Monday, March 31, 2008

A Locavore I Can Trust

Found this neat blog of a ranch/farm wife in Montana. She seems to be a "locavore", if only by necessity. (Taking 4 kids to the grocery store is not fun, and when it's an hour away you only go a couple times a month.) It's neat (a term from my childhood) because she writes with humor and style. Bill McKibben and Barbara Kingsolver have style, and occasionally humor, but they don't have Erin's wit. And they're trying to sell me something--the virtues of local food--while Erin is simply telling it as it is.

Lest I Forget

Stumbled across this following links (I'm not sure from where, perhaps starting with It's a reminder to an old geezer about being somewhat cautious about his memories. (Always liked Monty Python--this is the routine called "Four Yorkshiremen".)

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Disaster Program

Here's an interesting article on the subject of disaster payments and the push for a permanent disaster fund. Author cites the EWG study on frequency of payments. I think I've commented before--one of my early assignments on the program side of ASCS was to follow up an OIG or GAO study on the disaster payments under the law in effect in the late 70's. They'd found recurring payments in some sample counties, so management agreed to do a review of the whole country.

Anyhow, the unanticipated consequences thing may be operating now.

At some point in the past (Freedom to Farm, maybe?) farm legislation started "freezing" the yields. There were two rationales: (1) allowing farmers to prove their actual yields (as they do under crop insurance) was encouragement to increase production and (2) freezing the yields saved money. (Apparently there was opportunity for a one-time change of yield under the 2002 farm bill.)

In the 1970's we could instruct counties to adjust the yields on farms that got recurrent disaster payments as part of the regular yearly process of adjusting yields. (Without getting into much detail, in theory the farm yields would weight back to the county yield, so a farm that got payments every year had its yield set too high.) But because of the freezing of payment yields for PFC and counter-cyclical payments, that process seems not to be available these days, which leaves FSA out on a limb in justifying/rationalizing the disaster payments.

Organic Wheat Farm in SD

Via Tom Philpott at Gristmill, Gourmet has an article describing a 4,000 acre family farm in Walworth County, SD. It's been in the family for generations, since 1880's. Not clear whether the family owns the 4,000 acres free and clear, but if they do it's a key to their survival. I think it's generally true that farm owner/operators, with luck and good management, can survive the bad times and prosper in the good times even if, as here, they occupy a niche market (organic wheat). As long as cash flow is positive (meaning no rent payments or mortgage payments) you can survive. (That's how my parents farmed on an uneconomic dairy/poultry farm.) Of course, if you're young you need to expand your acreage (to support the bigger and better equipment), so being able to buy wisely and timely is key. (Or else, you spend your winters rebuilding used stuff.) If you're old, you just carry on living off the depreciation of your old equipment and hope it lasts as long as you.

Without knowing more about the area and the economics, I wouldn't commit to the idea that the Stiegelmeiers are a viable example of how the Great Plains might be farmed. (A concept both Philpott and Prof. Dobbs, ag economist, float.)

Transparency in Congress

This Government Executive article describes the tribulations of those who want Congressional Research Service reports to be routinely available to the public. "Free the CRS data".

Friday, March 28, 2008

Sauce for the Goose

Listening to the discussion on PBS of Rev. Wright last night, I'm tempted to betray my liberal faith--while I understand all the points made in defense and extenuation of his sermons, and while I've listened to/read transcripts of at least a couple, and while I'm reading Sen. Obama's first book, I don't think we (i.e., liberals) are being even-handed. When Revs. Robertson and Falwell uttered some of their more notorious comments, they were also operating in the prophetic tradition, assailing the corruption of the society and the spiritual evils thereof and calling on the populace to repent and return to God.

Bottom line--if we cut Wright some slack, and we should, we also need to cut Falwell/Robertson some slack, which is a grievous penalty for my sins.

No One Understands Farm Commodities Markets

That's the news on the Times today. For some time now, the cash prices for corn and wheat and the closing price of a futures contract have differed greatly, when they should be the same, assuming the markets are operating correctly.

I don't know if there's a term like schadenfreude (sp?) for my feelings: amusement that reality is more complex than the mighty hidden hand of the economics profession.

I Quibble with Charlie Peters--Passport Flap

I've been reading Washington Monthly since it started, meaning I've been reading Charlie Peters, the founding editor. But today I disagree with him on the passport flap at State. Any long-time reader will not be surprised to see that I think the State passport system should send out an email anytime someone accesses a file. (If Abebooks can email me anytime some vendor offers a book I want, or Amazon do something similar, surely it's "technically feasible" (to use one of my favorite terms) to do so.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

And the Saddest Words: About a Dozen Were Farmers

A phrase that can be taken many ways, from the Militant, on Pigford:

"Black farmers continue to face racial discrimination in loans and other services at offices of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). That was the view of many attending the 10th annual meeting of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association (BFAA), held here February 15-17.

Farmers, faculty and researchers from historically Black agricultural colleges, environmental advocates, and officials of the USDA’s civil rights office were among the more than 60 participants. About a dozen were farmers."

Outsourcing Testing?

