Thursday, May 31, 2012

Inflation in Machinery

Via today's Farm Policy, an illustration of the economics of farming at the farmdoc blog  (“Machinery Cost Estimates for 2012 and 2013”) that farmers are price takers: ”
": Prices of new machinery have increased for most machines between 2010 and 2012. For example, the list price of a 215 horsepower tractor in 2012 is $215,000. A comparable sized tractor in 2010 has a list price of $181,500. Between 2010 and 2012, the price of this tractor has increased by 18 percent."
 Now I don't remember any big price increases on cars or trucks in recent years, so what's happening is the implement manufacturers are raising their prices to what the market will bear, and there's not enough competition to keep the prices down.   Any guess as to implement prices if and when corn drops to $3?

I Smell

Research proves that old people smell [different than younger people].

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Rooting for Clothes

Dave Berri at Freakonomics uses a Seinfeld phrase on politics: "rooting for clothes".  The idea is that Cleveland sports fans loved LeBron until he moved, Redskins fans haded Deon Sanders until he switched from Dallas to the Skins, etc. etc.

We can also apply the idea to politics, since in many cases the parties switch positions depending on whether they're in power or not.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Mrs. Obama's Garden Book

She's on the move promoting her book.

I'll give her credit; I was originally afraid the garden was just a fad thing.  It's still a vehicle for spin, but that comes with the territory.

[Updated: here's a pretty full description of the contents at Obamafoodorama.]

Monday, May 28, 2012

Guinness Puzzle Solved

The world has waited with bated breath to find the answer to the puzzle: why do bubbles in Guinness fall, instead of rise.  We now know, thanks to some Irish mathematicians.  (The tongue is firmly in the cheek in this piece at Technology Review.)

"Heroes": The Devaluation of Standards

There's a kerfuffle over some guy on MSNBC voicing reservations over calling people "heroes", thinks it encourages war..  And Mitt Romney  has a video in which he says: " “But every woman and every man who has or now defends American liberty share in their heritage of greatness. Every veteran is the greatest of his generation.”

To all of which, I say b.s.  We're now living in Lake Woebegon, where all the women are good-looking, all the children above average, and all the veterans/military are heroes and the greatest.  It's also the country where the "gentleman's C" has become everyone's B.

In fact, some served, some did not. Some did their jobs, some did not.  Some were very brave on some days, some were not.  Some received medals, some did not.  Some were Americans, some were not. Some were Germans, Japanese, Russians, Vietnamese, some were not.  Draw a Venn diagram and the sets will overlap.  All were human. Read "The Red Badge of Courage", then read Audie Murphy's memoir.

[Update: Tom Ricks provides some backup to my position here. Conor Friedersdorf has a long post on the original MSNBC program and the reaction thereto.]

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Props to Jimmy Carter

Obituaries this week for Wesley Brown, who graduated from Annapolis in 1949 as the first black to make it through.  From the obits his time was not easy, being hazed continuously for four years.  Both the Times and Post obits observe a handful of whites were friendly, including a young Jimmy Carter who was a teammate on the track team.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Congress: No Negative Earmarks

One of the things Congress likes to do is the "negative earmark", by which I mean sticking a provision in an appropriation act stating that no money shall be spent for such and such purpose as authorized in an existing statute.  It's like an earmark, because it scratches some specific itch, and it's done through the appropriation process which means, usually, there's no up and down vote, but because it bans spending of money it's negative, not positive.

Well, the gun nuts have used the negative earmark to make it impossible for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms to review any application for relief from provisions of the law, including the complete ban on ex-felons possessing firearms.  This provision has now bitten former Representative Randy Cunningham, who is nearing release from  prison (for bribery) and would like to be able to hunt. The link is from a TPM post, containing the letter written by the federal judge back to Cunningham.

It's so funny, I could cry. 

[Updated: changed title and added clause to last sentence of first paragraph.]

