Saturday, September 30, 2017

Grain Surpluses

Illinois farm Policy News reports that 2017 is going to be another year of more grain produced than consumed, the fourth year in a row.
And when focusing on U.S. farmers, the Reuters article explained that, “Even as farmers reap bountiful harvests, U.S. net farm incomes this year will total $63.4 billion – about half of their earnings in 2013, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture forecast.
20 years ago I predicted grain surpluses once the Russians and Ukrainians got going.  So I was right, right, right!  Just didn't realize they'd be so slow about it.

Hugh Hefner and Ayn Rand

New Yorker piece on Hefner. My first memory of Playboy was my freshman year at college.  My roommate had arrived earlier, and had decorated his bookshelf with a recent centerfold.  As a naive rube from upstate NY it was both shocking and intriguing.  Not enough of either for me to ever subscribe to it, but it continued to be a presence in my mental world.

For some reason now I pair Hefner and Ayn Rand, both libertarians.  I was probably more influenced by Hefner than Rand, since his views seemed more mainline than hers.  I don't know if that's a common linkage; googling doesn't seem to bring up that many hits.  Her general influence seems to have persisted more than his, at least intellectually, though his impact on the culture was greater.

Friday, September 29, 2017

War Gaming Disasters

I'm tempted to say the Trump administration is probably getting some undeserved* flak over their reaction to Hurricane Maria.  What I wonder is the extent to which the bureaucracies war game their responses to disaster.  Does FEMA do a war game, do they war game with state agencies, or is the gaming at the DHS/DOD level?  Or how about at the Presidential level?

We know, I think, that the national security establishment has war gamed North Korea.  Has the national disaster establishment war gamed Hurricane Maria, or other emergencies (like an 8.0 earthquake in California, sun flares that zap transmission lines, etc.?

My guess is they haven't, or the war gaming has at best extended one length beyond the worst disaster that's already happened.  In other words, after Katrina hit NOLA, there likely were simulations and games using a 5.0 hurricane, but I'm guessing the simulations of a Puerto Rico/Virgin Islands wipeout haven't happened.

*though the comparison to the response to the Haitian earthquake leads me to qualify my sympathy.  My point, once again, is the Harshaw rule--we haven't had a major hurricane which squarely hit American territory in the Caribbean for years and so, without a war game, the bureaucracy is doing its thing for the first time.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

McArdle on the Trump Tax Plan

Megan McArdle has a good post on the Trump tax plan outline. We would be hit by the loss of state tax deductibility, but that's okay with me, if only they'd reduce the cap on mortgage interest deductions.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Change and the Geezer

Was musing over the changes I've seen in my life: used to be only the Catholics did gambling--bingo nights funded them, another proof if one was needed, and it wasn't for my mother, of the wickedness of the Catholic church.

Another change is in cars (have I posted yet on my car-leasing experience?)--still feeling wiped out from yesterday.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Puerto Rico and Disaster III

I suspect when the federal response to Irma and Maria in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico is studied by academics, the conclusion will include these points:
  • FEMA's usual disaster response implicitly assumed that the disaster is on the mainland, not on islands.  So its capacity to respond to island disasters was limited.  For example, recognizing that power crews would need their trucks transported to the island.  (To me this is another aspect of a general rule that island life is limited--so some (all?) species tend to grow smaller on islands, etc.)
  • FEMA was able to learn from prior mainland disasters (like Katrina and later ones), partly because of feedback from the affected areas, feedback often routed through federal elected officials--representatives and senators.  For example, after Katrina the agency was changed and Fugate, Obama's head of FEMA, got kudoes from Congress and the press for doing a good job.  But IMHO it's likely the job he did was deficient for PR and VI. 
  • Two problems: the media doesn't pay attention to our Caribbean citizens and their elected representatives don't have the clout that mainland reps do.

Billy Grabarkewitz

I flatter myself as being fairly knowledgeable about baseball, except for the long dead.  So I read this FiveThirtyEight piece on Aaron Judge, the Yankee rookie, with interest.  When I came to the list of outstanding rookie seasons, I was totally stumped by this 1970 rookie.  Turns out he had one good season. 

Monday, September 25, 2017

Puerto Rico Disaster--II

As a followup to my previous post, while RMA has Puerto Rico included in its database of agents, it doesn't appear to have any agents for Puerto Rico. 

I'm operating under the assumption that Maria will show the USDA arrangements for Puerto Rico to be as faulty as Hurricane Andrew did for Dade County and the Typhoon Gay (?) did for Guam.  It's the perpetual fate of those entities/places/people who don't fit the existing mold. 

