Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Potash Cartel?

This Wall Street Journal article reports on the end of the potash cartel.  I didn't know there was one.  But it's a reminder not all cartels and agreements in restraint of trade are leftover from the 1930's.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Ding, Ding, Goes GAO on NRCS and RMA

Ah, the joys of schadenfreude.  Some years after GAO dinged FSA for making payments to dead people GAO revisited the subject, but this time looking at NRCS and RMA payments.  The result was praise for FSA (to the extent GAO ever deals in praise, which is to say, not much) and reproofs for NRCS and RMA.  Recommendations: 

To help NRCS prevent improper payments to deceased individuals, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Chief of NRCS to develop and implement procedures to prevent potentially improper payments to deceased individuals, including (1) coordinating roles and responsibilities with FSA to ensure that either FSA or NRCS matches NRCS payment files against SSA's complete death master file and (2) reviewing each payment to a deceased individual to ensure that an improper payment was not made.

To help RMA prevent improper crop insurance subsidies on behalf of deceased individuals and to improve the effectiveness of its data mining, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Administrator of RMA to develop and implement procedures to prevent potentially improper subsidies on behalf of deceased individuals, including (1) matching RMA's crop insurance records against SSA's complete death master file and (2) reviewing each subsidy provided on behalf of a deceased individual to ensure that an improper subsidy was not provided.
 Seems to me there's an argument here for administrative consolidation within USDA.  Actually, in the long run if I were dictator I'd modify the E-Verify process so it could be used to check the status of people.  And finally, while SSA is a well-run bureaucracy as far as I know, I'm a little uncomfortable with their death master file--what sort of incentives to report accurately and timely do the people have who do the initial input into the state systems which feed the file?  And what sort of oversight?

Monday, July 29, 2013

Raisins in Florida? Who Knew

Turns out a Florida congressman is so committed to principle, and allowing people to free ride, that he's introduced a bill to kill the Raisin Administration Committee.  See my previous post.

What Happened to the Ecumenical Movement?

Reston Patch notes that "Reston Interfaith" is changing its name of some 40 odd years.  That prompts me to wonder the title.  

Back in the middle 60's the ecumenical movement was all the rage among the established denominations.  For a while it seemed all the big Protestant denominations would merge into one happy family.  Running a Google ngram viewer  shows two peaks for use of the term: one in 1964 and one in the middle 1870's.  One could argue that the movement presaged the decline of these denominations; if their core beliefs were not unique, then there wasn't much point in choosing one over another.  So instead we get the mega-churches, the service churches which don't push any specific theology I'm aware of, but which provide fellowship and community along with a diffuse spirituality.

(I wonder, from the above can one tell I'm an atheist with familial roots in a Calvinist theology?)

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Old Farmers and New Farmers

Just stumbled across a website for "Modern Farmer".  It's a sign of the times that the staff doesn't seem to have a farming background.  Maybe the "back to the land" movements of the 1930's and 1970's are mere precursors to a bigger movement in the 2010's?  Maybe every 40 years people find romance in the agrarian life, at least until they shovel manure, deal with cows getting out, etc. etc.    See Northview Dairy for the old farmers.

The world's big; it can take all sorts.

Sentence for Today

"Profligacy turned out to be one of my core skills"

From John Phipps discussing life transitions as he ages.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Slow Ideas and Extension

That's the title of an article in the New Yorker by Atul Gawande--he considers the differeences between good ideas which spread fast (like anesthesia) and those which spread slowly (like aseptic methods).  He uses the distinction in discussing a project to change the way Indian medical personnel handle newborn babies in one state.  He cites the persistence of drug company salesmen, who visit doctors again and again, trying to set up a relationship of trust in order to persuade them to use a new drug.  In his project, their representative visits a local hospital again and again, before finally getting the nurses to change their methods.

Gawande makes a reference to the role of agricultural extension in teaching farmers new methods in the 20th century.  I did my first tweet (@facelessbureaucrat) to point out to him that Seaman Knapp, the father of extension, believed teaching was not the key; having a local farmer demonstrate the methods on his own farm was much more effective.  I doubt I'll do much on Twitter, though it might be an outlet for my nitpicking, as in the one to Gawande.

