Thursday, September 30, 2010

Pigford and Rep. Steve King

Rep. Steve King issues a press release alleging massive fraud in the Pigford settlement. Chris Clayton at DTN calls it a red herring.  [Updated: another article describing both a press conference and some USDA reaction.]

Though I've voiced some qualms about Pigford (see the "Pigford" tab), I think Chris has the  better argument. I note in this post that Boyd talked of 20,000 farmers each in Alabama and Mississippi. I do think Chris errs in his apparent assumption that both husband and wife are eligible to file individual claims because I don't think they could file separate loan applications.

The bottom line to me is that Mr. Boyd has inflated the number of potential claimants and is fostering the false impression that every claimant will receive money.  Neither is true. Neither exaggerating the numbers of one's interest group and the benefits they might derive from proposed legislation is unknown inside the Beltway--if we believed the American Farm Bureau Federation we'd have many more farmers than the census reveals. I'm sure Rep. King wouldn't accuse them of fraud.

Based on the claims reviewed and rejected from the first Pigford settlement (which Mr. Clayton discusses in some detail), it seems there's a reasonable process to weed out claims which don't meet the evidentiary standards.

What Geezers Remember Isn't the Truth--Jimmy Carter

Jimmy Carter qualifies as a geezer  John Sides shows he misremembers.  Carter claimed his "lust in the heart" interview in Playboy cost him 15 points in the polls and nearly cost him the election.  Sides says: not true--available polls show a fairly smooth descent from his peak at the convention.

So, a reminder to one's self: be very afraid when you remember something.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Canada and the U.S. Differences

I skim the blog at, but usually find its posts much too long and lacking focus, as well as being too liberal for my tastes.  But Sara Robinson recently returned to the U.S. from 7 years living in Canada and has a nice post about the differences she's found, particularly the synergy between the foodies (left) and farmers (right) in the Pacific Northwest.

Surprise Paragraph of the Day

Keith Hennessey caught my notice when  a number of bloggers praised his explanation of the economic bureaucracy in the White House, having been GWBush's CEA chief towards the end of the administration.  He's usually critical of the Dems, but today he has an interesting analysis of Obama's comments on housing, somewhat critical, but ending with this:
I’m impressed by the depth of the President’s understanding and his thought process.  I disagree with his Administration’s policies in many cases, and that includes his housing policies, but I think he gave a good answer yesterday in this Albuquerque backyard conversation.
 I'm barely resisting the opportunity to snark about GWB--use your imagination.

Our Founding Fathers and the Intrusive Federal Government

We all know the Founding Fathers didn't like government and wanted as little of it as possible.  Right?

It's completely ridiculous for the government to worry about things like energy efficient light bulbs and toilets. Right?

If you agree, you might look at this document from the National Archives. As they say:
List A includes dwellings situated on two acres or less and valued at more than $100. You will find the name of the occupant, the name of the owner, dimensions of the dwelling and any outbuildings, the type of construction, the number of windows and lights, and the value of the dwelling.
No, it's not from 2009, but 210 years earlier.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Yglesias Buries the Lede

"Burying the lede" seems to be the phrase for not recognizing and promoting the real story.  Matt Yglesias is posting on the value of frozen vegetables, not as good as fresh but still good and very convenient, and says:

"Part of my recent weight loss strategy (down a bit over 60 pounds since the beginning of March)" x

Bill Signing Ceremonies

Bill signing ceremonies are one of the rituals of our democracy.  I remember one ceremony for a bill GWB signed, forget which one, but the picture was above the fold on the front page of the Times. Showed the audience arranged in a big crescent, facing the President and maybe a handful of bigwigs: Cheney,  Best I could tell everyone in the room was a white male of a certain age, or above.

This post on the White House blog shows Obama signing the small business bill yesterday.  Some nice diversity on the dais watching the signature, but below the dais seem to be a group of white males of a certain age, almost all of whom are displaying their shirt cuffs, simply because they're holding their cellphone/cameras above their head to capture the historic moment.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Tobacco Growing in Canada

Via Freakonomics, an article, part of a series, on tobacco growing in Canada.  It seems there's an underground trade in tobacco, grown in Canada and sold to contraband manufacturers, who sell the cigarettes tax-free on First Nation (i.e., "native Americans") land.

"We" (i.e., I) usually think of tobacco as a Southern crop, grown in the Carolinas and Kentucky.  Not so, Wisconsin and Connecticut have been/still are growers of certain varieties and it turns out Ontario also grows tobacco.  And, like the U.S. but a little slower, Canada had a buyout of tobacco growers who had tobacco quotas. Three paragraphs:
"The federal government offered a controversial buyout of Ontario tobacco growers in 2009. Though most took the payments — designed to usher them out of the business — more than 200 have returned to producing tobacco through a loophole that allows them to rent their land and hire themselves out to licence holders, often their non-farming children.
The new system replaces one where farmers held tobacco quotas worth hundreds of thousands of dollars each and the Flucured Tobacco Marketing Board kept close tabs on production. With the previous regime, farmers would lose that valuable quota if caught selling tobacco on the black market, a powerful deterrent, noted Mr. Stewart. Having the new licence cancelled carries no such financial consequences.
"These guys [the farmers who earn big cash money] are pretty crafty," the farmer said. "You think when you talk to them they're honest and they're salt of the earth and they're good people. Not at all."

Edward VII and Coronation Dinners

Watched the Brit TV series "Berkeley Square", which is sort of an Upstairs, Downstairs with the focus on three nursemaids/nannies in different households on the exclusive Berkeley Square.  A feature of Episode IV was a coronation dinner (Edward VII), where the posh set served the poorer classes. Difficult to find anything on it, a NYTimes article here on the coronation mentions the dinners.  There's a photo for sale here showing the setup.

