Friday, May 31, 2019

Re FBI; Barr Has a Point

Saw in surfing that AG Barr said something to the effect the FBI should not have investigated Trump.

I suspect my fellow liberals and Democrats will be aghast at the idea: no one should be above the law, etc.

But I'm old enough to think he has something of a point.  Apparently the FBI transcripts from their wiretapping of Martin Luther King have just been released, which should serve as a reminder of the power J. Edgar had in his heyday through the suspicion he had files on everyone in DC. 

My point is that investigations are power, and we should have checks and balances applied to the FBI when they investigate possible misdoing by high official, or candidates for high offices.  From what I understand of the background of the FBI investigation into Russian meddling and the involvement of the Trump campaign it was conducted well and had some oversight.  Certainly President Obama was aware of the proceedings and tried to take action.  But that seems to have been based on the judgment of the officials involved, not the operations of any particular legal structure.

To me, the whole Trump-Russian mess raises big questions: what sort of help can/should campaigns accept from noncitizens, from nonresidents, from citizens of friendly nations, from citizens of  possible adversaries, or members of the government of adversaries?  How is that defined in relation to the First Amendment?  To the extent we now have laws against such help, or decide to add them in the future, how should investigations of possible breach of such laws be handled?  We can't leave it to the FBI director--J. Edgar proves that.  We can't leave it to the appointed heads of Justice or the elected head of the government, can we?

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Reestablishing Proper Standards of Behavior

A question raised by the Mueller Report is what are acceptable standards of behavior:

  • should political actors in the US accept money from noncitizens/nonresident?
  • should they accept valuable information from nonresidents?
  • should they accept advertising on their behalf paid for by nonresidents?
  • should they report attempts provide the above assistance to the FBI?
  • should they make public the above assistance?
  • should they lie about receiving such assistance?
There have been defenses of the Trump campaign arguing that searching for dirt on the opponent is standard campaign procedure.  Is that true, and if it is, should it be?  Where do you draw the lines?

Even as a devoted opponent of Trump's presidency I recognize that, with the First Amendment and the SCOTUS decisions in this area, the answers to these questions may not be what I'd like. But it does seems possible that there could be bipartisan agreement on some standards.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

NPR and Furriners Buying Our Land

NPR had a piece on foreigners buying up agricultural land.  It's not clear where the correspondent's data comes from, but I'd suspect it's reports under the Agricultural Foreign Investment Disclosure Act..

I remember when the law was enacted in 1978.  That was when foreigners were rolling in dollars, partly because OPEC had successfully raised the price of oil, Nixon had taken us off the gold standard, and Japan was starting to sell cars (bought my first Toyota in that year) to us.  Those dollars were being used to buy land, causing concerns in the U.S.  That resulted in the act, requiring buyers to report their ownership to ASCS/FSA.

The regulations to implement the act were always questionable--basically it was a stand-alone requirement to report in its own little silo, with no interface to the rest of ASCS functions.  That meant there was no real enforcement, except the good will of the buyers and the conscientiousness of the county office.  But we had no way to ensure the buyers knew the requirement.. And we had no way to get data on sales by foreign buyers.

As a result, when someone looked at the AFIDA database in 2014, they found problems.  I'd have my doubts that it's been fixed since.

In the back of my mind I wanted to integrate AFIDA into the farm records system as we re-engineered it from the System/36 to the new platform.  But it never happened, never became important enough to devote the people to it, and I got fed up and retired.  I strongly suspect in the 20 years since no one involved in the redesign of FSA operations was conscious enough of AFIDA to include it in the redesign.  Such is the fate of silos; they don't have enough significance to attract attention.

I did a search on this blog to see if I'd written on AFIDA before.  I did a couple times in 2008, but using the FSA label.  One post did refer to FSA's AFIDA reports.  They're available here. But the web page hasn'te been updated for 5 years, a fact which supports my overall take on the subject.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Drills of Today and Yesteryear

Conversing with a relative, older than I, this morning.  She remembered the newsreels of the Capitol being lighted up again after the end of WWII (maybe VE day?).  She'd lived in the DC area until about 1943-4.  I asked if she remembered air raid drills--she did, many of them, in fear of German air raids.

My memory for some things is not the best, so I'm sure we had some a-bomb drills in school, but I don't remember a lot of them, or indeed any specific one. Those drills were in fear of a Soviet nuclear attack. 

