Monday, December 31, 2018

Evidence of Ascension--USA Climbing

Since I blogged yesterday about declension, I should balance the scales by recognizing ways in which the US/world is better than in my youth:

  • no famines, like we had in India and China during my lifetime
  • progress in development--see Hans Rosling's presentations and books.  Back in the 50's and 6's the issue was how the Third World would do.  As it's turned out, it has done a lot better than we thought at points during the last 50 years, doing so in different ways than the conventional wisdom believed.
  • technology has opened the flow of information
  • in the US, LBJ's civil rights and Great Society legislation, aided by steps taken by later presidents, has changed the social landscape.  For all the continuing problems we have made great progress.
  • peace--despite our participation in wars in the 21st century, the Cold War is dead and buried.
  • health and safety--we've lengthened our life span and made life better even for those living longer.
I could go on, but my bottom line is I prefer living today to the past.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Evidence of Declension--US Going to the Dogs

Don't know why but today I want to write about what can be seen as evidence of decline in the U.S. over my lifetime:

  • holidays have changed.  When I was young blue laws meant many stores were closed on many holidays (except George Washington's birthday) and holidays were celebrated with more attention to their significance.  The rise of shopping every day of the week and every evening has enabled women to participate in the market economy, getting money for their work.
  • the culture has gotten "coarser".  Expletives abound, porn is available, available not only for "normal" sex but all sorts of "deviations".  There's a possible relationship to the greater openness about many subjects ("cancer" was discussed in whispers when I was young).
  • the economy seems to have gotten more concentrated--we've lost a lot of chains of department stores, a lot of family farms, a lot of local stores, a lot of newspapers. On the other hand, we used to have just 3 TV networks, and there were concentrations in steel, autos, and coal--the sectors which used to be the pride of the country and the arena in which we competed with the Soviet Union.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

FSA Offices Closed; NRCS Offices Open

That's the word.  For NRCS here.

BTW, neither agency has updated its "farm bill" page to reflect the signing of the 2018 farm bill.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Trump, Troops, and Maga Hats

I don't have a problem with Trump signing MAGA hats for troops.  I wouldn't have had a problem with Obama signing his book for troops.

Where I might have a problem is with the provenance of the hats.  Is the Baghdad PX selling them?  That's a no-no.  Did they come in "care" packages from loved ones?  That's fine, if misguided.  Did the Trump advance team provide them?  That's bad and illegal.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

The Advantage of Two-Party Rule

This Govexec piece (originally in Propublica) describes an instance of how people can learn to game government rules, in this case the HUD rules for federally-subsidized housing. If it's worthwhile, people are ingenious enough and motivated enough to figure out games, whether it's the "Potemkin Villages" of the Czars or installing walls in a building to hide major defects.

With two-party rule you establish some incentives to find dirt on the other guys.  Even there is no dirt, there's the human incentive to make change, to throw out the bathwater because it was the pet project of the other party.

Monday, December 24, 2018

My Ancestors and Carols

The Atlantic has this survey of the history of carol singing, noting how the Puritans fought it.

My paternal great grandfathers both were associated with Presbyterian churches which had problems with music--organs being the trigger.  I wonder whether that means their congregations still held against Christmas carols?  I don't know--it's worth noting the best I can tell both men were on the pro-organ sides. 

Anyhow, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

The End of Family Dairies?

The Post has an op-ed on dairy farming, beginning:

"After 40 years of dairy farming, I sold my herd of cows this summer. The herd had been in my family since 1904; I know all 45 cows by name. I couldn’t find anyone who wanted to take over our farm — who would? Dairy farming is little more than hard work and possible economic suicide."
The ex-farmer is from Wisconsin, he switched from conventional to organic mid career, and blames "organic milk" from Texas as a cause of his problems. 

Here' a USAToday story which provides some further background. 

One complaint is whether the cows producing the organic milk actually graze in the fields.  (Not that Wisconsin cows graze in the fields 12 months of the year.)

