Friday, August 31, 2012

MIDAS Update

A new set of materials on MIDAS are available--see here.  I'm a little bothered by the gap between May and August in the release.  Maybe  I have a romantic view of communication in projects: ideally there'd be a continual flow of questions and answers and information among the developers and the soon-to-be users.  As I say, it's romantic and because most of the communication is probably on the intranet I've only a partial view.

I wonder about coordination among the program officials and the MIDAS implementation team.  That was an area we were deficient in during the System/36 rollout.  The tendency was for program people to focus on current program issues, assuming the systems people had things under control.  Not so.

The Farmer-Owned Reserve of Maple Syrup

Back in the days of the Carter administration the big deal was the "farmer-owned reserve", which was a variation on Secretary Wallace's (of New Deal days) idea of the "ever-normal granary", which he traced back to the Bible and the 7 fat years etc..

Turns out the Canadian maple syrup producers have much the same idea as described in this short Treehugger post.  The point is to smooth out the supply fluctuations due to the weather in order to maintain stable prices.

House Republicans as a Force for Moderation

Okay, it's a surprising title, but here's my theory:
  • Republicans maintain their control of the House in November but narrowly--the Rep caucus does not move further to the right by adding many more conservative members
  • House Republicans face the prospect of elections in 2014--if Romney wins they're incumbents and are more likely to lose in offyear elections. 
  • 2nd term tea party members who won in the Republican wave of 2010 will be concerned about surviving a Democratic wave in 2014.  Some of them will have gone Washington, and will see reason in compromise and "getting something done".
  • so the logic of their situation is going to be pulling them towards the center, as opposed to the last 2 years when they were pulling away from the center.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

BBC America: No Attention Span At All

Watching the BBC's news at 5:50--interviewing some Brit who's new to American political conventions.  He said, compared to Europe, the rapid-fire Republican convention is made for people with no attention span at all.

Post-Election Prediction

Had a discussion this morning about what will happen after a Romney victory in November.  My interlocutor suggested he would repeal ACA immediately.  This is my response, for what it's worth:
Repeal the health plan root and branch? No. The fiscal cliff will absorb their time and energy. Meanwhile they'll figure out how to handle the good parts, repeal the bad, and still pay for everything. Unless they go the constitutional option on the filibuster, they've got to squeeze ACA repeal into reconciliation, which is going to be difficult. As for the huge tax cuts, no way. They'll be doing good in the fiscal cliff negotiations to extend the Bush cuts, while stopping the FICA cuts. Redoing the tax system as Romney/Ryan propose will take a couple years. And it won't work as drafted--the itemized deductions are too woven into our society. Think of Obama: he promised healthcare and no mandates and climate change legislation and immigration, he got 1 of the 3 with very big changes and he had a big win and a big Senate majority. Romney won't have either, maybe a small Senate majority.
A couple more comments: there's been a to and fro between Marty Feldstein and other Republican economists and Brad DeLong and some Dem-leaning economists about whether the Romney tax plan is possible.  The Tax Policy Institute said it wasn't, Feldstein says it is, DeLong says Feldstein failed elementary math.  IMHO it's all beside the point.  To make it work (i.e., lower tax rates and broaden base) you've got to do what Reagan and Rostenkowski failed to do in 1986, which is to end the deductibility of state and local taxes and mortgage interest.  The problem they had, and the problem Romney will have, is all the realtors in the country, who are very much Republican small business types, support interest deductibility. And all the people who pay high state and local taxes in states which rely on income and property taxes, who again are very much Republican types, support tax deductibility.

My other comment relates to foreign affairs: assume Israel's not bluffing, and Romney's serious about 110 percent support of Israel, we may be seeing a new Middle East war in the first 100  days.  (Of course Obama can't point this out, because he's only 105 percent supportive of Israel.)

We'll see how accurate my predictions are in the 200 days to come.

Do It Right the First Time

My rule is you never do it right the first time (except for landing on the moon). 

Here's further evidence--even when eating leaves is ingrained in your genes you can't do it right.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Meritocracy in Government

Ta-Nehesi Coates blogs about the Chris Hayes book on meritocracy, which I have to read sometime.  I gather part of the thesis is the growth of exams at every stage along the line of bringing up kids--NYC parents even have their pre-K kids tested because getting into the right nursery school leads to the right k-6 school, and so on and so on.  And Hayes says meritocracies become oligarchies--the children of meritocrats become good on tests themselves.