Today students get active shooter drills, many of them.  Unfortunately the chances of their ever encountering an active shooter, although minuscule, are significantly greater than the chance of a German air raid on DC, but perhaps not as great as a Soviet attack on DC was (except I lived 300 miles from DC).

Drills--the ones I really remember are the penmanship ones, perhaps another drill destined for the wastebasket of history.

Friday, May 24, 2019

MFP II Addenda

Via Farm Policy News further details on MFP II--based on the USDA big shots' discussion.  The key point I take from it:

"Referring to the market facilitation program, Undersecretary Northey indicated that, “So these payments are not designed to be a market loss payment. They are a market facilitation payment. It’s not going to perfectly reflect what some producers feel the loss of these markets have been.”
FWIW I don't know what the words "market facilitation" mean, at least not as applied to the $14.5 billion part of the program. 

Thursday, May 23, 2019

MFP II Announced

NY Times writes about trade policy and Trump's trade war, including the announcement of $16 billion in MFP II.

Chris Clayton's article at DTN  has the details on the program, which has three tranches and uses county payment rates among other differences from MFP I.  He also notes Trump's lie about the history of farm income:
"President Trump reiterated, falsely, that farmers have seen a 20-year steady decline of income, despite farm income peaking in 2013. As a key part of the president's rural base, Trump reiterated, "They [farmers] are patriots. They stood up and they were with me. They didn't say 'Oh we shouldn't do this because we're going to have a bad year. They have had 20 bad years if you really look."
The county payment rate will be new and a challenge to implement. [Update: When I wrote this, I was wrong.  I was thinking county/crop payment rates, which I never dealt with back in the day, but the fact is FSA has had experience with them, both through price supports and the new 21st century programs which I don't understand.  However, the idea is one country price for all crop acreage, regardless of the crop planted.  That, I think,  raises new problems.  If all farmers in the county raise crops in the same proportion, it could work.  But that's a big "if".  Say a country produces corn and soybeans 50/50, so the county rate is based on that proportion. But take a farmer who plants only corn, which I'm assuming is less affected by the trade war, she will get a higher rate than she "deserves".  Conversely the farmer who plants only soybeans will be screwed.  (Obviously I'm using extreme examples.)]

Who Gets Chosen as VP?

Scott Adams blogged this:
"VP candidate traditionally boring, watered-down version of POTUS
  • Biden was more boring than President Obama
  • Now Biden has to select his own VP, that’s even more boring"
I'm afraid he needs a course on American history.  Traditionally the vice presidential candidate is different than the presidential candidate--it's called "balancing the ticket".  There's even a wikipedia page for it.

To go over recent history:

  • Trump chose a VP who had extensive DC experience and personally was very different and was from a different region.
  • Obama chose a VP who had extensive DC experience and personally was very different (old, white, ebullient, not buttoned up)and was from a different region..
  • GWBush chose a VP who had extensive DC experience and personally was very different (older, buttoned up) and was from a different region..
  • Clinton chose a VP who was indeed of the same age and region but who had extensive DC experience.
  • GHWB chose a VP who presented a fresh face  from a different region.
  • Reagan chose a VP who had extensive DC experience and personally was very different and was from a different region.
  • Carter chose a VP who had extensive DC experience and was from a different region.
  • Nixon chose a VP who was a fresh face and was from a different region.
I think Mr. Adams just went for a cheap attack on Biden. 

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Women in Government--the Rate of Social Change

We're coming up on the 100th anniversary of the passage of women's suffrage in the U.S.

My cousin noted that yesterday the voters of Ipswich, MA elected women to fill 3 of the 5 seats on the town's select board, a first for the town.  The Post, I think, had an front page article on the Nevada legislature which is the first in the nation to have a female majority.

I think it's worth reflecting on the 100 years as an indicator of the limits of legislative change.  It's a caution to liberals

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

A New Market Facilitation Program?

Lots of talk about a new and bigger program to compensate for depressed prices due to Trump's trade war with China.

Will it just be the MFP for 2018 updated for 2019?  Maybe, maybe not.  There's talk of including prevented planting because of the widespread flooding and the very slow progress of corn planting.  We'll see.

[Updated--see Clayton's piece.]

