Friday, November 29, 2013

Words of the Day: Making Sausage

"In general, I feel that I’ve experienced a strong pattern in which uncovering new information about an organization or intervention (which I previously understood only at a superficial level) tends to lower rather than raise my confidence in it."

From a post at,written in reference to evaluating NGO desirability as objects of giving. I'm not whether I got there from Chris Blattman or Roving Bandit, but I think the statement applies broadly, specifically in the sayings about not looking too closely at how sausage is made.  As a general rule, we over-generalize, based on limited information and the reality is much more complicated than we think.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

A Revolutionary Thanksgiving

Boston 1775 provides a dash of sour to go with the sweetness of our modern Thanksgiving: the sort of meals some of our soldiers enjoyed back in the Revolution.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Base Acres Versus Planted Acres

That's the dispute going on now, according to today's Farm Policy.  Base acres avoids problems with the WTO, planted acres reflect current operations, not something many years in the past.

Sounds like one option is going back to 1977 and the "normal crop acreage".  As someone said: "history doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes".

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

How the Presidency Works, or Doesn't

Conor Friedersdorf has a post up, asking why President Obama would have said the site would work.  Obama himself says: he's not stupid, he didn't know the problems.  Friedersdorf cites a NYTimes article showing that the developers were well aware of many problems in the months before October 1. He writes:
It does not seem credible that Obama was unaware that failure was likely. And if he really was unaware, the implications are extremely unflattering. Either he failed abjectly to ask the right questions of a staff that was also derelict in informing him, or else he asked the right questions and his staff misled him.  What the Times story confirms is that the launch of wasn't the sort of failure that reasonable actors could have failed to anticipate beforehand.
As it happens I'm reading (struggling through actually) a recent biography of John Kenneth Galbraith.  He was an adviser to JFK while serving as ambassador to India in 1961-2, had his own back channel to the President, and was audacious in his infighting (like stealing a highly classified copy of a report to which he'd been denied access off the desk of the NSC type, while the NSC guy's attention was on a phone call, then writing a preemptive counterblast for JFK). 

It's a dense and scholarly effort, which goes rather broadly into the infighting over whether and how strongly to intervene in Vietnam.  And based on the narrative, JFK's decisions were sometimes/often evaded and ignored by the NSC/State/DOD figures.  The bottomline: not only did the flow of decisions from the President to the bureaucracy get interrupted, the flow of information from the bureaucracy to the President was uneven and incomplete.  JFK was smart enough, probably having read Neustadt's book on Presidential Power, to have multiple sources; BHO may not have been that smart.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

A Bubble--Yes

So says the economist in this agweb article.

Unlike the early 80's, the developing world is still growing and providing more demand.

Friday, November 22, 2013

$2.75 Corn? A Bubble?

Did we have a land bubble? Agweb has an article saying get ready for $2.75 corn.  I find by searching on this site I was forecasting a land bubble in 2007 and again in 2011.  Guess I got tired of being wrong and have kept quiet since.  A reminder if any were needed of how difficult it is to make economic predictions.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

How Paperwork Grows--Good Intentions and Bad Architecture

Congress doesn't want federal money going to corporations involved with committing felonies or evading taxes.  That makes sense, doesn't it?

Well, notice CM-737 shows what happens down in the bureaucracy.  USDA comes up with a form which corporation officers have to sign every year, which places another burden on the county office clerk, and the corporation officers, recognizing that 100 percent of the corporations have to sign, but probably only 1 percent at maxium are actually involved in crime or tax evasion.

Now in a rational world, the bureaucracy which is nearest to the determinations of felony/tax evasion (presumably DOJ) would be responsible for flagging the corporation's records (i.d. tax ID) and all federal payments would bounce against a Do Not Pay database, which would include these flags.  But that would require a unitary federal bureaucracy, and the American people in their wisdom have decided to favor freedom over efficiency.  As long as we're willing to pay the price, we're democratic after all.

Ben Franklin on Lead

My father had to switch from chemical engineering to farming because of lead poisoning, so this letter by Ben Franklin, in a post at Boston 1775, is of particular interest.  The old bureaucrat was one of the smartest men ever.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Difference a Year Makes: Corn Prices and Farm Bill

Corn prices look very different now than last year, so the provisions of the draft farm bills in House and Senate are attracting scrutiny, as in this Politico article.

