Thursday, January 31, 2008

Greg Mankiw Beat Me to It--The Truth About Economists

See the link.

Fritterware--Google Experiments

A former co-worker called some software "fritterware" because you'd fritter away time using it. Here's Google experimental search site, for anyone with time to spare.

Saving Everything in the Government

This is an interesting endeavor:

"A new international task force will convene for the first time Tuesday to address the problem of maintaining data for future generations.

The National Science Foundation and Andrew W. Mellon Foundation are funding the Sustainable Digital Preservation and Access panel's two-year mission, with support from institutions like the Council on Library and Information Resources, Library of Congress, National Archives and Records Administration, and the United Kingdom's Joint Information Systems Committee."

And later
"But she said the formal processes used to designate materials for storage or deletion are integral to sustainability across the globe because it is impossible to save everything."
It might well be possible to save everything. After all, Google Docs saves all the changes made to a document, just as Wikipedia does. Storage costs are going down and down and down.

But if you do save everything, will anyone be able to find what they want? Maybe. Google desktop indexes most everything.

But if you save everything, and anyone can find anything, will anyone care? The problem is the same as for wiretapping, or security cameras, you mostly can only review some stuff in real time. And humans are easily bored. As a natural born pack rat, I saved most everything from my bureaucratic career, at least after the PC landed on my desk. But no one will care. (Unlike Samuel Pepys, no one will write books about mid-level bureaucrats.)

Noted Bureaucrats--Bob Ball

See here for Josh Marshall's note on Bob Ball--the face of the Social Security system for many years. Here's the Post obit.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Rep. Gingrich, Pay Attention

Here's a site which impresses me, at least on first glance. I particularly like the ability to blog about bills, though I suspect the design might not scale up to a national level. I don't know what other states have done. It's possible people in other states are ahead of this. Comparing state and local government operations, although this isn't governmentally sponsored, is something our media doesn't do well, but should

Identifying Government Employees

Government Executive reports on the progress towards having all government employees given background checks and given secure ID cards. (HSPD-12) (Goal was Oct 27, 2007 for < 15 year employees--no agency met the deadline.) The article cites Labor and Education for doing well, both using gradual rollouts.

Most Depressing News of the Day

(Ralph Nader launches exploratory effort to run for President.)

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Innovation in Government

Here's a Post story on the government's use of a wikipedia.

This sort of thing is needed. I remember the old SCOAP QandA's and the various bulletin board systems and mailing lists we used to have. There's limits on how much you can do with a straight up and down hierarchy--you need some other methods. A problem for us in ASCS was that technology opened up possibilities, and each innovator followed his or her own nose. Of course, when technology is changing fast, you don't want to standardize quickly.

And another problem was that this was all guerrilla stuff--top management was mostly only vaguely aware of what was going on, if that. It's possible now that wikipedia has given the "wiki" methodology enough visibility and prestige, and its experience has mapped out some parameters that this is truly a useful exercise. (Assuming that the relevant user community is all comfortable with computers, etc.)

Monday, January 28, 2008

Another Rural Program

Ran across this Federal Register document:

Household Water Well System Grant Program Announcement of
Application Deadlines and Funding

I'm no doubt being unfair by linking to it without any background--my guess is that it's funding one or two non-profits who loan money for drilling wells in God-forsaken places, but that's only a guess.

Noted in Passing--E-regulation

The No National Animal Identification System blog refers to a Federal Register document requesting public comments on a "naturally grown" label. (They don't like the proposal, nor does Sugar Mountain farm.) I took the opportunity to try out the process for submitting comments on regulations (said their label ought to be more like the FDA food label, rather than a certification of history).

The process worked reasonably well, though the "help" process is a little lame. I requested a report on the usage of the process--I'm betting they don't have one, but maybe I'm too cynical. We'll see.

