Tuesday, March 31, 2015

A Violation of the Religious Establishment Clause

Stumbled on this language in a treaty between the US and the Kaskasia Indian Tribe:
. And whereas, The greater part of the said tribe have been baptised and received into the Catholic church to which they are much attached, the United States will give annually for seven
Page 68
years one hundred dollars towards the support of a priest of that religion, who will engage to perform for the said tribe the duties of his office and also to instruct as many of their children as possible in the rudiments of literature. And the United States will further give the sum of three hundred dollars to assist the said tribe in the erection of a church.

Not sure how modern scholars would view this.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Sen. Charles Schumer and Payment LImitation

The good senator from New York was precocious, winning election to the State Assembly and then to the US House in his twenties.  He's notorious as a publicity hound, and I strongly suspect in his early days aggravated his elders and betters.  That, I speculate, is why an early committee assignment was to House Agriculture Committee--why else would one stick someone so obviously and completely a city slicker on that committee if not to embarrass him?

I don't remember all the ins and outs, but I do remember that Schumer was active in pushing payment limitation provisions.  And here's a GAO report back to Schumer and Conte on their proposal to change the provisions in the 1985 farm, to tighten them up.   In considering the 1990 farm bill he proposed an adjusted gross income limitation, which was defeated then, but which finally passed.

A lesson for farm state legislators: never agree to put ambitious urbanites on your committee.  As Shakespeare warned:

Let me have men about me that are fat,
Sleek-headed men and such as sleep a-nights.
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look,
He thinks too much; such men are dangerous.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Tell Me What You Really Think

Conor Friedersdorf on Ted Cruz:
That such a brilliant, accomplished man so regularly comes off as a petulant, short-sighted phony is inextricable from the demands of the conservative base, and the sorts of personas that it tends to reward.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Rice and "Actively Engaged"--the First Shot Fired

From the chairman of the House subcommittee on farm programs:
Chairman Crawford cited the need for action by the Department to address the collapse in cotton prices due to actions taken by the Chinese government, stating, “USDA has the authority to address an issue that is making the marketing of cotton extremely difficult for cooperatives and marketing pools at a time when the markets are already beating them down.”  The Chairman called newly proposed “actively engaged” regulations "arbitrary and capricious," noting that the regulation "ignores the remarkable diversity and complexity in agriculture today."[emphasis added]  And, the Chairman called on RMA Administrator Willis to ensure that margin coverage being developed works for rice growers.
Do I have to say that cotton and rice growers are the most affected by potential changes to payment limitation rules?

Hat Tip to Farm Policy, which is shutting down next week.

What Washington Really Thinks of Tourists

"On Washington, D.C. tourists: “You can always tell when it is summertime because you can smell the visitors. The visitors stand out in the high humidity, heat, and they sweat.” (April 2008)

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Politico on Farm Bill Costs

David Rogers at Politico analyzes potential costs of the 2014 farm bill.  It's too detailed for me, but I think the bottom line is he believes it will cut costs, unlike some publications which believe it will increase costs, over its lifespan.  However, I think he's saying that the cut will be much smaller than anticipated when the bill was passed.

Hill's Algebra

Textbooks need not be politically neutral.  Dead Confederates quotes from a pre-Civil War Algebra textbook.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

