Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Agency of Subjects of Regulation

"Agency" is a big buzz-word, has been for a number of years.  Typically in liberal and academic circles it means that people have minds and wills of their own, particularly the enslaved, the poor, the marginalized.  But it's also true when bureaucrats try to regulate behavior.  Often the picture in the bureaucrat's mind does not match the reality, or at least the picture in the mind of the person being regulated.  That's a truth often ignored in discussions.

It's particularly nice for a liberal to find this mistake occurring when conservatives/libertarians are the ones designing the regulations.  That's the case in Kansas, where governor Brownback has pushed tax reforms and cuts, intended to prove the old supply-side theory that less regulation and lower taxes will encourage growth and fill the government's coffers.  Jared Bernstein has this quote from a Wall Street Journal article (behind pay wall):
The WSJ piece points out that the number of entities taking advantage of this new loophole [not taxing small business income "passed through" to an individual] turned out to be 70 percent above the state’s projections.
Steve Moore, a key trickler that pushed the plan in Kansas, didn’t see that coming:
“Sometimes it was legitimate, and sometimes it was a gaming of the tax system to pay the zero rate, so that loophole has to be closed,” he said.  “Unless you have some rules about this, people really will shift income and they’ll find ways to legally avoid paying tax, and that was never the intention.”

Friday, December 30, 2016

Luck Turns Against the Old

Based on a sample of one, I believe this is true: the older you get the unluckier you are.

In this statement I'm basically referring to physical luck, to accidents.  I see it in myself--I seem to be having more and more close calls.  For example, the other day I was on the sidewalk of Colts Neck Drive, near the driveway for one of the apartment complexes.  I just started to cross when I saw a car beginning to leave the complex.  Very quickly I calculated I was far enough (5-10') into the driveway that the car would stop and I should keep going.  The next second I found myself walking into the car, which had pulled out quickly without stopping before pulling onto Colts Neck.   (I assume what happened was the driver was looking to the left to check Colts Neck and never looked to the right at all to see me.)

That's the most recent of near accidents I've encountered, in many of which I would have been at fault.

This makes me think--all through my adult life I was lucky (only 3 car accidents, one of which was totally not my fault).  I should have been thankful then; instead I'm fearful now.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Habits and Back Pain

Interesting piece here on what our health dollars are spent on.
" The three most expensive diseases in 2013: diabetes ($101 billion), the most common form of heart disease ($88 billion) and back and neck pain ($88 billion)."

"only about 4 percent of spending on low back and neck pain was on pharmaceuticals. Generally, more spending is done on elderly people, but about 70 percent of the spending on low back and neck pain was on working-age adults"
Several years ago I was having low back pain.  Finally mentioned it to my doctor who gave me an exercise routine which takes 15 minutes a day.  No more back pain.  I wonder how much of the pain people suffer could be avoided with similar routines: 10 percent maybe? That's a bunch of money.

It requires access to doctors, establishing habits, and perseverance. 

Monday, December 26, 2016

Contra Trump II

I blogged previously on how Democrats should view and oppose Trump.  To extend my thoughts, because Trump has few or no principles, he can be unusually flexible (can Teflon be flexible?).  Similarly his opponents must be flexible, meaning they should avoid confirmation bias. (See this New Yorker post on this and other ideas relevant to the Trump era.)

We shouldn't believe or argue that Trump is fascist, authoritarian, racist or inept.  I guarantee for every  ten examples we can point to over the next four years showing those qualities he will have a few counter examples. Our best bet is to attack him as inconsistent, unprincipled, hypocritical showman, of whom the American people will become tired and disillusioned and be willing for a return to Democratic sanity and steadiness in 2020.

The bottom line on Trump is he lost the popular vote by 2.8+ million and won the electoral vote with a lot of luck and a very unlucky opponent.  And demographic trends are still against the Republicans.  So a competent candidate in 2020 without 40 years of baggage should be favored, even against an incumbent president, assuming Trump will have as rocky a tenure as we Democrats have to believe he will have.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Historical Drinking Patterns

A piece here on current drinking patterns:  New England and Wisconsin the heaviest, northern Midwest and Northwest states next, the evangelical South, Utah, and Idaho the least.  There's a note that the patterns don't change rapidly, but the only data is 21st century.  I wonder about the origins:
  • Utah and Idaho would date from their settlement by whites--the Mormon church frowns on alcohol.
  • Wisconsin presumably dates back to the German immigrants who settled there with their beer, among whom were some of my maternal ancestors.
  • but how about the South?  Their current dryness is accounted for by evangelical religion. I'm not sure when that developed--George Whitefield did evangelical work in the 1740's.  I don't remember that he was particularly teetotal.  Did dryness develop along with the progress of evangelical religion?
  • and how about the North?  Evangelical religion, the second Great Awakening, was perhaps more powerful in the North during the early 19th century.  I'm thinking Prohibition saw a contest between the immigrant wets, the Germans with their beer, Italians with their wine, etc. against the WASPy religious types.  With the end of Prohibition the immigrants had won.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Miller and Smith--And the Course of History

The Times had a piece on changes in the most common last names, the hook being the fact that Latino last names are moving up.