Race, Class, and Organic

Tom Philpott notes, from his attendance at a California eco-farming conference:
And yet, sustainable-ag remains a passion limited largely to white, middle-class folks. Eco-Farm displayed a broad diversity of ages and sartorial styles. Ethnically, though, a kind of monoculture flourished. That fact was seldom mentioned; and only with a dose of self-flagellation. What was missing, though, was analysis. Why are so few non-whites drawn to small-scale farming? I never heard the question come up. Like the national food-justice movement, the California contingent has failed to open a broad and sustained conversation on food, class, and race. Indeed, the whole question was essentially relegated to a single informative session on urban farming. I think the vexations of food and class will have to be fully aired and addressed for the sustainable-food movement to move beyond niche status. But the lack of discussion at Eco-Farm doesn't mean there isn't plenty of powerful activism around food in low-income, minority-dominated areas in California. In the next days, I plan to visit and post about San Francisco's Alemany Farm and Oakland's People's Grocery.
Why doesn't it work for Latinos and African-Americans? Money. Eating local, eating organic is the sort of crunchy life-style choice that made by people who have it made. Not to say that it's only rich people, but it's people who aren't striving to make it, to put kids through college, to advance a rung up the ladder. In Thorsten Veblen's terms, it's another form of conspicuous consumption. It's the people who can afford to be skinny, to devote their life to art, who seem to gravitate to this.

John Phipps Counsels Moderation

John Phipps comments:

We're going to need another justification than "cheap food" to continue our subsidies with farm income for many growers at record levels. When disposable income stagnates with slow growth, our oft-repeated statistic about "less of their income" could shoot up significantly, revealing it is 90% about income and 10% about commodity prices.

Grain farmers are also going to have to contend with increasingly restive livestock producers.

I think payment limits and means-testing would be a strategic compromise to consider right now. Ya gotta know when to fold 'em.

Complexity in Politics

Shankar Vedantam has an article discussing research on state of the union addresses. They tend to be more complex in the first 3 years of a presidential term, and less so in the 4th year/re-election cycle. The argument is that the public likes its liquor straight and its politics simple, unmixed with qualifications or cautions. So when a president is running for office he/she keeps things simple, when governing he/she acknowledges more complexity.

It's interesting, though it fits my preconceptions a bit neatly.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Robots, Assembly LInes, and Dairies

I know robots have been operating on assembly lines for a long time, but I wasn't aware that robots fit the smaller (sic) dairies. According to this article, from Better FArming, they do. A note of reassurance--you have to love your cows for it to work, just getting a robot because you hate the work is a route to failure.

Organic and Labor--Economics of Farming

From a Tom Philpott piece on an organic conference and a presentation by Eric Schlosser (reference tomato pickers and Burger King):

While he treated his audience with great respect -- and won enthusiastic applause in response --Schlosser didn't let the assembled growers off the hook. He noted that organic standards make no stipulations about how growers treat workers. For him, he added, organic means nothing if workers are systematically mistreated. His remark must have caused some unease (though the cheering audience didn't show it). As my friend Bonnie Powell of Ethicurean writes in her account of Schlosser's speech, "labor is an Achilles-heel issue for many organic farmers." Bonnie reminds us that:

A 2005 report published by researchers at UC Davis found that of 188 California organic farms surveyed, a majority failed to pay a living wage or provide medical or retirement plans.

There's nothing easy about that issue. As I wrote when the UC Davis study came out, organic farming is so labor-intensive, and its profit margins remain so low, that most small- and mid-sized growers would probably go out of business if they paid a decent wage.

That's the economics of farming--the farmer cannot price his or her output, so the premium is on reducing costs. How? By mechanizing and rationalizing (aka "industrializing") and paying labor poorly. The return in farming is on capital, i.e., land, not labor.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Unintended Consequences

One of the standard ways to criticize government is to point out the unintended consequences of laws or regulations. Freakonomics has a good piece here. Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution has commentary here .The commenters have gone to town.

However, the same truth applies for all human actions, including those by corporate bodies. I think the law is a subset of the generalization: "people aren't as smart as they think they are".

When Is a Bubble Not a Bubble?

I've taken the position that farm prices will dive as they have done in the past. The counter position is that the new market for corn for ethanol, which has the side effect of driving up soybean prices, changes economic fundamentals.

Bruce Babcock, as summarized here, seems to agree with me.

I'd add, in view of the last few days, a widespread economic slowdown means a softer market for feed grains (remember the Asian recession of the late 90's). It also means lower oil prices, which means less of a bonus for ethanol. Finally, I noticed somewhere the idea that Russians found US-made farm machinery very good. That's a turnaround from the 90's, when Russian tractors were being sold in the U.S. But more importantly, it means that Russian farmers have the money to invest in modern machinery, which means more production there.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

National Animal ID System

I've great faith in the ability of people to be paranoid. So I can't wait for the opposition to the National Animal ID System (NAIS) to merge with the opposition to gun registration laws and to Real ID.

