Saturday, September 29, 2007

A Quiet Suburban Morning

Coming back from Starbucks and the garden: a beautiful early fall day, temp in the 60's, clear blue sky, sun dappling the woods.

(An aside--is it just me or is the "dappling effect" more pronounced in the fall. I'd speculate that the trees grow to intercept the maximum sunlight, which means during the summer. As the sun gets lower in the sky in the autumn, its rays come in at a greater angle, thus finding gaps in the leaf coverage that weren't present when the rays were coming more perpendicular. (That's me, always wanting to have an answer and show it off.))

Suddenly an animal dashed across Glade Drive, coming from the condo cluster on the right to the houses on the left. About halfway across the street, I identified it: a fox. A skinny fox, running faster and more intelligently than the squirrels who often cross the roads, sometimes only partway.

The fox ran to the edge of the backyard of the house on the corner--it backs to a patch of woods running up to the community swimming pool and which separates my townhouse cluster from the streets of houses. For some reason the house's owners have a faux outhouse standing at the edge of the lawn, yuppie humor I guess. The outhouse was in the sun and the fox settled there.

And the fox scratched. And scratched. And scratched.

I must have stood watching for 5 minutes as the fox tried to conquer his fleas. I guess his paws were ineffective weapons against his enemies.

The Human Animal, as Seen by Today's Times

From Joseph Nocera on how even Nobel-winning economists aren't rational investors:
Having watched the way investors have behaved since the Crash of ‘87, I’ve come to believe that most human beings are simply not hard-wired to be good investors.
On changes at Macy's (dropping coupons and upscaling lines):
But the changes amounted to “too much, too fast,” Mr. Lundgren acknowledged in an interview. It turns out that men, in particular, are creatures of shopping habit. They want to go to the local department store and find the Dockers where they have always been. [Duh]
From a front pager on what happens to small trusts when the original people are not around and big banks and law firms take over:

With no family members to encourage gifts to the original donor’s favorite causes, the banks and lawyers have wide latitude to change the way the trusts operate and to decide which charities will receive grants.

Banks can reduce gifts and increase the foundation’s assets, thus increasing their fees. At the same time, banks and lawyers stand to gain personal influence and prestige by selecting new charities.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Happiness and Homemaking

David Leonhardt in the Times reports on studies of happiness:

Over the same span, women have replaced housework with paid work — and, as a result, are spending almost as much time doing things they don’t enjoy as in the past. Forty years ago, a typical woman spent about 23 hours a week in an activity considered unpleasant, or 40 more minutes than a typical man. Today, with men working less, the gap is 90 minutes.

These trends are reminiscent of the idea of “the second shift,” the name of a 1989 book by the sociologist Arlie Hochschild, arguing that modern women effectively had to hold down two jobs. The first shift was at the office, and the second at home.

But researchers who have looked at time-use data say the second-shift theory misses an important detail. Women are not actually working more than they were 30 or 40 years ago. They are instead doing different kinds of work. They’re spending more time on paid work and less on cleaning and cooking.

This fits with several other posts. We've turned to fast food and eating out, not because people schemed to force feed us with bad food, but because it was fast, convenient, and saved time for doing other things that "we" (i.e, women) wanted to do. It doesn't hurt that sugary and fat food tastes good and the typical fast food meal tastes better than much of the home-cooked food of the 1940's and 50's. After all, specialization means that someone can learn to do things well. And in our market economy if one can earn money and buy a million-dollar house by selling food through franchises, there's nothing wrong with that. (There is, but that's another subject.)

The Future of Rural America

I've posted recently on the process by which rural America loses population--young people migrate elsewhere for more opportunity, so few babies are born, and older people die. Here's a study that claims that the migration is two-way--the young and educated leave, the poor and less educated migrate in, attracted by the lower cost of living (all those homes built for many big families depress the housing market).

[Updated--see here for a discussion of "rural".]

Direct Payments in Jeopardy?

This piece from Uof Ill extension discusses the possibility that the direct payments program will be changed/cut/redirected. Two big factors: you can't defend the payments with farm income so high; WTO calls the payments fine.

How Soon We Forget (Under the Power of Political Prejudices)

Scott at Powerline commenting on the Dems debate:
"Senator Clinton recalled that President Bush's desire to avoid "eliminating the debt" (I think she meant deficit) "was one of the excuses he gave when he voted for [sic] those horrible tax cuts in 2001."The absence of any reference to the toll of 9/11 is striking, as well as the animus against reduction in income tax rates."
I think if he would check in early 2001, when Bush pushed his first round of tax cuts (before
  • First, there was no deficit. There was a surplus.
  • Second, surpluses were projected that caused people like Greenspan and the Treasury to worry there might not be enough debt to fulfill the functions of the Treasury market. That's one reason they dropped the 30-year Treasury bond auctions(which I had bought earlier).

