Wednesday, November 30, 2011

On Cutting Headquarters Staff: FSA and DOD

NASCOE wants the administration to examine and cut staff at headquarters and in the staff offices, rather than relying solely on cuts and closures of county offices.  Cut the big shots, not the peons is the motto.

I wish them luck, but this update on the effort to cut the big shots in the Pentagon doesn't offer much hope:
Seventeen general and flag officers were scheduled to be eliminated between May and September through Gates’ Efficiency Initiatives. But the DoD didn’t reduce its top brass at all. Instead, six generals were added from May to September, increasing the number of general and flag officers from 964 to 970. Moreover, from July 1, 2011—Panetta’s first day as Secretary of Defense—to September 30, the Pentagon added three four-star officers. Coincidentally, this is precisely the number of four-star officers Gates cut during his final year as SecDef, from June 2010 to the end of June 2011. Thus, in just three months, Panetta undid a year’s worth of Gates’ attempts to cut the Pentagon’s very top brass. It’s doubtful that Gates would consider Panetta’s current rate of adding a new four-star officer every month conducive to efficiency.
(One of these years when I get some energy, I'll do a comparison of the number of big shots in USDA under Kennedy and the number now.)

Cats Contribute to Scholarship

From an obit of a young scholar:

" Her cats, Gandalf and Thea, assisted greatly in the writing of her dissertation by destroying staplers, knocking over stacks of research, and disappearing at the whisper of a stranger’s entrance."

Obama Beats Romney Among Corn Growers

The Iowa corn growers (hat tip Des Moines Register) give Obama better marks on farm policy, much better marks than Romney.  I can't believe it means a thing. (When you count in the non-farm issues, somehow they give Romney a B, same as Obama, but less than Gingrich's A.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Bureaucrats Lose One. So Do Taxpayers

Obama has signed the repeal of mandatory withholding of 3 percent from federal, state, and local government payments to contractors.  The theory is that the withholding aids in the collection of taxes. Of course, that involves the theory that some contractors may be failing to pay their full taxes.

I know Republicans think all taxpayers are honest and IRS bureaucrats are always oppressive. I beg to disagree.  And I've evidence to back it up: when the IRS started requiring SSN's for dependent children, there was an unreported epidemic, some millions of dependents vanished. 

On a recent political self-test, my strongest value was fairness, and it's just not fair for some to pay taxes and others to evade. Shame on Obama and both parties in the Congress.

What's Ahead: Farm Bill

The Sustainable Ag Coalition almost always has good stuff on what's happening on the Hill. See their two-part series on the farm bill. I don't necessarily agree with their views, but the info is good.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Virtues of Community

Going against the flow can be lonely.  A complaint from a locavore:
I live five miles outside a town of 850 people that could be more vibrant, more open to my ideas and goals as a farmer. I know that the customers who buy our eggs and lamb appreciate the work I do to make the food they eat, but I don't see them every day. (In fact, because I sell at an online farmers market, I rarely see any of my customers at all.) There are one or two other farmers in the area who grow things like we do, but we see them about every other month. Folks in my town are nice people, but they generally see nothing wrong with chemical farming or genetically modified seeds, as far as I can tell. Rarely does anyone think that farming without these technologies might be worth something extra. We stand by our values and practice sustainable agriculture, but pay the price of being seen as outsiders.
There can be a tendency to idealize the past. I grew up in an area of small farms and people who commuted to the city for work, but it wouldn't be  terribly warm and welcoming to newcomers.  I don't think the different ideas are as important as the actions and attitudes of the newcomers.  An extrovert who joins in community activities can be accepted regardless of any weird ideas he may have; someone who holds back won't be warmly integrated.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Forgotten Foresight or Accident of History?

James Fallows has a post triggered by the Republican debate, when Wolf Blitzer led off saying "Wolf" was his real name, then Willard Mitt Romney followed claiming "Mitt" was his real name. The discussion touches on the difficulty with modern databases, which usually force people into the WASP naming, pattern: first, middle, last name, with no tolerance for someone who wants to be known as "Mitt Romney", much less someone from a different heritage (Hispanic, Arab, Russian, whatever).

In that context I'd like to tip my hat to a long ago designer of ASCS data files, who included both the separate name fields, plus the 33 character, if I recall, name field, which at least for a time permitted us to accommodate Mitt Romney and to record his full legal name (or Bill Clinton and William Jefferson Clinton). 

On the other hand, the structure might have been simply a historical accident.  In the 60's county offices were sending an 80 character record (for the punch card) to Kansas City, which I believe included the 33 character name field. When it came time to design the master name and address record in the early 80s for use on the System/36, they added the separate name fields, one advantage of which is the ability to search and sort by last name.

So that's two alternative stories: at this point I don't know which is right.

Food Movement as Religion

That's the argument in this long post. An excerpt:
But I couldn’t help but feel I had just attended a religious revival. Lyman’s [the "Mad Vegetarian Cowboy"] talk had all the hallmarks of a revivalist sermon, minus any mention of God or Jesus. He had told of the sinful ways in his youth, his arrogance and his disregard for the wisdom of tradition. He recounted the crisis sparked by illness, a miraculous cure, and the epiphany that allowed him to see the error of his former ways. He then chronicled his path of righteousness. The lecture ended with what felt like an altar call, as Lyman exhorted listeners to renounce the sinful ways of the world and follow the narrow path of righteous eating.
I think it's stretching it a bit.  The food movement can make use, conscious or unconscious, of themes and patterns found in religion, but that doesn't make it a religion.  I would be interested though in how well food evangelism meshes/coexists with religious evangelism.

Friday, November 25, 2011

GW Bush: Lifesaver?

