Friday, February 29, 2008

The "Royal Assent" to Our North

I've sort of envied the Canadian system of government--tracking their agricultural programs it seems as if the ruling party can move faster and make decisions with less parliamentary input than in the U.S. (Of course, that's a bureaucrat's dream--no need to suck up to those @#$%'s in Congress.)

But, as this piece observes in passing, they do at times need to get Queen Elizabeth's assent (at least by proxy).

Thursday, February 28, 2008

USDA and Civil Rights

USDA won't talk to GAO?

Some kerfuffle, apparently about:
The auditors were seeking information for an ongoing audit on Agriculture's office of civil rights and its handling of discrimination complaints. Specifically, they were investigating allegations that the department had previously provided false information for the audit.

We're Poorer Today

Got my property tax assessment yesterday--down $70K. That's about a 25 percent drop. It reinforces my belief that, at least in my small part of the world, immigration had a positive effect on housing values. And the end of immigration, at least at past levels, because of the agitation against illegals and the collapse of the housing bubble is proof. So when I see that Prince William County is talking of a 28 percent increase in the property tax rate to compensate for their drop in values, I'm somewhat ambivalent. On the one hand, PW is getting what they asked for--fewer immigrants, meaning more foreclosures, more empty houses, lower property values. On the other hand, it's a hell of a way to run a country.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Farm Bill Prospects

Politico has a good summary article on the farm bill, including the reasons for the direct payments and the possible jeopardy they now put the farm bill in. (Ironically, if the WTO hadn't forced us into direct payments, and the Republicans hadn't sold them as a free market transition, we would now have much freer agriculture under the provisions of the 1990 farm bill.)

They also have an elaborate list of possible bookmarks and sharing sites. One of these days I'm going to have to learn the process. (Or maybe I just give up and admit either life is speeding up or I'm slowing down.)

Psychology as a Science

Article in the New Yorker that's very interesting on the physiological basis for humans knowing numbers (size comparisons, arabic numerals, words). (The article is probably available only for a limited time.) A couple things of note:

  • Chinese (Mandarin) has a better mapping of number words (i.e., seven, thirteen, twenty-five) to arabic numerals than does English (presumably instead of "thirteen", they say "one three") which is more efficient.
  • there's at least one instance in which the hero of the piece (number researcher) made a valid prediction--he used computer chips to model how the mind operates with numbers. His modeling included a physical feature that was unknown, but was later discovered through advanced CAT scans.) The best test of a science is prediction, so psychology is getting better.

Bill Buckley--Post Obit Changes?

Buckley died and the obits are coming out:
The National Review defended the Vietnam War, opposed civil rights legislation and once declared that "the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail." Buckley also had little use for the music of the counterculture, once calling the Beatles "so unbelievably horrible, so appallingly unmusical, so dogmatically insensitive to the magic of the art, that they qualify as crowned heads of antimusic."
That bit from the Washington Post describes good reasons to be against him. But I had a personal prejudice--he was a show-off, using words to impress and rub one's nose in one's ignorance. I give him that over time he even came to be friendly with Arthur Schlesinger and he opposed the John Birch Society. But IMHO he gave wealth a bad name.

[Update] It's interesting--I linked to the Post obit about an hour ago (12:30) and got the quote above. Left the post as a draft and went off to do some PC maintenance. Now, at 1:26 pm, the paragraph reads:
In its early years, National Review attacked any and all U.S. policies it perceived as concessions to communism, condemned what it called "the welfare state" and defended the South's resistance to racial integration. During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the National Review was one of only a few to criticize President John F. Kennedy for his deal with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev not to invade Cuba in exchange for removal of the Soviet missiles from Cuba. [Actually, the "deal" was not announced then, its existence has since been established by historians, so Buckley's crew was accusing JFK of doing a deal and ahead of the curve. Had the deal been announced, JFK would have lost considerable support.]
I think the omissions of the quotes makes it less critical and the missile crisis bit gives NR a bit of credit for knowing what was happening. Wonder why the change?
(Suppose I should label this post: "unfunny" as I'm criticizing the dead.)

