Friday, November 30, 2018

Farm Production and Conservation (FPAC) Business Center

Hadn't seen this before this public notice of redelegations of authority by the secretary of USDA.  Turns out I'm way way late to the game.

This is what is included in the 2019FY budget for the center.

This is the explanation of the center:
"The Farm Production and Conservation (FPAC) Business Center is a centralized operations office within the FPAC mission area and headed by the Chief Operating Officer (COO), who is also the Executive Vice President of the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC). The FPAC Business Center is responsible for financial management, budgeting, human resources, information technology, acquisitions/procurement, customer experience, internal controls, risk management, strategic and annual planning, and other similar activities for the FPAC mission area and its component agencies, including the Farm Service Agency (FSA), the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and the Risk Management Agency (RMA). The FPAC Business Center ensures that systems, policies, procedures, and practices are developed that provide a consistent enterprise-wide view to effectively and efficiently deliver programs to FPAC customers, including farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners."
It sounds very much like Sec. Glickman's proposal in the late 1990's, a proposal which was killed in Congress.

According to this article on the creation of FPAC from February Bob Stephenson is the head and the initiation of the center is Oct 1.

One of the complications in implementing this is the mixed legal status of NRCS--it's a federal agency working with the Soil and Water Conservations Districts which are established by state law and get funding from states and which have their own organization to lobby Congress.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Seeing Into the Future--Democratic House-Senate Split

Perry Bacon at Fivethirtyeight has a piece on the growth of the progressive wing of the House Democratic party.  While the Blue Dogs have revived a bit, the progressives were strengthened much more by the results of 2018.  This got me to thinking, always dangerous.

Pelosi will be the Speaker, and she'll have to work to keep her caucus united.  Meanwhile, over on the Senate side McConnell will lead a slightly stronger Republican party, which is also more conservative, losing Flake and what's his face from Nevada.  And Schumer's Democrats are facing a tough road in the 2020 elections.  He'll want to protect his incumbents and try to lay the groundwork to challenge the vulnerable Republicans in 2020.

All this reflects the increasing division of the country, as shown in our elections:  the red States went a little redder and the blue and purple areas went more blue, or in institutional terms, the Senate goes conservative and the House goes liberal.

So Pelosi, Schumer, and McConnell will be deeply challenged to get legislation passed, particularly the Dems.

55+ years ago a government professor of mine named Theodore J. Lowi theorized, perhaps not originally with him, that changes in parties didn't happen by the out-party changing their policies but by the in-party dividing and losing focus.  Not sure how that theory stands up to today's politics.

[updated to add second link]

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Diversity at the Founding

J. L. Bell in Boston 1776 discusses the deliberations which led to the Great Seal (and Franklin's turkey).  The various proposals included this one, from a Swiss artist who was consulted by the Continental Congress:

 Du Simitière:
For the Seal he proposes. The Arms of the several Nations from whence America has been peopled, as English, Scotch, Irish, DutchGerman &c. each in a Shield. On one side of them Liberty, with her Pileus, on the other a Rifler, in his Uniform, with his Rifled Gun in one Hand, and his Tomahauk, in the other. This Dress and these Troops with this Kind of Armour, being peculiar to America…

The Americans involved seem to have favored classical themes and references, but the outsider was struck by our diversity.

USDA Civil Rights Post

The president's nominee to be assistant secretary for civil right faced her Senate Ag committee hearing.

She was head of the EEO office in 1987-90.  I wonder if she was asked about the Pigford suits and settlements at all? 

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Cargo Trikes

Who knew that "cargo trikes" are a thing?   I surely didn't, but when you google the phrase there are a number of models to choose from.

What is a "cargo trike"--it's a tricycle with a cargo platform/box behind the driver/pedaler, sometimes with battery assist.

Reminds me of the 3-wheeler motorcycle based buses in Vietnam in the 1960's--could handle 6 people.

Apparently these vehicles are finding a place elsewhere in the world to deliver things in urban areas. There's probably a dichotomy: some would be in areas like New Delhi where the congestion is  great.  The others might be in Europe to displace gas/diesel vehicles from downtown areas, replacing polluting engines with human (mostly) power.

I wonder--is this an example of innovation and technology creating new jobs which don't require advanced education?

Monday, November 26, 2018

Verizon Fios, Ricky Jay, and Mystery Writers

Been having problems which may link to our router, furnished by Verizon as part of our FIOS plan.  So I spent much of the afternoon chatting with a saleswoman, trying to explain that we were happy with our current service (and reconciled to the price) but needed a new router.  She was persistent in trying to upgrade us in different ways. 