Agricultural Disaster in Puerto Rico--USDA

This NYTimes piece portrays the devastating impact of hurricane Maria on Puerto Rican agriculture.  It's total.  I did a quick check of USDA websites.  The USDA site and the FSA site have nothing keyed to Maria (just Irma).  Give RMA props; their website does have a Maria page.  

That's good.  Not so good is the confusion in the site (although perhaps due to my skimming too quickly).  According to the results of a google search for "crop insurance in Puerto Rice", FCIC does have crops insured on the island, for crop year 2016, roughly in the 50-60 percent insured range.  Not clear how that happens, because there don't seem to be any companies offering coverage there.

There is a Facebook page for a Puerto Rico Crop Insurance Corporation, but with nothing in it.  There is legislation dating back to 1966 establishing a Puerto Rico Farm Insurance Corporation, which presumably is the vehicle for the coverage.  And FSA reminded producers in 2016 they needed to comply with conservation compliance rules.

The one good thing I noted in this cursory survey--Puerto Rico stands alone among all the states by having a State Executive Director on board (appointed last year and apparently immune from the turnover from the election.)

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Why Not Follow the UK: Gov Wifi

For commercial establishments everyone and her brother now offer WiFi.  Not the government, at least not that I am aware of.  But our British cousins offer it, specifically "GovWifi", as described in this post at the UK blog:
GovWifi, developed and managed by Government Digital Service (GDS), is a single wifi login which can be simply and cheaply installed by government departments over their existing infrastructure.Anyone who registers with GovWifi will have access to wifi at any participating public sector location. It’s available to civil servants, consultants and visitors to government departments.It’s been designed to replace user and guest wifi with a single secure wifi connection.Users register once. After that, they’ll automatically connect to the GovWifi network. They don’t need to remember a password or sign in to different networks when they move between buildings.
So why can't the US government do this?

Friday, September 22, 2017

Economic Creativity: New Occupations

How many words do you need to discuss an Amish farmer, deer farms, the production of deer urine, bowhunters and the need to disguise their scent, the problem of chronic wasting disease, and good/bad government regulation?

See this short New Yorker piece.

I'm more impressed by our the market economy and human desires endlessly create new jobs, particularly in a context of fearing the loss of jobs to AI.

Bipartisanship Lives in the WH Garden

Politico reports Mrs. Trump is continuing with Mrs. Obama's White House garden.

[added: "After brief remarks, the first lady, dressed in a red plaid shirt, black pants and sneakers, joined the children in harvesting lettuce and kale, peas, radishes, Swiss chard and mustard. They also planted cabbage, cauliflower, turnips, carrots, spinach and kale, the White House said."]

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Trump Appointees at USDA

Politico has an article (or is it a post--who knows these days) about the backgrounds of Trump's appointees at USDA.  These are special assistants and confidential assistants, i.e., GS-12's and 14's and 15's.

There's a comparison with what Obama's administration did, trying to make the case that the people are being hired more on loyalty and campaign experience, than their other qualifications.  But what's most interesting to me is towards the end:
"Meanwhile, even with the campaign loyalists who are now on the USDA staff, the administration is still behind schedule in hiring for the agency’s more than 200 political positions that span from Washington, D.C., to rural communities across all 50 states."
I take that as meaning the FSA state directors are mostly vacant, and as the next paragraph notes, Secretary Perdue has a steep hill to climb to implement his proposed reorganization of support/administrative services, for which he will need the support of those political appointees. 

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Maintenance Isn't Sexy: USNavy

I see I've not set up a label for "maintenance", but I'm sure I've observed that it's an important and often overlooked issue.  What happens when you build a system, as we were building a software system in the mid-80's, is you can't keep building without adding more people/resources.  If you start with 10 people working on the new, once it gets deployed, you need 1 person to maintain the deployed software, leaving only 9 to build the next phase.  And so on.

Furthermore, maintenance is not sexy. You can't tell the people who are paying the bills they won't get anything for their money, just a continuance of the current service (maybe sneaking in a couple tweaks along the way).

The DC area Metro system has found this out.  They built a system starting in the mid-70's, but skimped on maintenance along the way.  Consequently last year and this service has been restricted on various sections so they could do catch-up maintenance.  People aren't happy about it.

Now it seems the USNavy is in the same boat.  GAO has surveyed their shipyards and produced a video of their major points.  An example, using 80+ year old equipment to service nuclear submarines, then discovering the furnace didn't heat the parts evenly, so they had to reinspect years worth of work.