This sentence: " Born in 1841, he built up a huge potato enterprise and supplied all the potatoes eaten at a dinner for the poor of London to mark King Edward VII's coronation."  This from a cached Worthing piece: " To mark those three previous coronations, Worthing’s civic fathers settled for a lunch or tea party for the young, poor and the elderly (on one occasion, all three together), with a small procession of local organisations as a kind of bonus. Not many were impressed." And another picture.

I didn't know Edward suffered appendicitis right before the scheduled date for his coronation, and the successful surgery put that operation on the map. His illness delayed the coronation, but not the dinner for the poor.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

A Bit on Reston

Q: What is the biggest change you have seen in Reston during your time here?
A: Without question it would be the number of jobs.  In the beginning Reston was slated for one job per household, which would mean 22,000 jobs.  Now there are close to three jobs per household.

From an interview with a guy who's been in Reston longer than I.  Robert Simon thought Reston should be a place where people lived and worked, a source neither of jobs for outside commuters nor of commuters for outside jobs.  That vision was flawed, perhaps because he didn't allow for the impact of Dulles airport and the access road to the Beltway.  That allowed the development of the parallel toll road and made the area attractive for businesses with lots of air traffic. Another omission was the development of the military-industrial complex.  And finally, he missed the development of the government-contractor complex.  Both complexes meant big outfits developed which needed easy access to both federal offices mostly in DC and to the nation.  So jobs developed along the Dulles corridor.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Freudian Slips in Pledge to America

Brad DeLong quoting another site on the people pictured in the Republican Pledge to America. (The title of the post says it all.)

Urban Farming, Its Ironies

I don't know the history of the garden, but in Ben Affleck's The Town some key scenes take place in the Charlestown community garden (can't find a link to the garden on line, but Google gives some possibilities and the picture link shows it's rather lush.  Cynic that I am I'll be interested in the director's commentary on the garden.

The food movement loves to embrace urban farming.  That's fine, if there's a vacant lot, if you don't have park money the best use you can make of it is to open a community garden.  It's good for the community and good for the environment.

However, and you knew there was a however coming, the environmental benefits of the urban setting come from density.  New York City is one of the best places to live to have the smallest impact on the environment, simply because it's efficient to live and work in dense places.  (Recently there's been challenges to the benefits of telework because it might be more efficient to heat and light offices for 1,000 people than 1,000 homes each with its own officeworker working from home, even considering the costs of commuting.)

The market tells us it's not efficient to have permanent farms in the heart of the city.  I'm enough of a conservative to believe it.

The Limits of Planning: Reston and Jobs

"Q: What is the biggest change you have seen in Reston during your time here?
A: Without question it would be the number of jobs.  In the beginning Reston was slated for one job per household, which would mean 22,000 jobs.  Now there are close to three jobs per household."

From an interview with a guy who's been in Reston longer than I.  Robert Simon wanted Reston to be a place where you worked and lived, but you can see it's not the way it's developed. With the coming of Metro to Wiehle Avenue I suspect the jobs/household ratio will shift further.

Ezra Klein Is Right: No Government Waste

"There's no such thing as government waste." from a good post by Ezra Klein

The point is, of course, that while probably 70 percent of Americans think farm program payments are an example of waste, the nation through its elected representatives and senators has determined otherwise.  And that's just an example.  Personally I think there's lots of "waste" in DOD, but the nation doesn't agree with my wisdom.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Kudos for Sibelius

The NYTimes today had a chart grading the first 6 months of the PPACA healthcare reform.  Regardless of one's opinion of the act, it's worth noting and appreciating the fact that HHS has done a good job the first six months in getting regulations written and other practical steps needed to implement.  We all can agree if the act is poorly implemented it will be a bad thing.  Some of us think it will be a good thing if well implemented.

One item where the authors give poor marks is the effectiveness of state governments, though that seems to reflect the opposition of Republican governors to the act.  (Which leads me back to the theme of the weakness of the federal government.)

History and Food, a Dissenting View

John Phipps recommends this article by a historian who challenges some foodie myths; I concur. It's good, although she paints with too broad a brush.  It's true that the rural residents in past realms didn't eat well, just look at the diet of black Americans in the ante-bellum South.  "High on the hog" implies a "low on the hog". But it's true some areas in some times ate well.  Colonial Pennsylvanians were significantly taller on average than the British troops who opposed them in the Revolution.  That's nit-picking, though.  The article is worth reading by anyone interested in food.

What Costs the Most, Labor to Make a Car or Wheat to Make Bread

According to this: "First, labor only accounts for only about 7 percent of the cost of a car." Interview with Steven Rattner quoted at Ezra Klein.

That surprising fact reminds me of a similar observation:: "A $2.59 loaf of white bread contains 14 cents worth of wheat."  That won't prevent bakers from raising prices based on higher wheat prices.

I Tip Well, Because I Had Food Service Experience

As such, I fit the result of a study described here.

What are the proverbs about walking a mile in the other person's shoes?  Not that I ever got tips, but serving food in a college dormitory is an educational experience.

This Must Be Wrong, Though Tyler Cowan Cites It

Marginal revolution refers to this paper (it's not free, so I'm not getting it):
This paper investigates the institutional causes of China’s Great Famine. It presents two empirical findings: 1) in 1959, when the famine began, food production was almost three times more than population subsistence needs; and 2) regions with higher per capita food production that year suffered higher famine mortality rates, a surprising reversal of a typically negative correlation. A simple model based on historical institutional details shows that these patterns are consistent with the policy outcomes in a centrally planned economy in which the government is unable to easily collect and respond to new information in the presence of an aggregate shock to production.
I can't believe the first sentence: a country of some 500-600 million people had food sufficient for 1.5 billion? No way, no how. [Update: according to Wikipedia, food production in 59-60 was 70 percent of pre-famine levels.]

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Our Weak Federal Government

From a Post story today comes another reminder of why I firmly believe our Federal government is weak. The story is about the problems states face in implementing the health care law.  Lots of people in 50 states plus the territories have to do lots of different things.  That's because HHS won't deal directly with health care providers or the public, all the dealing is done via the medium of the states and their departments. 