I do wonder how much demonstrating extension does these days.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Spain in the U.S.

I'm aware that St. Augustine, Florida represents the earliest European city in the US (some qualifications to that), and the Southwest, which was originally Spanish, then Mexican, also had early settlements (not sure of the chronology) and that's all a correction to the idea that history begins at Plymouth Rock or Jamestown.

What I didn't realize was how far north the Spanish had come, and where they built forts--like 300 miles into North Carolina?

Which reminds me of Prof. Bailyn's most recent book, which looks at some of the lesser known strains of settlement on the East Coast.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

What Farmers Get for an Ear of Corn

Don't know why I was surprised by this because I do know that a loaf of bread contains only 2 or 3 cents worth of wheat, and similar ratios of raw material to price of finished goods apply elsewhere in agriculture.  The cost of the food you buy in the supermarket is mostly the cost of the chain of processors and transporters which gets it to the market.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The One in Four Rule

One of my first jobs after I switched from Directives to Production Adjustment was a followup to an audit of the disaster program ASCS was running.  The auditor, probably GAO but possibly OIG, faulted us for the number of farmers who got disaster payments in more than one year out of five.  Some got payments in two years, some in three.  So we had to run a computer program to identify these farmers and have the counties re-review the justifications for the payments and question the yield.

I thought of that when I saw this article about the one in four rule for crop insurance.  The difference is that this rule requires farmers to plant the land in at least one out of four rules, presumably being eligible for prevented planting indemnities the other three.  To someone from NY this rule seems ridiculous--why bother if you can only get a crop one out of four years?  That's the quick, knee-jerk reaction.  Slower consideration, remembering the prairie pot-hole area and the dryness of the area in question (i.e. Dakotas, MN, etc.) is perhaps a tad more favorable to RMA.  But the bottomline is once again a lesson in how Congress works.  No matter that GAO has done studies claiming crop insurance encourages the planting of marginal acreage--the ND congressional delegation is raising a fuss.  ("delegation" sounds more impressive than the "three members of Congress from ND".)  This is the way Congress works, and one example of why government programs fall short of a goo-goo's (good government types) dream.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Pigford II Status--Nearing the End?

A quote from a status update on Pigford II:
"Sanders said that 17,800 of the Track "A" claimants had been successful and another 800 claims were still being reviewed to see if they were duplicates or multiple claims filed on the same farmland. The remaining claims were unsuccessful. Sanders said no Track "B" claims, for higher monetary damages, had been approved."
 I believe about 70,000 claims were originally filed under Pigford II, and about 33,000 were found to be unique.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Bureaucrat versus Civil Servant; Scheme verus Plan

The Brits and their former colonies tend to use "scheme" as a perfectly neutral synonym for plan. To American ears it rings false, because the word carries a connotation of deviousness and "plan" is preferred.

The Brits and their former colonies tend to use "bureaucrat" as a neutral descriptor for office worker.  To American ears bureaucrat is an epithet, and civil servant is the more neutral term.

Both differences show the American propensity for cynicism and populism.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Data Hubs

A couple days ago I mused about the pros and cons of data sharing versus centralized data.  Today my reading reintroduces me to the idea of "data hubs", not in the context of commercial software as in the Wikipedia article but in the context of ACA (Obamacare) implementation.  I imagine a video showing a circus performer/juggler, who juggles maybe 3 items, plus catching another, adding it to the juggling, then tossing out an item and catching another.

I think it still fits into my "sharing" category.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The People Who Do the Work

Too often the big shots and big talkers monopolize attention, leaving the people who do the work in the shadows. 

That's a lead-in to this interesting article.  I owe a hat tip to the American Historical Association for the link.  Now I never was a full-time sanitation worker, but I did do some similar work during a summer job at Chenango Valley State Park.

Phrase of Yesterday

"it's not unusual for Senate floor time to be valuable."

So says Jonathan Bernstein

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Sharing Versus Centralized Data

The VA and DOD have been working off and on to setup one centralized healthcare record for military personnel.  It makes sense: someone starts as a GI under DOD's control and, after retirement or separation, moves to be under VA's control. 

