Thursday, March 31, 2005

Droppers, Walkers, and Pickers

For my many sins as a bureaucrat, I fully expect to be reincarnated as a lower form of life, perhaps an economist. Here's some meditations along the lines of the "broken window" thesis of James Q. Wilson:

My wife and I have lived in Reston, in the townhouse I bought in 1976. It's walking distance to the grocery store and I walked occasionally during my working years, more often now I'm retired. The neighborhood has had its problems over the years, as two of the section 8 subsidized housing projects in Reston were a ways down the street. ("Were" not because they've been destroyed, but Fairfax county has converted them somehow.)

Anyhow, with regard to trash on the ground, there are three categories of people:
  1. Droppers, including people in cars, who drop trash
  2. Walkers, including people in cars, who just pass by.
  3. Pickers, excluding people in cars, who pick up trash.
The sources of trash tend to be fast food places and the grocery, particularly drink containers. There's got to be some math that would describe the possible balances among the people. If 1 percent of everyone who passes drops something, and 2 percent are pickers, the walkways will stay reasonably neat. But we have to account for feedback, if it's 2 percent droppers and 1 percent pickers, then some pickers may get discouraged and give up. There's feedback also for the droppers, the neater the place, presumably the less likely you are to drop something. That's perhaps because you feel a social norm in place, because there's the possibility of oppobrium being expressed, or because the first piece of litter does the most harm. (If you're a rebellious youth, trying to do damage, you get the most utility by writing graffiti on the Washington monument.)

We're Rich, Say George Will and Rep. Linder

Let me take a cheap shot at George Will's column today, boosting Rep. Linder (R-GA) flat tax plan.
"Linder says Americans spend 7 billion hours a year filling out IRS forms and at least that much calculating the tax implications of business decisions.... Linder says the director of the Congressional Budget Office told him it costs individuals and businesses about $500 billion to remit $2 trillion to Washington. "

Simple math says 7 billion hours into $500 billion is $70+ dollars an hour. If the average taxpayer works roughly 2000 hours a year, that's $140K yearly, which is rich by my standards. This is a cheap shot because such estimates are wild-ass guesses, initially, which get solidified into gospel as they move further away from their bureaucratic source. It would behoove Congresspeople and columnpeople occasionally to check whether their statistics match up with common sense.

On the more serious point, Will tries to appeal to the goo-goo in all of us by claiming the flat tax would do away with K street lobbyists. I doubt it, the money power always finds ways to tweak the system for its interests, whether it's in earmarking spending or the fine print of legislation. But there is a big issue for liberals: would we trade our (supposedly) "progressive" tax system for a flat tax if in return we got the safety net of the old Europe countries (universal health care, paid family leave, etc.)? At least today I think I would.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Shredding Documents at the UN, Does It Matter?

The answer: "it all depends".

Mr. Volcker, in the Lehrer interview last night referred to a "chron" file that was destroyed. I've no knowledge of the filing system they used at the UN, and have not read the report. But some filing basics, as done in my old agency in 1975 (figure the UN is 30 years behind times). Anything prepared for official signature in the office, whether in response to incoming correspondence or initiated within the office, had an original and multiple carbon copies prepared. (We moved to Xerox copies later.)

1 Writer drafted the document and his (remember, it's 1975) secretary typed it with the copies. Any incoming documents, attachments, etc. were stapled to the official yellow copy.
2 Writer reviewed, then initialed the official yellow copy.
3 Package went through clearance channels, with the officials initialing the yellow copy. If they didn't like it, it was sent back for rewrite and retyping. The original yellow carbon would be stapled behind the yellow carbon of the revised document.
4 The approving official signed the original. His secretary stamped his signature on all the copies and distributed them:
  • original to addressee
  • information copies to offices who needed to know that action had been taken and to the writer
  • official yellow, green, and blue copies to official records. There, they would be filed as follows:
    • official yellow (and attachments, etc.) in a file by subject (note that it should show all the changes made, the whole history of the document)
    • blue in a file by addressee
    • green in a file by date.
The addressee and date files (chronology) were finding aids. If you were trying to find something, you could search those files, retrieve the copy and find the subject category where you'd find the yellow copy. After a period of time, we'd destroy the addressee and date files, and move the official yellows off to the National Archives.

(The whole thing is comparable to today's PC's--the subject file equates to the system of folders and subfolders used in Windows. The date file equates to the history boxes that show the stuff you most recently worked on or URL's you accessed. )

So if Annan's chief of staff approved the destruction of blue/green files and the file systems were like my agency's, there should be no information lost, just ease of searching. ) Of course, the timing smells and the file system may have been something completely different. We'll see.

Three things are interesting:
1 The willingness of people to comment without knowing the system used
2 The fact there's no discussion of e-mail. I mean, I know the UN is not well run, but even Reagan and Ollie North got tripped up in 1987 over the IBM Profs internal e-mail system.
3 The problem historians will have in the future as filing systems dissolve under the impact of technology.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Sexy Work??

Ann Gerhart has an article : in the Post on the changing of the old Civil Service personnel system.

"Hundreds of thousands of federal workers made a deal when they signed up with Uncle Sam. Whether they were janitors pushing a broom or naval designers floating tiny model destroyers or econometricians micro-simulating Social Security scenarios, the deal was the same:

They would do good work, even rewarding, satisfying work. It wouldn't be sexy work, and it wouldn't make them rich. But what they would get was stability, the federal holidays, transit subsidies, Cadillac health care, the flextime allowing every other Friday off. The hours would be regular. The raises would come -- click, click, click up the general service scale. "

So what is "sexy work"? Working as an Enron energy trader exulting over screwing California grandmas? Working in legal/accounting firms to come up with tax evasion schemes to sell? Wheeling and dealing on Wall Street, taking large bonuses for doing mergers that don't work out (like DEC and Compaq), exercising stock options for mismanaging a company, working for the largest McMansion and biggest Hummer, the second house on the shore and the third apartment off the campus of your children's college?

Or is it researching public health crises for CDC, flying into space for NASA, designing ARPANET for DOD, fighting forest fires for the Forest Service, getting social security checks to the old?