I say "they won't deal directly" but that's only partially true.  Go to and you'll find explanations of the new rules.  But, and it's an important but, prominent in the upper left of the page is a box: "Pick Your State", because the stuff which really matters is dependent on the decisions made by governors and state legislatures, and implemented, or not, by the state healthcare bureaucracy.

By compare, in a bureaucracy like FSA, the federal bureaucracy is dealing directly with farmers, through the medium of county offices.  Granted, that simple statement hides a bunch of complexity, but if you're going to have fast and efficient implementation of decisions, that's the way you go.  As a nation, however, we think it's better to waste time and money in favor of giving more power to state and local levels.  We feel that will improve the quality of the decisions being implemented.  

Over at the NYTimes Tom Friedman has a column on the differences between China and the U.S., noting they're able to build impressive things in a short time, while we take years and years to do things, like build at Ground Zero.  Or India, another democracy, which is having problems building the infrastructure for the Commonwealth Games, as compared to China's preparations for the Olympics. 

A Funny Site? Not for a Farmer

For some reason, Professor Soltan at University Diaries thinks this is a funny site, at least that's my inference.

The Cotton Wife Is in the Money Now

I love her pictures, even though they load Her husband is picking cotton now, and this shows the process. (Just an aside: compare what's shown with historical photos of people, usually black, in the fields picking cotton.) I observe that the price of cotton is now up, close to $1, which is about a historical high, the result of bad floods in China which is the biggest producer.  That's a change from the years and years when the price was in the $.55-.60 neighborhood, so we can assume that the Cotton Wife and her cute redheaded kids (usually featured in her photos) will enjoy a good Christmas.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Symptoms of Growing Old

When you and your wife go from sharing a pitcher of beer, to drinking a beer each and splitting a third, to skipping the third.

When you go from drinking a pot of coffee of leaded  to a partial pot, to a partial pot that's half decaf, half the good stuff.

When you go from Starbucks vente bold to Starbucks half and half.

Who Says Educational Standards Have Gone to Hell?

At Tufts, Dan Drezner is teaching Thucydides.  He has an interesting post, including a long quote from the historian, from which I'll excerpt two sentences:
"Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question, inaptness to act on any."

Tea Party Candidate: Country Was Better Off Under Democrat

From a story on the Republican candidate for Senate in Alaska, who received farm program payments in Kansas during part of the 1990's:
"DeSoto [Miller's spokesman] said that it was standard practice for farmers to receive the subsidies in Kansas and that the nation was in a much better financial situation at the time that Miller received the funds.
“This was back in the 90’s, the situation the country was in was far different than now,” he said."
In all fairness to Miller, DeSoto is right.  Miller bought a quarter section while he was in the Army and must have leased it on shares to the farm operator, thereby qualifying for payments (probably deficiency payments). The operator would have enrolled the farm, although Miller would have had to sign the contract to receive the payments.  
And of course DeSoto is absolutely right, the country was in much better shape under Clinton than it was under Bush.

As for the other story linked to, on Mudflats, (saying Miller got payments on some Alaska land, which the spokesman denied), that story links to the Environmental Working Group's farm subsidy database. Even in Alaska there may be multiple Joe Millers.   There's a discrepancy; the spokesman says Miller owned Alaska land since 1999, but the EWG data shows payments since 1995, some barley direct and DFC payments (which might or might not mean barley was being grown in those years), some marketing loan payments (which would require barley to be grown) and some agricultural conservation program (long term agreement) payments.  If the Joe Miller in the EWG is the same as the candidate and he bought the land in 1999, he possibly would have gotten an obligation under the ACP LTA when he bought, although a new owner might have the opportunity to terminate an agreement.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Innovation and Bureaucraccy in the USAF

Tom Ricks has an interesting post and comments on the issue of whether remote-controlled drone aircraft need to be piloted by officers, or by enlisted men. As someone who likes innovation, usually, and retains a prejudice against officers from my draftee days, I lean towards answering "Yes".  Some commenters however offer some real-life experiences showing we're still low in the learning curve in dealing with drones.

KKR Is Small Business?

From Political Animal:

Under the Republican definition of "small business," the GOP is fighting to protect companies like Wall Street buyout firm Kohlberg, Kravis and Roberts, "which recently reported more than $54 billion in assets managed by 14 offices around the world." PricewaterhouseCoopers, a massive international auditing firm, qualifies for the label, too. So does Tribune Corp., which owns the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times and the Baltimore Sun.

Using Technology in Agriculture

I suggested a while back the use of cellphone cameras to document damage to crops because of natural disaster.  Here's an instance where UC-Davis has developed a smartphone app to link the GPS location to the digitized soils map.  I'm not sure how extensively this would be used: soils don't change that often so once you know the soil type present at a location, you don't need it again.  It is an example of some people keeping up with the times.

Professor Henderson's Lament

Bunch of posts relating to Professor Henderson, who discusses his finances and the possible expiration of the Bush tax cut for families with over $250,000 income. DeLong  Marginal Revolution

It's not clear what his income actually is.  Maybe $250,000+, maybe $450,000, maybe something in between.

What is clear is that he makes more any federal government employee with the possible exception of the President.  General Petraeus, for example, has a base salary of around $177,000.

[Updated: Yglesias has a post with more links to the discussion.]

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Profits and Sustainability

Chris Clayton sees a gap between the aspirations of the sustainable ag movement and the realities of profit-seeking   From the summary of the NAS report being discussed:
This report recommends reaching this goal through two parallel efforts: an incremental
approach, in which ongoing endeavors to develop sustainable agricultural techniques
are expanded; and a transformative approach, in which multiple research areas are brought
together to design farming systems that balance the competing demands from the outset.
The first approach talks of stuff like "no-till" farming; the second is more utopian. I'm conservative enough to doubt our ability to come up with such a set of farming systems. 