After 29 Years, "Actively Engaged" in Farming

FSA published a proposed rule defining "actively engaged" in farming--from their press release:
Under the proposed rule, non-family joint ventures and general partnerships must document that their managers are making significant contributions to the farming operation, defined as 500 hours of substantial management work per year, or 25 percent of the critical management time necessary for the success of the farming operation. Many operations will be limited to only one manager who can receive a safety-net payment. Operators that can demonstrate they are large and complex could be allowed payments for up to three managers only if they can show all three are actively and substantially engaged in farm operations. The changes specified in the rule would apply to payment eligibility for 2016 and subsequent crop years for Agriculture Risk Coverage (ARC) and Price Loss Coverage (PLC) Programs, loan deficiency payments and marketing loan gains realized via the Marketing Assistance Loan program.
It's been a while since the 1985 farm bill, which I think may have been the first time "actively engaged" was used in payment limitation language.  As I've blogged before, I remember the DC bureaucrats trying to comprehend the statutory language and come up with regulations and handbook instructions. Was that when the "left hand" and "right hand" first entered the picture (a farmer had to contribute labor, management, capital, equipment, etc. to the operation, but not all of them so we tried to clarify which combinations would qualify by using the two categories).  Anyhow, after long effort ASCS got the rules out and the training prepared only to have enough big shots exert enough influence on their Congressional representatives to force ASCS to reverse directions.  Again, if memory serves, and it's less reliable these days, the biggest loophole was managerial contribution: in effect, if John Goldbrick Doe, living as a beach bum in Key West, but one of the heirs to Sam Hardworking Farmer Doe, participated in a conference call with the other heirs and agreed to a share lease of the inherited land to Joe Dirty Hands Farmer, JGDoe could get a share of the payments.  (I may be exaggerating.)

The bottom line is "actively engaged" is a judgment call, and there's a Heisenberg principle at work: issue a regulation and the lawyers will change the reality, at least the legal reality, so the regulation won't work as it was originally intended.

Sen. Grassley has said the FSA proposal isn't as tough as he proposed.  We'll see if it survives the comment period.

PS: this issue shows the irrelevance of the President to much bureaucratic work.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Expansion of the Bureaucracy

I remember when a hurricane hit Guam, I think it was, and two WDC employees were sent out to help the Hawaii office administer the provisions of the disaster program (late 80's maybe).  One of the big problems they had was the fact that land was communally owned, or at least that's how I remember it.  In rhe continental US we take our land tenure system for granted, at least we whites do.  The periphery still has remnants of other systems, the Spanish system in NM, perhaps the French in LA, the native American on some reservations.

Anyhow, my mind wanders.  The trigger for this post is this post, on an attempt to get an FSA employee assigned to Saipan, out of the Guam office. (Not clear what CNMI stands for--Micronesia probably.) It's the logic of a bureaucracy: institute a program with universalist parameters and it will get applied everywhere possible.

[Update: CNMI is on the mvariety.com site: "Marianas Variety"]

Monday, March 23, 2015

Dairy Down Under

From a post at Crooked Timber on New Zealand [hat tip Marginal Revolution]:
Then you drive through a town like Edgecumbe, past something which looks for all the world like an oil refinery, and realise that it is in fact a dairy, the size of an oil refinery. Four million litres of milk go through that particular plant every day (one litre for every New Zealander), and it’s not even one of the top three Fonterra plants. A lot of the milk is converted into powder, which is sold to the Asian market. This was my first clue that I might be heading into some interesting economics – at the duty-free shop in Auckland Airport, one of the things that they pile up high next to the scent and booze is great big tubs of infant formula.
From the context sounds like CAFO's have yet to come to the land of the hobbits.

Have I mentioned the David Hackett Fischer book:  Fairness and Freedom, which compares the histories of the US and NZ. The post touches on the history of the white settlers with the native Maoris.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Agriculture and Drones

An old story and a little confused.  The guy was a fighter pilot, but operated drones in Iraq and Afghanistan, so I guess he was a converted fighter pilot.  Anyhow he's got a drone business in Idaho, has FAA approval to photograph farms, and charges $3 an acre for the data.

I wonder how FSA/USDA aerial photography and drone photography will impact each other?

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

What Makes for Contented Cows? Robots!

Nathanael Johnson at Grist has a post describing on the use of robots by dairymen, quoting an observation that cows may be more contented (robotic routines are more stable [until they aren't]).

A Billion Is a Token Amount

So says the greenies, the National Sustainable AGriculture Coalition commenting on the Republican budget (from agriculture.com)
“While we continue to oppose re-opening the farm bill, we are thankful the draft House budget resolution released today is asking for farm bill cuts of only $1 billion …over the next decade, though it raises the rather obvious question of why bother to go through an agonizing re-opening the farm bill via the budget reconciliation process for such a token amount."