There used to be the idea of "service", as in service to the community. And service is sexy, as when the bull services the cow.

The Legislative Cycle--S.385 Analysis

Here is the text of S. 385, from Thomas: My comments in bold.

1st Session

S. 385

To amend the Food Security Act of 1985 to restore integrity to and strengthen payment limitation rules for commodity payments and benefits.


February 15, 2005

Mr. GRASSLEY (for himself, Mr. DORGAN, Mr. HAGEL, and Mr. JOHNSON) introduced the following bill; which was read twice and referred to the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry


To amend the Food Security Act of 1985 to restore integrity to and strengthen payment limitation rules for commodity payments and benefits. [You wish--I'm dubious.]

    Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,


    This Act may be cited as the `Rural America Preservation Act'. [Almost always a name, often skewed to form a good acronym, as in the "Patriot Act".]


    Section 1001 of the Food Security of 1985 (7 U.S.C. 1308) is amended--[the permanent authority for limitations]
      (1) in subsection (b)(1), by striking `$40,000' and inserting `$20,000';
      (2) in subsection (c)(1), by striking `$65,000' and inserting `$30,000';
      (3) in subsection (d), by striking `(d)' and all that follows through the end of paragraph (1) and inserting the following:
    `(d) Limitations on Marketing Loan Gains, Loan Deficiency Payments, and Commodity Certificate Transactions-[big thing here is including certificates]
      `(1) LOAN COMMODITIES- The total amount of the following gains and payments that a person may receive during any crop year may not exceed $75,000:
        `(A)(i) Any gain realized by a producer from repaying a marketing assistance loan for 1 or more loan commodities under subtitle B of title I of the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 (7 U.S.C. 7931 et seq.) at a lower level than the original loan rate established for the loan commodity under that subtitle.
        `(ii) In the case of settlement of a marketing assistance loan for 1 or more loan commodities under that subtitle by forfeiture, the amount by which the loan amount exceeds the repayment amount for the loan if the loan had been settled by repayment instead of forfeiture.
        `(B) Any loan deficiency payments received for 1 or more loan commodities under that subtitle.
        `(C) Any gain realized from the use of a commodity certificate issued by the Commodity Credit Corporation for 1 or more loan commodities, as determined by the Secretary, including the use of a certificate for the settlement of a marketing assistance loan made under that subtitle, with the gain reported annually to the Internal Revenue Service and to the taxpayer in the same manner as gains under subparagraphs (A) and (B).'; [ouch, presumably it wasn't reported to IRS before. I wonder how many paid taxes on it.]
      (4) by adding at the end the following:
    `(h) Single Farming Operation-
      `(1) IN GENERAL- Notwithstanding subsections (b) through (d), subject to paragraph (2), if a person participates only in a single farming operation and receives, directly or indirectly, any payment or gain covered by this section through the farming operation, the total amount of payments or gains (as applicable) covered by this section that the person may receive during any crop year may be up to but not exceed twice the applicable dollar amounts specified in subsections (b), (c), and (d). [This removes the two entity rule. I read this as doubling the separate limitations for each category of programs/benefits. ]
      `(2) INDIVIDUALS- The total amount of payments or gains (as applicable) covered by this section that an individual person may receive during any crop year may not exceed $250,000. [ "covered by this section" means that farmers can still get more money under disaster programs.
    `(i) Spouse Equity- Notwithstanding subsections (b) through (d), except as provided in subsection (e)(2)(C)(i), if an individual and spouse are covered by subsection (e)(2)(C) and receive, directly or indirectly, any payment or gain covered by this section, the total amount of payments or gains (as applicable) covered by this section that the individual and spouse may jointly receive during any crop year may not exceed twice the applicable dollar amounts specified in subsections (b), (c), and (d). [I'd read this as limiting husband and wife to $250K.]
    `(j) Regulations-
      `(1) IN GENERAL- Not later than 270 days after the date of enactment of this subsection, the Secretary shall promulgate regulations-- [270 days--if the law is passed by July 1, then the final regs should be out by March 1, 2006 covering the 2006 crop year.]
        `(A) to ensure that total payments and gains described in this section made to or through joint operations or multiple entities under the primary control of a person, in combination with the payments and gains received directly by the person, shall not exceed twice the applicable dollar amounts specified in subsections (b), (c), and (d); [Okay, what does "primary control" mean--see below]
        `(B) in the case of a person that in the aggregate owns, conducts farming operations, or provides custom farming services on land with respect to which the aggregate payments exceed the applicable dollar amounts specified in subsections (b), (c), and (d), to attribute all payments and gains made on crops produced on the land to--
          `(i) a person that rents land as lessee or lessor through a crop share lease and receives a share of the payments that is less than the usual and customary share of the crop received by the lessee or lessor, as determined by the Secretary;
          `(ii) a person that provides custom farming services through arrangements under which--
            `(I) all or part of the compensation for the services is at risk;
            `(II) farm management services are provided by--

`(aa) the same person;

`(bb) an immediate family member; or

`(cc) an entity or individual that has a business relationship that is not an arm's length relationship, as determined by the Secretary; or

            `(III) more than 2/3 of the farming operations are conducted as custom farming services provided by--

`(aa) the same person;

`(bb) an immediate family member; or

`(cc) an entity or individual that has a business relationship that is not an arm's length relationship, as determined by the Secretary; or

          `(iii) a person under such other arrangements as the Secretary determines are established to transfer payments from persons that would otherwise exceed the applicable dollar amounts specified in subsections (b), (c), and (d); and
        `(C) to ensure that payments attributed under this section to a person other than the direct recipient shall also count toward the limit of the direct recipient. [This is the messy part--will need further discussion. Basically it's trying to say, write your regs so the schemes used in the past won't work.]
      `(2) PRIMARY CONTROL- The regulations under paragraph (1) shall define `primary control' to include a joint operation or multiple entity in which a person owns an interest that is equal to or greater than the interest of any other 1 or more persons that materially participate on a regular, substantial, and continuous basis in the management of the operation or entity.'. [Problem area--more discussion.]