As I commented, the rise of the civil service in 1883 meant a diminishing of the influence of politics, patronage, and fraud, which was mostly good. And the military is pretty meritocratic: everyone starts as an E-1 or O-1, except maybe lawyers, doctors, and ministers. 

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Charitable Giving

The state of Utah gives over 10 percent of income to charity.  That's from this interactive website which allows you to search down to ZIP code.

Richest Adherents of Religion

It seems that adherents of Judaism tend to have the most money, but adherents of Hinduism are close behingd. 

Monday, August 27, 2012

A Famous Fed

Tom Shoop at Government Executive notes Neil Armstrong was a federal employee.  I won't claim him as a bureaucrat, though.

Why Do Farmers Deserve Federal Help?

My title is a question which is often asked, particularly by fiscal conservatives and free market types. Why help farmers when we don't help restaurants or dry cleaners or other small businesses which fail.

The simple answer is: they don't deserve Federal help..

But simple is often wrong.

The heart tugging answer is: family farms are the cornerstone of the country.

But that's easy emotion, based on an agrarian myth which doesn't work these days.While most field crops are still grown on family farms, even though the family may be a corporation or partnership, those families are spread rather thinly over the landscape, so rural churches and organizations are at best on life support.  See Prof. Putnam's Bowling Alone.

The historical answer is: because they used to have lots of political power and they still have enough to get legislation passed.

But that answer isn't one of principle, it's one of power: farmers deserve help because they're powerful enough to get it.

So is there an answer which is principled, or at least plausibly principled?

Yes, I think so.  You start with the idea that we're one nation, one society, and part of that means we care for each other.  You add in the contrary principle that we believe in freedom and the market, so people should stand on their own two feet.  The free market principle says we shouldn't keep restaurants from failing (which they do at very high rates) because their success or failure is market-driven.  There are exceptions, of course: when the oil well blew out in the Gulf, BP and we compensated the businesses hurt by the oil spill.  When a hurricane comes through, FEMA will help to rebuild.  Those exceptions serve to clarify the rule: when success or failure is due to the efforts of the individual operating within the constraints of the free market, then no federal help is warranted. So if the failure is from exogenous causes, events outside the system, then one can argue for federal aid. Hence the long history of disaster aid, which gradually has consolidated into crop insuance.

Going further, I can argue for help based on the structure of the market system in which farmers find themselves, or at least found themselves in the past.  As commodity producers with no power to set prices, they were at the mercy of the market.  (Airlines are also commodity producers with no power to set prices individually, but they're so few of them they can signal each other when they're ready to raise prices.  Even so, I understand over its history the airline industry has never made a net profit.) Consequently it was justified for the government to use its power to permit cartels to be formed, as in the "marketing orders" for various fruits and vegetables and the classical production adjustment programs of the last century.

For the last argument, I can question whether, with modern means of information and marketing, hedging the risks, government intervention is still required.  It is true, I think, a disaster like this year's drought will cause oscillations in the supply/demand for field crops next year.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Northern Sea Route and Global Warming

This article from Iceland reports the arrival of the Chinese icebreaker Xuelong which took the "Northern Sea Route" from China--i.e. going through the Arctic Ocean across the top of Russia.

Searching on "Northern Sea Route" gets this report: "Cargo shipping along the Northern Sea Route is expected to double this year. Nordic Bulk Carriers plan to transport 6-8 shipments of ore from Murmansk to China."

Farmers: Why Vote for Obama?

Perhaps two reasons: to punish Republicans in the House for not moving the farm bill and because Obama seems more favorable to immigration of farm workers than the Republicans.

Not that I'm predicting any Obama victories because of this, though Harry Truman won in part because of farmer opposition to the Republican farm policy proposals.

Friday, August 24, 2012

NASCOE--A Friend at AEI?

After this beginning, I'm surprised that this guest at the American Enterprise Institute comes out somewhat friendly to NASCOE:
"The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency (FSA) is often described as overstaffed and inefficiently structured for its mission, which is to deliver and monitor a variety of federal subsidy and conservation programs"
 Hint: he likes crop insurance just as little.