As a matter of fact, with a little googling, I came up with this piece from May 3, 2001:

"This is why the Treasury Department under the Bush administration will have to make some important decisions about the future of the Treasury market by November. In that period -- which includes the three quarterly Treasury auctions in May, August and November -- the Treasury is going to have to give a clear indication of what it wants to do with the government bond market. It can let this market fade away in the most organized and least disruptive way possible. Or it can do its best to keep the market alive.

Because of large budget surpluses, the government is expected to have no real need to borrow in a few years. And if the government ceases to issue bonds and notes, the Treasury market would lose its role as a benchmark for interest rates, a haven for worried investors and a tool in many of Wall Street's regular financial transactions."

Now Hilary may well be wrong that Bush ever connected his 2001 tax cut to the need for debt. But she was right about the rest. And Powerline's memory is demonstrably vague (as we all are when we don't like the facts).

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Google Maps, and Local Farms

Here's a neat add-on to Google Maps--local content: in this case, a map of farms around Boston.

Class Society

In the Post today, Montgomery County awakes to the fact that the median new house costs $1.13 million. (Poor Fairfax county is cheap, only $965 K.) And on the op-ed page there's Harold Meyerson writing about haves and have-nots.

Call me a curmudgeon, but I think the society is more divided between the "haves" and the "pigs".

Why Can't We Get a Budget?

Congress is in the process of passing another "stop-gap" budget measure. Back in the day, when I started work for the Feds, our Fiscal Year was July 1 to June 30. But Congress started having problems meeting it. So sometime, maybe late 70's, the powers-that-be came up with the idea of switching the FY start to Oct 1. That would surely give enough time for a reasoned and considered budget process.

Fat chance.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

North Dakota FSA

Here's a story on crop insurance, based on an interview with a brother of a state FSA specialist. Now I understand why the specialist was assertive in meetings--he had the experience of fighting for attention in a large family!

Conservation Compliance

Ken Cook of Environmental Working Group has a big report on the workings of "conservation compliance" (i.e., the requirement that farmers with highly erodible land be in compliance with a farm plan to receive some benefits from USDA). (Not clear when it was released--a letter to the ag committees was dated in May, but a press release in Sept.) Sounds as if much of it is based on a GAO report (no--I'm recovering from a cold and am not masochistic enough to plow through the entire report, particularly one as dispiriting as this.)

Why "dispiriting"? It's also fascinating. I remember talking with co-workers (CR, RA, and TMM) in 1984/5 when SCS as NRCS was then was pushing the "green ticket". There was skepticism: did they really know what they were getting into? The answer, of course, was: No. SCS was an educational and scientific agency, very uncomfortable with regulating farmer's behavior. And we in ASCS, as FSA was then, felt lots of Schadenfreude and not much helpful empathy at their predicament when the friendly puppy of an agency caught the car they were chasing and didn't know what the hell to do with it.

A few of us tried to work on data sharing between the agencies so the provisions could be enforced as the law required. But we stumbled, tripping over our own delusions, and mostly the fact that no one of importance in USDA really wanted to be that intrusive in farmer operations. (I remember visiting Sherman County, KS, on the western border of KS, in 1991 where the farmers were still hot over the idea that their land was highly erodible (rainfall < 20"). So we retired in disgust (ed: you're being overly dramatic.) .

I have to wonder where EWG was on Sec. Glickman's proposed merger of the FSA and NRCS support functions in the late 1990's. Had that been done, it might have been easier to get the sort of data they're asking for now. Or it might not. Never underestimate the power of delay.

Great Bureaucrats in History--Colonel Petrov

Overcoming Bias has a post honoring Colonel Petrov, whose actions probably saved my life (Reston being close enough to a nuclear target that my wife and I would have been impacted had he merely followed procedures instead of saying: "Nyet".

Monday, September 24, 2007

Dairying Today and Immigration

Of course, as farms get bigger and families get smaller, dairymen need to hire workers. Interesting piece here talks about New England dairy owners (no, not the Dutch who have developed large dairies elsewhere in the country) and their immigrant labor.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

The French Get Fat

The LA Times has an article reporting that French people are starting to get as fat as Americans. They just started later. Don't know what this says for the Kingsolver thesis.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Errors in Kingsolvers' Book: I

My previous post on "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" indicated some slight degree of skepticism as to some of the assertions made, particularly by Dr. Steven Hopp, Ms. Kingsolver's husband. I need to back up the skepticism:

A nit:

Ms Kingsolver discussing the loss of regional food cultures:
"Certainly, we still have regional specialties, but the Carolina barbecue will almost certainly have California tomatoes in its sauce (maybe also Nebraska-fattened feedlot hogs)... page 16
In 1969, when my first boss sent me to North Carolina to learn the field operations of FSA (then Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service) the good people of the state office in Raleigh carefully explained that Carolina barbecue is vinegar based, not tomato-based. And very hot, I might add, at least to my then inexperienced palate. North Carolina is now the second hog producing state in the country, so they don't need to import Nebraska hogs--they have their own big confined animal operations.