Sen. Ev Dirksen had the famous quote about "a billion here, a billion there, pretty soon you've got real money. Back then the federal budget was a bit over 100 billion, not the 3-4 trillion of today.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Just Say "No" in Olden Days

From a post by a museum curator discussing an exhibit of mostly 18th century shoes:
A pair of French garters (c. 1800) features early metallic clasps, as opposed to the ribbons typically used by men and women to secure their stockings just above or just below the knee. One garter says ‘Halt’ and the other ‘You can go no further.’ Some garments are on display, including one pairing of an 1837 silk brocade wedding dress and matching shoes.

Monday, March 16, 2015

FSA Gets Publicity for Midas

Farm Futures has a post on FSA implementation of MIDAS, based on some interview/speech by Dolcini.

I see they're doing a pilot project in a few IL/IA counties to handle acreage reporting for both FSA and crop insurance.  I wish them the best, though if you search on "acreage reporting" in this blog you'll see it's been a long slog.  I wonder if FSA got the $10 million Congress promised for progress by last Sept. 30.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

2008 GAO Helps Clinton on Email Records?

In the flap over Clinton's emails, I've not seen any mention of the GAO report in 2008 on problems in preserving e-records.  Turns out I included much of its summary and commented on it back then.

I won't repeat it here, but this paragraph is interesting in light of the current controversy:
"Preliminary results of GAO's ongoing review of e-mail records management at four agencies show that not all are meeting the challenges posed by e-mail records. Although the four agencies' e-mail records management policies addressed, with a few exceptions, the regulatory requirements, these requirements were not always met for the senior officials whose e-mail practices were reviewed. Each of the four agencies generally followed a print and file process to preserve e-mail records in paper-based recordkeeping systems, but for about half of the senior officials, e-mail records were not being appropriately identified and preserved in such systems. Print and file makes no sense--electronic is cheaper [regular type is GAO, italic is my 2008 comment]
 Let me repeat words: "followed a print and file process..."  In other words, the idea in these agencies, and I think generally throughout government, was:
  1. not all emails were official records worthy of retention, just as not all paper documents generated within an agency were official records worthy of retention. 
  2. someone was supposed to winnow the wheat from the chaff, go through the email, select the ones which merited retention, print them out, and file them in the paper filing system which was governed by records retention schedules approved by NARA. 
My comments then, though not well expressed, were based on these ideas:
  1. the cost of retaining all electronic records was low, and becoming lower with every year Moore's law applied
  2. the cost of reviewing, printing, and filing email as prescribed by NARA  was high
  3. the likelihood of a bureaucracy doing no. 2 in an effective way was very low, as borne out by GAO's report
  4. therefore, agencies should just keep all email in a searchable repository.
In the context of Clinton, there's two issues: the propriety of using a private email server for her work, on which I've no comment, and whether she complied with rules on preserving records, on which I will comment.  Clinton seems in the end to have complied better with the 2008 rules than many of the senior officials GAO looked at.  Were there changes in the rules after 2008?  I'm sure there were, as NARA continued to play a game of catchup, trying ineffectively to bring its filing systems and records retention systems into the modern word.  So I'm not saying she followed all applicable rules--she may have, may not have. I am saying her end result, in terms of selection and preservation, is well within the range for other senior officials. 