Monday, May 20, 2019

Countervailing Judicial Power

Ezra Klein has a piece on Vos about "countervailing power", a concept from John Kenneth Galbraith. Briefly, he saw "big labor" as countering "big business", and "big government" as an essential balancing player.  So Klein summarizes his argument:
" If the [political] question is framed as socialism or capitalism, it’s difficult to state the obvious: We may need a bit more socialism now, even if that may create a need for more capitalism later.
But if it’s framed as the balance of countervailing powers, that truth becomes more obvious. There is no end state in a liberal democracy. There is only the constant act of balancing and rebalancing. The forces that need to be strengthened today may need to be weakened tomorrow. But first they need to be strengthened today."
I've always liked the Galbraith's concept.  I'm struck by a tweet from Orin Kerr, suggesting that if conservatives become dominant in the judiciary, it will evoke a countervailing response from legal academia.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

National Service Concerns

Some discussion these days from Dem candidates about "national service".

I guess I'm generally favorable to the idea, but with reservations, based on my experience with the draft.

The draft was good for:
  • getting me out of a rut (different people have different ruts, but I suspect the recent decline in American geographical mobility is partly the result of the ending of the draft).
  • exposing me to people from across the country and diverse backgrounds
  • challenging me to endure and master new experiences: like basic training, like serving as an instructor.
Those benefits came because the draft was not voluntary.  I'd worry that a non-military national service would not have the diversity nor the challenges.  Once you allow the person to choose, you start to lose some of the necessary difficulty.  Even in the Army, once I was past basic my cohort and co-workers were much more similar to me. 

The other vulnerability of a new national service program would be, I think, the difficulty of finding a purpose to the program's work.   While we draftees disliked the military, we knew it was important and/or significant.  But we were essentially unskilled labor, cannon fodder, and weren't qualified for much more than that.  And we got paid accordingly, so we were cheap.  So what work requires cheap unskilled labor  and is self-evidently important?

If the proponents can come up with an answer to that question, we can then talk about instituting "national service".  Until then, we need more focused things like Job Corps and Americorps.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Powerline and Althouse Wouldn't Qualify as Immigrants

Nor would almost all liberals blogging and tweeting.   See this NY Times calculator.

I scored 18 points, where 30 is required.  (The key, of course, in my case is age, income, and my college major.)

(Updated: I'm referring to the people behind the two blogs I follow which are on the right, although Ann Althouse might quarrel with that categorization.)

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Another Round of MFP Payments?

There's been discussion this week, and a promise by the President, that farmers will receive more money to compensate for losses due to the trade war with China.

That's well and good, but I'm not sure of the nitty-gritty.  Let me backtrack:

For the first MFP I initially thought USDA was tapping Section 32 funds.  Did a bit of research on that possibility.  (Roughly, Section 32 provides authority for USDA to use a portion of certain tariff revenues for certain aid to agriculture.  It dates back to the New Deal days.)  But that turned out to be a mistake of mine.  Instead USDA tapped CCC's borrowing authority, which also dates back to the New Deal.  CCC has authority to borrow up to $30 billion from the Treasury and spent it to aid agriculture in certain ways..

I've tried, half-heartedly, to find out how much borrowing authority CCC has left.  When it's tapped out, CCC has to stop its operations until Congress passes legislation to replenish the authority.  (I'm skating on the edge of my comprehension of these matters, but I do have a clear memory of a time when CCC ran out of authority just before we were to make deficiency payments, notably because my screwup cost the taxpayers a few million dollars. (A story for another day.)

Bottom line, I didn't find the answer. 

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

What 5G Can Do for: Dairy

Technology Review has a short post on a test of 5G and cows, in Britain.  Cows wear 5G collars which transmit biometric data and open gates to milking parlors.

(I'm not clear why 4G wouldn't work for this, but connecting fancy technology and cows has a certain reader appeal. )

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

The Return of Foreign Policy Issues

For the first two years most foreign policy issues didn't rouse much domestic concern.  That may be changing these days, between Trump's trade issues and the rising tension with Iran.  Looking at it from a political perspective, which Democratic candidate benefits? 

I'd suggest Biden does.  None of the other candidates have much background in foreign policy, but Biden has 8 years worth. Definitely the younger candidates are at a disadvantage.  Pete may speak seven languages (he'd might be only the second most multi-lingual president--I've seen a reference that J.Q. Adams spoke more, though that's not supported by wikipedia, though it does show a surprising number of presidents who were multi-lingual) but that won't count for much.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Another Error by a Harvard Professor

Making slow progress through "These Truths" by Jill Lepore. See my previous post.

On page 172 she writes of Jefferson: "As late as 1815 he was boasting that, as a result of the embargo, 'carding machines in every neighborhood, spinning machines in large families and wheels in the small, are too radically established to ever be relinquished.'  That year, cotton and slave plantations in the American South were shipping seventeen million bales of cotton to England...."