For contrast see this post at Treehugger. There's discussion of a "sustainability index", but the discussions by the operator of a 4,000 acre vegetable farm focus on doing more with less. "More with less" easily translates to more profitability; the sustainability index could be a proxy for "more with less".

Silo Systems: Public Safety Comm Systems

In the past I've griped about the failure to enable public safety agencies to communicate with each other, suggesting there were interim measures which could work.  My gripe was based on limited knowledge; this post  Why Cops Don't Use Cell Phones provides another perspective.

Palin Over Obama Because Obama's Not a Thinker

John at Powerline

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Elizabeth Warren's First Job: Find a Bureaucrat

Ron Lieber has a piece in the NYTimes offering Ms. Warren suggestions on what she should be doing. It's a list of policy issues, all very worthy of attention I'm sure.  My advice to her, however, is to get herself a bureaucrat. What would the bureaucrat do:
  • determine the administrative relationship between the new agency and the Treasury Department.  Does it have its own budget and administrative personnel, or is it serviced by the Department? Makes a big difference down the road.
  • roughly scope the size of the agency.  How many bodies at what grade levels can be/will be hired over the next 12 months?
  • work on obtaining office space to accommodate the people. 
  • work on setting up telephone system for the people.
  • work on the budget/fiscal arrangements so people can be paid and travel can be done.
  • work on the IT system for the agency.
  • work on the personnel system for the agency--so the people can be hired.

She's Got It

No, it's not Ms. Hepburn but Sen. Lincoln, and it's not achieving the correct pronunciation for the "rain in spain" but getting an ad hoc disaster program out of the administration. 

Friday, September 17, 2010

Different Paths to the Good Society?

Via someone (probably Marginal Revolution or Yglesias, I forget), here's an interesting discussion at the Money Illusion of a metric for measuring a nation.  His discussion puts disparate countries in the top five, but as he says:
You can’t get much more different than Hong Kong and Denmark, at least by the criteria used by most people on the left and right.  But they all do at least one thing extremely well.  They all are exceptionally good at one of the three attributes of a highly successful neoliberal society.  Either they are highly civic-minded (Denmark, Sweden), or highly aware of the sorts of policies that produce economic efficiency (Singapore, Hong Kong) or highly democratic.  Switzerland had more national referenda in the 20th century than the rest of the world combined.  And it also seems that all three have very good governance.
One of the things which gets me about the more chauvinistic patriots in this country is the lack of recognition of different values and different paths.  I don't like Britain's libel laws, but it's a free country.  I don't like the US's gun laws, but it's a good country.  I don't like France's regimentation in certain areas (see Dirk Beauregarde), but it's a free country.  Governmental institutions are important but so is the nature of the society and the course of the nation's history.

Moveon and the Tea Party Movement: Parallels

Via a couple of bloggers (probably Marginal Revolution and Klein [Updated: Todd Zywicki at Volokh is one]) , this interesting piece in National Journal on the Tea Party Movement's organization. It's worth reading, both in the light of organization theory and politics.

The article includes a comparison of Moveon and the Tea Party Movement, both being ground up organizations with minimal national leadership.The last two paragraphs:

One hears again, there, echoes of leftist movements. Raise consciousness. Change hearts, not just votes. Attack corruption in society, not just on Capitol Hill. In America, right-wing movements have tended to focus on taking over politics, left-wing ones on changing the culture. Like its leftist precursors, the Tea Party Patriots thinks of itself as a social movement, not a political one.
Centerless swarms are bad at transactional politics. But they may be pretty good at cultural reform. In any case, the experiment begins.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Politicians and Disingenuous Criticism

Farm Policy quotes former Rep. Larry Combest:
“Hail and drought are all too common in these parts, which might explain why a local wheat, sorghum, and beef producer told the House Agriculture Committee in May, ‘Risk management, specifically crop insurance, is critical to Texas producers generally and especially those in this region of the state.’

“Too bad the U.S. Department of Agriculture slashed a giant chunk out of crop insurance just a few months later, leaving area farmers more vulnerable to Mother Nature’s whims.
I don't know how he gets the last sentence. Existing producers with existing policies aren't affected as far as coverage goes. The worst you could say is, by cutting back on crop insurance administration, companies won't service their policies as well or be as prompt in handling and paying claims. And perhaps down the line that will be true. But it's not true this year or next year (inasmuch as 2011 wheat policies have already been sold).

Interestingly, Farm Policy also reports the purchase of Rain and Hail Insurance by a Swiss insurer which operates in more than 50 countries.  They value R&H at more than book value, at 1.59 times book.

Reagan Not Transformational? The Case of Metrics

Via the NYTimes comes an article reminding us that Ronald Reagan was not a transformational figure.  It seems that ever since Reagan's campaign for the US to adopt metrics some Arizona interstates have been using kilometers on their signs and to determine the numbering of the exits. Now they're converting back to miles and some business owners don't like it.

Don't remember Reagan's campaign?  You just proved my point.  Actually, going by memory without sparing the trouble to look it up, I think it was his Commerce Secretary who probably pushed it.  May have been Malcolm Baldridge, who pushed for American industry to rationalize and improve their management in order to catch up with the Japanese in quality.

A certain breed of liberals, one with which I have a lot of sympathy, and a certain breed of businessperson have some things in common: most notably a faith in reason to improve human affairs.  The business people tend to favor big business, often with a little cooperation thrown in (otherwise known as "trusts", "cartels" "restraint of trade", etc.)  They were, in my youth, the country club Republicans who thought Barry Goldwater was too extreme and much preferred the Nelson Rockefeller, Bill Scranton brand of Republicanism.  The liberals take the same faith in human reason and the ability of people to run big organizations and put it to work in government.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Sometimes You Have to Acknowledge the Power of Markets

Technology Review says we may have a space bubble

What Is Good Housing?