In the hearing I linked to it seems that Congress still wants that one record to rule them all, while DOD and VA are leaning more to sharing data.  I assume the idea is that if the VA can pull data from DOD records and display them to VA personnel, that's good enough.

During my government career, I was involved in both "sharing" and "centralizing" efforts. We worked for some years on trying to transfer files of ASCS data to SCS computers, basically to enable policing of the sod/swamp provisions of the 86 farm bill.  And the effort which eventually became SCIMS was based on the idea of a central customer/client record serving all the service center agencies. 

Neither effort worked out, at least not during my career.  I'm not sure what lessons to derive from that fact.  I mention this history because doing such things as implementing Obamacare or immigration reform (E-Verify) raise similar issues of system design.  

If you can design the interfaces, it's probably easier and faster to do the sharing, perhaps particularly these days with the availability of syncing software.  The biggest advantage of centralized data is not just avoiding redundant data load; it's avoiding the problem of stale data.  For example, a death gets reported in system A, but never propagated to systems B...Z.   The problem with sharing/communication is that the unspoken and unidentified assumptions in system A may trip you up in the other systems.  The problem with centralized systems is you have to understand a whole lot more about all the business rules. And it's difficult to have modular development.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Acreage Reports and Performance (27 Years Ago and MIDAS)

I noticed in recent NASCOE documents a brief discussion of "performance" problems, apparently due to MIDAS.  Today I see ND FSA quoted in this article on problems with acreage reporting due to MIDAS performance problems. 

I'm not a good person, so there's a smirk on my face, for which I apologize to everyone involved--I'm sure they are doing their best.

As some consolation I'd recall our problems with the ASCS-578 process when we first automated on the System-36.  The initial program design had one entry screen for each parameter for a field or subdivision (i.e., "corn" would be on one screen, "grain" or "silage" would be on another).  Do I need to add that with the first 36's we didn't move from one screen to the next very quickly?  The net result was something which was unusable, though with the combination of ignorance and rigidity too often found in the South Building we (I) earnestly explained to the state specialists that counties had to use the software.

Here my memory fades--I think we officially used the initial design for 1985, backed off to a data load process for 1986, and perhaps came up with a revised process for 1987, though maybe it was 1988.  The new process was an improvement, if I say so myself, but many counties still found it unusable for realtime applications.

Bottomline: progress is made slowly, often  2 steps forward and one back.  And learn from mistakes, because as my example shows, they'll stick in your memory for the rest of your life.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Innovators' Dilemma and Quinoa

When I read the recent pieces on quinoa I was reminded of Clayton Christensen's book, The Innovator's Dilemma. 

The idea is what really happens with successful enterprises (he wrote about companies but I'm expanding to include farming) is that a web of linkages and expectations and fulfilled needs builds up which becomes hard to change.  Big companies like Eastman Kodak or Xerox focus more on everyday problems within that web and don't have the time or attention to give to innovations which might prove disruptive (as with Kodak's invention of the digital camera).  

The flip side of that is that an innovator, like a quinoa farmer, is out there on his own and is missing the web of supporting structures, in this cases marketing chains, transportation and warehousing etc.  Usually in technology the innovation is sort of peripheral, crude and not very efficient, so it's easy to disrespect.  What successful innovations have is some advantage in a niche market, and the potential to be refined and developed.  The money from niche sales enables the development up the ladder and into new markets.  (Think how Toyota started with a crude car, only to develop over the years into making luxury cars.)

The problem with quinoa may, as the blog post says, be the likelihood of volatile prices, because the market and government don't supply the things which stabilize prices, supply and demand in developed markets.   

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Difference a Few Miles Makes

Really, though, it's not where you live, it's the composition of the neighbors in the hood;  it's the difference of a bunch of dollars and/or education.  I'm talking about the latest health stats, as presented in this county by county map.  Here's a post on Herndon Patch about the study.