That's flat wrong.  We've never exported that much cotton, never grown that much cotton.  The statement is sourced to Sven Beckert's history.

I'm having fun with this, so I've added "Harvard" to my lables.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Driverless Cars: Setting the Bar Too High

Technology Review has a discussion of three factors impeding the adoption of driverless cars:

  • safety--cars being safer than human drivers (who don't drink or text)
  • useful--cars that aren't slow because too cautious, perhaps requiring regulatory changes.
  • affordable.
To me it seems they're setting the bar too high.  Going back to the Innovator's Dilemma new technologies evolve by finding a niche from which they can expand gradually, making use of the learning curve to reduce costs so existing technology can be undersold and to become useful in new ways.  I think that applies here, as I've said before:
  • a geezer like me isn't as safe a driver as the average person, even though we know enough not to drink or text.
  • a geezer like me is already a cautious driver, so making a driverless car that abides by the speed limits is not disrupting the norm (for us).
  • a geezer like me values driveability higher, highly enough to pay a premium to preserve the ability

Thursday, May 09, 2019

Those Who Ignore History: the F-35 and the TFX

The F-35 is our latest and greatest(?) fighter.  Apparently the lessons learned from its development will cause DOD to go a different direction for the next one.

As a layman I understand the key feature of the F-35 is its use by both the Air Force and the Navy.  After all, both need fighters so why not build one to serve both needs?

It's dream we've had before, most notably in the 60's, with the TFX program..  Back then Robert McNamara was blamed for the decision to go for commonality. The TFX was very controversial and, in my memory, it was never deemed a success, though judging by the wikipedia article it was more useful for longer than I remembered.

The lesson I took away from the TFX episode was twofold:

  • it's hard to do a project that meets the needs of two different organizations
  • be cautious when trying to do innovation top down.
The continuing mystery is why I forgot those lessons when applied to projects trying to eliminate USDA silos, like ASCS and SCS.

[Update:  see this GovExec piece on the next fighter after the F-35.]

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

Rural Fatties

My mother would be sad at the news that world-wide obesity is more of a problem in rural areas than urban ones.  Her basic belief was in the superior virtue of rural people and the better life in rural areas.

Tuesday, May 07, 2019

TFW You Find a Harvard Professor Wrong

Jill Lepore is a Harvard historian, New Yorker writer, and prolific author. 

Her most recent book, These Truths,, is an ambitious attempt at a one-volume history of the US. (I wrote she is prolific, so prolific that she has another book out this year.)

I've just completed her section on the Constitutional Convention, in which I found the error.  Discussing the conflict over the treatment of slaves, as persons deserving representation or as property supporting taxation, she writes: "The convention was very nearly at an impasse, broken only by a deal involving the Northwest Territory--a Northwest Ordinance...[prohibiting slavery north of the Ohio and not south] This measure passed on July 13.  Four days later, the convention adopted...the Connecticut Compromise [the 3/5 count for both representation and taxation]."

What's wrong here?  All the facts are right, so maybe "wrong" is too strong.  But the implication, and I suggest the meaning people will take from the passage, is that the Constitutional Convention passed the Northwest Ordinance.  Not so--Congress operating under the Articles of Confederation enacted the Ordinance. Because both bodies were meeting in Philadelphia the passage of the Ordinance may have been relevant to the proceedings in the convention, 

Monday, May 06, 2019

What Happens If We Win--the CRA

Commented in a twitter thread today or yesterday about what would happen if a Democrat wins the Presidency next year.  Part of the discussion was to the effect that the new administration would reverse a lot of the Trump administrations regulatory actions.  The impression was that it would relatively easy.

Not true, at least for those regulations which were killed by Congress using its authority under the Congressional Review Act.  The reason is the wording of the act--once a regulation is killed by Congress the agency is prohibited from issuing a substantially similar regulation, forever.  The out is that Congress can authorize the agency to regulate again. 

The problem I see for a new Democratic administration is presumably such a Congressional authorization would require 60 votes in the Senate to be brought to the floor for passage (assuming the legislative filibuster is still available.   For some regulations such authority might be included in a budget reconciliation act, but others wouldn't.

The alternative for a new administration is to kill the  legislative filibuster, at least with respect to CRA actions.

The bigger problem, of which CRA is only part, is a decrease in stability of laws and regulations.  If citizens can assume that laws/regulations are permanent, they can act on that basis.  If they assume the next administration of the party in opposition will undo what the current party has done, there's less stability, less certainty.