Friday, May 25, 2012

I Lost My Wallet: USDA

This post on Govloop describes an approach the Portugese government had set up:
Essentially, it was a place you went when... you lost your wallet. What the government had done was bring together all the agencies that controlled a document or card that was likely to have been in your wallet. As a result, rather than running around from agency to agency filling out your name and address over and over again on dozens of different forms, you went to a single desk, filled out one set of forms to get new copies of say, your social insurance card, your drivers license, healthcare card and library card.
It reminds me of an episode back in my career, perhaps in connection with USDA's InfoShare project.  Someone's parent had died, leaving her some farmland, I think in the Shenandoah valley.  She had tried going to the USDA offices to get help with what to do, but found the whole process confusing and very frustrating. 

There should be a simple process for such cases, although it's much more important (and equally as unlikely) for there to be an "I lost my wallet" office sponsored by any government at any level in the US.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Everything Is Owned, Except Feral Hogs

If you had asked me, I say everything in the US has an owner but not so.  Feral hogs in Texas are unowned, and you need no license to hunt them.

Extension has been having a lot of posts on feral hogs--just another thing to worry about.

Eat Your Lettuce

This Ann Althouse post seems to say that. 

Of course, the photo catches the lettuce at just the right moment; another week and the rows will be invading each other and starting to look scraggly.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

End the USDA: So Say IA Republicans (150 Years Is Too Much?)

The first point in their party platform is:

    1. We call for the abolition of the Federal Department of Agriculture, returning control to the state and local governments. 

To be fair, this is only the draft platform, not the final one, and it reflects the Paulites vision of government.  The Post blog is more interested in "birther" nonsense.

[Updated title]

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Raising the Debt Limit: What Happens to Plain Folks?

When the Dems and Reps get into a fight over raising the debt limit, as they did last year and look to be heading for this year, what happens to the plain folks?

According to this extension post, at least one soldier got confused by the games.

Those Great Third Grade Teachers

Freakonomics has a post thanking a third grade teacher, and the Post reports on a Wall Street type memorializing his third grade teacher.  My third grade teacher was Charlotte Kenyon, who had, in today's language, had gravitas, both literally and figuratively.  Back in the day the obese were a rarity in the land, but Mrs. Kenyon was fat.  But she was also determined and dedicated.  The student grapevine told stories about her, usually exaggerated.  But having stories told about one means the teacher was significant, and she was.  She was the teacher alumni would use as a reference point, a shared experience, a force of nature: "you went to the Forks, did you have Mrs. Kenyon?"

Unlike the two posts I link to, I can't recall any particular anecdotes or inspiration she gave me, except for the time she  called me to the blackboard for a spelling quiz.  My memory is likely wrong, but I'm thinking I thought I was hot stuff then, smart, reading ahead of classmates.  But the blackboard exercise somehow revealed my shortcomings in spelling, something I needed.

Anyhow, she ended up with a school named after her.

Monday, May 21, 2012

A Totally Partisan Congress? No

One aspect of the progress of the new farm bill is the existence of bi-partisanship.  Here's a Politico story on the problems in the Senate with rice and peanuts.  While there's tension in both Houses, the tension now is among the "Aggies", as Sen. Chambliss calls them.  The Senators and Representatives with allegiances to different commodity groups are sparring, but I expect them to come together in the end.

There are the outliers who are moved by policy ideas, which can correlate to partisanship.  A few Republican members oppose federal expenditures on agriculture, reflecting their general positions (and the lack, I suspect being cynical, of significant agriculture in their district.

We Love Our Schadenfreude

A link to John Phipps who links to a Youtube video.  If you drive a Lamborghini you're fair game to the rest of the world.  We can laugh because no one was injured.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

218 Frogs, Not a Prince Among Them

Speaker Boehner is quoted in a Politico article bemoaning the difficulty of assembling 218 frogs from his Republican caucus in order to pass a bill.

How a Stonehead Handles Phone Solicitors

His post.  One surprise is the casual mention of receiving solicitations from outside the UK.

The State of Morality

By many measures the state of morality in the US is strong, and getting stronger.  That's not the way the people see it though, according to this Politico report.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Farmers Didn't Like Big Cities: Corruption in the Capitals

John Sides at The Monkey Cage posts on a study which shows the level of governmental corruption is higher when the state capital is more isolated. One factor is there's more news media coverage when the big media are closer to the capital, therefore less corruption.

