Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Farm Consolidation: First They Came for Poultry

In the 1940's our family farm was small, small dairy (12 cows), small poultry (1,000 hens), but with our garden we got by. I remember my mother fussing, she was a good fusser, about people from the city (a milk deliveryman, IIRC) buying a nearby farm and building a two-story henhouse.  This must have been during a peak in egg prices, possibly tied to a war, WWII or Korea. (This has a chart of inflation and deflation in egg prices since 1947.  Note how the prices vary from year to year.)  She'd gripe that people would see good prices and would jump into farming, expanding production (of eggs, in this case), resulting in overproduction and low prices.  This would hurt the established producers, like us, while proving the naivete of the city  folk.

My mother had German ancestry, so when she experienced schadenfreude when Hurricane Hazel in the 1950's came through and caused the collapse of that henhouse, she was doing what Germans do.  By then egg prices had dropped. Our neighbors never rebuilt.  After dad died, mom kept on with the hens into the 70's, but the infrastructure, the trucker, faded away.

I think poultry  was the first agricultural commodity where there was a turn from small farms to vertical integration through contract farming and large operations. The first, but not the last.  Dairy has followed, as have hogs.  Don't know about beef.  In field crops there's been a somewhat similar process of consolidation, though I think not with vertical contracts. Instead I think there's been a move to more sophisticated marketing, futures, etc.

What's the trigger for this post?  This dailyyonder piece discusses the impact of these trends in Iowa, including the observation that hog farms have decreased by 90 percent since 1977.

My title is from the mantra about the Jews from Martin Niemoller. He was saying to act early.  I'm pretty sure there was little or nothing anyone could have done to stop these trends. 

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Be Fair to Historical Figures?

These days we judge historical figures very freely.  As a failed historian of an older generation, I get queasy with many of the judgments.  Too often they're made by applying current standards to the past, without allowing for the everyday realities people faced.

What are valid standards:

  • certainly we can criticize person A when comparable figures at the same time thought, wrote, and acted differently. The issue then becomes what's "comparable"? If Martin Luther King worked for integration as an activist, can we say all politicians, either holding or seeking office, were morally lacking if they did not work for integration?  LBJ worked for integration, but not as soon or fast or strong as MLK wanted.  Do we judge LBJ against MLK or against JFK or Ike or Nixon? 
  • there's another standard which can be applied.  I get this one from  a professor's lecture  on Jackson at Readex: if Indian removal was wrong, what was right, what was the alternative?
In some cases I know the answer is tragic, the conflict is irreconcilable.  

Monday, February 26, 2018

More or Less United Now?

Had an exchange with Megan McArdle which triggered some thoughts:  the issue is whether the US is more united now than in 1950's.  McArdle cited the decline of trust in most of our institutions  That was in response to my citing the exclusions of Catholics, Jews, blacks, etc. from society and battles over race and the Cold War. 

I think really there are different dimensions at play here.  In some respects we have a much more national society today; the differences among regions, among segments of society, are much diminished.  Strong regional institutions (think department stores or newspapers) have declined, while national institutions like Walmart and Amazon have come to the fore. 

But while we're more national in one sense, we're much more specialized in another.  In the 1950's there were three TV networks, three news weeklies, etc.  So there's much more diversity in other dimensions.

It seems to me people have an intuitive/ideal sense of the United States, of who "we are" and how close-knit we are. Who we include and who we exclude varies, both from person to person and from time to time.  Sometimes the decisions are conscious and can be explicitly stated; normally it's more of an unconscious thing. I think in the 1950's probably the average person excluded more people than they would today.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Billy Graham

Billy Graham was a Presbyterian growing up (although he became a Southern Baptist minister), my grandfather and two great grandfathers were Presbyterian ministers.

The obits in the Times and Post praised him,

In my memory my family were skeptical of him initially.  Evangelists had a poor reputation among mainline Protestants.  My grandfather had fought against fundamentalism in  Presbyterianism and Graham was Dismissing him as a press hound seeking attention was easy.  But he grew on them.  No scandals, relatively enlightened on race, appearing to be bipartisan.  We didn't know he was a prime mover in opposition to a Catholic president, though at least my mother would have agreed. We didn't know he was a suck-up to Nixon, going along with his anti-Semitism.

So he wasn't perfect, and he wasn't a moral leader like MLK.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Civil Rights at USDA

The Civil Rights office at USDA has a long and not lustrous history, undergoing a number of reorganizations, changes of leadership, and unfavorable audit reports from OIG and GAO.

