Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Words of Wisdom From the Eighteenth Century

Boston 1775 is a good blog on everything around the Revolution.  Today in discussing the Salem gunpowder incident, he offers some words of wisdom:

"You don’t store gunpowder in a blacksmith’s shop."

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Pseudo Science and Whole Foods

As a stockholder in Whole Foods (it's done well over the last decade or so) I welcome all positive news for the company.  So I shouldn't promote this article  (Hat which compares the pseudo-science found in the sales pitch for some WF products to creationism and wonders why crunchies get upset about the latter but not the former.

However, I like the article.  It's always good to mock oneself.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Blast from the Past: ACP

The old Agricultural Conservation program was in operation when I joined ASCS.  I can remember a trip by a county executive director (Pitt county, NC maybe?) to a sawmill where people were making woven wood garden baskets.  This was fall, I think tobacco harvest was well over, so it was work for after harvest time.  Anyhow, the CED was signing up a couple landowners/part-time farmers to ACP practices.

ACP was a cost-sharing program, the farmer paying part of the cost of "approved conservation practices", ASCS paying the other part.  It was early in the Nixon administration, which didn't believe in the program (thinking it basically enhanced production so should be entirely paid for by the farmer).  They ended up in a battle with Congress over the program, resulting in a number of changes.  Over the years it was reformed again and finally moved to SCS (which had always fought with ASCS over it).

Why do I babble on about it?  This bit from Farm Policy:
"In other policy related news, Mark Peters reported in today’s Wall Street Journal that, “Kevin Hollinger planted radishes and oats last fall in his corn and soybean fields, but he isn’t planning to harvest them. Instead, he is letting the crops die over the winter to improve the soil and keep fertilizer and other nutrients from running into nearby waterways.
“‘I could hardly go to town without someone asking: ‘What’s that in your field?’’ said Mr. Hollinger, a fourth-generation farmer.
“Helping to foot the bill for his experiment is a pilot program set to launch fully next month. Farmers in the Ohio River basin are being paid to make changes—from what they plant to how they handle manure—in an effort to minimize runoff that can cause hypoxia, or low oxygen levels, in waterways.”
 Winter cover  were one set of the conservation practices covered by ACP.  I find my memory is foggy here.  I don't know whether they were dropped, like lime was, and later reinstated into EQIP and CSP or whether they have always survived.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Words of Wisdom From a Teenager

“You can create your own miracle,” Shiffrin said when the gold medal was on a sash draped around her neck. “But you do it by never looking past all the little steps along the way.”

From NYTimes

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Understatement of 2008

"The failure of a major investment bank, the forced merger of another, the largest thrift and insurer teetering, and the failure of Freddie and Fannie are likely to have a significant impact on the real economy,"

From 2008 transcript of FED meeting.

Friday, February 21, 2014

The Persistence of Error

Mark Twain had lots of things to say about lies, including a line about a lie getting being half-way round the world while truth was still getting its boots on.

A corollary to that is that error lasts and lasts, while corrections don't.  Matt Yglesias and Kevin Drum note an instance:  Netflix House of Cards believes the retirement age for social security is 65.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Bad Mistake: Gates and SOFAs

Reading Mr. Gates' memoir, Duty.  He talks about negotiating a status of forces agreement with Iraq and making a very bad mistake:  tell the Iraqis to go talk to the other nations with which the US has status of force agreements. 

What could go wrong with that?  Surely everyone is happy to have US soldiers on their land, aren't they?

No--everyone the Iraqis talked with complained about the behavior of US troops and the aggravations of their sofas  SOFAs.

Just a reminder of how a smart man, surrounded by smart people, who spent his career trying to understand other nations, could lapse into self-satisfied smugness about American virtue.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Pigford Is Over?

That's the message, without the question mark, of this FSA notice.  

I await a scholarly study of the episode.

Paperless Government

The Post has an article describing the efforts of the paper industry to lobby against "paperless government", like the requirement that every recipient of government money go to direct deposit.  Apparently paper companies are feeling the impact of IT on their bottom line and so argue that every citizen should have the right to get paper instead of electrons.

I've written before I think that part of the sales pitch for the IBM System/36 was the "paperless office".  That didn't happen.  But a lesson for us:  change can come slower than its enthusiasts promise, but it can come. 

