Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Surprise of the Day--London's Canals

London has twice the mileage of canals as Amsterdam, according to this article in the NYTimes.

Apparently housing prices in London have become the highest in the world, and some people are finding houseboats on the canals to be an alternative. 

SSA and Field Offices

SSA's field office structure has gotten some political attention recently, as they've closed some offices and have a study which recommends further changes Their unions, and AARP, are up in arms.  They still have 1250 field offices.

It seems to be a similar problem to USDA and its field offices.  The logic of computers and internet and declining populations in some ares leads to office closures, while the logic of serving the public and not further undermining the economics of localities lead to preserving the status quo.

SSA may have a better case for consolidation and online service than USDA: their programs don't need local data.  Presumably if you're disabled for work in Deaf Smith County, TX you're also disabled in Fairfax County, VA, and vice versa. If I need to apply for SS benefits it shouldn't matter if I'm in Florida on a vacation or not whereas USDA programs are tied to geography.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Rail Cars and the Capital Beltway

The Dakotas, that is their politicians and farm leaders, are upset over a shortage of rail cars to transport the big crop of grain, blaming in part the Canadians for mishandling and in part the transport of oil from the Bakken formation.

To those like me who live in the past, this seems familiar.  Sometime after I joined ASCS but before the end of the 70's there was a similar shortage of cars--I remember because the county ASCS offices were required to do a survey of their local rail facilities and report up the line. If memory serves it was a one-time deal.

What's my point and how does the beltway come into it?  I'd ass u me that there are cyclical surges and valleys in the demand for rail cars, and railroads are reluctant to spend money on more cars until they see a sustained demand (and until they have the money--which may have been a problem in the 70's--lots of big railroads going broke (NYCentral, Penn Central, etc.).  And of course there are surges and valleys in grain harvests, so there's the likelihood that sometimes railroads won't have enough cars, simply because it's easier to absorb a public beating once every few years than to have dollars sitting idle. For the same reason we won't usually have superhighways, like the Capital Beltway, free of traffic.  When we do, it's likely to be something named after a recent politician, a pork barrel project, not something like the Beltway.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

More Farm Divisions Coming?

This article suggests two reasons for dividing multi-tract/multi-owner farms: allows landowners to make separate decisions on the new farm programs (ARC & PLC) and allows operators to put some farms in one program and some in the other, hedging their bets.

Maybe we have a sort of Platonic ideal of what constitutes a farm, perhaps based on Jefferson's image of a nation of yeoman farmers?  If we do, our reality doesn't match the ideal.  When I joined ASCS it took a while to figure out that agriculture in some areas, the north and west, differed from that in the South, specifically in the balance between landownership and farm operation.  Big landowners in the South, who often called the shots for the producers; small landowners in much of the rest of country, renting to operators who farmed multiple ownership tracts.

As the emphasis in ASCS/FSA programs changed over the years, the incentive for operators to combine or divide changed.  Production adjustment programs meant combinations so you could designate the poorest land to be taken out of production.  Disaster programs meant divisions so a loss on one tract wouldn't be offset by production on other tracts.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Farm Prices Collapsing?

Prices for corn and soybeans in the US have fallen recently, by 40 percent or so if I remember correctly.  But what struck me in today's Farm Policy was this succession of notes:
"The French government said Wednesday that it would provide aid for the country’s farmers, in a bid to appease fruit and vegetable producers whose frustration with falling revenues has culminated in violent protests." (from WSJournal article)

Cotton futures fell to their lowest level since October 2009 on Wednesday, as investors worried about a growing global glut." (from WSJournal article)

Global milk prices have fallen more than 40 per cent in 2014 from record highs last year. Strong production globally, high inventory levels in China and a supply glut caused by Russia’s ban on milk imports from the EU have prompted the decline.”(from Financial Times article) (New Zealand has been hit and the NYTimes has a piece on Lithuanian dairy farmers hurt by the Russian ban.)
Of course the good news for animal farmers is that the cost of feed will be down.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Labor of Mind and Body

Strange how physical work takes away my motivation to blog or do much other work with my mind--except read, I can always read.