Thinking about our capitals, most of them are not in the principal cities of the states.  I presume it's because there was a tug of war between the rural districts and the urban areas.  The farmers didn't want to add to the power of New York City or Philadelphia or Boston by making it the capital, so the compromise, given the power of the rural areas, was to make a smaller city the capital.  Today we just think that Albany, Harrisburg, and Springfield are naturally the capitals, without realizing the path by which they got there.

Saverin: Why Singapore?

Eduardo Saverin, played by Andrew Garfield in the movie, is receiving lots of attention because he's renounced his U.S. citizenship, presumably to avoid paying some taxes on his money from Facebook.

One thing's not been explained in the news articles I've seen: why Singapore?   Well, as usual Wikipedia has the answer: Singapore's tax rules encourage tax evasion.

Friday, May 18, 2012

France Is Safer Than US and the French Are Tougher

That's my takeaway from Dirk Beauregarde: " Even on Tuesday (May 15th), as the newly-inaugurated président’s motorcade drove down the Champs Elysées, François Hollande stood up in his open top limo waving and smiling at the crowds, as torrential rain poured down."

There are some of us who remember Presidents in open limousines as they were before Nov. 23, 1963.  None remember when Presidents were rained upon in their inaugural parades.

Google's Driverless Car Comes to Washington

Here's a Politico report on the car's success in navigating Capitol Hill streets, not the halls yet. It includes this question:
But there are questions about its viability — will consumers buy into losing control behind the wheel?
Speaking only for myself, I could see buying it--I'm nearing the point where my self-confidence is my driving ability is starting to fade, so an old geezer I've love the ability to delegate 99 percent of the driving to a computer.  I suspect that's how the innovation will come; something like Segway which was promoted as revolutionary but has turned out to be a niche filler.  Between geezers and drunks there's a big niche to fill.

A Glimmer of Hope for Target Prices?

Apparently House Ag Committee is leaning to preserving target prices, but perhaps on planted acres.  That's according to today's Farm Policy.

There's fear of a collapse of prices.

And there's infighting between regions and crops.

And so it goes.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Good Looking Redheads and Drone Aircraft and Tractors

Not that I'm a chauvinist I have a weakness for good looking redheads.  Mary Cummings is such a person, also former F4A and F-18 Navy pilot, also farm girl, also MIT professor, also working with John Deere and Office of Naval Research.  This is a Wired Conference interview with her, talking about the current status and future prospects of drones on aircraft carriers, in warfare, and in agriculture.  Brief video of 2 John Deere robotic tractors spraying an orchard.

The last piece of the interview (total about 18 minutes) is the most surprising one, albeit military and not agricultural.

Poor Software Design: British Style

A couple blogs I follow have noted a report over in the UK that there are 17,000 pregnant men in the National Health System.  At least one of the blogs commented it's a reminder of how easy it is to get garbage into an automated system and thus we should be careful in our reliance on reports. 

That's all true, but the problem really is a design problem: apparently there's no validations on the entries for this particular field, or at least there's insufficient validations.  One could presumably also find in the report some women with prostate problems and men with gynecological problems.  Absence of thought is a universal.

Organic = Smug Self-Righteousness?

That's my impression from the research reported on at Barking Up the Wrong Tree.   It's not eating the organic food which makes one a jerk; it's being exposed to the concept.  Apparently the logic is the exposure makes one more conscious of morality, hence more judgmental and less willing to help others.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Small Dairy Help

Cornell U. extension has some things to help "small dairies", which have been going out of business in New York forever.

They use a 100-cow dairy as an example of "small", which still strikes odd because 30 or so was the average when I grew up (we had 12).  Though in surfing the web the other day I ran across claims of being able to handle milking of 200-300 cows with one person (maybe on the Wikipedia talk page, not sure).   That's not Moore's law of transistors, but it's a better improvement in productivity than higher education.

