Saturday, May 23, 2020

Trump Is Dyslexic?

Bob Somerby at Daily Howler is often repetitive and long-winded, but he offers a perspective I don't often find elsewhere (although he and Kevin Drum respect each other and Kevin's my favorite blogger).

Here's Somerby discussing Andrew Sullivan's attack on the president.

Buried in there somewhere is the suggestion Donald Trump might be dyslexic.  I've not heard that before, but it's an intriguing suggestion.

As Somerby notes, liberals would normally shy from attacking someone with some disabilities or mental disorders, but not DJT.  The possibility won't change my attitude towards him either.

[Updated: If you assume that Trump is starting from a position of no knowledge, it would explain why he's easy prey for the last person to talk to him, and why he's suspicious of people.  For similar thoughts,here's Friedersdorf.


Friday, May 22, 2020

Speculation on What the FBI Was Doing

I approach the Michael Kelly case with some preconceptions:
  1. the FBI has never been particularly fond of liberals.  The head of the agency has never been an agency.  For a long time it was headed by J.Edgar Hoover, a great bureaucrat and no friend to liberals.  It was a struggle to get some diversity into the agency, both minorities and women.
  2. as an entrenched bureaucracy with its own esprit de corps it's liable not to follow direction from the outside.
  3. Kelly I knew from his association with Gen. McChrystal and the Rolling Stone article, which got McChrystal fired.  I may have seen appraisals like that of Sarah Chayes in Business Insider, essentially a loose cannon, as I was once called, innovative but needing close management.
  4. Not being a lawyer I've no good way of judging between claims that the interview with Flynn where he lied had no "predicate" (the Barr position) and therefore the case was tainted, and claims that the charges were appropriate and well-based.
  5. Being a Democrat I'd enjoy any embarrassment to the Trump administration.
So, what do I make of Kelly, his indictment, and the subsequent dropping of the case by Attorney General Barr?
  1. He was totally miscast as National Security Advisor, particularly for a president such as Trump. His selection, despite the warning from Obama, was an early instance of Trump's incompetence.
  2. I doubt the narrative that the FBI looking at Flynn was part of an Obama administration's plot to undermine the Trump administration.  I don't believe the FBI would risk good relations with the incoming administration just because Obama or Yates told them to. That wouldn't fit my picture of the FBI as sophisticated bureaucratic players.
  3. Not being a lawyer, I've not carefully followed the arguments about FBI having a predicate for its investigations, particularly because the rules seem to differ some between a criminal investigation and a national security (counter-intelligence) investigation.
  4. My vague suspicion is as follows: in counter-intelligence people are paid to be suspicions, overly so.  Witness James Jesus Angleton, about whom I've written a time or two. It doesn't seem totally unreasonable to me that FBI agents would look at Flynn, fired by Obama from his DIA job, and say to themselves: if I were a Russian agent I might try to exploit his hard feelings, at least feel him out.  Certainly the KGB would see that as a potential gold mine and certain to reap big bureaucratic rewards.  
  5. If I'm an FBI bureaucrat, I think I'd believe that the Russian/Flynn investigation could offer big rewards--it'd be good for my reputation and promotion prospects.  (I'm assuming that the FBI culture is rather insular, and  agents would believe that their director still, as J. Edgar was, could insulate them from flak from DOJ and the presidency.  )
  6. I like a summary of the Mueller report from Dana Milbank: the Trump campaign wanted to collude with the Russians but was too incompetent to.  The whole episode is murky, and I don't believe it could have been much clearer to FBI agents.
  7. One known unknown: we don't know what covert sources of information were and are available to the administration.   Presumably there are some, the existence of which has been hidden from the public record.
So my bottom line is disbelief in any sinister plot against Trump and his people. I think a combination of bureaucratic motives, culture, and incompetence came together with Trump incompetence to produce one good result: Flynn's resignation as national security adviser and likely a bad precedent for the way the FBI should operate in the future.

Firing Inspectors General

As a good government ("goo-goo") type, I'm perturbed by the president's removal of several IG's and acting IG"s.  But this piece  suggests there's not much Congress can do to stop such actions by a president.  IG's are executive branch employees and as such are subject to the president's authority.

I wonder: could we look to sports, the NFL, for a solution:  There the tension is between getting the call right and keeping the game flowing.  Could we give the president a couple get-out-of-jail cards per term--allow her to fire two IG's but no more?  Arguably this would permit the president flexibility but not too much.

I'm afraid what will happen when the administration changes: the new president will use the Trump precedent to fire the Trump-IG's and goo-goo norms will suffer further erosion.

CFAP--A Tip of the Hat

I remember the pains of trying to implement new legislation on a rush basis.  I could tell, and have told, stories about the experience. 

One thing I never experienced was trying to implement new legislation while working from home during a pandemic.  A tip of my hat to those working in DC and the field who are trying to navigate that morass.  (Post inspired by Brent Orr's picture of the training room in the South Building from which they did online training of the field on CFAP.)

Thursday, May 21, 2020

What Will the Recovery Look Like?

I've no insight, but since when does that stop a true blogger?

Personally I think it will be slow-fast-slow. 

  • the first slow will because the majority of people won't be risk-takers, they'll let others be the trailblazers.
  • the fast will be as people realize that it is relatively safe--isolated incidents but nothing drastic enough to cause major political subdivisions to revert back to a lock-down.
  • the second slow will be because of the drag on economic activity from the measures taken to minimize risk plus dealing with the economic damages of the pandemic--the closed restaurants, the half-empty nursing homes, etc.
We'll see.

A Test of Leadership

Back in the day I got bawled out by my deputy division director for cursing at an employee.  I deserved it.  I think it was that conversation where he discussed a fellow branch chief.  Lou was a WWII vet, whose ship IIRC had been sunk on D-Day.  He was a voluble guy, loud and boisterous with a temper.  But Bob pointed to him as a good leader, simply because he was consistently Lou.  His employees and those who dealt with him knew, at least after the initial getting-to-know-you, that what you saw was what you got, no surprises.  I needed that, to be consistent.  (Not sure I ever achieved that.)

I think of that lesson from time to time, never more these days when considering our President.  His approval rating on dealing with the pandemic has not been good.  Meanwhile some of our governors have very good ratings, particularly Gov. Cuomo. I don't follow him closely, but it seems to me his record of decision-making hasn't been all that great.  I account for the difference in ratings between him and Trump by consistency by the one and inconsistency by the other.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

The Usefulness and Reuse of Masks

Early on in the pandemic, I think I was informed that masks would insulate the wearer from the world, particularly the viral particles floating around in the air from those already infected.  So it made sense that masks were one-time use--you go out wearing a mask, you meet someone infected and his virus particles get hung up in your mask. You then go home, and the mask represents a threat to anyone who contacts it.  Fine.

But now I'm getting the impression the main function of the mask is to protect the world from you, the wearer.  It captures your germs, your viral particles.  Is that true?  If it is, then the mask can be used more than once.  If you're infected, and the mask captures your virus, there's no new contamination in the home and no real downside to reusing it.

Anti-Trump Derangement Syndrome

Conservatives use TDS to paint liberals as so biased against the president that they're incapable of treating his positions fairly.

I'd suggest the Anti-TDS as applying when conservatives or independents (like Ann Althouse) lean over backwards to whitewash his tweets and news conferences using excuses like he's joking or he's being sarcastic. 

I think it's sometimes true that DJT says things he doesn't expect to be taken seriously, but I refuse to believe it's a joke or sarcasm, at least not as a normal thing.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

A Man Who Cares: Joe Fore

Joe Fore on Twitter does something I love:  assess typoographical choices of the legal profession.

He dings the First Circuit for their use of monospaced type, one of my pet peeves.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Suppose We Didn't Have Work From Home

There have been a lot of comparisons between the current pandemic and those in the past, particularly in terms of case numbers and deaths.

One thing which isn't accounted for in such comparisons is the existence of the Internet and the enabling of work from home. My point is that in 2020 we had the option of closing offices and working from home, of closing schools and going to remote learning, of moving to tele-medicine.

I don't know how much difference it makes; I don't know the extent to which shelter-in-place was implemented in past pandemics.  But I'm sure it makes a significant difference, which social scientists will be trying to figure out over the next years.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Suppose Trump Is Mostly Right?

