Monday, September 30, 2013

Good Advice from Joel Achenbach

This is directed to all you baby boomer youngsters:

"Those of us staring into the gaping maw of degeneration, senescence and ultimate obliteration are often driven to take on new activities and interests. You could make the case that Walt went overboard.
If you find yourself with an urge to try something new, my advice is to steer clear of anything that might create a problem for which the activation of a remote-controlled machine gun would potentially be the solution.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Does USDA Pay Farmers for Not Farming?

The Internet has made me more aware of the persistence of myths and inaccuracies, not to say "lies", in the world of public discourse.

To quote Mark Twain:

One of the persistent memes is the idea FSA (USDA) pays farmers for not farming, for not producing.  That came up in a recent Jonathan Chait piece here, in connection with a discussion that the right supported cutting food stamps but not cutting farm subsidies.   Chait linked to a Megan McArdle defense of the theory, though she would like to cut both food stamps and ag subsidies, based on "reciprocity".  The idea being that food stamps went to the idle poor, who did nothing for them, while subsidies went to farmers who at least were farming.   Chait used a GAO Report of last year 
which I missed, to counter McArdle's argument.

Seems to me there are several aspects to the meme:
  • it can refer to the "supply management/production adjustment" programs of past farm bills, in which case it's wrong.  Those programs are dead.
  • it can refer to the problem of payments issued to dead farmers.  That can be bad administration by FSA, though the casual discussion of it by people like Chait and EWG doesn't recognize some of the legitimate complexities. 
  • it can refer to the problem of direct payments issued based on acreage which is converted to non-farm uses, as cited in the GAO report.  That again is bad administration.
  • it can refer to the fact that the direct payment program is "decoupled", to comply with WTO rules--there's no requirement that farmers farm in order to earn the payments.  Again, the GAO report blasted the program for this, but it's what Congress passed.
  • it can refer to the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which has multi-year contracts for farmers to devote land, not to production of crops, but to conservation uses.  In my mind, the program's aim is to protect highly erodible land and provide conservation benefits, not to reduce production, but it's true that the program does reduce production.  (It's rather like saying the military draft in the 1960's gave men free health insurance--it did.) It's also true that some of the contracts can cover a whole farm, assuming all of the acreage is highly erodible.
So to me the bottom line is: USDA/FSA has no program which pays farmers for not producing.

[Updated to add the last sentence on the CRP paragraph.]

Friday, September 27, 2013

What Illegal Spying Is Not So Bad?

Seems that some of the cases where NSA employees definitely broke the law involved spying on significant others.  See this piece.  Somehow that makes NSA seem less fearsome to me, just a bunch of insecure men jealous of their lovers.   Should the motive really make a difference when we're talking violations of privacy?  No, but somehow.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Another Sentence

From a Slate piece on Ted Cruz
" Susman laughed. "I will say this: Being a stud with girls on the debate circuit does not mean you’re a stud with girls."

A Sentence to Enjoy, on Sows

"Being nursed by a dozen hungry mouths is an extreme weight watcher’s diet plan."  From Sugar Mountain Farm, in a post on the natural weaning process, and the human controlled process.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

To Sea, Young Man, to Sea

Via Brad Delong's Grasping Reality with Both Hands, here's a study comparing the cost of college with the benefits of college.  What interests me on the graphic is the outlying institutions--some with names you'd expect, but some not.   For example, what's SUNY-Maritime doing so cheap and so rewarding?

I'm reminded of a high school math teacher, who returned to his alma mater after his predecessor died of diabetes (very much missed--Mr. Hayford), with a goatee!  Now this was 1958, when all men were clean-shaven.  But after leaving the Forks, Mr. Turna had gone off to the Merchant Marine academy and then spent some time at sea--I know he visited west African ports and as a mate had to bail out a crewman.  The ladies were attracted to him (may be faulty memory, though then it seemed as if every male my age or older had a greater attraction for women than I) though not to the extent they took his senior-level trig, spherical geometry, and advanced algebra classes. We were still back in the dark ages then; such math wasn't for women.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Returns on Cows and Buffalos

Brad DeLong notes a study on the returns to owning cows and buffaloes in India.  Bottom line is--it's not profitable in an economic sense.  The speculation is that the labor of women has no value, economically, so there's no cost for women or children to tend cattle.  Or, the return on formal savings instruments (i.e., savings accounts) is low and uncertain so there's a cultural preference to owning cattle. (I gather that while cows are sacred to Hindus, buffaloes aren't so the study treats them as almost interchangeable.)