Cornell also has a map showing "Small Plants for Pasteurized Milk, Yogurt, etc.).  and a set of benchmarks (size of farm, milk per cow, acres per cow, etc.).  I'd think breed would be important: one farm has 25,000 lbs per cow, which has to be Holstein, another has 13,000 lbs, which has to be Jersey or Guernsey or whatever.

Move to Massachusetts, It's Best

Here's a reasonably convincing article at Slate which boosts that far-left bastion of liberalism, Massachusetts. There's some surprising and counter-intuitive statistics included.

Who Invented Plywood?

Sometime ago there was a listing of the most important inventions of the 20th century.  I thought of that while viewing this video on plywood (it's rather arty and for all the warning about table saws, they don't use a guard)--I owe a hat tip to someone, not sure who.

Anyhow, I went to Wikipedia and found the answer(s):
  1. the ancient Egyptians
  2. Imannuel Nobel, father of the Alfred of dynamite fame.  Although his Wikipedia entry just credits him with inventing the lathe used in plywood manufacture, but that may have been the key innovation needed to make plywood on a mass scale.
The father invents something which is a prerequisite to modern society and the son something to destroy prerequisites to modern society.  And so it goes.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Misinformation from the Times: Food

The Times has an interview with an NIH mathematician today who says, in part:

Did you ever solve the question posed to you when you were first hired — what caused the obesity epidemic?
We think so. And it’s something very simple, very obvious, something that few want to hear: The epidemic was caused by the overproduction of food in the United States.
Beginning in the 1970s, there was a change in national agricultural policy. Instead of the government paying farmers not to engage in full production, as was the practice, they were encouraged to grow as much food as they could. At the same time, technological changes and the “green revolution” made our farms much more productive. The price of food plummeted, while the number of calories available to the average American grew by about 1,000 a day.
Well, what do people do when there is extra food around? They eat it! This, of course, is a tremendously controversial idea. However, the model shows that increase in food more than explains the increase in weight.
Sounds to me as if he's been reading Mr. Pollan.  The truth of course is there was no such long lasting change in policy. Yes, Earl Butz said "fence row to fence row", but his impact on farm policy was mostly gone by the time Jimmy Carter was elected .  We had annual production adjustment programs into the 1990's and beginning in 1986 removed millions of acres of cropland from production through CRP.

Can Obama Win Alaska?

On this chart showing the support within different states for same-sex civil marriage, Alaska sticks out as a McCain supporting state which also supports SSCM. Makes me wonder: since Palin won't be on the Republican ticket in 2012 is there a chance for Obama to win Alaska?  Nah, probably not.  Just a day-dream.

More Moslems Than Methodists in IL?

That's what John Phipps reports.

Monday, May 14, 2012

USDA Birthday: Obama Ignores the Good Stuff

The President issues a proclamation noting the 150th birthday of USDA.  He touches on conservation, food safety, electrification, food stamps, research, market expansion (domestic and foreign), but entirely ignores anything which could be construed as endorsing AAA/ASCS/FSA.  :-( Leaves out crop insurance as well.  :-)

Summary of ARC

From Gary Schnitkey at IL extension, a summary of the Agricultural Risk Coverage program in the Senate Ag's bill:

ARC will make payments if revenues reach lower levels. In years in which revenue declines, ARC payments will be useful to farmers.
ARC payments will offset some of the losses in gross revenue. The entire loss will not be covered because 1) the .89 factor used to calculate the guarantee effectively puts an 11% deductible on revenue losses, 2) payments are a factor of the shortfall (.80 for the county program and .65 for the farm program), and 3) ARC payments are capped at 10% of benchmark revenue.
If prices are persistently low for several years, ARC payments will decline over time as lower prices enter into the calculation of benchmark revenue. Hence, ARC will provide payments in early years of a multi-year price decline, eventually though farmers will need to fully adjust to price declines as ARC payment decline.
A couple of thoughts:
  • there's a cap on the acres (average of plantings 2004-8) which presumably could replace the acreage base, but may involve such things as: the initial establishment and the right to appeal, and the problems of handling prevented planting, CRP acreage, rotations, and changes from one crop to another.  Reminds me of the days of establishing NCA's and acreage bases.
  • interesting issue on collecting data--do you collect production data for every participant every year, or only if there's a possibility/probability of qualifying for ARC payment?