According to this piece, FSA let a $1.8 million contract for 2 years which is being satisfied by six staff members in the Kansas City area. Let's see--1.8 divided by 2 = $900,000, divided by six = $150,000 per person.

What's it for? "The work for the farm agency in Kansas City, Mo., will include stress testing of applications, Web and software development, application support and project management."

Something funny going on:
  • back in the good old days, FSA did its software development in Kansas City and its testing, both using government employees. Then the IT types got moved into USDA IT (OCIO). I assumed IT was still doing the software testing.
  • the contract seems to show some of the testing is being outsourced. I guess $150,000 is reasonable (subtract 33 percent for contractor overhead and another 30 percent of the remainder for fringe benefits and you're probably down to what a government employee would cost--maybe. We the taxpayer would be paying $50K for the right to fire the employee quickly (as in the recent flap over passport file access) and maybe for some expertise that's hard to develop in-house.) (I may be wrongly assuming the bulk of the contract is testing.)
  • but the odd thing is that FSA is doing the contracting--seems as if it should be IT, just to make for cleaner responsibilities and reporting.
Oh, the mysteries.

Immigrants and the Economy

This is how the Post leads a story this morning:
"A vibrant Latino subculture built in Prince William County over more than a decade is starting to come undone in a matter of months.

With Latinos fleeing the combined effects of the construction downturn, the mortgage crisis and new local laws aimed at catching illegal immigrants, Latino shops are on the brink of bankruptcy, church groups are hemorrhaging members, neighborhoods are dotted with for-sale signs, and once-busy strip malls have been transformed into ghost towns.

County officials who have campaigned for months to drive out illegal immigrants say they would be unhappy to see businesses suffer or legal immigrants forced out in the process."

In other words, we don't want illegal immigrants but we do want their money. Amazing.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Putnam and Immigration

Robert Putnam, of "Bowling Alone" fame, ponders immigration in this interview. Here's a quote:

"In the successful cases [of societies integrating immigrants] – like the United States, like Canada, and to some extent Australia – the first step is that the immigrant groups often form organizations on their own: the sons of Ireland or the sons of Norway. Now those may look initially to the receiving society like, “Oh, they don’t want to join us, they want to have their own separate group.”

But what’s going on is that these people are in a new place and they’re trying to find some group with which they have something in common and can begin to form friendships –any of us would do that in a new setting. Those organizations historically prove to be steps toward becoming involved in America."
One thing he misses, I think, is the way we (the natives/earlier immigrants) and they (the later immigrants) start the process. It's true now, and I'm pretty sure it's been true since the beginning, that people in the "old country" were identified more by the sections/provinces they came from. The Irish and the Scots and the Scots-Irish all had county, clan, or religious affiliation. The "Germans" were Hessians, Bavarians, Saxons, or whatever. Once they arrive here, their national identity becomes the major factor, the regionalisms are subordinated. So too today, natives of Indian states become at least "Indians", if not South Asians (along with Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and Ceylonese) or even "Asians", as in an "Asian-American society.

This leads naturally to a blending of identities--when I was growing up you had the WASP's, the Irish and Italian Catholics, and the Eastern European Catholics. Now we're mostly just "whites".

Locavores Take a Hit

From Brownfield Network:

The biggest and most successful tomato grower in the northeastern United States has decided not to plant tomatoes this year because he’s afraid there won’t be enough labor available to plant and harvest his crop. Keith Eckle told Brownfield, because Congress hasn’t reformed current immigration law, he simply can’t risk planting a crop that could end up rotting in the fields.

"Our investment in those tomatoes is about $1.5 million," Eckle explained. "We cannot afford to plant that crop, put that much money out, and not know that we can harvest that crop."

Instead, Eckle will plant grain corn on his acres that normally go to tomatoes, pumpkins and sweet corn. But because produce is of such greater value, even with high commodity prices, Eckle said he’ll probably only make a third of the profit he enjoys in a typical year.
Later he points out that he's within 6 hours of the whole Northeast (located in PA, apparently--article doesn't specify).

To me the logic of the local food/slow food movement is that each region becomes more self-sufficient (that's their logic, not something I endorse). But this shows the interdependencies which exist--you can have local tomatoes only if you're willing to import foreign labor. Or you can keep out foreign labor but only if you're willing to import foreign tomatoes. (As Robert Heinlein wrote, there's no such thing as a free lunch.) Note we aren't talking "organic" here--the devotees of that cause can scare up enough young native idealists to do that labor.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

More on Privacy

MSNBC's Red Tape says looking at other's data goes on all the time while Government Executive finds someone to comment more generally on privacy and the problems in government agencies.

Meanwhile, innovators are ripping away the mask of privacy from government employees--the NYTimes reports on a website where you can post evaluations of police officers you encounter. (The president of the California police association isn't happy.) It's not unlike the site for rating your professor, which is now matched by a site for professors to respond, or your neighbor.

Soon everyone will rate everyone.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Where Are the Fashion Police?

Watched the movie "Election" the other night, then the director's commentary. (I liked the movie, not great, but good.) Mathew Broderick ("Wargames") is playing a high school social studies teacher, who ends up trying to manipulate the election for president of the student body to prevent Reese Witherspoon from winning. (To any right-thinking Republican, Reese is a clone of Hillary Clinton. To any Dem, she's Karl Rove in drag.)