Let's say the reopening of the US goes okay, some glitches, but on the whole the level of deaths keeps declining down to a low level, so Covid-19 is just the fourth or fifth most common cause of death.

And suppose that's low enough that businesses and schools reopen during the summer without major setbacks.

So now it's October 1 and things have been going pretty well.  And most important they have been going pretty well since May 15.

And the stories in the media are no longer the gloom of uncertainty but the resilience of the country.

And despite the impact on the economy, our "animal spirits" have revived and the majority of the country thinks things are improving, and we're on the right track.

What then will be the outlook for Trump's reelection?

Saturday, May 16, 2020

A Note From the Store: Toilet Paper

I was intrigued yesterday by the toilet paper  shelf at Safeway.  Usually they have multi-roll packs of their own toilet paper, plus those of name brands.  There were a few such packs of their own brand yesterday, but the bulk of the shelves were filled with individual rolls of a couple of brands I'd never seen before. They were foreign, I think, but didn't linger to investigate further.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Trump: Keep Your Cotton Pickin' Hands Off My Money

I remember when the Thrift Savings Plan was created as part of a plan to reform the compensation of federal employees, of which I was one. IIRC the administration tried to eliminate the defined benefit retirement plan under civil service.  Switching from defined benefit to defined contribution was all the rage in private enterprise back then.

IIRC correctly there was some opposition particularly on the right based on the idea the investment money would be under the control of political types who would try to use their leverage to further their socialistic goals.

From EBRI's summary:i
KEY FACTORS TO SUCCESS: Despite initial opposition from labor groups and veto threats from the Reagan administration, Congress ultimately enacted a plan that reduced federal spending and eventually won strong support from federal workers, particularly because of the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP). Lawmakers deliberately and carefully insulated the TSP from political manipulation and minimized the impact of the federal workers’ investments in the financial markets.
Now the Trump administration is pushing the TSP board not to include Chinese stocks in the I (international) fund.  (Some in Congress are pushing a law forward to effect the same goal.)What it means is a lower return on my money because they view China as an adversary. 

I hope all those conservatives who worried about political considerations impacting TSP investment decisions back in 1986 will now oppose this move.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

We Do Better by Our Animals Than Humans?

This is a paragraph from a Washington Post article on an OK veterinary lab which got into Covid-19 testing:
The Oklahoma Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory’s scrappy, collaborative effort to shift gears amid a crisis was aided by basic biological similarities between humans and other species: Animals’ nasal passages are routinely swabbed for viruses, and nucleic acid is extracted from samples and amplified on state-of-the-art machines identical to those used in human testing for the novel coronavirus. But it also highlights the preparedness of many animal health labs, which — unlike public health labs — have been buttressed by federal grants to be bulwarks against outbreaks that could cripple livestock and poultry industries.
That last sentence struck me.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

The Impact of Technology on FSA Communications

I posted previously on my discovery of the FDA Facebook group, which is a new means of communication across the organization.  Some further thoughts:

When I joined ASCS my impression was it was hierarchical organization.  Questions would come from the county through the district director to the state office to the area director to the applicable program specialist in the program division.  At least that was the theory. Over time I discovered the role of the county and state committees, which was contested.  In theory they were in charge of applying policy decisions to their counties and states.  (This is what they had been in the 1930's.) In reality it seemed to me that they often lacked the expertise and always lacked the day-to-day operational awareness really to fulfill that role.  As a result over the years their role had diminished, but smart county and state executive directors would manage their relationships with their committees.

The role of the district director was also evolving, as symbolized by the change in terminology from "farmer fieldman" to "district director".  My impression is that these positions were often quite political, with significant turnover when the political party in charge changed.  As a cynic my impression was the quality of the DD's varied, meaning they sometimes were obstacles and were bypassed by the more knowledgeable CED's.

When ASCS started installing System/36's in county offices, it put a lot of strain on the old systems.  First and foremost, nobody involved in the new technology had experience with it, so a simple question that a program assistant might take to a more senior person, or the CED, wouldn't receive an answer. The time required to move a question from county through state to DC (KCMO)and finding someone with an answer and then getting it back down the chain was simply too long.

Time and experience solved some of the problems as we all learned by trial and error. I suspect, but can't prove, that informal communication networks expanded.  People learned who in the state was more capable with the technology. 

Monday, May 11, 2020

Cleaning Up After the Trump Elephant

The old joke about following a circus parade and having to clean up after the elephants...?

After Trump leaves office there will be a lot of cleanup needed:

  • reestablishing norms for openness, including releasing tax returns, maintaining public records of who visits the White House,  putting assets into blind trusts, not using official events to push political agendas or to sell stuff, etc.
  • redoing the interactions with Congress.
  • [updated--prohibiting policy announcements by twitter.]
I don't know how we do this.  The natural tendency of each branch of government is to keep their authority, so it may be harder to undo Trump precedents than we'd like to think.

Saturday, May 09, 2020

Bucket-a-Day

I've started reading P.D.James "Time To Be in Earnest"-- a sort of memoir in diary form.  Describing her childhood she mentioned heating the water for the weekly bath.  Don't know why that cause me to think of our "bucket-a-day". Here's an article discussing a modern use.  For us we used it in the summer only.  The rest of the year we had the coal stove going.  In addition to cooking and heating part of the downstairs the stove also heated our water.  Pipes ran through it to capture heat from the fire.  The heated water, being less dense than cold, would rise through a pipe to a tank in the upstairs bathroom.  When you opened the hot water faucets in the kitchen and downstairs half-bath the hot water was drawn from the tank to the faucets. 

Friday, May 08, 2020

FSA Now and Then

I signed up for Facebook years ago, but rather quickly decided I wouldn't make much use of it.

But, the other day I thought to search for FSA and found there's a big and active FSA group there.  I was approved to join, so I'm occasionally starting to review the posts (whatever the Facebook term is for it).

Apparently most (all?) FSA offices are operating behind locked doors, so producer contact is by phone and email.  Looks to be variation in the rules applied and the infrastructure being supplied.  (IMHO that's an old story, inevitable in the US but that's no consolation to those getting the short end of the stick.) 

Reading some of the comments of the toll being experienced by the staff reminded me of the field's experiences with the 1983 PIK program and then the pain of moving to the System/36.  This generation will have their own war stories with which to bore their young successors.

Upton Sinclair's Jungle

The covid-19 problems in meatpacking plants remind me of Upton Sinclair's Jungle. It had a major impact on the American food system, but much remains the same--especially the use of immigrant labor under what seems to be harsh conditions, at least when looked at through American eyes.

Thursday, May 07, 2020

Legislating Good Norms

Our current president has broken a lot of the norms and a few of the laws which existed before 2017.  One of the tasks of whoever succeeds him will be to figure out how to return to those norms.  One pathway is for Congress to pass and the president to sign laws which have that effect.  One such effort is already under way, as described in this post from FCW.  Rep. Porter is proposing to tighten the rules on "acting" officials.  President Trump has admitted he likes to have acting officials so he has more power: he can intimidate them more easily and fire them if they won't bend.  In normal times presidents and Congress acted reasonably quickly to fill most vacancies, although they were instances where a Senate would put a hold on a nominee in order to pressure the administration to take some particular action.

My opinion of Porter'sbill: we shouldn't have needed it but we do. The bureaucracy does not work well with "acting"officials at the top.

Tuesday, May 05, 2020

On Fences and Hedgerows

Here's an article on hedgerows in the UK. 

I remember visiting North Carolina ASCS offices with the district director (this was 1968 or 9) and noticing some barbed wire fences (not many in the tobacco-growing area) with the wire on the outside of the posts.  I was struck because in NY we put the wire on the inside; dad explained it meant that cows pushing against the wire were pushing against the post, while if it were on the outside they would be forcing the staple out of the wood.

Years later I learned the difference related to the way agriculture developed in the Northeast versus the South.  In the Northeast livestock were fenced in; field crops were attractive to livestock.  In the South livestock, especially hogs, were left to roam free, field crops of tobacco and cotton weren't attractive to livestock, fields of corn etc. that were attractive were protected by fencing out.

Now I'm guessing the use of hedgerows in the UK reflects the relative scarcity of wood--no split rail fences there,  the fact that fields developed long before barbed wire became available, and the development of a historic pattern.  Hedgerows would seem to require a long lead time to grow; not like a fence which can go up in a few days.  So if farms have been around for centuries, there was time for hedgerows to develop.