The Case for Crop Insurance vs. Ad Hoc Disaster

Via Farm Policy, here's 3 paragraphs from a case for crop insurance, a John Mages op-ed:
Crop insurance is a public-private partnership, designed to ensure that when disaster strikes, the private sector – crop insurance companies – are there to help shoulder the risk and the financial burden of rebuilding.  Crop insurance policies are purchased by the farmer and suited to the farmer’s needs, comfort with risk and financial situation.

In the past, before purchasing crop insurance was the widespread and widely available option, disasters like last year’s would have triggered large, stand-alone disaster bills in Congress, aimed at trying to save as many farms as possible.  Those bills would have cost taxpayers dearly, and unfortunately, would have taken months, or even several years to finally get into the hands of the farmers who need the help.  Not a good situation for either party involved.

In 2011, with 80 percent of eligible lands protected by crop insurance, private sector companies paid out in excess of$10.7 billion in payments to farmers who had purchased plans and suffered losses.  Those checks were often in the hands of the farmers in 30 days or less after they completed the necessary paper work.  It’s because of the effectiveness and efficiency of crop insurance that many of us are in our fields planting today instead of being forced to auction off our farms.
 Since I've been implicitly and explicitly critical of crop insurance, it's only fair to recognize the counter-arguments.  I'm proud of the work my shop did on disaster programs and payments over the years, but it's true enough that an ad hoc program doesn't work as well as having something in place from year to year.

Be Negative to Your Children?

Should you be more negative to your children than anyone else? Should you treat your employees better than your children?  That's what's implied in this table from a post at Barking Up the Wrong Tree reporting research from this book.  The question is: if you want the best relationship, what's the ideal ratio of positive interactions to negative.  For example, parents should praise their children 3 times for each time they reprove them, etc.  If the research is right, I was a lousy boss.  

Of course the point is to be mostly positive to everyone.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Pot, Locavores, and the Farm Bill

Since the beginning, the farm bill has sought to protect farmers from price risk and weather risk, the risk of low prices through overproduction and the risk of low production from.bad weather.  The methods provided in the laws have varied, including cartels, supply management, crop insurance and disaster payments, all of which are conditioned on the basic fact that in a free market, farmers are price takers, mostly at the mercy of those who buy from them.

Because marijuana is illegal, you don't see a lot of discussion about its economics, so I've only vague impressions to go on. (See this PBS piece which looks at costs and volume.)Because pot is illegal, its dealers are insulated from market pressures: once they've established themselves in an area, they tend to have a relatively stable monopoly.  So the tendency is for basically stable networks of growers-dealers-buyers, meaning prices are pretty stable. (Can I find a parallel with contract growers of poultry, pork, etc., which also have stable networks?)  And because pot is illegal, there's a high entry cost for growers. That's what "illegal" means. But it also means that "weather risk" can extend to "law risk"--the chances of a bust.

My impression is that the importation of marijuana is down, and domestic growing is up.  In that sense, the pot industry has been moving in the direction of  locavore. As "grow houses" have proliferated, it's become more localized and more production oriented, more industrial, less organic.

Comes now the legalization of "medical marijuana" (I use quotes because I think it's really a backdoor way to semi-legalize marijuana) which seems to have disrupted the pot economy, according to an article in today's NYTimes Post, for which I can't find the url. (I'll try to add it later.)

On the one hand you have competition among the vendors, both on quality and price.  On the other you have growers having problems. Bottom line is the bottom has dropped out of the price, with big repercussions on the economy of such counties as Humboldt, CA.

One wonders when pot will make it into the farm bill?

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Online Service at Social Security

Social Security Administration has added the ability to establish an account and access your personal data online.  Seems to be a good site, permitting very strong passwords (upper/lower case, multiple symbols--I used LastPass capabilities), and some questions which really are personal and can't be determined from online data, at least not until the Facebook generation reaches SS eligibility.)  Even offers the tie-in with one's cellphone, which is becoming popular these days.  One problem, though: apparently it's only available through business hours, not 24/7. ??

