Saturday, May 31, 2014

This Time Is Different

That's the theme of this post from U. of Illinois economists in response to concerns about a bubble in farmland prices leading to a bust, as we went through in the 1980's.  Their graphs are convincing, the ups and downs are of different magnitude, and the "safety net" of crop insurance is stronger (i.e., bigger) today than in the 70's.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Extension and Obamacare

Here's a Rural Blog post about new laws in Georgia, which doesn't want its citizens enrolling in Medicaid.  Extension seems to be facing some political flak there.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Intermediaries to the Government

One of the growth industries over my life time has been in this area, organizations which mediate in some way between the citizen and the government.

The example I remember most vividly was the CED in Sherman county, KS telling me he wanted to put a consulting firm out of business; the firm was advising farmers on payment limitation issues.  Then there was our visit to Fresno county, CA (BTW the biggest ag county in the country) where one operation had a full-time employee just working as a liaison to the ASCS, FmHA, and SCS offices, plus Bureau of Reclamation.  (Irrigation was a big issue, because the federal rules limited the acreage to 960 acres, so navigating between payment limitation and irrigation was complex.)

I thought of those experiences when I saw this,a Vox piece on a firm mediating between students or their parents and the Education Department (charging $80 to fill out an application which is online).

As for lobbyists, whom we more normally think of when discussing intermediaries, today's Times has a piece on the lobbyist firm Patton, Boggs, which is merging with an international law firm.  Someone quoted in the article said that when the firm was founded in the 1960's, there were about 15 decision makers in government to influence, now there's 15,000.   And yesterday Elon Musk, who has a rocket firm, accused his competitor of hiring a former Air Force official as part of a deal to get a sole-source contract for rockets for the military. 

A conservative like George Will would say this is a reflection of the bad trend to more government; government has its hands in too much and citizens can't deal.  As a liberal I resist that idea.  I'm more comfortable with the idea that big mouths and scam artists fool the naive citizen and con them out of their money.  However, it's an issue--I really should give it more thought, but maybe in my next reincarnation.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Data Act

Vox has a long very good post on how the Data Act got passed. Should be enlightening for people with textbook images of government.  I'm still uncertain of its impact on FSA.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Worms Are Weevils

So says the House appropriations committee: ",,,deem the pink bollworm to be a boll weevil for the purpose of boll weevil eradication program loans."  (page 22)

(A lawyer would probably respond that it's easier to do a "deem" than to amend the law on boll weevil eradication to include pink bollworms.  There's also the nagging little fact that the House appropriations committee isn't supposed to (according to all the Poli Sci 101 manuals) actually legislate--that's the role of House Ag. But if no one notices or no one complains, it's all good, innit.)

The Burden of College Loans (Circa 18th Century)

College loans change the course of one's life.  For proof, just read this post at Boston 1775 about the course of true love in the midst of college debts in the 1720's.  This is the first of a series of posts Mr. Bell is putting up on the love life of Priscilla Thomas.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Geithner and Bureacracy and Puritanism

Haven't read Timothy Geithner's new book yet.  Some of the reviews bring up the criticism that Geithner and the administration should have done more for homeowners who were under water.

Not being an economist I don't know what I'm talking about (:-) but I've two reactions:
  • as a bureaucrat I suspect part of the problem was/would have been bureaucratic.  Treasury had never, to my knowledge, dealt with homeowners before, or probably not even with the owners of home mortgages.  So any program to help homeowners would have been plowing new ground, meaning you'd have to setup your program infrastructure as well as implement the program.  By comparison, Congress can come up with new agricultural programs in the farm bill, knowing bureaucracies exist which are capable of reaching farmers and implementing them. Even back in 1933 the AAA was built on the infrastructure of the extension service.  Lacking the infrastructure also means there's no network in place to provide information and lobby the bigshots for action.
  • as a liberal I should support helping homeowners, but in the case of the underwater people my inherited puritanism shows its teeth.  You really mean that somebody who signed a liar's loan, and/or tapped his home equity for other expenses should be helped?? No way, no how.  (Don't ask me how I reconcile that reaction with acceding to the bailout of Wall Street bankers.  OK, Wall Street seemed a necessary evil, particularly when the money market funds started to break the buck.)

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Sustainability and Markets: Pet Peeve Again

One of my biggest problems with the studies from Rodale et. al. comparing the productivity of organic farming versus production ag relates to markets.  Typically the studies compare a corn-only  cropping series, a corn-soybeans rotation cropping series, and something like corn-alfalfa-wheat-soybeans cropping series, and finds that the corn productivity is roughly equal.   My peeve is the studies ignore the question of marketing; they assume that everything grown can be marketed.  Back in the old days of horse-drawn ag, you could rotate oats and hay crops with your corn and find a market for any fodder not consumed on the farm.  These days, not so.  California can grown alfalfa to be exported to China, but Iowa not so much.