    Section 1001B of the Food Security Act of 1985 (7 U.S.C. 1308-2) is amended--
      (1) by inserting `(a) In general- ' before `If'; and
      (2) by adding at the end the following:
    `(b) Fraud- If fraud is committed by a person in connection with a scheme or device to evade, or that has the purpose of evading, section 1001, 1001A, or 1001C, the person shall be ineligible to receive farm program payments (as described in subsections (b), (c), and (d) of section 1001 as being subject to limitation) applicable to the crop year for which the scheme or device is adopted and the succeeding 5 crop years.'. [Bumps up the penalty from 2 to 5 years.]


    (a) In General- The Secretary of Agriculture may promulgate such regulations as are necessary to implement this Act and the amendments made by this Act.
    (b) Procedure- The promulgation of the regulations and administration of this Act and the amendments made by this Act shall be made without regard to--
      (1) the notice and comment provisions of section 553 of title 5, United States Code;
      (2) the Statement of Policy of the Secretary of Agriculture effective July 24, 1971 (36 Fed. Reg. 13804), relating to notices of proposed rulemaking and public participation in rulemaking; and
      (3) chapter 35 of title 44, United States Code (commonly known as the `Paperwork Reduction Act').
      [An instance where Congress has set requirements on the one hand but here, in the fine print where no one except those interested will notice, lifts the requirements.
    (c) Congressional Review of Agency Rulemaking- In carrying out this section, the Secretary shall use the authority provided under section 808 of title 5, United States Code.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Tyler Cowen's Ethnic Food Guide (revised)

A guide to almost all the restaurants in the DC area. (Where does he get the time and money?)
Hmm--is ethnic food the reason we're so fat? There is a correlation between the variety of food in stores, and the variety of menus in restaurants, and the growth of the American waistline. In the past we may have gotten habituated to our diet (my mother, rest her soul, had a limited set of entrees which weren't very good) and become satiated quickly. But with the variety available to us, we don't become satiated. Another instance of the paradox of too much choice .

How Do We Bind Outselves for the Future?

The Schiavo cases turns up interesting points:

Robert P. George on Terri Schiavo on National Review: "it is a mistake to assume that people can make decisions in advance about whether to have themselves starved to death if they eventually find themselves disabled. That's why living wills have proven to be so often unreliable. One does not know how one will actually feel, or how one will feel about one's life and the prospect of death, or whether one will retain a desire to live despite a mental or physical disability, when one is not actually in that condition and when one is envisaging it from the perspective of more or less robust health."

Kausfiles cited this. Prof. George has a point, but it's true of many attempts to bind ourselves in the future. When Odysseus roped himself to the mast, he was making a commitment for the future. When Barry Bonds (presumably) took steroids, he was making a commitment, just like the bargain Faust made with the devil. Perhaps one of the marks of civilization, which may have evolved through religion, is our ability to conceive the future and to make commitments (the religious call them "covenants", the lawyers call them "contracts", the accountants talk of "current value"). In the discussion of Social Security on C-Span this morning, we're projecting the future not just 75 years, but forever. Did the Greeks or Shakespeare talk this way; the gods, honor, children, reputation were their visions of the future.

Certainly many minds change--GI's want out when they face going to Iraq, people want out of marriages, etc. etc. Prof. George is constucting a straw man, unlike a contract a living will can certainly be adjusted and updated along the way with no penalty.

What's the Argument for Death

Interesting point in the Slate Fray on Schiavo by Thrasymachus:

Slate Magazine: "Ah, but why wouldn't I want to be kept alive in that condition? Isn't that the fundamental question that divides the two camps on this issue? Put a certain way, Johnson's argument is the very soul of reason: If I ever end up in a persistent vegetative state, then either I'll end up unconscious and won't care a bit, or I'll have some rudimentary awareness and won't remember anything but being in a persistent vegetative state, and will therefore have no desire to die. So why not just keep me alive? What's the argument for death?

Part of the 'argument for death,' I suppose, is dignity. I don't want to end up lying slack in some bed, making random twitching expressions and having my friends and relations consider it a 'red-letter-day' when my glassy eyes appear (perhaps) to reflexively track a balloon. But again- why should my concern for my dignity now have any bearing on how I'm treated then, when I wouldn't care about it a bit? Isn't that just vanity?"

Other than vanity, which might also be called the "yuck" factor, there are better motives for accepting death in such instances: ending the ordeal for relatives and friends, allowing them to get on with life; ending the burden and expense for caregivers and the community; and finally, making a "good" ending.

Against the Conventional Wisdom

John Kenneth Galbraith is one of my heroes. Not only is he Scots-Irish and one of the early bureaucrats in the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, but he gave the world many terms, including "conventional wisdom". The implication is that the wisdom is more convention than wise, which is the argument of a Columbia U. economist here, in relation to agricultural trade and subsidies:

Arvind Panagariya: "2. About rich-country protection and subsidies in agriculture. Contrary to the common belief, their removal will hurt the poorest countries.
FT article, FT Editorial and the exchanges with Dr. William Cline and Professor Pranab Bardhan.
Six fallacies associated with agricultural liberalization debunked (NEW full-length article: December 20, 2004) "

Among my many (un)qualifications is the ability to enter the dispute, but it shows there's more than Oxfam's side.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Richard Hatch and the IRS, Redux

Richard Hatch backed out of a deal with the IRS. There was a radio report that he claimed that IRS never told him how much taxes he needed to pay on his winnings. But in this report:

"Hatch’s lawyer, Michael Minns, told AP Radio that under California law, Hatch should have been classified as a CBS employee and therefore CBS was responsible for withholding taxes from his winnings.

“He was under the impression that they were either going to withhold from the check or pay the tax, and apparently neither occurred,” Minns said."

This seems weird to me. If you win the lottery, everyone knows that taxes come out of the face amount of the prize. If he was an employee (not really, because the payment went to a company, not him personally), then the check wouldn't say $1M.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Little Billy Gates Benefited From Not Having a PC

I can't help commenting on this, particularly the title, from the LA Times:

Little Billy Gates Benefited From Not Having a PC: "We're raising a generation of computer and computer game addicts who are doomed to fail in school, not because the system is obsolete but simply because it's a lot more fun, and a lot easier, to hang out on the computer than it is to read 'A Tale of Two Cities.'