Anyhow, what offends me and raises my dander is how the director mocked the Broderick character's short sleeve dress shirts. It was terrible. You'd think it was a crime against fashion to wear such shirts. I wore these shirts for all of my government career, at least during the hot months.

The director should know that fine stores such as Hechts or Sears would refuse to sell such shirts if they constituted a crime against fashion. You don't see them selling pot or crack, do you?


Shankar Vedantam in today's Post has an article on the different perspectives blacks and whites bring to race in the U.S.--whites assume a perspective of comparing the present to the past, and seeing how far we've come; blacks assume a perspective of comparing the ideal future to the present, and seeing how far we have to go. Research shows if your question sets the perspective for the respondent and doesn't let them assume the two groups tend to give similar assessments.

Fruit and Vegetable

From Congressional Research Service report to Congress on WTO status
includes the status of the fruit and vegetable limitation (which I blogged about here).
The claim that the United States has exceeded its total spending limits hinges
largely on a previous ruling from the U.S.-Brazil cotton case in which a WTO panel
found that U.S. payments made under the Production Flexibility Contract (PFC) and
Direct Payment (DP) programs do not qualify for the WTO’s green box exemption
category because of their prohibition on planting fruits, vegetables, and wild rice on
covered program acreage. However, the panel did not make the extension that PFC and DP payments should therefore be counted as amber box programs, but instead was mute on this point. In its WTO notifications, the United States has notified its PFC payments as fully decoupled and green box compliant.21 This is an important distinction because the green box contains only non-distorting program payments and is not subject to any limit. Canada and Brazil argue that, because of the previous panel ruling, PFC and DP payments do not conform with WTO green-box rules and should be included with U.S. amber box payments.
The report suggests the issue is moot--because projections for high commodity prices into the future will keep the U.S. from violating the WTO limits.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Snooping in Passport Files

Read somewhere that smart op-ed writers polish up their piece independent of the news, then wait for some event to happen that they can piggyback on, tweaking the piece slightly. As I said, smart.

But I'm not that smart, so the flap over passport files leaves me wishing I was.

From what little I know and have watched, it seems that the cable channels are misstating the facts when they mention "flags"--the State Department system was set up to flag when the files of certain persons were accessed, but it wasn't smart enough to know whether the access was inappropriate. I'm glad we've advanced that far, but sorry we haven't taken another step--set up the system to email the passport holder when someone accesses it. (That's one of my hobbyhorses.)

As for the immediate flap, I'd guess the instances are cases of curiosity gone astray. And it surprises me not at all that the accesses weren't reported up the line. It's just not the way things work. When State put in the system that would show accesses, I bet no one did a trial run to establish how the flags would be handled. At best, the high muckety-mucks were told--hey, remember that flap over Clinton's files in 92, well now we've got a new improved automated system that will flag such accesses. And the HMM's said: "great job", and went on to something more seemingly important.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Rules on Blogging, Per the Times [Updated]

I was raised to view the NYTimes as the authority, so I may adopt the philosophy in their article today on blogging:

Just post it already! The hurdle that stops many would-be bloggers is fear of clicking the “Publish” button. Xeni Jardin, who juggles blogging at the quirky alternative-news site with a career as a freelance journalist for NPR, Wired magazine and others, resists the urge to polish her blog prose the way she would a radio script. “Don’t bottle up your ideas forever believing you have to hit the same kind of mature, complete, perfect point as you would with a magazine or newspaper article,” she says. “Blogs are always in progress.” Boing Boing’s bloggers are known for going back to posts to update them, adding new information and striking out factual errors.

E-Government Isn't Gaining Support

This article says the USDA home page gets low satisfaction marks, compared to other government sites, which also are declining in their evaluation.

I'm not surprised, although the page has certainly improved over the years. I don't know all the problems. Partially, I suspect it's because USDA and its customers had a 100+ year history of how to relate and the Internet is very different. Or, more accurately, each USDA agency has its own customers and its own history and its own pattern for dealing with the customers. In some cases the dealing is partially mediated by state agencies (consider nutrition programs) or by private companies (consider crop insurance).

I'd bet (something, but not a lot) that USDA and most other government agencies don't have much feedback on what's working for them and what's not, at least not compared to sites that rely on advertising for finances.

And no one knows what potential uses are ignored. For example, look at what's available on-line for school lunch authorization. FNS seems to have just put their document package on-line. Is there a missed opportunity to have the forms fillable on line? (That's available from other agencies.) But how many school lunch recipients would really fill it in on-line--probably not many. But I'd guess the Secretary of Agriculture has no one looking at statistics to identify the best places to put his Internet assets.