Little house on the prairie really was little: 12' x 12'.  See Wilder's homestead claim at National Archives.

Distribution Software and the Egg Recall: Blame It on the Railroads

Here's an interesting post on the distribution process for eggs.  I got an email from the author I guess because I'd posted on eggs and the salmonella recall.   The anti-NAIS people won't like this bit:
In fact, some industry groups are advocating for recall planning guidelines, such as the Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI). The PTI’s ultimate goal is supply chain-wide adoption of electronic traceability for every case of produce by the year 2012.

By contrast, see this post which questions FDA's approval of certain salmon, on the basis FDA can't track eggs.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Are Republicans Different?

I generally assume that there's a good deal of symmetry in American politics with a normal distribution curve.  In other words, both right and left have their extremes, their nuts, their excesses, and we all have our blindnesses.  I still think it's a good assumption, good to moderate my tendency to self-righteousness, the feeling I know better.  But,as Kevin Drum notes, over the past 10 years the sorting process whereby political partisans listen to their favorite cable news channel worked more strongly for Republicans than Democrats.  I don't understand why, if my operating assumption is true.

Are We a Center-Right Nation?

That's the conventional wisdom among many of the bloggers/columnists I follow. Pollsters seem to suggest the same: there are more conservatives than liberals.  But my memory says that two or three times in my lifetime one party has had 60 or more Senate seats, each time the Democrats.  Why is that, if we are center-right?

MIDAS, GAO and Enterprise Architecture

A recent GAO report on "Enterprise Architecture" shows why agencies like USDA have problems with their IT projects.  I quote one sentence from the summary:
The framework consists of three interrelated components: (1) seven hierarchical stages of management maturity; (2) four representations of management attributes that are critical to the success of any program or organizational endeavor; and (3) 59 elements, or building blocks, of EA management that are at the core of an EA program.
My point is, this sort of language quickly turns off the policy and program people, who just happen to be the ones who have to make the decisions.  What decisions might management have to make for MIDAS?

  • what's the time frame, both for implementation and for use of the product?
  • how secure is the funding and, if insecure, should the project be structured accordingly (i.e., incrementally rather than globally)?
  • which FSA programs will continue over the time frame and which will be changed, discontinued, etc.?
  • to what extent should FSA support RMA and crop insurance and what support can it expect from RMA
  • to what extent should FSA support NRCS and what support can it expect from NRCS?
  • to what extent should FSA support RD, Extension Service, APHIS, NASS? 
  • to what extent should FSA GIS layers be pushed into public and other governmental areas
  • should FSA focus on the most efficient delivery of benefits to farmers, regardless of the impact on county offices, or should it give priority to face-to-face contact with farmers at the local offices?
  • should the focus be on maximum use of  Government 2.0 techniques, or is there a misfit between current personnel and work patterns and such techniques?
  • how seriously should FSA take Obama administration directives (on transparency, etc.)
Note these and other questions can't be answered by IT types or the GS-14's and 13's who deal with them. In my experience management figures most of its job is done once they've assigned the "right" people to an IT project.  Their attention quickly turns back to the daily business of running the agencies and satisfying Congress.

Buffett and Rhee on Improving Education

Courtland Milloy passes on this bit of wisdom from Mr. Buffett via Ms. Rhee: the way immediately to improve our schools is to outlaw private schools and then use a lottery to determine which school each student attends.

Works for me, but totally impossible to adopt.  Though back in the old days of the one-room schoolhouse, that was basically what happened.  Everyone in the area got the same educational opportunity.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Is Your Work Worth $1.2 Million?

That's what law firm partners in DC bill, $600 an hour according to Orin Kerr at Volokh passing on a study.  I'm giving them a break by saying they only bill 2,000 hours a year. (Indeed, one commenter says they can bill 5,000 hours easily.)  I'm not sure what a government lawyer gets, but it can't be more than 15 percent of that.

This disparity could explain why corporations always sometimes outmaneuver the federal government. What it doesn't explain, indeed it aggravates the mystery, is why the right claims federal government employees are so vastly overpaid.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

How Smart Phones Will Drive Down Healthcare Costs

I think it's reasonable to say we're only just realizing how much of a game changer the smart phone can be.  By combining computer, camera, sound, and Internet in one small package it opens up new possibilities.  One of them seems to be health care.  Federal Computer Weekly has posts on using smart phones for  general outreach, for remote dermatology and for mental health.  Now much of this is probably boys with toys seeing nails everywhere to use their new hammers on, but out of many ideas will come some worthwhile innovations.

Obviously one of the big holdbacks for this is geezerdom: us old folks who haven't bought a smart phone yet and who generally are technologically backward.  What's worse is there's probably a high correlation between lack of adoption and iffy health.  (Though maybe not, I think I remember seeing that adoption of cell phones is higher among minorities.  So maybe it's the old WASP geezers in the hills of Appalachia like those I grew up amongst who are most resistant.)

One of the big advantages would be outsourcing the emergency room.  See Megan McArdle's post I referenced here.

Sugar Alert: Cuteness Ahead

What's cuter than a red-headed kid?  How about threered-headed kids?  What's cuter than three red-headed kids? How about a kitten?  What's cuter than one kitten?  How about several kittens?  What's cuter than several kitttens?  How about several kittens and red-headed kids?

Organic Growth in Bricks and Mortar

Organic Valley, an organic cooperative, is expanding its headquarters.  Hype is easy, bricks and mortar are hard.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Government Shutdowns--Memories of the Last One

Bloggers and others are starting to pay attention to the possibility that, with the Republicans winning the House and maybe the Senate in November, the next step would be a government shutdown based on a fight between the Reps and the President over budget issues.

