planning,” was originally tasked with conducting a “long-overdue inventory of the state’s operations.” We produced two reports with hundreds of recommendations for making state government more “efficient” and “effective.”
The governor never directed his “lieutenants to execute” very many – if any – of the recommendations. In fact, the lieutenants were so worried about the potential political fallout from the issue of the second report that it was intentionally released when nobody was looking. They needn’t have worried because those interests who might have had cause for concern already saw that the first report was basically inconsequential.
Eggers and O’Leary continue:
There is likely to be some internal friction between the cost reduction team and the various department leaders. That is by design. The cost reduction team is supposed to be disruptive.
GEFP was somewhat disruptive, but not very effective. The governor’s lieutenants typically either sided with the department leaders or did little to support GEFP. The reason was simple. The perceived political costs of GEFP’s efforts usually exceeded the perceived political benefits. Department heads, on the other hand, can create favorable (and unfavorable headlines) and thus possess greater pull.
Given this is a Cato blog, it's not surprising the writer is disappointed. Change is hard, particularly when it's piece by piece ("hundreds of recommendations").  It's like reforming the tax system piece by piece.  Bill Bradley and Dan Rostenkowski proved it could be done, but only as a grand bargain.

Always Nice to be Right

As I guessed in a previous post (and see  this), Sen. Lincoln and the Administration are looking at Section 32 funds for her special disaster program.  She provided this list  of past uses of the authority from Farm Policy.

I'm surprised by the number listed.  When I joined ASCS Sec. 32 funds had been used to buy up surpluses of potatoes, most notably, and use them for cattle feed and/or school lunches.  My impression was that it was method of dealing with surpluses of agricultural products which weren't storable, unlike the "basic crops", including wheat, corn and other feed grains, rice and cotton, and milk.  (Milk isn't storable, but cheese and butter are.) Apparently, though I've not bothered to follow up, there have been some changes over the years, particularly recently, which has expanded the use of the authority.

CCC has a history dating back to the Wilson administration, which I think but don't know gets the credit for using the corporation as a method of doing government business during WWI.  Subsequently Hoover came up with the Reconstruction Finance Corporation to handle depression-era projects, and the New Deal continued the RFC and created other corporations, including the CCC.

The corporation has some advantages over a regular agency: it can be much more flexible because you give it a charter and then leave the power up to its board of directors (CCC's board is basically agency heads plus secretary types).  You can give it an initial fund of money, then allow it to borrow from the Treasury.  That means Congress only gets to appropriate when the corporation runs out of borrowing authority.  And, I again think but am not sure, such repayments to the Treasury don't show up in the budget.

In addition to its borrowing authority, CCC also gets  a yearly cut of some customs money, under Sec. 32, which is probably also off budget.  And that's the money proposed to be used for Lincoln's disaster program.  (Personally, I think it's a stupid idea and hope the administration slow walks it until it's apparent that Lincoln is a lost cause.  Then they can give her a post somewhere.)

As an aside, back in the day ASCS used to tap CCC money for administrative expenses tied to carrying out CCC programs.  Over time we got too inventive  in using it for IT systems, so the Appropriations Committees cracked down.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Public Works Projects

Understanding Government has a post citing an article skeptical of the high speed rail project planned for California.  I commented on it, recalling my awareness of Dulles Airport and its access road.  While it seemed to be a boondoggle in the 70's, it no longer is.  Sometimes it takes a while for infrastructure to prove its worth.  Sometimes it doesn't, as the Erie Canal proved its worth immediately.  And sometimes boondoggles are boondoggles, as in the case of the Chenango Canal.

Manual Dexterity on the Band Saw

Via John Phipps, the end result is incredible, at least to a klutz.

The Downside of Absentee Landowners

Back in the day every farmer owned and operated his quarter section (my "day" was long, long ago and in a different country).  But today most farms are a combination of rented and owned land (at $5-7K an acre, it doesn't take long for land ownership to involve some real money).  And Chris Clayton, whose thoughts never stray far from business, wonders if the dead zone in the Gulf isn't related to the renting. (Actually, the dead zone is my attempt to amp up the significance.)  He and his family float down a river and see corn and soybeans planted with no filter strip bordering the river, consequently nitrogen, phosphorus and top soil fall into the river, thence to be flushed down past New Orleans to the Gulf.  His guess is that the farmers were renting and going for max production, not worried at all about the land.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Easy IT Projects

This glowing piece in Federal Computer Weekly praises the woman who accomplished this:

In the end, the board awarded a contract July 10, 2009, to build Recovery.gov, and work on the project started the same day. FederalReporting.gov launched Aug. 17, 2009, and Recovery.gov went live Sept. 28, 2009.