Here's the NBER url.  Strikes me that the economists don't devote enough attention to the calves  The survey asked the people to estimate the value of a calf, which I assume meant guessing what the calf could be sold for on the open market.  Now in economic theory I guess the price should reflect the value of retaining the calf. But maybe it doesn't--if the family has sufficient grazing land then the marginal cost of rearing a calf to maturity is relatively small--the labor cost of tending multiple animals instead of a single is almost zero.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Can't Figure the Figures--Crop Insurance

Via Farm Policy, an article in Choices magazine on crop insurance, co-written by Keith Collins, formerly chief economist of USDA and now working for the crop insurance industry.

I have to assume the figures are accurate, but this figure from the article blows my mind:

It's deflated by crop prices somehow but seems to show some $60 billion in CCC payments in 2000.

[updated as follows]
Looking at the EWG database, there were about $23.5 billion in payments in 2000, excluding crop insurance, so it looks as if the deflator almost triples the payments in 2000.   While I can understand adjusting figures for inflation, i.e., using constant dollars, I don't the deflator.  I went to the CBO site, which I don't understand too well, and couldn't find the backup data for this, just their projections for the future.   

Saturday, September 21, 2013

SOL Results for Fairfax County--Disturbing

Via the Reston Patch, here's the full release of results on the state Standards of Learning test for Fairfax county.  The test changed this year so the release notes one can't directly compare these results with those for prior years. 

That's fine, but.  And it's a big but.  What's noticeable to me is that the current year scores are down more for blacks, Hispanics, students with disabilities, economically disadvantaged, and limited English proficient than they are for whites and Asians.  That pattern is disturbing because just a simple change of standards, making the test harder, shouldn't show it.  Something else is going on.

English Reading Performance
Student  Group
All Students
Economically Disadvantaged
Limited English Proficient
Students with Disabilities

The drop for whites is 7 points, for Asians 8, but 20 points for blacks, 21 for Hispanics and so on.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Why You Can't Do FSA Programs on the Internet

I'm sure few farmers would like to be compared the patrons of a check-cashing service, but when I read this piece from a professor who studies such services by working at one, that's what I thought.  Takes me back to the days of Sec. Glickman, and the effort led by someone whose name I forget, to follow through on reengineering business processes.  A small part of the effort was doing customer satisfaction surveys, which was a brand new concept to us FSA types.  After all, we were handing out money, so how could farmers not be satisfied with us?  </end sarcasm>

Actually the surveys as I remember did find that farmers were quite satisfied with their local offices (perhaps excluding the farm loan applicants, I'm not sure).  And the reason was simple--the <s>clerks</s>  <s>  program assistants</s> program technicians knew the farmers and could tailor their approach to the personality and needs of the individual.  That fact was then a big hurdle to the idea of moving FSA programs on-line to the extent that people could work from home.

Republican Farm Policy

Kevin Drum, probably the blogger whose views most coincide with mine, or rather vice versa, says that Republican farm policy makes perfect sense.

[edited to add]

I follow the Volokh Conspiracy, which just posted on the farm bill: crop insurance versus SNAP cuts issue.  I sometimes comment there, but I'm abstaining this time.  There's too much wrong and incomplete information there, probably because it's mostly a bunch of "city folk", as my mother would say.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Shame on Starbucks

Yes, I'm talking about the ad the founder of Starbucks ran in today's Post and NYTimes in which he asks his customers to leave their guns at home, son, don't take your guns to Starbucks.  (Sorry, briefly channeled Mr. Cash.)

