Friday, November 30, 2012

Factoid of the Day: NH Legislature

" At 400 members (for 1.3 million people) it's the third-largest legislative body in the English-speaking world, and you only need about a thousand votes to win a seat."


Thursday, November 29, 2012

Lincoln, the Movie, and Bureaucracy

Just came from seeing the movie. Very good, well-acted, mostly well-written, but I'm no critic.  Why then do I blog about it?  Simple: one of the bad guys, i.e., a leading opponent on the 13th Amendment in the House was George Pendleton.  Yes, you're right--some 18 years later he was to be the sponsor of the Pendleton Act, which established the civil service. 

Metrics and Dollar Coins: Once More Into the Breach

GAO says we'll save money using dollar coins, which is true.  We'd also save money by converting to metrics.  But neither is going to happen.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

White House Garden Gets Full Time Gardener

That's the word from Obamafoodorama.  Over the course of 3.5 years the garden has evolved considerably.  If I remember correctly it started off as more of a family project, with the idea the daughters were going to get their hands dirty.  I haven't heard that in a while, about 3.4 years in fact. 

With the garden being in the public eye there's lots more emphasis now on how it looks, which means they do a lot of swapping transplants in.  Most real gardeners don't have that room, nor that concern.  Although I remember my aunt and uncle had a terribly obnoxiously neat and pruned garden, which went with the terribly clean and organized house.  But then my aunt was the youngest daughter in a house with German parents and a mother who apparently was a bit of an obsessive.  But I digress.

A full-time gardener seems overkill for the square footage involved, but I suspect he's got other duties.  As the concerns for how the garden looks grow, the garden itself becomes less realistic.  The first year garden a tourist could view and say to herself: "mine is just as good or better" or "I could go home and do that".  I don't think a tourist could say that now, and a first-time gardener might not realize how high the hurdle has been set.

There's more emphasis on the organic plants being used, though I'm not clear that they are claiming the garden itself is organic. I believe they could, since it's now been more than 3 years since the beginning and I haven't noted any reports or inorganic fertilizer or pesticides being used. 

So the bottom line is the garden is much more a public relations thing than an Obama family thing, not that there's anything wrong with that.  Perhaps it's an indication of how hard it is to maintain a normal existence in the White House.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Estate Tax/Death Tax

I note a couple of items on the estate tax problem, as part of the fiscal cliff negotiations.  I'm struck by the fact it's now "estate tax", no longer the "death tax".  I don't know if that's just my limited sample, or the juice has gone out of the effort to stigmatize estate taxes.

Drought Costs 3.3 Percent

That's the takeaway from the Des Moines Register piece on the USDA estimate of 2012 income. That says to me, whatever I think of crop insurance, the current system puts an effective floor under income for most crop producers.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Dairy Farmers Needed?

This is rather stale now.  I have seen pieces saying dairy farmers are in trouble because the law covering their current program expires at the end of the year.   Who to believe? 
In other policy related news, Rick Barrett reported on Sunday at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Online that, “Thirsty for milk, and the money that comes with it, South Dakota has ramped up efforts to recruit dairy farmers from other states and countries, including England, Ireland and The Netherlands.

Farm policy 

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Black Mouth Curs

For some reason I find the idea of tree-climbing dogs and the name "Black Mouth Curs" to be amusing on this Sunday morning.  Life on a Colorado Farm has the blog post.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

USDA Improving?

From an FCW piece on the mandate for departments to establish a structure for "digital governance".
The Agriculture Department, for example, has been improving and standardizing the look and feel of all the department’s websites by hosting monthly webmaster meetings. The Labor Department is building a knowledge management program that integrates data from its 25 agencies and call centers, including answers to the most frequently asked questions, with the aim of building a cohesive customer experience.
Thanksgiving has made me cynical: how is "digital governance" different from "e-government" which was in turn different from  "IT management" which was in turn different from "ADP operations"?

Friday, November 23, 2012

Russian Grain

One of my worst predictions was that after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russian grain would flood the market as their agriculture improved, driving world prices down.  Generally speaking that's not happened.

There's a Russia Today advertising section included with one of my newspapers pretty regularly.  It seems it's put out by a Russian organization: Russia Beyond the Headlines, at  I'm not sure of who's behind the organization, but many of the articles seem pretty factual and objective.  Here's a recent one on the Russian grain situation.  Three paragraphs:
Russia has almost 300 million acres of arable land, about 50 million acres of which require time to recover after being out of service for some time. The minimum yield is about 1 ton per acre, which by European standards is next to nothing.
Therefore, even assuming minimum yields on all of the 300 million acres of arable lands, Russian land can produce 300 million tons of crops annually, with cereals accounting for two-thirds of the total. This means that Russia is capable of producing 200 million tons of grain annually.
With domestic consumption at around 80 million tons a year, Russia would have more than 100 million tons of spare grain that could be exported. To compare: Last season, the United States –  the global leader in grain exports –  exported 73 million tons of grain, with Argentina ranking second at 32 million tons. Australia and Ukraine each exported 24 million tons of grain, while Russia and Canada sold 20 million tons.