Fairfax County, where I live, had a male life expectancy of 75.6 in 1985. Prince William, just south of here, had 71.3.  DC had a life expectancy of 64.3.  Over 25 years things changed.  DC improved by 9.4, Fairfax 6.1, Prince William 7.4.  Loudoun county, just to the west of Fairfax, and DC were the two jurisdictions which stand out as having the greatest increase.  Why--Loudoun has gone from mostly rural to rich suburbia in the 25 years; DC has changed its demographics almost as drastically--picking up a lot of yuppies and dinks (as we used to call them) and seeing lower income blacks move out.  DC has also cut its homicide rate drastically.

It's an interesting map to play with.  What's happening in Kentucky?  The bluegrass state has seen a statewide increase in physical activity in the last 10 years, it really stands out on the national map.  I don't think Mrs. Obama has been there more than other states. More seriously, there doesn't seem to be a correlation, at least by eyeball, between changes in physical activity and changes in hypertension or obesity, and Kentucky was very low on activity in 2001, so there may be something odd with the data, not reality.  And using just eyeballs, it looks as if the crime wave documented in the TV series "Justified" has some basis in reality?

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Enlightenment in AnteBellum Georgia?

The Internet makes a lot of stuff available, much of it not valuable but some quite interesting.  One of the interesting bits I just stumbled on is the fact that Georgia distributed land to its citizens through a series of lotteries.   Here's a list of the people entitled to "draw" in one of the lotteries:

  • Bachelor, 18 years or over, 3-year residence in Georgia, citizen United States – 1 draw
  • Soldier of Indian War, residence in Georgia during or since military service – 1 draw
  • Invalid or indigent veteran of Revolutionary War or War of 1812 – 2 draws
  • Invalid or indigent veteran of Revolutionary War or War of 1812 who was a fortunate drawer in either previous land lottery – 1 draw
  • Married man with wife or minor son under 18 years or unmarried daughter, 3-year residence in Georgia, citizen United States – 2 draws
  • Widow, 3-year residence in Georgia – 1 draw 
  • Widow, husband killed in Revolutionary War, War of 1812 or Indian War, 3-year residence in Georgia – 2 draws 
  • Family of one or two orphans under 21 years, father dead, mother living, 3-year residence in Georgia – 1 draw
  • Family of three or more orphans under 21 years, father and mother both dead, 3-year residence in Georgia – 2 draws
  • Family of one or two orphans under 21 years, father and mother both dead, 3-year residence in Georgia, 1 draw
  • Orphan under 21 years, father killed in the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, or Indian War, 3-year residence in Georgia – 2 draws
  • Invalid or indigent officer or soldier in the Revolutionary Army who had been fortunate drawer in either previous lottery – 1 draw
I'm not quite sure how these worked together--for example would a "widow" get one draw on her own, and one draw for her family?  If so, that would be equal to the married man's 2 draws.

Anyhow, it strikes me as surprisingly liberated for 1820, at least gender-wise.  Of course the land being distributed was that taken from the Native Americans, so it wasn't really enlightened.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Paragraph of the Day

From a NYTimes article pegged to Russian circuses offering patrons a chance to have pictures of their kids sitting by carnivores, for a fee:
In the 19th century, the author Mikhail Lermontov was so amazed by this quality of fatalism [in Russian society] he created a character in the novel “A Hero of Our Time” who played Russian roulette with a single-shot pistol.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Dead Customers--Warning to Government List Managers

I stumbled on this while reading an FSA notice:
"The Death Master File Report identifies customers who were updated as deceased in Business Partner during the initial migration. This was a one -time process run from the Death Master File (DMF) from the Social Security Administration (SSA) and approximately 1.7 million customers were updated as deceased. County Offices will not receive work list items for customers on this list as all customers were updated with a date of death and the death was automatically confirmed."
What it says is FSA's master name and address file, probably about 6-8 million names, wasn't being maintained for deaths, so when FSA matched the file against SSA's records, 1.7 records fell out.   I suspect this is a hazard for all lists maintained by big organizations: there's no immediate apparent cost to keeping a record on file and there's an obvious cost removing it.  It takes time to remove a record or flag it as dead, and there's always the chance of error.  So it's easier, cheaper, and safer not to touch the file.

Problem is, leaving the dead on file leads to mistakes, most notoriously payments to dead farmers, and potential security problems.  How many thrillers have you read where someone establishes a fake identity using the name/ID of a dead person?