The Changing Country Scene: Aldie Country Store

Aldie is a little country town on Route 50 west of here.  Emily Wax has a nice article in the Post today on the changes the country store has seen over the years: notably the people running it now are a Hindu couple who employ a Hindu vegetarian to cook their barbecue.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Reason from the Conservatives

Occasionally the conservatives write true things.  This is one--the wrong side absolutely must not win this election. and another

What Difference Does a Person Make

This FCW post reports the Obama administration has 22 "rockstar innovators" coming in to help transform the government.  I wish them luck, I really do. 


There's always a but. My guess is only 5-10 percent of them will have the desired impact.  They may know software and they may know people, but they probably don't know government. 

Point number one: in 90 days they're dead meat if Obama doesn't win reelection. There may be one or two who know someone in Romney's camp with sufficient pull to stay on, assuming they want to but that's all.  And everyone in the bureaucracy knows they're dead meat if Obama's polls continue to fall, so how much cooperation will they get?

Point number two: to be effective the innovator needs to hook up with someone in the bureaucracy who has some clout and is open minded about sharing credit with the innovator.  After all the innovator isn't the secretary's person, he's the president's; he's from the Innovator initiative and he's here to help. ("He" because there appear to be only 2 women in the list.) 

Point number three: during the next 90 days the bureaucracy is going to move slowly simply because of the impending election.  It takes a unique blend of chutzpah and dedication to push full steam ahead on something when it's much more interesting to spend the day checking realclearpolitics and hashing over Obama's chances in Florida or Ohio.

My bottomline--one or two of the innovators may land in the right place where their skills and personality fits with someone already there, and together they may make significant changes.  That's better than not having any changes in the next 6 months, but it's not a silver bullet.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Guns and Laskas

I should hat tip someone but I forget who.  Jeanne Marie Laskas used to write for the Post, and I always enjoyed her work. In this GQ article she explores an Arizona gun shop and its world.  It's honest.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Identity Proofing

From Regulations 
Identity proofing can be accomplished for 
customers in two ways: (1) By visiting a local registration authority 
at a USDA Service Center, or (2) through a new on-line identity 
proofing service. The new on-line identity proofing service will 
provide registrants with a more efficient mechanism to have their 
identity proofed. The on-line identity proofing requires responses to 
at least four randomly selected identity questions that are verified by 
a third party identity proofing service in an automated interface. Once 
an account is activated, customers may use the associated user ID and 
password that they created to access USDA resources that are protected 
by eAuth.
 Estimate of Burden: Public reporting burden for this collection of 
information is estimated to take eight (8) minutes to complete the self 
registration process for a Level 1 Access account. A Level 2 Access 
account registration is estimated to be completed in one hour 40 
minutes when travelling to a USDA Service Center to visit a local 
registration authority (expected to be approximately 30% of the 
registrants), or 50 minutes when using the on-line identity proofing 
service (expected to be approximately 70% of the registrants).
    Respondents: Individual USDA Customers.
    Estimated Number of Respondents: 114,841 Level 1 and 14,860 Level 2 
for an estimated total of 129,701 respondents.
    Estimated Number of Responses per Respondent: 1.
    Estimated Total Annual Burden on Respondents: 31,077 hours. 
This is from USDA's Information Collection Notice.    Some comments:  I assume USDA/OCIO will do the same sort of thing as Treasury has done with their Treasury Direct customers: ask things like what the customer's address, phone number, date of birth, years in house, etc. etc. are--that's the "third party identity proofing service" referred to.  The theory is that such data is publicly available and has been collected by the credit rating people, and other entities, so if I give answers which match that set of data, I must be me.  It makes sense to me.

I wonder how OCIO came up with the time estimates in the document.  When I did this sort of thing with Treasury it was more like 5 minutes than 50--maybe the third party service they use is less efficient than the Treasury's?  I'm assuming, perhaps wrongly, the identity proofing is only for Level 2, seems like bureaucratic overkill to require it for Level 1.

 I'm most fascinated though by the estimated number of respondents. Only 15K Level 2's, which are the people who want to do real business with FSA* online??  Elsewhere I've noted, I think, the big plans USDA/FSA has for moving to online business; I think this figure is inconsistent with those plans being successful.  Trying to construe them as favorably as possible, if I had been writing this document I would have used only the new FSA customers I anticipated over the period of the collection.  I'd assume there's some period OMB says to use for this, though usually you're talking about an annual collection, not an open-ended one.  