If Gates had been brought up in this kind of environment, what are the chances he'd have had the focus and creativity to build a company like Microsoft?"
My memory is that while Gates didn't have a PC, he did have access to his school' s minicomputer. There's a bit of truth in the article, Gates benefited by being on the borders when a new ecological niche was opened in the economy (like the land rush when Oklahoma was opened to settlement, or the oil rush when John D. Rockefeller set up his trust). To the extent that PC's and the Net are a more mature technology, there will be fewer opportunities in that field. But obsessive people will find ways to build things and access to the world's knowledge has got to help, not hurt, in finding what to build.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

The New York Review of Books: The Flawed Report on Dan Rather

Not having studied the report, I shouldn't comment on this review from The New York Review of Books: The Flawed Report on Dan Rather:
"The report concluded that CBS failed to hire appropriate experts to clearly verify its statements and did not establish a 'chain of custody' for the documents. CBS, according to the report, rushed to judgment on the basis of inadequate evidence, did not promptly acknowledge flaws in its program, and broadcast a false and misleading report.

CBS did rush to make inadequately verified allegations public and it was slow in responding to criticism. The report's conclusions on the other points are not, however, persuasive. Surprisingly, the panel was unable to conclude whether the documents are forgeries or not. If the documents are not forgeries, what is the reason for the report?"
What bothers me is that there's no recognition that the documents are obvious fakes. The report may not be able to prove it, given the origin of the documents is fuzzy, but the overwhelming weight of evidence cries "fake".


R.I.P. "Information Superhighway"

According to the NY Times, In Land of Lexicons, Having the Last Word, the information superhighway is no more:

"The downside of the new ease with which citations can be found, Ms. McKean said, is that words sometimes enter the dictionary too quickly. 'We occasionally take words out,' she said. 'We thought they were working, and they just ended up not.' She cited the term 'information superhighway,' which was removed from the new edition of the O.A.D.[Oxford American Dictionary], explaining, 'People aren't using it as much, and if they are, they're using it in a jokey way.'"
Issue: why do metaphors fade; why did "information superhighway" die? IMO the term has too many syllables, "net" and "web" are shorter terms. Ease of use is always vital. It was also used in the context of a vast construction project. That may have been true back in 1999, when every roadside in Reston was being cabled with fiber, but no longer. Finally "superhighway" is also, at least to an aging driver who never enjoyed the interstates, a slightly intimidating term, while that's not my experience of the web.

The web is no longer strange and frightening. We don't worry these days so much about people developing anti-social tendencies on the web; we see too many blogs trying for the biggest audience possible.

In Defense of Grandstanding--Schiavo

Congress is busily engaged in inserting itself into the Karen Schiavo case. Is this political grandstanding? Of course, but that's what politicians do. Pointing with pride and viewing with alarm, taking forthright stands on the side of the angels and courageously attacking the evils of the world.

I believe Oscar Wilde said something like: "hypocrisy is the lip service that vice pays to virtue". IMHO there's something like that going on here. Our leaders strut and pose and thereby reassert our shared values. ("Our shared" is loosely used: the values of the vast majority, the knee-jerk reactions of those who are not leisured retired bureaucrats or those who get paid to think and opine.) But as a good liberal I hasten to find the exculpatory facts for those I might otherwise criticize. It is, after all, to those in the grandstand to whom our leaders are appealing. And "grand" stand implies a vast audience, although those who have watched basketball and mourned for the days of purity might be brought to admit that playground athletes grandstand for each other. It's the old Darwinian sexual selection, each putative leader posing as the bigger defender of morality, as having the bigger ....

If one can't gain consolation by the image of members of Congress comparing their members, I can think that every day spent on political grandstanding represents one less day available for these clowns to work on issues like liberty and equity, fairness and justice.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Sol Linowitz

I prefer the Post obit of Sol Linowitz to the NYTimes. I never knew the man, but his death triggers these thoughts:

1 Egotistically, in 1964, with its endowment bulging from Kodak and Xerox stock, the University of Rochester was aspiring to become great. Unfortunately, their greatest grad student (me) busted out, an omen of what was to happen with Kodak and Xerox.

2. Clark Clifford in his memoir talked about one paper, absolutely vital in post war policy making, (may have been the Truman Doctrine speech) being walked around because there was only one copy. The Xerox machine and then client-server e-mail, like the IBM Profs that Ollie North ran afoul of, had a great impact on the operation of bureaucracy, both good and bad. (In Taubman's biography of Khrushchev, he observes that the USSR was run by a literal handful of man. I'd add, if he did not, run with carbon paper and no Xerox machines. The Xerox also must change the role of archivists and then historians (not that I'd know)--in the old days you could rely on an official record carbon copy, after Xerox such reliance is dubious.

3. What, if anything, should be the penalty for being wrong on great historical issues? I think it's clear that Carter and Linowitz were right on the Canal, Reagan and the right wing were wrong. (During the Clinton administration the wing nuts were still raising the spector of Hutchison Whampoa operating the Canal. Of course, then they were accusing Clinton of treason for allowing computer exports to China; I haven't seen anything in the Washington Times criticizing the approval of sales of IBM PC operation to China.) The problem is that inevitably one ignores the beam in one's own eye in glee over the mistakes of others.

4. The anecdote about Elihu Root shows the openness of the power elite. Root was a player in TR's time, his protege was Henry Stimson who was a player into FDR's cabinet, his legacy passed on to the Bundy's, McGeorge and William in the Best and Brightest.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Cuts in Farm Programs--Budget Resolution

Here is the order to the Senate Agriculture committee to cut spending (from the Budget reconciliation Joint Resolution). Note it's not specific how and Sen. Chambliss has been quoted as saying he'll spread the cuts across programs. That might tie back to something that Kevin Drum in Washington Monthly cited a while back--since food stamps are under the committee, they might be cut.