Far be it from me to knock a dedicated and successful bureaucrat, but remember that was an easy project. Easy because it was done from scratch, I believe.  The tough projects are those which try to redo existing systems, particularly those integrating separate stovepipes.  All that said, getting software done in 70 days is good work.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Empire, er Republicans Strike Back

From Politico, on a study of the use of Web 2.0:
"the study found Republicans have “struck back,” with GOP senators averaging more than 5.5 IQ points higher than their Democratic counterparts.
Of the seven senators who scored “genius” social media rankings, four were Republicans: McCain — the top tweeter, Jim DeMint of South Carolina, Scott Brown of Massachusetts and John Cornyn of Texas.

History Repeats Itself: ACRE

Farmgate reports on an analysis of why and which farmers enrolled in ACRE.Two points strike me:
  1. in terms of farmer education, only 25 percent of farmers used the spreadsheets available on the web, while 90 percent apparently talked to FSA personnel.  That tells me that even though PC's and the internet have made inroads, the in-person contact is key.  It's also a clue as to the bureaucratic success of FSA and the farm programs: the FSA clerk technician may be a bureaucrat in my eyes, but in the farmer's eyes she's a trusted source of information.
  2. as usual (I'm reading between the lines) the bigger farmers and those more active in managing their risks took advantage of the program.  I say "as usual" because that's been the pattern since AAA days. The biggest and most "modern" farmers have always taken advantage of government programs; that's one reason why there's some truth in the accusations the greenies, foodies, and others make against them.

Best Advice of the Month

From Dan Drezner: "10)  Quit reading blogs.  They rot your brain and give you cooties. "  (Actually, I prefer his no. 9.)

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Is 600,000 Chickens Small?

A discussion in Farm Policy about confusion in California about the enforcement of humane standards for hens includes this quote:

The Journal article pointed out that, “John Lewis Jr., president of Farmer John Eggs in Bakersfield, says he doesn’t know what to do with his small, family-run company’s 600,000 hens. He doesn’t want to put them in a cage-free environment because, he says, they would be running around in their own feces and he would have to feed them antibiotics.
“Plus, when they are on the ground, he said, ‘If something scares them, they all run into a corner and pile on top of each other and suffocate very quickly.’”
As we never had more than 1700 poultry (all ages) at one time, I disagree with the "small". But I agree: chickens are stupid, I do not like chickens, and chickens easily panic and smother (just like humans--where was that crowd that stampeded and 19 were killed?).

Immigration and Housing

I've still got that bee in my bonnet about the relationship of housing, immigration, and the economy.  Succeeded in getting a question answered on Ezra Klein's blog here.

Black, Black Clouds for Cotton

Via Chris Clayton, a link to a review of the prospects for cotton in the future farm bill.  Basically it's bad for cotton if the Republicans take Congress but also bad if the Democrats retain control, because Collin Peterson likes crop insurance and not marketing loans, while the cotton people like loans and not crop insurance.

As I'm in a sadistic mood today, I enjoyed a good laugh at their predicament.

A Dem like me finds a bit of solace in their support for the South Korean trade pact and support for regulation of derivatives in the financial regulation law just passed.

Liberal Klein Disses Grandmothers

Ezra Klein thinks grandmothers have a lame sense of humor (re: D = drive, R= reverse joke of Obama's).

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Lincoln's Disaster Program (Cont)

Chris Clayton reports Vilsack says they're working on Lincoln's disaster program, but want it to reinforce crop insurance:..." if we were to do it, how would you do it in a way that would reinforce crop insurance and the SURE program?"

I think the answer is, you don't.  It's like saying, if we're going to somehow find the money so our teenager can replace his old car with a new Porsche, how do we do it in a way that would reinforce his good driving habits?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Germans, Bless Them

Watched The Last Station over the weekend--starring Mirren and Plummer.  It's apparently reasonably accurate depiction of Tolstoy's last days and the conflict with his wife, Sophia.  It's good, not great, if you like such pictures, as we do.

