Tuesday, May 31, 2011

White House Gardening: Clean Sweeps

Here's a link to the White House garden--apparently it's to be harvested this Friday. And it sounds as if they'll be planting corn, squash and beans (the "three sisters" approach of native Amdericans). It seems the White House is sacrificing a bit of good gardening for their PR.  I say "seems" because I'm reading between the lines. My version of "good gardening" would involve planting as you harvest.  But the PR aspects of the garden means you need to have an "event" to attract the media and justify a video, which seems to lead them to harvest as much as they can at one time and replanting all at once. Presumably the kitchen is serving enough people each week they can use a big harvest, which isn't something the ordinary household could do.

In our own garden, we had one broccoli plant bolt early before we caught it. The rest of the broccoli and the cabbages won't be harvested at the   We've got the tomatoes stuck amongst the lettuce and peas (lots of both).  

The World of Universal Feedback

I was struck by this Nate Silver piece ranking all the major league baseball parks.  It's just part of the new world where we can get feedback on everything, and ranking on everything.  How long will it take for people to start acting on the information?

Some economist, maybe Hayek, observed the market is very good at gathering information, that prices convey reasonably precisely all sorts of information and there's no substitute for it.  That should mean the prices for tickets for the Washington Nationals games should be low, reflecting not only the less than stellar success of the team but also the deficiencies of the ballpark (which may overlap). I doubt the prices do reflect that information.  But the team owners can react to the ratings and improve the ballpark which presumably is much easier to do than improving the team.

More on Supply Side Solutions for Medicare III

Foreign Policy, via Charles Kenny, has a piece on outsourcing medical care to Thailand (lousy pun in Kenny's link)

Suzy Khimm, guest blogging for Ezra Klein, discusses primary care doctors and a NYTimes oped  suggesting making med school education for primary care doctors free.

Monday, May 30, 2011

John Holbo Reverses Things

Via the Corner, a spot of TV talking head with Eric Cantor.
“Everything is on the table,” he said. “As Republicans, we’re not going to go for tax increases. I think the administration gets that. But we’ve also put everything on the table as far as cuts.”
Imagine what the response would be if this were flipped around. Imagine a Democrat emitting the following, as a bold deficit reduction plan: “Everything is on the table … we’re not going to go for spending cuts. I think the Republicans get that. But we’ve also put everything on the table as far as tax hikes.” No one would say such a Bizarro Norquist thing, of course, because no one on the Democratic side is as bizarre as Norquist. But if someone did, it would be perfectly obvious the person saying this thing wasn’t concerned with deficit reduction. The idea that someone unwilling to contemplate spending cuts – anywhere – was a deficit hawk would not pass the laugh test. As Cantor’s statement does not.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Harshaw Observes Memorial Day

As recorded in this.  (The town was named after a Union veteran who became a politician after the war, holding an office in the Wisconsin state government and running afoul of Robert LaFollette.  No known relation to me.)

Personally, I'd like to express Memorial Day wishes to those who were left behind, the mothers and wives who cooked farewell dinners especially.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Palin and Rolling Thunder

As far as I'm concerned, they deserve each other.  As I've said in the past, Rolling Thunder's claims for participation are incredible.  They've gotten a pass over the years because who could challenge veterans with a good cause?  (Although in my mind, the cause of MIA's in Vietnam was always on a par with the birthers and the truthers,) Both deal more with emotion than with truth. Both claim to be patriotic, but I try to be leary of windbags.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Acreage Crop Reporting Streamlining Initiative--InfoAg

First heard of this in the USDA response to E.O. 13563.  It's to be discussed at the infoag.org meeting in July, by Michael Scuse. As a matter of fact,he's the opening speaker.  This is on the website:

The Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services (FFAS) mission area is considering a review of process improvements that could be achieved through the consolidation of information required to participate in farm programs administered by the Farm Service Agency and the Federal Crop Insurance Program administered by the Risk Management Agency. FFAS is interested in hearing from the public on how best to simplify and standardize, to the extent practical, acreage reporting processes, program dates, and data definitions across the various USDA programs and agencies. FFAS also welcomes comments on how best to develop procedures, processes, and standards that will allow producers to use information from their farm-management and precision-ag systems for reporting production, planted and harvested acreage, and other key information needed to participate in USDA programs. These process changes may allow for program data that is common across agencies to be collected once and utilized or redistributed to agency programs in which the producer chooses to participate. It also may provide a single Web site for producers to report commodity information if they so choose, or access their previously reported information.
 I suggest Googling the title. (It looks to me as if MIDAS has been at least impacted, if not overtaken, by other initiatives, those coming from higher levels.  That's an occupational hazard of bureaucratic initiatives.

NASCOE Lobbying Generates Comments

From USDA's summary of steps taken to improve regulations, this summary of comments received (over 2,000)
The vast majority of comments referenced USDA’s potential review of process improvements that could be achieved through the consolidation of information required to participate in farm programs administered by the Farm Service Agency and the Federal Crop Insurance Program, identified as the Acreage-Crop Reporting Streamlining Initiative (ACRSI). Many of these comments responded to suggestions from various commenters that the Farm Service Agency (FSA) take over delivery of the Federal crop insurance program or other administrative functions of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the Risk Management Agency (RMA). ACRSI is an initiative aimed at reducing the reporting burden on USDA customers. By consolidating acreage reporting dates, linking crop codes, and sharing producer information across agencies producers will be able to provide acreage data at their first point of contact with USDA whether that be with FSA, NRCS, or their private sector crop insurance agent. Each individual agency will still be required to collect information from producers that is specific to their program(s); however, common information will only need to be collected once. This initiative will minimize the paperwork burden on producers and minimize the number of trips they need to make to a USDA office.