Any faithful readers will know I rarely say anything good of any Republican, except my parents and they're dead.  But I was struck by the good news on AIDS in the media earlier this week.
At the end of last year, there were about 34 million people with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. While that is a slight rise from previous years, experts say that’s due to people surviving longer. Last year, there were 1.8 million AIDS-related deaths, down from 1.9 million in 2009.
 Now my fellow liberals associate George W. Bush with the deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Depending on how you view his decisions that's true enough.  Estimates of civilian deaths in Iraq have been in the 100,000  range; that's cumulative over the years 2003-2008.

So when you compare the 1 year reduction in AIDS deaths, it's roughly equal to the deaths GW could be considered responsible for.  Clearly, though,  one should compare the declining death rate with the death rate which would have been experienced if there were no intervention.  By that measure, the effects of foreign aid over 1 year have greatly exceeded the tolls of war.

It's true enough that GW doesn't deserve sole credit for the interventions in Africa.  But under the influence of Bono he did take the lead, both in ensuring our contributions and in getting help from other countries. [Updated: here's a Bono op-ed in the Times on the gains.  I can buy everything he says, but thanking Jesse Helms is really, really, really hard to swallow.]

So maybe we should give thanks for GW?

What Lies Ahead

On Black Friday, let me be gloomy and forecast doom over the next few months and years:

  • the Eurozone collapses as the EU continues to be a day late and a dollar short and refuses to take advice from Geithner and Obama
  • Europe goes into recession, which leads us into a period of zero growth
  • the developing nations see their growth slacken, as bubbles pop and exports to the US and Europe, now in recession, decline
  • harvests in South America, Russia and the Ukraine, Australia, China and India are record or near record levels.
  • commodity prices fall because demand from the developing world is depressed and supply has exploded.
  • the farmland price bubble pops and many farmers find themselves overextended.
  • with the US economy in a second recession, the deficit starts really to explode, making it impossible to pass a farm bill because the parties can't agree on anything.
Finished on somber Saturday.  (Not that I think the above will happen, but what do I know.)

The Persistence of Elites

Brad DeLong blogs on a Parliamentary inquiry from the 1820's. Casually skimming, I note a "Mr Bonham Carter" is a member of the committee, who I assume is a distant ancestor of  Helena Bonham Carter, whose great grandfather was  Prime Minister Asquith.  This prompted me to visit wikipedia:
Bonham Carter was born in Golders Green, London. Her mother, Elena (née Propper de Callejón), is a psychotherapist.[1] Her father, Raymond Bonham Carter, was a merchant banker, and served as the alternative British director representing the Bank of England at the International Monetary Fund in Washington, D.C. during the 1960s.[1][2][3] He came from a prominent British political family, being the son of British Liberal politician Sir Maurice Bonham Carter and renowned politician and orator Violet Bonham Carter. Helena's great-grandfather was Herbert Henry Asquith, 1st Earl of Oxford and Asquith, Prime Minister of Britain from 1908–1916. She is the grand-niece of Asquith's son, Anthony Asquith, legendary English director of such classics as Carrington V.C. and The Importance of Being Earnest. Helena's maternal grandfather, Spanish diplomat Eduardo Propper de Callejón, saved thousands of Jews from the Holocaust during World War II, for which he was recognised as Righteous among the Nations (his own father had been Jewish). He later served as Minister-Counselor at the Spanish Embassy in Washington, D.C.
Helena's maternal grandmother, Hélène Fould-Springer, was from an upper-class Jewish family; she was the daughter of Baron Eugène Fould-Springer (a French banker, who was descended from the Ephrussi family and the Fould dynasty) and Marie Cecile von Springer (whose father was Austrian-born industrialist Baron Gustav von Springer, and whose mother was from the de Koenigswarter family).[1][4][5] Hélène Fould-Springer converted to Catholicism after World War II.[6][7] Her sister was the French philanthropist Liliane de Rothschild (1916–2003), the wife of Baron Élie de Rothschild, of the prominent Rothschild family (who had also married within the von Springer family in the 19th century);[8] her other sister, Therese Fould-Springer, was the mother of British writer David Pryce-Jones.[4]

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Who's Your Daddy? The Fate of E-Gov

This Federal Computer Week post describes efforts to preserve the e-Gov fund. The problem, as I see it, is that the administration's e-Gov effort has no daddy on Capitol Hill. E-Gov is the sort of effort which gets pushed by an individual representative and/or senator.  In some situations it's known as an earmark; in others it's just someone's hobbyhorse; in a few situations it's brilliance.  Hold your laughter, but Senator Gore did have a major role in pushing the internet into civilian control. Or Senator Lugar has had a major role in safekeeping nuclear material in the former SSR's.

As far as I know, e-Government has no such sponsorship by someone in Congress.  It's an orphan.

Two Good Sentences

Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution writes on spiders:
Thus, the rituals of silken wrapped gifts conceal intricate conflicts over resources and sex. Only among spiders, of course.

Bubble Time

Research shows that if farm income dropped by 20% in Illinois, half of the state’s farmers could not make their loan payments. If land values dropped 30%, between 24% and 27% of Illinois’ producers would have a negative debt-to-asset ratio.
That's from an Agweb piece on "Weathering the Risk Storm".  Of course, there's no possibility that land values will drop so much. One thing we know for sure, real estate holds its value.  As someone famous said: "they aren't making more land."  And prices for grain are high and will remain high--the new middle classes of the world are eating meat, and we're the main exporter of grain.  But we can't expand production as fast as the world economy is growing. And there's no producing areas elsewhere to take up the slack.  So any farmer reading this should definitely go out and spend $15,000 an acre for good Iowa farmland and sleep peacefully at night.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

What Happened to Ironing? and Washing?

A while back Megan McArdle got into an exchange with other bloggers and commenters about changes in technology which helped women.  The focus was on the kitchen, as I recall. I don't recall whether she was taking the side which said improvements since 1950 had been a big help to the homemaker (a word which may show my age) or whether she denied that.[Updated: here's a link to her post, arguing against Cowen that kitchen technology has changed.]