Mistake at the Post on Food

Annie Gowen commits an error in the third paragraph of her piece on declining federal aid for food banks:
Scorching drought and rising demand across the globe have pushed the price of U.S. food exports to record highs this year.

That is good news for American farmers. But it’s bad news for the hungry, especially on the eve of the holiday season.

The booming market means that the federal government does not need to buy as many excess crops from farmers, resulting in a precipitous drop in government donations to food banks.
I may be wrong, but it seems to me the days of the government donating surplus CCC inventory were gone long before recent price rises.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Father of USDA

Henry Leavitt Ellsworth, son of Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut who was a Founding Father, was commissioner of patents 1836-45, and is sometimes called the father of USDA.  His life was diverse, being involved with western lands, Indian claims, Samuel Colt, and Samuel Morse and Aetna Insurance.  His 1842 report is available online, which is mostly agricultural (crop reports and statistics). One big concern was fencing and housing in the treeless prairies.  You can see in the report the seeds of NASS, of Extension, of ARS, of FAS, NRCS, and I don't know what else.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Living on Food Stamps

Periodically some public figure tries living on food stamps to prove a point.  The latest such is Mayor Corey Booker, as reported here.

I think these are stunts, not signifying a thing.  If you're going to eat an adequate diet on food stamps, you've got to cook.  If you have to cook, you need a stove, you need utensils, and you need a stock of staples going into your week (i.e., flour, sugar, cooking oil, salt, etc..).  The second prerequisite is buying in bulk.  Buy big and buy cheap.  Buy 10 pound bags of rice.  Buy the bargains at the sales. Make big batches and freeze (assuming your refrigerator works).

Unfortunately living poor means you're more liable to unexpected adversity, and expected adversity, so you need to dip into your stocks and deplete the money and food stamps needed to buy big.    

Worst Blog Post Pun of the Day

In its entirety:

… for Miami.

University Diaries (Margaret Soltan)

Monday, November 19, 2012

Reorganizing Government

This Politico opinion piece proposes reorganizing government.

"the federal government must invest but reform. The federal government largely remains a legacy government rooted in a different era. Existing federal agencies and programs are siloed and stove-piped in their structure and prescriptive and technocratic in their approach. The proliferation of redundant federal programs is particularly alarming.

Read more:
Meanwhile somewhere I read a piece giving advice to all the new appointees to be in the executive branch.  One warning was: don't reorganize, it will sop up all your time and energy so you can't do anything else.

Having seen what has happened to Secretary Madigan's (and Espy and Glickman) effort to reorganize USDA I can only agree with the advice piece.  I remember telling Blake McGaughey, Mike Campbell, and some of their PA's there was a chance that Madigan's effort would bear fruit (this was in Ft Collins during the fall of 1991): maybe 50-50 odds.  I should have warned them I always had vision problems.

Wealthy Can Be Stupid

The NY Times has an article on what people with wealth and/or high incomes are doing in anticipation of changes in tax law for 2013.  I found this to be stupid:
Kristina Collins, a chiropractor in McLean, Va., said she and her husband planned to closely monitor the business income from their joint practice to avoid crossing the income threshold for higher taxes outlined by President Obama on earnings above $200,000 for individuals and $250,000 for couples.
Ms. Collins said she felt torn by being near the cutoff line and disappointed that federal tax policy was providing a disincentive to keep expanding a business she founded in 1998.
“If we’re really close and it’s near the end-year, maybe we’ll just close down for a while and go on vacation,” she said.
There's little logic to the position unless she thinks, incorrectly, that the higher bracket applies to all earnings, not just the incremental gains over $250,000.  I hope they have a tax accountant who can advise them better. 

Saturday, November 17, 2012

On Not Recording What Doesn't Happen

Sarah Kliff has a post on a study of what happens when women are refused an abortion.  We have data on what happens when a woman gets an abortion, but bureaucracies aren't very good in recording what happens in the absence of action.  My example in support of that generalization: FmHa and ASCS and FSA rarely had records on people who were refused service, that was one of the problems which led to the way the Pigford suit was resolved. 

A bureaucracy is geared to act, and to document the actions.  Rejections often aren't documented, unless in case of an appeal.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Leadership You Can Believe In

Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution quotes and links to a piece on the President of Urugua, a former member of the Tupamaro guerrillas and the world's poorest president.  (Only a 1987 VW beetle--my first car was a beetle.)