Voter ID Again

I blogged earlier on a possible Voter ID compromise, providing a one-time grace period and issuing ID's at the polling place. Here's a post on the problems with voter ID.  I'm not convinced by the arguments and still think my compromise works. 

When the US Defaulted--Bureaucrats Screwed Up

In a little-known episode, the US has actually defaulted on some Treasury Bills in 1979 due apparently to a perfect storm of events, including maneuvering over the debt ceiling plus bureaucratic problems.  Quoting from Donald Marron's quote of the original article: "on an unanticipated failure of word processing equipment used to prepare check schedules."

That phrase shows how far we've come in 32 years.  I'm curious what sort of word processing equipment they were using at that time--it seems a little late to be using IBM MT/ST's but if they were merging a file of payees with the check boilerplate they would have served.  If they were using more modern equipment, the data storage might have been a problem.  Our Lexitrons used cassettes for storage, the read/write heads would get out of alignment so a cassette recorded on one machine might not work in another.  Interesting also the operation wasn't computerized--after all punch card accounting machines were the way IBM got into computers back in the 1930's.  Maybe they tried to modernize and had some problems. 

Anyhow, bottom line is the US defaulted and a study seems to show it was expensive; the Treasury had to pay higher interest rates for a good period of time.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Less Physical Work, More Fat

Matt Yglesias makes a catch which I didn't see in the original NY Times article on how our physical work is declining at the same time our weight is climbing.  Specifically: "Running a pre-mechanization farm is hard work"

In the original article the focus is on the changes since 1960, particularly the decline of manufacturing jobs. But the same probably applies for farming.  Our tractor, a small John Deere, didn't have power steering so you definitely could use some calories just driving the darn thing.  Not that I've been on a tractor since, but John Phipps would lead me to believe that all tractors are air conditioned with power steering and a sound system. And certainly a lot of the farmers you see on TV have good sized bellies.  I remember one barrel-chested farmer from my youth, but mostly they were muscular but not fat.

At Last Confirmation That Change Is Bad

As someone who runs on autopilot through much of my life, I welcome this scholarly proof that it's the best way to be productive.

As they used to say: develop good habits.

Surprising Stat of the Day

Via Marginal Revolution, from this site:

An African-American child raised in a lower-class family is 37% less likely to become a professional basketball player than is an African-American child raised in a middle- or upper-class family, according to Joshua Kjerulf Dubrow of the Polish Academy of Sciences and jimi adams of Arizona State.

Dylan's 70

What a whippersnapper.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Car Trains?

Reihan Salan posts concerning the future of cars: possibly we'll have car trains: if  the car becomes intelligent enough to travel synchronized with another car, you can imagine trains of 100 cars motoring away at high speeds.  Here's an earlier Discovery post on the idea.  What threw me at first was the idea of how does a car leave such a train, wouldn't the cars behind follow the car leaving the train?   But I suppose you could have an algorithm or a communication method to handle that.  Still strikes me as something I'm too old to adapt to.

Republican Budget for Agriculture

Here's the summary, though to be honest I don't understand it.  Some of the yellow highlighted rows appear to be totals of the rows below, as for Conservation, but not for others, as Farm Programs.  Here's the text of the bill, which I skimmed and didn't see anything I thought noteworthy.

A Compromise on Voter ID

Seems to me there's a relatively easy compromise available for liberals and conservatives over Voter-ID, which the cons want and libs don't.  Phase in the damn thing (phasing tends to be my solution for many things).  The problem liberals have is that many people don't have photo ID's (like my mother-in-law). So update your voter registration database to show people who do have photo ID's and require them to present them when voting.  For those on the list who don't have ID's, give them one free vote, and offer photo-ID's at the voting station.  In other words, m-o-l shows up to vote, the list shows she doesn't have a photo-ID that's valid, so she can vote but she must get a photo-id before leaving (or at the DMV before the next election) to vote again.

Yes, this is a step towards identity cards for everyone, but I can live with that in exchange for the gains in effectiveness of programs.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Tracking People, Cover Stories, Registries, and Ankle Bracelets

I've noticed and sometimes blogged about a modern trend towards tracking people.  Lots of states, maybe all states, have registries for sex offenders.  There was an article the other day on a proposal to extend such registries to other types of offenders.  Facebook and other Internet sites are making it impossible to create good cover stories for our undercover agents; Valerie Plame is one of the last native-born agents we'll have, or so it seems.  Dominique Straus-Kahn was released only after posting bail and agreeing to wear an ankle bracelet. Now Conan Friedersdorf proposes that, if any convicts are released early in California as a result of the Supreme Court's decision yesterday they would have to wear an ankle bracelet that doesn't expire until the end of their original sentence.

Perhaps more benignly, in the past there's been legislation to track parents who are in arrears on child-support.  I've seen discussion on cross-state tracking of doctors and nurses whose licenses were revoked in one state. Given today's headline that contractors who received stimulus funds from the government, or from state and local governments, are in arrears on $750 million worth of taxes, I'd expect a tracking proposal to arise there. 