: "(1) COMMITTEE ON AGRICULTURE, NUTRITION, AND FORESTRY- The Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry shall report changes in laws within its jurisdiction sufficient to reduce outlays by $171,000,000 in fiscal year 2006, and $2,814,000,000 for the period of fiscal years 2006 through 2010."

Should Government Do Propaganda/Education? (revised)

When David Bernstein, libertarian, on the Volokh Conspiracy and Richard Cohen, liberal, on the Washington Post agree, thoughtful people have to pay attention:

Bernstein opines :

"equally troubling in a somewhat different way are p.r. campaigns by government agencies that seek to build support for those agencies' 'missions.' Subsidizing, say, a pro-drug war point of view through a government p.r. campaign (hardly a partisan issue, as the overwhelming majority of both Republican and Democratic politicians favor it) is the economic equivalent of taxing the anti-drug war point of view. Americans wouldn't tolerate the latter, and we shouldn't tolerate the government using our tax money to encourage us to give it even more of our money (and freedom), meanwhile drowning out other voices with a tidal wave of statist shilling. I'm not even fond of the idea of the government using its money to, say, discourage drug use, as this is still an untoward interference in the marketplace of ideas, subject to all sorts of abuse (such as the 'food pyramid' dictated for years by agricultural interest groups). But it strikes me that that sort of government noodging is a less dangerous animal than the government using money allocated to implement programs to propagandize in favor of those programs."
Cohen says:
"Take, for instance, the government's smarmy practice of preparing video news releases and packaging them as actual television news. The New York Times recently detailed how government agencies prepare admiring reports on what they are doing and then send them off to local TV stations, which use them, sometimes pretending the reports are their own. Only a fool would expect the TV industry -- especially local TV news -- to grow up and embrace professional standards, but the government is a different story. It's ours. We fund it. It should not be using our money to propagandize us. "
My comments:
  • If the purpose of government is to solve problems (per Pres. Bush), sometimes the solution is government education. USDA was formed to help farmers farm better, a mission which evolved into the Cooperative Extension Service. During the Dust Bowl days, the old Soil Conservation Service (now Natural Resources Conservation Service) was created to educate farmers in conservation. Closer to home, VDOT (Virginia Department of Transportation) is running ads urging sanity in driving.
  • Many programs can be implemented only if the public is educated--for example if Bush's personal accounts ever get enacted, there will be a vast education effort.
  • Can one draw the line between "propaganda" which is wrong and "education", between building support for the mission and fulfilling the mission? Bernstein's comments on anti-drug ads and the nutrition pyramid show it's more difficult than one might imagine. One man's propaganda is another's education.
  • Advertising like the US Army's "Be all that you can be" has the effect of promoting the Army, while disregarding the feelings of the pacifists among us (not that many people care about the Amish and the Quakers). Not to mention that it grates on the nerves of at least one former draftee.
  • We, the American people, don't know what we want. When Rep. Waxman asked GAO to look at the conflicting laws, it said that the Office of National Drug Control Policy didn't violate the law by preparing video news releases, it violated the law because the identification of the source was only on the case, not within the body of the release. OMB and the Justice Department seem to say ONDCP was okay.
Lost in much of the controversy is the press release. Press releases, both corporate and government, have always been written so a lazy reporter/editor could set the content in type and go. (I've a vague memory of some memoir or novel about the Army where the protagonist spent his time filling out blank releases saying "Pvt. Joe Blow, of Podunk, successfully completed basic training at the U.S.Army's Fort Dix. He is now a trained killer...." Anyone remember it?) There's little difference between a printed release and a video release. GAO says a statement at the end of the release is sufficient to make it legal, but that's very easily edited out.

I agree with GAO that the identification should be in the video, but this is a tempest in a teapod. The real fault lies with the news media. The government may have entrapped them into bad journalism, but I've no pity.

Geospatial (GIS)

GIS is important, but gets no ink. It's one place where our federalist governmental structure and generally weak government do us no favors. Many governments at all levels, as well as many private enterprises, are doing GIS. The result is much duplication of effort, anathema to a lazy bureaucrat, and waste of taxpayer money, anathema to a skinflint conservative. It wouldn't be so bad if GIS were a once and done effort. The worst part of the problem is that geographical data change. Whether its changes in administrative boundaries, changes in land (rivers change courses, earthquakes change elevations and locations), changes in ownership, even changes in biology. If each change has got to be updated to multiple GIS's, some won't get changed, so their data won't be as accurate as it's supposed to be, and others will get changed inconsistently.

Stay tuned for more harangues.

See this GAO report on the problems in the Bush administrations. See here for the government portal.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Should Media Accept Government Propaganda

The New York Times Editorial page puts blame on the stations who used the government video news releases without identifying them as from the government:
"If using pretend news is one of the ways these stations have chosen to save money, it's a false economy. If it represents a political decision to support President Bush, it will eventually backfire. This kind of practice cheapens the real commodity that television stations have to sell during their news hours: their credibility."
See the related post on the controversy.

The Legislative Cycle--Payment Limitation-S 385

I screwed up. I'd been looking on Thomas for action on Bush's payment limitation proposals. Somehow I missed. Senate 385, which Senator Grassley introduced on Feb. 15.

Bill Summary & Status: "A bill to amend the Food Security Act of 1985 to restore integrity to and strengthen payment limitation rules for commodity payments and benefits. "
I haven't digested it yet. Nor have I checked the House side.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

The Legislative Cycle--Changing Two Entity Rule

So Bush proposes to change the two entity rule. How does he do that? There are at least three options:

1 Change "two" to "zero"--i.e., says that a person who receives payments individually can receive no payments through entities, while a person who has a 50 percent or smaller share of an entity can receive up to $250K

2 Change to provide that a person shall be combined with each entity in which he or she has at least a 10 percent share.

3 Change to "attribution". This is an approach we did a fair amount of work on in 1990 as the farm bill was under consideration.