The director's commentary was interesting.  Most of the movie was filmed in various German places, because they had both the financial incentives and the infrastructure, in contrast with Russia which was disorganized and a crap shoot.  He commented he wanted the villa where the Tolstoys lived to be a bit dirty, because it was the center of a lot of farming activity (a commune) and lots of people going in and out.  But despite his best efforts, the German crew would keep cleaning up the dirt. 

Given my mother's folks came from Germany, I've experienced that mania, although I've fortunately escaped it myself.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Is $1.1 Million Small?

I don't know what regulations the bankers feel handcuffed by, but these apple growers in Washington feel $1.1 million is too small. That seems to be the cap on the FSA loan program (presumably the one for beginning farmers, though that's not clear).

I saw elsewhere that farmland prices in the Midwest were pushing towards $7K per acre.  That would mean about a quarter section, which probably is a smallish orchard.  Of course, if it's bare ground, you've got to allow for planting trees and bringing them to production, and hopefully you aren't growing Red Delicious but some up and coming variety.  (I've found Jazz to be good; I usually eat Fujis but in late summer the Fujis we get have lost something (imported maybe from New Zealand or somewhere).) 

I suspect I'll confirm the thoughts of the food movement but I suspect the FSA beginning farmer program was mostly geared to growers of field crops or dairy.  It's been around a while so it would be hard to prove. Anyhow raising the cap is hard.  Even if you get past the opponents of any such farm program, you face the reality the bigger the loan you can make, the fewer the loans.  So is it better to lend money to a bunch of people who want to flee their city job and set up a small farm in the country, supporting themselves by free-lancing or other such work or to one hard-working immigrant farmer who plans to farm full-time?

The Litigious American

This Business Week article says claims from all 50 states confront Kenneth Feinberg, the BP claim administrator. Tocqueville was right.

The Foodies Case Against Dairy

Some foodies have a problem with the dairy industry, but at least they don't lie about aborted dairy calves.

I do question this statement: "The average milking cow is about four when she’s considered “spent” in industry terms."  Amazingly enough a quick Google doesn't reveal an authoritative answer. Nor do I trust wikipedia on this.  I think this piece accurately reflects the dairyperson's thoughts, particularly the smaller one who is growing her own replacements.  In other words, the answer to the question "when does the dairy cow go to slaughter" is: "it all depends".

Props to GW Again

Seems every 6 months or so something comes up where I have to recognize our former President and his accomplishments.  This time it's his approach to Islam after 9/11.  See this Politico piece by Ben Smith and Maggie Haberman on the way the GOP is abandoning his stand and, as titled, GOP takes harsher stand on Islam.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Resolving the Mosque Issue

Seems to me at bottom the controversy over the community center/mosque planned for lower Manhattan is a NIMBY (not in my backyard) issue.  Everyone agrees the group has the legal right to build 2 blocks from the World Trade Center site; it's just some like the ADL and some conservatives don't think it's a good place. In this light there are a couple ways to resolve it, methods which apply whenever NIMBYism raises its head. Of course, since I'm a liberal, they involve using governmental authority:
  • use zoning laws to specify that no religious building shall be built within x miles of the WTC site, grandfathering in the existing churches. (It wouldn't be legal to specify no mosques.)
  • use eminent doman to buy all the property within x miles of the WTC site, so the land become government owned, just like the Flight 93 memorial in Shanksville.  Of course, the cost would be high.  If the public is willing to pay the price, and not spend the money on other uses, then they can have a buffer zone.
[Updated:  You could also do a "legislative taking", which is what Congress did for some Manassas battleground land back in the day.

Finally, I like Dan Drezner's comments.]

    Carnegie's Gospel of Wealth

    Via Tyler Cowen, German plutocrats look unkindly on poor old Bill Gates and his crusade to have billionaires give away half their income.

    From the interview:
    In this case, 40 superwealthy people want to decide what their money will be used for. That runs counter to the democratically legitimate state. In the end the billionaires are indulging in hobbies that might be in the common good, but are very personal.
    SPIEGEL: Do the donations also have to do with the fact that the idea of state and society is such different one in the United States?