I Find the Nation's Ehrenreich To Be Nutty

To undermine my liberal credentials, I find this Nation article by Barbara Ehrenreich to be deeply nutty--to wit, Hillary Clinton is part of a secretive conservative "Family" of religious people, almost a "cult" that has been and continues to be fascinated by Adolf Hitler. Ehrenbach ends:
" Obama has given a beautiful speech on race and his affiliation with the Trinity United Church of Christ. Now it's up to Clinton to explain--or, better yet, renounce--her long-standing connection with the fascist-leaning Family."
I hasten to admit that I've no facts with which to counter the article. It sounds similar to the conspiracy theories woven around Opus Dei. Call me naive, but I believe in no conspiracies, of either right or left.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Playing Games Again

I'm not expert, but I think the Congressional Budget Office just released their "scoring" of the farm bill. Here's the paragraph in which they delineate the major changes.
This estimate assumes H.R. 2419 would be modified to: have an effective date
of October 1, 2008, for most changes to nutrition programs (title IV),
authorize Value-Added Marketing Grants (section 6027) for five years instead
of six, make federal purchases of bio-based products (section 9002)
mandatory, require the target ratio of crop insurance premiums to indemnities
to equal 1.0 (title X), and apply the specified change in the percentage for
corporate estimated payments (section 13003) to the new, current-law
I don't understand some of them, but clearly the first item says that nutrition (i.e., food stamp enhancements wouldn't take effect in FY 2008) and it pulls a "Bush" by cutting the authorization of grants by 1 year. (I say a "Bush" because that's how the Reps got a tax cut bill scored--make the tax cuts effective for 9 of the 10 year scoring period and "assume" that Congress would allow the tax law to revert back in the 10th. In this case "assume" does mean--make an "ass" of "u" and "me".)

Monday, March 17, 2008

Let's Nationalize an Industry

My reputation as a liberal might be shaky, given some of my posts (those I've posted, and even more the ones I drafted but didn't complete). So let me redeem it by proposing a good old-fashioned nationalization. (For those too young to remember, "nationalization" is when the government takes over a corporation or an industry. Britain just nationalized Northern Rock (a bank) rather than let it go under.)

I'm prompted by this article, on loss of individual data. The reality is you won't have 100 percent compliance with any rule about protecting personal data, whether by government agencies or corporations. It just won't happen until the hard drive manufacturers and database vendors get together and use Moore's law (increasing efficiency of electronics) to deliver hardware/software packages that automatically encrypt all data. That is, until data protection becomes automatic and not something people have to decide to do.

So, what the government should do is nationalize, and its competitors. See this post. Much of what does is to build on existing government mostly. Assuming the service works, I'd have the government provide the coverage to everyone. If it's the government's job to provide for national security, cushion the blows of unemployment, provide a currency, etc. etc., I'd also make it responsible for guaranteeing against financial loss due to identity thief of SSN, name and address.

Why The Problems in Financial Markets--A Modest Proposal

Kevin Drum admitted he didn't fully understand what was going on in the financial markets. The commenters on his post tried to explain, and several did a very good job. I was particularly impressed by martin, Ethan Stock James S. MacLean and the very long one by The New York City Math Teacher.

To paraphrase some character in Dickens (Micawber, maybe?): 21 house buyers and 20 houses--result is housing boom and prosperity for all; 19 house buyers and 20 houses--result is housing crash and recession.

So, a modest proposal (tip of hat to Dean Swift). Congress passes legislation granting green cards to everyone currently in the country. That permits a bunch more people to buy houses, which revives the housing market and relieves most of the pressure on financial markets.

Definition of a Farmer--Collin Peterson

Rep. Peterson wants to change the definition of a "farmer" according to this piece:

DTN Political Correspondent Jerry Hagstrom reported yesterday that, “House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said this week he wants the new farm bill to raise the dollar value in sales a farmer needs to be included in the Census of Agriculture, and he wants to save money by ending crop subsidies to landowners and farmers with fewer than 20 acres that qualify for government payments.

It would be logical to index the baseline (currently $1,000) for inflation. And it's hard to see someone who sells under $1,000 as a "farmer". We naturally think of a "farmer" as someone who works full-time at that occupation. There are "actors" who mostly work as waiters in NY or other interim occupations. And there are "writers" who earn nothing by their writing (although I think IRS requires you earn something to claim a business office deducation). But a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher is mostly a full-time job.

While it's a nice concept, I doubt Rep. Peterson will get very far. The nature of political argument is that you always use the statistic that seems to support your case. That might be one of the laws of politics.

Crab Antics in India

The NY Times has an interesting article on a man (an economist who's studied remittances by immigrants) who made it from a small village in India to the World Bank, and is returning to his home village (the native language has no script) for a visit. To quote:

Back in Sindhekela for the first time in three years, Mr. Ratha went from being a migration expert to mere migrant again, with the attendant tensions. He was annoyed that the money he sent his father for medical treatment went to a relative’s wedding. His father was annoyed that Mr. Ratha refused to honor his caste by wearing a sacred thread.

Father and son had long wrangled over the house that Mr. Ratha had built as a gift. The son is proud of the big master bedroom. His father finds its size off-putting and sleeps on a living room cot.

Mr. Ratha gave the village high school a new classroom, which he intended as a science hall. The state never sent the equipment, and the room houses some aging computers of uncertain utility.

Mr. Ratha, who named the building for his long-deceased mother, professes no donor’s remorse. “The building has served a great purpose,” he said.