Anyhow I was remembering the cycles which I've experienced over my life: one of which was the weekly housewife cycle of the 1940's and 50's.  Monday was washday, Tuesday was ironing, cleaning and baking came later in the week.Which led me to muse on the changes.

Mom had a wringer washer: she rolled it into the kitchen from the "old kitchen", filled it with water (which she'd heated on the stove, since our hot water supply was limited, or nil in summer), and put in the clothes and let it agitate away.  Then she'd take the clothes from the water and put them through the wringer a few times to get the soapy water out, and put them into a washtub of clean water (actually the process varied a bit over the 20 years or so I'm remembering) to rinse, then back through the wringer to get the rinse water out.  Meanwhile she'd start the next load, probably the colors, washing.  The rinsed clothes would  be hung on the  clothesline, outside.  Towards Monday evening or maybe Tuesday morning, she'd gather the clothes off the line.

Because this was before the days of permanent press, all the clothes, except underwear, and all the linens would have to be ironed, which would take up the next day. We still had the old irons around, I mean the iron "irons", which had to be heated on the stove and then applied to the clothes.  But mom had an electric iron so she rarely had to use the old irons.  I learned to iron when in I was in college, took me probably 10 minutes to iron a shirt, not being very well coordinated. It seems to me her ironing was faster, though because dad wore overalls and wasn't a white collar worker her job was lighter than those of many other homemakers.

Compare that with today's permanent press, washers and driers.  Other than loading and unloading the appliances and folding the dried clothes there's no work at all, well, almost none.

WordPerfect: Blast from the Past

This USAToday story on the lawsuit by Novell against Microsoft over Windows 95 support for WordPerfect, or the lack thereof, brings back fond memories:
  • Remember WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS?  It was great. 
  • Remember macros in 5.1.  A guy whose name I forget made good money by writing a guide on writing macros.  And I got pretty good with them, chaining them together, doing things just for the sake of showing I could do them.
  • Remember DOS? It wasn't so great.
  • Remember Novell? It bought WordPerfect about the time of the transition to Windows 3.1.  It used to be the system to connect PC's together.
Remember, ah remember, when life was sweet.

Compromise and the Ratchet

One aspect of the discussion over the deficit and possible compromise is the ratchet effect:
  • if the Republicans accede to the Democratic demand for tax increases, that is not a permanent change--it's something which will be changed down the line.  Look at tax rates after the Reagan/Rostenkowski tax deal in 1986--they've gone up and down as it seemed appropriate and according to the power of the parties.
  • if the Democrats accede to the Republican demand for changes in entitlement programs, those are permanent changes.  Look at the Greenspan/Reagan Social Security "fixes" in 1983--the change in the age for full eligibility for Social Security was changed to 67. No one expects that change to be changed--it's a ratchet effect.
In this context, see Ezra Klein on why Republicans should like Simpson-Bowles.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Profitability of Organics

This report  (Iowa State) at the extension site says organic field crops are as productive as conventional.
The LTAR [Long-Term Agroecological Research Experiment] experiment shows that organic crops can remain competitive with conventional crops even during the three-year transition. Averaged over 13 years, yields of organic corn, soybean and oats have been equivalent to or slightly greater than their conventional counterparts. Likewise, a 12-year average for alfalfa and an 8-year average for winter wheat also show no significant difference between organic yields and the Adair County average.
Because of higher returns for organic grains, the study showed a $200 per acre premium over conventional. Given these results, I would think there'd be a lot of acreage being converted from conventional to organic; that's what economics says should happen, isn't it?. On the other hand:

I assume doing organic requires a different set of knowledges and perhaps skills, creating an entry hurdle.  A farmer who is beginning farming and who wants to begin as an organic farmer faces a major challenge.  An established farmer who want to switch to organic faces a major transition, which few people like to do when they're established.

As I've written before, I think the biggest problem for organic farmers is they produce crops for which the market is small.   Note these rotations:
Organic corn-soybean-oat/alfalfa (3 year)
Organic corn-soybean-oat/alfalfa-alfalfa (4 year)
Organic soybean-wheat/red clover (2 year)
 A farmer who converts from corn/soybeans now needs to find a market for oats, alfalfa and clover. In the old days the horses would eat those, but not any more, except for the Amish.

Think about the process of marketing these organic outputs. The transportation costs are going to be the same regardless of how the crop was raised, but because the markets are smaller on average the crop is going to have to travel a longer distance.  So the costs facing a possible organic chicken farm will mount up. 

Looking at the brochure, there's also the question of inputs. "Organic corn and soybean plots receive an average of two rotary-hoeings and two row cultivations per season for weed management."  and "The organic plots receive local compost made from a mixture of corn stover and manure"  Now the cost accounting would cover the costs, but on an operational farm four trips over the land is going to require more labor, which might be a limiting factor.  There's also the question of where the manure, and maybe the corn stover, comes from.  Once again, if we go back to the sort of farming done pre-WWI or on Amish farms, everything works together; the crop rotations include feed for the livestock; the livestock produce manure for the land, etc. But the challenges of integrating  organic operations on a large scale with today's patterns of marketing and consumption are great.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Congress and MIDAS

From the conference report on the appropriations bill:

The conferees provide that not less than $66,685,000 shall be for Modernize and Innovate the Delivery of Agricultural Systems. The conferees strongly support the implementation of Modernize
and Innovate the Delivery of Agricultural Systems (MIDAS), and encourage the agency to ensure that MIDAS’s initial operating capability will be released by October 2012. The conference agreement provides $13,000,000 for the Common Computing Environment.
October 2012 seems a bit late to me, but then it's easy to carp from the sidelines.