    Krämer: Yes, one cannot forget that the US has a desolate social system and that alone is reason enough that donations are already a part of everyday life there. But it would have been a greater deed on the part of Mr. Gates or Mr. Buffet if they had given the money to small communities in the US so that they can fulfil public duties.

    Animal Welfare

    The Times had an article (8/12) on animal welfare, focused on the agreement in Ohio between the Humane Society and the farmers.

    Robin Hanson has a post  which includes a long quote on a survey of philosophers.  This sentence is striking:
    Fully 81% of female philosophers born in 1960 or later said it was morally bad to regularly eat the meat of mammals.
     As John Phipps has said, I think the trend is slowly to define eating mammals as bad, just as it's now been defined that eating white bread is bad and whole wheat is good.

    Saturday, August 14, 2010

    Limits on the Size of Farms?

    Agweb has an interesting discussion of the size of farms. The argument is that one person can manage up to 10 employees, which is about enough to handle 10,000 acres.  (I'm assuming we're talking grain or cotton crops here as I imagine produce or livestock would have a different scale.)  Any more and you're talking a real organization, where the top person is managing managers. 

    I guess one could grant the title "family farm" to such farms--after all back in the 1870 census my great grandfather had a hired hand living in household and he only had 300+ acres.  But that's stretching it--I'm too lazy today to see what ERS says about farms where most of the labor is hired.

    Congressionally Required Reports

    Somewhere back in the dark ages there was some agreement between the executive branch and Congress on Congressionally required reports.  I forget whether it was USDA and the Ag committees, or the President and Congress.

    This Project on Government Oversight post describes a bill in Congress to put all such reports online.

    I'd love to see a study of these reports.  I suspect in many cases they are a sop thrown to assuage someone's pet concerns.  A Congressperson has a bee in their bonnet, or some interest group is pestering them, so instead of enacting some legislation everyone agrees on requiring the bureaucracy to submit a report.  By the time the report is completed and submitted, the bee is dead, the pesterers are disbanded or moved to something else, so the report gathers dust, unread, but having served its function in the great and glorious American political system. The only cost was the waste of a bureaucrat's time, and we all know that's not important.

    Sometimes, and more perniciously, the requirement is for a periodic report.  I say more perniciously because it eats up time every year.  At least it does if the bureaucrats honor the requirement.  That doesn't always happen, because like kids suspecting a "beware the dog" sign is a bluff, bureaucrats may decide to do their business, guessing Congress will never notice the omitted report.

    Some Congressionally-required reports are worthwhile--like the State Department's reports on terrorist states but I doubt the need for most.

    Friday, August 13, 2010

    Open Government at Agriculture

    USDA ranks towards the bottom, meeting only 6 of 10 criteria.

    I'm Wrong About Google Searching

    One thing I realized this week--I've been wrong about using Google to search. 

    Background:  I've been impatient with bureaucracies, particularly governmental, which design their own search facilities.  I think I've said on this blog a time or two that people should just use Google. 

    Why am I wrong?  Well, Google at the base is using links to prioritize its results.  So, if we're talking about a collection of documents, say Federal Register documents or FSA handbooks, which don't have internal links, it would seem Google would do a lousy job of searching them.

    Now I've made that admission, I'm done admitting errors for the year.

    A Cry from the Heart

    Musings from a Stonehead has his problems with computer systems, and ends with this:
    What is it about businesses and their computer systems that imposes this sort of daft, pedantic and rigid approach to solving fairly minor problems that a half-intelligent human used to be able to solve in a few minutes?
    His problems in part trace to a non-standard address and in part to a system which assumed its customers would not take the initiative.  In other words, the system designers made assumptions about names and processes which were wrong.  And the human operators are thinking in terms of those processes.   It's the sort of thing a government bureaucracy would have done, except this is a big bank.  (Doesn't Dilbert work in the private sector?)

    The Problems of a Bureaucracy-MMS

    The Times of Aug 8 has a long piece on the Minerals Management Service, focused mostly on its long-time head of the Gulf Coast office, Mr. Oynes.  Implicit in the piece are some of the problems of any large bureaucracy.  The local operatives, in this case the MMS people in the Gulf, are a long ways from DC policymakers and very close geographically to the people they deal with every day.  That's not a fatal flaw, but it is a problem.  Proximity breeds connection (interesting piece of research: we mostly date the people we know, and we marry the people we date).