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

LBJ and Vietnam

The NYTimes had an article on LBJ's legacy.  The premise of the article is the legacy has been overwhelmed by Vietnam and his other achievements diminished.  No doubt that is true.  At the risk of being a contrarian, I'd like to argue that his legacy is secure, at least in the long term after I'm dead.

Why?  Because I think Vietnam, while destructive of millions of lives and causing much agony, will ultimately appear to be a dead end, while civil rights will never appear so.  Already I think I see a general downgrading of the Cold War.   I think it's true that most of the US population wasn't born when the Cold War ended, and the number of people for whom it was a live issue (say those born before 1970) is diminishing. 

So if the Cold War is fading, so too must Vietnam, which was seen as a battle in the Cold War.  As it turned out, I think the current conventional wisdom is there was no convincing rationale for LBJ to expand our involvement.  So it's a mistake for LBJ, but we don't mostly remember our presidents for their mistakes, but their accomplishments. And there I think LBJ's will only grow.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Incredible Cows

From Wonkblog something I find incredible:
"There doesn't appear to be a cap yet on the projections," says Nigel Cook, a dairy expert at the University of Wisconsin's School of Veterinary Medicine. Even though cows are producing 23,000 pounds per year on average, some herds produce more than 30,000 per head -- and he's found exceptional animals that can produce between 45,000 and 50,000. If more cows can be brought up to that level, the line could keep moving upward for a good while yet. Unlike poultry, for example, the state of dairy science isn't anywhere near maturity.
 We were doing well to produce more than 10,000 lbs per year.  

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Cooper Retires

I mentioned Willie Cooper, FSA state executive director for Louisiana, previously.

The USDA blog reports his retirement dinner was yesterday.  What it doesn't say is, assuming he stayed in the old Civil Service retirement system, for the last 16 or so years he's been working without increasing his retirement annuity (since an employee maxed out retirement benefits at about 40 years of service).

Monday, February 10, 2014

Downton Abbey Economics

For those who watch Downton Abbey, the Post had a piece on its economics yesterday.

It's all good, but I've a couple concerns.  Apparently the estate includes several thousand acres of land which are farmed either by tenants or by the estate.  This season a long-time tenant died and Mary and Tom were going to take over the farm, since the tenant was in arrears on his rent.  The Earl responded to the tenant's son's appeal that the son take over the farm, and loaned him money to pay the arrears.

From this episode, one assumes that when the estate farms the land, it has either sharecroppers or wage laborers doing the work.  Not sure that's right though.  I'm mentally comparing the picture with the post-bellum South, with its mixture of cash tenants, share tenants, and day laborers.  Not sure how it corresponds or if it does.  To the extent the estate wants to take over the land, it's assuming a bigger risk from weather and market factors.  Weather in England may be less extreme than in the US, and I don't know what the market for wheat is doing post-war.

Continuing on farming, back during WWI Lady Sybil learned to drive a tractor being used on one of the farms.  I'm not sure the context: whether it was the tractor of an independent farmer, one owned by a tenant, or one owned by the estate.  At any rate, expenditures for capital investment like tractors were a big hurdle for tenants, so I wonder about the financing of the tractor.  (I suspect Fellowes threw in the tractor just for dramatic purposes, without intending any economic analysis.  But then, that may be true of the whole series.)

Sunday, February 09, 2014

The Olympics, Past and Present

A relative is into the Olympics, describing his family's trips to see them on his blog, although this year they're staying at home and he's watching 94 hours of Olympic coverage every day. (My relatives are gifted.) Their trips begin with the Nagano games of 1998, through Torino of 2006, Beijing 2008, Vancouver 2010, and London 2012.  The earliest descriptions are in the form of a diary, in a Word doc, but which now are available through his blog. He's a good photographer, so includes nice photos.  He also collects Olympic pins, which forms a theme throughout the series.

Friday, February 07, 2014

End of an Era

This notice announces the replacement of FSA fax machines by an Internet based fax solution.

When I joined ASCS there were two methods of getting instructions to the field fast: the printed notice, which typically would take 2-3 days to get printed, put in the pouch mail for the state office, and be received by the state office.  The state office could modify the notice, print copies for the counties, and mail them out.  So we probably figured on 3-5 business days for material to hit the county office, and that was with everything working smoothly.

The other method was the "wire notice", ideally a page or two, because it would be taken to the Department's teletype office  and typed on the teletype for wiring to the state offices.  This cut the time to 2-4 hours, but the state office still had to retype the incoming copy, print, and mail to county offices. (The text was in all caps, which has left me with a confirmed prejudice against all caps in any form.)