David Brooks of the Short Memory

From the transcript of Friday's Shields/Brooks discussion on the Newshour, in regards to the SuperCommittee:

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I mean, I'm hearing the exact same thing. [failure]
I think the tragedy of it is, if it was ever going to work, it was going to work under these circumstances. The rules were rigged to make a deal as possible as -- as possible as possible, which is to say there was going to be a clean vote on the House. They were going to meet in private. They had this sword of Damocles hanging over them. And they still couldn't reach a deal.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And still didn't...
DAVID BROOKS: And still -- and so it's a history of really 10 or 15 years of potential moments where we could have -- somebody could have made a deal with doing some spending cuts, some tax increases, jam it all together in whatever form you want to do.[emphasis added] And every think tank has their own version.
Mr. Brooks appears to have forgotten the budget was balanced for FY 2001.

Organic Versus Pasture-Raised

Grist has an interesting article from a small poultry outfit on the trade-offs between raising organic poultry/eggs and raising free range poultry.  It triggered some nostalgia.  One factor the author doesn't mention which we faced in the 1950's and he doesn't face today is big variation in prices.  In the 1950's the poultry industry was still in the process of consolidation and vertical integration, operating under the influence of the forces of specialization and economies of scale (see preceding post).  That meant egg prices could go from  $.30 a dozen to $.70 a dozen in the space of a year or 18 months (figures based on memory).

Today, after all the "sturm und drang" of the "creative destruction", something beloved of economists and hated by those who are destroyed, I'm assuming prices of eggs and chicken are much less variable. That difference in variability is probably one reason we found it necessary to have both poultry and dairy, while the author can focus only on poultry.

Local Food, Economics, and Evolution

Freakonomics has a post with this theme:
But implicit in the argument that local farming is better for the environment than industrial agriculture is an assumption that a “relocalized” food system can be just as efficient as today’s modern farming. That assumption is simply wrong. Today’s high crop yields and low costs reflect gains from specialization and trade, as well as scale and scope economies that would be forsaken under the food system that locavores endorse.
Part of the argument is "comparative advantage" and specialization: Iowa gets higher corn yields than Mississippi, Idaho gets higher potato yields than Florida, etc.  Part of the argument is "economies of scale".

Makes sense to me, though it's quite possible over the long long term that arguments from evolution will trump the arguments from economies: remember the dinosaurs.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Draft Proposal Farm Bill

Via Des Moines Register here's the current draft proposal.

Blue State, Not So Blue Air

Treehugger has a list of the 20 dirtiest cities (dirtiest air, that is). When you look at it, note that seven of the worst 10 cities are in California.  Except for Houston, Phoenix, and Salt Lake City, the other cities are mostly in blue states.  This might be a clue for the reason why conservatives and liberals talk past each other on environmental issues: they look out the window and they see a different reality.

The Poor Goats

Buried in this Politico piece on the passage of the ag (plus others) appropriations bill is a sentence: "Mohair subsidies would be ended."  First VP Gore goes after them in the 1990's, and now the program is ended again.  I wonder if there's any record for the number of times a program has been ended, and then revived?

Powerpoint: Gee We Knew That in 1991

Megan McArdle rants about the misuse of Powerpoint, including reading the slides and having the font too small to read.  My reaction: My boss, SP, and employees knew better than that 20 years ago.

No Super Committee Resolution and the Farm Bill

If the super committee fails to reach agreement, that kills the 2012 farm bill for this year.  Presumably the Ag committees and the ag lobbies will use the holidays to consider what they put together in a rush, and early next year we'll start to see legislation drafted.  In other words, we'll be back to the regular order of things.  The 64 dollar question is what sort of funding baseline they'll work with. Will they have the dollars they propose to the super committee, more or less?

The other question of importance is what will the farm economy be doing next spring and summer?  Recently corn and wheat prices have slid (see this Des Moines Register piece for corn.) Problem is that Ukraine and other grain producers have had good years.  (Back in the day, Ukraine used to be the breadbasket of Europe.  Just maybe modern farming methods and rational organization has finally arrived there so they can resume their place?)

I don't know enough to guess what will happen if prices have retreated significantly, but I would assume that it would change the bargaining and perhaps the framework of the programs in the farm bill.

As I've written, I now realize there's a window of opportunity for FSA/RMA to install MIDAS and ACRSI before being hit with the new farm bill.  But if the super committee fails, there may be an extended period of uncertainty over the future 2013 and on, meaning the bureaucrats have a compressed lead-time to get things in place. 

So if I'm an FSA bureaucrat do I pray for the success of the super committee, knowing it might well mean program changes which eviscerate much of the agency, or do I pray for failure, guessing it might make next fall torture?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Politico on the Farm Bill

As a change of pace, I take advantage of Politico's unusual attention to farm bill issues to link to their report

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Pareto and Sports: the 80/20 Thing

Ever since I learned it, I've loved the Pareto principle, the 80/20 thing.  I particularly applied it to software, most notably back in the day when we were trying to automate deficiency payments. I think I can claim credit, or blame, for splitting payments into two categories: special and regular.  The regular ones we'd try to run as a batch, the special we'd struggle with as best we could.

Now people have discovered the 80/20 rule works for sports, specifically in things like tennis the best 20 percent of the players win 80 percent of the prizes.  See this Technology Review piece

Good News for Obama

Stolen from Joshua Tucker at Monkey Cage, although reworded: While his young voters from 2008 may lose some enthusiasm as 2012 approaches, partly because they've graduated into a terrible job market, McCain's old voters from 2008 will also be losing enthusiasm for the Republican candidate, partly because they're dying off.

Bureaucrat Scores

Lifted from a comment on Ta-Nahesi Coates blog

I would like to take this opportunity to deeply thank the people on the dispute line for the Department of Labor in Maryland. There was a problem with my severance pay affecting when my unemployment started, they sent me a letter saying they'd call at 1PM. They called me exactly at 1, addressed the issue in about 30 seconds, answered a bunch of questions I had and caught and fixed a mistake on my e-file that I didn't even knew I made. All in about 5 minutes. Easily the greatest customer/client service I've ever received, public or private, and it was from a state bureaucrat at a call center.