The Greatest Generation: Stupid or Ill-informed?

The Edge of the American West doesn't frame it as I do in my title, but I think the post supports the frame--the issue is whether knowledge of geography and history are helpful.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

We're Bloodsuckers, Not Farmers?

From Chris Blattman, I think, the Harvard Atlas of Economic Complexity, which purports to show the imports and exports of countries around the world.  I say "purports" because I don't really understand it, except the link gives a graphic showing US exports by category in 2010.  Major items are labeled, so "soybeans" is a nice gold block with ".87%" in its corner, which I assume means soybean exports accounts for that much of total exports.  Fine and dandy.  I get the idea.

But wait, down in the left hand corner there's this pinkish purple block which is labeled "Human or animal blood" and it's got "1%" in its corner.

Is Harvard really trying to tell me that we suck that much blood out of ourselves and our animals to ship off to whom? Blood is more valuable than soybeans?  Where are the world's vampires who are importing that blood?  Someone needs to get on this story, which has been totally unreported until now.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Volatility--the Farmer's Enemy

A paragraph from today's Farm Policy:
"Meanwhile, an update yesterday at The Wall Street Journal Online indicated that the cash price for corn (No. 2 yellow. Cent. Ill. bu-BP) on Tuesday was 4.1850; a year ago it was 7.2200."
 The ease with which farm prices can change is a fact often missed by those outside the farm world.  There's not too many commodities out there where the price can drop, or rise, as fast as corn just did.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Colorado and Rainwater

I was surprised to learn that collecting rainwater in Colorado is mostly illegal.  (Hat tip: Life on a Colorado Farm.)  I knew the West had different laws on water than in the East, but not this.

Failure To Launch [Website] Successfully

New guidelines for treating people at risk for heart attack or stroke released today.  That's a subject near and dear to my head and heart, so naturally I went to the new calculator website  
to see how I rated.  Oops--apparently they've a problem (too much traffic perhaps). 

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Pollan Revisited

Forbes runs a rather harsh attack on Michael Pollan, saying he's not a journalist interested in truth but pushes an anti-GMO agenda.

Modern Masters

The NYTimes has a piece today on the art market, talking about hard-sell tactics and the high prices expected for some major pieces (like north of $50 million).  It made me feel old, because it referred to "modern masters" like Andy Warhol, Warhol whom I remember as this odd-ball character from Pittsburgh who got publicity for what he called art, which involved no skill at all!

As I say, it made me feel old (as does the kerfluffle over Richard Cohen's latest column--he used to be the man who brought down Spiro Agnew, but that's not even mentioned on his wikipedia page). 

In my defense, repeated exposure to Warhol's work and to writing about it have given me a better understanding than I had in 1969, say.

Monday, November 11, 2013

No-Till Farming

 I was going to use a snarky title for this, like urbanites find out about no-till farming, but instead I'll just refer to an article on Wonkblog.  From there a link to a Philpott piece on cover crops and no-till.  I remember when ASCS  offered cost-sharing for cover crops, back in the late 60's, something which was killed by the Nixon administration.  (I'm trying to remember what the CED said--he was aggressively promoting the practices, I think for workload, not specifically for the conservation benefits.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Ghosts of the Past

I'm always fascinated to see how history crops up in today's public discussions.  Here's Rep. Peterson talking about basing payments on base acres versus planted acres:
"Rep. Peterson also addressed policy issues associated with planted acres in yesterday’s radio interview with Joel Heitkamp: “But we’re having a fight with the Senate over planted acres versus base acres, and they want to pay people based on what they grew 20 years ago, and we don’t want to do that anymore. We want to go to planted acres. And what that does is it shifts the program, the balance of power, from landowners to farmers. And this is a fundamental change that needs to happen in our policy. We should be supporting farmers, not land. And that’s what we’ve been doing the last 20 years, ostensibly, to placate the WTO or whatever.
But that’s one of the big hang-ups we’re having with the Senate right now. And some of them want to hang onto these base acres. Well, it’s kind of the same issue you’re talking about with the sugar program, where you’ve got people that have the land and have base on it are renting it to somebody else. It’s much better to have the program follow the farmer, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Now it so happens that in the South the landowner, the plantation owner, has always been at the top of the ladder.  And so it would seem it continues to be so today.