It's all the Mark of the Beast, isn't it?

Of course, logically they should all merge with the pro-choice forces in supporting a right of privacy in the Constitution for guns, animals, and people.

Lincoln's Doctor's Dog

Is supposedly the title of a hypothetical bestseller (people like books on Lincoln, on medicine, and on pets). We like pets, period. This Science Daily article is interesting, but I'm not sure I understand it.

Lonely people are more apt to see human traits in pets than non-lonely people? Okay, I can buy that.

Lonely people are more apt to believe in the supernatural? (Not sure whether that's God or UFO's or what). Maybe.

People who aren't lonely are less likely to see human traits in people who are outside their sphere?

Genealogy and Bureaucracy

What's the common thread--both have to deal with names, particularly in their IT systems. And when you deal with names from different countries you run into all sorts of variations, sequence, multi-part names, patronym versus matronym. Here's a post in the blog on handling different names.

And EU Considers Progressive Reductions in Payments

From a long post at farm policy:
Mr. Matthews noted that, “Agriculture Ministers had their first discussion of the Commission’s Health Check proposals at the first Council meeting under the Slovenian Presidency yesterday. It appears that the two issues causing the most fuss are the Commission’s suggestions to introduce a progressive reduction in single farm payments to larger farms (inaccurately referred to as capping) and to increase the rate of compulsory modulation (which again would only affect larger farms), in both cases with the additional funds going to Pillar 2 rural development measures. At the same time, Ministers were clearly taken by the emphasis on risk management and safety nets in the Commission Communication and called for more specific proposals in this area.
"Progressive reductions" is a good name for my hobby-horse.

The Age-Old Dream

Any hierarchal organization has a tension--the bottom has needs, wants, and information; the top has needs, wants, and information, and the two don't match. 20 years ago when ASCS got its IBM system 36's, the IBM software included a "data file utility". It permitted people to do reports or create their own files. I well remember a program specialist from New Mexico ("SR") mentioning his usage of it in an alcohol-fueled happy hour after a training meeting. It took quite a bit of effort to get the agency to make use of such work, and initiative. (IBM released a new set of software that was more user-friendly maybe a year later.) There was always suspicion from the professional programmers and the Washington hierarchy of such efforts. With some reason, I might add.

But the same tension is still evident today, as IBM announces some "mash-up" software. Reading between the lines of this article I can still hear the echoes of long-ago battles.

Collocation Survives

My memory is "collocation" was the term applied to putting USDA field agencies in the same building. This piece from Minnesota shows it's still alive. And an entrepreneur has found a niche, building offices for the agencies.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

What's Your Reference Group

I don't know its current status, but "reference group" theory used to be important in sociology. Briefly, the idea is that one's opinions vary based on who you're comparing yourself to.

If, for example, in 1950 you compared your dinner to what was being eaten by the starving children of China, you'd feel very lucky. On the other hand, if your reference group was the Joneses, then you spent your time trying to keep up with them.

As I age, I find my reference groups changing. When I was a boy, I compared myself to everyone older, bigger, stronger, than me. Now I compare myself to myself, my younger self, the one who was smarter, more vigorous, more productive than I am now. And I know that mostly myself tomorrow will be less than today. I suppose the moral is--enjoy today for what it is. If I could only remember morals.

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Difference a Label Makes--"rbST-Free"

Sometimes dairy farmers aren't too smart. (Remember, I grew up on such a farm.) This article from the Akron Beacon describes the bind they're in over rbST, the hormone that increases milk production. It's reasonably sympathetic. But the terminology shows the fight is already lost:

"rbST-Free"--that's a construction which implies that rbST is bad. Most notably: "drug-free", "tax-free", "gluten-free", "risk-free", "pollution-free"...etc. etc.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Are We Ready for This? Changing Mores

Back in my youth, lost amidst the fogs of memory, is the phrase: "Does she or doesn't she?" and the response: "Only her hairdresser knows for sure".

I thought of that this morning as I waited in the supermarket line, and noticed a picture of Ms Clinton on the cover of one of the magazines. She's noticeably blonde.