He does worry that his generosity may have hurt his half-brother, Tarun, who spent the money on gadgets and a motorcycle and did not finish high school. At 23, he is unemployed and the family blames remittance dependency. “I think it has affected his drive in a negative way,” Mr. Ratha said.

At the same time, his sister Rina said that without his support she would not have earned her degrees or married an architect. “Whatever I am, I am because of him,” she said of Mr. Ratha.

The headmaster wanted another classroom. A neighbor needed medical care. Mr. Ratha needed no reminder that his 9-year-old’s tuition at a Washington private school, $26,000, would support 65 villagers for a year.

Still, he was surprised at the recent progress that Sindhekela had made. The road had been widened and partly paved. Three cellphone towers rose overhead, and the children all wore shoes. In a village once thick with beggars, he saw only one.

There were a variety of possible explanations, including an irrigation project that expanded local harvests. It was no surprise that Mr. Ratha emphasized another: India’s vast internal migration, which was luring villagers to distant cities and bringing rupees home.

You see the familiar discrepancy between what the locals want and what the rational outsider (i.e., bureaucrat) wants--as with the half-brother the locals often want immediate gratification.

The thing that struck me--the reactions to his remittances share features with those an anthropologist saw on a Caribbean island (wrote a book called "Crab Antics") and which have been reported in the inner city by Jason DeParle and others. That is, one's relatives, friends, and neighbors always have expectations of any success. It's like a tax and friends are more efficient collectors than the official tax collector. As such it may discourage initiative.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Is a Recession Good for Nutrition?

As I commented somewhere, maybe on Grist, because I see organic food as a niche market, a "positional good" (not really--I just looked up "positional good" on wikipedia), a marker of one's wisdom and general probity (though I don't know whether Gov. Spitzer ate organic and local) it's likely to be hurt in a recession. People have less money, focus more on the basics and less on the frills, so will be less likely to patronize Whole Foods and more likely to go to Safeway.

But on the other hand, I saw an item this morning saying that people had cut back on going to restaurants. If more people are cooking at home, maybe nutrition will go up?

One wonders.

Book Review--General

I've occasionally written about different books--Pollan, Kingsolver, Now I want to try something a little more formal--a book review tagged as such. By calling it a "review" I give more prominence to it in my mind, which is important, because things in my mind slip slide away.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Book Review--This Republic of Suffering

Just completed "This Republic of Suffering, Death and the American Civil War", the new and well-reviewed book by the new President of Harvard, Drew Gilpin Faust. Briefly, she writes of how Americans, both North and South, grappled with the issues raised by the half million dead soldiers of the war. The issues ranged from trying to have the "good death", where the dying person affirms the state of his soul in the lap of his family; the trauma of violating the commandment against killing; the ways in which the dead were, or were not, buried; the problems of identifying the dead with names; the burden on the bereaved of "realizing" the death, as well as dealing with the unknown fate of so many thousands; the meaning of the war, if any--the impacts on Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr, Ambrose Bierce, and Emily Dickinson; accounting for the casualties and eventually memorializing them.

I enjoyed the book, which fit well with my past reading and interests. Faust writes clearly and with a minimum of academic jargon. I noticed a little, but that may be due more to my age than to her use of academese. What struck me? her description of the good death and the idea that Swedenborg (Henry James Sr. was an adherent) had changed the way Americans thought of the afterlife. By 1860 it had become much more real and physical, with family and friends around--even the possibility of communication from the beyond. Resurrection of the body had become more important, which was challenged by the mutilations and disintegration of the war. The idea that military cemeteries were new--the fallen weren't buried in a family plot amongst their ancestors but in geometric military order with their fellow soldiers (but not their foes and not those of another race).

As a bureaucrat I was particularly struck when she noted the absence of bureaucracies (to count soldiers, give them dog tags, track their fate, bury their bodies, notify the next of kin, care for cemeteries). The war caused some bureaucracies to be created, simply as a result of the mass of casualties (think of Clara Barton, Sanitary Commission, etc.). Of course, the Civil War has long been regarded as the first "modern" war, and much of the book carries that theme to subjects which we don't normally consider.

What would I criticize? Nothing much. I do think she missed one long-term result of the war--she has the data but doesn't draw out the implications: The North had the advantage of the established military bureaucracy, such as it was, when the war began. The South could re-create it. So far, so good. But at the end of the war, the North's efforts to account for the Union dead, to bury them properly, and honor them worked through the military and expanded its bureaucracy, while in the south the same emotional impulses had to be undertaken by private organizations, mostly women's groups. I'd suggest the effect was partially to increase the North's comfort with government and bureaucracy, while the South had no such experience. (She does note the Skocpol book which saw the need to provide pensions for the veterans, widows, and orphans as a major spur to developing the American welfare state.) So while the North experienced the government as something that could perform, the South experienced it as irrelevant to their concerns and as unfair (using customs duties they paid to set up cemeteries for Union war dead). That helps to account for the long-term difference in attitudes towards government between the sections.