    One of the usual tactics of the budget cutters, whether in any administration or in Congress, is to make cuts on travel.  That's all very well, but one of the key methods of keeping policymakers and policy executors on the same page, or at least adjacent pages, is to have them meet in person.  Failure to meet aggravates the human tendency to think that out of sight is out of mind, that the big shots have forgotten the people in the weeds, or conversely actually to forget what it's like to serve in the field, what the day-to-day problems are, and to ignore proposals for change coming up from the field.

    All this is aggravated in the sort of regulatory environment the MMS faced with the oil industry.

    Thursday, August 12, 2010

    Contra Food Movement

    Via John Phipps, here's an interesting article at Utne Reader:
    Culinary Luddism has come to involve more than just taste, however; it has also presented itself as a moral and political crusade—and it is here that I begin to back off. The reason is not far to seek: because I am a historian.
    As a historian I cannot accept the account of the past implied by this movement: the sunny, rural days of yore contrasted with the gray industrial present. It gains credence not from scholarship but from evocative dichotomies: fresh and natural versus processed and preserved; local versus global; slow versus fast; artisanal and traditional versus urban and industrial; healthful versus contaminated. History shows, I believe, that the Luddites have things back to front.

    That Special Disaster Program

    I suppose the funding for Rahm's special disaster program he promised Sen. Lincoln would come from Commodity Credit corporation through Section 32 funds.  Here's a Congressional Research Service report on the authority.  I don't remember FSA's using this for direct disaster payments to farmers, but it's possible.

    Wednesday, August 11, 2010

    Institutional Inertia

    Two instances of possible institutional inertia today.  Note that I can't be sure on either instance, but I can and do speculate that bureaucracies do not respond rapidly to changing situations, which can be bad or good.

    McArdle and her credit union.  
     In this case Megan McArdle and her husband are buying a house.  McArdle goes through their logic of what their maximum is, then calls their credit union, which is willing to approve a loan for twice amount they want, which shocks her.  Here I suspect the credit union never made major changes in its policies in the last decade, at least not in response to the Great Recession.  Most likely their clientele and the geographic area they serve were not subject to a big run-up, and thus the number of foreclosures was within tolerable limits for the credit union.  And even if they weren't, the bureaucratic dynamics of such an institution probably delay their response.

    DC and homicides (via Yglesias). DC is on pace to have the lowest rate of homicides since the 1960's, a fact commented on by Yglesias.  What he didn't comment on is the increase in clearance rate, which is something readers of Homicide would be very conscious of.  In this case bureaucratic/political inertia means the number of homicide detectives isn't being reduced as fast as the homicides, so there's more time to pay more attention to each killing, resulting in more clearances.  Here bureaucracy in the way jurisdictions allocate funds means DC is gaining on the down dip; there's a virtuous cycle.  But when homicides increase they'll lose on the up cycle; there will be a vicious cycle.

    2 Blocks Bad; 12 Blocks Good?

    In Animal Farm, the mantra was: "4 legs good, 2 legs bad".

    According to this NYTimes piece on the proposed Cordoba community center/mosque, there's currently a mosque 12 blocks away from the World Trade center site.

    But using Google maps it seems there's a limited facility .2 miles away.  When I say "limited", I mean this is included on their site:
    Bathroom access is limited. Please make wudu before coming to the Masjid.

     Sorry for the incovenience.

    Jazaka Allahu Khyera.

    Tuesday, August 10, 2010

    Acting White

    "Acting white" is described at Wikipedia as usually applied to African-Americans (and by Ralph Nader to Obama). But this post has a graph indicating Hispanic students turn against their peers with high grades more strongly than do black students. The article to which it refers is worth reading, though it dates to 2006.

    The idea is that the peer group fears losing its most successful members so tries to reinforce its sanctions to maintain its integrity.

    Slater as Bureaucratic Operative

    James Q. Wilson calls those bureaucrats who deal directly with the public "operatives".  They're the DMV clerk, the checkout person, the cop on the beat, the airline attendant.  Although the customer is always right and the public is the boss, I suspect many can empathize with Mr. Slater, the Jet Blue flight attendant who lost it.

    "Re-up for the Bennies"

    I dredged that phrase out of my memory prompted by the On Language piece in the NY Times magazine (which discussed "bennies" as a pejorative phrase in New Jersy.  It's also in Chapter Five of this online book.  