It was an interesting experience, which led me to think about information asymmetry.  What I experienced today wasn't exactly an asymmetry in information.  Verizon lists all their options for services, equipment, etc. and the costs for each on their website.  So in theory I had the information I needed available to me. What I didn't have was the time, patience, maybe the brainpower, and definitely the self-confidence to sort through the options and make my decisions. 

Ricky Jay died, and the papers are running his obits.  If I understand magic, which I don't, in theory the audience has the information to see through the act. But the magician gives us so much information, much of it misleading, that we are totally confused.

Mystery writers, at least the classic ones, give the reader all the clues needed to determine "who done it", but so artfully, included with so much dross, most readers will be surprised in the end.

What I'm saying is there's some underlying commonality among the three scenarios.  There's two parties, and one party has the advantage in the relationship because they control how the relationship is structured, particularly by providing a surplus of "information".

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Originalism and State Constitutions

Originalism a la Scalia is the conservative/libertarian philosophy of interpretation of the US Cnstitution.  It seems to have different flavors: interpret the words according to their meaning at the time of adoption; interpret them based on the intentions of the writers, etc.

As a liberal I don't buy it, but it does seem to be a more consistent doctrine than anything on the liberal side.  I suspect, though, that the doctrine gains support because of our glorification of the "Founding Fathers".  Americans like to believe they were wise lawgivers, like Moses coming down with the  Ten Commandments. 

In the recent election we voted on a couple amendments to the Virginia constitution. They were rather specific.  The language of one meant adding this provision:
(k) The General Assembly may by general law authorize the governing body of any county, city, or town to provide for a partial exemption from local real property taxation, within such restrictions and upon such conditions as may be prescribed, of improved real estate subject to recurrent flooding upon which flooding abatement, mitigation, or resiliency efforts have been undertaken.
That amendment isn't comparable to the amendments of the US Constitution. 

The VA site on the constitution observes:
Virginia signed its first constitution in 1776 upon the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Since that time, there have been frequent amendments and six major revisions to the constitution: 1830, 1851, 1864, 1870, 1902, and 1971. Our current constitution is an amended version of the 1971 constitution. These revisions to the Virginia constitution are representative of the political, social, regional, and racial climate of the times.
The writers of the original constitution were some of the Founding Fathers--Madison, Jefferson, Wilson, so one would think that we should have revered their language just as we do the US constitution. But we didn't, nor have we done so with later revisions.  See this site for state constitutions.

So my question for the originalists--does/should the doctrine apply as well to state constitutions?

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Modern Loneliness--Brooks and Sasse

Arthur Brooks has an op-ed in the Times on loneliness in modern times, partially keyed off Sen. Sasse's book.  (DA paragraph:
Mr. Sasse worries even more, however, about a pervasive feeling of homelessness: Too many Americans don’t have a place they think of as home — a “thick” community in which people know and look out for one another and invest in relationships that are not transient. To adopt a phrase coined in Sports Illustrated, one might say we increasingly lack that “hometown gym on a Friday night feeling.”
This tweet by Adam Rothman includes some pushback to the position.

I agree there can be loneliness and social isolation in the city or suburb. Some of that is shaped by the social structure, some is chance, and some is personal choice.  The city has always been a place of freedom and opportunity, and it remains so.  The thick society found in rural areas and the smaller towns often has its downsides.  

There have been some reports that American mobility is down, both mobility among classes and geographic moves.  I suspect some of the people who are concerned with the lack of a "thick" community are also concerned with the lack of mobility.  IMHO the two go together in many cases.

"Dialing" the Phone Versus Cranking It

Saw a twitter thread the other day--some wordplay about phones.  The person with the last word claimed to know how to "dial" a phone, or was familiar with a dial phone.

I could top that claim--I remember how to crank a phone: back in the days of a party line you cranked the phone to ring the bell.  (Remember the "Bell" System?  Of course the phone was invented (officially for the US by Alexander Graham Bell) so it's just coincidence that the signal was a "bell", or something close to it.)  Each house had it's own code--long rings and short rings, the length of the ring determined by how long you cranked.

Today though we still talk of dialing the phone, even though we're "buttoning" it, rather than dialing.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Changing Views--You Can't Control the Future

My grandfather chose a cemetery plot in the Sylvan Lawn Cemetery in Greene, NY, one where he, his wife, and three children with spouses could be buried.  (Didn't work out the way he planned.)   My cousin was asking why he chose that cemetery.

This picture shows the entrance.