What caught my eye, though, were two of the other most common names: "Smith" and "Miller".  (Jones and Williams and Johnson were also big).  Why?  They're occupational names. Back in the day when surnames first were assigned, the predominant occupation was farming, but we don't see "Farmer" as a big surname.  Miller and smith would be higher income occupations back in the 16th century.  It appears that higher income people had more surviving offspring then, and in the future.

On a related issue Megan McArdle has a piece on the inheritance of status, giving a brief summary of some work tending to show that socioeconomic status is very inheritable. 

Thursday, December 22, 2016

NIHism in Government

FCW has advice to high ranking career civil servants who have to adjust to their new bosses in the Trump administration.  All good, but this recognizes the NIHism common in government.
" Don't let arrogance or intransigence alienate you from the incoming leadership team. It's crucial to focus on outcomes and not be wed to the name of an initiative or its current process. Change happens. President George W. Bush's administration had a number of shared services initiatives branded as "eGov initiatives" and "lines of business." Those named initiatives were set aside by the Obama administration and time was lost before a new wave of shared services efforts were launched. This is a normal occurrence. Be prepared for it and keep the goal in mind -- the outcome matters much more than the form or structure of a current program."
As I've written before, the Madigan "Infoshare" (GHWBush's USDA secretary) initiative limped into the Espy USDA tenure, lost momentum, then was sort of revived under Glickman, but changed/killed under the GWBush administration.  The problem is that special projects represent a way for the administration to make a difference, to put their own stamp on the agency.  But because they're identified with one administration, unless they're completed within the term of the administration, it makes them particularly vulnerable as targets for the next.   By contrast the daily work of the bureaucracy is more immune to change. 

Two-fer for USDA Secretary?

Chris Clayton discusses possible picks for Secretary, including a Hispanic woman from Texas with previous USDA experience.

USDA is vitally important to Trump--he's devoted one transition team member to the entire department!!!

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Contra Trump

I think our new president will be a transactional one.  Mr. Trump seems to have few fixed principles or beliefs, so he's likely to be very flexible in approaching issues.

I also think this flexibility and his lack of government experience (along with that of his appointees) is sure to lead to fiascoes and scandals, as well as significant changes and accomplishments.  (See Cowen's  post on the latter.)

With that assumption, I don't agree with those who believe Democrats should be unfailingly confrontational, following the pattern of Republicans with Obama but going one better. I'd suggest a two-pronged stance:
  • take every opportunity to point out Trump's lack of principles and flip flops--he'll provide sufficient ammunition.
  • do deals when possible.  Given past partisanship such deals are likely to split Republicans.
So in 2020  our candidate should run against Trump based on a set of principles and a set of deals.

 My underlying assumption is that the deals Dems reach with Trump will be successful, at least as contrasted to the issues on which we attack.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

A Puzzle: Increasing Education and No Mobility

In recent days some seemingly solid articles/posts have reported the following:
  • over the past 40-50 years the average American has gotten more education (i.e., more people graduating high school, more people going to college, more people graduating college, etc.)
  • over the past 40-50 years the added income attributable to education, the education "premium", has increased.
  • over the past 40-50 years the earnings of the average American is no greater than his/her parents.
My knee-jerk reaction is that if the first two are right, the third can't be right.   There must be something else which I'm missing.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Originalism on the Electoral College

Electoral college voting today.  Some, mostly Democrats, now believe in originalism as it pertains to the college--should be a set of independent judges exercising their judgment.  Others, notably Republicans, now believe the college should vote according to the norms and precedents in history, disregarding the original intent. 

Sunday, December 18, 2016

A New Front for Animal Rights--Voluntary Milking?

Modern Farmer has a post describing the voluntary milking robot systems being installed on big dairy farms.

DeLaval has a set of photos -- sure don't look like dairy barn I grew up with. 

If I understand "voluntary" means a cow can walk into the robot and be milked whenever she wants.  While I've always believed dairies generally took good care of their cows, the voluntary aspect is something entirely new.  There would seem to a tension between the food movement, which likely disapproves of the size a dairy needs to be to justify such a robot system, and the animal rights movement, which should see a gain to animal welfare from the voluntary milking.