Sex Gives Farmers Troubles

That's my takeaway from a Stu Ellis piece on waterhemp, a weed which is very difficult for farmers to control.  The reason, although I'm reading between the lines and making assumptions, is sex:
Since the waterhemp family has both male and female plants whose genes mix annually, the genetic diversity increases every year and an increasing number of plants have become resistant to a wider variety of herbicides. 
 If I recall my biology, that's the purpose of having sex, to increase diversity and therefore increase adaptability to the environment.  I'm glad to know some of my knowledge isn't obsolete.

Land on the Moon

This post at Govloop, doubting the sanity of someone selling land on the moon, brought back memories.  Sometime around 1950 in a promotion of some kind, perhaps for a breakfast cereal, an outfit sold land on the moon.  As I recall it was for a nominal sum, and a nominal area (a square foot maybe, or even a square inch).  Ah, those were the days.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

ACRE Dangers and the WTO

Via Michael Rogers at Green, Green, and Grains, here's an AEI study of the ACRE program, outlining two dangers:
  1. the likelihood a complaint against the program at the WTO would succeed, resulting in penalties like the Brazilian cotton case
  2. the possibility that market prices will decline in future years, leading to a large increase in payments.
I'm no expert on anything but for theWTO the writers speculate on a new WTO agreement which lowers the amber box limit below its current 19.1 billion and might be impacted by ACRE payments.  More likely is a "price suppression" suit in a period of declining market prices, along the lines of the Brazilian

31 Percent Is a Bubble

See this from the Des Moines Register, reporting on the increase in farmland prices.

While I'm calling a bubble, I should note differences from the bubble of the late 70's: interest rates are much lower--when I bought a house in 1976 I thought I was doing great by getting 8 percent financing; apparently there's less leveraging among farm operators.

Thoughts About the Future of Farm Programs

I've voiced concerns over the conjunction of a new farm bill and extensive changes in FSA operations.  However, my concerns may be misplaced.  It's true, I believe, the 2012 farm programs are safe, given the impending passage of the ag appropriations for the 2012 FY.  If the sequestration provisions of the debt ceiling legislation which set up the super committee are invoked, there still won't be any effect on the major programs.

So if the 2012 farm bill is passed as part of the super committee's compromise legislation, then FSA and its contractors might have a whole year to plan for its implementation, to write the regulations, and develop the software required. That assumes the new farm bill keeps a major place for FSA-type programs, rather than shifting almost entirely to crop insurance style risk management.  That assumption seems to be safe, at least as of now, given the apparent inability of the different commodity groups to come together.  Of course, if there's separate programs for wheat and feed grains, cotton, and rice and peanuts that will increase the workload and the administrative headaches. [Update: see Larry Combest's take on the situation from yesterday, via Farm Policy]

However, there's many a slip twixt cup and lip.  It seems to me if the super committee can come up with agreed legislation which is passed, there will be a long period, say from January to next elections, during which the farm bill provisions will be reviewed and questioned.  Not the cuts, particularly, it would be hard to come back in the spring or summer of 2012 and provide more money.  But commodity groups could very well ask for changes in the provisions, which could be passed so long as the overall impact on the budget is neutral.

Another unknown, at least to me, is the degree of flexibility RMA has in implementing legislative changes in its crop insurance policies.  I assume from past experience they've less flexibility than FSA.

Interesting times.

Charles Peters, NASS, and Bureaucratic Maneuvers

Charles Peters, the founder of the Washington Monthly, is a sometimes cynical viewer of the Washington merry-go-round (to mix up journalistic references).  He observed that whenever there was a battle over appropriations and budget cutting, the smart bureaucrats would, if they were in the National Park Service, plan to close the Washington Monument.  In other words, they'd threaten visible cuts of things near and dear to the appropriators, or at least the appropriators constituents. 

I think a hat tip is due to the bureaucrats at NASS, who may well have executed a classic closing-the-monument move.  With due credit to Chris Clayton, at DTN Progressive Farmer, he narrates:

Last week the New York Times had a good feature on the cutting of National Agricultural Statistics Service reports ranging from counting goats and catfish to minks, beer hops and bee keeping.

It was good timing, as the House and Senate appropriators met to hammer out differences in budgets. Appropriators opted to spend $6-9 million more on NASS than the two committees had individually budgeted, as an agricultural economics firm highlighted Tuesday.

Appropriators wrote in their conference report,

"While it is imperative for all of USDA's agencies and offices to prepare to address potential reductions in funding, the conferees are concerned that the agency made this announcement before the final appropriation was determined."

In other words, You guys made us give you more money because we didn't want to hear from the catfish guys that you are neglecting to count them."

Appropriators asked NASS to reconsider its decisions about cutting the reports and reinstate as many as possible.

Habemus Billum? Not Yet

When the white smoke rises over the Vatican, the next step is the announcement: Habemus papam--we have a pope.

But according to Chris Clayton this morning, we don't yet have a draft farm bill to submit to the supercommittee.  (I never took Latin, so I've no idea what Latin for "bill" is.)

Monday, November 14, 2011

Complexity of Regulations

The Reps often complain about complex regulations, complain, that is when they aren't complaining about any regulation at all.  Some bloggers have talked about why regulations are complex.  There's probably some truth in all positions, but there was an episode Sunday which illustrates one factor.

Scene: surfing NFL football. A contested call.  The quarterback is standing on his own 1-foot line, he draws his arm back, so the football is over the end zone. He throws the ball and is called for intentional grounding.  Now the rule is, if you're called for intentional grounding while in the end zone (note: I think this was the situation, but my memory is untrustworthy, but the issue is right) it's a safety. 