I'm cynical today, so I'm sure Congress will continue to give DOD new weapons/things they don't ask for and fail to provide the money to fix the shipyards.  That will go until we lose a ship because of faulty repairs.  (Training is "maintenance" of your human equipment and lack of training is blamed for the recent collisions the Seventh Fleet has experienced .)

Bureaucrat of the Day: S. Petrov

Applying the term loosely to any one who holds a position in an organization and has to follow rules, or who makes the rules for others.

Farewell, Stanislav Petrov, with obits in both the Times and Post

Monday, September 18, 2017

How Humans React to Change

Lots of angst about the coming of artificial intelligence and autonomous cars and CRISPR.  Even more angst about our addiction to cellphones and social media.  I was a late-comer to smart phones, but have somewhat caught up and now understand the addiction. 

But I'm not agonizing about it.  Seems to me generally people overdo in reaction to any social change, whether it's the coming of railroads, crack, or smart phones.  Once people see the downsides, they create new norms which have the effect of damping the adverse impact.  Remember the crack epidemic of the 1980's?  Or the concerns over mass media of the 1950's (i.e., comic books, etc.)? 

So my prediction is we'll see the same thing happening with social media and smart phones.  I may not live to see it, but it will happen.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Problems in Predicting the Future

I never dreamed in the early 70's we'd see a Sunday NYTimes paper we see today.  Back then we were worried about overpopulation, exhaustion of resources, and the failure of the newly decolonized nations to achieve development.  See this piece.  

The Chinese were an ant-like people, all dressed in Mao jackets and still starving from the effects of his ideology.  In that they weren't much different than the residents in the rest of the Third World.The developed world was bad on foreign aid, often funding projects which were strategic in the Cold War with the Soviet Union, not worthwhile for the recipient.

But today we have an article on obesity in Brazil and Nestle's role in pushing First World junk food on willing Brazilians.  And we have an article in the Times mag about the billions of Chinese investments abroad, and the possible debt trap they pose for the recipient nations.

Of course there's no Soviet Union and rich Chinese are buying Western baubles.

It's a strange world.

Bringing Home the Bacon (VT, Uncured)

Walt Jeffreys, whose blog has been rather quiet this year, blogs about the process of getting the bacon, that is creating bacon from his hogs which meets the requisite USDA standards for bacon.  Interesting.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

The Changing Dairy Sector

"Since 2000, milk production has doubled in Idaho,"

"Idaho dairy industry representatives estimate that between 85 to 90 percent of on-site dairy workers in the state are foreign-born."

Two excerpts from a long piece  at Politico on the complexities and tensions created by the trends, particularly the handling of undocumented immigrants.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Cost of Farm Programs by Crop

I've been remiss in noting this post from IL extension which goes through a Congressional Research Service report on the expenditures by crop under the 2014 farm legislation.

Good Sentence from the Mc

Megan McArdle: "One almost admires a salesman who’s too brazen to craft a believable lie, the kind who simply utters obvious falsehoods and hopes you’re too polite to call them on it."

Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Harshaw Rule Confirmed

What is the "Harshaw rule"?  Something I discovered back in my days of innocence, trying to break down silos in USDA--"you never do things right the first time". 

Where is it confirmed?  In the videos Kottke has linked to here--the Elon Musk videos on landing rockets and our early space endeavors.  It's good to see someone paying more than lip service to the idea of learning from your mistakes.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Comments on Consolidating USDA Support Services

USDA has a request for comments on the Secretary's proposal to consolidate support services across agency lines. Comments are due before October 7.

I'm very sceptical of the OFR's request for comments process, particulary on clearing forms.  We'll see in this case if people like NASCOE etc. get comments in, or prefer to work with Congress.

Cottonseed Again

Illinois extension has a piece on the cottonseed provisions of the 2018 Senate Ag appropriations bill. To my jaundiced eye, it looks as if the cotton growers are trying to get a goodie added through the backdoor--using appropriations to change policy.  If they do, we'll see what Brazil and the WTO think of it.  If they do, the professors will have another example to add to their picture of how government really works.

Seats at the Table

The Trump administration is not exactly pushing the right boundaries.  Two factoids:

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Read the Damn Manual, All 700+ Pages

As a bureaucrat who started his career editing ASCS manuals, I'm a bit more friendly to the idea of reading manuals than the average bear.  The things we use in our lives often come with manuals, manuals I don't routinely read.  Yes, when the clothes dryer goes out or doing something new with the microwave I may consult the manual, but I don't sit down to read them cover to cover.

The same rule applies for cars.  The manual's in the glove compartment, and I'll check it for problems.  But today I'm changing my rules.