Monday, May 04, 2020

Superspreader Individuals or Situations

Megan McArdle offered this thought in a thread commenting on an elaborate analysis of probabilities (too elaborate for me to even try to follow):

I can venture to comment on this, however.  The assumption here seems to be that "superspreading" is a function of an individual (think Typhoid Mary perhaps, but not necessarily asymtomatic).  That's certainly been my understanding from the past. 

But in the context of this new pandemic, I ran across an interesting report by someone who tried to assemble worldwide reports of mass contagion and then to analyze common features. I may have mentioned this before.  The features were crowds plus intimate contact and/or a lot of vocal activity--cheers, shouts, etc. 

One would think we could rely on people to avoid such situations, although when you look at the rallies protesting against lock-downs you have to wonder.  But in principle avoiding such situations is easier than identifying potential superspreaders.  It's likely unknowable currently to determine the proportion of total infections occurring from superspreader individuals, versus crowd contagion, versus individual contact.

Saturday, May 02, 2020

Comparing to Whom?

I don't think I posted during the Kavanaugh confirmation process, except to predict it wouldn't matter much in 2020.  Now Biden is facing questions on his past, and the right is accusing the left of inconsistency, of applying a different standard to Biden than Kavanaugh.

Let me opine;

  • first, the context.  In the Kavanaugh case the issue was whether to confirm him to a life position on the basis of known facts, and some allegations.  In the Biden case there are two possible framings: either he's just a candidate for the Dem nomination, and therefore the Dems should choose someone else, or at least investigate more, OR he's the Dem nominee in all but name and the issue is whether to vote for him or someone else in November. I think the latter position is more logical, as well as favoring my "priors". Sanders is the logical alternative to Biden as nominee, but he's my least favorite.  A dispute over who replaces Biden would kill chances to win the presidency IMO.
  • In my mind some of the "We Too" movement is what was called "pour encourager les autres". In other words, we're trying to establish new social norms by levying punishments which, in some cases, are disproportionate to the crime.  I'd view Al Franken's case in that light. If he had apologized at the time of the incidents and the woman accepted it, that would have closed the case.  Even if she didn't accept it, it wouldn't be a problem for a future political career.  You have to distinguish between Franken and Weinstein or Cosby, who were accused and convicted of actual crimes. 
  • The distinction between contemporaneous incidents, where the response by the victim and possibly law enforcement quickly follows the incident, and the asynchronous ones, where the victim comes forward well after the incident is important.
  • Biden's touchy-feely episodes, for which he's apologized, seem not to have been crimes but breaches of good behavior as now understood. 
  • The Tara Reade incident would have been a crime when committed, although a recourse to HR and not the police would be the usual response, I think.
  • In judging the evidence as between the Kavanaugh and Biden cases these seem relevant:
  1. alcohol involved in the Kavanaugh case on both sides, perhaps explaining behavior but also blurring memories.
  2. no other accusers of Biden, which if it continues, is strong evidence--as in the Franken case once the ice is broken other people come forward.  Even with Kavanaugh others came forward.
  3. the scenario for Kavanaugh drunken teenagers in an otherwise empty house seems more likely than groping in an office building presumably with other people in it.
  4. Dr. Ford seems to have been more consistent with her story than Ms Reade, and her life has been smoother than Reade's.  That's classist, yes, so be it.
  5. Reade has told more people her story at different times, though it's not clear how many times she alleged digital penetration. Without that there could have been a touchy-feely incident at the core of the story.
  6. "Me too" movement and Biden goes too far when saying the woman must be believed: the story must be heard and carefully weighed.
  7. While the difficulty of searching Biden's 1800 boxes of records can be exaggerated, assuming his office manager was well organized, I doubt the worth of doing the research.  A manager of interns and mail is likely to pass through an office without leaving much written history.

So my bottom line is I support Biden and will vote for him.  On treatment of women, Biden's record with women is much much much better than Trump's.  Indeed, on everything his record is better than Trump's.

Friday, May 01, 2020

The Wearing of Hats

One of the things which fascinate me is the wearing of hats in the US.

If you look at pictures showing massed men in the 1920's/30's, as in unemployment lines or baseball stadiums, you see all the men wearing hats.  There also seems to be a lot of uniformity in dress, like business suits, but the hats are the easiest to see.

Recently I noticed a picture of Abraham Lincoln addressing a crowd, I think the 2nd Inaugural, and noticed his audience was also wearing hats.  The picture wasn't as clear as more modern ones, but it looks as if there's a bit less uniformity in the types of hats being worn.  In another photograph his audience in front is hat wearing, the big shots behind him are hat carrying, mostly top hats.

When you google "when did American men stop wearing hats" the first result is an Esquire article saying hat wearing started to decline in the later 1920's.  Why--perhaps because more people were in cars so they were less needed and some were more awkward to wear.

This NPR page has good comparison pictures and blames Ike but also cars.

Neither of the pieces comment on the change which seems apparent to me--fewer hats correlates with greater variety in menswear.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

What About Dispersion Measures of Height

Scholars in recent years have researched heights of different populations, being dependent on the rare instances when a government recorded the heights of individuals and the records survived.  Economic historians have used the data to support hypotheses about the prosperity of societies at different times, on the theory that if height increases over time, it means the people are better fed and so can realize more of their genetic potential.

I find that interesting.  I may have mentioned previously on this blog occasions when I notice a group of individuals from different countries seeming to have the same height.  For example, soldiers in various Asian countries or dancers in different ballet groups. I'd add another group: Latino laborers in the US.  It seems these days most workers on road building/repairing or building construction are Latino, and visually there seems not be little variation in height.

I assume that the lack of variation reflects a restricted diet, that Latinos have  genes which would  permit same variability in height as other populations groups, given an abundant diet.  So with all that, I wonder whether any of the researchers have figured out the distribution of heights over the population.


Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Trump Obeys the Law

Or at least his OMB director does--the administration is required by law to begin preparing for a transition.  According to this GovExec piece, they're doing so. Given their actions after Trump won, I'm a bit surprised.  It remains to be seen whether it's more than a pro forma exercise.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Top Three National/World Events in My Life?

Someone on twitter asked the question, specifying 9/11 and the coronavirus as two, and excluding anyone who might say Nixon's resignation. That got me thinking.  It's not clear what sort of criteria one would use--the emotional impact, the impact on the nation or the world, the significance?

Depending on the criteria, these events might qualify for my top three:


  1. Soviet H-bomb
  2. JFK assassination
  3. Moon landing
  4. Nixon's resignation
  5. Oil embargo
  6. Reagan's election
  7. 9/11
  8. Great recession
  9. Covid19
The first item on the list is there because it, and the fall of China to the Communists were the two events I remember and halfway understood which had world impact. The others are fairly self-explanatory.  The list is notable for nothing on civil rights, Vietnam, or feminism; those were less definable as events than most of the others (although neither the pandemic nor the Great Recession were less definable than the others.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Iron Triangle: I Was Wrong

Soon after the 2016 election we had lunch with cousins we hadn't met before, and the future under our new president was a topic of conversation.  As a longtime Washington resident I offered my opinion, partly shaped by my experience and partly by my long-ago college education. My government courses had included the concept of the "iron triangle", a congruence of interests among government bureaucrats in an agency, members of Congress with a particular interest in the agency's operations, and lobbyists/NGO's. 

I argued that the iron triangle would limit the amount of change Trump could effect.

I was wrong.  And I think the iron triangle concept is limited.  The iron triangle works fine in situations where the NGO's, Congress and the agency can work together to advance their interests, taking positive action.  I think the concept was developed at a time where you could say the farm lobby, farm Congressmen, and USDA agencies could work together in what was called the "farm bloc".

I think the 3.25 years of the Trump administration have shown bigger change is possible:

  • for many agencies there's deep disagreement among the relevant NGO's and Congressmen--the divide between the "ins" and the "outs" has gotten much bigger, so there's more energy to change direction in EPA, Interior, etc.
  • Congress has given itself new tools, specifically the Congressional Review Act, to reverse agency actions, while SCOTUS seems more and more likely to limit agency discretion.
  • personnel makes a difference.  In the old days, the "ins" and "outs" would alternate and with each having expertise and, to some extent, an indoctrination in agency culture. With the Trump administration there seems to be less of that, perhaps because people (as is the case with foreign policy) reluctant to serve under the President. 
  • the president, through force of personality and unique traits, and lack of experience with governing is willing and able to break old norms.
  • the base of support for the president packs a lot more anger and energy than a president's base usually has.: 

Saturday, April 25, 2020

What's Most Dangerous Today?