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Oh To Be X in Minnesota

My father went to school there, his father was a minister in Minneapolis during his college years.  But that's not why it would be good to be in Minnesota. 

According to a piece on the Weather Channel this morning corn production in MN was up 16 percent because the gophers dodged the drought.  Thus the corn growers there benefited twice: once from a good harvest, and once from great prices. 

Oh to be a Minnesota corn grower.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Surprise Line of the Day (Senate Women)

"Republicans have the same number of women in the Senate that they had in 1995."

From Jonathan Bernsteins Plain Blog About Politics

The Choice: Abortion or Farmers?

The question is why did the Republicans lose their runs for the Senate in Missouri and Indiana.  The pat answer inside the Beltway is "abortion", ill-advised remarks by the Republican candidates.  But  Farm Policy reports on a Politico piece on the possibility of Sen. Cochran taking the ranking member role in Senate Ag, which includes this:

"“Boehner’s stand may have cost Republicans at least one if not two Senate seats that the GOP had hoped to win in Great Plains states. And Roberts argued Tuesday that the leadership must take a second look now at the farm bill and its promised savings –a precious commodity given the fiscal pressures at the end of the year.”

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Dairy in California

From today's Farm Policy quoting from a Wall Street Journal article:
Some 100 California dairy farmers are shutting their doors this year, according to the Milk Producers Council, a group representing dairy farmers. Many of the state’s roughly 1,600 dairy farms are wrestling with financial difficulties. And many farmers point their finger at California’s ‘Class 4b’ milk regulation, which governs the prices cheese makers pay,” the Journal article said.
When I was growing up, the small poultrymen were being put out of business by vertical integration and contract growing.  I don't know what has happened to egg prices over the last 50 years, but I assume they've been more stable since supply has been more regulated/coordinated.  I guess that sort of revamping of the dairy industry isn't quite as practical: too much capital involved perhaps.

Anyhow, things continue to change.

Farm Bill Extension?

Chris Clayton reports Sen. Grassley is predicting a one-year extension.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Progress of New Terminology and Technology

Reading Notice CP-686 on the forthcoming use of MIDAS with GIS for acreage reporting, replacing CARS. 

Two terms new to me: "subfield" and "cross-over commodity".

Remembering the fiasco of the ASCS-578 in 1985 (and 86, and 87) I wish them luck.  Actually, I hope over the years the number of problems has been reduced, but acreage reporting was probably the  area where the conflict between national standards and local conditions was most obvious. Before computers, much of the conflict was hidden from the national office; State and county offices made things work.  Introduce the computer and local variation becomes a problem.

I suspect, without any evidence whatsoever, that part of the resistance to "electronic health records" on the part of doctors and others is based on this sort of thing. 

Saturday, November 10, 2012

You Are There

Something reminded me of the old radio program "You Are There" (late 40's).  It featured recreations of famous events in history, narrated by an announcer.  The one I particularly remember was the signing of the Magna Charta, with the announcer talking about the angry barons and building the tension over whether King John would sign or fight.

Anyway, turns out the tapes of that program are available online (why am I surprised). The list of all the programs is revealing: almost nothing after 1900, a couple on women's rights, almost nothing on civil rights, and some oddities, at least by today's standards:  The Trial of Samuel Chase? (A justice impeached but acquitted in 1804/5)

I guess it was radio's equivalent of today's History Channel.

You Never Do It Right the First Time: ORCA

That's my motto, and it seems the Romney campaign didn't heed it.  By keeping their ORCA centralized data system under wraps until late, and not giving it a test run, it collapsed and burned on election day.

Not covered in the story: I'm intrigued by their decision to do a centralized effort, as opposed to a 50-state effort.  Seems like the sort of thing Republicans accused us bureaucrats of, believing in the wisdom of the central government.  In this case, at least, the community organizer outdid the business executive.

[Update: Fairfax county school system installed a new math system this fall, with online books, which is causing problems.  Apparently they decided not to do a pilot, based on past successes with other subjects.]

Friday, November 09, 2012

Call Me Stick-in-the-Mud

I have to admit a shameful fact: I don't own a mobile device, no iPhone or iPad or Android or anything.When you stay as close to home as I do, there's not that much point.  In other words, if you're not mobile, you don't need a mobile device.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Margaret Chase Smith Is Happy

20 women senators in the new Congress, she was the only one when I became conscious of politics.

Thank Goodness Washington's Not Battleground

I see the great bureaucrats in Washington state have now succeeded in counting 58 percent of their ballots. 

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

My Own Prediction

Nate Silver's book will hit the NYTimes best seller list.  (I'm about a third through and it's very good.)