Professor Tyler Cowen often expounds on how we've gained great diversity in food cultures over the last 30 years, as immigration has enriched our nation.

A biggie:

Dr. Hopp discussing the Farm Bill:
"These supports promote industrial-scaleproduction, not small diversified farms, and in fact create an environment of competition in which subsidized commodity producers get help crowding the little guys out of business. It is this, rather than any improved efficency or productiveness, that has allowed corporations to take over farming in the United States, leaving fewer than a third of our farms still run by families." p 206

I find it very hard to imagine where he got this from. It sounds like a factoid floating around the world in which he moves. What possibly happened is someone looked at very large farms which follow the 80/20 rule (20 percent of farms produce 80 percent of the production), looked at the paper organization of them, and conflated the legal organization (i.e., corporation, often a necessity because of the estate tax, aka miscalled the "death tax" by the right wing) and the real power. Anyhow, here's a quote from the USDA's Economic Research Service:
Most farms in the United States—98 percent in 2003—are family farms. They are organized as proprietorships, partnerships, or family corporations. Even the largest farms tend to be family farms. Very large family farms account for a small share of farms but a large—and growing—share of farm sales. Small family farms account for most farms but produce a modest share of farm output. Median income for farm households is 10 percent greater than the median for all U.S. households.

Recipe for a Best Seller, Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

Take 12 eggs, one for each month, purchased from budding entrepreneur (daughter Lily--9), These describe the gardening and farming work needed to eat local organic food. Add trips as follows:
  • visit the requisite Amish farmers (in Ohio?)
  • visit Farmer's Diner in central Vermont
  • spend a week or more on holiday basking in the Tuscany sun during summer and eating Italian.
Stir in recipes from older daughter at regular intervals.
Add "facts" and editorials from husband.

Mix well with cups of romantic nostalgia (i.e, for childhood in tobacco country in Kentucky and the old ways of growing and eating), concern for the environment and global warming, populist anger against industrial food and the tycoons who govern our eating.

Season with spicy bits about the sex life of turkeys and the mating patterns of poultry.

Serve with a warm sauce of very well written prose. (What the McKibbens, Pollans, and Kingsolvers of the world lack in the quantity of accurate facts they more than make up for with the quality of their prose.)

How Many Variables Make a Good Program?

Had a comment on my post about the Durbin-Brown proposal for a state revenue counter-cyclical protection program. Essentially he said that insurance proposals on a group level, as opposed to the individual farm level, hadn't been popular.

That spurred me to thinking (always dangerous). In the old deficiency payment program, we had two variables--the national price received by farmers and the acreage for payment, the other "variables" were known to the farmer when he or she signed up. (Notably the acreage for payment was under the farmer's control.) In the proposed program, it sounds as if we have four (state harvested yield, state price received, farm acres for payment, farm harvested production). Of course, each variable interacts with others, so you have like 16 possible outcomes for a farmer looking ahead before planting. Assume the full planted acreage, the farm production could be low or high, the state price low or high, and the state yield low or high.

That makes the proposal complex, and more unlikely to pass. The advantage of a program that is tailored to the farm is that more of the variables are under the farmer's control. And, as Tyler Cowen says in his new book on the Inner Economist, people like to be in control. Certainly I do.

(Side note--I think the wheat growers are opposing the program, in part because it might count as "amber" in the WTO scoring. Don't ask me the definition, but "amber" is bad.)

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Rural Development?

My RSS reader gave me these two links almost side by side: one is 550 rural organizations hoping for money in the new farm bill; the other is a map showing rural counties losing population by death and out-migration (a commenter observes if the younger people of child-bearing age migrate, then later the county will start losing population by the excess of deaths over births).

Their hearts are in the right place but TR had the "Country Life Commission" back in 1908 looking at the same problem. And my grandfather was a roving minister for the Presbyterian church in the 1920's covering the Dakotas and Nebraska, trying to revive country churches. I don't think reviving a generic rural area is doable. A free-market economy and a society that values individual freedom can't do it. We, the government, can slow the process and perhaps make it less painful, but we don't have the power.

USDA and Effective Programs

I'm leary of program ratings like this at OMB. Skimming the ratings for programs with which I used to be familiar doesn't give me a warm and fuzzy feeling; nor is the wording concrete enough to convey a clear message to the layman. In general, there's too much bureaucracy, too little involvement of the hands on people, too little significance to the ratings (i.e., does Congress increase or decrease appropriations based on the rating?). The Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA--I may have the title wrong) was enacted around 1990 and we've all seen the benefits from it.