I also stumbled across this in today's Post:
Clinton's ground troops seeded Las Vegas beauty salons with folders displaying Clinton's hairstyles through her career and declaring, "Worry about your hair. If you don't, someone else will" -- a dig at establishment sexism, Titus said. That issue came even more into focus when MSNBC political talk show host Chris Matthews was forced to apologize for comments that he conceded could have been regarded as sexist and demeaning to Clinton.
And I remember her first hairstyles when in the public eye--seems to me she definitely was not blonde. So she dyes her hair. She's made the choice to be blonde. It fits her boomer personality--in my generation, as the ad suggests, dying one's hair was not something a woman advertised. Nor was it something any man would consider. It was a matter of fakery, dishonesty, meddling with the natural order of things. The boomers changed all that, I guess.

But I'm not sure we're ready for a President who dyes her hair--have we really changed that much?

But of course there was Reagan, but he's not a role model.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Locavore and NAL

USDA has the National Agricultural Library (NAL), which now has its own blog. A recent post discusses "locavore"--the idea that eating food grown locally is good for you and for the environment.

Procedural Theory Meets Political Practice

In theory, when each house of Congress passes a bill on the same subject, the two bills go to a conference committee to thresh out the differences. The reconciled bill is passed by each house and the President signs it.

This long post from FarmPolicy on the current state of play on the 2007 farm bill shows how far we've deviated from it. Issues include payment limitations and means testing and even reform of the marketing loan program. Perhaps most important is how to pay for the new stuff in the bill (i.e. permanent disaster program, help for veggies, conservation). I wonder if the drive to do a stimulus package for the economy may not adversely impact the farm bill--tweaking the tax system to get more money for farmers may not fit well into the atmosphere of doing stimulus.

Whither Corn?

I keep thinking, been there, done that. This farm economy is just like the 1970's. But maybe not. From farmgate:
The energy bill signed into law will have greater impact on farm commodity prices than any farm bill being considered," says MO economist Pat Westhoff at FAPRI. “Mandates to use set levels of biofuels increase demand for corn and vegetable oil and affect market-driven prices more than current or proposed farm bills.”

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Sometimes I Can't Sympathize, But This..

Michael Lewis writes in Slate of getting a vasectomy. I suspect most men, even those who have no thought of following his example, can empathize.

Bureaucrat of the Day

I'm sure Kathy Wolfe won't appreciate the award, but this column
in the Journal-Advocate of Sterling, CO is well done. She even covers the electronic customer statement and AFIDA.

(AFIDA is a carryover from the time when the big fear was Japanese buying up our farmland. Now foreign government funds are buying our banks and there's a little agitation for more transparency. AFIDA should be a reminder that the body politic is subject to fevers and agitations which aren't necessarily well founded.)

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Drumbeat of Farm Bill Attacks Goes ON

More articles taking advantage of the Environmental Working Group data to find local people who don't seem to be "farmers" and/or are rich.

From Fort Wayne.
From St. Louis
From Muncie

Judging by the volume of criticism the farm bill is doomed to extensive revision. But poking fun at subsidies doesn't accomplish much. To do that you need to find a coalition of politicians who would gain from the reform. I'd assume that most farmers currently receiving benefits aren't discontented enough to support someone pushes for revision. So that leaves suburban and urban lawmakers, and those Senators who don't have much agriculture. The problem is that politicians tend to be rewarded for doing something positive. They get attention from their local media if they do something for the district or state. There are a few, like Chuck Schumer when he was a representative on House Ag and pushing payment limitation, who can see opportunities in the most unlikely situations. But, thank goodness, most politicians are not as smart or publicity driven as Schumer.

Another possibility is a politician like Senators Morse and Proxmire (I'm showing my age, I know). Morse was around in the 50's-70's, moving from Republican to Democratic party but always a maverick. Proxmire won fame for attacking government "waste". So you could get an effective maverick working against the current shape of farm programs. But by definition mavericks don't work well in coalitions.

Possibily pressure from WTO limitations on supports may be effective. We'll have to see.

Green (Capitol) Hill

Marian Burros writes about the new menus in the Capitol Hill menus--including the changes in the descriptions of cage-free eggs and rBGH (hormone) free dairy when the lobby groups got wind of them.