Whoever Said Conservatives Are Heartless

Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution promise to quash the poor, but all in aid of a suffering conservative.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

FSA Hopes Rise

Nothing makes a bigshot bureaucrat's heart sing like the prospect of another program to administer. From a discussion of the current status of farm bill:

“Another thing I have been talking about is that we ought to look at the ag disaster program in terms of paying something for this coverage. It will not be crop insurance, it will be a separate program in the Farm Service Agency (FSA). The days of just giving something away is over with. Producers will sign up for it if they want it; if not, they do not have to take the offer. But signup will involve some cost...that just makes sense. So we have some element of payment in it. Perhaps participants will give up some of their direct payments in exchange of getting a better safety net – not all of their direct payments, but some minimum level of coverage. They could buy up (to a higher level) of coverage under this program, but this is not crop insurance. It will not be actuarially sound. And, again, there would be a crop insurance requirement to be covered under the ag disaster aid plan. So this could actually be a pretty good safety net. And it could serve as a transition to another program in the future.” Peterson said, “The Bush administration originally pushed their GAP coverage, but I said, 'Look, this will not be crop insurance. It is not actuarially sound. It will be run by the FSA, so give it your best shot. What they did looks pretty good.”

Monday, February 25, 2008

Competition in Schools

I've always, being a good liberal, resisted the idea of school vouchers and charter schools--two ideas of libertarian conservatives who argue that introducing competition into the education system would improve it. Other than prejudice (and the fact I'm the child of a school board chair), I doubt its usefulness in the rural areas--there just aren't enough students for multiple systems to work. And I'm skeptical--is a parent going to risk her child's education by trying a new, untested charter system? Seems as if human inertia would work to preserve the existing systems. And the idea that charters might skim the cream has some force to me.

But pieces like Marc Fisher's post here make me doubt my position. The comments pro and con are interesting.

French Farmers Again

I'm not sure a British teacher of English to the French is an expert on French agriculture, but Dirk Beauregard reports French farmers are doing well. But he also says:
So, French farmers have never had it so good, however roughly 70% of the income of French farmers comes from European subsidies. In 2007, the nation’s farmers received 10 billion Euros in European money, from a total European agricultural subsidy budget of 41 billion Euros."
That's amazing and a far greater proportion than US farmers ever get from subsidies. Of course, it's the sort of factoid that could be retained in memory, even though it's not true, or a one-year phenomena. Not quite an urban legend, but the same sort of thing.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Cows as "Spimes"

Here via John Phipps. Here's an interesting talk by Bruce Sterling on "blobjects", spimes, and other entities.

And see this from the NO NAIS people (RFID chip that can be read at a distance, perhaps for bull riders).

And apropos of cows, here's a bit on the Taiwanese dairy industry.

Definition of a Farmer, En Francais

Dirk Beauregard posts on the definition of a french farmer. Contrary to the title, the post is in English. Some interesting statistics included as part of the definition--income from agricultural produce must be at least 25 percent of the value of the farm. (I wonder whether that works for the U.S.--let's say an acre of Iowa land produces 150 bushels times $3 = $450 but it's worth $4500??) Interesting issue for an economist.

The existence of an official definition fits the conception of France as a very bureaucratized country, but they have more agriculture in proportion than the U.S.

Closer to a bureaucrat's heart--the French ag ministry has 40,000 employees for maybe 400,000 official farmers. USDA has maybe 100,000 for 1-2 million farmers (depending on the definition). That's misleading, because each ministry would have different responsibilities, etc.

Also interesting--apparent French farmers are members of a corporation that provides social security and health insurance?

Friday, February 22, 2008

Review of Barbara Kingsolver

John Phipps has his review of Barbara Kingsolver's book. I recommend it highly.

Canadian "Bureaucrats"

Our good neighbors to the north have a civil service system that seems to be modeled on the British one--at least they have a senior bureaucrat heading the service. He spoke, as follows:

"He listed his top myths and "misconceptions" about the public service -- which, left unchecked, will undermine the government's ability to recruit and retain talent in the face of the fiercest labour market in 35 years. Mr. Lynch took over the job two years ago and made "renewal" a priority, a promise cynically dismissed by many bureaucrats and observers as another reform plan that will go nowhere.

Mr. Lynch's list of the top eight misperceptions include:

- The public service is a pale shadow of its former self;

- There is nothing wrong with the public service, so we don't need renewal;

- The public service can't compete for talent anymore;

- The capacity to develop public policy is not what it used to be;

- Public servants are afraid to take risks;

- The public service isn't well managed;

- Public service reforms never accomplish anything;

- The public service is out of touch with Canadians."

Some of the items would apply in the U.S., as beliefs, and perhaps reality. (Consider the last--I can guarantee American civil servants are out of touch with Canadians.)

Those Damnable Advisers

One of the things that happens with complex government programs is that people set up businesses acting as advisers or intermediaries between the citizen and government. (Think H&R Block, etc.) That's true with US farm programs--I remember visiting the Fresno County FSA office in 1991 and finding one cotton/rice outfit had a person whose whole job was working with the FSA and Reclamation offices (water rights, supposedly limited to 960 acres were big, as well as the cotton and rice payments).