Still, Rome wasn't built in a day.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Tobacco Program

Freakonomics points to an interesting Wall Street Journal article on tobacco growing. It's on the rebound, in new areas (southern Illinois) and with new growers. I sent this comment:

The writer didn't make much of the point, but it sounds as if much of the new tobacco acreage is being grown under contract. In the old days tobacco was sold at auction in an auction barn (I'm getting too senile to remember the company, Phillip Morris maybe?, that used that in its commercial. The old system was effectively a cartel, operating under delegated power from the government based on farmer referenda. Under the new system, risk may be handled by the contracts between grower and company. That's a system similar to that used for eggs and poultry for decades, that recently moved into hogs as well.

Another Pigford Piece

This time the claim is that Sen. Obama will be helped in southern primaries by his stance:

Presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has taken a leading role on a major civil rights issue affecting black farmers that could give him a boost in Democratic primaries in South Carolina and other states in the South.

The issue is the landmark Pigford settlement between historically disenfranchised black farmers and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Signed in 1999, the settlement was intended to make up for decades of discrimination in which black farmers were denied USDA loans and credit while white farmers were granted help.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Prudery, as in Mine

Given my upbringing, it's not a surprise to me that I turned out to be a prude. (My wife wants to see the new Vito Mortenson movie, the one with an 8 minute fight scene where he's nude. I'm not enthused.) Although I loosened up on language, the Internet still feels a bit formal to me (that's a combination of words not often seen). And I understand that using profanity can cause the spam filters to trip. So I normally don't.

But here's a chance to recommend a site with two long posts strictly on obscenity, of the excretory kind. I've pushed Dirk Beauregard's site before, and do so again.

New "Safety Net" Program Analysis

The extension people are doing explanations of how the program proposed by Sens. Durbin and Brown to replace loan deficiency and counter-cyclical payments might work. University of Illinois here and Ohio State here.

Without getting into the overall program, the idea of going to state-level prices and yields is interesting. The price support people at FSA have experience with the variation within a state because they set county-level loan rates. But this would create new learning opportunities for my old friends, what few are left, in FSA. The definition of a "farm" will be challenging. (I remember the early 80's when we suddenly switched from worrying about disasters, where the farmer wanted the smallest possible "farm" to maximize the likelihood of a loss to worrying about production adjustment, where the farmer wanted the largest possible "farm" so he had the most leeway on the diverted acreage.

Here Congress would be putting the bulk of payments in a "disaster" context, so small farms will be desired. But the location of a "farm" may become more critical along state lines (unless maybe FSA already has a rule prohibiting combination of land across state lines--to get the farm into a state with more favorable price/yield combination).

And I'm sure the prospect of working more closely with RMA thrills everyone in both agencies. Well, it's early days and we'll see what happens.

Monday, September 17, 2007

We Don't Know What We're Doing

That's my interpretation of the testimony of Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker. My logic:

  • The surge originally was intended to reverse the momentum which the violence had attained. And to provide space for political process to work.
  • The surge succeeded in stopping the violent momentum but the overwhelming impression I got from sporadic viewing of the hearings and reading the paper was the idea that bottom up progress, symbolized by Anbar, was the new hope, something completely unexpected from 6 months ago.
  • So, because something good happened for once in Iraq, we're going to probably "go long". (Remember when the discussion before the Baker group's report was: "go big", "go long", "get out". Well, we tried the "go big" (as big as we could without going to a draft, etc.), now Bush is going long.)
The bottom line is we didn't understand Iraq before we invaded, and we still don't understand it. That's not surprising; most of us don't understand our own society. That doesn't mean that I'm necessarily for withdrawing all troops by Dec 2008. George Packer in the New Yorker had a sobering piece last week (yes, I'm running slow in blogging) about which he's now blogging.

Gee I Wish I Had Known This Back at USDA

The "Overcoming Bias" blog has lots of good stuff, rather academic though. Today they have two posts on "planning". Or rather, the planning fallacy, because "The planning fallacy is that people think they can plan, ha ha."

Or: "When people are asked for a "realistic" scenario, they envision everything going exactly as planned, with no unexpected delays or unforeseen catastrophes - the same vision as their "best case".

Reality, it turns out, usually delivers results somewhat worse than the "worst case".

The advice is: when in the midst of a project, ask your experts for how long it took other similar projects to complete. If I'd done that, I would have skipped involvement in several failed projects, mostly attempting to cross bureaucratic lines (or merge "stovepipes").

Saturday, September 15, 2007

EU Set-Aside

In a blast from the past, this agweb article referred to a proposal to reduce the EU set-aside from 10 percent to 0. This was new to me--I thought the EU and the US had done away with production adjustment. On doing a very little research it looks as if it was a cross between the US "Conservation reserve Program" and the annual set-aside programs we had at times in the 1970's-1990's. Like CRP in that the 10 percent level was "permanent" (as of 1999) and not changeable from year to year. Except now it's proposed to be changed. $8 wheat futures will do that to you.