Obama and the Bureaucracy

I understand Sen. Obama disclaimed any ambition to be a bureaucrat. Here's one view of the problems the next President, who is the chief bureaucrat of the country, should work on.

Stupid People

Via From the Archives, this image. Golf courses use 8 percent of the water in Southern Nevada

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Barriers to "Entry"

Economists talk about the barriers to "entering" a field: profession, enterprise, whatever. The higher the costs of entry, the fewer entities will be able to compete so prices will be higher and efficiencies lower. Aimee Wittemann of the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition has a piece on the barriers affecting organic farmers (though she doesn't call them that). She wants the farm bill to redress the imbalance between organic and regular farmers. In doing so, she's hurting the short-term interests of current organic farmers in hopes of promoting long term interests of consumers.

Farming Is More Rewarding Than Microsoft

Perhaps, according to this Financial Times piece on the future plans of Jeff Raikes, retiring Microsoft executive.

He started out with an Apple II in 1979 to help run the farm and ended up in Microsoft accumulating half a billion dollars. So he has enough money to buy some land, but not too much.

Monday, January 14, 2008

And Everything Is Different in California

From a big LA Times piece dissing the animal identification proposal of USDA, comes this tidbit:
"It's totally ridiculous," said Joaquin Contente, who oversees 1,700 Holsteins on his Hanford, Calif., dairy farm. Contente said existing regulations in California and other states meant his cows and their movements were well-documented.

"We already have a good paper trail. It will be more of a burden for the small-to-average producer," said Contente, who worries about the expense for an average-size farm like his. [emphasis added]

So Much for Decoupling

"Decoupling" in the agricultural context means breaking the linkage between what's in the farm program and what is planted. Under WTO rules benefits that aren't decoupled and therefore affect the crops being planted and produced are charged against a country's subsidy limits. But, from a piece on the Farm Bureau's position:
“‘I have talked to a lot of farmers and I can tell you they don’t really care whether something is a budget gimmick, or closing a loophole, or providing a tax credit,’ Stallman said. ‘They don’t really care about all the back and forth from Democrats and Republicans on those issues. What our members care about is: Are we going to have a farm bill and when are we going to know what the rules are so we can plan our planting operation?’”
If the rules affect the planting, then decoupling isn't.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Environmental Quality IMprovement Program Takes a Hit

This piece in the NY Times Week in Review takes after EQIP for helping large livestock producers in dealing with manure.
The questions, then, remain: Why should taxpayers foot the bill for manure lagoons, particularly under the flag of environmental conservation? Why should taxpayers subsidize expansion of livestock farms? And if livestock farms have created environmental problems, shouldn’t the polluters have to pay for the mess that they created, rather than the taxpayers?
Just another example of the falling support for farm programs.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Across the Border

A reminder that the free market has not always been universally accepted--the Canadian minister of agriculture says:
"Attempts by the Wheat Board to invent an imitation marketplace fall far short of the expressed will of barley producers. Farmers have demanded marketing choice. No bureaucratic program can replace this. It is time for the CWB to stop ignoring this unavoidable fact.
It's also interesting that the Minister doesn't have power over the Canadian Wheat Board.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Someone's Changing the Figures

This NYTimes article uses a figure that's unusual: 40,000 pounds of bombs. It sounds a lot more impressive than 20 tons, which is a third of a load for a B-52. "Tons" is, I think, the standard for bomb measurement (i.e., "tonnage"). Was that the AF press release, trying to amp their contribution to the war, or the Times writer?

An Age-Old Tale of Graying Farmers

From the Gristmill, the first of 5 pieces on farm bill issues:
  • The average age of farmers and ranchers is increasing. USDA estimated that in 2004 about 4 percent of America's farmers were under 35 years of age, while nearly one-fourth were 65 years or older. The fastest growing cohort of farmers and ranchers are those 70 years or older, while the fastest declining is those 25 years old or younger.
  • Over the next two decades an estimated 400 million acres of U.S. agricultural land will be passed on to heirs or sold. USDA estimates that currently over one-third of farmland is owned by landowners over the age of 65.
What the writer fails to realize, or at least mention, is that this is a continuing story. I remember doing a prototype system in Sherman County, KS in 1992--the CED had the ages of his farmers and the distribution was similar to this. I suspect back in Ontario County, NY (home of some ancestors) in 1840 the same story held. What happens is that those who are able to buy land live out their lives as farmers, the younger generation mostly leaves the farm, meaning the remaining farms grow bigger. The only time this changes is when the type of farming changes. For example, Lancaster county, PA used to be wheat country (back before the Revolution). It became mostly dairy and now I'd guess it's mostly tourist and truck, with some remaining dairy. Tourist farms are likely much smaller than a dairy (at least a dairy operated by non-Amish--the Mennonite tradition throws all my generalizations into a cocked hat).