What it doesn't show is the view, not the view of today but the view in 1936 when my grandmother died and he was choosing a cemetery.  The cemetery is on the side of the hill just to the east of the Chenango River, west of  E.Juliand and north of Greene St.

 Most of the town is on the floodplain west of the river.  Back in 1936 there was a fine view west, looking over the town and to the hill behind the town.  Even in the 1960's the view was good.  But by the time my sister's ashes were interred in the plot trees have grown tall and thick, obscuring any view from the plot

Such growth has occurred all over the East--both on the farm where I grew up and along the Hudson, where the houses and mansions of the wealthy once had great views of the river and west to the Catskills. 

Monday, November 19, 2018

Trump Administration Gets Bad Press, a Bit Unfairly

Our president would argue there's no news in my title. But while I'd argue the administration often deserves all the poor publicity it gets, articles in the press today are a bit unfair.

I'm referring to an article in the NYTimes on the progress of payments under Trump's "Market Facilitation Program" of providing payments to producers of commodities whose sale has been impacted by Trump's tariffs. The criticism is partly that FSA has been slow in getting payments out to farmers (and also that the payment rates aren't equitable.)

I'll make my point by citing a blog I follow: Life on a Colorado Farm.  (I recommend it for the great photos and the glimpses into the rhythms of farm life.)  The author reported today they'd just finished corn harvest.  Why is that important?  Corn growers can qualify for MFP payments only if and when they can provide production evidence, like warehouse receipts.  I don't know that they're going to apply for MFP payments (my guess is not), but today is the first day they could have a completed application. 

While it's true grain harvests are winding down, the USDA-NASS graphs show soybean harvests span about 2 months, from mid September when it begins to now, when it's 85-90 percent.  What that time frame could mean is that FSA offices receiving the applications are overwhelmed.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Farmers Do Their Thing With Pot

A Post article describes the declining price of marijuana where legalized. 

States projected revenue assuming low productivity gains when real farmers took over from the pot growers. (exaggerated for the point).  But real farmers are good, so prices are falling and so are tax revenues.

Thursday, November 15, 2018


Discussion this morning with my cousin on the possible replacement of Rep. Pelosi as Speaker of the House in the new Congress.  We agree on two points, which may not be compatible: (1) Democrats in the House need new leadership in the future and (2) Pelosi needs to be Speaker when the House organizes in January.

She's about a year older than I.  She seems not to have lost much, if anything, unlike me.  :-(

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

What's the Market Dynamics for Hearing Aids?

Starting to get a hearing aid.  The process raises questions about how the market works.

Apparently, from Consumer Report reviews there's little difference among the leading brands. But the prices seem high, particularly when you look at some of the personal devices being hawked on the Internet.  How do audiologists get away with charging so much and why doesn't competition drive the price down?

 Probably part of it is an information disparity, such as we often feel when dealing with doctors, etc.  The audiologist selling the hearing aids knows a lot more than we do as a first-time buyer.  And once we have a good experience with her/him, we'll keep going back to them. 

So it's rather like buying a car--once you've bought the first one you're likely, all other things being equal, to keep going back to the same dealer and manufacturer.  There's also the age factor: I suppose most aids are sold to older people and, while I wouldn't say we're gullible, I would say we're easier marks than younger types.  (Note the "we"--while theoretically I could experiment with online devices, I won't--I'll go with the flow.)

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

The Declining Value of Signatures

Stories on the elections, particularly in Florida but also elsewhere, have touched on the issue of signatures, but without going into much detail.  I assume what happens is that the voting registrar has a voter's signature on file and is trying to match it to a signature on an absentee ballot or a mail ballot.

Thinking about my signature over the years causes me to believe that the process is of declining value:

  • my signature has varied--usually I've signed "William D. Harshaw", but occasionally "William David..." I use "Bill..." for less official occasions.
  • my bank may still have my 1968 signature on file, although perhaps it's been updated.  IIRC when I bought the house in 1976 I had to go to an officer of the bank to convince him I was me, because the difference in signatures over the 8 years was great enough to raise doubts.
  • but that was back in the day when I made payments by check, signing 5 or more checks each month.  These days I likely write 5 or more checks in a year, so whenever I sign a check I'm really out of practice.  I'd predict that means my signature is more variable these days.
  • I usually use a debt card instead of a credit card, but when I use the credit card I often have to sign using my finger on a tablet, not using a pen.  My tablet signal bears only a slight resemblance to my pen and ink signature.
So my bottom line is the bureaucracy should begin to steer away from signatures as a proof of identity.