So too overseas, as described in this blog post at the CAP Health Check ("CAP" being the EU's farm program). The lesson being--when there's money to gain, people will work to gain it.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Wheat Allotments

I posted earlier on the possibility of reverting to permanent legislation, dismissing the idea. But a commenter says there may have been meetings on it. It's still hard for me to take the idea seriously, at least as we were approaching in the run-up to the 1985 and 1990 farm bill. Before we got away from wheat allotments and feed grain bases in the late 1970's, you needed three things to determine a farm's effective wheat allotment:

  1. the Secretary's estimate of the wheat acreage we needed in the nation
  2. the total of basic allotments
  3. the farm's basic wheat allotment.
Say no. 2 was 62 million acres, and no. 1 was 31 million acres (i.e., we needed only 50 percent of the wheat we historically grew). Then the farm's effective allotment would be 50 percent of its basic allotment.

So, to revert back to the permanent legislation in 1985 and 1990 meant that we needed to carry the farm's basic allotment, as recorded in 1977, forward (i.e., "reconstitute it" for FSA types). But that's assuming something, that the way USDA had done allotments in the past was the only way to go. And assumptions, as I often say, get you in trouble. Looking at the permanent legislation in the 1938 act you might not have to reconstitute the basic allotments at all. Of course, it would take some lawyering, but the USDA lawyers are known for invention (witness the 1983 Payment-in-Kind program).

Anyhow, I'm no longer an expert, just an old kibitzer. I still think it's all a game of poker and USDA is trying to run a bluff. Of course, the best bluff is when you aren't. (Thomas Schelling famously observed of the game of "chicken" (the way teenagers in the 1950's got their thrills, two cars driving straight at each other, seeing who would swerve first)--you could win it if you could toss the steering wheel of your car out the window.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Reverse of the "Perfect Storm" and Immigration

A year ago I would have predicted immigration would be a major issue in the 2008 elections. Instead, to my surprise, it's not. The Republicans have chosen as their candidate the man most friendly, or least adverse, to immigration (speaking loosely). What we may have this year is something that reaffirms the idea that God looks out for idiots and the United States: first, the housing bubble has popped, meaning construction is down, reducing an attraction for immigrants, legal and illegal. Second, the housing bubble has popped, meaning local governments will be strapped for money and won't want to fund anti-illegal immigrant drives and business people may start to miss the market immigrants provided. Third, it's probably in everyone's interest (Obama, Clinton, McCain) to soft peddle immigration as an issue--none of them can win on it.

Bottom line, we may have a breathing space this year and next during which people of good will may be able to find a compromise.

Or maybe I'm as wrong now as I was a year ago--seeing as Prince William County just raided their reserve fund to set up an anti-illegal immigration program.
theadverse neighborhoods may miss their absence, creating a countervailing influence to the

Farm Bill Status

Still up in the air--these links provide updates: Keith Good at Farm Policy and
Congressional Quarterly here.

The issue is how much more money to spend over "baseline" (i.e, what would be spent assuming extension of current provisions) and, under the pay-as-you-go rules the Dems reinstated, how to find the money for the increase (i.e., what games to play and what taxes to raise).

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Immigration and Langley Park

The Post had an interesting article on Latino immigration to Langley Park, MD. (Not Takoma Park, the lefty granola crunching Berkeley east, but Langley. ) It's an interesting contrast to my area of Reston, and to Manassas Park where my mother-in-law lives. Housing prices appear to have followed a similar trajectory, but so far they haven't fallen as far as in VA.

One issue that came up in comments on my letter to the Post--"tipping points". The economist Thomas Schelling won a Nobel, partially for his analysis of how a neighborhood can change from white to black (the issue in 1970) simply because of a small, but wide-spread preference for neighbors similar to yourself. Reading between the lines, rental units will tip much faster and easier than owned units, which makes sense. People like me, who resist change in their personal lives, don't have to be that tolerant or liberal; they just have to be sticks-in-the-mud to slow the tipping process, or even make it stop.

Arthur Schlesinger and Journal

Just completed reading Arthur Schlesinger's Journals, 1952-2000. I'd recommend the book for anyone who lived through the period with an interest in politics, at least liberal politics, or in the American social/political establishment.