Sunday, May 05, 2019

Progress Being Made?

Back in the 50's and 60's whites were fighting to keep their neighborhoods white.  "White flight" was the predominant tactic, but rougher ones were used against the first one or two black families.

I'm often otpmistic, sometimes too much so, but I read this NY Times article  as saying those days are mostly behind us.  That's good.  Some thought we'd never get here.

I can read articles on gentrification as the market working as it did in white flight.  To do this I need to suggest that many whites fleeing from a block where blacks were buying were concerned more with their pocketbook than race.  The working of the market meant that if someone feared blacks, they would sell their house at a discount, especially if their fears were exploited, as they usually were, by the unscrupulous realtors.  One below-market sale could persuade market-oriented owners that to preserve their wealth they needed to sell, which of course started to destroy the value of their homes.

I think it's true that often the switching from all-white to all-black blocks meant property values ended up going way down, partly because people over-extended themselves, because they had to take in renters and subdivide the structure, and because they didn't have the money for maintenance.

Gentrification works through the market as well.  The first white pioneer who has no problems with blacks finds a bargain.  The owner, who may be black, sells at a profit, at least compared to prior years. So both white home buyers and existing home owners can see financial gains over what they had before gentrification started.  However, as property values increase taxes increase and the owners can have problems keeping their property.

It seems to me the key variable in inner-city blocks being gentrified is: who owns the property?  Do we think the owners are mostly the heirs of those who originally bought from the white flight?  Or are they the heirs of the exploiters, white and black, who profited by the white flight? Or has the property changed hands multiple times?  If the heirs of the original buyers there's a chance that what they lost by the block turning black is being made up through gains in value as gentrification increases.  More likely the score card over time shows red ink for blacks, black ink for whites.

My thoughts have now dimmed my pleasure at the message of the article, but we've still progressed  from 1968.

Friday, May 03, 2019

As a Country, We're Idiots

In 1953 I was 12 and there were roughly 150 million in the country.  Now I'm 78 and there are something over 300 million in the country.  The IRS today has roughly the same number of auditors as in 1953. See this ProPublica piece.  In real dollars our GDP has increased six times since 1953.

Thursday, May 02, 2019

Changing Standards: Tight Versus Loose

I think I've mentioned this book before.  It ties into my post of yesterday.  My memory is the writer believes there can be systematic differences in how tightly or loosely societies adhere to social norms.  To apply it to our history:
  • my memory is in the 40's-60's white middle and upper class Americans adhered quite tightly to a certain set of social norms, and as a counterpoint, we looked askance at those who didn't fit that description, either not being white middle class or not adhering to the norms.
  • over the next years that changed, partly the norms changed, partly the tolerance for non-conformity broadened.
  • more recently we've become more concerned about non-adherence to the norms, less tolerant of the less tolerant among the white middle and upper classes, still tolerant of those excluded from that universe. 

Wednesday, May 01, 2019

Changing Standards

Over my life standards of behavior have changed, a lot.

In my youth both cancer and homosexuality were not fit topics for discussion, cancer being just a bit more acceptable because more prevalent.  One addressed one's elders with Mr. and Mrs..' There were standards of propriety, at least for the white middle and upper classes.  Teenagers were viewed with alarm, as they/we got into Elvis and rock and roll and discovered the privacy of cars.  Everyone, at least every boy, wanted a car.  For any couple in a car the man was driving. College students still faced a hierarchy of classes and at least informal rules on dress.  Campus life still involved panty raids.  Serious students were concerned about nuclear war, though as the 60's started  some got into civil rights movement. And the remnants of "loco parentis"

The boomers started establishing new norms.  The Berkeley Free Speech movement seems in retrospect a turning point.  Notably the movement was still the Silent generation; the very first boomers were just starting college. The Cuban missile crisis was another, and the third was Mississippi Summer. In my memory the 60's meant the undermining and dissolution of old standards of conduct, of hierarchy, of dress, of how people could express their views and obtain some power.

Fast forward to the present.  It seems most of the changes have stuck, have been deemed valid and useful in our society.  What does seem different to me is what the conservatives call "political correctness". I could trace the idea back to the student left, perhaps imitating their parents, who had fierce debates over what ideological stances were proper.  But that was a minority view; more common was live and let live, chill, mellow.  Now however,, many, perhaps most, people believe there is something that's proper, and people should embrace it.