An interesting essay which tried to identify superspreader events and tease out commoalities among them. https://quillette.com/2020/04/23/covid-19-superspreader-events-in-28-countries-critical-patterns-and-lessons/

From his summary:
"When do COVID-19 SSEs happen? Based on the list I’ve assembled, the short answer is: Wherever and whenever people are up in each other’s faces, laughing, shouting, cheering, sobbing, singing, greeting, and praying."

I take this to mean that sporting events in the ways we're used to will be slow to resume. On the other hand, ordinary work should be quicker to resume. 

How about education--the theory being people can't go back to work if the schools are not open?  That's more difficult.

Friday, April 24, 2020

What the Pandemic Reveals

So far it seems that the elderly and impaired in residential/nursing homes and workers in meatpacking plants are especially susceptible to the novel coronavirus and at least the former are more likely to die. 

The unseen portion of our population is the category which is now proving vulnerable in Singapore, migrant workers, those living in group quarters.

There may also be vulnerability among the Haredim, the ultra Orthodox Jews.

All of these groups are outside the what I'd call the "core" population of our society, they're marginal-they aren't who we think of when talking about American workers.

Unfortunately for meat eaters, the packinghouse workers are essential.


Thursday, April 23, 2020

Do We Get More Innovation With Federalism?

There have been some stories during the pandemic focusing on local and private efforts to innovate in response.  I don't remember them all, but there have been stories on individuals sewing face masks or setting up organizations to provide help and companies changing over to produce ventilators, face mask, personal protection equipment, coronavirus tests, etc.  Nasal swabs is the most recent one I've noticed; in this case people are using 3-D printers to produce them.

As an aside, I was surprised by a mention in the article of how well-established 3-D printing had become.

Back to innovation:  I wonder whether such stories could be found in any society, the desire to help and the spirit of innovation being innate in humans?  Or does the relatively decentralized nature of American society and the federalism of our government create a favorable atmosphere for such innovation which can't be matched by most other societies?  Or is the key how advanced the economy and technology of the society?

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

On Reopening After the Coronavirus

The Trump administration's task force has outlined a 3 stage process to reopen the economy.The steps make sense to me.  There's pressure from various places to go faster in reopening, particularly in southern states.

My own feeling is complicated:

  • there's likely some, perhaps many, things which could be reopened with minimal additional risk to propagating the virus.  I' ve tweeted the suggestion that libraries could be reopened, at least to the extent that you can put a hold on a book or DVD online, then pick it up from the library.  That process could track closely to carryout orders from restaurants.
  • the problem is the trade-off between having a strong simple rule which establishes a red line and more complicated rules which are harder to understand and enforce, particularly without a bureaucracy geared to that enforcement.  Using uniformed police isn't the answer. 
Bottom line: as usual the US will muddle through.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Metaphors Again

I loved this metaphor in Gerson's column in the Post today.
Trump unfiltered is like a badly polluted canal. The scraps of narcissism, the rotten remnants of conspiracy theories, the offal of sour grievance, the half-eaten bits of resentment flow by. They do not cohere. But they move in the same, insistent current of self, self, self.
Read the whole thing.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Close Knit Networks in Cities

"Over time, density became a boon, economically, socially, intellectually. Living in a city became a way to encourage health. People could walk where they needed to go and support one another in tight-knit social networks."
That's from a NYTimes article on people leaving big cities.

Back in the day  the stereotype was that cities were the places where people were alone and lonely, finding solitude and privacy, enjoying anonymity.  At least that was one stereotype.  Another was cities were homes to ethnic groups (representing the last gasp of immigration before the restrictions of the 1924? act kicked in).  By the 60's the stereotype was of the black inner city ghetto.  

Perhaps it's true that for WASP migrants from the rural areas and suburbs the cities represented a freedom from small-minded prejudices and rigid social norms enforced by the community, or at least it was true enough for a sufficient number of writers for them to perpetuate the stereotype. 

Anyhow, things change. 

Saturday, April 18, 2020

No CFAP for Wool/Mohair or Oysters?

I follow the Foothill Agrarians blog--he raises sheep.  Here's his report on the wool/mohair market.

I also follow Tamar Haspel on twitter--she writes on food for the Post and she and her husband have an oyster farm.  Oysters are mostly sold through restaurants so it's hit hard.

Apparently as of now there's no help in CFAP for either farmer.

CFAP Parameters

From Sentator Hoeven's website:
"Direct Assistance for Farmers and Ranchers 
USDA will provide $16 billion in direct payments to farmers and ranchers including:
  • $9.6 billion for the livestock industry
    • $5.1 billion for cattle
    • $2.9 billion for dairy
    • $1.6 billion for hogs
  • $3.9 billion for row crop producers
  • $2.1 billion for specialty crops producers
  • $500 million for others crops
Producers will receive a single payment determined using two calculations:
  • Price losses that occurred January 1-April 15, 2020. Producers will be compensated for 85% of price loss during that period.
  • Second part of the payment will be expected losses from April 15 through the next two quarters, and will cover 30% of expected losses.
The payment limit is $125,000 per commodity with an overall limit of $250,000 per individual or entity. Qualified commodities must have experienced a 5% price decrease between January and April. 
USDA is expediting the rule making process for the direct payment program and expects to begin sign-up for the new program in early May and to get payments out to producers by the end of May or early June. "
Sounds as if this part of the program will be FSA's hot potato.



19 Billion USDA Program for Pandemic Aid

Here's the press release on the USDA  program(s) announced yesterday:  Highlights:

  • "$16 billion in direct support based on actual losses for agricultural producers where prices and market supply chains have been impacted and will assist producers with additional adjustment and marketing costs resulting from lost demand and short-term oversupply for the 2020 marketing year caused by COVID-19."
  • $3 billion in direct purchases of meat, milk and produce to be donated to NGO's.
  • Using available Section 32 funds ($870+ million) also for direct purchases.
  • Administrative support (likely for USDA agencies plus those involved in the distribution)
The first bullet is going to be tough to administer--if you dumped milk there's no evidence now, so it will likely rely on producer certifications for much of the evidence.  Of course all farmers are honest, except for a few bad apples. 

It's the "Coronavirus Food Assistance Program" or CFAP.

Friday, April 17, 2020

What's the Cost Per Page of a Government Manual

$840.  According to this Defenseone article.  The 100,000 pages of manuals for Air Force One will cost $84 million.

As someone who spent years of his life writing and editing manuals, I'm interested.  A scattershot of points:
  • The $84 figure isn't a bogus accounting trick like the infamous hammer and toilet seat of the past (Reagan admin, maybe?). The contract is for $84 million, so it's actual expense to the taxpayers.
  • I've no handle on the reasons for the volume of manuals--it seems like overdoing it, but it's the President's aircraft and the military can over specify things.  As I read the article, it's basically taking the existing manuals for the 747 and working in the material for all the customizations and additions being made to the plane to make it ready for the next president.  
  • I wonder about those manuals--the 747 has been around forever, or at least for 50 years, having first entered service in 1970.  Given bureaucracy, there's some likelihood that portions of the manuals were first written 50 years ago.  I'd hope that's not the case.  But when bureaucracies keep COBOL systems working for 50 years, similar dynamics could have kept manual text and organization the same for 50 years.
  • It's probably inevitable that manual writing would be separated from the people who actually know the plane but it's a danger point--raises the possibility of miscommunication between the doer and the writer.
  • I wonder about innovations in manual design and delivery.  I know some maintenance manuals for some functions in the world, I forget what and where, have been computerized and redesigned to work through visual displays, like the former Google Glasses or virtual reality displays.  I believe some apps have been released which allow you to point a phone at a product on store shelves and pull up information on it, like nutrition data, etc.  It seems to me logical that manuals could use a similar delivery system.  If so, are "pages" the right term, or has terminology changed the definition of a "page"?