As a country boy, I'm amazed by the extent to which social and political circles overlapped, often through the beds of the "pretty girls" for whom Schlesinger had a weakness. Shocking. A handful of reflections sparked by the book:

  • some women attack Hillary Clinton for staying with her errant husband. This book reminds one that Happy Rockefeller stayed with Nelson, Lady Bird with Lyndon, Eleanor with FDR, Jackie with JFK, etc.
  • speaking of Hillary--Arthur is very impressed with her, intelligence, charm, and humor, finding the humor unexpected. Of course the book ends when she had just won the Senate seat, but she, and Kay Bailey Hutcheson, are the two women politicians he praises.
  • while a liberal, civil rights wasn't high on his mind in the 50's. The politician for whom he wrote many speeches, Adlai Stevenson, is quoted as arguing the Negroes should be quiet and not demonstrate.
  • he has some self-knowledge, enough to be interesting, but he remained a Kennedy die-hard, without any real reflection on the dynamics of the dynasty.
  • his reflections on the relationship between history and reality are interesting, but too few. Towards the end he takes a rather cynical tack, saying people use history to justify what they want to do.
Most of all, it's the gossip that's interesting, and often frightening when you remember that these are people of power.

French Aren't Human--Withholding Taxes

Someone, I think Milton Friedman, wrote that his worst mistake was helping the IRS to switch to income tax withholding during WWII. The theory was that humans mind big bites--pay your taxes yearly and you'll resist the growth of government. Take it out of each pay check and the left can cheerily persuade humans to agree to higher and higher taxes.

However, according to this post, apparently the theory doesn't work with the French, who are notoriously highly-taxed (as well as highly-sexed), so either they aren't human or the economics has a flaw.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Security Clearance Process

If I remember correctly, Al Gore was proud of his efforts on security clearances. Of course, the Bushies are even more proud. This Government Executive article describes the results of 14 years of reengineering and improvement.

Though I often have some sympathy for failures in government, I don't have much for this. The point is that, once the process was consolidated (which I think Gore's effort did--in DOD), whoever manages it should have the users by the short hairs. All you need is agreement from the President--by date X only security clearances processed the way I want are effective. So you ought to be able to force all the agencies to use your process. That's a big big hurdle jumped. The other problem is getting a process that works, but if you do something incremental, that can be done.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Payments to Dukes and Princes? Not Us

This story hasn't appeared on the EU farm program blog, but apparently the EU has its own entrenched recipients of farm subsidy payments, including the odd duke and prince (read Mark Twain for a take on dukes and princes--he thought they were odd). They've dropped the plan to cap payments.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Ginseng Marketing Order

Under a marketing order, growers of a crop get together to establish standards and do other good things that ordinarily the laws ensuring competition would prohibit. But who knew that ginseng had a marketing order? See here.

FSA's GIS Replacement

Not sure how I feel about this announcement in FCW (Federal computer week):

"The Agriculture Department is seeking information about methods for delivering, disseminating and integrating large geospatial datasets for its Farm Service Agency and other users. USDA is interested in commercial software and/or online mapping interface services that could replace FSA's current systems."
On the one hand, I hope they do better and faster than the System/36 replacement project(s). It's also interesting it's described as strictly FSA--NRCS is not mentioned.

On the other hand, they're pushing centralization. That's an idea which I approve of as a bureaucrat, but resist as a retiree thinking of the small towns of rural America.

As usual, I'm ambivalent.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

If Foodies and USDA Are Right

Then Mexicans are due to get fatter and Americans are due to get slimmer over the next 10 years. From an Agweb summary of the USDA's baseline projections over the next 10 years:

"Duties and quantitative restraints on sugar and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) trade between the United States and Mexico ended on January 1, 2008. This results in increased use of HFCS by Mexico’s beverage industry and, consequently, larger sugar exports from Mexico to the United States. • The production value of U.S. horticultural crops is projected to grow by more than 3 percent annually over the next decade, with consumption of horticultural products continuing to rise. Imports play an important role in domestic supply during the winter and, increasingly, during other times of the year, providing U.S. consumers with a larger variety of horticultural products."

For Rep. Lucas, Relax

From the Enid, OK paper, Representative Lucas worries about the sleep of FSA employees:
"The change would be a nightmare for Farm Service Agency employees, Lucas said, who would have to dig up the old records and figure out what things were like back in 1949, then try to explain it to farmers and ranchers.

“The world has changed dramatically in the past 60 years,” Lucas said. “It’s like the Middle Ages compared to now.”"

He can relax. We tried in the 1990's to update and data load the old wheat allotments into the system. The data was so bad that management then said, forget it. That was 15 years ago or so. The data hasn't improved since. If anyone in the South building thinks there's any possibility of doing wheat allotments, they're smoking something.