Voted about 1:45.  Took about 30 minutes.  The line was wrong [sic], but I can't say it was the longest ever, but possibly it was.  Memory fades.  They used both touch screen and paper ballots. Unfortunately people irrationally choose the touch screen so there was a 10 minute wait for those, while if you were smart enough, I wasn't, to vote paper there was no wait after your eligibility had been confirmed.

[Updated to note my freudian slip.]

Monday, November 05, 2012

The Value of Female Leaders?

Apparently Bangladesh has been doing quite well over the last 20 years, during which they've had mostly female prime ministers.

The Distraction of Politics

Election day tomorrow.  I'm voting for Obama, Kaine (Senate) and Connelly (House).  Does it make a difference?  From the perspective of 71 years, and probably 64 or so following politics (don't ask why the early interest) I'd say it does and it doesn't. The bottom line is that the country is like a big ocean liner with lots of momentum and we tend to overestimate the influence of our elected officials.  It's rather like ASCS/FSA, very hard to make significant changes in the culture and organization.  

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Many Varieties of Federal Employees

Sarah Kliff at the Post reminds of the varieties of Federal employees.
"FEMA has 9,106 disaster assistance employees. Only 770 get federal health insurance."

The point is that FEMA uses "reservists" who are temporary employees and not eligible for FEHBP for most of its disaster response.  It's rather like the Forest Service which has a similar deal for its firefighters.  And FSA/ASCS which used to have a big slug of temporary field employees for summer compliance work.  And the other variety is, of course, the county office employees who aren't technically Federal for some purposes, meaning they're usually excluded in counts of federal employees.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Disasters, Climbing Mountains, and the Poor

I'm not a mountain climber, but it seems it me mountain climbing is a good metaphor for being poor, and disasters.

Imagine a big high mountain and the game of life is to try to climb it.  The mountain has various nooks and crannies, easier routes and harder routes, and most of all it has a lot of loose stones, so it's very easy for a climber to dislodge a stone which falls, sometimes triggering more rock falls.  Now where you start on the mountain is a matter of luck, your ancestors and your inheritance.  Some people just find a cranny near their starting point and rest there.  Others are able to make mad sprints up an easy route. But most people toil away at whatever level they're at on the mountain.

Unfortunately, as they toil they knock the stones off, the stones go bouncing down the side and they can hit the people below, knocking them backwards down the mountain.

The poor are at the lowest levels of the mountain and therefore have the longest climb and face the most stones falling down.  That's life, that's unfair, that's disaster.

Thinking of filing insurance claims for damage caused by Sandy, that assumes people have insurance.  But the poor are less likely to have insurance, that's a luxury you can't afford  Lose all the food in your refrigerator; that's particularly hard if your food budget is tight.  Lose the car to the flooding, unlikely to have comprehensive insurance.  Have the apartment flooded, no renters insurance. The local restaurant is flooded, lose weeks of work as dishwasher or waiter until it gets going again.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Robo Call to Vets: Poor Research

Somehow the opponent of my Representative (or someone backing him) discovered I'm a vet, so I got a robo-call this noon alerting me to something despicable Mr. Connelly had said about the military.  Guess their research didn't find out how firmly committed to the Dems I am.

The Scarcity of Gardeners

The Times has an interesting piece today on the scarcity of urban gardeners, at least in certain parts of New York City. The writer visits a number of the urban gardens in the city and interviews a number of the gardeners and others, including a retired urban extension worker from Cornell.  The pattern seems to be that some gardens thrive, others fall into disuse, partially depending on the surrounding area and partially depending on the interest and energy of a dedicated gardener. 
But John Ameroso, the Johnny Appleseed of the New York community garden movement, suspects that the number of present-day gardens — around 800 — may be half what it was in the mid-1980s.
In his long career as an urban extension agent for Cornell University, Mr. Ameroso, 67, kept a log with ratings of all the plots he visited. “I remember that there were a lot of gardens that were not in use or minimally used,” he said. “Into the later ’80s, a lot of these disappeared or were abandoned. Or maybe there was one person working them. If nothing was developed on them, they just got overgrown.”
Seems to me the article undermines any assumption there's a long waiting list for urban garden plots in the city, some areas have waiting lists, some don't. The enthusiasm for gardening is similar to other enthusiasms, sometimes hot, sometimes cold.  It's not a firm foundation for redoing the basis on which America grows its food.

(In my own community garden in Reston, there is a waiting list.  Reston has expanded the area in which I garden twice now.  But Restonites are likely to be enthusiastic, at least enough of them to fill a waiting list.  We're a cosmopolitan bunch, Korea, Vietnam, Africa, Latino, some probably suffering from nostalgia for their childhood, like me, and some falling prey to the current fad.)