A-10 and Tactical Air Redux--UAV Responsibility

The services are fighting over unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and whether the Air Force should be responsible for them, according to this interesting piece in Government Executive. It carries echoes of past battles over military aviation (should the Marines have their own air force, should the Navy, etc.), tactical aviation, the continuation of the A-10, etc. etc.

A footnote in an era when good government types are blasting earmarks--Sen Shelby, whose state has a big Army UAV post, is fighting to protect it by inserting language in the appropriations bill. Is this a negative earmark? (Doesn't "earmark" originally go back to notching the ears of cattle to assert ownership? )

Friday, September 14, 2007

Another Locavore Experiment

Here is a piece in New York about a guy in Brooklyn who tried to raise enough food for a month on 800 square feet. Here's one of the concluding paragraphs:
In three weeks of eating nothing but Farm-fresh food, I lost 29 pounds, down from my pre-Farm weight of 234. Abs: That’s the upside of only two meals a day. The downside is the expense. Not counting my own labor, which was unending, I spent about $11,000 to produce what, all told, is barely enough to feed one grown man for a month. But I did learn something about food: Unless you really know what you’re doing, raising it is miserable, soul-crushing work. Eating food fresh from the farm, on the other hand, is delightful.
I roared at some of his misadventures (the idea that a hen finds eggs delicious struck home) and agree with his conclusions. (Although even when you know what you're doing, some of farming is miserable, soul-crushing work. Of course, that's also true of teaching, and writing, and bureaucracy.)

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Coordination of Bureaucracies

The LA Times has a story on modern day coordination of military arms. (See my piece on WWII.) Basically it's a technological solution--a kit that enables remote replication of a computer monitor (think of the Slingbox which allows similar functionality for TV). Apparently the voice communications linkage was pre-existing, what the hero of the piece did was push engineers to replicate monitors of Predator operators--essentially allow one to look over their shoulder.

I've not tried it out, but apparently Microsoft has similar capability in PC's running XP or Vista. Seems like a security risk, but the coordination is worthwhile.

Johanns and Pigford

From a piece in The Hill

Johanns on Tuesday told reporters that members of Congress were “justifiably” upset about an e-mail that called on Farm Service Agency (FSA) employees to lobby against the language. He said such lobbying would violate USDA rules prohibiting grassroots lobbying by employees.

“I must admit, it’s painful for me that we have an e-mail out there that advocated a given position,” Johanns said Tuesday. “That really upset Congress, and I don’t want that to jeopardize what has been a very positive view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and what we can offer in the policy debate.”

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Local Food and a Carbon Tax

I just thought--logically the "local food" people should support a carbon tax. If transporting food the estimated 1,000 to 1,500 miles to the place of consumption is wasteful (i.e., adversely impacts the environment), then a carbon tax would encourage producing food locally.

Closing With the Enemy, Coordinating with Your Friends

This is an interesting book I read over the last couple weeks. It's a study of the lessons the American Army learned as they fought across France into Germany.

The author takes a very different approach to the US and Germany military than does James Q. Wilson, whose book "Bureaucracy" is good. Wilson sees the Germans as emphasizing small group cohesion, flexibility, etc. while the U.S. was more bureaucratic, top down. This book almost reverses it--seeing the U.S. as being willing to learn from the bottom up and not top down.

Be that as it may, foremost among the lessons learned were a set of lessons on coordination, whether between tactical air and infantry, tanks and infantry, engineers and infantry (in river crossing and assaulting fortification), etc. Because my own bureaucratic career was plagued by problems of coordinating different branches of the agency, and different organizations within USDA, this experience from a completely different world is interesting.

Part of the lesson is simplifying communication. If tanks and infantry use different radios (reminiscent of the different radios used by NYC police and fire), stick a handset on the back of the tank and have an infantryman ride there. Use light planes and forward air controllers to coordinate tactical air and infantry. (The idea of a dedicated liaison, like the FAC, is something I would like to try in my next reincarnation as a USDA bureaucrat.) Another part is proper allocation of resources--attacking in a way that maximizes the artillery available to the combat commander, for example.

Bottom line: bureaucracy is bureaucracy, because people are people, whether they wear camouflage or white collars.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Economics of Farming, Revisited

Extension people discuss wheat prices here.

The "target price" for wheat has been $4 since the 1981 farm bill (I think--too lazy to check). That's a quarter of a century. Cash wheat prices are about 50 percent above that price, probably a historic level. It's another reminder of the effect of having a free market system, with many sellers and few buyers, and inelastic demand and supply curves. You can have gluts, you can have scarcity, you can have periods when wheat farmers mint money, or not.