Thursday, April 16, 2020

Crops Under Solar?

I'm a bit dubious about this.
Construction is slated to begin this spring on a 1.2-megawatt solar array on the Kominek farm. Some 3,300 solar panels will rest on 6-foot and 8-foot-high stilts, providing shade for crops like tomatoes, peppers, kale, and beans on a five-acre plot. Pasture grasses and beehive boxes are planned for the perimeter.
I guess it might work, since the veggies will get early morning sun and late afternoon sun.  Production won't nearly match that from acreage dedicated to the crop, with no shading, but there's advantages to two streams of revenue.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

New Faces and Covid-19

The pandemic is impacting our politics in a number of ways. 

One impact is the rise to prominence of new faces, or the increased prominence of older faces. Those politicians who seem to do well in leading their organizations get good press. The governors and mayors of the country gain'; the legislators tend to recede. Gov.Cuomo of NY is one of the older faces, Gov. Newsosm of CA is one of the newer faces. London Breed, the mayor of San Francisco, is definitely new.  All of the newly prominent faces can learn from the fate of Rudy Guiliani, who became prominent after 9/11, but failed to reach higher office.  

As we used to say: "different strokes for different folks".  




Tuesday, April 14, 2020

The Real Problem With the Trump Administration

I think the real problem with the Trump Administration is revealed in a Just Security timeline of the response to covid-19.

On Jan. 13, 2017 the Obama administration presented scenarios of pandemic responses to the incoming Trump administration:
Trump administration attendees include: Steven Mnuchin, Rep. Mike Pompeo, Wilbur Ross, Betsy DeVos, Dr. Ben Carson, Elaine Chao, Stephen Miller, Marc Short, Reince Priebus (resigned), Rex Tillerson (fired), Gen. James Mattis (fired), Rep. Ryan Zinke (resigned), Sen. Jeff Sessions (resigned), Sen. Dan Coats (fired), Andrew Puzder (not confirmed), Dr. Tom Price (resigned), Gov. Rick Perry (resigned), Dr. David Shulkin (fired), Gen. John Kelly (resigned), Rep. Mick Mulvaney, Linda McMahon (resigned), Sean Spicer (fired), Joe Hagin (resigned), Joshua Pitcock (resigned), Tom Bossert (fired), KT McFarland (resigned), Gen. Michael Flynn (awaiting criminal sentencing), Gary Cohn (resigned), Katie Walsh (resigned), and Rick Dearborn (resigned).
Note all the turnover, both "fired" and "resigned". To me this says or conforms:

  • too much change at the top, meaning leaders lack accumulated experience and familiarity with their agencies
  • a likely disconnect between the President and the bureaucracy
  • failure to attract top people as replacements--who wants to work for a boss like Trump
  • a corrosive atmosphere at the top--a mixture of fear and apple-polishing.

Farm Income for 2020

From Illinois extension:
DTN Ag Policy Editor Chris Clayton reported this week that, “An updated economic analysis looking at the impact of COVID-19 projects crop farmers to see $11.85 billion in lower revenue in 2020 and all livestock sectors combined to see a $20.24 billion drop in receipts for the year.
And here, a report of "nearly $25 billion" in federal aid to farmers.

So farmers overall will make out okay this year?  

(Actually, because the aid can't exactly match the losses, some farmers will make out well, others will lose bigly.)


[Updated: see this report on where the aid might go.]

Monday, April 13, 2020

DOS and COBOL

Last week I saw references to both COBOL and DOS (see this FCW piece and this piece from Slate); I think both in connection with unemployment insurance systems which are running on ancient software.  I never did much programming with DOS (I was more into WordPerfect macos) but I did take courses in COBOL and did one application as a sideline to my regular job.  The System/36 ran COBOL as did the mainframes in Kansas City.

I can understand why both private and public organizations still run COBOL.  Every change of software runs the risk of creating new problems, so if you've got an application that runs without problems and supports the organization, there's little reason to switch to a newer language.  That's particularly true if the organization is adding new programs or functions, so available people and work hours are needed to support the new.

All that said, the downside of keeping the old programs is you have to live with the old silos and the old thinking, forgoing chances to integrate, and likely forcing you to invent kludges or bridges on occasion. For example, with issuing the federal payments under the current program (CARES), I suspect Treasury had to write new programs to match ID's in IRS files against those in unemployment files.





Saturday, April 11, 2020

Impacts of the Pandemic--Social Science

Social science will have a field day analyzing the impacts of the pandemic.  Economists and other social scientists have had to make do with "natural experiments".  They look at the differences in outcome for those who win a lottery (for money, for healthcare, for college entrance) and those who don't.  Or they try to compare different but comparable political subdivisions.  Or, as when air traffic was grounded after 9/11 they look as disasters. As the pandemic subsides they will find:

  • a vastly expanded set of such experiments, given how the timing of events has varied.
  • a new scope to such experiments, examining the effects of the pandemic shutdown on all aspects of social activity.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Social Media and the Virus

I often see references to "viral" social media--used to be a blog post, now it's tweets or memes (call them "events")  The metaphor works because there are parallels between social media events and viral infections.  Each event or infection can end with the person, or it can trigger an event or infection in another person.  When the average odds of replication (R)is equal to 1 or greater, you get exponential growth.

The difference is in the nature of the effect.  Social media events can be positive or negative, an infection can be slightly or very negative in effect. 

Thursday, April 09, 2020

The Three Silos: Food Supply in the Age of Covid-19

The pandemic has revealed we have three silos in the food supply system:

  • commodity agriculture supplying supermarkets and groceries.  This silo is working pretty well.
  • food service agriculture supplying restaurants and fast food outlets.  Because the restaurant industry is closed down, except for delivery service (a possible fourth silo), this silo is in deep trouble.  Farmers supplying milk are having to dump, those supplying produce are having to dump. 
  • the direct to consumer (Community supported agriculture and farmers markets).  This silo seems also in trouble according to this Times article.
The net result of the pandemic may be a setback for the farm-to-table movement.

[Updated: another Times article.]

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Why No Commodity Purchase Program Under Sec. 32?

This is triggered by a twitter exchange I had today.
Back in the day USDA might have used "Section 32" authority to purchase fruits and vegetables (I don't think milk, but milk is its own complicated story) which were in temporary surplus, meaning prices were depressed below the level farmers expected/wanted/needed.  USDA purchases were intended to drive up prices, since the established programs covered only storable commodities (including milk, storable as butter and cheese).  The commodities would be donated to school lunch programs or various other food programs. (At some points in the past surplus potatoes were destroyed--see this Congressional Record reference.) For example here's an appropriations hearing in 1964 discussing the sweet potato removal program. I was never involved in administering these purchases, but ASCS/FSA was.

Of course these purchases were in response to lobbying by the producer group--if they could build the heat on USDA hot enough the Secretary would pull the trigger on the purchases, which would take the heat off until the next time. Over the years, as briefly described in this  description of the authority, the expansion of crop insurance to more crops and the establishment of the Non-insured Crop Disaster Assistance Program (NAP) (one of the reasons I retired, though that's a story for a different time) lessened its use, and in 2008 the law was changed further to restrict the Secretary's authority.

Tuesday, April 07, 2020

The Limits on Websites

I remember when everyone but everyone was going to be on the web.  I thought that, at least for a while.  But then I started becoming skeptical. Partly this was from my experience with FSA--some of my bright ideas flopped, didn't gain the user acceptance that they needed.  Then I became conscious of the feedback loop: if you build it and the users don't come, you won't maintain.  And finally of the culture problem.

A case study: I buy things at the Merrifield Garden Center and the Home Depot.  Both have websites; HD's is better than Merrifield because you can order online for home delivery or pickup at the store. But unlike Safeway, where I also shop, neither site has a Covid-19 page/announcement when you login. 

It's an indication that for the managers involved, thinking early on of their web presence is yet to become a habit.


Friday, April 03, 2020

Our Sacrosanct Public Servants

It probably says something about our times and society when I note:  Dr. Fauci's status as a public servant is equivalent to that of J. Edgar Hoover and Allen Dulles back in my youth.