The list goes on and on.  As a general proposition I tend to agree with the proposals; I view transparency as good and it's certainly less onerous to wear a bracelet than to be in an overcrowded jail.  I wonder, though, where's the discussion of this and what are the limits and guidelines we should use.

Monday, May 23, 2011

French School Lunches

Andrew Gelman posts on American versus French school lunches.  Apparently in France you can't bring your lunch, but payments for the schools and the lunches come from the state and the mayor respectively, putting the mayor on the spot if the lunches aren't good.

Is the Justice System the Last Redoubt of the Secretary?

From Orin Kerr's advice to judicial interns at Volokh Conspiracy:
1) Be incredibly nice to the secretaries. You might think judges run judicial chambers. For the most part, though, they don’t: Judges’ secretaries run judicial chambers. Judges often keep secretaries for decades, and they rely heavily on them. If you’re working for a judge for a summer, the judge’s lead secretary (or only secretary, if the judge only has one) is going to be your friend or your enemy. Make sure the secretary is your friend. And don’t think for a second that the secretary works for you. You’re just an intern, and you work for the secretary and everyone else who will still be there when the summer is over.
Sounds like USDA in the 1970's.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Future of Books

Ezra Klein is a convert to e-books, particularly enjoying the instant access anywhere.

Megan McArdle weighs in here, betting on the logic of innovation, arguing (as in the Innovator's Dilemma) that advantages in some areas are sufficient for innovations to succeed.

The posts were triggered by the report Amazon is selling more e-books than printed books.

James Suroweicki in the New Yorker (not now available on-line) argues part of the reason the US does well is we've got a lot of consumers who are willing to take the risk of buying innovative products.  

Personally I don't have a Kindle, though I do have the app on my PC.  One of the things on my to-do list is to look at the Fairfax County library's e-book program, which doesn't yet extend to Amazon.  Probably I'll buy a reader when it looks as though I can get more books faster from the library that way.  As I get older I get less interested in innovations. I'm not sure whether that's age or the idea the upfront costs in time and energy compared to the benefits over a limited life-span become more and more daunting.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Federal Bureaucrats Are Liberal

Everyone knows federal bureaucrats are liberal.  I was certainly one. So this post by John Sides at The Monkey Cage is a wee bit surprising.  As I read the graph, during 2007-8, Bush appointees are more conservative than Democrats in either House or Senate, a bit more liberal than Bush himself (who is about as conservative as House and Senate Republicans, and a bit more conservative than career bureaucrats.  The career bureaucrats sit between the Democrats and Republicans, in other words exactly middle of the road.  Unexplained is the fact the career bureaucrats distribution curve is almost tri-modal. 

Funny Sentence of the End of the World

No, there's no relation to the rapture, except for one bare end, but I had to differentiate the title:

" In short, we must have looked like the white trash triplets."  From Butterfly Moments

Friday, May 20, 2011

Vertical Garden

I've been skeptical of vertical gardens for vegetables, so it's only fair to recognize they seemingly can work for ornament.  Treehugger has a 4-year later followup on a vertical wall in Madrid.  Being cynical I wanted to check when the photos were taken because it wasn't clear.  But I finally did see a photo of the garden as originally installed, and it's definitely different than the one in the treehugger post.  They do mention an irrigation system, but apparently it's fairly carefree. 

Customer Service and Regulatory Burden

Via NASCOE USDA requested comments on ways for reducing regulatory burden  under Obama's Executive Order 13563.  They were due by today.  So naturally I procrastinated until the last minute.  But I finally did offer my accumulated wisdom, which I've published as a Google document here.   Anyone who wants can insert comments, or even edit the damn thing.

[Updated: corrected language and added link to the FR document.]

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Government Citizen Intermediaries

One of the issues in the government-citizen relationship is the role of intermediaries.

I remember the CED of Sherman County, KS in 1992 (Info Share days) being very disgusted with a firm which offering help to farmers dealing with payment limitation and conservation compliance issues.  He thought his office ought to be able to do everything his farmers needed, and have the farmers be content with it.  I have something of the same feeling with regards to IRS: our tax system and their software should be good enough to deprive Intuit and H&R Block of their business.  Of course, I know better.

With that as a preliminary, let me quote some paragraphs from the Jackson Lewis Civil Rights Assessment:

The Contract directed that the Assessment Team obtain USDA customer input by written surveys which were originally scheduled to conclude in August 2010 for inclusion in the Final Report by October 26, 2010. During the course of the Contract, however, USDA decided that the survey methodology was less likely to secure the type of reliable data necessary for this Assessment, and the Department replaced this approach with 30 customer Focus Groups in 10 of the 15 Assessment States, which required an extensive and time-consuming approval process by the Executive Office of the President, Office of Management and Budget (“OMB”). The OMB process delayed the Assessment Team’s efforts by at least 90 days. As a result, the Focus Group sessions began in Mississippi on January 6, 2011, and concluded in California, with the completion of the 30 sessions on February 3, 2011.
Focus Group recruiting was difficult in large part because of low interest, and attendance was generally below normal expectations. While helpful customer input was elicited from the Focus Groups, the Assessment Team recognized the need to supplement the Focus Group input by interviewing 30 Community-Based Organizations (“CBOs”) to obtain additional customer input, essential to the process but not originally by the Contract. [page iv]
 First, I wonder whether USDA had gotten OMB approval for the surveys, before switching to focus groups. Having had to deal with those OMB requirements, I had a bit of schadenfreude when I read of the big shot law firm's problems with it.