The background: as I age my driving ability is declining.  I'm more easily distracted, more easily confused when driving in unfamiliar territory,  and less quick to react.  I miss pedestrians and approaching cars at intersections.  And the future looks worse, not better.  Like most people I'd hate to give up my control and freedom by abandoning the car and switching to public transportation, even the options in Reston are very good.

With safety options multiplying rapidly as we get closer to the self-driving car, what seems to make sense to me is switching to a short-term leased car.  That way I can get the advantage of the new features and still have the flexibility to upgrade to a newer car in a couple years, assuming I'm still competent as a driver when that day arrives.

So, I'm looking at a Prius with all the safety options.  But it's a big leap from 2006 to 2017, so I'm looking at the manual.  Indeed, for the first time I'm reading the Prius manual from the beginning.

But, the damn thing is 700 pages.  (As a measure of the changes, I think the manual for my current car is about 200 pages.)  700 pages.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Trump on Improper Payments

Turns out Trump on improper payments is the same as Obama--from GovExec:
All of these ideas were also proposed by the Obama administration, representing bipartisan agreement on policy reforms.
Of the twelve policies aimed at curbing improper payments in the FY 2018 budget, four use the same language found in President Obama’s FY 2017 budget. The other eight have only small differences. The amount of projected savings also mirrors the FY 2017 budget, although with some differences. For example, the FY 2017 budget estimated that authorizing the Social Security Administration (SSA) to use “all collection tools to recover funds” would save $35 million, while the FY 2018 budget estimates $41 million. The savings projected under the FY 2018 budget are also much higher for Unemployment Insurance, as well as Medicare and Medicaid. However, the reasons for the higher projected savings are not clear.

Saturday, September 09, 2017

America the Isolationist?

Those of us of a certain age can remember when there was a significant faction of American politicians who were basically isolationist, who wrapped themselves in the history of "no entangling alliances" and "America goes not abroad in search of dragons.

Thus it's startling for me to read this piece including these words:
"Several permanent stations had been established after the War of 1812: the Mediterranean, Pacific, and West Indies Squadrons. But Jackson would give his imprimatur to a new one. Asia appealed to Jackson as part of his effort to expand American trade routes. Like the merchants of the northeast, Jackson understood that America’s economic future lay not only with its traditional European trading partners but also with new partners in the East. Simply having Navy ships in the eastern Pacific was insufficient. Consequently, Jackson established the East Indies Squadron."

Independent Irish Lasses

"Uniquely among European emigrants in the late-19th century, young single women emigrated from Ireland in the same numbers as men."

From this.

Friday, September 08, 2017

Irma and Andrew and FSA

Hurricane Irma is being compared with hurricane Andrew, which devastated southern Florida back in 1992 as a category 5 hurricane.  Agriculture took a big hit then, IIRC mostly vegetables and nursery crops grown by producers who'd never had contact with FSA.  The FSA disaster programs then could cover some of the damage, though I don't remember whether Congress passed new legislation or whether existing law was adequate.

Because of the new producers, FSA had a problem of getting producer name and address and farm data loaded into the System/36's.  We were still using old COBOL code written back in the mid-80's, some of the first code written for the System/36.  Back then neither the Kansas City system designers nor Washington program specialists really knew what we were doing.  (Harshaw's law: you never do it right the first time.)  There multiple screens for data loading, moving from screen to screen was slow, and updating the file was slow. 

Consequently FSA got a black eye in Dade county, IIRC.

Shouldn't happen with Irma.  For one thing it sounds as if urbanization in the last 25 years has replaced agriculture.  FSA's programs likely cover less of the agriculture remaining as crop insurance has partially replaced FSA, except for NAP.  FSA likely already has records for the producers and its software is better.

Dutch Agriculture

Recently saw an article/tweet/blogpost/something which made great claims about the productivity of Dutch agriculture.  I think maybe it was claiming they were the top exporter of agricultural products.  Immediately my contrarian nature kicked in, and I was sure someone was in error on the Internet.     My logic was that the Dutch export flowers, a high value crop, perhaps the highest value legal crop, so the claim was misleading.  Dairy products would also be big, and high value.  However I didn't challenge it on line, just in mind

Now comes FiveThirtyEight with their significant digits, and this fact: 

144,352 tons of tomatoes per square mile

The Netherlands has been investing in new and improved ways to maximize the efficiency of humane farming. Acre for acre, the Dutch are the best on earth: using greenhouses they get 144,352 tons of tomatoes out of every square mile, with the closest runner up — Spain — getting a fraction of that. Essentially, the Dutch decided to be a food R&D lab for everyone else — the secret seems to be greenhouses — and the outcome is they export more food, judging by dollar value, than every country except the U.S. [National Geographic]
So I guess I need to apologize to the Dutch--they aren't just a one-trick pony.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