American Factoids--Declining Scots-Irish

German Federal States are, on average, about 8,600 square miles. East German states are about 7,000, west German ones are about 9,600. US states are, on average, about 74,000 square miles, so far from comparable.

That's from Lyman Stone also these:
Do you know what major American ancestry-group is declining faster than any other? Scotch-Irish. The vaunted origin-ancestry of Appalachia lost nearly 2.2 million self-identifiers from the 2009 ACS sample to the 2014 ACS sample, marking a 42% decline. The only ancestries to lose more people were German and English; much of the decline in those two groups was centered around Appalachia.
Want to guess the fastest-growing ancestry group in America? I bet you guessed “Mexican” or “Chinese.” Those are solid guesses; Mexican is #3, at 11% growth with 2.4 million new self-identifiers.
The correct answer, however, is “White/Caucasian.” The number of Americans self-identifying not as English or German or Scotch-Irish but “White” as their ancestry, as distinct from just their race, rose 47% from the 2009 ACS to the 2014 ACS, with 3.9 million new identifiers. The second largest grower was “American” as an ancestry; this is un-hyphenated American, mind you. There are 2.9 million new “Americans,” giving 15% growth.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

"LIfe After Cows"

Unlike crop farming, dairy farms can come to a sudden and abrupt end. I know.

Two kids can set a fire, the barn goes, and the herd has to be sold.  (Averaging 27,000 lb per cow--that's a figure unheard of in the 1950's.)

Or advancing age, low prices, a smaller dairy, no successors can make for a more gradual sell-off, as here.

Or a TB test comes out positive, and the bureaucrats order a "depopulation".  (Some great photos at this site, prairie Canada.

Or, as happened with my dad, there's a severe stroke, so the cows went the next day, a phrase I can't type without emotion, even though I never wanted to farm.

Friday, December 16, 2016

The Dream of Online Access to USDA Operations

In 1992 we had the dream of permitting farmers online access to ASCS, SCS, Farmers Home applications.  In the initial Infoshare pilot we found very limited adoption.  As I've observed from a distance the different embodiments of that dream over the years, I've always been curious how many farmers were really getting online and making use of the capabilities USDA provided. But despite my suggestions over the years, I'm not aware of any Federal site which publishes usage figures, so there's no way for a member of the public to see whether progress is being made.

Recently I found a clue, at least for FSA/NRCS/RD, thanks to the requirement for public notice on data requirements.  (The first time in my life I've really seen a value for that procedural requirement.)

Here is the Federal Register document from USDA on the information collection requirement for e-Auth.
"The USDA eAuthentication Service provides public and government businesses single sign-on capability for USDA applications, management of user credentials, and verification of identify, authorization, and electronic signatures. USDA eAuthentication obtains customer information through an electronic self-registration process provided through the eAuthentication Web site. The voluntary online self-registration process applies to USDA Agency customers, as well as employees who request access to protected USDA web applications and services via the Internet. Users can register directly from the eAuthentication Web site located at The information collected through the online self-registration process will be used to provide an eAuthentication account that will enable the electronic authentication of users. The users will then have access to authorized resources without needing to reauthenticate within the context of a single Internet session."
 "Description of Respondents: Farms; Individuals or Households; Business or other for-profit; Not-for-profit institutions; Federal government; State, Local or Tribal Government.
Number of Respondents: 114,256.
 There's no breakdown given for how many of the respondents are actually farmers.  My guess would be about 80,000 to 100,000, which might be from 10 to 25 percent of potential users.

What's Wrong With Old White Men?

Bernstein comments that Trump's cabinet is old, other observers have said they're white, mostly, and mostly men (particularly if you omit what I'd call the "semi-cabinet--EPA, SBA,UN ambassador). It's notable there's little attention to their religious or ethnic diversity; the days when we paid attention to those parameters is long gone.  And everyone assumes they're all heterosexual.

As an old white heterosexual male I see nothing at all wrong with his selections.  :-)  By the same token, I understand why others might justifiably criticize the narrowness of his universe.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Taxing Sugar--Hypocrisy

The Post (Wonkblog) has a piece arguing the merits of taxing sugar, that is sugar instead of soda.

I'm sure one could find in back issues of the Post an attack on USDA's current sugar program, which sets import quotas for foreign sugar, as costing the American consumer millions of dollars in added costs for their sugar.  I'm also sure you won't find the food movement backing the sugar program as an instance in which government programs make Americans healthier.