So the official called a safety.  Then the officials conferred and ended up reversing the call.  The announcers agreed they'd never seen that exact situation, and suggested that the rule book would be changed in the future to clarify that the issue is whether the quarterback is standing in the end zone, not where the ball is.

So that's an example of how regulations grow: you start with a simple rule, then you encounter a situation you've not thought of so you change and add to the rules to cover it.  And things keep on growing. How much of the growth in regulations is accounted for by this process I don't know.  But it's significant, and a factor no one addresses.

[updated with this]  Here's a somewhat related Politico post, on the issue of tomato paste in school lunches. Politico addresses it as an issue of industry influence on regulations, and it is.  But back in the day we didn't have pizza in school lunches.  I'm not sure there was pizza in the 1980's.  Back then the Reagan administration notoriously tried to change the rules to give credit for the nutrients in ketchup (another form of tomato paste) in school lunches.  They got shot down because it was framed as calling ketchup a "vegetable".  It's an example of the same process: if you count nutrients in school lunches, how do you count, and what do you count when you've got pizza or ketchup involved.  The simplest solution is to go back to the school lunches in my day: meat loaf and overcooked vegetables, and only salt and pepper.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Common Reporting Dates

From the press release announcing FMA and RMA have come up with common acreage reporting dates(ARD):
Before the streamlining, RMA had 54 ARDs for 122 crops, and FSA had 17 ARDs for 273 crops. The review team consolidated all of them into the 15 common ARDs.

 RMA and FSA will implement the July 15, 2012, and August 15, 2012, ARDs for certain commodities during the 2012 crop/program year. The remaining common ARDs will be implemented during the 2013 crop/program year.
Back in 1993 or so there was an initiative along these lines. one which obviously was unsuccessful. I wasn't involved in those discussions.   I'd be curious whether the resistance in the 1990s, and up to now, came more from RMA or FSA,. My guess, given the ratio of dates to crops between the two agencies, is that RMA had more problems.  They also perhaps had greater leverage.  Note that only 2 of the 15 common dates are being implemented next year.  That's probably because RMA needs to revise crop insurance policies, which requires a long lead time. I can imagine meetings where the prospect of such a long time to implementation was a wet blanket on any enthusiasm on the FSA side. Maybe there was more leadership from the top in 2011 than there was in 1993/4. Or maybe the people at the operating level (i.e., branch chiefs and specialists) were more capable and flexible this time around..

This is one prerequisite for the ACRSI common reporting initiative. Not sure how the software will work when you don't have common reporting dates for the crops: might be a real problem, might not be, might be something to be solved by a kludge.

EWG and Direct Payments

EWG released their database on direct payments on Friday. Here's the press release.  A quote I can't figure out:
The EWG database also smokes out the names of the individuals who ultimately cashed the subsidy checks. Their identities have been hidden by these corporate structures and not publicly disclosed by the US Department of Agriculture since the 2008 farm bill.
(FSA quoted EWG what was, IMHO, a ridiculous price for doing the processing necessary to attribute payments made to an entity like a corporation down to the constituent individuals.) I'm not sure how EWG did this.  Their statement about individuals "who ultimately cashed..." is technically inaccurate.  What they mean to say is something like "individuals who were the ultimate beneficiaries of subsidy checks written to corporations."

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Surprising Factoids

"...police work is actually less dangerous than nursing." 

The omission is a critical qualifier, in terms of nonfatal injuries.  From Matt Yglesias

A less surprising but completely true factoid: farming is twice as dangerous in terms of fatal injuries as police work.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Two Good Sentences From History

With apologies for the attitudes implicit here:
War aims, like a cat held up by the tail, have a way of clawing back at those who propose them....Women and war aims must be understood before they can be handled.
Via Brad DeLong's blog, the Harvard Crimson of Nov. 10, 1941 wrote on war aims (think Atlantic Charter and the Versailles peace conference).

One can only think of the long and extensive discussion of our war aims which occurred before the second Iraq war.

World Food Crisis?

So say some foodies.  But I see thisand I wonder:
Corn production outside the US in the 2011-12 marketing year is projected to be 6.6 percent larger than production of a year ago. Argentina, Brazil, China, and the Ukraine are all expected to have larger crops than those of last year. Of the larger producers, only Mexico is expected to have a smaller crop. Foreign wheat production is expected to be up 6.8 percent, led by a 39 percent increase in production in the countries that make up the former Soviet Union as that area recovers from the drought of 2010. Foreign soybean production is expected to increase by 1.4 percent

CFTC and MF Global

Chris Clayton has an outstanding post on the House Agriculture Committee's oversight hearings--two paragraphs:

"By my own count, the House Agriculture Committee has held six hearings on the Commodity Futures Trading Commission's implementation of Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. More than 30 witnesses appeared before the committee, which has issued 13 news releases on its work from Jan. 27 to date.

But in the entirety of the House Agriculture Committee's work, no one, as far as I can tell from news releases and hearing transcripts, asked anything along the lines of "Are there any loopholes that need to be closed, or rules that need to be implemented to protect client accounts from being raided?" Or, "Is there a loophole big enough to drive a massive bankruptcy through?" "Is there anything we're missing?"

Veteran's Day and Calvin Gibbs

Today's Veteran's Day, a day on which many good words will be said and many good people honored.  But as a veteran myself, I want to remind us that Lt. Calley and Calvin Gibbs were also veterans. Good men and women can do great things; they also can do terrible things; they can also fail to act when terrible things are done (see Paterno, Joe).  The presence or absence of a uniform, the taking of an oath to serve the country, none of that affects the human capacity for good or evil. Veterans are human, just like the rest of us.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Some People Never Learn: Erin Is Back

Erin of Raising Country Kids is back, a good photographer (how can you fail with cute kids and a puppy), very good writer, and not having learned how to simplify her life at all.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

US as a Christian Nation: an Omission

Much debate over whether the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation. (Some of my forebears knew it wasn't a Christian nation because it refused to acknowledge God in the Constitution, and therefore until 1830's refused to perform civic duties which would require oaths.) 