The ups and downs used to be more drastic, with more severe impact on the national economy. Now wheat is just another commodity, of relatively little economic significance to the overall picture.

But: "give us our daily bread".

Some Unneeded Publicity--Payment Limits

Ronald Reagan once used a "welfare queen" (someone who had exploited the system to live high on the hog) to attack welfare. The same seems to be happening with payment limitations. See this link on Maurice Wilder, the reigning king of farm program payments:

"Yes, our pal Maurice certainly gets around. While he isn’t busy farming farm programs for oodles of cash, he’s pumping oodles of Nebraska’s precious groundwater. Or, to be precise, somebody else is pumping it for him:

A man who owns 125 Nebraska irrigation wells has never drilled a single one. Maurice Wilder, 66, of Clearwater, Fla., primarily develops retirement communities, recreational vehicle parks and office buildings in Florida and Texas. And he's never lived here.

As noted above, The King of Farm Programs doesn’t confine himself to farming, either. Check out the following data on our little buddy:

• Total holdings nationwide estimated at $500 million in 2005.
• Owns 10 office buildings in the Tampa Bay, Fla., area with more than 1 million square feet of space.
• Has 4,500 mobile home lots and 12,500 recreational vehicle lots in Florida and Texas.
• Commercial and residential land holdings.
• Owns 200,000 acres of farmland and ranch land in eight states. That's roughly 312 square miles, or nearly the size of Douglas County."

Monday, September 10, 2007

Wingnuts, Drivers' Licenses, and Bureaucracy

The WorldNetDaily is a voice of the wingnuts, but they had an interesting story last week on the drivers licenses in North Carolina. Of course, it's slanted in aid of people opposing immigration and the alleged North American Union. (Ironically, for the right wing patriots, they bitterly oppose a dream of all of the Founding Fathers--one nation for North America.)

The problem starts--when an Ontario snowbird drives to Florida, how does the state cop recognize a valid Ontario drivers' license? If you have 75 political jurisdictions issuing licenses, it's hard for the police to know which ones are facially legit, and which are fake. So the motor vehicle administrators, who have their own organization, got together on a hologram of North America to put on the back of the license. North Carolina is the first to start using it. That sets off the wingnuts who are fearful of loss of sovereignty.

Stereotypes Blasted Away

In the last few days the Post's Angus Phillips, the semi-retired outdoors writer, has written about the diminished state of hunting in America. Now comes Mr. Beauregard to write about the start of the French hunting season, with their 1.4 million hunters.

Now, if I had asked this question: France has how many hunters (America has 4.1 percent)?

a .1 percent

b .5 percent

c .1 percent

d 1.5 percent

e 2.0 percent

how many people would really have said answer "e".

Saturday, September 08, 2007


A flurry of books and articles on eating locally. Barbara Kinsolving's "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle"(book and website); Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker, this CNN piece,
McKibben's book: "Deep Economy".

Each to his own taste. I agree that locally grown food tastes good--that's why my wife and I garden. But "industrial agriculture" as John Phipps calls it is the reason we haven't had the famines in the world that we used to. So if you have the money and want to buy a McMansion, or a second house in the town where your child goes to college, fine. If you want to buy "fair trade" coffee, fine. If you want to spend time and money getting locally grown produce from community supported farmers, even finer. But don't think you're saving the world.

Immigrants Working Harder

I posted a couple days ago about an article on a California farmer moving his vegetable operation to Mexico. Freakonomics picked up on the bit about Mexicans working harder in California and had about 40 comments on the idea.

I was waiting for my wife to buy basmati rice at a local Indian grocery. Indians and Koreans and Chinese immigrants often get into small business--food, dry cleaning, etc. If the family works 16 hours a day, they can make it. Then I remembered the "consensus" school of American history from the early 1960's. The idea, pushed by Louis Hartz and others, was that emigrants to America left behind much of the class structure of Europe--the lower classes didn't migrate, no money; and the upper classes didn't migrate, they had it too good. So America was populated by the middle class, and hence never had the class war to the extent Europe did. (Oversimplification.)

How does that relate to farm workers from south of the border? Well, when one emigrates north, one leaves behind a lot, family, friends, social structures. One of the less obvious things you leave behind is the whole entertainment industry. Entertainers don't move, they have it good enough where they are (much like the European upper classes). And you need a critical mass of people to support native entertainment industry. So I'd venture that the entertainment industry for any group of immigrants is smaller and less active than in their home country. So immigrants work harder in part because they have fewer entertainment outlets for their time and energy.