A Government Blog Someone Likes [Updated]

Patt Morrison writes in today's LA Times in praise of government bureaucrats and transparency:

I can hardly believe I'm about to hold up the TSA as a good example, but the Transportation Security Administration has a pretty fair version of just this service. In January, it started a If a blog can be a page-turner, this one is. There's a Facebook-like feature profiling TSA employees, and under a heading called -- believe it -- "Gripes and Grins," the rest of us can cut loose with "can you top this?" stories about airport security, like the one about the passenger who lost a kidney. The TSA screener wanted him to remove the surgical dressing over the foot-long incision, to get a look at the staples in his gut.

I love this blog. It's the cathartic comebacks you were afraid to make at the time. Even if no official ever reads it, it feels righteous just to praise the laudable and dump on the laggards, dullards and power-trippers.

It's disorderly and unscientific -- and scissors out the nastiest complaints; check the Delete-O-Meter feature. But every government agency should have a blog like this. Public service is customer service. If the waiter at Olive Garden can give you a customer comment card with the bill, why can't official America do the same? Why can't every DMV clerk you deal with, every employee at the Bureau of Public Works, every TSA inspector hand you a "how am I doing?" rating card with his or her name on it?

And government agencies had better get there first, before private websites do. Already there's, a month-old, private, L.A.-based website that lets citizens name names and badge numbers after law enforcement encounters.

Aftermath of Crackdown--Prince William County

The Washington Times has an article on the effects of Prince William County's crackdown on illegal immigrants--loss of residents, vacant dwellings, foreclosures, loss of business. Yesterday, I think it was, the Post had an article on how the local soccer leagues were bypassing the county, mainly because the players were afraid of being caught up in an arrest (a legal driver is stopped for cause, the officer might check the status of the riders). From what I can tell, the fear level seems higher than justified, but that's often true.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Is a Catfish a Vegetable?

The Washington Post has an article on an attempt (passed in the Senate) to have the USDA inspect catfish, like they do meat. There are a lot of catfish grown in the Mississippi Delta, but apparently imports are becoming a problem in the last couple years. So cynics think the inspection provision is just to put another hurdle in the way of imports. Non-cynics would look at the problems with heparin and contaminated corn gluten and say inspection is long overdue.

But House staffers tried to cover all fish, not just catfish, which seems to have been a case of overreaching, maybe fishing from a bridge too far. If the Post is right, a new farm bill, when passed, will not include an inspection provision.

The article triggered my memory, though. (Hopefully accurately--once again I'm too lazy to doublecheck my facts.) Back in the dark ages, maybe the mid 80's, cotton and rice were having their problems so producers in the Delta were looking for alternative crops. Rice fields in particular were candidates for conversion into crayfish and catfish ponds. And it seemed a propitious time to push these products. (Was it then that Rene Prudhomme was big with his Cajun cooking? Maybe so.) The problem was farm program rules--ASCS had this funny idea that land under water, if it wasn't growing rice, wasn't really "cropland". So a rice planter who wanted to switch a field to catfish pond would be reducing his cropland and likely giving up rice base (if the land was fully based--i.e., 1,000 acres of land = 1,000 acres of cropland = 1,000 acres of rice and cotton base).

So someone, probably Rep. Jamie Whitten, included a provision in the farm bill that ensured that the land retained its cropland status. And, unlike fruits and vegetables, producers could grow catfish on their base acres.

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Two Cultures?

A now mostly forgotten writer named C.P. Snow, Baron Snow to us plebes, made his name in 1959 for talking about "Two Cultures" by which, as a Brit, he meant the divide between literary types and scientists. These days we are more likely to think of red states and blue states.

Here, at the History network is a good piece reflecting on the differences between rural and urban cultures: A Historian Reflects on the Rural-Urban Divide and Election '08 By Daniel Herman
"...ruralites and urbanites have had no use for one another since at least the turn of the last century but they don't necessarily coalesce around timeless left-right oppositions. A hundred years ago, I pointed out to my wife, much of the heartland was not red but bright blue whereas much of urban America was not blue but bright red. One might go so far as to say that the modern Democratic Party that attracts so many urbanites was born in a manger, whereas the modern Republican Party that attracts so many ruralites was born in the caverns of Wall Street." It's interesting, particularly the cat who hides in the cavern.

I'm perhaps also struck because my grandfather worked the rural Presbyterian churches of the Dakotas and Nebraska, a process he alludes to.

The Return of Archy and Mehitabel?

I know I'm showing my age, but that's what I thought of when I read this post
from Ann Althouse, carrying on the cockroach viewpoint meme. See Wikipedia

Libertarians Surprise One.

From Volokh conspiracy

"And the poor and politically weak are the most important potential beneficiaries of libertarian public interest efforts in the fields of economic liberties and property rights, among others. The wealthy and powerful can usually defend their property rights and other economic interests in the political process and therefore have much less need for judicial protection."

Sunday, March 09, 2008

What the Internet Is Missing

It's missing ads. No, not electronic ads, but the print ads which will be indispensable for social historians of the future. I say this because yesterday the Post ran a full page ad which I'd like to link to, but I can't.

Instead I'll link to the website--LifeLock, which is an identity protection service.

The service itself, LifeLock, appears to be consolidating a number of things you can do for yourself, requesting free credit reports, taking your name off junk mailing lists, etc. You aren't paying for a magic formula, you're paying for convenience. Is it a good deal--damn if I know, might be, particularly for someone with paranoid tendencies who simultaneously is willing to trust someone to guard their identity.