So in the early 70's the Records and Communications Branch of the Administrative Services Division got into facsimile machines.  Rather quickly as I remember it they got the money to install fax machines in each state office and we moved the "wire notices" over to the fax machines. It took a long while for the Department's teletype center to be closed down: AMS did their market news through there, they put new releases "out on the wire" (and those were still the days when a news release could move commodity prices), and selected people with homeland security responsibilities (as we'd call them today, then they were "defense" responsibilities) got copies of State Department cables, both the FAS stuff and other traffic.

So the fax machine has had its run of about 30 years, being replaced by a software package.  RIP fax machines.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Most Rural STudents

It turns out that the state where I was born, New York, ranks 8th in the nation for number of rural students.  The link (hat tip I think the Rural Blog) is to an interactive map of the country which shows lots of data on rural education.  (Texas is first in number of rural students.)

How We Blind Ourselves: Twins Born in Different Years

Freakonomics has a post laying out the odds of twins being born in different years.  Mildly interesting, until you get to the end.  These are well-educated bright people, who would like to come up with a counter-intuitive result.  I could describe myself that way.:-(

Acreage Reporting for Organic Farming

Just a stray thought: has the acreage reporting system been changed to recognize organically grown crops and the GIS system to recognize organic ground? 

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

The Shocking News from DC

Senator McCain as quoted in Farm Policy commenting on the farm bill:
“This is all part of Farm Bill politics. In order to pass a Farm Bill, Congress must find a way to appease every special interest of every commodity association from asparagus farmers to wheat growers. If you cut somebody’s subsidy, you give them a grant. If you kill their grant, then you subsidize their crop insurance.”
 It's all part of Congress being able to point with pride at goodies provided and with alarm at goodies taken away.

Monday, February 03, 2014

B*S*: What Languages Have the Term

Ran across this, based on a link from John Phipps:
I've noticed an interesting thing about bullshit: There's no word for it in Japanese. Just as some Japanese words (like 適当) can't be translated without a long and complicated explanation, a proper understanding of "bullshit" typically occupies an entire dinner party in Japan. Observing this fact, I came up with my theory of what makes (or made) Western Civilization unique.
 As it happens, I know the French equivalent for s*** is "merde".  And Google Translate  says the French have two words for b*s* : conneries and foutaise.  gives a Japanese term for it.  But Translate uses the English term for a number of languages--not sure whether that's just a default or whether Armenian has, in  fact, imported b*s* as its own term. 

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Payment Limitation--Paper Entities

A recent case:
The owners of a central Illinois farming business that will pay $5.3 million to settle allegations it faked partnerships to avoid limits on subsidies say they did nothing wrong.
The U.S. Department of Justice on Wednesday said Dowson Farms of Divernon agreed to the settlement. The department accused three of the owners of creating fake partnerships in the names of employees between 2002 and 2008 to bypass caps on subsidies. The three didn’t admit any wrongdoing.

Read more:

Where Do Farmers Come From?

Seems to me that the conventional wisdom is that farmers inherit, that the son (almost always the son) inherits the farm and that's where farmers come from.  I say "conventional wisdom" although I really mean the presumption in history.  Once it was true, of course.  If 90-95 percent of the population is farmers, as in colonial America, then inheritance is the logical answer.

The economists had the concept of the "agricultural ladder", where a man worked his way up from day labor to sharecropper to renter to owner.  That may have worked in the 19th century, but I think maybe its prevalence is overestimated.  In the case of my family, my paternal great grandfather, my maternal grandfather, and my father all moved onto farms aided by money from other occupations or sources (preaching, carpentry, and family, respectively).  That's a small sample but it's easy for historians to overlook, because there's no statistics to prove or disprove this.

Today it seems that there's a reasonable flow of people from other occupations into agriculture, particularly the "food movement" end of agriculture: the organic farmers, the community-supported agriculture, the niche products of wine, goat cheese, semi-exotic crops.

This interview with an organic farmer in Grist is interesting, covering many aspects of modern food movement farming.  Implicitly it's directed towards people coming to farming, not inheriting farming.  There was also a recent article in the NYTimes on the graying of the organic movement, which made the point that children of some people who came to organic in the 60's and 70's had no interest in continuing on their parents path.