I'm also saying I was right in 2008--the simple effective rule is to retain all email records from email servers used for any government business, and let them be searchable.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

It's Pi Day--Not

Both Post and Times have pieces today on Pi day, the idea that today's date, 3/14/15 expresses the first digts of Pi.  Aside from providing an excuse for mathematicians to place pieces in newspapers (otherwise a rare occurrence) and perhaps for pie shops to sell a few more, , it's a stupid idea.  In a rational world (i.e., in Europe) today's date would be 14.3.15 or 14.3.2015, with the data in ascending order.  In a rational world there would never be a Pi-day.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

A Praiseworthy Blog Post: On the Failure of Foresight

Credit where due: Will Oremus at Slate has a post, a very meritorious post.  (Have I ever admitted I was wrong? Don't think so.  Then I'm not wrong much.)  Subject: Snapchat.  Some sentences:
And then I wrapped things up by predicting that he'd look back someday in bitter regret at passing up the $3 billion. It was a pretty zingy blog post, if I may say so.
It was also, as is probably quite clear by now, utterly wrong.

It Takes a System

That's what I'd name this Vox post, which is actually named: "These 4 Big Inventions Were Terrible...Until Somebody Fixed Them".  My favorite is the time gap between the invention of the tin can and the invention of the can opener.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

ARC and PLC Costs Increase

David Rogers in Politico reports on the new CBO estimates of program costs under the 2014 farm bill.  ARC and PLC costs will be higher than estimated, at least in the first years.

Should Social Security Handle All Government Websites

FCW reports SSA has most of the topranking Federal websites.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Score One for USDA: FOIA

Government Executive reports on a study which says USDA is tops in responding to FOIA requests, and it improved by 10 points from last year.  It's not clear to me whether they just reviewed the Departmental effort, or looked at the agencies as well; I suspect the former.

I might note, however, that USDA got the lowest score for its FOIA website of any of the departments, which may be an indication that efficiency in handling requests has little to do with effective on-line system design.  A thorough-going cynic might offer other comments, but enough for one day.

When the GMO Is a Human, What Then for Anti-GMOism?

No, I don't think we have genetically engineered a human yet, though one could perhaps argue the point. But the Times today reports on this experiment:
By delivering synthetic genes into the muscles of the monkeys, the scientists are essentially re-engineering the animals to resist disease. Researchers are testing this novel approach not just against H.I.V., but also Ebola, malaria, influenza and hepatitis.
Granted, this approach does not alter the genotype, the genes of the recipient, but if it works wouldn't that be the next step?  And if you take that step, do you have much basis for resisting GMO's in crops?

Monday, March 09, 2015

The De-Skilling of the Workforce: Taxi Drivers

NY Times reports that the exam for aspiring NY taxi drivers has been changed to deemphasize the importance of knowing the city's geography, recognizing that with GPS such knowledge in wetware is no longer that important.  It's just one more instance of humans outsourcing skills to machines, devaluing the worth of the old time-tested knowledge and the importance of the people who know it. 

In other words, it's part of the march of progress, of being better today than we were yesterday, of freeing humans from mindless routine in order to be better people.

Do you think I'm ambivalent on the subject? :-)

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Mankind the Litterer

Mount Everest has a sanitation problem, and we're starting on the moon.  In a Vox post on what we've left on the moon so far (400,000 pounds), the first item is, guess what.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Iowa, Farm Issues, and the Republican Candidates

Today is a big confab in Iowa with a number of potential Republican candidates attending with the subject: agriculture.

As Politico describes it, the big issue is the renewable fuel standard (ethanol), which has long been shibboleth in Iowa.  I vaguely remember some candidates (McCain?) getting credit from the chattering classes for refusing to support it. We'll see who takes what position and who has decided not to compete in the Iowa caucuses.

There's other issues, like immigration reform, which is big in agriculture but which isn't supported by most Republicans, and trade with Cuba, which Republicans also tend to oppose.   All of which means that this first step on the road to the White House in 2016 may whet the appetite of followers of politics.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

FSA Outreach?