But what it does have is a great gimmick--the founder puts his social security number in the ad. It's a great example of what used to be called "eating your own dogfood" (I think that was it--anyway the idea is, when you're developing an IT system, the big test of its usefulness is whether its developers use it themselves. Sort of like Congress--if they come up with a new health care system, do they scrap their own current system and switch to the new one.

Farmer's Hard Choices

What to plant? See this NYTimes article and the related slideshow.

Particularly note two things--the slide showing the farmer's messy desk (see-my messy desk is a result of being a farmer's son) and the sidebar graphics, particularly the one showing wheat prices adjusted for inflation--in the early 70's wheat hit $25 a bushel in today's prices.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

It's a Changing World--The Richest Are Indians

From the WSJ blog:

No, the biggest surprise is the rise of the Indian rich — four of the top eight billionaires in the world are from India. Topping the ranks is steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal, whose worth Forbes puts at $45 billion. Next up are the Ambani brothers, Mukesh and Anil, with $43 billion and $42 billion repsectively, largely from petrochemicals. Rounding out the list is KP Singh, the real-estate magnate, at $30 billion.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Global Warming Isn't All Bad

That's my thought, not the researchers. An academic says the longer growing season for corn over the past 30 years accounts for part of the yield increases.

More generally, there seems to be some controversy over the causes of corn yield increases--better farming, better seeds, more inputs, better weather. The yield curves should be a source of discomfort to some in the organic farming community who believe that industrial ag exhausts the soil. May do so, but it's been a while.

And back on global warming--some in the environmental community preach that it's disastrous. I'd disagree, in part. It's change that will be disastrous to many and helpful to some and disconcerting to all. If we were just worried about humans, I'd like to see increased efforts on mitigation of effects--planning now to relocate sea-level communities, etc. But since we have to worry about the whole world, we also need to worry about things like a carbon tax.

Gloom and Doom--the Obits and Lost Skills

On a gloomy Friday:

Q? how do you know you're getting old?

A When you spend more than a minute skimming the obits for your year in the college alumni magazine.

A When you can identify almost all the obsolete skills on this list (Thanks to Ari at The Edge of the American West.) (Debugging EBCDIC core dumps should be on there.) Wood burning kits!!--I remember when my sister got one. And yes, darning a sock is one.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Privacy or Public's Right To Know?

USDA faced that question back in the 1990's. A public interest group, Environmental Working Group, had requested records from ASCS (now FSA) on the people getting payment. We initially denied the request based on the Privacy Act of 1974. (I well remember when that was enacted, the Act required that before someone could be required to give information, you had to describe the legal basis for the requirement, the uses to be made of the info, and estimate the amount of time required. In brief, all the fine print you can see on IRS 1040's. It was a major pain to figure out how to get that stuff in all the forms the agency used.)

But, we eventually lost the case in the Appeals Court. Turned out our assumptions back in 1974 were wrong--data wasn't covered by the Privacy Act (except Social Security numbers and a bit of other data) so our IT shop had to figure out how to give the data to EWG in a usable form while leaving out the SSN's--they succeeded, and the rest is history, as you can see in the EWG farm database.

Now USDA has lost another appeal on other data. I'm not clear on the files covered, but might be the basic acreage data--the location and acreage of farms and fields and the yearly report of planted acreages.

It's nice to know how realistically the courts view agriculture:

"The appeals court noted that disclosure of crop information may compromise an individual's privacy interest since not all farms are owned by large corporations. However, in this instance, the court found that this was not a valid concern.

"We conclude that the public interest in disclosure of the Compliance file and GIS database outweighs the personal privacy interest...
It's not EWG asking this time, but Multi Ag Media LLC, which seems to own some magazines for dairymen. The decision is here.

Say It Ain't So--FSA Declines Since My Leaving

The county executive director in Logan County, CO describes the process of implementing a farm bill and says:
Producers may be interested to know that, on average, 64 days go by from the time the initial Farm Bill is passed by both the House and the Senate and receives presidential signature. Why is this important? Because from the date of presidential signature, it typically takes about six to eight months for FSA to be positioned to start making payments to producers.
I'm not sure of the source for the 64 days--some historian with nothing better to do looked at all the farm bills? I do know sometimes legislation could be passed and FSA would act faster than 6-8 months (although I might have to get in the weeds of terminology and definitions).

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Becoming Obsolete--Fruits and Vegetables

Dan Owens at Blog for Rural America has a discussion of the prohibition of planting fruits and vegetables on base acres. Marginal Revolution also has a post on the subject.

When I read the MR post I reacted--"this isn't right". Fortunately I did some checking before posting and found that the things I was challenging were indeed correct, or at least correct enough for purposes of discussing farm programs. (I don't think the bar's too high there.) I find I do that more these days; what knowledge I accumulated during my career is becoming obsolete.

I do remember when fruits and vegetables first came in, at least I think I do. It was the 1985 farm bill, which introduced the concept of "flex" acres, or 50/92--the idea that a farmer's payment acreage for a program crop could be planted to other than the program crop. We were working away on the implementation when the fruit and vegetable people started calling to ask what could be planted "other than the program crop"? We said, according to the way we read the law, anything. The next thing you knew there was a small little bill flying through Congress amending the 1985 act to exclude fruits and vegetables. From that little seed a mighty issue has grown.