Let me digress. What happens to the bureaucrats while Congress is considering legislation depends on the political situation, i.e., are the staffers on the Hill and the bigshots in the ivory tower (the USDA administration building--the assistant secretaries and above) talking to each other? If they are, ideas floated on the Hill will waft down Independence to 12th and Independence, then through the bureaucracy. The bureaucrats try to figure out what the draft means, what problems there might be, and what would need to be done to implement it. Usually there are significantly different approaches between House and Senate to worry about.

(My memory is that in 1995, with the farm bill, there was little communication, Newt having just taken over the House. Otherwise, there's usually good discussion.)

So in 1990 we were worrying about attribution, meaning roughly that the payments made to entities would be attributed back to the "warm bodies"/individuals according to their ownership share.

I'll be curious to see what approach is used this year (assuming Bush can push the proposal into legislative form).

The Legislative Cycle--Payment Limitation (Corps)

My last post ended with $500K left on the table, my new wife and I were two "persons", each with a $250K payment limitation. I go back to Sharpie Sam, who's advising me how to get around FSA's rules.

Under the old, "two entity" rules, my wife and I could have placed half the operation in an irrevocable trust, or a corporation, for benefit of our children to be. The corporation would have provided land and capital, and perhaps hired labor or management company to provide its share of those inputs. If we each owned fifty percent, the corporation might have been recognized as a separate "person" with its own $250K limit. To the extent the corporation shared in the risk of producing the crop, and received subsidy payments, the payments would count against its limit.

It would be considered separate because no one had more than a 50 percent share. If it was owned 2/3 me, and 1/3 my wife, it would be considered to be an entity combined with me as one "person". Any payments made to the corporation would be charged against my limit.

The two entity rule allowed people to get very creative. For example, if you pull up the Environmental Working Group's database, in 2002 there were 14 owners of Perthshire Farms,* each with a 7.1 percent interest
There are 3 individuals, and 11 corporations, each of which is shown as owned by Perthshire FArms. (I'm not sure what's going on there--it's not clear to me how EWG set up the database to receive FSA data.) CBS did a report back in the early 90's on the problem of these "Mississippi Christmas trees".

So Bush is proposing to end the two entity rule.


The Legislative Cycle--Payment Limitation--sale

In the last post I discussed creating an entity, such as a corporation, to receive some of the farm payment that otherwise would be left on the table. One other alternative should be mentioned--selling off part of the operation. Assume that the million dollar farm contains owned land. Suppose I can only figure out how to work the rules so that I and my wife receive $750K, meaning $250K is left on the table. If I sell off a quarter of my operation to a new farmer, my asking price will reflect the fact that the new person is eligible for $250K in program payments.

This is the most direct example of the programs increasing the price of farm land. That's what many economists think is the biggest effect of the programs. High land prices mean that it's hard to break into farming, hence farmers are old, on average. The prices help the tax base of the communities where the farms are located. They also provide a cushion--one of the secrets of farming is that you live off your capital.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Duration Weighted Records (corrected)

The Washington Post today focused on the manager of the new home town team--Frank Robinson. The issue being whether his players, 40 years younger than he, realize how great he was. Here's a quote:

"'The farther you slip down [the list], the less you're going to be mentioned. People will forget all about you, period,' he says. 'Tell me how many people beyond the top 10 get mentioned? I remember when it was always the top four -- Aaron, Ruth, Mays and me [the order that existed, unchanged, for 30 years]. So, yeah, it does bother me. But there's nothing I can do about it. It's going to happen. I've joked that by the time I leave this earth, I may be 99th.'"
Maybe we should have duration-weighted stats, that is figures that combine how good a player was and how long he was that good. For example, a duration-weighted table for most home runs in a season might take all the people who ever held the record (Home Run Baker*, Babe Ruth, Roger Maris, Mark McGuire, Barry Bonds), count the years each held the record and list them in that order. (Maris 37 years, Ruth 42 years (34 for the 60 homers, 8 based on his earlier years) , Bonds 2 years and counting, McGuire 3 years, Home Run Baker 5 years (maybe, my stat search was cursory)) For a more complete approach, take a table of the top 10 (or top 100 in the category (i.e., season homers) for each year 1900 on, assign 10 pts for first, 9 for second, etc., and multiply times the number of years at that point, then divide by the number of years x time.

The effect would be to give recognition to early greats and to those performances that really broke the bounds of probability. (Stephen Jay Gould might have liked to discuss this.) It should give more prominence to those who stood out from their peers and successors for a long time, someone like Robinson, who was 4th on the all time homer list for 30 years. It would also mean that supporters of Ruth and Maris would be rooting for someone to break Bonds record within the next 30 years.

*Correction: Found the sort of table I needed. Turns out Home Run Baker never held the season record. Before Ruth, Ned Williamson in 1884 hit 27 in a season and Roger Conner by 1895 had the career record. The true season figures would be Williamson 35 years, Ruth 42 years, Maris 37 years, McGuire 3, Bonds 4 and counting; for career, Connor, 26 years, Ruth 52 years, Aaron 30 years and counting.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

The Legislative Cycle--Payment Limitation III (Wives)

In my previous post I left off at defining a "person".

Assume that I'm one of Garrison Keillor's Norwegian bachelor farmers. My operation is big enough that I could get $1,000,000 worth of farm payments a crop year. By "operation" I mean I own the land and equipment, provide the operating capital, do all the managing, hire enough day labor to do the work, and take 100 percent of the risk of growing crops. That is, I'm the farmer everyone thinks of when you say "farmer" (except that I may have a bigger operation than one expects). There's no question I'm a "person"--so once Bush's proposal is enacted I can earn $250K, but that's it.

What does that mean? It means that $750K that I can't receive is "left on the table" as we say. It means that any sharp lawyer or experienced bureaucrat who can figure out the rules can earn easy money. (If a lawyer figures out how I can get another $250K a year, surely he could ask for a third. And yes, if lawyers chase ambulances, gin up class action lawsuits, and create tax shelters, they also get into payment limitations.)

So I go to Sharpie Sam for advice. He tells me that Ole Olesen died a year ago, leaving his 10 acre farm to his wife. It's a small operation, but if I marry her I can probably claim that she's a "person" too, thus getting another $250 K.