Games Congress Plays

I'm feeling cynical today. A link to a discussion of the House Ag proposal for a farm bill. Two sources of savings:

–requiring growers to sell their crops when they claim loan deficiency payments. Some farmers have collected windfalls by claiming an LDP when market prices are low and selling the crop when prices are higher.

–ending windfalls to growers who manipulate the rules for loan deficiency payments.”

I wonder how this provision of law was described when it was put into the last farm bill (I'm too lazy to check). Now it's described as a "windfall", but someone wrote the language that made it possible. Maybe Congressional staffers and Congress people don't know what they write?

They also are playing their usual game with accounting rules and provisions. How do you cut the cost--drop payment in the last year. (Same way Bush cut the cost of his tax cuts--which is now coming due.)

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

FBI Fails Again

Some time I ago I blogged about the FBI's IT system. (See here for one.) Their problem is that each field office was its own empire, with its own files and, until the rise of terrorism, they never really had to transfer data across field office lines. This article seems to say it's still a problem. The Immigration Service is going ahead with issuing green cards to applicants whose FBI background checks aren't complete.

There's not enough background in the piece to know whether it's really fair to blame the FBI for not making progress. It's possible that some of these applicants date back to the dark ages before the FBI got even half-modernized.

I do like the philosophy though. I believe in 80/20 rules and getting the most bang for the buck. As long as there's a tracking system to ensure that USCIS knows which green cards were issued on the basis of incomplete data and to follow up with the FBI to work them through.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Easier Tax Returns

Freakonomics highlights a proposal by Prof Goolsbee--have the IRS prepare the return (for the majority of cases that are simple. It's the sort of thing I really like (my comment is about no. 44). A commenter refers to a British site, seems several countries already do this sort of thing.

South Dakota Swampbuster Case

"Swampbuster" is a provision, originating with the 1985 farm bill, which prohibits farmers who get farm program benefits from draining wetlands. That's the over-simplified version. This article describes a case in SD where a big partnership (brothers) receiving big bucks ($2.5 mill in 10 years) is fighting a determination by National Resource Conservation Service. There's enough description to show some of the complexities involved, though it doesn't say when the violation is said to have occurred.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Inputs, Outputs, Procrastination and Heaven

Here's an interview in a Mauritius newpaper with Paul Romer, a noted economist (hat tip--Marginal Revolution) (the interview is on causes of growth and is interesting in itself):
Many governments try and measure the inputs that go into their education system like the number of teachers on their staff list, the number of students enrolled, but that’s not what you should measure. What should be measured are the outputs. Part of the goal of the government should be not just to spend more resources but also to get more productivity, more learning for the resources that you’ve got.
This reminds that the Government Performance and Results Act also pushed the same theory. The strategic plan for each agency is supposed to focus on outcomes and outputs, not inputs. But I've a problem with procrastination. And often I make New Years resolutions to overcome the problem. In the past I often focused on outputs/comes--I wanted to be more organized, to accomplish specific things. Of course I failed. Why? For one thing I always was overly optimistic--I think it's true of most people, we overestimate how good we are and how easy the job is--we forget Murphy's law. So when I failed to accomplish things when I expected to, I beat myself up, removing the motivation to accomplish.

So this year I tried something a little different--if I spend at least 1/2 hour a day working on something that's difficult to bring myself to do, then I earn some self-indulgence after supper. Note I'm focusing on inputs, not outputs. The logic is that, if I work, I do accomplish something, maybe not as fast as I want or expect, but something. So far, over a month in, I've had better success with this resolution than previous ones.

So, should this work for governments? Perhaps not, but an initial focus on inputs does reflect a commitment to the job. If a President spends an hour of his/her time on an issue, it's important. If it's an hour a week, it's very important. That's behavior that provides good signals to the flunkies, regardless of the output of the meeting.

And how does this ramble tie to heaven? Mauritius is not Mauretania (the big island off Africa). But, according to Mark Twain, it's the prototype of heaven--from wikipedia:
The island is well known for its natural beauty. Author Mark Twain, for example, noted in Following the Equator, his personal travelogue, "You gather the idea that Mauritius was made first and then heaven, and that heaven was copied after Mauritius".

Friday, February 08, 2008

Agency Consolidation--Even in Maine

We once said: "As Maine goes, so goes the nation." That was in the days when Maine's election day was earlier than the rest, so they served as an advance indicator.

These days, Maine is just one of the crowd. This piece outlines problems the governor is having in streamlining his natural resource agencies. It sounds familiar.

Better Than Pollan and Kingsolver?

No, I haven't read the book (The Fattening of America) but no two people are going to be better writers than Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver. That said, this interview
makes me think the analysis is better.