Friday, September 07, 2007

"A Naive Country Boy"?--Me? No, Marion Barry

Effie Barry, Marion Barry's third wife, died of leukemia yesterday. The Post had some interesting pieces on her (she memorably maintained her poise during Marion's drug bust trial).
This is towards the end of the interview piece, talking about Marion, the divorce (after he got out of prison) and his remarriage:
"The reality is that the two of you will always be connected because you are parents of this one child. . . . You try to develop a positive dialogue; and I must say it was certainly a challenge because his wife, Cora, had, at one time, been one of my best friends. . . . I will always respect him as a man of great intelligence. . . . I will always have a great deal of concern . . . for him. Because underneath it he is this very naive country boy. . . .
I can see it. It was and is part of his con, the "bama" who's still on the side of the underdog, who's fighting the good fight and putting it over on the "man". Another James Curley (famous Boston pol/mayor/convict/Irishman). But you can't use it in a con unless it rings true as well.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

British Bureaucrats Screw Up Farm Payments

To the best of my knowledge, FSA has done better than the Brits:
The handling of a £1.5bn computerised farm payments scheme by two senior civil servants is condemned by MPs today as "a masterclass in bad decision-making" which could land taxpayers with a £500m extra bill. A highly critical report from the Commons public accounts committee accuses Sir Brian Bender, then permanent secretary at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, of being "largely responsible" for the fiasco, which left tens of thousands of farmers without any cash from the European Union.
Some interesting points that pop up as sidenotes--apparently the EU has a small payment cutoff--like $100 or so, which the Brits didn't use, giving them lots of small claims to pay. And the EU is able to fine the British over their failures of administration. The British fired some of the people responsible, but had to pay compensation for not fully following the rules (sounds familiar). And most familiar of all--a top guy is criticized for not having the nerve to stand up to the leaders and give them the bad news.

Bremer the Bureaucrat

L. Paul Bremer has an op-ed in today's NY Times outlining the bureaucratic process by which the Iraqi Army was disbanded (countering the report in the Draper book on Bush that Bush's policy was to keep the Army going). It's full of clearances, reviews, revisions--makes me nostalgic for the USDA bureaucracy.

The problem is perhaps bifocal--it's easy for the essence of the matter to get lost in the minutia of the process, so Bush's bureaucrats may not have realized what they were doing, and Bush may have been ignorant. On the other hand, you have to pay attention to the details and process. If I understand, a big problem with recalling the army was the process. Everyone had deserted, so there was no skeleton to use to recall the troops, or at least it wasn't readily identifiable to the US (whose intelligence about the state of Iraq was a little short). So, because it would be hard to recall and because the Shia, whom Bush's father had screwed, wanted the disbanding, Bremer went along.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Farming and Immigrants

The Times has an article a a California farmer moving to Mexico because of problems getting sufficient labor. He's a big operator, lots of acres, lots of employees. This may be the odd case, or it may be part of a trend. I suppose there's not much difference in travel cost or time between shipping lettuce from California or Arizona and Mexico, particularly with the border becoming more open to trucking.

A couple things struck me--instead of paying $9 an hour he's now paying $12 a day. He claims to be following the same sanitary procedures as he would in the States, and I suspect it's to his self-interest to do so. The other thing--his workers don't work as productively (i.e., hard). I find that interesting. I think it's part of the advantage of emigrating, at least for work. You leave lots of distractions behind and you've put yourself at risk, so you work harder.

Tim Harford--We Need More Girls in the World

From Slate, on research:

Boys pollute the educational system, it seems, for a number of unmysterious reasons: They wear down teachers, disrupt classes, and ruin the atmosphere for everyone. And more boys are worse than fewer boys, not because they egg each other on but simply because more of them can cause more trouble in total.

It is all rather troubling, especially for the parents of little angels like my daughters. Evidently, it is impossible to satisfy the—apparently justified—parental demand to educate girls in single-sex schools and boys in mixed classes. (Not for the first time in my life, I conclude that the world doesn't have enough girls in it.)

Farm Bill in the Senate: Pay Limit and Disaster

From Jim Wiesemeyer via Agweb:

Where the House offered producers a one-shot option of a revenue-triggered disaster payment plan, the Senate may make the plan cover all farmers (replacing counter-cyclical payments) and will tighten up the payment limitation language in the House bill.

Milk and the Times

A NYTimes article says there's a worldwide shortage of milk (they start with New Zealand, which is a big exporter). Rising standards of living mean more demand for milk, rising prices of feed grains because of ethanol mean tighter supply. And of course milk supply is relatively inflexible--you can get a little bump by feeding a bit more and not culling your herd as tightly (at least you could in the old days), but basically you need to raise more calves to heifers, to cows.

Although the sort of dairy farming I grew up with is now gone, it's nice to hear some good news for the industry.

[Update--Marginal Revolution has an interesting discussion in comments. Although no farmers that I saw.]

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Pigford Perspectives IV (Earmarks)

There's been lots of flak about Congressional earmarks over the last few years--the Dems beat the Reps over the head about the "bridge to nowhere" ($150 million in Alaska) as a symbol of their apostasy from their small government, tight budget principles. Now that the Dems are in the majority, they're catching grief as they struggle to reduce and/or put light on the process.