I've sympathy for the plight.  Back in my youth 45 cows was a good-sized farm, about the size of my uncle's farm (formerly my grandfather's).  Giving up a way of life is hard, particularly when you feel passed over by progress. 

Saturday, December 22, 2018

A Blast at Moving ERS from DC

The Hill publishes an opinion piece blasting USDA on its proposal to move ERS out of DC.

I don't know who would be the first and second ranked agricultural economics research institution in the world, but it says ERS is number three.

I've some sympathy with one argument for the move: finding a place where living costs are lower and a government salary  goes farther.

I remember talking with Keith Townsend, the program specialist in the state of Washington, about moving to DC and his counter arguments. That was before locality-based salaries came into effect, but I strongly suspect the adjustments probably feel inadequate to many.

Friday, December 21, 2018

How Politics Works--Give With One Hand and Take...

USDA this week announced a proposal to limit states ability to grant waivers of some SNAP provisions.

Some weeks ago HHS announced proposals to expand states ability to grant waivers of some ACA (Obamacare) provisions.
The lesson for today:  politics doesn't work the way idealistic theory says--structural provisions, like federalism, are used and manipulated to achieve political ends.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Too Confusing for Seniors?

I saw this picture on twitter.  My immediate reaction was the title.  I've had a little problem with confusion in my leased Prius.  Two things--it's the change between a conventional Corolla to a hybrid Prius and the proliferation of controls.  In a way it reminds me of software applications--for example, the proliferation of options in things like Microsoft Word.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Amy and Worst Boss?

I've supported Amy Klobuchar as my favorite candidate for the 2020 election. Recently she's gotten more publicity in terms of favorable mentions (fivethirtyeight's draft picked her as one of four favorites, along with Harris, O'Rourke, and Biden) and interviews on national TV.

So far the biggest negative about her is this piece in Politico, which says she has the highest rate of turnover of her staff of anyone in Congress.  From this fact they deduce that she's the worst boss.  While I can imagine some other possibilities I'll accept it as a factor to include in weighing her candidacy.  What's a bit more important than the turnover is whether she can attract and choose capable lieutenants, both for her campaign and administration.  (LBJ was a terrible boss by most standards, but he persuaded good people to work with him.)

Apparently her chief of staff was in Harvard in 2006 in a music appreciation class for which the lab page is still up.  She seems to be the daughter of a Minnesota attorney and may be 32.

We'll see over the next 23 months.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

George Washington on Refugees

Washington wrote to a recent immigrant from Ireland in 1783, who was representative of a number of such immigrants:
The bosom of America is open to receive not only the opulent & respectable Stranger, but the oppressed & persecuted of all Nations & Religions; whom we shall wellcome to a participation of all our rights & previleges, if by decency & propriety of conduct they appear to merit the enjoyment.

Monday, December 17, 2018

They All Look(ed) the Same

Saw a picture related to a review of a book on Calhoun, Webster, and Clay.  The picture is here.

I've long been aware of sameness in people.  Back in the day,all mainland Chinese wore Mao jackets, and there were no Yao Mings then.  Visiting ballet companies from the Soviet Union didn't present much diversity in size or complexion. Military parades showed soldiers almost uniform in height.  We still see some of this when viewing reports from North Korea, although my impression is that there's more diversity at least in dress there.

I've always related this uniformity to cows and hens--visitors to the farm could not see how we could recognize our cows by sight--to them all cows looked the same.  We of course knew different, but when it came to our hens they really did all look the same.  (Not really--when looking at group of hens I'd recognize differences while I was looking, but it wasn't possible for the differences to make enough of an impression for me to remember individual hens the next day.)

Anyhow, what's interesting to me in this picture is how similar all the Senators, and onlookers, look.  They're all dressed the same, and their faces look the same--typical WASP faces.  Compare the picture above with this showing the new House members:

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Free Land in Britain

When I studied American history the influence of the Frederick Jackson Turner Frontier Thesis was waning, but still being considered.  A part of the thesis was the presence of "free land" as a safety valve for workers in urban areas. Then I had a government professor, Theodore Lowi, who divided government functions into regulation, redistribution, and distribution (of goodies). Finally I had a history professor, Paul Gates, who did a lot of work on land issues. 

