Thursday, July 31, 2008

Salmonella Deaths

One thing I discovered in an attempt to follow up on this Down to Earth post is, the government doesn't seem to do a good job of tracking deaths due to food poisoning. This site has some interesting figures. I'm not quite sure what the difference between roughly 40 deaths per year reported and the 1000 deaths per year estimated tells us about the safety of the system.

I'd throw out this logic, which may be wrong. The stuff that gets reported to CDC is the widespread pattern of illness, which might result from salmonella somewhere in a big mover in the food chain; the stuff that doesn't get reported is salmonella from the smaller movers.

Looked at another way, if there's one thousand deaths in the food system and 40,000 deaths in the transportation system each year, and we eat more often than we drive, food is very, very safe.

Mayor Marion Barry Revisited

Marion Barry hasn't made national headlines in a long while, but he's still in politics as a member of the DC City Council for Ward 8, the hills of Anacostia. He makes the Post regularly, and each time he does I look eagerly to see if they're reporting that he's paid his back taxes yet. (No word so far.)

But, give the guy credit for something other than brass--he does change, according to this post on Marc Fisher's blog. He now welcomes development, marvels at the $450,000 homes, and supports charter schools. That's a far cry from the young organizer with schemes to make money and advance progress by having Pride (his group) put out garbage cans on street corners and then sell ads on them. I voted for that man for mayor, reluctantly and following the lead of the Post. Regretted it ever since. But he's not total con-man, I guess none of us is "total" anything.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Hiding the Lede? Food Advertising for Kids

Both the NY Times and Washington Post carried stories about an FTC study on the amount of money spent on food advertising directed towards children and teens. (Also see the Ethicurean article.) Both reported the figure: $1.6 billion in 2006. Both buried deeply in the story the fact that critics of the food industry had been using the figure of $10 billion (or higher) in their attacks on the industry.

Classifying such advertising has got to be difficult--mostly in the eye of the beholder, I would think. And what costs to include or exclude is also judgmental. (One expert suggested that excluding travel and promotion expenses accounted for some of the difference; that's a lot of first class airline seats.) So there is no true figure.

But still, estimates that vary not by 50 percent but by 500 percent? Give me a break. Perhaps the lede (I love the word and I think it's the first time I've ever used it) should have been more focused on the discrepancy in figures, and what it might imply for consumers of stories--take all estimates with more than your recommended daily allowance of salt.

Crop Volatility

From Farmgate's summary of a study of crop volatility:

Grain market volatility has increased over the past 20 years, no matter how you measure it. Such volatility also seems to be increasing at a greater rate, and that means the structure of agriculture will be impacted, specifically, the management of risk and the cost of commodity trading. Farmers bearing those burdens will eventually see processors and the consumer sharing in that additional cost.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Hot News on Eating from NYTimes

Actually, it's an AP story the Times carried:

"Food Makers Report Profits as Eating in Gains Favor

Kraft Foods, the nation’s largest food and beverage maker, reported growth in the second quarter Monday, as consumers abandoned restaurants for less costly meals at home."

I guess you don't "eat" at restaurants, you "dine".

Monday, July 28, 2008

Irish Agriculture

Here's an interesting article with a splattering of facts about Irish agriculture. It seems that it's heavily subsidized by the EU and mostly dairy and beef. Farmers may rely on the EU for half their income. Irish farmland is expensive, at 60,000 euros. When one converts euros into dollars and finds that's close to $100,000, one is astounded. When one wakes up to the fact that hectare is the unit of land measure, it means that an acre of Irish farmland only costs $40,000 or so.)

The article is keyed to the possible impacts of a big cut in subsidies coming out of the Doha round on trade barriers.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

On Aerial Safety and Food Safety

The Times has a review of airline safety today.

I think there's an interesting parallel between aviation safety and food safety.
Like the food industry, there's a broad variety in institutions: we have very big airlines operating very big planes, very small airlines operating very small planes, and individuals flying their own planes. Similarly, we have big companies operating big food processing plants, small companies operating small plants, and individuals processing food in their kitchens.