No, I'm not upset by his position.  The company can do anything they want, within the law.  Personally although there's been some open-carry demonstrators around in VA, I've not seen anyone with a weapon except police.  I don't think I particularly care one way or another--I don't go in bars which in my mind is where people, arms, and alcohol are a combustible mixture.  Starbucks usually not so much, though I did see one very heated exchange between a customer and a clerk in my local Starbucks a year or so ago.

So if I don't care about guns, why do I call "shame"? 

Because the letter is printed in monospaced type, probably elite.  And I've a personal peeve against such type: it's less legible than a good variable spaced typeface and with modern technology there's not a reason in the world to stick with elite, or pica.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Walt Jeffries and IT Development

Sugar Mountain Farm is a blog I follow.  Not sure why, maybe the combo of intimidating expertise, different lifestyle, humor, ....  and just enough commonality (that's not the right word, but it's close enough) with my rearing to be able to enjoy it vicariously.  (Come to think of it, I wonder if Walt ever read "Swiss Family Robinson", one of my favorite books when growing up.)

Anyhow, that's not the point.  Let me quote from most of a recent post:
Will [a son] is working on learning to weld stainless steel in preparation for making some of the parts we need for the butcher shop. Tractor ears was his first sheet metal project in stainless steel. By doing small useful tests we explore techniques and develop the necessary skills for design and production. This is a way. Chez Tao.

To build the butcher shop we developed techniques by building our cottage, a much smaller version using many of the same methods. Prior to the cottage we built the dog house. Before that a ferro cement and brick pig hut. Even earlier, table top models. With each progressively larger version we developed technique and honed skills.
To me that sounds much like the "code a little, test a little" process of software development and very different from the  big project "waterfall" model which used to reign supreme in the 1980's, and which seems to retain a hold even today.  It's a model which often leads to disaster, and waste of money--witness the failed project to create a common health record between DOD and VA.

There's not much point to this observation, except as it confirms the saying: "too soon old, too late smart".   There's much in my career I'd redo if I could.  And much of what I regret in my work life traces back to hubris. 

The Greeks were right.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Return to Punched Card Storage

Via Brad Delong at Grasping Reality, here's a post converting Google's data storage into punched card equivalent.  Bottom line: it would cover New England with 4.5 kilometers of punched cards.

(Given my training on using punched cards to run COBOL programs, I'm intrigued by the conversion.)

Murphy's Law in New Zealand

"“If you land in someone’s paddock [when flying using a jetpack], you will always land on their prime sheep,” Mr. Kenny says, stressing that liability insurance for pilots is a must."

As quoted at Marginal Revolution

Monday, September 16, 2013

Rep. Issa Praises Obama Administration!!

The nether reaches of hell must be starting to freeze.

This FCW article reports this comment by Rep. Issa:
"The whole effort has been a great success. I’m taking no positive shots at how they spent their money, because I don't think it created jobs. But it accounted for funding in a more transparent way than ever before, and did so on a small budget," Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), said at an event hosted by the Data Transparency Coalition on Sept. 10.
I have to admit I was skeptical of it, I haven't revisited the site since its early days, and I still suspect a subject-matter expert could punch holes in the data for her subject area.  But the fact remains, even if its reputation is a tad higher than it deserves, it does set an example for the future and there weren't many scandals related to the Recovery Act spending, once we got past the early glitches about the quality of data.    So at least one gold star for the Obama administration.

(Hmm, since I'm feeling devilish today, what's the odds of having a similar database for Pigford payments?)

South Versus Midwest

Politico has an article on the farm bill, summarizing the current status but with some discussion of the sectional differences Midwest versus South.  It argues that current plantings have increased in the Midwest, not so in the South.  (I've a reservation, TX and OK are down in current plantings, presumably partially because of drought. )

The issue of basing payments on planted acres versus base acres is always interesting: do we want the safety net for current and future farmers or for past farmers?  The issue of yields gets less attention--I've lost track of whether there's been any updating of yields in past farm bills.  A fine kettle of questions for some philosopher/economist to figure out.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Did ARS Sponsor This Cutting-Edge Research?

(The answer is "no", but I need a title.)

What's the research?