The National Archives has a daily "Today's Document".  Today's  is the "Secrecy Agreement"--after the Continental Congress had declared independence of George III, they started to get scared.  So they all signed an agreement in the fall of 1776 to keep their discussions secret.  Interestingly, although it's a solemn agreement, it doesn't include any swearing.  The fearsome consequence of leaking was to be treated as an enemy to American liberty.

Oops: Typos in Opera

From the Wolf Trap Opera blog:

"Watch out for those typos, some of which are inadvertently helped along by word processing… My recent favorite was Romeo’s aria “Slut, demeure chaste et pure.”  (In case you’re wondering, it’s “Salut, demeure chaste et pure”:

The Christmas Tree "Tax"

Ann Althouse is only one of the people highlighting the new "tax" on Christmas trees. Unfortunately USDA has a tin ear for political impact.  In the old days when the Directives Branch processed a Federal Register document for ASCS there'd sometimes be a press release included in the clearance package, particularly for CCC board decisions. These days they probably should do a blog post in anticipation of an FR document publication; just try to get their side of the story out.

I'm playing catchup today but this sounds like a new research and promotion program, voted on by the Christmas tree growers and with the fees to be used for promotion.  For some background on the research and promotion programs, here's the national ag law center's summary.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Election Report

We voted today.  Elections for the state legislature, Fairfax county board, school board, bond issue, soil and water conservation district. Lots of choices, so being lazy and too cynical for high school idealism basically used the Democrats' sample ballot.

The paper said there was a problem getting volunteers to man the polls, but there was the usual complement at our polling place. 

Because control of the state Senate hangs in the balance (the Reps are favored to take over, ensuring a lot of conservative social legislation will get enacted) we've gotten lots of calls.  Today we had 3 calls to be sure we voted since the Dems have us recorded as "sure" votes they're desperate to be sure we did.

After voting we went off to the theater to see "The Ides of March", which I'd describe as a mashup of Clinton/Edwards/Obama (played by Clooney, who was co-writer and director) as a candidate for the Dem nomination versus Ryan Gosling as an idealist whose illusions are shattered.  Good acting talent, well done, but no chance to feel good about either the country or the Democrats.  (That's unlike Primary Colors, which could break your heart.)

Monday, November 07, 2011

Farm Policy Versus EWG

Keith Good at FarmPolicy critiques the EWG assault on crop insurance in today's post.  In other news the AG committees haven't been able to agree on something to send to the supercommittee (last I saw rice and peanuts might keep direct payments) and Vilsack says USDA might cut 10,000 employees.

"I don't think the banks cared at all about borrowers."

[Grin]  That's from a Calculated Risk post on lawsuits over MERS (the computerized system for recording mortgages].

What the writer is saying is in setting up MERS the banks weren't trying to defraud home buyers, they were trying to save recording fees (i.e., defraud local government you might say) and enable the fancy derivatives and mortgage backed securities which led to the bubble.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Where's the WTO Rules?

There's a blog, CAP Health, which discusses EU agricultural policy.  Based on a cursory review, it doesn't seem as if the EU is going to follow the US in shifting strongly to a crop insurance policy.  Which leads me to the question in the title: one of the advantages of the direct payment program in the Republican's Freedom to Farm legislation in 1996 was its compliance with WTO rules on agricultural subsidies.  These days I've not seen those rules mentioned in any of the discussion of changes to farm legislation. Are they no longer applicable, do we just not care, or does crop insurance fit within them as well as direct payments?

Income Inequality: Fairfax and Prince William

Propublica has an interactive site which shows, based on Census figures, how equal or unequal the distribution of incomes in your county is.  According to it, about 26 percent of populous counties are more equal than Fairfax,VA.  Meanwhile, Prince William, the next further county out from Fairfax and home of Manassas, VA, more equal than every populous county.  Meanwhile, places like Essex county, MA, Baltimore, MD, and Orleans parish, LA are up there in the 90+ percent.

I'm not clear why the differences, though my guess is: history.  Fairfax has a longer history as a populous county than Prince William, so it had longer to develop pockets of poverty and pockets of wealth (McLean and Great Falls).  The same of course is even more true for the old urban and suburban areas (Fairfax was mostly rural until the 50's.).

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Bruce Babcock's Choices: RMA or FSA

From his study for EWG:
"If the decision [by Congress] is that it’s up to the private sector to provide it, the logical course is to reform the current crop insurance program by eliminating the insurance industry’s windfall profi ts as well as insurance-type commodity programs, including ACRE and SURE. If Congress concludes that it would be more efficient to provide a safety net through USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA), it should design an easy-to-deliver program in the commodity title that protects farmers against major production risks and frees private insurers from federal oversight. A privatized crop insurance program could then offer policies to farmers who wish to fi ll in any gaps in coverage.
The alternatives are logical, but Congress has rarely been logical.

Phd's Logic Loses Me

Professor Mankiw of Harvard has a post, the logic of which escapes me.  To oversimplify, the question is whether education is the key factor in the rise of the "1 percent".  Professor Krugman argues it isn't, Mankiw in his post argues it is.  But his argument is weird: he says both he and Krugman are in the 1 percent because they both have doctorates (or at least that's how I understand it). If their education had stopped at a high school diploma they wouldn't be in the 1 percent. 

Seems to me the comparison doesn't work.  If education was the or a key factor, one would expect college professors to be in the 1 percent.  They aren't, the examples of Krugman and Mankiw to the contrary.  Depending on the year, the top 1 percent makes between $350000 and $450000, well above the salaries of almost all professors.  (Harvard's average was about half that.)