Now--safety. We know flying is safer than driving and we know flying today is safer than it was 50 years ago. See this. Now Wikipedia doesn't have comparable figures on food safety. However, for any reader of The Jungle it's likely the food safety statistics are similar to those of aviation. The reason: we are humans and humans learn. It may take a few airliner crashes, but we learn how to keep pilots from flying planes into the ground (most of the time). It may take some episodes of food poisoning, but we learn what preservatives to add to the food. Or we learn how to recall

Now, it's a truth not universally understood that big planes are safer than small planes, that American Airlines is safer (on deaths per million miles traveled) than Podunk Airlines, and much safer than Tom Bigshot flying his own Cessna. Might it be true that, on average, food from the large corporate plants is safer than from the smaller plants and even more safe than food from our kitchens? I think so, but without many things I can point to.

However, there is this story, where six members of a family were sickened by ingredients they put in their meal. And Down to Earth has an interesting discussion of safety of ground beef, comparing locally processed meat with that from national plants. I agree with the last sentence, because plants can learn, but we don't do that well.

The End of Food

The Times reviews the book, by Paul Roberts, in today's paper. The reviewer finds it to sound radical, but turn too moderate in recommended solutions. But, having giving the following praise, I'm not convinced of Mr. John Edge's good judgment:
Agribusiness and the industrial food it engenders have, of course, already attracted serious critics. Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation” exposed the ills of a lowest-common-denominator diet of burgers and fries. Michael Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma” traced among other things the perils of high-fructose corn syrup and grain-fed cattle. Both were works of literary journalism, well-reported and well-written meta-polemics that asked tough questions of both producers and consumers.
Constant readers know that I find Mr. Pollan to be a great writer but a less than great reporter.

I guess I'll have to read Mr. Roberts myself.

If Bureaucracies Secede, Can Countries Be Far Behind?

According to this article, Scotland will soon assume its rightful place among nations, if the answer to the title is "no". (Interesting to note, the Scottish bureaucracy is about the size of my old agency when I was young.)

Illegality of Immigrants

Story in the Times says that the illegal immigrants who worked at the kosher meatpacking plant in Iowa and who were arrested in a recent raid are spilling the beans on their employers--claiming extensive abuses. The bottom line is illegal immigrants aren't in a good position to protest ill treatment.

One of the insights of the Founders, as explained in the Federalist, and as expounded upon by the great Scotch-Irish Canadian, John Kenneth Galbraith, is the need to checks and balances, for countervailing power. That's absent with illegal immigrants.

As a knee-jerk bleeding heart liberal my heart is wrung by stories of the hardships of immigrants. And as someone who sometimes is swayed by the blandishments of free-market economists, I like to believe immigration is good for the nation and doesn't really exaggerate inequalities or hurt low-income workers. So I'm tempted to react--let them all in.

But, there's two lines of argument against an open-door policy which seem weighty: the danger of abuse of illegals, as exemplified in the Times story, and the unfairness to those who wait in line for legal entry.

That's why I'd prefer a policy of universal identification--everyone physically within the U.S. needs to be IDed and legalization by history. Once we have identification, then people who wish to work must agree for their history to be tracked: keep your nose clean and you can move up the ladder to citizenship; screw up and be sent back.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Local Farmers and Ups and Downs

The Post has an article on the problems of local truck farmers--last year was drought, this year not. This bit is significant:
Chef Loic Jaffres of Café des Artistes in Leonardtown relies on local products for his dishes, which requires coordinating with at least three farmers, cooking only seasonal dishes and being ready to change menus at the last minute. Last month, he had to order most of his produce from California and Florida because local farm produce was not ready or plentiful. Lately, Jaffres said, he has been able to rely more heavily on his local suppliers.
And this:

And the big vegetable harvests, the kind that help pay the tuition for the five Turner kids, will probably hit in mid-August, right when many of their high school workers return to school or their customers take last-minute vacations, Turner said. But she's hoping the delay won't cost the family too much in profits.