Finally I wonder if USDA/OCIO has run this process through a user review, as pushed by Prof. Sunstein.  If the good professor had been bureaucratically sharp, he would have changed the OMB guidance for these documents to specify the extent they were tested with users.

* I don't know that other USDA agencies use the e-Auth process.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Importance of Bureaucratic Infrastructure

I'll link to a Matt Yglesias post which links to a NYTimes article on the Obama administrations slow and small efforts on the housing front.

A sentence here: "But none of that explains why they were so slow to spend the money that they had that was earmarked for housing."

As is discussed in the article, the policy choices were bad: helping borrowers who were under water meant in the eyes of many, including me, helping people who had gambled and lost.   But another factor is, I think, the lack of the appropriate bureaucratic infrastructure.  The Feds don't deal directly with homeowners and borrowers, they deal with mortgage lenders and bankers.  So if Geithner, Obama, and Summers decided they wanted to do something, the existing bureaucracy wasn't set up to analyze alternatives and propose machinery which could carry out the policy.

This is just another instance of my "we have a weak government" meme.

Why Brits Are Fat: Blame Earl Butz

That's right, according to this article:
The story begins in 1971. Richard Nixon was facing re-election. The Vietnam war was threatening his popularity at home, but just as big an issue with voters was the soaring cost of food. If Nixon was to survive, he needed food prices to go down, and that required getting a very powerful lobby on board – the farmers. Nixon appointed Earl Butz, an academic from the farming heartland of Indiana, to broker a compromise. Butz, an agriculture expert, had a radical plan that would transform the food we eat, and in doing so, the shape of the human race.
Butz pushed farmers into a new, industrial scale of production, and into farming one crop in particular: corn. US cattle were fattened by the immense increases in corn production. Burgers became bigger. Fries, fried in corn oil, became fattier. Corn became the engine for the massive surge in the quantities of cheaper food being supplied to American supermarkets: everything from cereals, to biscuits and flour found new uses for corn. As a result of Butz's free-market reforms, American farmers, almost overnight, went from parochial small-holders to multimillionaire businessmen with a global market. One Indiana farmer believes that America could have won the cold war by simply starving the Russians of corn. But instead they chose to make money.
By the mid-70s, there was a surplus of corn. Butz flew to Japan to look into a scientific innovation that would change everything: the mass development of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), or glucose-fructose syrup as it's often referred to in the UK, a highly sweet, gloppy syrup, produced from surplus corn, that was also incredibly cheap
That seems to be the thesis from King Corn.  And Butz doesn't disclaim the credit. In my opinion, it's all hogwash. Some day my ambition will be sufficient to document it, but not today. 

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Romanticism and Reality: Farming

One source of my skepticism of the food movement in its various manifestations is the nagging feeling their vision is blurred by romanticism.  Seems as if many of the articles  and the blog posts are written by recent converts, eager to spread the word to all and sundry.  Now as a liberal I should be open to such revelations, but I retain enough conservatism to doubt, to ask for a tad more aging of the wine before I take communion.

This bit is prompted by this post from "Pasture Raised and Grass Fed from Stony Brook Farm".

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Communal Moments

Ann Hornaday, the Post's movie critic, had an article about video on demand, noting the movement of movie watching from the theater to the home theater.  It fits with another article I read about how fast movies are in and out of theaters.

Back in the day (of my youth), the big movies came and stayed, and we watched in crowds.  Sometimes a good movie would run for months and months.  You knew if you didn't see it in the theater, you wouldn't see it.

Then came TV, and sometime after good movies started being shown on TV, but only every 10 years or so.  Gone with the Wind on TV was a big event.  Of course this was all on broadcast TV, one of the 3 networks would boost viewership by broadcasting a notable movie.   Gradually though more and more movies went to TV; just as gradually UHF stations popped up and cable TV started making its inroads.  And now, of course, movies are available 24/7 through many media.

Back in the day we had communal events, not only big movies but big prize fights, big political conventions, big World Series, big novels. And everyone (i.e., people on TV and in the newspapers and the periodicals) would talk about it.  There was a sense of a national community, although in retrospect some parts of the nation, such as the South, might have been left out. 