What's this have to do with Pigford? Maybe nothing. But I've often puzzled: blacks often charge discrimination and bias in contexts where the whites profess innocence: ("yes, racial hate is terrible, but that's not me...etc. etc.) If this were just an occasional event one might say simply that the whites are lying. But it happens often enough that maybe one should take the claims seriously and see if something else is going on, at least in part.

Back to earmarks: can the residents of New York or New Jersey, who pay much more in federal taxes than they get back, fairly charge Sen. Robert Byrd (D, WV) or Sen. Stevens (R, AK) with bias and discrimination against them? If they did, the Senators would rouse themselves to say, we're just looking after the home folks.

When you look around the "earmarking" phenomena is quite prevalent. "Legacy admissions" to colleges (children of alumni) are one form; giving preferences to one's family and friends (MCI used to run an advertising campaign called "Friends and family") is another. It just seems natural when we have goodies to give out we start first with those we know and love, then switch to a more arbitrary standard (i.e., merit; first come, first served) to distribute the rest.

So I wonder--is some of Pigford, the symptoms of disparate conditions between black and white farmers, the result more of "looking after the home folks" than bias? The Farmer's Home office (now FSA) had so much loan money to allocate. It wouldn't surprise me if they looked out first for old classmates, fellow church members, etc. The result would be much the same for blacks as straight discrimination, and no doubt would feel to blacks as racial bias. Trying to figure out when it's bias and when it's "good ole boy" network would be frustrating.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Independence Day

No, I'm not late in celebrating the 4th. Today is the anniversary of the Treaty of Paris, in 1783, by which "the most serene and most potent Prince George the Third, by the grace of God, king of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, defender of the faith, duke of Brunswick and Lunebourg, arch- treasurer and prince elector of the Holy Roman Empire etc." recognized the United States. (Both as a "country" and as "free sovereign and independent states".) Via the National Archives historic document of the day.

It's interesting reading, particularly for a bureaucrat: "his Brittanic Majesty shall with all convenient speed, and without causing any destruction, or carrying away any Negroes or other property of the American inhabitants, withdraw all his armies, garrisons, and fleets from the said United States, and from every post, place, and harbor within the same; leaving in all fortifications, the American artilery that may be therein; and shall also order and cause all archives, records, deeds, and papers [emphasis added] belonging to any of the said states, or their citizens, which in the course of the war may have fallen into the hands of his officers, to be forthwith restored and delivered to the proper states and persons to whom they belong."

I'll pass speedily over the fact that slavery was recognized in our founding document to dwell on the fact that the founders recognized the absolute necessity of paperwork.

Home Schooling and Charter Schools as Nativism Buffer

Reading this from economist David Card on the impact of immigration (via Brad DeLong)
While the monetary value is hard to quantify, existing research suggests that people value neighborhoods and schools with better-educated, higher-income, and non-minority neighbors and schoolmates. Indeed, my reading is that these peer group externalities may be a first-order concern among many urban residents.
An anecdote: the local elementary school has felt the impact of a large population of non-English speaking students. It was one of the first Fairfax schools to be placed on probation. A neighbor, who's raised four kids, didn't like the atmosphere so started home-schooling her younger two. It's possible that the rise of home schooling, and to some extent charter schools, has helped moderate what we used to call "white flight". My neighbor's family stayed in the neighborhood, lending some needed stability. If the choice had been solely the local school or move, they might well have moved. Certainly that's what would have happened in the 1950's-1970's.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Bias In FICO Scores?

The Post reports that the Federal Reserve has completed a study of possible bias in FICO scores (the most widely used score affecting eligibility for credit):

Critics have questioned the accuracy and fairness of credit-score models, charging that in some cases they are inherently biased against minority groups such as blacks and Hispanics.

After a research effort over several years that focused on three credit-scoring models -- including one created by Federal Reserve staff economists -- the central bank concluded that:

? Credit-score statistical models are not biased against any demographic group and are highly predictive of future payment performance. Lower scores correlate strongly with future delinquencies; higher scores are associated with good payment performance.

? Blacks and Hispanics, on average, "have lower credit scores than non-Hispanic whites and Asians."

? Younger individuals of all demographic groups have lower credit scores on average than older people, in part because credit-scoring models focus on payment histories and length of credit accounts. Younger consumers generally have fewer accounts and shorter payment histories.

? The payment performances of some demographic groups differ from what their numerical scores might suggest. For example, according to the Fed, "blacks, single individuals, individuals residing in lower-income or predominantly minority census tracts show consistently higher incidences of bad performance than would be predicted" by their credit scores. On the other hand, "Asians, married individuals, foreign-born (particularly, recent immigrants), and those residing in higher-income census tracts consistently perform better than predicted" by their credit scores.