The last 10 days or so I've been doing some needed maintenance on the house, maintenance required to keep the Reston Association happy.  Granted that I've not worked very hard or very long (a couple hours a day max), I still have found my willpower to blog drained.  This fits with the idea which seems popular in today's psychology--willpower is a scarce resource.  Anyway, I'm nearing the end of the work, I hope, so maybe my reservoir of willpower will fill up again.

Feeding the World and Burying the Lede

"Bury the lede" is an expression meaning the big news in a story isn't highlighted.  That's my reaction to this NYTimes story, which includes the sentence:

"Feeding the world is no longer a question of growing more food"

Monday, September 15, 2014

Slipping the Stiletto In: AP History

J.L. Bell who blogs at Boston 1775 has recently raised his head from his researches into Boston Revolutionary history to note the Republican's recent attack on revised Advanced Placement history standards.  His approach in past posts impresses me as fair and balanced.  Today he tackles a response to his criticism. Apparently there's some profit in writing guides on how to game the tests: don't worry about understanding history, just focus on the areas most often the subject of questions. Understandably changing the standards could require the guides to be revised, and if the standards make people think, rather than memorize, the guides might be less useful.

Anyhow, read the post, and I particularly savor the last paragraph and the last sentence as evidence that good manners and reasoned debate don't have to exclude the lethal thrust:
Krieger’s economic interest in seeing the A.P. U.S. History test stay the same for another few years is apparent, but that’s not necessarily what motivates his animus toward the new guidelines. Similarly, all evidence suggests that Thomas Hutchinson would have supported enforcing the Tea Act of 1773 even if he didn’t have thousands of pounds invested in his sons’ tea-importing business, and that George Washington would have supported U.S. expansion to the west even if he didn’t own vast tracts of land in those territories. Still, the conflation of public good and personal economic interests never looks good.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

General Ross, the Irish, the Star Spangled Banner, and Memory

A relative forwarded this link to me--Irish Ulster schoolkids with a US flag at the General Ross memorial in Rostrevor, Northern Ireland, set to the music of the Star Spangled Banner.

Some points:
  • who was Ross?  -- the British general who commanded the forces which won the Battle of Bladensburg, leading to the burning of public buildings in DC in late summer 1814. He was killed by a sniper during the attack on Fort McHenry, hence the connection to the Star Spangled Banner/flag.
  • the comments on the video show that some in Ulster/Ireland have a long long memory and bear grudges--Ross was from the landowning class.
  • from the video, I guess that drones have now a place in public ceremonies.
  • the 200th anniversary of the writing of the song has gotten Francis Scott Key a good bit of notice, but little comment on his ownership of some slaves, his freeing of some, his prosecution of cases against and for slaves as an attorney in DC and sometime district attorney for the district.  Does this mean Americans, unlike the Irish, have a shorter memory or don't like to dwell on the gloomy and complicated?

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Land Rights and Water Rights

From time to time I've griped about our federal system, which makes it difficult for us all-wise bureaucrats to make things go systematically and wastes loads of taxpayer money.

Here's another example, which I never knew until today.  While the US government holds title to all the land in the country which has not been deeded to individuals, corporations, etc., it doesn't own the water in the West.  According to this article, because water was so critical, the settlers saw to it that the territorial and then state governments established systems of water rights.  So while the government owns a lot of rangeland, which it leases, it doesn't own the water rights.  And a judge has decided that if a rancher has his cows within a half-mile of his water, he has a right to graze the land, regardless of whether BLM has given him a lease or not.  See the story at the link for details.

Seems completely crazy to me, but then I'm not only an Easterner but a retired bureaucrat.

The Growth of Trust: How We Sign

Once upon a time in a faraway land the process of authenticating a document was labor intensive.  Those who generated documents were few, and communication slow, so a document which arrived at your doorstep had to be examined with due suspicion:  was it signed in the proper format, was it sealed with a seal which bore the imprint of a signet ring, or for monarchs perhaps the great seal.  All of this reflected a prudent lack of trust; people were loosely connected and individual transactions were rare but very important so fraud was tempting.