With that background I've often been interested in such issues; most recently today when I read a review of a biography of Thomas Cromwell in the Times, a review which included the statement that one-third of the land in Britain was taken from the church and redistributed when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in a process overseen by Cromwell. That seems incredibly high to me but I don't know.

I wonder about the long-term economic impacts of the distribution--presumably buying and selling of land by monasteries was less common than when the laiety took title.   Herman DeSoto has a theory on the importance of having land titled as paving the way for mortgaging and selling land.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

No Shortage of Presidential Candidates

According to Ballotpedia, a site I recommend:

  • More than 430 candidates have already filed with the Federal Election Commission to run for president in 2020, including 128 Democrats, 59 Republicans, 18 Libertarians, and 10 Greens.

Friday, December 14, 2018

"It's" the Deterioration of Age

Among the nits I'm bothered by is the misuse of "it's" as possessive.  "It's" of course is a contraction of "it is" and should never be used otherwise.

All through my life I've adhered to this rule with little problem. 

But now...

Now it seems that my brain and my rules are on different pages.  I routinely type "it's" when it fits as a possessive.  Apparently the age-related impairment my recent MRI found involves undermining that aspect of my typing memory which knew the difference.

The good news is that part of my brain which proofs what I've done--I think it's a general capability not limited to reviewing my writing--still seems capable.  So I type "it's position is..." and then go back and delete the apostrophe.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

HR 2--Farm Bill

HR2 has now passed both Houses of Congress.  Here's a summary:

"The bill modifies agriculture and nutrition policies to:
  • require farmers to make a new election to obtain either Price Loss Coverage or Agricultural Risk Coverage for the 2019-2023 crop years, which may be changed for the 2021-2023 crop years;
  • replace the Dairy Margin Protection Program with Dairy Risk Coverage and modify coverage levels and premiums;
  • make Indian tribes and tribal organizations eligible for supplemental agricultural disaster assistance programs;
  • reduce the adjusted gross income limitation for receiving benefits under commodity and conservation programs; [the nieces and nephews provision[
  • modify funding levels and requirements for several conservation programs,
  • consolidate several existing trade and export promotion programs into a new Priority Trade Promotion, Development, and Assistance program;
  • legalize industrial hemp and make hemp producers eligible for the federal crop insurance program;
  • establish an interstate data system to prevent the simultaneous issuance of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as the food stamp program) benefits to an individual by more than one state;
  • increase the loan limits for farm ownership and operating loans;
  • modify the experience requirement for farm ownership loans;
  • authorize a categorical exclusion from requirements for environmental assessments and environmental impact statements for certain forest management projects with the primary purpose of protecting, restoring, or improving habitat for the greater sage-grouse or mule deer; and
  • modify the organic certification requirements for imported agricultural products."

I find I'm no longer current enough with the law to comment.  "Qualified pass-through entities" instead of partnerships and joint ventures?  Don't know what it signifies.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

The Boy, the Hammer, the Nail, and Trump

The old saying is: give a boy a hammer and he'll see everything as a nail, as something to hit with the hammer.  It's true enough--we get set in our ways so we use the same approaches to every problem. And when we have a tool there are opportunities.

But I realized today you can change the saying, almost reverse it.  Suppose the boy has a nail to pound and no hammer?  Then everything he sees becomes a potential hammer.  It's "necessity is the mother of invention" time.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Silos: Culture Versus Change

I've written before on the problems of combining organizations--typically I've seen the problem through the lens of organizational culture--for example, ASCS and SCS had very different cultures when I was working.

But I saw something today which caused me to think of another consideration.  The story: I was doing my morning walk, coming through the Hunters Mills shopping center, which now is your standard strip mall. In a couple places I saw they'd placed cobblestones and fine stone next to the curb.  The places were at the corner of an intersection and the logic of placing the stones was to handle cases where the turning radius of a long tractor trailer was larger than the radius of the intersection, meaning the rear wheels of the trailer would jump the curb and put ruts into the grass.