    For us draftees it was a sarcastic fling at the RA's (enlistees), telling them to re-enlist for the great fringe benefits, like serving in Vietnam, but it usually was stimulated by any specific grievance of the moment.

    Monday, August 09, 2010

    Will Our Kids Be Better Off in the Future?

    Kevin Drum comments on a Peggy Noonan column and attracts a bunch of comments. [Update: here's Scott Winship and lots of polling.] Noonan as quoted by Drum:
    The country I was born into was a country that had existed steadily, for almost two centuries, as a nation in which everyone thought — wherever they were from, whatever their circumstances — that their children would have better lives than they did....Parents now fear something has stopped....They look around, follow the political stories and debates, and deep down they think their children will live in a more limited country, that jobs won't be made at a great enough pace, that taxes — too many people in the cart, not enough pulling it — will dishearten them, that the effects of 30 years of a low, sad culture will leave the whole country messed up.

    Drum agrees but based on the dominance of an elite:
    it's the fact that we increasingly seem to be led by a social elite that's simply lost interest in the good of the country. They were wealthy 30 years ago, they've gotten incomparably more wealthy since then, and yet they seem to care about little except amassing ever more wealth and endlessly scheming to reduce their tax burdens further. Shipping off our kids on a growing succession of costly foreign adventures is OK, but funding healthcare or unemployment benefits or economic stimulus in the midst of a world-historical recession is beyond the pale.
    Seems to me you need to distinguish a bunch of different intended meanings in the answer to such pollster questions::
    • the answer may be in terms of relative status, where status is an "excludable good", as the economists mights say. Will my child, the son of a farmer, live a better life because he'll be President? But for anyone who becomes President, many million can't become President.  If you want your child to move from the bottom 10th in wealth to the middle 10th, someone else has to drop in relative wealth.
    • or a slightly different answer: Will my child, the son of poor Jewish immigrants, live a better life because he'll be a doctor, a lawyer? We've probably got a greater percentage of our population in the law and medicine than in the past, so this interpretation is more "absolute status".  Granted that as the number of lawyers and doctors increases in society, their status may slightly decline, but I'll ignore that.
    • or in terms of money, adjusted for inflation:  Will my child earn more than I, or accumulate more wealth during her lifetime than I? Depending on whether we're talking household or individual, this seems to be the area liberals focus on.
    • or in terms of welfare:  Will my child live better than I? Have a longer life, better health, more friends, more opportunities, etc. This seems to be the area conservatives focus on--the effects of technological progress.  We drive better cars, have better housing, etc.
    • or in terms of the nation.  Will my child live in an United States which is thriving as a nation?
    • or in terms of the world.  Will my child live in a world which is more peaceful and more prosperous than the one I lived in.
    • or in terms of social norms.  Will my child live in a society with which I'd be comfortable?
    IMHO, though I don't have children, I'd bet people who are 10 years old today would, in 2070, agree the answer for most of the above, excluding the first and last, would be "yes".  For my parents, the answer for all of the above, except the last, was "yes".

      Sunday, August 08, 2010

      Funniest Take on Legislators Today

      "Generally this ["rational basis" test] is an easy hurdle to clear, because the court is very deferential; if it weren’t for bad ideas about what they want to do, and how they want to do it, many legislators wouldn’t have any ideas at all"  From John Holbo at Crooked Timber on the Walker decision on Prop 8.

      Chinese Trash

      Early in the week there were some stories (WSJ here, with slide show) about trash on the Yangtze river threatening the operation of the Three Rivers Dam in China.

      That's a reminder of how far and fast China has come--even in the western interior of the country their citizens have become wealthy enough to have trash.  I remember when they were so poor and so thrifty they recycled everything.

      Michelle and Jackie as Marie Antoinette?

      Michelle Obama is catching flack, even from Ms. Dowd in the Times, about her vacation trip.  Reminds me of when Jackie Kennedy and Caroline took a long trip to Italy, I think.  (May have been some hobnobbing with nouveau riche like Onassis and royalty.)

      Saturday, August 07, 2010

      Should Government Be Wrong Half the Time?