"The probability prize was awarded to animal scientists at Scotland's Rural College for making two related discoveries. "First, that the longer a cow has been lying down, the more likely that cow will soon stand up," read their citation. "And second, that once a cow stands up, you cannot easily predict how soon that cow will lie down again."

From the Ig Nobel Awards, via University Diary.

French Fries and Good Sentences

Al Kamen in the Post muses about why the Capitol cafeteria didn't retaliate on British food after Parliament refused to back a strike on Syria, a retaliation like the one when they renamed "french fries" to "freedom fries" back in 2003 when the French didn't back GWBush.

"The greater problem in this instance may have been that no one particularly likes British food, so there weren’t many options: Fish and chips to Fish and French fries or  English muffins to Cowardly Crumpets?

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Things We Lose Without Knowing--the Milky Way

From Kottke -- most American kids will never see the Milky Way (from their home, I suppose).  Some, maybe even most, change is good, but some isn't.  (Though I suppose the people in this world who can see the Milky Way are often in what we used to call the Third World.  There's always tradeoffs--did Robert Heinlein write that?)

Harry Potter Kills

According to Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution, a scientific sampling of people who died in the last year would show that reading Harry Potter novels is strongly correlated with dying young.  If you don't read Harry Potter you're much more likely to live to a ripe old age.  Wish I had known that before I read the series.


Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Amazing Sentence of Today: Judges Err

"n ordinary litigation, the judges misunderstand things all the time and reach decisions anyway, and they rarely discover all that they’ve misunderstood.  "

This sentence is from a very good post by Stewart Baker at Volokh Conspiracy discussing the recently declassified FISA court materials.  Don't know whether he's right, but two points he makes:

  • the "wall" between law enforcement and intelligence which played a disputed role in the failures to prevent 9/11 was unreasonably enforced by Judge Royce Lamberth.
  • cultural differences between IT types and legal types may have played a big part in the problems.  (That's an attractive argument to me: I believe in Murphy's Law.)

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

EWG and Non-Farmers

The EWG has a new report out, entitled "City Slickers Harvest Cash Crop" which Ron Nixon in the NYTimes writes about here, using the hook of the possible extension of farm programs for another year.

EWG has a familiar theme: the inequity of government payments to people who don't get dirt under their nails.  Frankly, I'm surprised the amount here is so low:
 "Residents of America’s 54 largest cities collected more than $24 million in Direct Payment farm subsidies in 2012, according to new research by the Environmental Working Group."
Maybe I've been brainwashed by their previous reports to expect a bigger figure?    I wonder, would this headline sound better to the public: "Heirs of Deceased Farmers Receive Government Dollars"? Of course, we don't know how much is going to heirs, and how much is truly going to Wall Street investors in farmland, but probably the majority of the $24 million.  And it may be that those Wall Streeters who now own farmland have been suckered--if the current high farmland values turns out to be indicators of a bubble, they could be hurt.

EWG has Google maps of the locations of some recipients.  Perhaps significantly, they don't show NYC or Boston.   The distribution of locations in the DC area seems a bit more random than I'd expect; a few markers in the poorer areas, probably showing heirs.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Sailing, Sailing, Through the Arctic

I may have expressed the opinion that the vision of commercial ships sailing around Russia through the Arctic, particularly those sponsored by China, was an indicator of global warming.

Via Tom Ricks at the Best Defense, here's an interesting discussion of the practicality of this.  Bottom line, it's probably not practical for container ships, because they're limited in draft and beam, even though it can be significantly faster.

I recommend a book called The Box, on the development of containers.  This quote from the article is significant:
What is far more important than speed is reliability. Unlike the bulk shipping discussed earlier, schedule integrity is a key service-attribute for containerships. The Arctic will always suffer from periods of poor visibility and the potential for wind-driven ice, both of which can make routes with a comparatively low average transit time have a large variability around that average. More than half of all container cargo is now component-level goods—materials destined for factories for use in production processes operating on a just-in-time-type inventory-management system. That makes consistency, reliability, and schedule integrity of paramount importance. The key goal of container shipping is 99 percent on-time delivery. If this is attainable at all, it will be extraordinarily expensive using Arctic transit routes. Thus the variability in transit time that may be tolerable in bulk shipping is unacceptable for container shipping.