I came up with a "just so" story to explain this:  back in the day when Reston's roads were designed, some 30-50 years ago, tractor trailers were shorter than they are now.  So you had one organization working on road design standards and other organizations designing tractor trailers to provide the most cost efficient transportation.  Each organization had its own focus and its own evolutionary history and impulses, their culture.  But what's important is the changes happening within the organization, not any cultural conflict between the two organizations. 

So, coming back to ASCS and SCS--the bigshots in USDA could look at them and see a static picture, meaning changes ordered by management would be the only thing going on (particularly when IT types were ignorant of programs).

Monday, December 10, 2018

The Farm Bill and Payment Limitation

The Post editorial page says that Rep. Conaway got his nieces/nephews provision (see my previous post under this label) included in the farm bill, which will be included in the final appropriations bill, assuming Congress and the President can come to some agreement on it.

This seems to fit a long lasting pattern where public attention is limited in both time and scope.  So when people pay attention to how the farm bill is being put together in House and Senate payment limitation will get attention.  Attention means that the power of the lobbyists and "special interests" is somewhat diminished as the more fringe players have more of a place at the table.

But when public attention moves away from the subject the lobbyists/special interests then have more power.  Typically they exercise their power by adding provisions to appropriations bills or omnibus "must pass" legislation where the voices which oppose the provision, like the Post editorial writers, are drowned in concerns over the bigger picture--as now, whether or not part of the government will be shut down, mostly over a dispute over the President's "Wall".

Sunday, December 09, 2018

Update on Vertical Farming

Via @TamarHaspel, here's a piece on Medium assessing the current status of vertical farming.  Bottom line: the vertical farming startups are very close-mouthed about their data, which leads the writer to doubt whether many of them will succeed. 

Given that current farms focus on greens sold at premium prices, there's also skepticism over whether the concept can achieve more than niche status.

Saturday, December 08, 2018

Dairy in Japan

Google's official blog has a  post on a big (900 cow) dairy in Japan.

While most/many Asians may be lactose-intolerant, there seems to be enough exceptions to support a dairy industry.

Some googling found this paper by the Japanese Dairy Council which covers the ground from a to z.

A couple highlights--no. of dairy farms has declined from over 400,000 in the 60's to 20,000 in the 2010's, number of cows has been relatively steady at about 1.4 million or so.  Consumption is about half in milk and half in cheese/butter.  For anyone with more stamina than I there's an explanation of how milk is marketed and how the government's subsidy/regulation setup works.

Friday, December 07, 2018

Late-Life Discoveries

Sometimes it's amazing how stupid, or not exactly stupid but unaware, I've been.

I discovered yesterday that I comb my hair with my left hand.  That's surprising because I write right-handed and do everything else right-handed, although I have retrained to use my left hand to mouse when I developed carpal tunnel in the right.  The retraining took a while, but I got it done.

Partly this is triggered by a tweet replying to L.D.Burnett's tweet about typing, when I recalled how muscle memory kicked in towards the end of my half-year typing class in HS and suddenly I was typing 45-50 wpm instead of 10. 

It now makes sense of a childhood memory of adults conferring over my head on which side of my head the part should be.  Someone, I forget who, perhaps a barber or my father quoting a barber, saying to leave me to discover which way felt natural to me.  Somehow I did, though it still seems a little strange to see a photo where my hair is parted differently than the mirror shows.

Thursday, December 06, 2018

Movie Review: Green Book

The movie has attracted some flak in the media, but my wife and I enjoyed it.

In a way it reminded me of movies like "Pretty Baby Woman [Freudian slip]"--the standard plot about people with different personalities who change each other, especially the one where with the romantic stereotypes of the spontaneous, earthy, joi de vivre type gets the uptight person to seize the day

The movie does that plot well.  It's relieved from being too corny because in this movie the black character is the WASP buttoned up one and the white character is his opposite.  To me that dynamic is more important to the movie than the racial issues--the prejudices of the 1960's and the segregation in the South--though it's the racial aspects which seem to attract media attention.