I was still working during the shutdowns when Clinton and Gingrich faced off, riding a vanpool in from Reston. As it turned out, the pool included a mixture.  Some people always went to work.  My memory is vague, but I think one guy worked for a section of the Agricultural Marketing Service which was funded by fees, so the lack of appropriations bills had no impact on him.  Then there were several different appropriations bills being considered under different time schedules.  I think Justice got funded pretty quickly; Newt decided that cutting off funds for prisons and law enforcement wasn't good politics and I think one of our riders worked for DOJ. The rest of the pool came back to work in a couple of phases, USDA was deemed more essential than some other people (maybe Interior). 

Shutting down the government always makes for interesting theater and politics.

Bureaucracy and Innovation

Watched Tora Tora Tora the other night from Netflix.  It's a reminder of the problems of bureaucracy and innovation.

For bureaucracy, although Naval Intelligence had broken the Japanese diplomatic code, which led Gen. Marshall to send a telegram to all Pacific posts, the military communications link to Hawaii was out, not having been upgraded to be as reliable as commercial telegraphy, so the telegram went commercial, which delayed receipt.

For innovation, the problems in establishing the standard operating procedures for the new radar installation and its supporting communications and analysis structure.  It's easier to innovate than to integrate the new into the existing structures.

Burning the Pope in Effigy

Some of my ancestors came from Ulster, where lives the Orange Order.  One of the tenets of the Orange Order was an unremitting fight against Popery. So this post in Religion in American History, recalling a little-known order of General Washington, condemning the burning of the Pope in effigy, was interesting to me. (The context: early in the Revolution its leaders hoped to get Canada, i.e., Quebec, to join the rebellion.)

Thursday, September 09, 2010

The Growth of Government

Calculated Risk provides graphs which show exactly how greatly government has expanded since 1976, as expressed in terms of employment as a percent of total employment. This is partial followon to a post at Econbrowser. (I'll give the commenters who expressed disbelief one valid point: contractors are excluded from the statistics.

Hollywood and Title Inflation

One of the things people like Paul Light find is the inflation of bureaucratic titles in DC.  Secretary Gates has promised to cut the number of Deputy Assistant Secretaries in DOD.  Wife and I saw The American (we like George Clooney and Italian scenery) today.  I was amused to see a number of credits along the lines of "second second assistant director".

We Don't Know Him

Ruth Marcus has an op-ed commenting on Haley Barbour's comments on Obama, the one where he said: we know the least about him of any President.  She correctly says: the point is, we don't know anyone like Obama.  I'd expand that--he doesn't fit into familiar narratives. For past Presidents, we have a handy label/narrative we can apply:  GWBush, frat boy cheerleader; Clinton, fat boy band leader with alcoholic stepfather; GWHBush, WASP aristo; Reagan, frat boy with alcoholic father; Carter, engineer nerd peanut farmer; etc. etc

We recognize these stereotypes/narratives don't represent the whole man; they're unfair. But I suspect partisans on both sides would agree there's a key element of truth in them.  They give us a handle on the reality.  With Obama the anti people are reacting as I did with Reagan (my person label for him was the "senior idiot"). 

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Food Price Trends

Matt Yglesias comments on a David Leonhardt article on housing costs; Leonhardt sees the issue as whether housing is a luxury or a utility.  If the former, then prices might rise; if the latter, prices will track other necessities.It's an interesting article which has also attracted comments from other bloggers.  One in particular was saying "housing" combined houses and land, and most of the appreciation was in land.  {UPdated: Kevin Drum comments.  One thing I haven't seen discussed is the increase in square footage for  housing over the period.]

But all that is a side issue to me, because there's an associated graph of the proportion of household income by category over the last  80 years.  Basically clothing and food had their peaks in 1947 or so, with a consistent decline in each to the present (a bit steeper for food than clothing).  Meanwhile health care costs have been rising steadily since 1947.  The changes in both food and health care are astonishing.

OMB Watch Reports on Obama Naked Government

They give a mixed rating for the first 9 months. 

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

A Bureaucrat to be Complimented

The head of the National Archives and Records Administration acknowledges his agency ranked lowest in employee satisfaction, in a press release. You can't fix a problem if you don't recognize it.

Eggs and Cage -Free Hens and Dirt

The Washington Post runs an article  on caged and cage-free hens, tied in with the salmonella problem. It's accompanied by a photo, which I don't see on the website, showing hens in a row of nests. The photo called up memories, and thoughts.  (Here's a link to a similar photo, found through Google Images.)  The article said currently cage-free eggs are about twice the cost of cage eggs, and even with mass production the cost differential would still be 25 percent more.

Some points for anyone who didn't have a close association with hens growing up:
  • cages permit total control over the hen.  You can use conveyor belts to bring grain to the hen, pipe in water to the waterer, and allow the eggs to roll into another conveyor belt.  The manure drops through the cage bottom  Presto: eggs untouched by human hands.
  • cage-free hens who lay eggs in nests, as in the picture, are an entirely different matter. Someone has to collect the eggs from the nests.  Because eggs are laid throughout the day, although more heavily in the early hours of the day, the eggs need to be collected multiple times a day.  Why not just once?  Because eggs are fragile; the more eggs you have in a nest the more likely the next egg laid is going to drop on an egg already in the nest and one or both eggs get cracked.  That's bad for several reasons: you've lost one or two eggs; if the break is bad enough the white of the egg gets out and spreads over any other uncracked eggs in the nest, you've now got dirty eggs which are hard to clean; finally, if a hen tries pecking at the white/egg and finds it good, which they do, you're training a hen to peck at eggs to get the contents.
  • even if you collect the eggs often enough to avoid breakage, you face another problem not found in cages: manure.  Hens are not naturally fastidious and will defecate in their nests.  That means some percentage of the eggs collected have manure clinging to them, sometimes really staining the shell.  So after the eggs are collected you need to clean the eggs.  Growing up cleaning eggs was my mother's job, which she did manually.  Could take 90 minutes or so to do 900 eggs.  If she was sick, we could use an early egg cleaning machine, which was faster than I or my father.
So the bottom line is cage free eggs require a lot more labor than eggs from caged hens. I'd assume these days there are innovations which we didn't have 60 years ago, but I think the labor accounts for the difference.