I believe, back in the old days before System/36, the KCMO mainframe files were routinely matched against SSA death files.  But when we went to the 36, because that process was done once a year or so, it fell through the cracks.  As we used to say in the Army: sorry bout that.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Another Appeal for Typography in the FAA

James Fallows has blogged about the Asiana crash.  This is the last bit from one post:
"* Here is the text of the "NOTAM," or Notice to Airmen, announcing the limited ILS status. The opaqueness of the terminology is unfortunately typical of the Telex-era legacy coding of aviation announcements, but professional pilots would know what it means. In essence it says that at SFO airport the ILS glide path would be OTS WEF -- "out of service with effect from" June 11, 2103:
"SFO 06/005 SFO NAV ILS RWY 28L GP OTS WEF 1306011400-1308222359
CREATED: 01 Jun 2013 13:40:00 
Now I've great confidence in the ability of professional pilots: I'm sure evolution over the years has created a breed of super beings who don't need any of the aids us ordinary humans need to understand a message.  And this breed inhabits all the corners of the world, and regardless of native language is thoroughly schooled in acronyms. 

But please, give me a break.  We don't use Telex these days.  People under 50 have never even heard of it.  We have lots and lots of bandwidth, so there's no need for concise messages, if conciseness comes at the expense of clarity.   It really is true that upper and lower case are more legible than all upper case, that words are clearer than acronyms, and brevity is not always a virtue.

I'm not up to doing a lot of research, but there's a link there to the FAA website.  I wonder whether pilots could, by clicking a cursor on a map, pull up all the messages pertaining to a specific airport which are still in effect?  Seems like a simple application of technology.

I believe the State Department has finally abandoned all caps; it's time for FAA.

[Note:  this is one of my pet peeves, I don't see my label for it.]

Schadenfreude Towards Locavores

Schadenfreude means enjoying others' misfortune.  I find I enjoy it when people are very self-righteous and self-confident, and then stumble, as in the case of locavores who enthusiastically went into the raising of backyard chickens.

Two articles reporting on people who don't know what to do when hens stop laying eggs.

Monday, July 08, 2013

Post Raisin -- Not the Cereal

The Washington Post has a Style piece on the raisin farmer in California who's violating the terms of the raisin marketing agreement and won an interim victory at the Supreme Court this term.

I don't know enough about this marketing agreement, or the other agreements, to be comfortable in any detailed commentary on the case.

What I do know is this:  agricultural producers in the 1930's had very little power in the market--they had to accept whatever prices the buyers would offer.  The perception then was the imbalance in pricing power between producers and buyers resulted in an unstable market, with wide swings in price as producers over-produced in response to good products, creating surpluses.  Because the demand for food is usually inelastic, it takes a big drop in prices to clear the market of surpluses.  

Hence the cartelization of commodity producers, whether tobacco producers in the 1930s, or oil producers in the 1970's.  In the area of fruit and vegetables the cartels took the form of marketing agreements.  (I'm in danger of confusing marketing agreements with research and promotion agreements, which try to increase demand without controlling supply.  Both types may be initially approved by producer referendums.)

IMHO the question today is whether there are other mechanisms available to producers?  For example, the price of eggs went up and down rapidly in the 1940's and 50's, reflecting the same sort of free market mechanics.  My mother got very disgusted with those farmers who'd expand production when the price was high, knowing the sure result would be low prices a year later.  (She didn't believe in following self-interest; one should look out for the greater good.)

But unlike Canada (I think) the US never had an egg cartel.  And what happened?  Contract growers happened.  Big companies contracted with growers to produce eggs and poultry as innovation paved the way for 100,000 chicken houses.   That process of consolidation meant lots of small poultry producers went out of business, but those who remained faced much less risk because the industry was vertically integrated. 

That's happened in other areas, but mechanisms like futures and forward contracting seem also to have played a part, not to mention crop insurance.  If we were re-creating the raisin industry from scratch, would we have a marketing agreement, or some other mechanism to reduce price risk?