Today it seems that the cultural landscape is flatter, there's no big peaks, fewer unifying events.  9/11 and the mass murders, McVeigh, Columbine, Holmes, may remain but not much else.  There may, however, be a bunch of smaller events: parents seem to find community in following their kids activities much more closely than in my day, and there are more activities now than then.

Friday, August 17, 2012

DOD: We've Got a Problem Here

“Ship is inherently directionally unstable,” one Navy document said.

That's from a Project on Government Oversight post on the Navy's littoral combat ship.   Seems like it might be a problem.

Our Shrinking Government

Some conservatives like to bloviate about how Obama is socialist and is increasing the size and reach of government.  The standard riposte of liberals like me is to point to employment figures, which show the government, federal, state and local, as having gotten smaller since he took office.  That's true, but not the whole truth, as is illustrated in this paragraph from a Govloop post:

The Washington area has survived the recession fairly well, but that could change if the across-the-board spending cuts happen in January, that could change. That according to new analysis by the . The Washington region could lose 65,000 federal jobs and 96,000 federal contractor positions in the short term. WTOP reports that the region would be significantly impacted, mainly because of the federal payroll and procurement dollars the area receives from the federal government. [emphasis added]
There's room for a discussion of whether a government which grows by expanding contractor positions while shrinking career employees should be more feared by conservatives, or by liberals. We don't have that discussion.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Crop Insurance Audit

The threshold for a required audit of actual production history has been changed from $100,000 to $200,000.  Agweb reports here.  

I don't know if they do random audits of insurees with lower protection or not.
[Stu Ellis has a description of requirements here. ]

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Filling Out Forms: Deferred Action

Wrote recently about Cass Sunstein and the OMB form approval process.  Today is the first day people can apply for "deferred action for childhood arrivals".  From the website:
Over the past three years, this Administration has undertaken an unprecedented effort to transform the immigration enforcement system into one that focuses on public safety, border security and the integrity of the immigration system. As the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) continues to focus its enforcement resources on the removal of individuals who pose a danger to national security or a risk to public safety, including individuals convicted of crimes with particular emphasis on violent criminals, felons, and repeat offenders, DHS will exercise prosecutorial discretion as appropriate to ensure that enforcement resources are not expended on low priority cases, such as individuals who came to the United States as children and meet other key guidelines.  Individuals who demonstrate that they meet the guidelines below may request consideration of deferred action for childhood arrivals for a period of two years, subject to renewal, and may be eligible for employment authorization.
Here's the application.  Note it can be filled in online, which is good, and it has an OMB clearance.  I suspect it was put together in a hurry.  I wonder about the software backing it up.  Apparently the process means: fill out online and print the form, mail the completed forms to a "lockbox" facility with the fee.  The forms are scanned to pick up the data.

A couple of nits: some of the entry blocks are blue shaded, some aren't.  The drop-down lists of state abbreviations includes "AA" and "AE", which points up the error of not including state name.  I also question whether the language on the site is clear English, but then they're anticipating criticism.

More seriously--I see we're still imposing our name structure on the rest of the world (first, middle, last; which doesn't work well for some of the other cultures in the world).

Returning to my previous post: this example both fits and doesn't fit.  It is a case of a new program which requires a new information collection.  But since it's the President's own priority and a key to a reelection, I'm sure Prof. Sunstein cleared it personally through OMB.  And since it's still using a hybrid process to collect data (i.e. print completed form then scan) it's an example of how backward even the Obama administration's effort at egovernment are.

Post and Crop Insurance

This Post article on the drought picks up on the criticism of crop insurance from the EWG and Heritage.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Farming Is Dangerous

This post at Northview Dairy is a reminder that farming can be is dangerous.

Input and Output: the Milk-Feed Ratio

This post reports a long time low in milk-feed ratio (comparing the cost of feed and the price of milk--low is BAD). [Note: a delayed post.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a preliminary milk-feed ratio of 1.29 for July. That was down significantly from June’s ratio of 1.38.
None of the milk-feed ratios on record, going back to 1985, have been this low. The lowest ratio recorded in 2009 was 1.45."

Monday, August 13, 2012

My Relative With a Gold Medal

Here's a picture of a cousin of mine with an Olympic gold medal.  It's an illustration from his father's blog on attending the Olympic games.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Cass Sunstein and Catch-22

Cass Sunstein is leaving as head of regulatory review for the Obama administration, but before he's out the door he's pushing the idea of making government forms simpler, by testing them through focus groups or similar processes.  That's fine and dandy, but...