Via the Government Gab Blog, here's a website for government forms. But I only found 2 Commodity Credit Corporation forms on it by searching on the term. Using FSA, I found 229 results. But if I go to the FSA site and access its forms database, I get 562 results.

I suspect, but don't know, the problem is either in differences in the definition of what forms to include or learning problems in feeding data from one database to another. Of course, to a rationalist, the ideal is one database for every government form, but that doesn't work. Instead we have multiple databases (FSA's forms manager had an on-line database even when I was working--she was a sharp, forward-looking individual) as different organizations catch the wave of innovation.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

A Matter of Voice--Finding It, or Identifying It

Supposedly Hillary has found her "voice." And Romney has found his "voice'. But apparently Obama speaks in different voices, if you can trust our media:

In a steady, soothing tenor, Obama tells voters he is the candidate to unite the nation's fractured political divisions and restore America's good reputation abroad.


Obama's baritone voice filled the open field, shaded by an old willow tree by a little pond. He spoke not only with his voice, but with his hands. And though he is an attorney who took his J.D. at Harvard Law and later taught Constitutional law, his gestures were not those of a trial attorney, binding the jury by casting a spell with a closing argument. Rather, his oratorical gestures were more like those of a preacher conducting a revival and call to baptism down by the river side.


A Newsweek cover story out yesterday gushed that Obama, "tall and handsome and blessed with a weighty baritone, knows how to bring along a crowd while seeming to stay slightly above it." The journalistic scrutiny usually visited on instant front-runners has been replaced by something akin to a standing ovation.
I've heard of two-faced politicians, but not two-voiced.

All joking aside, it's probably significant that news reports do pay attention to Obama's voice. It must be pleasing or impressive.

A Farmer Is a Farmer Is Not a Farmer

Contra Shakespeare, a farmer must be a farmer (actually a producer, but that's too technical) to get program payments. According to this article, House Ag chair Peterson and acting USDA secretary Connor are discussing who is a farmer. Specifically, changing definitions.

I'm not sure that approach will be sufficient--see the Environmental Working Group's digest of editorials on the farm bill for a sense of the growing opposition to farm program payments.

Modern Marriage Involves Disposing of Duplicates

From a freecycle listing:
This was my husband's sound system. Mine rocks, his is well....ok!

- Pioneer cd player
- Teak cassette player
- Pioneer tuner
- Infinity Speakers

Come 'n get it! (free pre-marital dust included)
Can this marriage survive despite the obvious differences in sonic tastes and housekeeping standards?

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Michael Pollan Returns I

He has a new book out, In Defense of Food. Here's the link on his site.

I've no doubt I will have problems with his thesis and some of his facts, but it's no doubt going to be a best seller.

Why Not Alabama?

Many conservatives talk about the oppressive taxes on the rich. This NYTimes article mentions that taxes on the poor in Alabama are more than twice those on the rich. Makes you wonder why more rich people don't live in Alabama, instead of very high tax Manhattan.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The Devil and John McCann

No, he hasn't made a deal with the horned one that he needs to get out of. Just a cute metaphor in the Times from a couple days ago. And maybe a deal with the devil gave him New Hampshire:

After an event on Friday at a company that makes equipment for the military, Mr. McCain chose to rail against the “military-industrial complex.” Later, he said, “Sometimes I go too far.”

He said an angel on one shoulder begged him to pipe down while a devil on the other goaded him on. His best events are when the devil gets the better of him.