"I say to my husband, 'Why don't we just go to Atlantic City and gamble?'" Turner jokes. "Farming really is that kind of gamble."

Bubbles and Speculation

What's the difference?

I know some of the economists I follow say speculation has played no role in the rise of the price of oil. I can probably accept that. They've got good arguments, no increase in inventories, whatever. (Actually, the "whatever" is shorthand for saying I'm too old to spend my time analyzing these arguments: they sound good, so I'll buy them, at least tentatively.)

But then I remember the tech stock bubble and the housing bubble. It seems as if in each case people bought, thinking they could resell at a profit. And as long as the bubble lasted, they could. Isn't that the same thing we have with oil--the speculative money has rushed in sensing an opportunity for profit--i.e., buy now and sell for a profit later?

Maybe the point is that such activity is good and proper, as Megan McArdle might argue, it represents the market trying to deal with uncertainty. I just wish the invisible hand wouldn't shake so much as it tries to play chess with our lives.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Tracing Tomatoes

This AP story discusses the problems in tracing tomatoes from dirt to consumer. As I've said before, the desire for safe food doesn't observe the distinction between animal (National Animal Identification System or NAIS) and vegetable.. The further tomatoes advance, the more pressure on NAIS. Although there are those who fight tooth and nail against NAIS, IMHO they'd be better off to fight for graduated id--let the big producers be required to identify their animals, small producers not, unless they sell to a national distributor. It's a bureaucratic failing to apply the same rules to all, even when technology permits making finer distinctions.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

A Depressing Sentence for Agrarians

The Post has an article on "The New American Voter". In 1960 political scientists wrote "The American Voter", an exhaustive analysis of the knowledge and characteristics of the voters. Now the subject has been revisited, using the same methodology. (Short summary: Americans are as uninformed about political issues today as they were 48 years ago.)

But, as Libby Copeland writes: "(They had to eliminate the chapter on the agrarian vote, though, because there aren't enough farmers left anymore for a usable sample.)"

Creative Capitalism

John Quiggin at Crooked Timber links to, and argues against, Judge Posner's opposition to "creative capitalism". Posner says that corporate management has a fiduciary responsibility to shareholders to maximize profits.

Seems to me Posner lacks faith in the free market. I'm aware of few suits by stockholders against management for failing in their fiduciary responsibility. I'm reasonably sure such suits would be criticized by the right for reflecting a litigious society and relying on trial lawyers, the running dogs of the Democrats. The market solution is, obviously, sell the stock. So whether Bill Gates and Prof. Glaeser are right or wrong, the market will determine.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Slow Food Nation To Hold Party

Two days in a row--another front page story in the NYTimes, this time on the plans for Slow Food Nation to hold a party for 50,000 people in San Francisco at the end of summer. The idea is for them to break into the mainstream, even partnering with Whole Foods.

The article itself seems fairly even-handed, mixing criticisms of the movement as dilettantish lefty Euro-stuff and descriptions of its efforts. Read it yourself. (I did read the book and wasn't particularly impressed.)

(Personally, for some reason I am reminded of the people who promised to levitate the Pentagon back in 1969, I think it was.)

In a related story, the New Jersey Ramapo tomato is discussed. It's not organic nor heirloom, but it is local to New Yorkers so it's tasty.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Gardening Imperialism

On leaving our community garden plot this morning I saw the gardener who has the plot just inside the gate on the left, was now also handling the plot on the right.

Humans are interesting. The saying is that X only wants his land and the land next to it. That may have been true of American farmers through the years, as well as the U.S. in the 19th century and various dictators and tyrants throughout history. But it also seems to work on a smaller scale. I started with a "quarter-plot", supposedly 10' by 10' some 30 years ago. Gradually I've worked up to a full plot, a nominal 20' x 20' and a quarter plot. That's the limit within the rules. But a neighboring gardener has two full plots and a quarter--because the second plot is nominally in her neighbor's name, not hers. And now I know of a second instance (don't know for sure, but I think he got friendly with the original renters of the second plot, so I suspect his deal is similar--I'll do the work, spend the money, and maybe give you some surplus vegetables.