What's my but?  

Most government information collections (forms) are well-established, but some are new. The memo which Sunstein's post links to, further links to earlier guidance, including a detailed Q&A put out by the Bush administration.  There we learn that you need to have OMB approval before using focus groups over 9 people in total.  So if I've got a new program which requires a new data collection and a new form, I've got to get OMB approval twice: first of the draft form, second, after I've run the draft through my focus groups of the final form.  It would make more sense to give blanket approval of focus groups without this Catch-22.  Matter of fact, changing the guidance for OMB approval of information collections to require focus group (or equivalent) testing in the documentation would be good.

But I've got another but.

Sunstein's initiative shows how stuck in the past OMB is.  He should have been leading a transition from paper-based collections to Web-based collections.  He didn't.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Paul Ryan and the Farm Bill

Chris Clayton at DTN is fast off the mark in evaluating the impact of the selection of Paul Ryan as VP candidate on the prospects of the 2012 farm bill.  In a sentence:

"At the same time, the selection of the Wisconsin lawmaker now makes it unlikely House leaders would consider passing a farm bill without major modifications to satisfy fiscal conservatives --- certainly not before the presidential election."

[Updated with link]

Switchblades and Crime Myths

Volokh Conspiracy had a puzzle post on switchblades, which long ago were the subject of a civic moral panic, perhaps centered around the movie Blackboard Jungle.  As teen culture rose to prominence in the 1950's, the violent teen with a blade was feared, and we passed laws banning switchblades.

Amy Wilson at the Rural Blog links to a post at Metrotrends Blog on 10 crime myths. For anyone under 40 you're safer from crime now than you've ever been.  I'd question his statement on fingerprint matching being "entirely subjective" but otherwise it seems well founded.

My point: the public can panic based on false impressions.

What's the puzzle: what category of people is excluded from a switchblade ban?  Go to VC for the answer.

[Updated to change to "moral panic".

Friday, August 10, 2012

Bureaucrat of the Month: Mr. Masao Yoshida

Who is this Yoshida and why does he matter? 

According to this NYTimes article, he was a manager at the Japanese nuclear reactor site hit by the tsunami.  The article reports on a set of videos just released which document the chaos at the site over some days.  But, if I read it correctly, Yoshida was onsite, doing his best to direct workers, getting bad advice and orders from big shots who were ignorant, and generally being a good bureaucrat by this definition: when the environment the bureaucracy was designed to handle goes berserk, a good bureaucrat does her best.  Two paragraphs:
At one point in the videos, as conditions at Reactor No. 3 are deteriorating, raising fears of an explosion, Mr. Yoshida sends a team of workers out from the bunker with this message: “I’m truly sorry. Please proceed with the utmost care.” 

He later suggests that if the situation does not improve soon, he and some older workers will consider “a suicide mission” to pump water into the reactor, a decision officials at headquarters said they would leave to him.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Six Weeks (on the Western Front of WWI)

Six Weeks is a book Tom Ricks recommended at the Best Defense blog.  The title refers to the average lifespan of a junior officer in the British Army assigned to the Western Front.  It's good, although given to the rosy.  The writer organizes his work by the phases in an officers life, education, training, etc. and uses lots of quotes from memoirs, letters, biographies.

He notes early on there was 5 inch difference in height between the (upper class) officers and the "other ranks"-enlisted men.  That's rather shocking, a dismal reflection on the British class system.  But then there's this difference in our own class system: having a college education makes a difference in lifespan of over 10 years.

What Does a Modern Cow Look Like?

Northview Dairy has a picture of the udder of a dairy cow, along with terms used in the judging standards.  A modern cow likely produces twice the milk of a cow in my boyhood.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Sikhs and Amish

Ann Althouse quotes a prof who studied the effect of the mass killing of Amish. Changed the image from wearers of strange garb to sympathetic victims.

Our Great Postal System

Sarah Kliff at Ezra Klein has a post describing the results of a competition among 159 national postal systems.  The issue was which system was best at identifying nonexistent addresses and returning mail to the senders.  USPS came in first, both accuracy and speed.  Given the size differential among the competitors that's an outstanding result.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

The Hole in School Gardens/Local Food for School

This is prompted by something I read a few days ago, on the difficulty of caring for school gardens during summer vacations. [Updated: here's the link.]