Farm Bill Status

Here's an article on the status of farm bill meetings among House, Senate, and administration. In theory the House and Senate bills set the outside parameters for the legislation--the final bill is supposed to be somewhere between them. So, for example, there shouldn't be any possibility of getting tighter payment limitations than exist in one of the bills. But that's college 101 political science--the reality is that such procedural rules can be bypassed if the incentive is there (as if the President guaranteed a veto or you can't get 60 votes in the Senate).

NASCOE is agitating for its positions with members of the committees (see this comment).

John Phipps notes everyone running for President seems to be promising change, and doubts that farm programs can withstand the surge.

It's an interesting world, particularly if you are tucked snugly on the sidelines.

Causes of Housing Recession: Tancredo?

I use Tom Tancredo as the symbol of the crusade against illegal immigration. The question is whether the crusade is responsible for the recession in housing, which appears likely to evolve into a general recession.

What's my logic? Over the course of the housing boom, the percentage of people owning homes rose from about 66 percent to 70, if memory serves. Most of that increase is probably people at the lower end of the income scale. My guess, based mostly on the activity in my mother-in-law's neighborhood and my neighborhood, is that many immigrants bought at the lower end. By doubling up (or tripling or more), people could split the mortgage payment and still make it. Many of these immigrants were working home construction. Many were eager to have a piece of the American dream.

So it was a virtuous circle. My next door neighbor sold his townhouse in 1999 for $93,000. The new buyers, D'Amico, did a lot of fixing up and sold it at the end of 2001 for $167,000. They moved to a new house in a new development, probably stretching their money as far as it would go. The buyer was Salvadoran, who shared the house with others. (Good neighbors, not that I'm particularly outgoing.) He paid a high price, at least in terms of the history of the unit since it was built in 1973. But the high price was necessary for the D'Amicos to buy the house they did. It's quite possible some of his roomers built the house that the D'Amico's moved to. The process worked--the Salvadoran family lived there for 5 years and sold for $367,000 in 2006!

So far, everyone is happy. Everyone has ended up with more house and a bigger net worth than they had before. Even I feel good because the value of my townhouse has soared. But now comes Rep. Tancredo and Lou Dobbs and all the others who want to build a fence at the border. All of a sudden it's harder to find construction workers and people who will rent a bed in a house for ridiculous prices. So people pull back, and the bubble starts to pop. And when the gas goes, it goes fast. shows the most recent home sales in the cluster down about 25 percent from their high. And Juan, who paid $367K, is moving out today.

I exaggerate, the housing bubble was a bubble which would have popped even if Tancredo had never existed. But there is a real connection between economic growth and immigration.

[Added] The point is that the demand at the bottom of the ladder pushed up prices all the way up. Now the people who bought late face foreclosures, as described in this article.

Monday, January 07, 2008

The Problems of Consolidating Offices and Agencies

It's easy for the big shots in Washington, and the public in general, to demand efficiencies in government. One of the things the GHW Bush administration started, and the Clinton administration continued, and I guess the current administration is pursuing, is having USDA offices in the same building. But it's more complicated than just waving a wand, as this article

Any supporter of Mr. Obama might remember this. If he wins the nomination and the election, he's sure to run into the problem of unrealistic expectations. Of course, to win, he almost has to raise the expectations.

Justice for Rich and Poor?

I don't know this case,but I'm pretty sure that a false claim for prevented planting for wheat on 31,000 acres amounts to a lot of money (6 digits, maybe 7). Yes, they're old and probably pillars of the community. But stealing money is against one of the ten commandments. At least on a day I'm feeling grumpy, I doubt whether there's a lot of equity here.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Fence Row to Fence Row

Those words were a motto of the 1970's, when grain prices also peaked after the Nixon deal with the USSR. Apparently they may also be the motto of the 2000's, when ethanol spikes the grain prices. See this report from Ducks Unlimited on the land going out of Conservation Reserve Program and into crop production.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Reading and Surfing Go Together

Not quite like a horse and buggy, but almost, according to this Reuters article on MSNBC, reporting on a survey of library users. Apparently the young (18-30) use the libraries the most, often to use the computers.

And the Myths Continue--Free Gas for Farmers

From a piece on the EWG blog:

How does the Government Skew the Market?

The government encourages planting of selected crops, providing low-cost loans, crop insurance, research, weather forecasts, fuel and pesticides.
Anyone reading that would get the wrong understanding about the last two items. I've seen a similar meme in the Kingsolver book I blogged about last year. Not sure of the origin--fuel for farm use used to be taxed less than for on-road use. Not sure if that's still the case.