4-H and the Economist

Interesting article praising 4-H in The Economist, implying that it, extension, and land-grant u's account for the differences between US and European agriculture. 

I think not, actually--they contribute but don't "account".

Friday, September 06, 2013

Why Washington Employment in FSA Grows

From a recent GAO report on FSA enforcement of the adjusted gross income limits:
" For example, GAO found errors in 19 of the 22 tax return files it reviewed from FSA offices in two states; one of these errors led to a potentially improper payment of $40,000. FSA headquarters does not monitor state offices' reviews of tax returns to ensure that the offices are applying program guidance consistently and making accurate eligibility determinations, even though federal standards for internal control direct agencies to monitor and assess the quality of performance over time. Also, 2008 Farm Bill provisions requiring a distinction between farm and nonfarm income make it difficult for agency officials to verify if participants' incomes exceed the limits without making errors. Because the statutory limits for farm and nonfarm income differ, to verify such income, FSA officials must comb through sometimes long and complex tax returns to classify and calculate income--a difficult task for those who are not accountants or tax preparers. Recent bills in the House and Senate have proposed using total adjusted gross income instead of farm and nonfarm income, which would reduce the need for FSA to review tax returns."  [emphasis added]
People like to talk about the top-heavy Washington bureaucracy of various agencies, including FSA (yes, I'm looking at you NASCOE).  It's good to mock the proliferation of well-paid bigshots at both departmental and agency levels. But one should also remember that no one outside the agency is ready to trust field (in this case, state office) people to do things 100 percent right and to accept the mistakes if they don't.

I'd praise GAO for recommending simplifying the rules.  I'd also note the indications that some accountants and attorneys actually lie to FSA!  I'm shocked, shocked I say.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Civil Service College

Via Marginal Revolution, here's the "programme" of Singapore's Civil Service College for "Officers" (which I think is their term for front line employees, FSA's equivalent of the county offices.  One item is a 16-hour course in "Responsiveness In Frontline Customer Service: Making Customer Satisfaction A Daily Pleasure".

I've noticed a cultural difference between the other former members of the British Empire and the U.S. in regards to government employees: in the US we call them "bureaucrats" with a pejorative edge; in the other countries, they're "civil servants" or "bureaucrats" used as a neutral term. It may trace to differences in how we established independence (a la David Hackett Fischer's book on the US and New Zealand): we had a revolution against British authority, the face of which was bureaucrat/civil servants.  While Canada, Australia, Singapore, India generally had a more amicable parting of the ways with the "mother country", in which the local people just took over the bureaucracy.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

I Think We Look Pretty Good

To this Indian student who writes about his impressions of the U.S.  Hat tip: Marginal Revolution

At least, "pretty good' is my overall impression of his impressions--impressive, isn't it?

My Best Line of the Day

In commenting on a Wonkblog post about whether Americans knew where Damascus and Syria were, I wrote: "Surely the question is not whether Americans know where Damascus is, but whether our targeters know where the Chinese and Russian embassies are."

I thought it was good, but then I realized Ezra Klein is so young he probably was in grade school when we hit the Chinese Embassy during the Kosovo action.   

No one should be that young.

Tip of the Hat

To Diana Nyad.  When I heard two days ago she was trying to swim between  Cuba and the US again, for the umpteenth time, I said she should give up, she's too old.

Turns out she wasn't and I was wrong.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

FSA and Drones

Via Marginal Revolution, here's a piece on how archeologists are using drones in their work.

Causes me to ask: when is FSA going to drones?  Last I knew FSA had a set of aerial photographs which were scaled and ortho-corrected (which I think means adjusted for changes in elevation) with which one could measure the area of a field, and a yearly set of slides taken from small planes to help identify which crop was in which field.  I'm sure that's changed as they've implemented their GIS system, but I'm not sure how.  On the theory the agency still needs to spot-check the accuracy of what they're being told by the farmer, I'd assume there's still some aerial slides being taken.  Drones might be a better approach (except for all the rules and regulations about their use, which presumably archeologists in Peru don't need to worry about).