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.

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


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.