Warm Fuzzies, Obama, and McGovern

It seems as if Obama's win in Iowa is giving many people warm fuzzy feelings. See David Brooks' column this morning. I'm not immune to the sentiment. I get warm fuzzy feelings myself when I go to the supermarket and see the diversity of people working and shopping there. Coming from a swan-white rural neighborhood in upstate New York, the idea of people of different backgrounds, ethnicities, races, religions, and sports teams coming together peacefully is great. What cola company did the great ad about teaching the world to sing?


As I promise in my profile, I'm contrarian. I also got a haircut this morning. (Very macho barbershop, not one of these new-fangled unisex shops that have been around for 35 years.) The conversation was mostly about the Redskins amazing run and their chances in the playoffs. The little talk about Iowa showed some male chauvinism, plus a lot of dislike of Clinton, and surprising acceptance of Obama. This is Virginia, the leader of the Old South, but it's also the first state to elect a black governor this century. (Whoops, last century.) We had warm fuzzy feelings when we elected Mr. Wilder Governor. Didn't make him a good governor, didn't make him a bad governor, did make us feel good about ourselves for a little while. But all of this leads me to the question: is it more acceptable to be a male chauvinist than a racial bigot? The answer is neither are acceptable. But while neither sentiment can be openly expressed, except by comics and rap artists, both are still present in society.

I shouldn't deprecate the significance of warm fuzzy feelings. To the extent that people share in them, or simply understand them, we reestablish our image of the U.S. as a good and caring country, open to all. And if the U.S. is good, then its citizens must be good. While the logic sucks, in human terms it's much better to live in a country where people have those images than in a country, like Kenya, which is teetering on the edge of ethnic violence. (Suggestion for Mr. Obama--grab Mr. Richardson and head for Nairobi to try to mediate a settlement--that would be a better campaign move than anything he could do here.) It just reaffirms the old WASP sentiment--some things are best left unexpressed.

Speaking of letting everything hang out, as was the meme in the late 60's, to some extent I'm now reminded of the 1972 election, with Howard Dean filling the role of Eugene McCarthy in 1968, Clinton in the Ed Muskie role, and Obama as George McGovern. McGovern too was all about process--increasing the influence of the people in governance and eliminating the influence of the evil ones, like the party bosses. McGovern too brought hordes of young enthusiasts, even including Hillary Rodham and Bill Clinton, to participate in politics. McGovern too had a record that got lost during the campaign. Of course, McGovern's crusade fell short of the White House and would have failed even without Tricky Dick and his dirty tricks brigade.

Fortunately so far the Dems have been able to campaign without splitting the party, and the current signs promise success in the fall. McGovern had a split party, facing a popular President, and little chance of success. And McGovern had proposals which the Reps were able to mock. So I'm hopeful regardless of which of the Democrats becomes the party's nominee.

(To be fair to Obama, and because I always like Charles Peters, read his op-ed in the Post today.)

Wednesday, January 02, 2008


John Phipps gives kind words to FSA in comparison to NASS (national Agricultural Statistics Service) because his MAC using Firefox blew up the NASS online ag census.

I'm not sure that's fair--presumably NASS only does online censuses when they do the ag census, so they don't get much practice. FSA has to write checks much more often. And they've had their own problems with going online.

GW a Traitor?

I'm expecting the right-wing nuts to label our President a traitor as soon as they read this NY Times article on how the administration has eased the rules on high-tech exports to China. After all, a little more than 10 years ago, when the Times ran a similar article (actually a series of articles) on the Clinton administration, we ended up with a Congressional investigation, lots of loose talk about traitors, and nothing significant.

(It feels good to get my first shot in at the Republicans in this election year. I hope to restrain myself, perhaps only one cheap shot a week, but I fully expect the politicians to test my resolve.)

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Changing Genders, Changing Agriculture

More farm operators are women, according to this article in the site (Sauk County). And some have full-time jobs at FSA.

Losing Privacy--How Did We Win It?

William Saletan writes about how technology is depriving us of privacy here.

It's all true and interesting and worrisome, but:

how did we get all that privacy in the first place? I wait for a historian to write about the advance of privacy.