Second, and the point. It's disturbing to learn there are so many CBO's.  That alone indicates the depth of USDA's problems: people don't create organizations just for the hell of it, or if they do the organizations don't stick around; 30 CBO's indicates a big gap between FSA/NRCS/RMA/RD and their customers.

Third.  So far in my reading I've not seen any metrics on these CBO's--how many states they operate in, how many members they have, what areas they focus on (blacks, women, Latinos), did they include any tribal organizations?

[Updated: for some reason I have a mental block on the name of the firm doing the CRA.]

Blew My Mind

Texas lawmakers allow rural hospitals to hire doctors, to help relieve shortages.  That's the heading on the RSS feed for this.  Although the article explains the situation somewhat, I still find the original prohibition strange.

A Canticle for Leibowitz

Via Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution, famous science fiction writers pick famous science fiction books. I haven't read any science fiction since I turned 30 (I reread some favorites after 30, including the book by Mr. Miller.)

Farmer Suicides in India

Treehugger has a post publicizing the terrible toll of suicides among farmers in India: one dies every thirty minutes.

Let's see, that's 48 every day, or 17520 a year.  An amazing rate.

How many suicides occur in the US in 2007? 34,598 or a rate of 11.5 per 100,000

According to the CIA factbook on India, the labor force is 478 million, of which 52 percent are in agriculture, meaning there are about 250 million Indian agricultural workers.    17520 divided by 2500 (i.e., 100,000's) gives a suicide rate for agricultural workers of 7 per 100,000

I'm sure the stresses of the agricultural economy account for many of the suicides in India, but they need to be considered in some context. (Note: I've seen an earlier piece challenging the farmer suicide meme along these same lines, so this isn't original with me.)

Bureaucrats Will Be Our Defense Against Zombies

That's what I learn from one of the leading scholars of zombies, Dan Drezner, and his post (which cites another post which cites CDC).

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Let's Spread Out SNAP Payments

In the old days people would have a hard time stretching their monthly welfare/food stamp benefits over the whole month.  These days "food stamps" are no longer stamps, or even paper; they're bits on a debit card.  I assume it would be as easy and cost no more to issue food stamps weekly instead of monthly 

There's research showing that people whose money comes in weekly spend more wisely than when the same amount arrives monthly. So why don't we change the payment issuance schedule to weekly?

Ad Hoc Disaster Isn't Real Money

From Farm Policy, quoting Mr. Stallman of the Farm Bureau:
“Farmers are willing to rely instead on Congress passing temporary ‘ad hoc’ disaster bills, he said. Spending on such bills typically is added to the budget deficit rather than being taken from the farm bill.
The point being is the political debate is always about authorizations (the farm bill) and appropriations (or the omnibus appropriation or the continuing resolution), never about the contents of the actual deficit.  That permits smart legislators to play games with spending, because all the pundits just assume the deficit is the result of the policies which are debated.  

How Old Am I? II

When skimming an entertainment column in the NY Times, I saw Peter Townshend was doing a memoir.  I said to myself, I didn't know Princess Margaret's true love was still around.

I gather The Who are some new rock band? 

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Poor Timothy Geithner

Slate's piece on Dominique Strauss-Kahn's compensation says:
DSK's compensation and expenses are in line with his peers, the small handful of central bankers and finance ministers at the helm of the global economy. The president of the World Bank, for instance, makes almost exactly same amount. As per the bank's most recent annual report, Director Robert Zoellick earns $441,980 in salary, plus $79,120 for living expenses.
What's missed is our Treasury Secretary, arguably the most important of that "small handful". He earns $191,300, a cut of more than 50 percent from his NY Fed job. And I'm pretty sure ordinary government travel regulations apply.  He probably could get business class on long trips, seems to me I remember some other Cabinet members successfully arguing the point, but no $3000 hotel suites.

Changing the Pension System

A factoid from today's Post article on possible changes: "About 80 percent of federal employees are under FERS."  That says to me about 20 percent of federal employees have 25+ years of service, because they're still under CSRS, and therefore wouldn't be affected by current proposals. 

As usual, I like to see graduated changes: if they do change the contribution percentage I'd either phase it in over a few years (particularly years without a pay freeze) and/or phase it in with new employees getting the full hit and the older employees taking the smaller hit. 

Sherrod Still Negotiating

That's the word from the Post.   As I read the Jackson Lewis Civil Rights Assessment I thought I was seeing repeated suggestions that USDA hire Jackson Lewis for follow-on work.  I'm not clear whether Sherrod's group would be doing that, or whether it's two separate areas of work.

[Updated: corrected the name of the firm doing the assessment.] 

Another Reason to Encourage Immigration

Tom Ricks at Best Defense has a short post on the problems of creating a cover story in the age of the Internet for undercover intelligence work.   Any native-born American has a Facebook page by the age of 13 or younger. That means the only people for whom we can create a good cover story is an immigrant.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Bureaucratic Palimpsest

In the old days, the really old days, they'd take the parchment on which some guy, such as Plato or Aristotle, had written his thoughts, scrape off the ink, and reuse the parchment for something more important, like a to-do list for one's better half. But sometimes you could still read the original writing--a palimpsest.