A persistent reader would see that I see my community garden as a microcosm of the larger agricultural world.

The Problems of Vertical Integration

One way farmers handle risk is by contracting. Poultry producers and seed corn farmers get contracts from the Tysons and Pioneers of the world, reducing their risk. The new phenomena is the Community-Supported Agriculture contract--consumers contract with the grower to take a share of what's produced in return for dollars up front. Truck farming, growing vegetables and fruit, often is less risky than crop farming. Because the dollars per acre are much higher and the number of acres is smaller, you can justify the cost of installing irrigation equipment.

But, as always in farming, there's risk. And this post in Gristmill outlines the effects of floods on a CSA operation. (Remember, a well-established operation may have built up enough loyalty and experience that this wouldn't be a disaster.)
Jan and Tim have had to ask their CSA members to make good on their willingness to share the risk inherent in farming. They suspended their CSA deliveries for one week so that they could focus on weeding and replanting the crops that were damaged. This is not a decision they made lightly; months of planning, numerous calculations, and multiple Excel spreadsheets go into making sure that they produce enough to supply all of their demand consistently throughout the season, without the help of extension agents. There is also the risk that first-time members, experiencing a total bust year right away, will opt-out next year and miss out on the boom years. Jan and Tim plan to compensate their members later on in the season for the current delay, but like the many Midwestern farmers, they expect the impact of the floods to be felt throughout the entire season.

Reality Always Trips Up IT

At the very end of a Politico article recounting the Census Bureau's problems with their IT contractor, comes this concrete example, which strikes me funny:
But others suggest that the real clash may be cultural, and Harris’ success in the defense field has been harder to repeat given the often unique demands of the Census.

For example, there are about 7 million blocks of addresses in the United States, of which about 2,400 have more than 700 addresses per block. This became a problem for the Census when handheld computers used in the address canvassing had trouble processing more than 750 addresses per block, one official said.

Harris said that its equipment can overcome any such hurdle in a “timely, secure and accurate manner.”

“They didn’t [work] in the dress rehearsal,” the official said. “Do we have to specify that it has to work in Manhattan?”
I guarantee some Census people understood the requirements, but they obviously didn't get communicated to Harris (the IT contractor). Another example of how hard it is to pass information across organizational boundaries.

Sign of Status--Locavore on Front Page of Times

I'm showing my age but for me the sign you've made it is when you're on the front page of the NYTimes, which is the case for locally grown food today. (Not personally grown food--those pillars of society who have to work 24/7 can now hire people to tend their backyard garden.)

The emphasis in the article is on the better taste of home-grown stuff, which is true enough, but there's a strong smell of fad hanging in the air around this particular branch of the local food moment.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Kudos to DOD

Someone in the military is actually using the Internet to get feedback. See this site, which allows medical people to comment on DOD's medical records software. Bob Brewin at Government Executive provided the link and commentary.

(Looking at the first few pages of comments, I remember similar problems with FSA. One thing that struck me was the idea that doctors should have "scribes" to document their interactions with patients. It seems that modern technology is undermining hierarchies of work. Where are the secretaries of yore? Which reminds me, the Post had an article on the Madmen TV series, set the in the 1960's Madison Avenue, which recalled the idea that women were limited to secretarial roles.)

Over Optimism

I can't resist a political note. When I saw the Liberal Bloggers Brace for Victory,I remembered 1976, when Ford seemed a goner in the summer and Carter just eked out a victory in the fall.

Ben Hur, or the Learning Curve

My better half is a fan of Ben Hur (particularly the galley scene with all its beefcake). There's a DVD set released containing a new and improved version of the film (I mean better and sharper color, with all the bits and pieces, a musical "Overture", and a DVD of special features, which we watched last night.