There's more controversy today, as an employee in the office made a very public (in the Jefferson auditorium)  allegation of sexual misconduct:
Before an audience of USDA employees in Jefferson Auditorium at USDA headquarters, Davis said she was fed up by what she described as years of sexual harassment and retaliation by senior management in civil rights offices. She said she had had consensual sex with D. Leon King, a director in the Office of Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, in exchange for a promised promotion. Davis also named Brian Garner, director of the Farm Service Agency’s Office of Civil Rights, and several other top officials as contributing to a hostile work environment.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Josh Marshall on Collusion

Yesterday I posted skepticism about the collusion narrative.  Today Josh Marshall at TPM offers a reasoned rebuttal to the more prominent skeptics.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Contrarian Time: Trump, Russia, Guns

I'm feeling contrarian today so I'll voice two opinions which will be unpopular with my fellow liberals (most of them):

  • I don't think the Russians were really motivated to elect Trump as president; I think they wanted to cause trouble and weaken Clinton.  That fits my judgment that there wasn't serious collusion/conspiracy between Trump and the Russians--Trump himself is too disorganized and his campaign so catch as catch can that conspiracy doesn't work.  Instead, I'll fall back on Murphy's law, and a corollary: different people doing different things and not knowing what they were doing.  (If an alternate history could swap the personalities of the candidates, I'd judge there was collusion between Clinton and the Russians.)
  • I hope Congress doesn't act on gun control between now and November.  I well remember Clinton's crime bill in 1994, which included stuff for the right and an assault weapon ban for the left.  We lost Congress that fall.  The last thing we liberals need this year is anything which increases energy on the right.  (Yes, I may be misreading the climate of opinion; we may finally have reached that Holy Grail of a turning point on guns.  But I doubt it.)

Monday, February 19, 2018

Blast from the Past: J.K. Galbraith

Paul Campos at Lawyers, Guns and Money posts about reading J.K. Galbraith's "The Affluent Society" (it's been 60 years since its publication).  That was a very influential book for liberals back in the days of the New Frontier.  But then came Michael Harrington and his "The Other America" which (re)discovered poverty.  Between the two, they shaped much of my thinking back then.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Trump Budget Proposal

From here:
 The Budget supports the Secretary’s efforts to reorganize Agency functions to improve the customer and consumer experience. Under the new structure, the Farm Service Agency, Risk Management Agency, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service would be merged under the Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation. In addition, the Secretary has established an Under Secretary of Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs to sharpen USDA’s focus on increasing agriculture exports to foreign markets. The Budget also supports consolidating fair practices, standards work, and commodity procurement within the Agricultural Marketing Service. These, and other related reorganizations, are expected to improve the way USDA delivers its services. In addition, the Budget supports the creation of a business innovation center in each mission area that would handle support activities in order to avoid duplicative functions and maximize collaboration between agencies.
Improves Customer Service. Modernizing program delivery and improving customer service at USDA is an important focus of the Administration. USDA is partnering with the White House Office of American Innovation to modernize its systems undertaking four key strategies: strengthening strategic IT governance; consolidating end-user services and data centers; enabling a strategic approach to data management and introducing data-driven capabilities; and improving the USDA customer experience. The Budget supports these efforts to improve service delivery by requesting funds to develop a centralized customer service portal for customers served by the Department’s three service center agencies. This single, integrated, producer-centric web portal would provide expanded and more effective and efficient access to useful online USDA services to meet the needs of agricultural producers. By optimizing service delivery, USDA can support agricultural producers to reach their productive potential and advance the U.S. economy
The Budget proposes to optimize and improve crop insurance and commodity programs in a way that maintains a strong safety net. The Budget does this while also achieving savings, eliminating subsidies to higher income farmers, and reducing overly generous crop insurance premium subsidies to farmers and payments made to private sector insurance companies. The Budget includes a bold set of proposals, including those that would reduce the average premium subsidy for crop insurance from 62 percent to 48 percent and limit commodity, conservation, and crop insurance subsidies to those producers that have an Adjusted Gross Income of $500,000 or less. In addition, the Budget proposes reductions to overly generous subsidies provided to participating insurance companies by capping underwriting gains at 12 percent, which would ensure that the companies receive a reasonable rate of return given the risks associated with their participation in the crop insurance program. The Budget proposes to eliminate an unnecessary and separate payment limit for peanut producers and limit eligibility for commodity subsidies to one manager per farm.

Friday, February 16, 2018

An Originalist Second Amendment Proposal for Gun Control

A quick sketch of a contrarian position on gun control.

The Supreme Court's interpretation of the Second Amendment abstracts it from the original context in which the amendment was adopted.  Returning to its history would permit us to control guns effectively.

In the 18th century America, guns were a necessity for life on the frontier, if not in the cities.  But colonial governments, and I assume state goverments,were concerned that all militia members be well armed, going so far as to buy muskets and furnish them to the militia. 

Militias were geographically based; you went to war with your friends and neighbors, with your kin and fellow church members.  You typically I believe elected your officers, the captain of your company. 