Planning Ahead and the Auditors

This Federal Computer Week piece describes a conflict between Social Security Administration's management and its OIG: the IG wants SSA to plan its online services more thoroughly, more completely and for a longer period.  SSA is resisting.

I remember back in the day, maybe 1981 or so, either GAO or the USDA IG tore ASCS up over the issue of programmable calculators.  For you whippersnappers,  at one time calculators were the hot electronics item.  This was, I think, back in the day when integrated chips were first being made on a large scale, and companies found they could stick a chip in a case with a numeric keypad and a small display and sell it for big bucks (particularly when you consider inflation, probably several hundred by today's values). 

There were a slew of such manufacturers, some in the US, in Japan.  As Moore's law kicked in, the manufacturers hotly competed by adding features and lowering prices.  But that's a side story. Anyway by the late 70's we had programmable calculators costing in the low hundreds.  And a few ASCS employees, mostly CED's, found they could save a lot of time by buying one and  creating a formula for such things as calculating the deficiency payment, cutting the work down to just keying in the data.  These guys (almost all male I think) used available funds and shared their work.

By the time GAO got involved, ASCS had an investment in programmable calculators of  maybe $3 million (all facts herein based on an aging memory) and one person in DC who tried (rather ineffectually IMHO) to coordinate usage, encouraging sharing of programs, etc.  GAO took a look at the situation and issued a bad report.  They wanted DC to assess which county offices needed the calculators, make one national purchase to save money, and provide standard programs to the counties.

I got involved in drafting the response, which pushed back against the idea.  I'm not sure how well the response would stand up over time--whether we mostly argued for a do nothing approach based on inertia, or whether we were more perceptive..  What we (and GAO) didn't know was that the first CED's were about to buy, or  already had bought, personal computers (maybe an Apple II, maybe a Commodore, maybe a Trash 80) to play with and possibly apply to ASCS business.  My perception is that led to a push from the field which combined with leadership from DC, eventuated in the purchase of the IBM System/36.

Anyhow, our response should have pointed to Moore's law and the rapid transformation of the field and our lack of comprehension of what was happening (always hard for bureaucrats to admit we don't know).  In such a situation, it made sense to stay flexible and relatively decentralized. 

That episode was one of my learning experiences, which sometimes counters my tendency to believe, like IG's do, that good bureaucrats located at the center can establish patterns and systems which work best for the field.  The truth is, it all depends.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Apologies to Commenters

I've screwed up.  There are comments on some of my posts to which I've not responded. I'm sorry and will try to do better.  Responses coming this weekend.

Politico and EWG on Crop Insurance

To balance my recent post on the goodness of crop insurance, let me link to this Politico article on the returns crop insurance offers: when Rain and Hail was bought by the Swiss they promised Wall Street 15 percent return on investment.  The Politico article mentions a new EWG study.

Here's a link to the EWG summary.

Both point out the $8 billion cost of crop insurance, greater than the direct payment and CFC programs currently cost.  But a partisan of FSA can only feel schadenfreude, because EWG would make crop insurance free and open administration of it to competitive bids. 

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Florence Nightingale a Mathematician?

Yes, and inventor of a class of graphs.  That's from this interesting site, which says:
Though known as a nurse who changed the standard of health care, she was actually a brilliant mathematician, and the inventor of a class of chart called the polar area diagram.

Those Vassar Girls Are Far-Sighted, and Supremely Confident

" Since Vassar is at present having a conference on the postwar world,"  is a phrase from Eleanor Roosevelts column, as provided by Brad DeLong (who periodically picks up WWII first person stuff under the heading "Liveblogging WWII".  Eleanor was reporting on a group picnic at her house in Hyde Park which included some girls from Vassar, which is just a few miles down the road. More importantly the Canadian PM and FDR were around.

You might suppose the date was sometime in 1944, when I believe the UN was on the drawing board and the Allies were on the European mainland. You'd be wrong.

Nor is it 1943, after the tide had turned in the Pacific and on the Eastern Front and victory in North Africa.

Nor is it 1942, in the darkest days of the Battle of the Atlantic, Japanese advances in the Pacific, and the battle of Stalingrad.

It's Nov. 3, 1941, a month before we officially enter the war.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Why Crop Insurance Is Good

Speed.  The farmer gets a check in 1 or 2 weeks.  That's the story this farmer is pushing. (I owe someone a hat tip, but lost it.) It's an op-ed by a corn/soybean farmer.  Since I usually diss crop insurance here, it's time to acknowledge a different view.  (I guess the writer knows the insurance is subsidized but he likes the fact he pays for (a part of) it.

On Silos and Data Models

FSA issued a notice BU-729.  It seems to me, though I may be wrong, it's just another example of data silos, and a reason why, in 1990's terms, FSA should have developed an integrated data model.  Essentially the question is the relationship of geographic areas (counties) with administrative jurisdictions (county committees and local administrative areas) and county offices (of various types, shared management, etc.).  To administer county elections you need part of that relationship, to administer funds you need an overlapping part, to administer real and personal property inventories you need a third picture, to coordinate with NRCS and RD offices and jurisdictions you need others.  Unfortunately in my days at FSA each of those was administered by a separate office (or no office at all) and there was no overall coordination.  Apparently from BU-729 there still is no coordination.  My technocratic (Kevin Drum has a meditation on technocracy) heart is sore.

Project Management Software on the Cloud?

All I know I learned at Info Share.  That sometimes seems to be the case.  This announcement stuns me.  Back in 1992 there was PC-based project management software used by the bureaucrats of Info Share.  We're saying 19 years later there's still a niche for such software based in the cloud?  Seems as if we could have made more progress than that. 

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Whoops, A Pollan Reversal?

Prof. Pollan has been quiet in recent months, really since he gave advice to Obama back after the election, so I've not mentioned him.  But via Grist, here's a post on his position on high fructose corn syrup--it's more the quantity than the contets of HFCS.