A little bit of market recognition is the theme of this piece in the NYT, though I suspect the author (Mr. Barber, the chef and foodie) is drastically oversimplifying. (Yes. mustard makes a good rotation crop for the soil, and can be cooked/prepared for human consumption. But being able to provide mustard greens to chefs and CSA's over an extended period is probably not realistic.  If you're planting greens in the garden, you know you want succession planting to extend the season, which is doable in small plots but possibly not on the scale of a farm.)  Despite my doubts, it is a good step towards greater realism on the food movement, at least that part of the movement which reads the Times.

Friday, May 16, 2014

The MCP on Abramson's Pay

It occurs to me that a bureaucrat, even a female bureaucrat, might look askance at the controversy over Ms. Abramson's pay at the NYTimes.  (I'm referring to allegations that she was paid less than her male predecessor, though the Times claims her total package was more.)

In the bureaucracy, when someone moves up to replace the boss, you don't normally start equal with the departing boss.  For example, an instance where a co-worker was promoted to be my boss: her salary was totally independent of the departing boss.  The slot was classified as GS-14, so her pay would have been the lowest step in the GS-14 scale that gave her a raise.  For example, if the old boss was a GS-14, step 8, making $70,000, and the co-worker was a GS-13, step 3, making $55,000, she would become a GS-14 step 2, making $56,000 (all figures are b.s.), allowing her to get step increases over the years that would take her up to GS-14, step 10 making $75,000 (more allowing for inflation adjustments).

I guess maybe that's the difference with pay in the private sector--when you hire a boss it's a new negotiation and a new market; with bureaucrats the pay is the intersection of the personal history and the job's classification. 

[Update--corrected spelling of name]

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Priorities for a Self-Driving Car

Sounds like Google has its priorities right--they demoed their self-driving cars again.
"Acknowledging that freeway driving is a positive step toward safer driving, Christopher Urmson, a former Carnegie Mellon University computer scientist who now heads the project, was clear in saying it would not have impact equivalent to a robot car that could safely move the elderly from one location to another."

No accidents in 700,000 miles of driving sounds good to me.  I used to think of myself as a good, slightly above average and somewhat more cautious driver than the average but I've had three accidents in my life. Haven't driven near 700,000 miles, maybe 250,000?

Monday, May 12, 2014

Reinventing Government--How Soon We Forget

Remember Al Gore?  And his reinventing government?  Apparently neither GAO nor USDA do.

A quote from a new GAO report:
In fiscal year 2012, USDA policy on supervisory ratios did not align with Office of Personnel Management (OPM) guidance that states that an analytical approach can help agencies achieve the right balance of supervisory and nonsupervisory positions to support their missions. Instead, USDA's policy stated that all its agencies, regardless of their missions, should aim for a target ratio of one supervisor for at least nine employees (1:9). USDA officials were not able to provide a documented basis for this target ratio. In addition, USDA did not ensure that the service center agencies calculated their supervisory ratios the same way. As a result, USDA did not receive comparable information on supervisory ratios.
 Now I firmly believe that Al's National Performance Review  included an initiative to reduce the number of supervisors (though I don't see it highlighted in the linked document).  I remember because in ASCS what happened was that work units were renamed without much real change in function.  I also remember because my branch ended up growing to 14 or so people, more than I could effectively manage, particularly given my weakness for taking on additional projects.  (Though I can't really blame Al for that growth.)

I haven't read the report, just the summary, but IMHO a fixed supervisor/employee ratio makes no sense.

Maps Today and Yesteryear

I remember my college history 101 course.  Part of the exercises was taking mimeographed maps and drawing the outlines of the various historical entities (like the boundaries of the Roman empire).

Compare that with today--take for example this Vox set of 40 maps which explain the Middle East.  The Internet and the computer make graphics so much better, and more available than we had 50 years ago.  And that's totally ignoring GIS.

Economists say our productivity is no longer increasing as fast as it once did.  I suspect the problem may be their statistics aren't up to the task of measuring the modern economy. 

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Can You Truly Buy Organic at Walmart?

A Slate article argues that Whole Foods is losing its edge in organics, due to the competition from Walmart.  Maybe it's time to sell my Whole Foods stock?  If the difference(s) between organic and non-organic apparent to our senses are most evident in the label, maybe Walmart can win this fight.  Meanwhile there's a fight over organic certification.