(Note: I really have no brief for the sugar program; I just note the world is more complicated than advocates realize.)

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Our Blinders

Love to pick on economists:

Here's Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution:
"Animal rights will be the big social revolution of the 21st century. Most people have a vague feeling that factory farms aren’t quite ethical."
 I want to point out the blindness--the "most people".  With my background I don't really buy the argument, or maybe it's better to say the issue is more complex for me than the average brown bear. Anyhow, when I read it, I resisted the concept a bit.  But when you think about it--who are the people who Prof. Tabarrok has in his head?  They're likely people like him, members of the urban elite. I venture to say that most members of American society don't think about the ethics of factory farming at all. And I venture to say that most people in foreign countries have no opinion on the issue.

My point is it's easy to slip into a generalization which isn't true, particularly when it's a binary issue: is factory farming ethical or not? IMHO it's more accurate to talk about gradations and percentages: a majority of the urban elite (especially native white elites) who have an opinion would likely have questions about the ethics of factory farming.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Mapspotting: Ithaca and Native Americans

One of the pleasures of being a know-it-all is noticing things the media/experts don't.  These days the Times, the Post, and websites display a lot of data using maps, often at the county level, enabling me to "mapspot".

For example, it's often easy to pick out Ithaca, NY, or rather Tompkins county.  It sits in the center of the state and with the presence of Cornell U. and Ithaca College it often stands out--it's an example of the "big sort", people separating themselves by money, lifestyle, and opinion.

On a darker note, there are counties in the west of North Dakota/South Dakota and around the Four Corners area of Arizona/New Mexico which stick out. Note the Vox maps on various causes and trends of mortality in this piece.  Why--because there are Indian reservations there--Sioux and Navaho.  Watch Longmire.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Trump and LBJ

I'm getting some echoes of LBJ in our current president-elect.  Like Trump, LBJ paid obsessive attention to TV, going so far as to have 3 TV's, one for each network going in his offices.  Like Trump, LBJ did a lot of feinting and faking, trying to build some drama and keep his adversaries off balance. (I'm thinking of his appointments and occasionally on policy.  He kept Hubert Humphrey in suspense for months before confirming his selection as Vice President.)  Like Trump, LBJ didn't relax, he drove himself and his staff relentlessly.  Like Trump, I don't think LBJ had many close friends. Like Trump, LBJ was unfaithful, though unlike Trump he stayed in his marriage.  Like Trump, LBJ didn't conform to the usual norms of gentility and political custom.  Like Trump, LBJ could be volatile and very thin-skinned.

Unlike Trump, LBJ's domestic policies were admirable.

The China Lobby--Traces of History

In the 50's and 60's we had something called the "China Lobby", a group of politicians and lobbyists who had long supported the Chinese Nationalists, before and after their move to the island of Formosa (Taiwan).  They had influence, ensuring the US did not recognize the existence of Communist China.  They tended to be right wing Republicans, although not completely so, and had alliances with hard-liners opposing the USSR, seeing a monolithic communist conspiracy for world domination.

Then Nixon went to China, and recognized the regime.  The China Lobby was aghast--IIRC George Will and William Safire were outraged.  Over time the outrage has diminished, partially because the members of the lobby have died (Madame Chiang Kai-shek, a fascinating woman), partly the passage of time has dulled passions.  But there's always been a group which supports more arms to China and resists initiatives of opening to China.

With Trump's tweets and phone call with the Taiwan president I'm wondering whether the China Lobby is still exerting its influence.  We'll see.

Friday, December 09, 2016

The Results of Ending Fox Hunts in Britain

A That's the door of No. 10 Downing Street, according to this article.  
It only takes a few years for the foxes to take over. 

Reached from Kevin Drum's Friday cat blog post by following the link to the Sun.

Founding Fathers and Conflict of Interest

For those who believe in "originalism", a cautionary tale on the conflicts of interest between our first president.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Loving Trump

Just saw the movie "Loving".  Quite good, will be on some Oscar lists, but not up to last year's Spotlight.  That said, this thought struck me:

Richard Loving would have voted for Trump.

Why?  Because he felt powerless to take care of his wife, a feeling shared by many Trump voters.