Alzheimer's and Total Weirdness

Long ago, Cornell's School of Agriculture had a cow whose stomach (one of them) was visible--I think they'd opened her up and installed a plastic window--allowed them to observe the process of digestion. That struck me as gross.

But then I started worrying about Alzheimer's. So this report of mice with glassed brains (so scientists can watch amyloid plaque form in the brain) strikes me as marvelous ingenuity, totally tasteful.

Our Up-to-date Government: OMB

This may be unfair, but I linked to this Government Executive article touting Bush's e-government:

President Bush's electronic government initiatives saved agencies $508 million in costs during the 2007 fiscal year, according to the Office of Management and Budget.

The goal of e-government is to "improve services to citizens, to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the government and to provide savings to the taxpayer," according to OMB's memorandum. To achieve those goals, the Bush administration is developing governmentwide IT services provided by one agency or service provider to manage cross-agency functions such as payroll, training and travel management.

But when I clicked through to the OMB memo, I found an August 2006 memo.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Pollan Again

Two additional thoughts on Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food:
  • One raised by my better half--people need to start smoking again. Increased obesity correlates strongly with decreased smoking.
  • The other is all mine, though suggested by this abstract of scholarly research--people need to go back to old-time parenting--it's all this permissive, lovey-dovey parenting of boomers and the x generation that leads to obesity.

Senator Grassley and Payment Limits

Farm Policy has a summary, including this from Sen. Grassley:
“Earlier on Tuesday, Grassley sent a letter to the leaders of the House and Senate Agriculture committees, saying more reform was needed on payment limits.

“He said landlords could evade income tests, such as the administration’s $200,000 cut-off, by renting their land for cash, rather than for a share of the crop, by reorganizing operations to spread payments among more recipients or manipulating their income, such as buying land.”

I'm not sure how he would change the rules to prevent such changes.

Us Old Fogies--Ruth Marcus on the Budget

Marcus has a column this morning bemoaning the change from paper to electronic publication of the President's budget. She collects a fair amount of scorn in the comments.

I sympathize with both sides. But one advantage of paper that she didn't mention which I found invaluable--you can stack it up on your desk and let everyone know you're overwhelmed.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Immigration, Housing--Am I a Traitor?

Here's my opinion, again. And here's the comments on my letter.

How To Handle Rules

I totally missed the fact that Joe Buck and Troy Aikman conducted a 15-minute discussion of rule interpretation during the Super Bowl, including references to Wittgenstein. But Michael Berube at Crooked Timber gets it.

Earl Butz and His Legacy

Timothy Noah in Slate celebrates the Butz contribution to racial harmony and justice. Hopefully it's a permanent one, unlike his contributions to farm policy.

A Slip of the Congressional Pen [Updated]

I posted here on the delay in signup for dairy disaster assistance. This article explains a bit more.

Forms getting information from the public need OMB approval, which means they need to be accompanied by regulations. What I get from the explanation is that FSA was ready to go until the OMB forms approval people said they wanted final regulations.

But now they've got to worry about 2007 losses and prorating payments. Brings back memories of the 1986 disaster payment program, which was the first time we had to worry about prorating. [Ugh].

Health Insurance Comparison

I was impressed by this comparison of Canadian and US health systems.

Monday, February 04, 2008

The Long-lasting Legacy of Earl Butz

As predicted, the Times obit of Earl Butz led with this:
"Earl L. Butz, who orchestrated a major change in federal farm policy as secretary of agriculture during the 1970s but came to be remembered more for a vulgar racial comment that brought about his resignation during the 1976 presidential election race, died Saturday in Washington."
But on October 6, 1976 Butz is interviewed by the Times on his legacy (he'd resigned the week before). It's headlined: "Butz is Confident That His Policies Will Be Continued."

His legacy (the 1970 bill had implemented optional set-aside programs), he'd pushed for full production, admitting that world conditions had lifted exports. But he claimed a "firm opposition to high price supports had kept United States farm commodities competitive in world markets".

On Oct 13, 1976 President Ford raised price supports by 50 percent on wheat and 20 percent on corn.

Michael Pollan Returns II--Recipe for a Best Seller

I posted before on this book. Now I've read it, so I can take up the challenge of the commenter:

Recipe for a Best Seller

I note that Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food made number 1 on both the NYTimes and WashPost's list of nonfiction bestsellers. When I checked on Jan 27, it was no. 5 on Amazon's bestsellers. And he's getting glowing reviews, both in the Times and Post. (See his website: MichaelPollan) What's his recipe for this success?