My point: militia members knew the capabilities and limitations of their fellows.  They knew who were the klutzes and who the sharpshooters, who was slightly touched in the head, who drank and who was dangerous when drunk.   

These networks provided a social control on gun possession, a social control which current jurisprudence does not provide.

My Modest Proposal:  We require all gun owners to either:

  • have the signature of a person who knows them and has some status in the community. For example: an adult relative, a fellow church member, an NRA club member, a government official (Senator, congressperson, state rep).  The list can be expanded.
  • maintain his or her weapons in a repository operated by a gun club, NRA club, or firing range.
Requiring a co-signature on a gun purchase application could provide a better check on gun purchases than a database check, since it makes the co-signor liable for the misdeeds of the gun owner.  By putting the NRA in the loop, there's assurance that the measure isn't aimed at confiscating weapons. 

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Phantom Thread

Thursday and time for another short movie review.  This week it was Phantom Thread, with my spouse's favorite  actor (excluding beefcake types), Daniel Day Lewis.  As usual, he was very good, as were the two women. The cinematography was great.  It's getting lots of nominations for awards, and good reviews from critics. Having said all that, I was rather bored.    I'd give it 2 1/2 out of 4 stars.

My reaction to the writer/director's last film with Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood, was similar.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Program Costs and Farm Bill

From Illinois extension on farm bill:
Spending on Farmers: Commodities and Crop Insurance
The main components of the support system for commodity farmers are the farm programs in Title I of the Farm Bill and crop insurance. The information from CBO in Table 1 indicates that farm programs are currently on track to spend roughly $13 billion more than forecast in 2014. At the same time, the outlays for crop insurance are expected to be $11 billion less. Chart 4 provides a comparison of the outlays as projected in 2014 with outlays as reported and updated by CBO. Again year 1 corresponds to crop year 2014 and fiscal year 2016 for farm programs, but fiscal and crop years match for crop insurance.

What's Good for the Poor Isn't Good for Native Americans?

As I noted yesterday, what's proposed for SNAP in the way of food baskets seems similar to some existing programs, most notably one for Native Americans.  Liberals are mocking the administration proposal, which is fine, but why aren't we pushing to cash out the existing program?

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Infoshare: Once More Unto the Breach

Thought I was quoting The Charge of the Light Brigade, but it turns out it's Shakespeare's Henry V.

This is triggered by an FCW piece/ report on a GovExec conference, quoting  Chad Sheridan, the CIO of RMA, discussing USDA's plans to consolidate CIO's, combine mission support functions of FSA, NRCS, and RMA, and serve as the pilot for a GSA program.  See also this FCW piece.

The new website,, went online February 1.  They're starting small, very small, which is good.

This is what they promise:

"Check back monthly for new features, including:
Mobile-friendly service center locator
Program descriptions with an interactive requirements tool
Improved account login process for easy access to USDA accounts
Customer and mobile-friendly digital forms
Calendar of local events and program due dates
Customizable data dashboard
And much more"

Changing SNAP (Corrected)

Just posted my guess on the SNAP proposal from the Trump administration--turns out I'm wrong.  There are existing programs to distribute staple foods: 
"Search here to find product information sheets for USDA Foods available to households through the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR), the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP), and The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP). Staff who operate USDA Foods programs and participants often use this information to help prepare healthy meals. Each fact sheet includes a description of the USDA Foods product, storage tips, nutrition facts, and two recipes that use the product."
So the proposal is to expand the existing programs, not to piggyback on school lunch.  (The website even has recipes for using the staples, though the ratings on most of them are 3 stars out of 5.)

Changing SNAP (Food Stamps)

The Trump administration's budget includes a proposal to provide a portion of SNAP (food stamp) benefits to families in the form of a monthly food package of staples.

The proposal won't go anywhere--the grocers will see to that--so I'm not going to spend time on researching.  Instead, I'll offer the guess, only a guess, that within the USDA bureaucracy someone looked at the existing setup to buy and provide staples to schools (used to be government surplus commodities) and suggest piggybacking on the arrangements to expand and provide packages to families.  For anyone who wants to go further, here's the FNS link.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Cottonseed Makes It In

Cottonseed will be a program crop in the farm bill according to Keith Good.

I've lost any expertise I once had in this area, but this might be a way for the cotton people to get more federal money, without raising what we used to call the target price for cotton.  They might be trying to get around Brazil and the WTO, but that's only speculation.

The Great Blog Post Title Is:


Saturday, February 10, 2018

Harshaw Rule at the Olympics

From the blog of a relative, who attends almost all Olympic games and writes about them for friends and relatives:
"A lot of people over the years have asked me how I tell which are the best Olympics. I usually tell them that a lot of things just don't go well for the first few days when 7 years of planning meet the first day of reality, but the good Olympics are the ones that spot the problems and rapidly fix them. We will see whether POCOG (PyeongChang Olympic Organizing Committee) can rise to the challenge."
(The Harshaw rule is: "you never do things right the first time".  Maybe there's a corollary: spotting the problems and rapidly fixing them is essential?)