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

One Stop Shopping for Government Services

FCW has Steve Kelman's piece on a one-stop shop in China:
Some 20 different agencies are represented in the center. Lots of the work handled involves services for businesses, such as registration and approvals for establishing a new business, and various approvals related to construction. The center also provides a number of citizen services, such as applications for passports and work permits, and various transactions related to health insurance. Many, though not all, of the forms can be completed online. The in-person services are designed for people -- often the older and less-educated -- with questions or who need in-person assistance actually filling out a form.
Back in the 90's I had this sort of thing in the back of my mind.  InfoShare had that dream, and the Osage County office in Kansas was a step along the way.  I was ambivalent about the projects: moving to PC's and the Internet in county offices could only be justified by cost savings--good, which inevitably meant personnel cuts, but that meant a further decline in rural area jobs--not good.  One faint possibility would be a true consolidation of USDA services, where things like Skype (CU-SeeMe back then) could enable one employee to tap the expertise of others located in distant offices but then adding other services.  Problem was, government doesn't have that heavy of an impact on daily lives, particularly in rural areas.  Suppose the service center could handle social security--how many visits do the 2 or 3,000 residents of a rural county make to a distant social security office in a year?  And given the difficulty in getting USDA agencies working together, any further expansion at that time was a pipe dream.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Changes in DC

There's a piece in the Washingtonian on how the Obama administration changed Washington, DC.

Perhaps the single most telling stat on changes in DC during the past years is contained in this Post article on the stagnation in high school graduations.  There's a table with the data on VA, MD, and DC, showing a graph of rates from 2000 to 2031-2.  While white rates in both states are flat, the graph for white rates in DC soars above all others, reaching 500+ percent over 2000-1 by the end of the period.  (I'm guessing that the rate is already 200 percent of 2000-1, an increase paralleling the Hispanic increase, but the Hispanic rate levels off and then drops in the 2020's.)

Perhaps the Obama administration symbolized the demographic changes in DC, without actually causing them.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Waning Enthusiasm for Pro Football

I don't know about the rest of the world but I'm gradually seeing my enthusiasm for pro football wane.  A decade or more ago I would watch every play of every game on Sunday, particularly the Redskins.  And I would be very much into the game, yelling at great plays, rapid heartbeat, etc.

But over time it's become easier for me to miss parts of games, or even the whole game. Yes, when I'm watching and the team is doing good, I really enjoy it. And I still read the Post articles and check the stats.  But...

Why is it?  20 years ago or more, actually more, the Redskins were a good team.  Since then they haven't been--don't think they've won a playoff game the few times they've actually made the playoffs.  So there's that.  There's also the consciousness of injuries, particularly concussions.  And the game is slower, what with replays and challenges and more ads.  Used to be a 1 o'clock game would end before 4, but no longer.

There's also age--my supply of interest seems to be shrinking generally.  I no longer read every story in the newspaper, for example.

Age might be the determining factor.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Trump and Nondisclosure

Trump is famous for requiring his employees to sign nondisclosure agreements.  Apparently also when his lawsuits are settled, there's a no-publicity clause in the agreement.  So I posed a
question on this Post piece: could Trump issue an executive order requiring all Presidential appointees to sign a nondisclosure agreement modeled after the ones he requires employees of his businesses?   Don't know the answer.  

I do know that the Supreme Court back in the 70's limited the right of the executive branch to restrict employees' contact with Congress.

Saturday, December 03, 2016

Knowing What You Don't Know; a Corollary

I may have blogged in the distant past about a time I discovered the importance of knowing what you don't know.  Briefly, I took a call from the Arkansas program specialist.  I hadn't been in my position too long, the specialist pressed for an answer on an issue, while clearly indicating which way he thought the answer should go.  I don't like conflict (might be an understatement) so I went along with him.

Some months later OIG filed a report challenging the rule the Arkansas office had applied, reporting that they had had approval from Washington for this dubious action.  Big embarrassment when I had to admit to my boss, a very nice guy, I was the one who had screwed up.  After that learning experience I tried to remember the lesson and to teach it to my employees when I moved back into management.

Long story short:  Evan Osnos, a very good writer in the New Yorker, has this paragraph on Trump's phone call with the president of Taiwan:

"For a piece I published in September, about what Trump’s first term could look like, I spoke to a former Republican White House official whom Trump has consulted, who told me, “Honestly, the problem with Donald is he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.” It turns out that is half of the problem; the other half is that he has surrounded himself with people who know how much he doesn’t know."

[The ability to spell diminishes with age, at least in my case.  Misspelled "correllary"]

Friday, December 02, 2016

Farm Bill Debates

A Think Progress post here farm bill issues: specifically will the Republican dominance lead to an attack on food stamps or on environmental regulations.

Illinois extension here has a discussion of the baseline for the farm bill's farm programs--perhaps $10 billion a year.  I believe that's higher than the current bill's baseline was.  ("Baseline" is, if I understand, the Congressional Budget Office's estimate of future costs, over 10  years, if all Congress did was to extend current farm bill provisions with no change.)