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Puffing Agriculture Just a Tad

From the Farm Bureau's New York website:

"Agriculture is New York‘s most important industry. The farm economy generated $4.45 billion in 2008."  It goes on to cite New York's 35,000 farms

From this site

New York's gross state product in 2001 was $826.5 billion, 2nd only to California, to which financial services contributed $282.9 billion; general services, $190.2 billion; trade, $103.5 billion; government, $81.2 billion; manufacturing, $77.7 billion; transportation and public utilities, $59.3 billion, and construction, $17.4 billion. The public sector in 2001 constituted 9.8% of gross state product, tied with New Jersey for the 5th-lowest percent among the states where the average was 12%.

Saturday, July 06, 2013

Best Practices, Reinvented

I am reading a biography of Seaman Knapp, sometimes called the father of the extension service.

One of the big problems in agriculture around 1900 was dissemination.  Researchers at the experiment stations and people in the field had identified ways to grow more and better plants and animals, but they couldn't convince farmers to change their habits and adopt new methods.

The description was reminiscent of the "best practices" fad in the 1990's: the idea that business consultants could identify what the best organizations were doing and then inject them into other organizations.

Lots of reasons why the idea doesn't work nearly as well as it ought to.  For one thing, a "best practice" identified by an outsider is likely to oversimplify, to miss some features of the organization's culture which are critical to success.  And importing a "best practice" under the auspices of some high-paid outsider is likely to raise the hackles (does anyone these days know what a "hackle" is) of the people who've been doing the work, in their minds pretty successfully.

[Updated: see this Technology Review post on why Silicon Valley can't be duplicated.]

Friday, July 05, 2013

The Modern Sisyphus or Diogenes

In the Sisyphus myth, the king was fated to roll a stone uphill forever, each only to see it roll back down.  That was my first thought in considering the blog The Daily Howler, written by Bob Somerby.

Mr. Somerby seems always to be disappointed by the truthfulness of media, particularly mainstream media.  The "always" brought Sisyphus to mind, but then I see the king's offense against the gods was to be deceitful and to try to outwit Zeus himself.  So that doesn't work particularly well.

So then I thought of Diogenes, who supposedly wandered the world with lamp in hand, looking for and not finding an honest man.  Maybe that's closer; Mr. Somerby is our modern Diogenes.  Perhaps fitting, since Diogenes was a Cynic.

Or maybe we're fellows under the skin, both nitpickers supreme. 

Anyhow, I recommend occasional dips in the blog, though perhaps Mr. Somerby is wandering the blogosphere with lamp in hand, searching for and not finding the Art of Brevity.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Taxing CRP Payments

The title of this post at Sustainable Ag,  U.S. Tax Court: Federal Self-Employment Tax Applies to Non-Farmer’s CRP Payment,pretty well describes the content.

 It interests me because it involves determining that the owner of land in CRP is not automatically in the business of farming (assuming I understand it correctly).  The theory seems to be that while the owner is being compensated for activities required by the CRP contract, that's not farming but a business.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

The EU, Payment Limits, Conservation, and WTO

One of the features of "Freedom to Farm", the 1996 direct payments program, was that it complied with WTO restrictions, meaning basically it didn't affect what crops were grown or not grown.  Regardless of what the farmer did, she was guaranteed the payment as long as she didn't sell the land for a suburban development.   The vision at that time, the height of the Washington consensus,  was that the world was gradually moving away from government subsidies and intervention in agricultural affairs.  Oxfam and other international groups beat the U.S. around the head and shoulders for the distortions introduced by our farm programs, particularly the adverse effects of the cotton program on Third World cotton producers.  But 17 years have passed since that law was enacted and the climate of opinion in the world has changed.  It looks as if we'll replace the direct payments program with crop insurance subsidies without much concern for WTO rules, even though the subsidies obviously affect what's planted.   Has the Great Recession created more tolerance for government intervention, more economic nationalism?

This BBC piece (hat tip John Phipps) shows some of the factors also affecting the EU's redo of their farm policy.

Monday, July 01, 2013

The Importance of What's Underneath

MIT's Technology Review reports on research explaining "fairy circles"., at least those in grassland mostly in South Africa.  It seems it's caused by competition among plant roots.