One feature was probably created especially for the DVD set, consisting of prominent current day filmmakers (George Luca, Ridley Scott, tech people who worked on Gladiator, Ray, etc.) commenting on aspects of the 1958 movie. In many cases they emphasized how innovative director William Wyler and his crew were, how they raised the standard for historical epics.

The next feature on the DVD focused on the history of the story, starting with the novel by Gen. Lew Wallace (perhaps with a plot stolen from The Count of Monte Cristo), then a stage play (the chariot race being done on a treadmill with up to 19 horses), an early movie of highlights, then a 1925 epic costing $4 million. They possibly only showed pieces of the 1925 flick that closely matched the 1958 version, but there were many of them.

My point? The people of today were mostly ignorant of the past history; Wyler stood on the shoulders of giants as the phrase goes. That's the way it is, the way history works, both in the movies and in the real life of you and me.

Truth Telling--How Do You Do It

Howard Kurtz has a long piece on David Carr, the NYTimes writer who published an excerpt from his new book in the NYTimes Magazine yesterday: This is the way he starts:

David Carr's latest subject is a pathetic human being, a thug, a manipulative jerk who uses people and puts his own kids in danger.

The New York Times media columnist is writing about himself.

I recommend both the Kurtz piece and the Carr article.

The issue is both, what limits, if any, do you place on telling the truth about yourself and, do you know the truth? Carr's answers are "none" and "no".

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Orin Kerr on the Exclusionary Rule

A blast from the past--Orin Kerr revisits the exclusionary rule (evidence illegally obtained is not admissible in court), based on one of the landmark cases of the Warren Court:
As a matter of history, I think that explains why we have an exclusionary rule: judges needed a way to enforce judge-created rules even when they were unpopular and didn't have buy-in from other branches. The exclusionary rule provided a way — and perhaps the only way — to do that.
Why does the post strike me--because it explains a uniquely American trait as a bureaucratic phenomena. Also, it recalls the very hot issues of the 1960's. And maybe explains why I disdain the efforts of the wingnut left to impeach Bush or whoever--I remember so well the calls to impeach Earl Warren from the right.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

On Being an Outsider

The Post tomorrow carries a piece by a Princeton grad, black and female, who is now a Post reporter, discussing her and perhaps Michelle Obama's experiences at Princeton (just stumbled across it).

It struck a cord--she found herself not in the in-group (i.e., the rich preppies) and therefore became more conscious of her blackness. I had a similar experience almost 50 years ago. Not that I was black, but I was a farm boy from upstate NY in a college whose tone was set by urban New York City dwellers. It made me more conscious of being an outsider. But since I wasn't a member of a recognized minority, I was pushed out, not into another group.

Miscellaneous Factoids

There are eleven Spanish-language radio stations in the DC area.

17 percent of the French own a second home. Dirk Beauregard

Blogger is available in Malay.

There are 1 million Hindus in the U.S. and women are now training as Hindu priests.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Two Silos--DOD and VA

Here's a very good story on the problems in passing injured military from DOD to VA--it's a classic two silos story. Two bureaucracies, each with their own focus, their own laws, and their own history, meaning the individual can get screwed. Or at least, understanding the background for neither, the individual definitely feels screwed by faceless bureaucrats.

What a Weak Dollar Does

Help agricultural exports increase, almost doubling in two years. See this ERS pub.

The Economics of Diversity

Freakonomics points the way to an interesting post on the economics of acting, particularly the day players (having one or two scenes in a TV episode sort of thing). Because it's harder and more costly to get actors with more unique qualities, the tendency is to go with more generic characters, which makes it harder for unique actors to get jobs, which drives them out of the business, which makes it more costly to get such actors. It's your classic vicious circle.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Pick on Economists Day

I gently mocked Brad DeLong earlier, now I repeat some lines from Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution, in a post about how much to save for retirement:
"Sure," I said, "don't forget one of us will probably die before the other and I'm not saving for your future husband." "Why," she replied with a sigh, "can't economists be more human?"