Note: my description is based on my memory of the rules as of the mid-90's, though there hasn't been much change since. Over the last 35 years the rule on wives has changed, from considering husband and wife as one person, to allowing them to be 2 persons if both had separate operations before marriage.

The Legislative Cycle--Payment Limitation--II

My previous post covered the creation of the idea of changing payment limitation rules and estimating the changes. At some point, perhaps, some of my former co-workers were consulted about the idea, or at least informed.

At this point the change has been included in presentations to OMB, approved, included in the budget, and now presented to Congress and the country. Now there become multiple threads to the story, with action occuring in the House Ag and Senate Ag committees, as well as in USDA with the attorneys in the Office of General Counsel and bureaucrats in FSA.

1 The most important is the political maneuvering over whether to support Bush's plan. The strength of the opposition on payment limitation appears to be in the Senate, because of the key positions of the senators from the south (bipartisan--Blanche Lincoln is part owner of a big rice plantation)

2 The lower-level action is among lawyers and bureaucrats. They have to draft legislative language changing the existing provisions of law. Current law dates back to 1985, although payment limitations have been in effect since 1970. 7 U.S.C. 1308 and 7 U.S.C. 1308-1 contain the existing law. This may be the point at which people start really to think through the idea. (Though it may have started earlier when the economists had to come up with a savings number.)

At this point the idea may be just: $250K per person, and no 2-entity rule (7 U.S.C. 1308-1(a)(1)). (I'll try to explain 2-entity rule as I go.) So the first crack at drafting might say just that:

"The total amount of the following gains and payments that a person may receive during a crop year may not exceed $250,000."

Note the draft has introduced complications--the $250K is a cap on payments from different programs, so there needs to be a list of what's included. Because current law provides individual limitations at lower levels for some of the programs, Congress will also have to decide whether to keep those limits. The second complication is the mention of "crop year"--that's a term that has to be defined. Fortunately it already is, based on past history. "Crop year" can lay a trap for the unwary and statistically naive. Bureaucracies also deal with calendar years and fiscal years and data can be reported based on any of them. The third complication is the definition of the term "person"--to which many more bytes will be devoted.

Friday, March 11, 2005

The Legislative Cycle--Payment Limitation--I

President Bush has proposed, in his budget, to change the payment limitation rules applicable to farm programs. This is an area I used to know pretty well, so I thought I'd blog on the steps involved in getting the idea implemented.

My guess is that OMB and USDA officials got together to discuss possible ways to save money (i.e., OMB told USDA to cut X billion dollars over Y years and USDA scurried around to come up with ideas.) Once someone, probably at the assistant secretary level had come up with the idea of changing payment limitation rules, they probably talked to the FSA administrator who talked to his economists. They did their crystal ball work and came up with a savings estimate.

The savings estimate would be very soft. Conceptually this is like changing tax law--the changes change behavior. It's like figuring you'll save money by making your own coffee instead of buying Starbucks. After a year you may find you've drunk lots more coffee and had to see the doctor for jumpy nerves.

To see the official explanation of current payment limitation and eligibility rules, see the PDF document here

Thursday, March 10, 2005

The New York Times > Health > When Torment Is Baby's Destiny, Euthanasia Is Defended

Humans are not the only tool making species, birds and primates make tools as well. We have brought the rule making instinct to a high peak of development. Today's Times describes physicians in the Netherlands who have developed guidelines for ending the lives of babies whose birth defects doom them to
"what is certain to be a brief life of grievous suffering....
The doctors, Eduard Verhagen and Pieter J. J. Sauer of the University Medical Center in Groningen, in an essay in today's New England Journal of Medicine, said they had developed guidelines, known as the Groningen protocol. The guidelines have been described in some news reports over the last several weeks, and the authors said they wrote their essay to address 'blood-chilling accounts and misunderstandings.'"
As a bureaucrat, I might be expected to welcome this. There's nothing like a well-designed rule to warm the cockles of one's heart (ed. --but bureaucrats don't have hearts). In this case I'm not sure. The assisted suicide law in Oregon seems to have worked okay, so is there anything wrong in principle with this effort? I'm reluctant to go along with it, but not sure whether it's the "yuck factor"--the desire to avoid contemplatin truly unpleasant circumstances--or wisdom.

My crack at wisdom would say something like--in these circumstances, you can't win. Some babies will be killed and be saved great pain. Some will be killed who might have survived through the pain and had a life. And sometimes the rule will be misapplied. It's not clear that having the rule will improve the results.

I don't know. Tomorrow I'll think something different.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Bernie Ebbers and the Know-It-All Executive

The case of Bernie Ebbers, former head of Worldcom, is now in the hands of the jury. The prosecution painted him as a detail person, who obsessed over the expenses for coffee service at headquarters. The main prosecution witness, Mr. Sullivan, the chief financial officer, said he discussed the accounting frauds with Ebbers and got his approval. The defense painted Ebbers as a good salesman, who didn't know technology (although he bought up a key piece of the Internet in UUNet) and didn't know accounting--just a good old phys ed coach.

Though I love to believe the worst of CEO's (part of my agri-populist background showing), I found the picture of this CEO a bit disconcerting--it reminded me so much of one of my past bosses, the one I think of as the dark prince. DP was a mix of insecurities and strengths. He loved to show his knowledge and he knew more than I liked to believe. But he didn't like to show any ignorance and he was expert at hiding it. He'd do a good show and tell for outsiders and usually try to skate his way past potholes in staff meetings. Dilbert partially describes him, but Dilbert's boss is too clueless too often. One of DP's ways of asserting his knowledge, and his power, was to focus on trivia (to me), on the details of correspondence, on the costs of minor expenditures. So without knowing the men, or hearing the testimony, I can believe Ebbers or I can believe Sullivan.

I can even believe them both--the slick numbers man not admitting openly that he's violating the law, or doing anything differently than his peers would do; the salesman who cons everyone and ends up agreeing to fraud, both in the service of the almighty dollar.

Bottom line--throw them both in jail--look at the great things jail has done for Martha. Maybe we should throw all CEO's in jail when they reach 60, just on general principle. A sort of blanket indulgence for all the sins we know they must have committed by being CEO.