As quoted in Farm Policy.

The Most Un-Private Place in America?

Might be a farmer's fields, once the FAA gets off its rear and approves drones for farm use,  drones which can provide data down to the centimeter scale (.4 inch) according to a post on the Rural Blog, repeating an Agri-Pulse newsletter.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Paying Dead People

A very good article in the Post explaining why so many federal agencies have problems paying dead people.  Bottom line: problems in reporting deaths accurately and in sharing data between SSA and other agencies.

A part of FSA's problem is they can't access the full SSA Death file, but have to make do with a subset, apparently because of some restrictions some states put on sharing information.  (Jim Baxa is quoted in the article.)

Monday, November 04, 2013

Conservation Compliance and Crop Insurance

From today's Farm Policy, discussing farm bill prospects:
"And on conservation compliance, the veteran lawmaker indicated that, “Well, the Senate says they have to have it. They’ve had votes on it where it’s passed by a significant margin. I think, at the end of the day, we’re going to have conservation compliance. But I have been working on this, that if we have to have it—because right now the House is not for this—but if we have to have it, the insurance companies will not be responsible for policing this, so they won’t have to decide whether somebody is in compliance or not.”
I'm not sure the veteran lawmaker (ranking member of House ag) understands conservation compliance, in that I don't know how one would ever require the insurance companies to police it.  Seems to me it would work essentially like the cotton/rice co-ops. 

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Broccoli and Industrial Farming

NYTimes Magazine has an article on broccoli,partly discussing efforts to make eating broccoli attractive, partly discussing a farmer in upstate New York:
The farm that he runs with his three brothers and one of their sons is an example of the kind of nonindustrial farm that’s necessary in a revamped vision of American food production and consumption. Last year, Reeves turned out 420,000 pounds of tomatoes, 65,000 pounds of strawberries and 2.4 million ears of sweet corn. And while they have a nice little farm stand just outside the small town of Baldwinsville, with a quaint patch of pick-your-own organic blueberries behind the sales shed, they mostly sell their crops to big grocers, including Tops, Price Chopper, Wegmans and, biggest of all, Walmart.  [emphasis added]
As I wrote in a comment on the article, the food movement tends to label farming operations they don't like as "industrial farming" and "corporate agriculture".  It's not clear to me whether the three brothers are a partnership or corporation but here's the website

MIDAS Updated

The MIDAS page on the FSA website has been updated.

I'd say it was about time.  Certainly the MIDAS effort has been focused on the FSA bureaucrats, not the public.

Friday, November 01, 2013

ACA IT and Testing

I can't resist the temptation to comment on the healthcare software process.  (BTW, here's a link to their blog.)

They've taken hits for not fully testing, which I can agree with.  On the other hand, remembering the test process we had for System/36 software, I can only imagine the problems they would have had. If my imagination is right, they had these choices for beginning to end testing:
  • use live data--i.e., have all the 20-something IT types try to sign up for health insurance for real using their software.  That has some obvious problems, particularly when you have to cover 36 state exchanges. 
  • create test data.  The problem here is while you can create applicants, you need to have SS numbers which meet the SSA criteria, and/or you need to create credit histories over at Experian, then you need to tack on test data for those SSN's with IRS, etc. 
  • use a subset of live data for test data.  That's what we used to do--get a copy of a counties files in and modify the data to create test conditions. That's very problematic, both from a security standpoint and from a Privacy Act standpoint. And  our FSA system was simple compared to the sort of system ACA requires.

UK Versus US: Enclosed Farmland

An interesting piece in Buzzfeed (Hat tip: Marginal Revolution) on Britain's housing problems. But I want to steal one of its 15 graphics:

Note the "enclosed farmland" category, which basically covers most of England and Ulster, plus bits of lowlands Scotland. 

Trying to find the equivalent for the US.  There's this NASS map, which can get very detailed--I'd never seen it before. 

And there's this map of "prime farmland". 

What's important I think is that farmland in the US is much more splotchy; the UK is much more uniformly developed as either farm or urban.