And the acting is great--we've liked Mortensen from past performances, ever since Witness and then LOR.  Despite the 50 pounds he may have added for the role, and the weight he may have added doing all the eating in the script, he still comes across as capable and intelligent.  And the only thing wrong with Ali is I can't spell his last name.

It hasn't been doing well at the box office, but it just picked up five Golden Globe nominations for the movie and its actors.

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

My Thoughts on the "Greatest Generation"

A reply to a Wendell Pierce tweet:
As the media reflects on the passing of the Greatest Generation, they should remember that generation was flawed. It allowed segregation &watched Americans kill others trying to exercise their right to vote.Greatness was their ability to change & live up to their professed values

Replying to 
Flawed, as every generation is flawed: failing to fully correct evils they knew of, and failing to recognize clearly evils their descendants see all too clearly.

As you can tell, I'm ambivalent, as usual, particularly about making moral judgments on the past.  We're all stuck with the history we inherit.  The best we can expect of anyone, whether individual, generation, or nation, is to do better than their predecessors.

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Nieces and Nephews in Farming?

AEI notes the House Ag chair is pushing to allow nieces and nephews to be "persons' for payment limitation purposes:
"In the midst of this week’s negotiations over the farm bill, House Committee on Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway (R-TX) is pushing to remove any limits on subsidy payments to farms through what has become known as his “nieces and nephews” provision. This provision would increase the number of people eligible to receive up to $125,000 in subsidy payments under one of two major income transfer programs, whether the people in question really participate in the farm business or not.* * *Currently, only two people per each farm business can be eligible for these programs — called Price Loss Coverage and Agricultural Risk Coverage — capping total payments to a farm business to $250,000. However, the “nephews and nieces” provision proposed by the current chair of the House Committee on Agriculture would substantially increase the number of people eligible for a payment. For example, an agribusiness owner with four “nieces and nephews” described as “actively engaged in farming,” because they participate in an annual earning’s conference call, would be allowed to classify those four people as “actively engaged” because of that call. The owners would then be able to increase the subsidy paid to the farm business up to a limit of $1.5 million a year.

Monday, December 03, 2018

Did the Elite Used To Believe in Service?

The current assessments of George H.W. Bush's life often include a statement to the effect that in the past the elite, as exemplified by Bush,, used to believe in service to the nation, in noblesse oblige.  Such statements seem to be accepted unthinkingly, without question.

I'm not so sure there's that much difference between now and the past.  When you look at the business elite, the big shots with the big bucks, there seems to be a mixture of plutocracy and service. For every Rockefeller, Ford, and Carnegie Foundation created decades ago you can match similar efforts by Gates and Buffett.

Charlie Wilson famously said what's good for the U.S. is good for General Motors, and vice versa.  Our current elite knows better to say that, but I suspect they think it.  Wilson headed DOD under Ike.  Trump has had his own set of rich men, members of the elite albeit rather second level, serving in his administration.

My bottom line is that there's always been a mixture of motivations for public service: some people want new fields to explore (think Sen. Corker), some people want a career in politics moving in and out of government depending on which party is in control, some just fall into it.

[Update:  Erik Loomis at Lawyers, Guns, & Money visits the grave of Joseph Choate, touching on some of the good and bad aspects of the old-time elite beliefs.  Choate's brother founded the Choate private school, now Choate-Rosemary Hall, attended by many elite, including JFK. ]

Saturday, December 01, 2018

Catching Up With Sharon Astyk

Years ago I followed the blog of Sharon Astyk.  She was an interesting writer, an environmentalist who pushed peak oil and locavore ideas.  She and her husband and children lived on a small farm where she did her canning, writing books, and held classes on her ideas. I didn't agree with her ideas but found her persona appealing.

Time passed and she gradually dropped the blog and pushing her ideas and devoted more time and energy to foster children.  (I don't know if she ever dealt with the failure of her predictions to eventuate.)

The other day I googled her and found this article: the Astyks have left the farm for an urban setting, taking advantage of a city for rearing foster children with special needs.