When I was at ASCS/FSA you could still sense the presence of the old Agricultural Conservation Agency (which was a predecessor of ASCS specializing, as one might think, in the old Agricultural Conservation Program.  And now, reading the Jackson Lewis Civil Rights Assessment, you can see the carryover of the Farmers' Home Administration/Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service divide, even after 15 years.

[Updated: corrected the name of the firm doing the assessment.] 

More on Supply Side Solutions for Healthcare

I posted earlier on some measures to increase the supply of healthcare professionals.  The Post has an article today; seems the Republicans refuse to fund a measure in the Obamacare law to increase the supply.

Federal Salaries

Apparently doctors and lawyers in the federal service make lots of money.  Federal Computer Week links to a USA Today story on those making over $180,000:
•Doctors held roughly eight out of 10 of the top-salaried jobs. Attorneys accounted for nearly 6%, followed by dentists, with almost 3%, and financial institution examiners, with nearly 2%.
•Nearly two out of three were men. Almost nine out of 10 were 40 or older. And more than half had at least 10 years of federal service.
•California, Maryland, the District of Columbia, New York and Texas had both the highest numbers of the high-salary jobs and the highest number of all federal posts.
 To me, $180K is lots of money but I know to most conservatives, $250K is not.

On the other hand, here's a report IT workers make more in the government.

To Cheer You Up: Achenbach on the Disastrous Future

Just in case you need cheering up on this Monday morning, and it's not enough we've hit the debt ceiling, here's Mr. Achenbach on the future: disasters everywhere.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Bureaucratic Structure Has Advantages

Back in the 1990's, Secretary Glickman had an ad hoc structure set up to handle the "service center" initiative.  "Service centers" were the effort to consolidate USDA field offices and, possibly, to reengineer business processes and share operations among the service center agencies.  Management oversight came from a council composed of the heads of FSA, NRCS, RD, and maybe RMA.  Greg Carnill headed the effort, which eventually proposed establishing a "Support Services Bureau" providing IT and administrative services to the service center agencies in the field. See this for a Secretary Glickman speech defending the proposal in front of the National Association of Conservation Districts Spring Legislative Conference.  However, Glickman couldn't get the support on the Hill, and a few Congresspersons killed the proposal (if I remember, by a provision in the appropriations bill).

That's ancient history, but there's a point coming. The Jackson-Lewis Civil Rights Assessment says at one point they couldn't find any data where producers had previously given feedback on how well the agencies were doing.  Back in 1995-6, Len Covello, working under Greg, oversaw a survey effort.  I remember it well, to quote Gigi, because Len and I had had some problems over the years.  My point is: once the Support Services bureau was scrapped, the whole supporting structure vanished, and so did any institutional memory, as well as any likelihood of the bureaucracy repeating Len's surveys.  To the bureaucrats who were inside the agencies such surveys were NIH, something alien.

I don't know how you fix the problem.  You've got to combine the focus of a targeted effort, the speed gained by sidestepping bureaucratic hurdles, and yet get the old-line bureaucrats involved.

[Updated: corrected the name of the firm doing the assessment.]

Ag Appropriations

The Sustainable Ag Coalition says House appropriators will be working on the ag appropriations bill this week.  They foresee hard times for conservation.

Changing Federal Pensions

The Washington Post's Lori Montgomery reports that deficit reduction talks are considering changes in federal pensions, specifically requiring an increase in the employee contribution to the system. 

My memory is the Reagan administration pushed through a redo of the civil service pension system in the mid-80's.  Part of the idea was saving money, part was to make federal bureaucrats more able to change careers, part was just responding to the currents in the air (i.e, the general change from defined benefit to defined contribution retirement systems in the private sector).   I'm not aware of any followup studies to see there is more changing around  because the employee can take her TSP (aka gov. 401k) with her. I suspect that aspect was oversold.

 Her last four paragraphs:
Federal employee unions dispute the need for adjustments, arguing that FERS is already significantly less generous than its predecessor, the Civil Service Retirement System. CSRS paid retirees $2,587 per month on average in 2007, versus $944 for FERS, according to the National Treasury Employees Union, one of the largest representing federal workers. And unlike many state employee pension systems, FERS is fully funded.
“We’re sort of surprised, actually, to see the attacks on this as if it were some kind of a gold-plated system,” said Gilman, the union legislative director.
David John, a retirement expert at the Heritage Foundation, agreed that FERS “is far more responsible than most of the state and local pension plans.” But at a time when the federal government is spending drastically more than it takes in, he said, it is reasonable to ask whether taxpayers can afford it.
In the private sector, less than 20 percent of workers still have access to a traditional pension, John said. “With FERS, everyone does.”
I'm one of those CSRS retirees, living high off the hog. :-) In an ideal world, it'd be possible to reduce benefits to me in order to lessen the impact on others.  But in the real world, the only way to reduce benefits to those already receiving them is to change the COLA formula.  Hence Rep. Ryan's proposal to phase in his Medicare changes with those under 55.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Jackson Lewis Civil Rights Assessment

I tend to have enthusiasm which I don't follow through on, so fair warning: my current enthusiasm is reading and critiquing the:

Independent Assessment of the Delivery of Technical and Financial Assistance
Contract AG-3142-C-09-0049
―Civil Rights Assessment‖
March 31, 2011
Prepared By:
Jackson Lewis LLP
Corporate Diversity Counseling Group
―Assessment Team‖

This is the report which Sec. Vilsack released this past week.  The press release cited these two items for FSA:

  • Farm Service Agency employees will be required to thoroughly explain to applicants the reasons when they deny loan or program applications and what the applicant can do to improve chances of securing approval in subsequent applications.