My Sympathy to the Trump Administration

The bureaucrats in the Trump administration have my sympathy.  I've played a role in the FSA/USDA bureaucracy during times when we had to implement programs, new programs in a rush. What I didn't have to deal with was:
  • social media--telephones and email were bad enough.
  • the general public--only farmers and those who do business with them were paying attention, but that was more than enough.(The Senate minority leader was never on TV as he is now worrying about how we were going to implement.)
  • a heated political and partisan atmosphere..
  • IIRC 3 weeks was about the tightest time frame I had to deal with, which is a few days longer than those implementing the third stimulus act, signed a week ago.
  • I think they have to construct or reconstruct the bureaucratic infrastructure needed to support the programs.  Things like setting up accounting structures, finding office space and providing IT for the new hires, etc. etc.
  • the topper no. 1--doing this all in an environment where in-person meetings are dangerous and teleworking is new.
  • the topper no. 2--top leadership which is either missing (as in vacancies) or missing (as in Trump).
There's probably more differences but those are the ones coming to mind now.

In a crisis situation there are a lot of decisions to be made and people do the best they can.  It's easy for kibitzers to criticize because they don't have the same information.  They have different information, often misinformation, but sometimes valuable information about aspects of reality which the bureaucrats have missed or aren't aware of.  It's hard to distinguish between the good and the unfounded.

I'll try to remember these factors when I criticize the administration on their handling of the programs, which I'm sure I will.

Thursday, April 02, 2020

Garrow on Obama

Just finished David Garrow's Rising Star.  It's only getting 3 stars on Amazon.  This piece gives a reasonable review.

It's the longest book I've read in a long time--1400+pages with footnotes and index, about 970 pages of text. Garrow seems to have talked to everyone who had significant dealings with Obama during his life up to 2004 and to everyone who remembered him. That means it's exhaustive and exhausting. Garrow vacuumed up everything, so he often reports fulsome compliments ("will be first Aftrican-American president") along with bitter feelings. After he's elected to the Senate the book speeds up a bit, ending with his election, with an epilogue which covers the presidency.

Garrow found a new lover--in addition to the two previous biographers had already identified, one from Obama's days as an organizer in Chicago.  He seems to have had a steady if not necessarily totally monogamous relationship at Occidental, in New York City, and then in Chicago before law school, before finally meeting and marrying Michelle after law school. As far as Garrow can tell he's been a faithful husband, surprisingly so in light of the atmosphere in Springfield, IL when he was a state senator.

Obama seems to have evolved into a person who greatly impressed most people he met and worked with, antagonizing a few along the way and leaving in his wake some more with ambivalence. Garrow sees the mature Obama as very ambitious and very private, rarely allowing people to see his core, sometimes leaving them with the feeling of being used or abandoned.  As his biographer Garrow doesn't penetrate that far, never resolving the apparent conflict between Obama's famous "cool" and his nicotine addiction.

Garrow''s extensive research turns up no skeletons in the closet, at most some evidence of of a toe or two of clay.  He does debunk anti-Obama stories popular on the right, not so much explicitly but by laying out the detailed sequence: these include the relationships with Bill Ayers and Bernadette Dohrn, with Rev. Wright, and developer Tony Rezko.  As his fame grew, he minimized his ties to all of these.  Garrow notes the shading of the truth, but doesn't frame it as hiding lurid secrets, just a politician doing a hedge.

Garrow won a Pulitzer for his bio of M. L. King; he didn't win another for this book.

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

ELS Cotton in Egypt

New Yorker had an article on ELS cotton grown in Egytpt.  The industry is in decline. 

I'd question some things in the article: the statement that the Egyptian cotton was superior to the American Pima, that it was discovered by a French scientist before the Civil War, that "Egypt's production  quickly eclipsed that of the U.S., and, by the end of the nineteenth century..." and the description of the history of cotton, etc.  All of them may be true, at least given their appearance in a magazine article where you can't expect scientific exactitude.  I wonder how the New Yorker checked the facts.

Monday, March 30, 2020

A Tale of Two Photos

Two photos in the Post told a tale. 

  1. One was a picture with an article on Gov. Guomo, lauding his leadership.  It showed him at a briefing, seated at a long table with another official about 10 feet away from him.
  2. The other was a picture of the vice president walking to the president's briefing with the members of the taskforce walking at his side, no one more than feet away.
Of course my interest was triggered by the contrast between Dems and Reps in observing social distancing.  On reflection, my initial reaction was unfair--people keep to old habits until they consciously override them.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Gas Lines, Flour, and PPE

I remember the gas lines in the 1970's when OPEC embargoed oil.  Everyone panicked.  Gas is essential after all. So we all got into lines at gas stations, and we filled our tanks. Every time the gas gauge got down to about half full, we got back in line again.  The effect was to aggravate the shortage, because the amount of gasoline sloshing around in car tanks increased, not to mention the gas wasted idling in long lines. The supply of gas had gone down but hoarding increased the demand.

We're seeing similar effects with Covid-19. People are stocking up  on flour and toilet paper. It's not quite as foolish as it might seem.  John Phipps has tweeted out his concerns that the food supply chains are adapted to supply restaurants and fast food chains with a sizable portion of our food consumption.  The dollars spent between home and restaurant are about equal, but of course it's more expensive to eat out. 

So flour mills would be supplying a large amount to the bakeries which supply hamburger buns and sub rolls. And since a good deal of our elimination of wastes occurs outside the home in normal times, the paper products people are set up to supply the middlemen. This means our current shortages in the supermarkets result from two causes: the fill-the-tank syndrome, stocking up for future disaster'; a slow change in the adaptation of supply chains. Obviously we don't need more food or toilet paper.

The medical community is dealing with shortages of  PPE (*personal protection equipment"), masks, gowns, etc. and other essentials like ventilators.  Here the cause seems to be; we do need more PPE., but countries and people are doing "fill-the-tank" hoarding.

Friday, March 27, 2020

What's in the Covid-19 Bill for FSA?

From Politico:
Special deal: The stimulus provides $9.5 billion in emergency aid for the agriculture industry and replenishes $14 billion in spending authority to the Agriculture Department’s Commodity Credit Corp., a Depression-era financial institution set up to stabilize the farm economy — the same USDA agency sending trade bailout payments to farmers. Producers ranging from dairy farmers and cattle ranchers to fresh fruit and vegetable growers are eligible.
How they got it: Livestock groups have been leaning on lawmakers for weeks to pony up funds for producers who have seen commodity prices plummet since January. Western senators including John Hoeven (R-N.D.), who chairs the Appropriations panel that oversees agricultural spending, made sure those provisions were part of the stimulus plan from the get-go. Then, top Democrats like Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, ranking member on the Agriculture Committee, pushed to include language making specialty crop farmers — like Michigan’s tart cherry growers — eligible for the emergency aid.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

What's the Metaphor for the Covid-19 IMpact

I like metaphors, as I've said before.

The other day I ran across a metaphor used by someone, perhaps an economist, who said the course of the economy will be like driving a car on a highway--you run into a jam, a slowdown where all the traffic slows down, but once the jam is resolved you and the rest of the traffic resume their usual speed.

That's a reassuring image.  Let me offer a differ one, more realistic in my opinion;  In spring and fall you sometimes encounter fog banks on interstates.  In winter you sometimes get a storm which lays down some ice in an area where traffic isn't expecting it.  In these situations you can have a sequence of rear-end accidents, resulting in 20, 30, or more vehicles involved in some damage.  Some cars can run, but are blocked in;; some are a total loss.  Traffic is stopped for a time.

Now I'm not comparing the covid-19 impact to such an accident. Let's imagine a four-lane highway, like the Dulles toll road or the CApitol Beltway. There's a multi-car accident which blocks 2 or 3 lanes and damages some cars.  Rubbernecking slows the traffic in the unblocked lanes. 

That's my metaphor. It seems to me part of the question in sending people back to work is this: how many cars have been damaged in this accident--is the major problem a blockage of the lanes or the damage to the cars.

Damage to the cars in this example equates to impacts on employers and employees. If there's little damage, the economy could easily resume its speed. If there's lots of damage, it will take time to repair it. 

I'm thinking that the more damage we see, the greater the importance of getting the economy going again. 

No Light at the End of the Vietnam Tunnel

"Light at the end of the tunnel" was a phrase made famous during the Vietnam war.  Its initial use is not clear, but it grew to be used sardonically to mean the opposite--there is no way out of this mess.