An End to Days of High Cotton? (

One of the joys of being an American studies major working as a bureaucrat in a national organization is running into tidbits that make history live. It' s natural to think that the melting pot and time have made Americans uniform, but not so. As here, in an article on Bush's proposed changes to the farm program.
An End to Days of High Cotton? ( "Despite the limits, for example, Colorado River Indian Tribes Farm of Parker, Ariz., collected $2.4 million in payments in 2003 related mainly to cotton production, and Perthshire Farms, a huge Mississippi cotton operation, took in $2.1 million, according to the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization that publishes and analyzes USDA data."

My guess is that the first operation is an Indian tribal venture, which, if memory serves (current rules may differ), were treated almost as if exempt from payment limitation. Remember that, except when forced by the government, Indians "owned" land in common, not as separate parcels. So modern Indian farmers might well want to farm together in a tribal venture using their commonly owned land. Assume there were 50 farmers in the venture and the limitation was $100,000 (for ease of calculation). Each, if farming individually, could receive up to $100K in payments (if otherwise earned). Because the 50 are farming together as a venture, we treated the venture as if it had a limitation of $5 million (50 x $100K) .

The Mississippi operation may be a "Mississippi Christmas tree"--that is an operation carefully constructed by lawyers to evade the limitation rules. The NY Times did a series on them in 1990 or so, but they've had the political clout (think Sen. Lott) to keep the rules from being changed.

Monday, March 07, 2005

The Ninth Annual Slate 60 - America's most generous philanthropists, and where they gave. By Jodie T. Allen

Slate, urged by Ted Turner, has compiled the 60 most generous philanthropists for the last nine years here:

"Alma maters and other institutions of higher learning remain the most popular outlet for munificence (56 colleges and universities make the 2004 list) followed by private foundations (25) and hospitals and medical centers (18). Museums, libraries, and other groups dedicated to the arts are also popular."

Zathras, as usual, is interesting (see the excerpt from the Fray below the article). Most of the following was posted there as a belated comment.

I suspect one factor is simply the structure of philanthropy. Having given (very modestly) to my alma mater and the Kennedy Center, I'm very aware of the fact that such institutions have a regular ladder of contribution levels. So someone who is competitive and has done well at competing has fund raisers beating at him or her to increase one's giving to the next level. And a reward for such giving is visibility--appearing on donor lists. Presumably most donors read the lists to see that they were recognized, and to see if they recognize other givers. One gets prestige by giving. And universities and such have a pre-existing community to solicit.

Mine is a circular argument--universities etc. get money by providing status and prestige to the givers. The better the university the more prestige derived by giving to it.

Helping the poor has little status, provides little prestige (except perhaps for saints like Mother Theresa, who may be highly regarded simply because they can't be a realistic role model for anyone), and there is no pre-existing community to solicit. People aren't automatically generous--the tsunami and 9/11 shows they'll respond to an event, but ongoing causes don't get money from heaven, they have to work at it. The high prestige cultural institutions have a big advantage there.

I might note that Dante needed the seven circles of hell to adequately distinguish degrees of evil. The Kennedy Center has eight circles distinguishing the different levels of giving. (Not that giving to the Kennedy Center is at all related to hell.)

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

The Golden Rule and the Founding Fathers

The New York Times > Week in Review > Putting God Back Into American History:

David Fitzpatrick has an interesting summary of arguments over how religious and Christian the Founding Fathers were, focussing on:
"Mr. Barton, who is also the vice chairman of the Texas Republican Party, is a point man in a growing movement to call attention to the open Christianity of America's great leaders and founding documents. The goal is to reverse what many evangelical Christians claim is a secularist revision of history, to defend displays of religion in public life and to make room for God in public school classrooms."

I'm comfortable that they were (mostly, coolly) religious, but it blurs the picture to focus on Washington, Jefferson, Franklin et. al. The best estimates are that the Revolutionary generation was mostly unchurched, with church membership in the 15-25 percent range. See a very interesting book called "The Churching of America" by Roger Finke and Rodney Stark. They say church membership/religious participation grew over the years, reaching a high in the 1960's with reasonable stability since. The reason for the "churching", compared to other developed countries, is the free market competition for members by the various American sects/denominations.

It's also true, IMHO, that we are today a more truly Christian nation in our practices than in 1776. We come closer to practicing the Golden Rule, than at any time in the past. Apply the John Rawls test--forgetting about standard of living, would you prefer to have been born in a time of slavery, patriarchy, etc. or now? I rest my case.

Reducing Farmer's Risk-- Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)

A reference in today's paper about making contracts with CSA farms sent me looking for this from USDA : Community Supported Agriculture (CSA):

"In basic terms, CSA consists of a community of individuals who pledge support to a farm operation so that the farmland becomes, either legally or spiritually, the community's farm, with the growers and consumers providing mutual support and sharing the risks and benefits of food production. Typically, members or 'share-holders' of the farm or garden pledge in advance to cover the anticipated costs of the farm operation and farmer's salary. In return, they receive shares in the farm's bounty throughout the growing season, as well as satisfaction gained from reconnecting to the land and participating directly in food production. Members also share in the risks of farming, including poor harvests due to unfavorable weather or pests."
Note the last sentence--CSA is another way for farmers to move risk elsewhere. (See my previous post on other structures. CSA also fits into the general boomer pattern of increased diversification and choice, instead of just plain blue jeans, we've all sorts of shades in all sorts of fits to choose from. Instead of plain old coffee, we go to Starbucks and get bewildered by the choice.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Dissing Politicians

Inside Washington, a political talk show (indeed, the descendant of the original talk show run by Martin Agronsky back before cable) last weekend included an exchange on the political life. Can't find a transcript (it runs on ABC's WJLA in D.C., run by Gordon Peterson now, with Charles Krauthammer, Nina Totenburg, Colby King, and possibly John Harwood the regulars (there's been turnover, Evan Thomas and Jack Germond used to be on with CK and NT).

The gist was amazement that anyone would actually want to go into politics, as mean and adversarial as it is now. The sentiment is distressing, even though the situation is realistically described.