  • Farm Service Agency employees involved in the lending and/or outreach processes will learn what assistance they can and cannot provide to customers and potential customers in connection with completing their applications to avoid unequal treatment that could be construed by any customer or potential customer as discriminatory."

  •  Also, the return of Shirley Sherrod ties to this. I'll label posts: "CRA" for civil rights assessment.

    Mom Knew Best

    She always said milk and eggs were the perfect food: of course, we lived on a dairy/poultry farm so her opinion might be a bit suspect.  The NYTimes has a discussion of a forthcoming book on body size and health by Robert Fogel et. al. which included this bit:
    Recent research by the anthropologist Andrea Wiley challenges some of our assumptions. She has shown that drinking more milk in childhood does make you taller.

    The Return of Shirley Sherrod

    Politico reports Shirley Sherrod will be working for USDA, not in USDA.
    Sherrod will be a contract employee leading one of three field programs designed to bolster relations between the USDA and minority farmers and ranchers. Support for the programs is among several recommendations contained in a sweeping, two-year study released Wednesday that examined decades of discrimination claims by African Americans, Latinos, women and Native Americans.


    My wife and I have two cats, the senior of which was recently put on a special renal diet, or rather two renal diets: one of canned food, the other of kibbles.  This means keeping the two cats separate during meals, because the younger cat, Ginny, likes the kibbles, while Carrie likes the food she was used to having, the food Ginny still gets. 

    Because neither cat cleans their plate(s), we often have to pick up the plate with the remaining food and stick it out of reach of the cat who wants it (but isn't the cat who should have it). Upon occasion, a cat outsmarts us.  Upon occasion, a cat succumbs to temptation, as shown in the slide show at this album, when the plate with kibbles was placed on top of an old popcorn popper.

    Friday, May 13, 2011

    The Blattman Infant Goes for World Travel Record

    From a Chris Blattman bleg for travel advice:

    "In case it’s relevant, between her third month and her eighth, the plan is to hit Canada, Spain, France, Turkey, and probably Ethiopia, Vietnam and Thailand."

    What's Bad for the Military Is Bad for Civilians

    Tom Ricks The Best Defense has a post citing a book by a Vietnam-era general:
    Prudent military planners should draw the obvious conclusion that operations which span two administrations may lose their support in midstream. Very short operations like Grenada are about perfect. Long inconclusive operations like Vietnam are now known to be doomed. We may take this to be a legitimate consideration in connection with the doctrine governing operational art. It is a political refinement which is no less organic to the problem.
     I'd paraphrase this to say that prudent bureaucratic planners should draw the obvious conclusion that IT projects which span two administrations may lose their support in midstream.  (That's a conclusion reinforced by my review of the new Civil Rights Assessment report at USDA. )  It's not really a question of politics, but of Not Invented Here.  I hope they plan for MIDAS to be complete by Jan 20, 2013.

    Wednesday, May 11, 2011

    Oxfam Says "Ho-Hum" to Program Cuts

    Via Farm Policy, here's Oxfam's blog with a big ho-hum at the idea of cutting farm program payments.  The writer focuses on the direct payments, which WTO doesn't consider market-distorting, and thus don't hurt developing countries (which is Oxfam's concern).

    Discrimination Study at USDA

    The Post reports USDA got the results of an $8 million study of discrimination yesterday.
    The study, which officials described as voluminous, was not distributed. Among its more than 200 recommendations, which were released Tuesday, were suggestions that the agency’s chief diversity officer monitor hiring, that farm service officials be required to “thoroughly” explain reasons for denying loans to minorities and women, and that the USDA mount public relations efforts to change the agency’s reputation by emphasizing its focus on diversity.
    I hope the study is better than that paragraph suggests:  I'd think we'd want all loan applicants to understand why their application was denied.

    I checked the USDA website--nothing on the report.  I notebut forbear commenting on the fact there have been no FY2010 civil rights reports posted here.  Whatever the Obama administration is doing, they aren't being transparent with those reports.

    Tuesday, May 10, 2011

    Executive Bureaucrats More Accurate Than Congressional Ones

    Via Project on Government Oversight, Roll Call has a piece describing a very high error rate on Congressional financial disclosure forms.

    Monday, May 09, 2011

    Changing Direct Payment Program

    It's sounding more and more as if the direct payment program will be eliminated or drastically changed in the new farm bill.  The wheat and corn people like crop insurance, but not the cotton and rice people. Of course, the number of cotton and rice farmers is down, and only a fraction of the wheat and corn.  I'm not sure though how many wheat, corn, and soybean farmers in the South there are who don't grow cotton or rice and who might be satisfied with crop insurance.  That is, whether the problem the South sees with the actuarials for crop insurance is limited only to cotton and rice.

    The Doha round of negotiations appears to have fizzled out.  I'm not sure whether or not that makes it easier to move money from the direct payment program, which complies with the WTO restrictions, to something else which is less compliant.