This history seems to be forgotten by the Trump administration according to this post.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Why Trump's Ratings Are Up

My guess of the reason for Trump's approval ratings to be rising is three-fold:

  • he's no longer doing his rallies.  I'd guess independents and Democrats don't like his behavior during the rallies, so that helps.
  • he's talking from the White House in the press briefing room.  While he's still doing Trumpisms, there's a veneer of presidential behavior.
  • Republicans are feeling better about Trump, and Democrats are worried about the virus, which impacts willingness to respond to pollsters and how they respond.

Peeves: Flaunted and Dispersed

"Flaunt" means to show off.  When writing about people disobeying  Covid-19 rules you mean "flout".  Your "aunt" might be showy, a "lout" definitely isn't.

"Dispersed" means to scatter.  When writing about payments from stimulus programs, you mean "disbursed".   (Did your college have a "bursar"? )

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Epstein Dead and Buried (Metaphorically)?

Gregory Cochran is an anthropologist who is very much a contrarian.  On his West Hunter blog he posts occasionally, mostly on the evolution of humans.  He seems to be on the conservative side, at least in that he argues for the impact of evolution on human traits, etc.  In other words, he's not politically correct.

With that understanding of his leanings, I was surprised to read this takedown of Richard Epstein, who recently speculated on the outcome of Covid-19, arguing that concerns were over done. Most notably he predicted deaths in US would be 500 or les.

I only know that predictions vary very widely, and everyone who positively asserts a prediction is overdoing it.

But Cochran's post is a great example of taking no prisoners.


Sunday, March 22, 2020

Claw Backs on Covid Aid

Personally, my wife and I fall into the category Steven Pearlstein described Friday--people whose income is not siigniicantly impacted by Covid-19. See this more recent post on Politico.

I don't know whether we will receive anything under the measures now being put together in  Congress.

It strikes me that in the absence of the right infrastructure to focus payments you could include a clawback provision. For us, the IRS would know on our 2020 taxes that we received Covid money. If our adjusted gross income for 2020 doesn't show a decrease from 2019, i.e., we weren't hurt by the pandemic, then tax the Covid money, 100 percent or something less.

[Updated:  Here's Greg Mankiw proposing the same thing.]

The Lack of Governmental Infrastructure

One of things crisis  fighters run into is the lack of governmental infrastructure. 

In the Great Recession a bit part of the problem in helping people whose houses were under water was the lack of any infrastructure which had direct contact with mortgagees.  Instead people like Geithner had to design programs to work through banks, but because the mortgages often had been been sold on/collateralized from the original loan maker it wasn't an effective program.

We now come to 2020 and Covid-19.  The programs under discussion now want to make direct payments to people.  But the government doesn't have that infrastructure.  The best we can do is write checks to those who filed a tax return with IRS in the past, but that obviously misses a lot of people: those who weren't required to file, those who joined the country more recently, those who never filed a tax return--i.e., tax evaders.


My Predictions?

I don't really have any, but I just saw a Politico post following up on various predictions made about Obamacare.  They mostly were wrong.  So with that in mind I'll venture this: at least 80 percent of the predictions ever offered about Covid-19 will turn out to be wrong.

Nicholas Kristof at the Times sketched the best and worst cases for the outcome. I'll venture the prediction that the outcome will be closer to the best than the worst.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Will the Cost of Fighting Covid-19 Exceed the DAmage It Causes?

John Hinderaker at Powerline blog ends a post on the Covid-19 virus (he uses "Wuhan virus" which is an indicator of his viewpoint) with this sentence:
" But policymakers need to consider the possibility that the damage done by the extreme measures being taken to slow the spread of the virus will ultimately prove to be greater than the harm done by the virus itself."
My reaction was--we should hope that's the case.   But I've had to struggle with figuring out whether my kneejerk reaction was valid, or just liberal bias.  Let me try now:


  1. Covid-19 is a case of natural disaster.
  2. Natural disasters vary widely in their causes and destruction: think of Hurricane Katrina or Sandy; earthquakes and tsunamis, droughts, floods, forest fires
  3. It seems to me that forest fires are a decent parallel with forest fires.  Why-both fires and epidemics occur over significant time, not the minutes of an earthquake or the days of a hurricane. That extended time period means humans can fight them, can hope to mitigate effects, limit their scope. 
  4. So consider the Paradise CA fire of a couple years ago.  Suppose, instead of a downed transmission line, it had started as campfire which escaped the firepit. But there was a fire station near enough and someone with a cellphone who saw the escape. In short, the Paradise fire was contained within a couple acres by the exertions of a fire crew over a day.  The cost of fighting the fire would maybe have been $1K, more than the burn damage.  Given that scenario,should we not fight the fire because of a cost-benefit ratio.
  5. In summary, when considering natural disasters the correct cost-benefit analysis is not money expended versus damage incurred; it's money expended versus some combination of probability of damage and the cost of the damage.

Friday, March 20, 2020

In Lieu of Mail Elections

There's a move, led in part by my former candidate for President, Amy Klobuchar, to move to mail elections in the fall.

I've reservations about mail elections because I like the feeling of community you get by voting in person.  I've reservations about moving to mail for our national elections, fearing that people are underestimating the difficulty involved, particularly when you consider counties are basically in charge of elections (remember the butterfly ballot). IMO there would likely be a number of snafus in November because the Harshaw rule applies.

I'd suggest an alternative in case Covid-19 is a danger in November--move to multi-day elections.  Instead of "election day" we'd have maybe "election week", or 2-3 days  That way we'd not need to change the technology, just spread out the people as they come to vote, so they can maintain their 6 foot distance.  The big hurdle that comes to mind is the burden on the people manning the polling places--older folks usually and more vulnerable to sickness.  But, if the virus is still an issue unemployment will be higher, providing a pool of potential hirees.

[Update--it seems the Klobuchar/Wyden proposal allows in-person advance voting, which is the same as an "election week"--I knew she deserved my support

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Innovation--Uses of Social Media

I think it's true that whenever things change some humans adapt to it.  It's like invasive species in biology--when a new ecological niche opens some opportunistic species will take advantage of it.

Anyway, what seems to be going on today is, given the challenge of Covid-19, humans are finding ways to use the internet and social media to counter its effects.  Using Amazon to order supplies, using Zoom for online learning, having a community sing over media, joining friends for online meals.

These uses aren't unprecedented, I'm sure, but tweaks on existing uses and expansion to new audiences.  These uses and audiences are likely to persist even after Covid-19 becomes a normal part of the world's health picture.

Kevin Drum has a post today arguing the greater speed of information exchange now as compared to 1918's Spanish flu explains a greater economic impact.  I'd agree, but also point to the advantages this speed offers--we can learn from the esperiences of others much quicker than in 1918.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

The Logistics of Checks to Everyone

As a bureaucrat when I see proposals to send checks to "everyone" I immediately jump to the logistics.

I know we've done this in the past--I think in the GWBush administration.  Google that and I find this:
In 2009, the Economic Stimulus Act sent out $14.2 billion in stimulus checks.1 2 The one-time payment went to recipients of Social Security, Supplemental Security Income, veterans, and railroad retirees.
Note that's far from "everyone".  Others, the employed, got a tax credit. This was part of Obama's stimulus.  As for GWB:
The year before ARRA, the George W. Bush administration sent out stimulus checks to battle the 2008 recession. It spent $120 billion in fiscal years 2008 and 2009.1 It rebated taxes on the first $6,000 of income for individuals or the first $12,000 of income for couples. Stimulus checks were mailed out as follows:

Individual taxpayers received up to $600.4

Married couples were eligible for up to $1,200.
Households with children received $300 per dependent child.
Rebates were reduced for higher incomes at $75,000 for individuals and $150,000 for couples.\
Around 20 million retirees on Social Security and disabled veterans also received checks for $300 if they earned at least $3,000 in benefits in 2007.4 Couples received $600.
Everything from this site including a discussion of impacts.

The problems with "everyone" is the government doesn't have a database with everyone in it, unlike say Estonia or India.  So to issue checks Congress has to cobble together databases from across the government.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Contrails as a Metaphor for Covid-19

I like metaphors, using something concrete to grasp ideas. I was thinking about Covid-19 (surprisingly!) this morning, specifically the process by which the virus spreads. What gets complicated to think about is the elapse of time, particularly since I tend to resist binary choices--a person is infected or not.