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

The Great Switcheroo: Republicans

A quote:
Second, the Republican policy reversals are staggering:
  • Members of Congress who once claimed to be committed to debt reduction would increase debt by more than $2.7 trillion in just seven weeks.
  • Congressional Republicans would increase government spending by 50% more than they cut taxes two months ago.
  • The self-labeled fiscal conservatives in Congress, who had once insisted that all government spending increases be offset by spending cuts, would abandon that principle.
  • A party that just a few years ago proposed reforming old-age entitlement spending, the principal driver of government spending growth, would have no proposals to do so. If press reports are true, this bill may even increase Medicaid spending.
  • The Republican Congressional Majority, which built last year’s balanced budget plan on deep future cuts to nondefense discretionary spending, would be supporting big increases in that spending."
Who is saying all this: Keith Hennessey, CEA under Bush.

Trump's Parades and Nixon's Uniforms

Post had an article saying President Trump has told DOD to come up with plans for a military parade in D.C.  The idea is getting a fair amount of mockery among liberals.

Because it's such a serious topic :-) I want to offer a historical parallel, President Nixon's new uniforms for the White House police.  Nixon supposedly found the old uniforms to lack class, whereas uniforms on honor guards he saw overseas were classy.  The new uniforms didn't last long, because he was mocked for having a palace guard.   See Megan McArdle some years ago.  And the NYTimes on the unveiling

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Imprisonment and Clemency: Two Examples

The Washington Post has two articles which offer perspectives on punishment and clemency:

This Metro article reporting on MD judges concerns about life sentences for juveniles:
A central question for the Maryland Court of Appeals is whether a young person can be sentenced to life without what prison reform advocates say is any realistic chance of release. The cases follow several Supreme Court rulings that distinguish between adult and juvenile offenders, who the court says are not as culpable and have a “heightened capacity for change.”
The high court in 2016 prohibited mandatory life sentences for juveniles without parole and has said young offenders must have a “meaningful” chance to show they have matured and to be released.
Then there's this Chico Harlan article about a North Korean spy who successfully bombed a South Korean airliner, killing 115 people, during the run-up to the Seoul summer Olympics.  She's living quietly as the mother of two teenagers.

The contrast between the situations is stark, mind-blowing in fact. 

Monday, February 05, 2018

Inflation and Rising Interest Rates

After the events of 2008, as Congress passed the stimulus bill and the Obama administration took charge, conservative bloggers such as those at Powerline started to worry about inflation.  Liberals such as Kevin Drum and the liberal economists mocked the concerns.  I have to admit that while I mostly agreed with the liberals, my memory of the inflation of the 1970's caused occasional qualms.

Turns out the liberals, and Bernanke and Yellen were right--we didn't have inflation over the Obama years.  Interest rates remained low.

But, with today's news of the stock market fall, there's more discussion of inflation.  Maybe finally inflation will hit and pass the 2 percent a year benchmark the Fed has used.  I'm no economist and I'm not panicking about the stock market.  But I do want to point out something I've not seen mentioned.

The federal deficit is projected to rise very significantly this year.  Trump's tax cut will hit revenues, and even if he's correct it will stimulate the economy, any increase in revenues will take a while to show up.  But what if it doesn't?  And what if inflation is at the door, and the Fed raises rates faster than expected?  The net result of higher interest rates is greater budgetary pressure and a larger deficit.  (We know that from Clinton's early years.)  That's not a good formula.

(A parenthetical note: I've not seen the Powerline bloggers raise any concerns about the deficit since January 19, 2018.)

Sunday, February 04, 2018

Cows Don't Have Privacy Any More

The Internet for Things also applies to dairy cows.  This piece describes 4 ways in which cows are being tracked: movement and location, behavior, activity, and lactation.

Saturday, February 03, 2018

140 Birds a Minute

From a Politico wrapup of weekly events in the government, on the subject of the speed of meat packing lines processing chickens:
"Under current rules, meat packers cannot exceed 140 birds per minute"
Now the image I have is of a conveyor belt with chickens hanging by the feet from it, dead, and being processed.  And there's different workers, each doing a different job.  And that means they have less than 30 seconds to, say, remove a wing.  Seems incredible to me that people can do that, hour after hour, but they do.  (Although my imagination may have significant faults in the image.)

The meat processors wanted permission to speed it up.  USDA said no.

Thursday, February 01, 2018

Robots and Dairy

Nathaniel Johnson has a piece at Grist, which also links to a Bloomberg piece, discussing the increasing use of robots in dairy farming, particularly with Trump's desire to reduce immigration.

As Johnson observes, the more robots the smaller the rural population.