      Post at Google Operating System on their failures (e.g., they just dropped Wave).
      Google's Peter Norvig has a more detailed explanation for this attitude:

      "If you're a politician, admitting you're wrong is a weakness, but if you're an engineer, you essentially want to be wrong half the time. If you do experiments and you're always right, then you aren't getting enough information out of those experiments. You want your experiment to be like the flip of a coin: You have no idea if it is going to come up heads or tails. You want to not know what the results are going to be."
      Makes sense to me, although I must admit as a supervisor I wasn't happy about any failures. The distinction is between learning and executing; it's good to fail while learning, but when you say you have the answer, you'd better have the answer.  That may also tie into the free market--it's good for learning, but government can compete when the learning is done.

      [I know, some anti-government wiseacre thought to herself when she read my title: if the government was wrong only half the time, it would be an improvement.]

      Friday, August 06, 2010

      The Not-So-Efficient Free Market System: Alcohol in VA

      Our new Virginia governor won office last year based on a campaign of, among other promises, privatizing the system of ABC stores for selling liquor and using the proceeds for transportation.  The Post yesterday had an interesting article on the problems in implementing the promise, including a comparison with the systems in DC and MD.  Turns out VA gets more than 50 percent of the price of a bottle of Jack Daniels, while the other jurisdictions get less than 10 percent. Prices aren't that different, at least at the low and middle end.  So how does the gov get an equivalent yearly return from a private sales system?  Doesn't look as if it's possible.

      Of course Virginians are used to Republican politicians making promises they can't fulfill.  (Not that Dems are immune from the syndrome.)

      The side-by-side comparison shows IMHO the free market system is not necessarily the best.  Of course, alcohol has special characteristics: most of the products are time-tested.  I suspect if you looked at the Virginia ABC stores they don't do well at keeping up with the fads (like wine coolers, or special vodkas).  But as a child of someone who firmly believed in the merits of Prohibition, I'm not mourning this particular lack in Virginian society.

      Clayton Weighs in on the Emanuel Disaster Program, and Pigford

      Chris Clayton relates the possible disaster program to make Lincoln happy to the failure to appropriate funds for the Pigford II case.

      A Fairfax Green at the Recycle Dropoff

      This morning my wife and I drove to the local dropoff point for recyclables, part of our Friday routine which also includes grocery shopping.  The place is set up as an "Y", with the bins for paper products on one arm, the bins for glass and plastic on the other arm, and the junction point is just wide enough for cars to come in, park, reverse, and go out.

      When we arrived a young slender woman in a white car had backed up to the paper bins and was disposing of her paper. I parked further in; my wife dumped the paper and I dumped the bottles.  As I glanced in the mirror before backing to turn around, I saw the woman had now backed her car up to the glass/plastic bin and was disposing of her bottles.

      The walking distance between her two parking places was no more than 25 yards.

      The car was a Prius.

      Thursday, August 05, 2010

      Fructose and Cancer

      Respectful Insolence has much more than you'd ever want to know about biochemistry and fructose. He says the recent study on fructose, glucose and cancer cells is interesting, but should have no policy implications as of today.

      Lincoln and Disaster

      Farm Policy reports others share my doubts over the feasibility and legality of the adminstrative disaster payments proposed by Sen. Lincoln. 
      Yesterday’s update added that, “Lincoln responded that it is not unusual for the executive branch to distribute such disaster aid without congressional action. ‘It’s been done before,’ she said. However, House Ag Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., told the press this week his staff is skeptical that USDA has a mechanism to fund the program.”
      I think she's wrong and Peterson is right.  The only approach I can think of is to use the Commodity Credit Corporation approach, which is probably what Lincoln is thinking of, but it would be a big stretch to use it for Lincoln's proposal. But then, the lawyers in OGC (office of general counsel) have performed miracles before.

      Obama In Trouble?

      You know you're in political trouble when bureaucrats start worrying about your initiatives in case you're going to lose.

      If Open Gov becomes too associated with Obama and he loses 2 years from now, Open Gov may suffer a serious setback. In fact, Open Gov could suffer as soon as the Congressional Midterms.

      So what're you going to do about it? Well, it's time you starting thinking about Open Gov Backup Plans.

      Wednesday, August 04, 2010

      Maids in College?