Judging by the rhetoric around this issue, the only reason President George H.W. Bush didn't eat his broccoli is it was too high-priced--if we just had a few million more acres of carrots and broccoli prices would fall to the point that everyone would eat their 6 or 8 servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Pardon my skepticism, but while removing the prohibition might lower the price and expand the acreage a bit, I don't think it would mean a major change in the nation's diet.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Seek Your Fortune in Town

From ERS, via this article in the dailyyonder:
a high school graduate living in a rural county earns 13 percent less than a city dweller with a high school diploma.

A rural college graduate, however, earns 23 percent less than a college grad living in the city. And someone living in a rural county who has an advanced degree (law, medicine, doctorate) earns 25 percent less than a person with the same qualifications who lives in an urban county.

I suspect, with no basis at all, that this discrepancy also relates to the forces that have driven up the income of the top 20, 5 and 1 percentiles.

Bob and Dwight, Hillary and Barack

A sure sign I'm getting old(er)--reminiscing about the past:

There once was a feisty, stubborn President who had decided to engage in an unpopular war against a menace. The war lasted long, longer than it should and it had come to seem that the U.S. couldn't win it. The battle to replace the President featured a stalwart of the opposition party, a Senator who had been tried and tested in national politics for many years, who had proudly carried the party's banner through many political battles. The Senator was the favorite of the party machine, which had watched in disbelief as the party lost the prior election with a disappointing candidate. And the Senator represented a proud political heritage. Two years before the election the Senator was the odds-on favorite to win the nomination and the election.

Then there burst onto the scene a savior, someone with no great experience in party politics, no heritage except as a son of Kansas, someone who was favored by the media because he was so likable, so representative of the best of America, someone who could make us all proud of the opportunities provided by the country.

The two candidates battled tooth and nail through primaries. The Senator was acknowledged to be capable and smart, but no one could really warm up to the person. Not so with the savior, whom no one could dislike. The savior was attacked for insufficient detail in his proposals, for campaigning on likability rather than content. But the attacks availed not, the two went into the convention virtually tied. A battle over which delegates to seat settled the matter, and Dwight David Eisenhower defeated Robert Taft and went on to win the Presidency.

Monday, March 03, 2008

We're Becoming Invisible

When young, I enjoyed science writing (Asimov) and science fiction (Asimov and Heinlein). The Drake equation computes the probability that there are other civilizations in the universe. An article in yesterday's Times revisits the equation and concludes that it stands up well. But the kicker at the end is that we, i.e., Earth, as a civilization are becoming invisible.

But the trend might be in the opposite direction, if humans are any indication, he noted. Earth first became detectable in the 1950s, he said, when the planet was full of powerful television and radar transmitters beaming and leaking gigawatts of power into space.

“We assumed that was the way it was always going to be,” both for us and, by extension, for extraterrestrials, he said. But now the big transmitters are being phased out in favor of cable and satellites that leak hardly anything at all out to space. It’s very economical and it’s the wave of the future. Earth is gradually going radio quiet.

“That’s big change nobody anticipated,” he said. Once the big powerful transmitters go off the air, he said, “We will still exist but we will be hard to detect.”

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Reverting to the Permanent Law

Prior posts have been skeptical of the practicality of reverting to the 1949 and 1938 farm legislation. USDA has released an analysis of the overall situation, including these words:

for the 2008 crop of wheat, the 1938 Act still requires the Secretary to establish acreage allotments since these allotments are part of the price support program established for wheat under the 1949 Act. One of the critical factors which the 1938 Act requires the Secretary to take into account when establishing a farm's 2008 wheat allotment is whether or not the farm had an allotment in 1958. Acreage allotments for wheat have not been declared since 1971 and USDA does not possess acreage reports dating back to 1971. Accordingly, it is unclear how USDA could meaningfully translate these historical allotments, while taking into account other required provisions in the 1938 Act, into 2008-crop price support benefits.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

FSA In NYTimes

The Farm Service Agency made the op-ed pages of the Times today. Jack Hedin, a MN farmer, grew fruits and vegetables on land rented from a farmer. Only problem was, the provisions of the farm program prevent growing fruits and vegetables on cropland used to establish the acres for payment.

Mr. Hedin is reasonably clear and reasonably correct--voicing his outrage about the penalties for such growing and the idea that organized fruit and vegetable growers in CA, etc. could restrict his opportunities.

He fails to note the irony that supporters of community-supported agriculture (i.e., locavores) regularly criticize the farm program for not helping fruit and vegetable growers. This provision, which has been around for 20 odd years, does help them--but like most of the rest of the farm program provisions, it helps established farmers, slowing down changes.

It's an open issue whether Mr. Hedin's landowners shouldn't have known the problem--they did, after all, sign contracts that stated that provision. But likely they're old "widow-women", as we used to chauvinistically say, who left the legal stuff to their now deceased husbands and were just trying to help out an up and coming organic farmer.