Even 55 years ago, a rite of passage was determining what my legal signature would be: William David Harshaw, William D., W. D., W. David, or Bill.  And I took a little care in practicing the signature, before beginning to sign checks and college applications and such.  Early on I was proud of my signature and theoretically the bank could examine the signatures on my checks to determine whether or not they were forged.

But today you watch people at the checkout counter using a credit card in the card machine--they stick in the numbers or slide the card, then scribble a signature, very often in my observation just a squiggle which is almost a straight line.  Even when you go to the bank these days, signing some bank documents, you use the same technology.  From my limited experience it's impossible to use the technology to sign legibly.  I'm sure the variations in signatures from one time to the next are much greater than when signing with pen on paper, so the likelihood of an expert being able to authenticate such a signature is much lower than in the past.  But that's okay, because we do so many transactions which don't really matter much.  The effect on society is to make us less suspicious and more trusting.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Implementing Laws--The Case of APH

Previously I noted that RMA is not able to implement a provision of the farm bill, allowing bad years to be excluded from the calculation of APH.  The UofIL has a post discussing the pros and cons and tradeoffs of the provision.  As is often the case, something which sounds simple isn't really when the poor bureaucrat has to translate the legislative language into regulations and computer algorithms.  Notably, if the producer excludes a yield, she has to pay a higher premium reflecting the increase risk. Pardon my cynicism, but I suspect that provision wasn't highlighted when Congress was considering the provision.

The good professors come up with 12 questions which should be answered.  (A sidenote: there is a recent book which argues that the "administrative state" is unconstitutional.  Haven't read it, but if I follow the argument, Congress should have written answers to those questions into the farm bill.  IMHO that's totally impractical--Congress barely has the capacity to write the basic provision and definitely doesn't have the capacity to answer most of these questions.)

They conclude with this:
The 2014 Farm Bill appears to make a substantial change to the crop insurance program through an amendment that permits farmers to elect to exclude yields from their APH if they are in a county (or contiguous to a county) where the county's average yield is below 50 percent of the average county yields for the previous 10 consecutive crop years. The provision raises many questions about how it will operate and what impact it will have on producers who elect to drop a yield. It also raises questions about the impact this change could have on producers in the county where such an election can occur and for the actuarial soundness of the crop insurance system as a whole. These are not insignificant questions considering how many producers rely on crop insurance as the cornerstone of the farm safety net. At the very least, FCIC must adjust the premiums paid by producers making this election to reflect the increased risks associated with the change, but many other questions remain.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

WaPost on Small and Large Farms

Compared to her peers, Ms Haspel does pretty well in considering the pros and cons of small and large farms in this piece in the Post today.

Another Washington Deadlock: 6 Years of Policy Riders

From Farm Policy, quoting Chris Clayton at DTN:
"The House funding bill for USDA blocks the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration from finalizing livestock and poultry marketing rules stemming from the 2008 farm bill. As the senators wrote, ‘The legislative rider is attempting to thwart rules that, in part, allow farmers to request documents showing them how their pay is calculated, ensures that they are given adequate notice of a halt in animal deliveries, and ensure they can exercise their right to speak with their congressional representatives without fear of retaliation.’
“These provisions have been the subject of policy riders ever since GIPSA began trying to implement them. The 2014 farm bill did not change the provisions in the law. Yet, the policy riders continue to get slapped onto the appropriation bills for USDA, blocking GIPSA from implementing those rules.”
13 senators wrote a letter asking that the riders be dropped. Of course they won't be. It's not a partisan deadlock, it's a deadlock between senators representing different interests: farmers versus meat processors (assuming I understand the issues correctly).

(Interesting that Sens. Gillibrand, Harkins, and Grassley don't have the letter posted on their home pages yet.)

Monday, September 01, 2014

And What's Your Definition of Catastrophic?

This isn't, according to scientists studying the possible effects of an eruption from Yellowstone:
"While a supereruption hasn't occurred at Yellowstone since 640,000 years ago, in the event that one happens again in the next few centuries, sleep soundly knowing that the effects would not be catastrophic. The worst you can expect is reduced traction on roads, shorted-out electrical transformers and respiratory problems, as well as damage to buildings, blocked sewer and water lines, and disruption of livestock and crop production.

3 feet of ash within 300 miles of Yellowstone, only an inch in NYC.