So here's my metaphor:  think of an infected person as a jet plane flying in a clear sky, particularly a older one.  The plane leaves a contrail behind it, which over time loses its structure and dissolves into nothing.  The contrail represents the virus particles being

Nowfly another plane through the contrail, representing an uninfected person.  If the contrail is well structured the person is more likely to be infected than if time has passed or winds have dispersed it.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Covid-19 Makes Us All Poor

Don't normally listen to podcasts but I did this one at Slate with an ER doctor..

He points to the lack of control felt by him and the public. That's one of the things about being poor--the lack of control over your life, the need to live from crisis to crisis, without the resources to get ahead of things.  The lack of control means you lose the ability to scan the environment and to plan the future.

For me, these descriptions apply to my current state of mind--my mental horizon has contracted to the issues raised by the virus: buying food, the loss of outside entertainment possibilities, the uncertainty,.  In other words, I'm now pretty much stupid.

[Updated--I forgot the most important thing--obsessing about the possibility Starbucks will close. I can't live without my coffee.]




Saturday, March 14, 2020

If Memory Serves--Cheney and Pence

If I remember correctly after 9/11 Vice President Cheney and President Bush were, for several weeks/months? kept separated, so a terrorist attack on one wouldn't take out the other.

Is it possibly time for President Trump and Vice President Pence to be separated?  Trump is in the population must vulnerable to the effects of Covid-19. The VP is getting there, but isn't nearly as vulnerable.  By separating them we'd help ensure that the virus couldn't take out both men at once, given that serious cases can result in lengthy hospitalizations.

Friday, March 13, 2020

The Flu and Social Forces

The Covid-19 virus has caused us (starting with President Trump) to become more aware of the toll of the annual  outbreak of influenza.  I was vaguely aware the death toll was significant, but not the full scope of the impact.

I'd compare the flu and some social forces such as segregation, prejudice, changes in social mores.  Like the flu, we're vaguely aware of such forces,  but we only sporadically become really conscious of them. Like the flu, forces operate mostly below our level of consciousness.  Like the flu, some social forces there's a range of variation in the instances: most being minor and temporary but some being very serious.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Slow Learners in Trump Administration

It seems as if it's the fourth or fifth time Rep. Katie Porter has questioned Trump administration officials with results that rate a tweet.



If I were someone in the administration I'd use a sick leave day to avoid testifying.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Walter Raleigh

Walter Raleigh, Architect of Empire, was a Christmas present.  It's academic history, for which I've a smaller appetite these days.  I understand there are limited sources for his biography,which has to be considered. Anyhow, I just finished it:  Some things which struck me:

  • a lot of parallels between the treatment of Ireland and America (i.e.,Virginia). In both cases England was dealing with natives and trying to "plant" colonists. In the case of Virginia there was much ignorance and little attention to logistics.
  • the English thought of their efforts in America as different and more enlightened than those of the Spanish, partly because the Spanish were Catholic and England's adversary, partly from learning about the Spanish conquest and rule.
  • while dealing with the monarch was much like dealing with our current President, requiring much flattery etc. Queen Elizabeth I and King James I had the Tower and eventually the executioner's axe.
  • government was very fluid and not well defined; the most obvious example is the ease with which government resources were used for privacy.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Linking "Vertical Farms" With Microgrids

If I understand this article, a microgrid is a set of power generators dedicated to supplying a set of power consumers.  When the generators are a combination of solar and natural gas and the consumers are "vertical farms" there might be a workable and economic combination.  Vertical farms use lots of energy (the old dream of using sunlight which I laughed at years ago seems now defunct).

The big advantage of a microgrid is that it can be installed along with the vertical farm, so you don't rely on the power company to have the capacity to support your farm.  The microgrid operator can guarantee a price, making it easier to figure out your business plan.

Seems to me in the long run the microgrid is not the best solution.  Vertical farms need a lot of energy and for many hours in the day (apparently if you blast a seeding with light for 18 hours a day instead of 6 you get more growth--that's my impression). But it strikes me that plants are relatively forgiving, which means if you're operating a smart transmission system, vertical farms could easily be cut off when the system gets overloaded for some reason.  See this.

I assume it's also true that there are economies of scale in power generation.  Such economies should mean a power company could undercut a microgrid in many cases.

The article notes it's not clear what price for electricity would enable vertical farms to make a profit.

We'll see.

Monday, March 09, 2020

Telework--What Will USDA Do?

OPM is out with guidance to agencies encouraging telework due to Covid19. 

Earlier in the administration Sec. Perdue made drastic cutbacks in the USDA employees authorized to telework.

So far there's nothing on the USDA website about telework.

Sunday, March 08, 2020

Caldwell's Age of Enlightenment

As a thinker, Christopher Caldwell is a good writer.  His words flow, and you ride with them, until suddenly there's a problem.

Bpttomline--I don't like his style--

I'll pick out one paragraph in his final chapter

"Those who lost most from the new rights-based politics were white men.  The laws of the 1960's may not have been designed explicity to harm them, but they were gradually altered to help evceryone but them, which is the same thing.  Whites suffered because they occupied this uniquely disadvantaged status under the civil rights laws, because their strongest asset in the constitutional system--their overwhelming preponderance in the electorate--was slowly shrinking, because their electoral victories could be overruled in courtrooms and by regulatory boards where necessary, and because the moral narratives of civil rights required that they be cast as the villains of their country's history. They fell asleep thinking of themselves as the people who had built this country and woke up to find themselves occupying the bottom rung of an official hierarchy of races."

page 276

Notice what he does there.  In the first sentence the losers are "white men".  By the end of the paragraph "they", who are the bottom rung, are "whites". To me that's sloppy thought. Somehow the advances women have made since the 1960's are ignored. To be consistent he'd have to discuss an ethnic/gender  hierarchy, but that would complicate his argument.  He'd have to recognize that white women have gained during the period.

He's also playing games with the causes.  Assume that white voters were the "overwhelming preponderance" of the electorate in the 1960' in part because of the denial of the right to vote in the South.  The civil rights laws were passed by that overwhelming preponderance (85 percent in 1960). Whites still maintain their preponderance and will for another 20 years or so. The Republicans have had a majority on the Supreme Court since Nixon.  Give Caldwell credit though--he doesn't name a villain to account for the changes other than the sleepiness of whites.

There's an interesting book to be written discussing the last 60 years, paying attention to what was lost and what was gained, but it isn't this book.


Saturday, March 07, 2020

Every Cow Has "Her People"/

Vox has an interview with the director of "First Cow", who comments of the cow: "She had her people."

She also agrees with the interviewer: “Milk is so exciting.”

Friday, March 06, 2020

That Was the Week That Was

I'm showing my age in the title I chose--see this wikipedia explainer.

For Democrats, and political observers, it's been 7 days of twists and turns.  I'm amused to see Hugh Hewitt's Mar 1 oped: and the Michael Tomasky's piece in the New York Review of Books.

Both remind me of this

Wednesday, March 04, 2020

Why I Voted for Warren

I voted for Elizabeth Warren yesterday.  I've been a supporter of Klobuchar for as long as she was in the race and would have voted for her had she not withdrawn.  So my choices yesterday were Bloomberg, Biden, and Warren.  Sanders is both too old and too radical for me to consider, though I will vote for him if he becomes the Democratic nominee.

My bottomline was that anyone my age is too old for the job. I think I'm still pretty good mentally.  My memory fails occasionally, more than it used to, but I can analyze and write pretty well.  Assume that Bloomberg and Biden are equally capable.  But I find it hard to imagine that either man would, if elected, be able to credibly plan to run for reelection. That's just an age too far.  So they'd be a lame duck  immediately.  The record of our presidents during their second terms when they're lame ducks is not great.

The VP,  whoever it is, would naturally want to run for president in 2024, which would likely mean she'd need to establish some distance from the president just to have their own identity. Meanwhile other Democratic politicians would be maneuvering to run as well.  All that means big difficulties in getting the party to come together and support the President's proposals.

Applying the logic above leaves me with Warren as my choice.  I'm not fond of some of her plans, but I like her brains and her passion, so she was an acceptable choice. When I voted, I realized it was a symbolic vote, since she had no chance to win delegates in VA.  But that's life.