Was at the agriculture.com website the other day, reading comments on the extension of the time to allocate base/update yields.  Saw one comment, part of which I was almost able to answer (possible combination of two farms--a recon). Got me to wondering--if any government agencies are active on such sites.   In this case, an authoritative comment could have resolved a problem, educated some people, and enhanced the image of the FSA bureaucracy.  On the other hand, finding someone who could be authoritative on a number of different issues would be difficult and there would be the continual temptation to be either defensive or engage too much.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Clinton's Email Problem

I'm resisting the temptation to defend Hillary on her use of a private email account.  I'd observe that the chickens are coming home to roost based on NARA's failure over 20 years to deal effectively with emails and even more critically management's (i.e. President and Congress) failure to worry about such issues.  Records management was never a priority, not since the 70's.  I'm not impressed by the current commentary, such as the NYTimes piece here.  The number of historians who will ever read 30,000 pieces of email can be counted on one hand. I don't have an answer, but no one else does either.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Food Movement and China

One advantage of community-supported agriculture is the idea that the customer knows the source of her food.  But this Times article on China shows there's another way for the customer to know the history of her food, by using technology.  Because China has a bigger problem with adulterated food (ie. the communist state is weaker in regulation than our free enterprise government is), there's a greater incentive to come up with innovative solutions to the problem--at least that's my take on the situation.

Monday, March 02, 2015

Actively Engaged

Another chapter in the saga of "actively engaged"--from Farm Policy's report on the Senate Ag hearings:
Sen. Stabenow: “And finally, Mr. Chairman, one of the things I’m concerned about is that we’re hearing that the USDA feels constrained when defining actively engaged on the farm. I know this is a very challenging issue going forward. But I just want to clarify that the lead negotiators, those of us in the House and the Senate, understood the existing authority and discretion of the department, and want to work with you on this.
“When we look at the fact that CBO is estimating that the PLC and marketing loan programs could pay out as much as 16 billion more than we anticipated, it’s very important we have accountability, and [those go] actually to those who are farming. And so it is very important.
I would just urge you that in our bill, nothing in the farm bill is preventing the USDA from exercising existing authorities or discretion to make the definition as clear and strong as possible. And I think for the effectiveness and the integrity of the programs it’s really important that the department move forward on this, and look forward to working with you on that.”
Sec. Vilsack: “The way in which the farm bill was crafted strongly suggests that whatever we do does not specifically apply directly to family farming operations. Also, with reference to family farm corporations, the limitation of one management exemption applies. So what we are focusing on are the general partnerships and limited partnerships that have often been the source of concerns.
And that is where our jurisdiction, I think, is relative to actively engaged, and that’s what we’re focused on. And we will definitely come up with hopefully a more concrete and more specific definition so that folks understand precisely what applies and what doesn’t apply. But I think it is important to point out that it’s primarily focused on partnerships, limited and general partnerships.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Aerial Photography and Drones

Farm Policy reports that NRCS got questioned over the possible use of drones for their work:

Rep. Sanford Bishop: “Can you tell us if you have any plans to utilize drones to assist in the collection of information, because you do a lot of photography, put a lot of contracts out to take pictures, and there’s a tremendous amount of interest in the use of drones in agriculture, particularly in assisting the optimal design and layout of fields for water assessments and other related issues.
“Have you looked at this issue? Are there any current interagency discussions with FAA or other agencies concerning the growth in the use of drones? Obviously there are some security issues involved, but there’s also a great deal of interest for commercializing that practice and using it in agriculture.”
Mr. Jason Weller: “Absolutely. It’s a new technology, but we also have to be careful because folks do have privacy concerns. The FAA also had safety concerns. So in part NRCS, we sort of said full stop, let’s wait for FAA to actually come out with a rule.
Now that the rule has been issued, we’re trying to figure out how the NRCS can work within that to do remote sensing, but in a way that protects privacy, assure landowners who are not there there’s a regulatory component, because I know folks have some concerns when the federal government starts flying drones over their property. So we just need to make sure NRCS is doing this technology in a way that’s appropriate, that’s sensitive to landowners’ concerns, but also then helps us do a better job of managing resources.”
 The question may be whether the use of drones by USDA agencies evolves from the field/bubbles up or is top-down, or some mixture.  My guess is there will be more experimentation at the local office level than WDC is expecting or will realize.  Drones are too cheap for it to be otherwise.