The food movement, including Mrs. Obama, has pushed for local food in school cafeterias.  It's also pushed for schools to teach their kids gardening.  Both efforts are laudable; both have a hole.

What's the hole?  Schools, most schools anyway, don't operate year round; they close down during the summer.  So to develop local sources of supply you're asking a farmer to ramp up production in the spring and fall, and idle the operation during the summer, or find another market.  It's doable, I suppose, but it adds in another level of complexity for management.

In contrast if school cafeterias rely on national suppliers and don't limit their requests to fresh food, the suppliers can more easily manage things to provide a flow of food during the school year and direct the flow elsewhere (food processors).  Diversification of the market leads to more stability in price and more resilience in response to disruptions and disasters.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Everyone Has His Own Taste

Stanley Fish reports on life in Delaware County, where some 160 years ago my great grandfather was a Presbyterian minister amid a thriving Scots-Irish community with good barns and nice houses:  It's now been invaded by aesthetes from the city, who say: 
It is anybody’s guess as to what will happen if this rumor [of a big development] ever pans out, and the people I talk to regard the prospect with a mixture of anticipation and apprehension. Please no Gaps or Banana Republics, Charkut pleads. I really like falling-down barns and falling-down houses, Valk-Kempthorne tells me.

Curiosity: Sometimes You Do It Right the First Time

But not often.  See this Technology Review post.  However, it's nice to hear of people who stayed up late to know the result of the landing.  Reminds me of the days of Mercury/Gemini/Apollo.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

White House Garden

Obamafoodorama has a post showing the President in the White House garden.  I don't recognize the vegetables, but they've got good growth.  Don't know if they have sprinkler irrigation or what--the DC area is down about 7 inches from usual rainfall. 

Farmer Software in the Cloud

The Times has a piece by a business professor describing some software applications, a couple of which reside in the cloud: FarmLogs and Farmeron,.

I suppose the next step will be communication between MIDAS and the data in such applications.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Correcting Errors: Does the Internet Help?

Somewhere on the Net this week there was a discussion of whether the Internet helps or hurts in correcting myths and errors.  It may have been Prof. Bernstein (or maybe someone else) who opined that some errors were checked and caught very quickly, while others persisted on and on and on.

In the latter category is this from Gail Collins in today's Times, in the course of beating up on Congress for not working on the postal system or the farm bill:
The Senate recently voted 64 to 35 to approve a new five-year authorization, which reformed some of the most egregious bad practices, like paying farmers not to grow crops. [emphasis added]
The truth is that we haven't had the authority to pay farmers not to grow crops  for at least 16 years (unless one includes the Conservation Reserve Program, which normally people don't and Ms. Collins is not).   But this error will probably never die, it's like the ejecta from a volcano eruption which has escaped into the atmosphere and persists, dimming the sun of truth.  

Marketing Quotas

FSA goes through the motions of determining whether to declare marketing quotas for upland cotton.  It's a nullity, because there's no way to determine the acreage allotments for cotton if quotas were declared.  If quotas are declared, the next step is to provide notices of farm acreage allotments to farmers, who then vote in a referendum whether to agree to the imposition of quotas.  The last referendum on wheat or cotton was back in the mid 1960's, and it was defeated. 

If Congress had any sense they'd kill the 1938 Act, the permanent legislation which comes back into effect whenever there's no farm bill passed before a crop year begins.

Friday, August 03, 2012

The Importance of Drudgery: Maintenance

As it happens, the Post has an article on Afghanistan, describing a post and equipment the Americans handed over to the Afghans which they lack the ability to maintain. And the Times has an article on the problems Assad's military is having maintaining its high-tech equipment, particularly helicopters, during the current hostilities.

The conjunction of the two is an occasion to once again observe the importance of drudgery.  Yes, it's ego-building to do things the first time, to buy fancy weapons, to give high-tech stuff to our allies.  It's good for us, it's good for our arms manufacturers, but it's bad.  Over the years I think I was pretty tolerant of my bosses, but what I couldn't stand was the people who had no regard for nitty-gritty, for the details, for all the steps needed to implement something and then, as I learned by painful experience, the need to spend time and money maintaining what we'd done.  It was all too easy for the big shots, for the guys in the ivory tower of the USDA Administration Building, to talk big.