One final note: if you look at the photo, you'll see someone who is collecting eggs will have to lift the hens in the nest to see if they're sitting on eggs already laid.  Now hens vary in their personality; some are timid, some aggressive in protecting the eggs, and some are from hell.  The latter ones will grab a fold of skin on the back of your hand in their beak and pull and twist.  Not a nice feeling.  I still feel the anger from 60 years ago. 

Sentence of Sept 7

"People who thought that we could end unnecessary ER visits by expanding access to primary care underestimated the vast reserves of American health paranoia."  From Megan McArdle  Not sure I agree with the implications, but it's a good sentence.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Congressional Websites Are Like the Executive Branch's?

Some paragraphs from a critique of Congressional websites (and this)

Incumbents are locked into a website design, and sites that were rated as high quality one year typically dropped the following year, according to the report. Congressional offices also tended not to ask constituents what they want to see on their representatives' or senators' sites. "The problem with most political websites ... is they are producer-focused," said Marc Cooper, associate professor of communication at the University of Southern California.
The sites carry information about elected officials, but they don't provide a way for the constituents to communicate with them, he said. The Web pages also don't offer a lot of incentives to visitors to explore the online information. "They don't have a reason for you to continue to be there as a participant on the site," Cooper said. "Once you get the information, there's nothing left for you to do."
While congressional members often believe their sites are cutting edge, the sites often are not engaging or transparent, he added.

Seems to me the same things could be said of many government websites, particularly those I see at USDA. I'm not sure, though, how much involvement the public really wants with government.

Farm Bill and the Elections

Farm Policy today has some discussion of the 2012 farm bill by Chairman Peterson and the Iowa Farm Bureau. Of course, the results of the November elections will have a big impact on the bill.  The Republicans may find themselves forced to go against their base to carry out some of their promises.  It seems to me the Republicans are usually supportive of farm programs.  If cutting expenditures is the platform they win on in 2010, then they can't simply extend  farm programs in the next farm bill.  We'll see.

Down With Tenured Eggheads

Dan Drezner finds no surge of hostility towards tenured professors.  I thought I'd supply some.  If government bureaucrats are going to be scorned for their job security, so too should those eggheads in ivory towers.

Government's Achievements

No oil slicks around the Statue of Liberty recently.  See this photo  (from early 70's)

It's easy to forget, except sometimes for geezers.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

King and Beck--Taylor Branch

Taylor Branch has an op-ed piece in the Times today which I think is consistent with my post here.  There's a process of building a shared mythology which Glenn Beck is participating in by buying into MLK's myth.  Branch, a biographer of King and a friend of Bill Clinton, gives some background to the whole thing.

Surprising Factoid of the Day

From a NY Times book review of a history of the battle of Cannae:
"The battle is unparalleled for its carnage, with more men from a single army killed on that one day, Aug. 2, 216 B.C., than on any other day on any other European battlefield: something like 50,000 Romans died, two and a half times the number of British soldiers who fell on the first day of the Somme."
 There's the observation that each of these man had to be stabbed, hacked or beaten to death.  Makes one think.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

So Much for the Mediterranean Diet

Matt Yglesias provides an international comparison of BMI's (body-mass-index) figures.  Greece is right up there, if far from the U.S. measure of amplitude.  Last I looked Greece had a Mediterranean diet. And what's more, they're not on the list of countries with McDonalds

Klein: Better One or Better Two?

Ezra Klein has found a great metaphor for how we should think about politics: the eye exam. Anyone unfortunate enough to have to be fitted with glasses knows the routine: after trying to read the eye chart without glasses, and misreading the "E" as "P", the optometrist inserts a lens in front of your eye, has you read down some lines, then starts the comparison routine, quickly switching between two lenses and asking: "better one or better two?" [Note: Klein uses the ophthalmologist, but optometrist is easier to spell.]

That's mostly how we need to think about many political and social issues.  For example, evaluating teachers.  Is it better not to evaluate or to evaluate by having the principal monitor the class a couple times a year?  Is looking at class test scores better than principal monitoring, or worse?  Is a combo of test scores and monitoring better than either alone.  Is looking at "value-added" scores better than raw scores?  etc. etc.

Friday, September 03, 2010

True Ugliness

Via Marginal Revolutions, those carpets had better stay in Vegas.  I wouldn't be surprised if the poor workers who ran the looms to weave the carpets and the installers both didn't have to put in for workmen's compensation. 

Changing Literary Tastes

A relative mentioned she needed to decide what to do with the set of Harvard Classics her father had bought.  That led me to Google it, and also The Great Books of the Western World which I vaguely remember being advertised in the Saturday Review of Literature when I was growing up. (I wanted to assure her that everything would be available for free for download to her Kindle.)  If you skim over the listings, you find only one Twain short story in the Harvard Classics and no Melville at all.  James is represented by The Portrait of a Lady.  That fits my memory, which is Twain was regarded as a children's author.  The Great Books, which represent more of an 1950's establishment version, include Huckleberry Finn and Moby Dick, showing the change in opinion in the first half of the century. 

Gingrich Agrees With Me

I suggested resolving the mosque controversy by eminent domain.  Newt proposes making the area a national battlefield memorial. :-)  I'm sure he's never heard of me and didn't know my tongue was in my cheek.  But what has the world come to when the leader of the revolution of 1994 opts for government solutions?

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Parking Regulations

Some bogs (Yglesias, Klein, now Drum) are discussing  regulations requiring parking when a building is erected.  It's perceived as encouraging sprawl, locking society into dependence on the car, and adversely impacting the environment. 

It's not a topic I've thought much about, but in a way it could be seen as the feudalization of society.  In feudal society, each manor relied on its own forces for self-defense.  With parking requirements, community parking is de-emphasized, each building has its own.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Reactions to the MIDAS Project-I (Old History)

I've listened to the first hour or so of the first day's program introducing the MIDAS program for FSA.  I've some reactions to it, which may spread over multiple posts.