    [Farm Policy cites an ERS study:
    Meanwhile, an update from USDA’s Economic Research Service yesterday explained that, “While the Direct and Counter-cyclical Program and Federal crop insurance are both part of the farm safety net, they do not necessarily serve the same farmers. Looking at counties that received at least $20 in direct payments per cropland acre in 2008, or $20 in crop insurance indemnity payments averaged over 2007 to 2009, clear geographic patterns emerge [see graphical illustration here]. Direct payments tend to be higher in the Corn Belt (corn and soybeans), Mississippi Delta (cotton and rice), and the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast (cotton and rice). They are also high in Arizona (cotton), California (cotton and rice), and parts of the Southern Atlantic Seaboard. Crop insurance indemnity payments tend to be higher in the wheat-growing regions in the Northern Plains and parts of the Southern Plains, as well as North and South Carolina. Both programs are high in the Texas Panhandle (cotton and wheat) and across Alabama and Georgia (cotton and peanuts).”

    The Story Behind the Forest Service Sale of Warehouses

    I was fiddling around, resting from some landscaping efforts (these days I work a half hour and rest for 1 1/2) and found the Forest Service has a bunch of warehouses for sale in Illinois. They're listed on the White House's website for sales of surplus government property.  Now I don't think of the Forest Service as having a lot of action in the East so I was curious.  What seems to have happened is this: the Army surplused (presumably through a BRAC) the Joliet Ammunition plant which covered 20,000 acres near Joliet. They had to do an environmental clean up of the land.  The Forest Service picked up some of it, or maybe all of it.  They say:
    The Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie was established in 1996 on the former Joliet Arsenal. It is the first national tallgrass prairie in the country and one of the newest units of the National Forest System.   Midewin represents a major effort to restore 20,000 acres of farmland and industrial land to a unique American landscape and the complex ecology of the prairie. Its mission also includes providing education and recreation opportunities. All of Midewin’s programs and progress are thanks to the support of hundreds of volunteers and partner agencies, businesses, and organizations. Midewin Tall Grass Prairie site
    So the 10 pages of warehouses  and other buildings, including some as small as 26 square feet, FS lists for sale are really storage buildings associated with the old Army Arsenal.

    [Updated:  Turns out almost all of the 175 buildings in Maryland are at the Beltsville location of the Agricultural Research Service.  Wonder if the building my uncle once worked in is included.]

    Sunday, May 08, 2011

    Turnover at FSA

    Chris Clayton noted the turnover at USDA, including FSA.  One acting administrator has returned to California so another comes in from Montana. It's an undesirable situation.  The administrator may or may not be a great leader, but it's for sure that no acting administrator will be great.  The best you can say will be: "for an acting admin, he's pretty good". 

    Mr.Beauregarde on Victory in Europe Day

    A post on the remembrance of VE day in middle France, where no ministers or priests participate in the marches, where the headquarters of the Gestapo is still there, now used as an adult education centre, where the boundary of Vichy France is just 5 minutes away, and where a 15-year old identifies Hitler as an actor.

    Saturday, May 07, 2011

    Am I Playing With House Money?

    George Will and I don't normally see eye-to-eye, but his post on reaching 70, a tad after I did, is something I can mostly agree with.

    He cites the end of racial segregation, the emancipation of women, the end of the Cold War, the advance of medicine, as major milestones he's seen.  Doesn't mention gay rights or the emancipation of the mind, AKA the Internet, or the liberation of the aged and their  by extending Social Security and creating Medicare.  But that's nitpicking, which I'm good at. 

    Kids on the Farm

    The Cotton Wife has a picture of a cute redhead.  New Yorker has a piece on Ree Drummond, also a cute redhead, who apparently is the biggest blogger of farm/ranch life (unfortunately just an abstract), but her blog is here. (Might as well add to her audience.) One common thread: kids learn to drive young on farms.

    Am I a Hybrid

    David Roberts at Grist has a post discussing a piece by a couple of military types, thinking about the future in the 21st century. He includes this paragraph to support his claim the military men are liberal:
    "The most comprehensive review of personality and political orientation to date is a 2003 meta-analysis of 88 prior studies involving 22,000 participants. The researchers—John Jost of NYU, Arie Kruglanski of the University of Maryland, and Jack Glaser and Frank Sulloway of Berkeley—found that conservatives have a greater desire to reach a decision quickly and stick to it, and are higher on conscientiousness, which includes neatness, orderliness, duty, and rule-following. Liberals are higher on openness, which includes intellectual curiosity, excitement-seeking, novelty, creativity for its own sake, and a craving for stimulation like travel, color, art, music, and literature.
    Sounds to me like I'm something of a hybrid: I think I'd rate well on conscientiousness, but I don't like fast decisions (i.e., I'm indecisive); I have intellectual curiosity, but I don't do well on stimulation: change is bad at the personal level.

    Friday, May 06, 2011

    One Reason To Follow International Politics

    I blogged about my interest in politics, specifically international politics back in the Cold War days.

    The Archives does a document of the day, and yesterday's was a reminder of why it was easy to stay interested in foreign policy back in the 50's. It was a photograph showing the effects of a nuclear blast on a house a mile away.  Not only did we have Cold Wars (the Berlin airlift) and Hot Wars (French Indo-China, Korea) but we had nuclear and thermonuclear testing, all of which filled the news columns.

    The Glass Ceiling Cracks a Bit More--Osama's Tracker

     "And notably, the NGA [National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency] is the first intel agency to be headed by a woman: Letitia Long, an intelligence veteran." from a National Journal story on the tracking of Osama bin Laden.