1 First, you need a subject--food is always good. (The books that beat Pollan's on Amazon were the recent John Grisham and Stephen King novels, and two books at least partially on food.)

2 Second, you need a narrative, preferrably one with conflict. So you need some good guys and some bad guys. Pollan's good guys are old reliables: common sense, tradition, and mother; the bad guys are also familiar types: nutrition scientists with their reductionist science, the food industry which shoves empty calories down the throats of good Americans, and journalists who push food fads and get things wrong.

3 Third, you need some evil deeds, like the beef industry defeating Senator McGovern in 1980 after he had chaired a committee which challenged the beef industry.

4 Fourth, you need the good to be threatened, a declension, a decline and fall, an ejection from the Garden of Evil. Pollan's declension runs like this. In the good old days people and their food systems had evolved together so Eskimos and Mediterraneans lived comfortably within their ecosystems. But we in the U.S. eat the dreaded Western diet, which threatens a "global pandemic" (obesity, diabetes, heart disease, etc.). Sauron must be gaining power. The clouds from Mordor are spreading.

5 You need some interesting quirky characters. Pollan has a whacky dentist who studied diets in remote areas before WWII. Pollan doesn't mention the guy's claim, reported in the NY Times in 1934, that vitamin D could slow the progress of cancer, heart disease, etc. The bottom line is whether you're an Eskimo, eating an all-meat diet, or whatever, your food culture has evolved so you're healthy. But the Western diet is not evolved so it causes disease.

6 Above all, you need a sauce of great writing to pour over your other ingredients. Pollan as usual rises to that challenge.

And, as the strawberry on the creme, the finishing touch, you need the magic seven words to summarize your teaching: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." He supports those words with specific advice, most of which are pretty good. Indeed, although he doesn't recognize it, I think he comes out at about the same place as that temple of nutritionism, the USDA. I don't see much in teir suggested 21 day menu that's contrary to Pollan's advice. So, in the end, one could call him a lamb in wolf's clothing.

I've some problems with the book. (Surprise!) The romanticism, the anti-scientific bias, the suspicion of the motives of his bad guys, all rub me the wrong way. (See Daniel Engber at Slate for a challenge to this line of thought. Also this piece on the Scientific American site.) While I've no expertise in nutrition and can't check his facts, where I know the subject he's often wrong, particularly attributing McGovern's defeat to the beef trust. (McGovern moved away from his South Dakota roots as he moved into national politics, he was saved from defeat in 1974 by Watergate, but lost in 1980. 1980 was not a good year for Democrats you may recall. Indeed, a brief search of the NYTimes archives doesn't support the breathless description of McGovern's nutrition commitee changing its recommendations.) I think I've commented previously on his lack of comprehension of agricultural policies and the roles of Nixon and Butz. He brings in the myth among the foodies that Nixon and Earl Butz made a dramatic and final change in agricultural policy that gave us cheap food. (Not so, agricultural policy is made by Congress, not the President or USDA, and it's wiggled back and forth over the years but no dramatic break occurred in Butz's reign. What was dramatic was selling grain to the USSR, but that was more Kissinger than Butz.)

When Mr. Pollan cites traditional food cultures, he praises human ability to adapt and adjust diets to circumstances. When he discusses American food culture, there's no adjustment, just a bunch of suckers for the reductionist science of nutritionism, the false panaceas of journalists, and the advertising dollars and machinations of the food industry. I think he inadvertently nails it when he reminisces about his mother cooking meals--to give herself a rest she served TV dinners. That was a rational choice, a part of Americans adjusting to their new environment. There's been lots of changes in society over the last 60 years, changes that impacted our choices of what to eat and how we eat. Pollan doesn't recognize them.

As a way of recognizing those changes, and mocking Pollan's lessons, here's my advice for good eating:

1 Sell your car. Surely the fact that we have 765 cars per thousand people (leading the world) relates to our obesity.
2 Get a job digging ditches. Manufacturing, moving metals, has declined while services, moving bytes, has increased. The food culture that supported steelworkers and auto workers isn't right for programmers and screen writers.
3 Don't live alone. The percentage of single-person households doubled between 1970 and 2002, It's harder to cook for one person--much easier to buy TV dinners.
4 Don't grow old. Many oldsters, particularly living alone, opt for the ease of TV dinners as opposed to cooking meals from scratch.
4 Move to the inner suburbs. Commuting is a prime time to eat on the go, i.e., unhealthily. Cities are bad because of the lack of supermarkets.
5 Cook. Of course, that means no two-job households, and no feminism.

Pollan admits he wants to make Americans pay more for their food, work harder at preparing it, and have fewer choices. It's not a prescription that sells broadly, certainly not one that any national candidate is going to run on. It's elitist. So USDA and Pollan both are preaching to the choir, IMHO.