One of the speakers, either the Administrator or Mr. Hanley, said MIDAS is the first time FSA has looked in depth at its operations since 1985.  One of the problems with government bureaucracies is, because of the turnover of political appointees there's a loss of historical memory. ASCS/FSA has a long history of looking at itself, either singly or in conjunction with other agencies.  The successes are few and far between.  Let me reminisce:

The first project I ran into after joining ASCS was a data project, led by Alan Morrison.  Didn't go anywhere.

Then in 1970-71 we had the Management Analysis Project, which looked at all ASCS operations across the board.  I got roped in pushing papers around and managing the library of documentation.  I'm sure some changes were made in some processes because of the studies, but not much. It was notable for establishing task forces on various areas without any plan for how to handle their recommendations.

Next, a couple years later, came Bill Ruble's project to automate county offices by putting dumb terminals in county offices, hooked to the mainframes in Kansas City.  A county office in Mississippi got some terminals and started data loading before it blew up, partially because of cost, partially because people were concerned about privacy of data.  (The Privacy Act was passed in 1974, I think.) This was back in the day when the disk drives were the size of an air conditioning unit and held 7.5 megs.

The next project I remember was Jim Dimwiddie's successful IBM System-36 project, which started putting computers in county offices in 1985, based on work done in 1984.  I was on one of the task forces.  You've got to give Jim a little credit for putting over the project; you've got to give county offices a lot of credit for surviving the hell we put them through.  (Lesson learned: never do a big automation project at the same time you're implementing a new farm bill, particularly when Gramm-Rudman-Hollings reductions come into play.)

Once we had System/36's in the offices, we almost immediately started running out of space. I think the first ones had a hard drive of around 200 megs for the smallest one.  Big concerns about our outgrowing the System/36 led to the Trail Boss effort of Chris Niedermayer.  ("Trail Boss" was a GSA concept, with OMB and GAO approval, for handling big automation projects.)  He started work around 1989 with a big team.  The methodology was "information engineering", as embodied by James Martin.  It was an elaborate, well planned effort, which took so long it produced little, because when the Dems came into office Chris had antagonized some, and his patron had antagonized most.  We did get some mailing software done, which was useful.  (Lesson: big projects tend to run out of impetus and support before they produce results.) (Chris bounced up to USDA It shop, and most recently is deputy CIO for HUD.)

Secretary Madigan in mid -1991 initiated the Department's Info-Share project.  Part of the effort was to consolidate county offices and co-locate the USDA offices in each county (SCS, ASCS, FmHA, Extension). The other parts of the effort were trying to share data among the agencies and to make them work together.  I was involved in pilots with county offices in Kansas and in Mississippi where the different agencies shared PC's hooked to a Sun server and provided on-line access to the handful of farmers with PC's. (Note that Madigan's effort was happening at the same time as the Niedermayer effort.  Madigan got the bee in his bonnet without knowing what was happening in ASCS, or in SCS for that matter.  Lesson: in a place as big as USDA it's hard to do change rationally.)

Info Share stumbled in the summer and fall of 1992, then went into limbo as the new administration took over. After a while it resumed for a while, but without much success.  By this time the new buzzword in IT systems was "business process reengineering".  Rather than looking at the data and getting it rationally organized, you looked at processes, figuring the data would handle itself. (Lesson: big IT projects tend to fall victim to the latest style being pushed by the private consultants hoping to make money off the government.  As ex-Sen Simpson might say: to suck the government tit.)

In 1994 Congress reorganized the agencies, changing SCS to NRCS, splitting FmHA between ASCS, now called FSA, and the new Rural Development, into which the Rural Electrification Administration was folded.

After Secretary Espy left and Glickman came in, Greg Carnill became leader of  what was now called the "service center" effort.  This evolved in part to an attempt was to combine the administrative support for NRCS, FSA, and RD into one organization. Unfortunately this was killed in Congress due to opposition from partisans of the different agencies. (Lesson: any attempt to rationalize USDA organization must win the support of the appropriate Congressional bigshots and the special interests who whisper in their ears.

Before I retired we  did get started on some changes to the FSA name and address system which were worthwhile.  (Lesson: if a bureaucrat leaves, the successors will have their own ideas.) And the people who worked on GIS for FSA/NRCS did implement the common land unit layer.  Whether what was accomplished actually helped the county offices and the farmers they serve is an open question.

How Blind I Was

When I left FSA, I thought Russia would really ramp up production since the Communists were gone and we'd be seeing surpluses again. Via Ezra Klein, this Economist article explains why it was Brazil which has become a powerhouse in recent years and how they did it.  (Short answer: brains/science.)  Recommended for anyone interested in agriculture.

New Orleans Factoids

From various news reports on the 5th anniversary of Katrina I assembled these factoids:

  • there are 300 more restaurants than before, I'm not sure why.  There's more Hispanics in the area so presumably some new restaurants came about from that.  This also probably ties into the fact that entrepreneurship in the area is up.
  • New Orleanians are now more likely to attend public meetings than other Americans.  Apparently because of the problems in getting aid, people have become skeptical of outside planners and therefore like to participate in meetings to give them a grilling.
  • reconstruction in the lower Ninth ward has encountered problems because title to many homes are confused.  It seems the pattern was for someone to build or buy early in the 20th century, then to die intestate, thereby leaving the property to all the children.  Repeat this another time or too and titles become unclear.  It's the same sort of thing which has caused many Southern farmers, particularly blacks, to lose their land.
  • there have been gains since Katrina, particularly in the public schools.
These fit some of my preconceptions: one of which is that the "cake of custom"  can become baked in place. Disasters, wars, epidemics can crumble the cake, creating new opportunities for some to change and grow.  Others, of course, are killed or harmed.