[Updated: post on signatures.]

Monday, November 12, 2018

The Swings of National Politics

One of the theories of political scientists, I think including Jonathan Bernstein, is that voters engage in strategic voting--for example in 2016 they voted for Republican senatorial candidates expecting Clinton to become president. The effect generally and nationally is to swing power from one party to the other.

I've no citations to oppose the theory, but I've another one which may be at least complementary.  The book "The Politics of Resentment" argues in part that rural voters feelignored by the political establishments in Madison, WI and DC.  This fits with the idea that voting for Trump in 2016 was sending a message to the establishment.  What happens when the message is sent?  Perhaps enthusiasm wanes.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Women Who Don't Work?

Deb Perelman writes about bake sales: "They feel like a holdover from a time when many moms didn’t work "

We all know what she means--the women didn't work for pay.  They didn't have an employer paying them.

Economics skews our picture of reality.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

When Are Farmers No Longer Farmers

From a Congressional Research Service report on 2018 Farm Income Outlook comes  a table which I can't incorporate.

You can access it here.  What struck me first, from the CRS report, was the rapid increase in farm household income from off farm sources, to the point that off-farm accounted for easily 3 or 4 times as much income as farm sources.

Then, as I tried to find a way to get the image into this post, and failed, I found this ERS spreadsheet.  We all remember the difference between "mean" and "median", right.  According to the table the median farmer had no income from farming in the years 2013-2018. 

That's weird, but this helps to explain it (from a Rural Development Perspectives article)
Almost 90 percent of elderly operators' average household income came from off-farm sources, with nearly half of their off-farm income coming from "other off-farm income," which includes Social Security. Another 19 percent of their off-farm income came from interest and dividends, reflecting savings and investments by these households during earlier years. Unlike elderly operators, operators under age 65 received most of their off-farm income from wages, salaries, or self-employment.
 That was my mother after my father died--for a number of years she continued the poultry operation, but SS income was really the basis of her livelihood.  But we don't think of these situations when discussing "farmers".

Friday, November 09, 2018

Klobuchar for President

Previously I've mentioned Hickenlooper as a possible candidate for the presidency. In October it was Hickenlooper and Klobuchar.  Today my preference is Klobuchar

I still like him, but now I'd like to see Amy Klobuchar   My number one priority is someone who can beat Trump in 2020.  Today I think she can.  More importantly, I predict on November 3, 2020 I'll believe it still.  Why:

  • in 2020 she'll be 60 years old, 14 years younger than Trump and younger by a similar margin than Sanders, Biden, and Clinton, and 11 years younger than Warren., 8 than Brown''
  • in 2020 she'll be 60,   4 years older than Harris, 12 years older than O'Rourke, 9 years than Booker, 6 years than Gillibrand,
  • her experience in government relative to her competitors is roughly similar to her age--more experience than those younger, less than those older
  • by 2020 I expect the great American electorate to have tired of Trump, even more than they have already.  The contrast between "Minnesota nice" and "New York crass [add your own adjectives] could not be greater.
  • having been elected to the Senate 3 times from the Midwest battleground of Minnesota shows her ability to campaign and win.
  • early analysis of the landscape for the 2020 election sees the MW states of WI, MI, and MN along with PA as key, so her  Minnesota background gives her a headstart.
  • all else equal, I think a woman will do better in debates with Trump than a man would.  I see Clinton as having done better against him than the 16 Republican men.
What are her vulnerabilities:
  • foreign affairs/national security.  Depending on the course of events over the next 2 years her lack of background could be a real handicap.
  • perceptions: "too nice to lead", "not a tough enough fighter against Trump" would be my guesses at the lines of attack against her. I think her exchange with Kavanaugh helped her here, but much will depend on her ability in debates.
  • not progressive enough.  That would be the view of the Sanders cluster of the Democratic party.  I think she's about as progressive as the nation will stand as a president in current circumstances, absent a recurrence of the Great Recession.

Thursday, November 08, 2018

The History of NY Dairy, and the Future?

Civil Eats had a piece on Engelbert Farms of Nichols, NY, which isn't too far away from where I grew up.  The farm is partly in the flood plain of the Susquehanna, meaning it's got some good soil.  Our farm was partly (very small part) in the flood plain of the Page Brook flood plain, meaning we had less good soil.  The farm now consists of over 1,000 acres, owned and rented.  Our farm was 80 acres, owned.

From the Civil Eats piece I did a search for the farm's website, which has this history of the farm.

From the history you can infer much about the overall history of dairy in NY--the consolidation of farms, the competition for land from urban and industrial uses, the influence of Cornell and extension, etc.