Can you have industrial organic agriculture?    Or how about this startup aiming for a substitute for eggs? Is this the point where the food movement and the environmental movement follow different paths? (I see they're selling through Whole Foods!)

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

How Government Works: Reports to Congress

The Post had a good piece on reports to Congress Saturday, though I don't think it was quite cynical enough. The first paragraph, but you should really read the whole thing:
Every year, as required by law, the U.S. government prepares an official report to Congress on Dog and Cat Fur Protection. The task requires at least 15 employees in at least six different federal offices.
Points I'd emphasize:

Some Congressperson gets a bee in their bonnet, maybe it's a result of a flap in the media, maybe it's a valid concern, maybe it's not their bee, but a bee in the bonnets of one or more constituents.  Maybe they can get legislation passed, something to proclaim to the homefolks the next time they run for reelection.  Maybe not.  But they can always ask for a report.

A report to Congress can be rationalized as a measure which forces the bureaucracy (which no one trusts, neither a Congressperson nor a constituent) to pay attention to the issue.  But mostly it's a paragraph in a piece of legislation which looks impressive and can be proclaimed far and wide. or simply whispered in the ear of those with the bees.  Often, as the article mentions, a provision for a report can be a method to fudge an issue, to argue that we don't have enough information to legislate wisely so let's start accumulating data, reports, so we can act down the road.  "Down the road" often equates to "kicking the can down the road".

The reality is that nothing in legislation is self-executing. President Obama does not sit down with his Cabinet member going over new laws to talk about how they're going to be executed.  Whether or not a legislative provision gets implemented is a question:  are there groups interested in the issue who are going to push the bureaucracy? are the bureaucracy's managers (from President down the line) interested in getting the issue implemented?  is there someone in Congress who is pushing the provision?  what are the other priorities for the bureaucracy? does the provision fit within the wheelhouse of an existing bureaucracy or does it fall outside the boundaries of existing agencies and offices? how conscientious a bureaucrat is involved?

The likelihood is that any provision in a legislation is going to meet some of the above criteria, but a few may not.  Assume that a requirement for a Congressional report is implemented, then the question becomes how long the implementation will last?  That depends on Congress, the public, and the bureaucracy.  Assume there was never much real public interest in a report--that it was really was put in the law to appease the Congressperson, to give them a meaningless victory.  Then the issue is how long the Congressperson will hand around and how long the bureaucracy will go through the motions.  Sometimes it happens that Father Time solves the problem by killing off or retiring the Congressperson and retiring the only bureaucrat who has the knowledge and the background of dealing with the report.  When that happens, the words in the law become dead letters; no one reading them, no one following them, no one caring.

Although the above, and the the Post article, may seem like mockery of Congress and the bureaucracy, I can argue there's a certain logic at work here.  (This will be like an argument from mid-20th century sociology: "latent functions".  Part of what's going on is a process of distinguishing big issues which can and should be handled by government from the epiphenomena (head cold makes me pompous) which our modern media throw up: the issues of the moment which seem important one day and totally frivolous the next year).  Because we as a society can't easily figure out what's important, kicking the can down the road can make sense.  If the issue is still important in a couple years, time may have clarified what approach legislation should take.  If the issue has dwindled in importance, it can be left by the side of the road, with only a report to Congress marking its demise.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Dwindling Rural Infrastructure

Reducing the number of post offices, reducing the number of FSA offices, reducing the number of rural hospitals, reducing the number of Vermont school districts.

Revealing Payments

The Post reports on this new law.

I wonder whether it will require FSA to list farm program payments?  I tried to read the law, but couldn't interpret the language well enough (damn head cold) so gave up.  We'll see.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

The Joys of Old Age: Earwigging

One of the joys of old age is finding pleasure in small moments.  One of the pleasures of recovering from a cold is being able to enjoy a book without guilt.  I enjoy Mr. Grisham, and got a kick out of a legal reference in his latest, Sycamore Row, which is a return to Jake, the attorney played  by Mr. McConaughey, many years ago, back before he won the Oscar.   What was the reference?  Earwigging the chancellor is a violation of legal ethics.

Mississippi has courts of chancery, over which a chancellor presides, to try issues of estates, divorce, etc.  Earwigging means talking to the chancellor outside of court to influence his or her actions.  It's unique to MS.  Only after I enjoyed a long hearty laugh at the phrase did I research and find that I should have previously seen it mentioned last fall on, where it came up in reference to the trial of Richard Scruggs, the MS lawyer who sued over tobacco and later pled guilty of corrupting a judge.