    (I suspect it traces its history back to, in part, the Army Map Service.

    The Definition of Perpetually Bad Traffic:

    From Chris Blattman: "Cars get snarled so long in traffic there are now shoe salesmen by the roadside. You have time to try on many, many pairs

    Thursday, May 05, 2011

    Government Help for Flooded Farms

    In the wake of the decision to blow the levee on the Mississippi, farmers are concerned about compensation for their flooded fields/prevent planting.  Back in the old days, when we had a disaster program in ASCS that was unrelated to crop insurance, for a while we had a rule saying: if the cause of the crop damage was something someone did, the farmer had recourse against the someone and the losses weren't eligible for disaster payments.  I remember early in my career a case of drifting herbicide which damaged a cotton crop.

    And there were limitations on whether land between the river and the levee, or under Corps of Engineer easement, could be designated as set-aside

    Later, the redoubtable Jamie Whitten, after whom the USDA administration building is named because he was the long-time head of House Ag (or maybe it was the Ag appropriations subcommittee) some of whose constituents were hurt by our rules, pushed through a special provision saying Uncle Sugar would pay regardless.

    One of the good things about periodic redos of programs is you can clean out the special provisions which clutter up programs, like cow flops on a clean stable floor.

    (Seems apparent to me that the Corps of Engineers should pay the compensation, not FCIC or FSA.  But that's not going to happen according to the Times article.

    [Updated--see this farmgate post by Stu Ellis.] Politically and administratively it may be better to handle the situation as if the farmers had crop insurance, etc.  Of course, that once again creates moral hazard and lessens the incentive for farmers to comply with the rules in advance, because their representatives will get them off the hook afterwards.  It's called, not "too big to fail" but "too many votes to fail".]

    Wednesday, May 04, 2011

    My Precocious Interest in Politics: WWII and Cold War

    Megan McArdle links to a post describing teenagers ignorance of Osama bin Laden. She says:
     I didn't know what Iran Contra was when I was in high school, and I was a sophomore when it happened.  Teenagers live in their own little world, only tangentially connected to the one the rest of us occupy.
    Now she is sharp and interested in politics, but that experience contrasts sharply with my own experience.  Her commenters tend to agree, though some report early interest in politics. Personally I can remember opining pompously to a classmate about the possible successor to Stalin (at age 12-3?) and sitting on a panel to discuss current events in fourth grade.

    Part of my early interest was aspirational; I was surrounded by older people whose opinions I valued and needed to keep up with the times.  I also had an elder sister who enjoyed the role of pedant. 

    But part of it was likely the times: we'd come out of WWII and emerged into the Cold War, with the USSR getting the atomic bomb, and the arms race.  So current events were much hotter then than now, or even in the 1980's when McArdle was a youth.

    A (Textile) Piece of History I Didn't Know

    "Elihu Yale, who lived and worked in India for nearly three decades with the British East India Company from 1670 to 1699 donated to the Collegiate School of Connecticut three bales of goods- Madras cotton, silk and other textiles from India – laying the foundation of their first building."

    We think of textiles as British, not Indian. From a good post at Chapati Mystery: Remember Eric Rudoph?

    Tuesday, May 03, 2011

    Thank You, L. Norman Adams and David Brion Davis

    Turns out May 3 is Teacher Appreciation Day.  Since I've never thanked my teachers, let me do it here:

    L. Norman Adams was my high school history/social studies teacher, for whom I wrote many pages of papers and with whom I engaged in much back and forth, focused, if I remember correctly, on the nature and course of the Cold War.  I failed to keep up my correspondence with Norm so I lost track of him.

    David Brion Davis was a young professor of American intellectual history, whose 2-term survey course in my sophomore year was challenging and amazing.   He went on to win prizes for his books on slavery.

    Looking back, what they had in common was an intense interest in and caring about their subject.

    Thank you.

    Monday, May 02, 2011

    Conservation Versus Direct Payments

    Article in the Post today on the challenges conservation programs are facing, as opposed to direct payments.

    One quote puzzles me:
    “There is a growing feeling that [Congress] must find a way to make sure that the cuts affect everyone,” said Ferd Hoefner, policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, “to make sure the mega-producers are not the ones let off the hook this time around. “
    To get around cuts in the past, corporate farms would add a partner or two that could then apply for separate subsidies, thereby restoring the overall take to prior levels."
    My impression was that attribution of payments was going to mostly take care of that problem, but apparently not to the satisfaction of NSAC.  Come to think of it, I haven't seen any analysis of how well or poorly that change in the 2008 law is working.

    Because my blogging has been slow because of plumbing problems, I'll throw in here a renewal of my proposal: instead of trying to apply a cap on payments, apply a factored reduction, increasing as the total amount of payments rises.  (Think income tax in reverse.)

    Sunday, May 01, 2011

    Slavery in the Shadow of the Capitol

    Found this link in doing research for my cousin--unfortunately it's from 2001 and the links supporting it seem to be broken:

    Foreign travelers accounts from the 1830 and 1840 described the Robey and
    Williams slave pens which stood along the Mall in the shadow of the Capitol;
    the two were often juxtaposed in artworks, and the presence of slave pens in
    the center of the nation's capitol captured the attention of abolitionists.
    (Ironically, today the Museum of African Art sits less than a block away from
    the former location of the Robey and Williams slave pens.)