Though I'm generally an Obama supporter, his administration started off wrong by talking of "shovel-ready" projects, as the President later admitted.  There shouldn't be many such projects in any agency, because you should be working on the stuff for which you have money, and not the stuff for which you may not get money.  And doing the work to take projects off the shelf and into the contracting process isn't likely to create many jobs.

Maintenance on the other hand could create jobs, but its got no sex appeal, no glamor. 

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Me and Chipmunks

Via Ann Althouse, here's a piece with which I sympathize.  I have to admit, though, I reverted to my basic conservative side when I had to deal with an infestation of chipmunks in my garden.  Chipmunks are cute, but property is property and my vegetables are my vegetables.  I'm not sure what the food movement, all those urban gardeners, etc., do with the forces of nature against which we must fight.  Maybe you only get lots of pests when you've been gardening for lots of years.

Ink on the Finger

Josh Marshall says (Talking Points Memo) applying ink to a finger of a voter could eliminate multiple voting, which seems to be the worst problem voter ID might solve.  Works for me, as I've said before, though maybe only in comments elsewhere.

Conservatives Don't Like Crop Insurance: Texas and Cruz

Ted Cruz just won the Republican primary in Texas, meaning he's the next US Senator from there.  His reputation is: very smart, very conservative.  But I wonder--Texas agriculture is often beset by disaster, as witness the drought last year.  Not sure what its status is this year, but I'd be willing to bet during his 6 year term in office Texas will have some agricultural disasters.  And of course Texas ranching/farming is part of the self-image of Texas (all hat, no cattle, etc. etc.)

The Washington Times is a conservative newspaper, so I was struck this morning by a piece from a Heritage thinker, who picks up EWG's  populist viewpoint on crop insurance.  Big corporations profit at taxpayer expense.

So my prediction: at some point down the line Sen. Cruz will have to decide between his principles, as represented in the Heritage piece, and his constituents, who will need either crop insurance or a livestock disaster program.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Eagle Scouts

Ann Althouse quotes from a Wall Street Journal piece on Eagle Scouts.

"there are other, perhaps less obvious, Eagles as well: sexologist Alfred Kinsley, Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard and Washington's disgraced ex-mayor Marion Barry...."

[Updated:  the Barry reference is surprising to me, because he would have been an Eagle Scout in the 1950's in the segregated South and I wouldn't have expected a thriving black Eagle Scout troop.]

Farm Bill Status and MIDAS

As of now, I don't have a clear picture of what will happen on the farm bill, mainly because the House Republicans don't seem to have a clear picture of what they want. Will we have a disaster bill only, or an extension, or a process leading to a 5 year bill?  Who knows.

I want to point out the problem I suspect MIDAS planners are having.  At some point they had to decide whether to support the livestock programs contained in the 2008 bill, which carried through 2011.  I've no idea which way they went: one alternative would be to say we need software to implement everything in the law as of right now, which presumably was sometime last year; another alternative would be to plan for what was in the law for 2012;  a third would be to plan to be flexible, to support whatever cockamanie ideas innovative policy designs Congress came up with.

Now the last alternative is the most difficult and most expensive; sticking to the 2008 language at some point is likely to mean wasting some money assuming Congress changes provisions for 2013.  Either way the managers are likely to be screwed, at least in being vulnerable to criticism.

[Updated: added link to the extension now pending in the House--Hat tip Farm Policy]

Our Weak Government

Via Ezra Klein, an article on the refusal by the overseer of Fanny and Freddy to okay a plan to offer forgiveness of housing debts.  I know very little about the pros and cons of the policy which Mr. DeMarco is rejecting, other than a number of liberal economists think it's a good idea.  DeMarco seems to argue it would be bad in the long run, which as a bureaucrat he doesn't like.

Instead of worrying about the policy, I just want to point out another instance of our weak government.  Whereas in a parliamentary system there'd be no problem in the prime minister getting such a policy executed, in our system there's a hurdle.  DeMarco has an independent source of power, making it difficult for the President to make a policy change.  This isn't a case of federalism, which is what I usually point to when I write about weak government, but structure at the national level.  But  both federalism and structure reflect our suspicion of governmental power, typical of the American society.