The farm was an early, perhaps the early adopter of organic principles, so it might predict the future.

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

How Did I Do on Predictions

Scott Adams predicted a huge Republican turnout. I was somewhat skeptical, but he was right. He waffled on whether the Republican vote total would exceed the Democrats.  I predicted it wouldn't.

A few days ago I didn't predict, but considered the possibility that Trump's rallies presaged a surprising victory for the Republicans.  They didn't.

I didn't make any official prediction for the elections--I would have used the Fivethirtyeight estimates as the basis if I had, meaning I would have done okay but not great.

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

I Voted Today

My precinct had three sign-in stations where they scan your VA drivers license/ID card and ask you for your name and address.  Then you get your paper ballot, go to the booth and mark it, then scan it at one of two stations.

We waited maybe half a minute for a sign-in station to free up; no waits thereafter.

The precinct seemed busy.  I think usually we get around 700 votes.

Monday, November 05, 2018

Changing Times--Bureaucrats in FSA

I wish USDA had continued to publish an organizational telephone directory.  Back in the day, before computers, we had a printed directory for FSA and a separate one for all USDA DC employees.  I particularly miss the first, which showed employees by their unit.  As far as I know that information is no longer available.  Neither is the old USDA organizational directory which showed all the agencies with their managers down to at least branch level.

All this is triggered by the table in Notice MFP-4 showing the three program specialists to whom questions should be referred--all three are women.  Back in the day, a female program specialist in DC was rare, not unheard of but rare.  With an old-style phone directory I could figure out whether it's now the case that male program specialists are endangered.

Sunday, November 04, 2018

Pro-Growth Will Win in 2020?

Michael Tomasky argues that to win in 2020 Dems need to argue for growth against the supply-side theories of the Republicans. 
Democrats, rather than merely appealing to people’s consciences, will be able to respond that government investments and wage increases are growth producers that will spread benefits well beyond the top 5 percent or 10 percent.
 I'm not sure that's right, not entirely.  

Frank Bruni talks to people about how to win in 2020:  A couple Republicans observe:
Be direct, blunt and consistent. “He has the same message today that he did the day he came down the elevator at Trump Tower,” Myers observed. “The message discipline is incredible. He has never wavered. It’s very real and very powerful.”Convey strength. More than ever voters seem to crave that, and many see it in Trump — in the steadiness that Myers mentioned, in the way he confronts cultural headwinds, in his sustained advocacy for Kavanaugh. “The American people like a fighter,” Lewandowski said. “Donald Trump proved that.”"
Trump is "consistent "?  That's not how I see him--he goes back and forth on many issues. But he comes across as "Trump" everyday, every way. 

Saturday, November 03, 2018

Promising Book on Rural Consciousness

May post more later, but just got Katherine Cramer's "The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker". 

Looks good--I can definitely understand her description of "rural consciousness."

(As the polling of the current election seems to show a growing rural and remote suburb versus urban and close suburb gap, this may be more relevant than ever, even though written before 2016.)

Friday, November 02, 2018

Perdue Tanks USDA Morale?

From a Govexec piece on agencies with dropping employee satisfaction:

In March, the Agriculture Department announced that it was severely restricting its telework program, reducing the amount of time employees can work remotely from four days a week to one, or two per pay period. The policy change reportedly came after Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue was unable to find an employee in the office on a day that person was telecommuting.
I've some sympathy with Perdue.  He's likely had little to no experience with telecommuting (not that I have any, having retired before it was really approved) and it could have been a shock the first time you try to find someone who's at home, working.

I found this anonymous report from inside USDA  which provides an employee view of the importance of telecommuting, but disappointly has no juicy gossip about the inciting incident.

The real point is something Perdue as a politician should know--it's never easy to take a benefit from a taxpayer or an employee.

Thursday, November 01, 2018

Considering the Unthinkable

It's worthwhile to pause my incessant checking of the NYTimes polling site and the fivethirtyeight assessment of probable and possible outcomes and consider the unthinkable:

Maybe, just maybe, the polls are off and Trump's packed rallies represent something more than the enthusiasm of a set of niche voters.  It seems that pollsters and analysts may have reassessed their performance in 2016 and have changed their methods and approach in 2018.  I hope so.  But it's also possible the pull of a conventional wisdom is still working.

We should know  in five days time, although the worse thing I've seen today is the idea it will take weeks to find out who controls the House.  (The reason: a lot of close races and the long time it takes to count mail ballots, particularly in CA.)