More Reorganization for USDA

Sec. Perdue has a press release describing further reorganization in USDA.  For my own interests, FSA loses the commodity procurement (used to be DACO), but otherwise isn't touched, yet. However, this section seems to me to imply that Sec. Glickman's proposal of the late 90's to combine NRCS and FSA administrative support may be revived in some form:
Reducing Redundancies
While creating the Farm Production and Conservation mission area, it became apparent that across USDA there are redundancies and inefficiencies in the mission support activities.  Presently some agencies maintain redundant administrative support functions, including human resources, information technology (IT), finance, procurement, and property management.  For example, there are 22 employees in the department that are identified as Chief Information Officers (CIOs).  Having such a large number of CIOs creates redundancies throughout the Department when it comes to leadership on IT activities and services and results in unnecessary layering of leadership and direction.  Therefore, mission support activities will be merged at the mission area level across USDA.  Through these mergers, the mission areas will not only increase operational efficiencies, but also maximize collaboration between agencies that serve similar customers.  This has happened in many of the support activities in mission areas already and is working well.
Given the flack that got from Congress, which killed it, it will be interesting to see what happens now.

The Magic of the Free Market

Legalizing pot means lowering the barriers to entry and creating a more open market.  The result, as Kevin Drum links, is lower prices.  With producers' energies now focused on more efficient production, rather than evading law enforcement in distribution, I predict this trend will continue, at some point driving the least efficient startups out of business.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Using Racism as an Argument

Kevin Drum has a good post entitled: "Racism Is Not the Explanation for Everything the Republicans Do".

His point is very true.  I'd add another point: using "racism" to attack your opponent is dangerous to yourself.  It's like saying the opposing team won because they played dirty, cheated, and paid off the umpires.  All of that may be true, particularly if you're talking about the Patriots and the Red Sox :-), but it teaches the wrong lessons and removes the burden on you to improve your game.  It also makes the opponent the "other".

Monday, September 04, 2017

Race, Gender and Ethnicity Data Collection

USDA has its request for comment on its collection of data on its customers race, gender and ethnicity published here.  Deadline is September 21.  So far there have been no comments.  As an exercise in willpower I'm withholding comment on that.

From the notice, an explanation of why:
Summary of Collection: Section 14006 and 14007 of the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008, 7 U.S.C. 8701 (referred to as the 2008 Farm Bill) establishes a requirement for the Department of Agriculture (USDA) to annually compile application and participation rate data regarding socially disadvantaged farmers or ranchers by computing for each program of the USDA that serves agriculture producers and landowners (a) raw numbers of applicants and participants by race, ethnicity, and gender, subject to appropriate privacy protection, as determined by the Secretary; and (b) the application and participation rate, by race, ethnicity and gender as a percentage of the total participation rate of all agricultural producers and landowners for each county and State in the United States.

Sunday, September 03, 2017

Correcting Tocqueville

This Post Monkey Cage piece claiming Americans get more involved in politics than others includes this:
As Alexis de Tocqueville put it, “Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations. … Wherever at the head of some new undertaking you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association.”
That makes it sound as if our associations come from the grassroots while in Europe they come from the top.  I think that exaggerates a bit.  I've looked at some of the early associations promoting agriculture in the U.S.  The pattern seems to be we had our  "rainmakers"  back then.  "Rainmaker" here meaning an illustrious personage, in these cases often a veteran of the Revolution and/or Founding Father, whose prestige attracts other members.

Saturday, September 02, 2017

Trouble with Homophone: Significant?

I'm noticing more and more I've trouble with homophones (i.e, for those who have forgotten high school English, words with the same pronunciation but different spelling and meaning, like "its" and "it's", "knew" and "new") and with completing words correctly (i.e., by writing "ful" at the end of "meaning" rather than the "less" I intended, or, as just now, typing "the" when I meant "than").

A quick google brings up this research but doesn't confirm my layman's belief that such a decline in functioning is significant, at least of old age if not of dementia.  But whatever.

I bring this up because our illustrious President has caught some flak over a tweet in which he spelled "heal" as "heel".  I don't know whether he can't spell, whether he's getting old, or showing early signs of dementia.  None of the alternatives are correctable at this point.

Friday, September 01, 2017

The Big Sick

Saw the movie the other day and enjoyed it, although I really do need to get a hearing aid. 

The plot rests on the well-established phenomena (which I remember from my college days)--it's not knowledge of the "other" which reduces prejudice, it's cooperation and suffering together in quest of a goal.  I'm reminded of that truth when I see this report on Houston Muslims and the flooding.