      I'm flabbergasted. No, not at the thought of some virgins on campus. (Though there was a legend at my university.  The Arts quad had statutes of the two founders seated opposite each other.  Supposedly if a virgin walked across the quad at midnight, the statutes would rise, walk to the center and bow, and then return to their seats.)

      But the Post has an article on social networking and sports recruiting, focusing on a top athlete who tweets his visits to campuses and football coaches who follow his tweets.  And this sentence blew my mind:

      " He wrote of being impressed that UCLA has maids cleaning dorm rooms"

      Whatever happened to kids cleaning their own rooms? And if it's an athletic dormitory, how about coaches enforcing rules.  

      Tuesday, August 03, 2010

      Complaints About SURE

      I've resolved I'm not trying to understand SURE.  This is the first paragraph from Farm Policy today:
      DTN Executive Editor Marcia Zarley Taylor reported yesterday at the Minding Ag’s Business Blog that, “When Congress wrote what rational people would consider the most complex formula yet for farm disaster aid in the 2008 Farm Act, it was supposed to (1) be a fairer system; (2) compensate people who’d experienced whole farm revenue loss, not a yield loss on a single crop as past farm programs did; (3) pay higher rates to those with better crop insurance coverage. In other words, reward farmers who paid the high premiums for higher levels of coverage. But as I reported in a story on DTN today, these principles aren’t working as the Farm Service Agency struggles to administer the 2008 disaster program.
      The question is whether the bureaucrats and Congress can work the bugs out before 2012.

      New Health Hazard Identified

      By Ta-Nehisi Coates:
      "Fully half of the life-span gap between African-Americans and whites is due to African-Americans having to endure punditry about "The Blacks." (From a post on the latest Phyllis Schafly quote.)

      Monday, August 02, 2010

      Flash: Rising Rate of Blindness in the U.S.

      From this post:
      Far fewer parents describe their children as overweight or obese than we see in the actual population. Specifically, the GQR poll showed even parents who volunteer their children's height and weight underreported whether they also view them as overweight or obese. Similarly, this McClatchy-Ipsos poll shows far fewer reporting a personal obesity issue or one in their own family than is actually true among the population.

      The only rational explanation is that Americans are losing their eyesight much more rapidly than anyone realizes.

      Rural Areas the New Blacks?

      Back in the day, in Vietnam, black Americans were disproportionately 11B's (the MOS for rifleman) and suffered casualties in excess of their proportion of the population.  Today it seems men and women from rural areas, especially upper Midwest and Great Plains, are suffering casualties in excess of their proportion of the population.

      "The study does not look into reasons why soldiers from rural areas have experienced a higher death rate in the Iraq War"

      My memory is the 1960's military, at least the Army, was draft-based.  People with the poorest scores on the test tended to end up as 11B's.  Blacks were drafted relatively equally with whites but had the poorer education and poorer scores, so ended up in the most dangerous positions.

      When Nixon took us off the draft, blacks would enlist for the opportunity.I remember reading somewhere blacks now are more heavily concentrated in the Army's "tail"--the administrative support services.  As a result, although the current wars are dangerous for truck drivers, the casualty rate for blacks is probably less than their proportion, certainly less than for rural areas.  (Given the loss of black farms over 40 years, I assume without checking that the black population is disproportionately urban and suburban.)

      I'm a bit amused by the quote. The illustrious Senator from Virginia, Jim Webb, has a book arguing that the South, particularly the Appalachians, is home to natural-born fighters, based on their Scots-Irish heritage.  Maybe the area has lost its edge, in favor of the German-Scandinavian Lutherans of the upper Midwest/Plains.  

      I'd think in reality the key question is economic opportunity.  In the past blacks and the upcountry whites Webb writes about have had little opportunity, so ended up as fighters.  In the present the northern rural areas have little opportunity, so end up as fighters.  (In the remote past, Scots and Irish had little opportunity, so ended up as fighters.) And immigrants end up as fighters.

      There's a more troubling possibility however. Blacks are disproportionately imprisoned. And, for those who watched The Wire, the prisoners include some of the most talented leaders.  I think that's a big change since the 1960's, so it's possible if academicians are using as their baseline the number of people 18 and over they're getting a different result than if they used the number of people not institutionalized and with no criminal record 18 and over.

      Sunday, August 01, 2010

      Wine at the Pump

      The French may be very regimented, but getting wine at the pump (a la gas pump) is something only they could dream of.