Tradeoffs in India

"Open wifi networks are banned in India, because they make life difficult for policemen. This is a bad tradeoff : we have sacrificed the immense gains from ubiquitous open wifi networks, in return for reducing the work of policemen."

from Ajay Shah's blog.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Pigford Deadline Today

The final date for submitting papers for Pigford II is today, applicable only to those who filed late for Pigford I.

Corn Prices and the New Farm Bill

Just a note based on items in Farm Policy--apparently the warm spring has meant early corn planting on large acreages which means prospects for the crop are good, which means prospects for prices are poor (maybe as low as $4--which would have seemed great when I worked).  And the evaluation of the Senate Ag farm bill is that if there are multiple years with lower prices the program payments will decline, an idea the evaluators don't like, preferring instead the guarantee provided by target prices set in the law.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

"Progressives" and "The Progressive Farmer"

Minds are funny.  I just Google+1ed a post at Casaubon's Book, something I rarely do.  (The writer Sharon Astyk is deep into the foodie movement: peak oil, locavore, sustainable, etc. but very articulate.) The post was about gay marriage, and noted the legal and property considerations involved in marriage--recommend it.  She would qualify as a political "progressive" in most people's books.

Anyway, the next post on my RSS feed was Chris Clayton's column at "The Progressive Farmer".  The conjunction of someone who's really progressive and the magazine, which isn't progressive at all, at least in the sense that some of the conservatives I follow would use it (i.e., as an epithet, a tad better than "socialist" but much worse than "liberal") struck me. 

"Progessive" as used in connection with farming used to mean the wide-awake, up-to-date farmer, someone who was on his way to being an "industrial" farmer, as the foodies would have it.  It's rather ironic to me to see the evolution of the term.

Soybeans: It Wasn't Franklin After All

Earlier I linked to a blog post at Boston 1775 describing how Ben Franklin, the great bureaucrat, was the first with soybeans in the colonies, specifically tofu. 

Turns out that was wrong.  The soybean types have got to Boston 1775 and he has corrected the account.  It was really Samuel Bowen of Georgia, who was first actually to grow soybeans here and describe their uses.  But Bowen didn't get to tofu, so Franklin can still be the patron of the foodies.

Aside: it surprises me to find the China trade existing back in 1758, but apparently it was well established.  Although my rapidly fading memory of the book 1493 says countries other than England were trading with the Chinese maybe by the end of the 16th century.

Not Another Cheerleader

Sorry, but my political prejudices are showing.  This sentence from a Post profile of the young Romney jumped out: "He was not a natural athlete, but found his place among the jocks by managing the hockey team and leading megaphone cheers for the football team."

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Clay Christenson--Mormon and Incredible Person

One of my favorite books (listed way down the blog and not updated for years) is Clay Christensen's Innovator's Dilemma..  Now the New Yorker this week has a very nice profile of the guy, a professor at Harvard Business. Unfortunately only the abstract and beginning paragraphs are available online, but I recommend reading it somewhere somehow.  He sounds too good to be true, but judge for yourself.

Bowling Alone and Kids

Awhile ago Robert Putnam got lots of attention for his book "Bowling Alone", in which he argued there'd been a decrease in associations in American life over the years, with a concomitant decrease in social capital.

I wonder, whether there's not been an increase in associations centered around kids: the notorious soccer moms who spend their time chauffeuring kids from one activity to another, meaning they coordinate with other parents.  So there might be a decrease in associations like the Elks or bowling leagues which are with peers, and increase in associations with parents.  That would mean a division in society.

Bureaucrat Started as GS-5?

The article "Master of Bureaucracy" doesn't say, but it's likely Bob Gates started as either as GS-5 or 7.  Government Executive runs a long interview with him:
  • when he became Sec. of Defense, he didn't bring any assistants with him.  (That's amazing for anyone who's seen a transition at the top of a cabinet department.)
  • kept quiet in meetings
  • gave others credit
  • fired people
  • says DOD plans for war, isn't good at waging war, so had to go to task forces to accomplish things.