Significant Change in Service Center Budgeting

If I understand the USDA's budget proposal, where in the past years the Office of Chief Information Officer had the funding for the "Common Computing Environment", now they've moved it back to the agencies:
"Funding of $64.2 million for certain IT operational expenses and related Geospatial Information Systems (GIS) initiatives which had previously been requested and provided for in the Common Computing Environment account managed by the Office of the Chief Information Officer, are requested in FSA’s salaries and expenses account for FY 2008. The maintenance of modern digitized databases with common land unit information, integrated with soils and crop data and other farm records and related initiatives, is vital to the development of more efficient and effective customer services at the Service Centers. In addition, FSA continues to review its county office structure consistent with Congressional guidance to obtain local input and thorough analysis to determine appropriate restructuring of its county offices."
Not sure of the significance, but interesting (inside baseball).

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Faceless Bureaucrats--British Style

A Brit has a new book out, according to this.

I strongly recommend this document translating British bureaucratic jargon, showing that bureaucrats are brothers and sisters under the skin, even though British "civil servants" are more prestigious than their American cousins.

"Elephant trap" for them equates to "swamp" for us.

Earl Butz Dead

According to this and Bloomberg. (Wikipedia already has his death.) I'll be watching the obits to see if they adopt the Pollan/locavore/organic food idea of a big shift in government policy that led to high fructose corn syrup. (In my mind, a myth.)

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Are Farmers Psychotic?

Megan McArdle posts an analysis of drug prices and drug R&D and why limited drug company profits would decrease R&D.

She points out that Merck could earn 5 percent on its money by investing in government bonds, and doing no drugs at all. So it needs a chance of profits over that rate. It would be "psychotic," in her estimation, for Merck to continue making drugs if they have only a 1 in 1000 chance of making big profits.

But the same logic could apply to farmers, at least those who own their land free and clear. They could earn more by selling out and investing their capital. But, unlike drug companies, they keep farming (mostly, at least until they get too old). (Of course, this is a point my mother used to make some 60 years ago.)

A Slip of the Congressional Pen

Agweb notes a delay in the dairy disaster signup, because FSA had to do regulations.
Normally in farm legislation Congress exempts USDA from complying with the usual requirements for getting public input--i.e., issuing a notice in the Federal register asking for comments, or at least doing an interim rule with provision for amending it in the final rule. Why is that important?

For speed. Requiring comment slows down the implementation process several ways:

  1. First, if the regulations have to be done before the implementation, rather than concurrently with it, it's like the difference between serving concurrent sentences of 10 years versus consecutive.
  2. Second, if you get comments and really consider them (two big "ifs"), then you likely end up making changes. While the change may improve the program, it's likely to slow the development of forms and software.
  3. Third, distractions. Usually in FSA the same people who are working on the forms and instructions for the field are also the ones who do the regulations. That's good for coordination but poor for single-minded concentration on implementation.
Why my parenthetical in no. 2? The nitty-gritty of most farm programs is not of interest to most people. So comments often come from the usual suspects--the farm organizations which pushed the legislation in the first place. If you're trying to implement their program, then you already are trying to follow their intentions (because that's the intentions of the members of Congress), so comments don't do much. [Note: Statement true as of 10 years ago--might have changed in the interim, but I doubt it.]

Friday, February 01, 2008

Dan Morgan on the Farm Bill

Keith Good at Farmpolicy picks up a Dan Morgan piece on the current status of the farm bill. I was particularly struck by these paragraphs on the budgetary games and impact of high prices:

One irony of the congressional budget system is that the current record high commodity prices serve to protect the existing web of price supports and price guarantees. Even if Congress slashes those rainy day subsidies, CBO won’t credit savings, since CBO sees prices staying well above the existing subsidy floor most of the time. This leaves Congress with little budgetary incentive to make reforms.

(CBO projects that of the $66 billion in commodity costs between fiscal 2008 and 2017, only about $16 billion will go to traditional price supports and guarantees related to what farmers grow. The other $50 billion is accounted for by income support, known as direct payments, that goes to farmers automatically, regardless of prices.)

CBO’s new projections see federal crop insurance subsidies rising sharply, by as much as $14 billion over 10 years. (As farm prices rise, so do insurance premiums that are subsidized by USDA.) Congress could cut the subsidies and capture funds with which to pay for other priorities. But crop insurance subsidies have already been cut in the House and Senate-passed farm bills, and it isn’t clear how much more pain Congress is willing to inflict on the industry.