Brad DeLong Is Surprised

Surprised to find that highly educated, sophisticated people are idiots:
The unwinding of the real estate bubble in 2007-2009 is so far not going well. There is, by contrast, more financial distress than I believed possible. Who thought that quantitatively sophisticated hedge funds would have enormous unhedged exposure to subprime risk? Who would have thought that highly-leveraged investment banks with an originat-and-sell business model would keep lots of the securities they had originated in their own portfolios--and kept them because they were high yield for their rating, i.e., because the market did not believe they were as low risk as the investment banks had bamboozled the ratings agencies into claiming? Who would have thought that those buying subprime mortgage securities from the likes of Countrywide had done no investigation into how Countrywide was screening out borrowers?
Sometimes economists overestimate the rationality of people. Sometimes I understate my conclusions.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

B.F.Skinner, Walden II, Twin Oaks?

Talk about a blast from the past, this obituary of one of the pioneers of the Twin Oaks commune, based on the preachings of B.F.Skinner, the once-famous behavioral psychologist, in Walden II evoked all sorts of memories.

Unfortunately, a bit of Schadenfreude (sp?), based on this quote, and my comfortable belief that the hippy style of life was short-sighted, which meant my own life choices were superior:

"Although she was involved in founding two other income-sharing communities -- in Missouri and Virginia -- she told The Post in 1998 that communal life had not measured up to her expectations.

"My mother was disappointed that Twin Oaks did not turn out to be the model for what the rest of our society would be," said her daughter, Dr. Josie Kinkade of Louisa, Va. "When she found out that it was really just a nice place for some middle-class people to live, she was disappointed."

And You Think FSA Has Problems?

Over the past years FSA (Farm Service Agency for newcomers) has made news for having computer problems, for not having the capacity to implement the new ACRE program, for paying the estates of dead people for too long, etc. (Their good work goes unreported, as is normal.)

The British counterpart of FSA has its own problems, as these excerpts from a UK Computerworld article show:

The government agency overpaid subsidies under the Single Payment Scheme by £37 million in 2005 to 2006, and some 20,000 farmers were paid incorrectly, according to the ‘progress update’ report by the Committee of Public Accounts.

A third of claims this year, or 34,499 claims, could still be affected unless farmer entitlements were properly checked, it said.

The agency also overspent by £50 million on a business change project that was intended to meet the new payments scheme, taking total project costs to near £300 million.

“The agency’s service to farmers is still undermined by weaknesses in its IT systems, such as its inability to provide farmers with a predicted amount and payment date to assist them with their financial planning,” the report said.

It is spending £750 to process each farmer’s claim for a subsidy payment, and greater automation of small claims processing as well as better use of electronic payments was “essential” in reducing these costs, the report said.

Its IT system was “rigid and task based”, and was “unsuited” to the agency’s needs, the committee said. The Accenture contract was renegotiated so that from September 2007 to 2009, Accenture will receive a managed service fee of £14 million in total, and risk will be better spread.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

How To Fight the War on Terror: Attn: Obama

Orin Kerr at offers a suggestion:
Finally, I hope the Bush Administration will think creatively about how the Al Marri opinions handed down today could be used to bring the war on terror to a quick and victorious end. In particular, the opinions could substitute for waterboarding. Instead of waterboarding the bad guys, the government should force Al Qaeda detainees to go through all 216 pages of the different decisions in one sitting. I would think that even the hardest of Al Qaeda terrorists will break down and confess before making it through, saving many American lives.

Transgenic Foods and Offshore Drilling

I think there's a parallel between offshore drilling and transgenic food crops. Both are things many people,, particularly among the liberals of the world, would rather not do/have. But resistance to both is being undermined, and possibly is crumbling, as the prices of oil and food rise.

Here's a bit in Agweb on the improved outlook for transgenic wheat.

John Phipps on Poland

He traveled to Poland and blogs on what he learned.

Higher Meat Prices in the Future?

That's the message I took away from a John Phipps post, as he quoted from a Purdue professor:
So when does the boom in pork and hog prices come? Based on projections of U.S. slaughter supplies, prices will improve very late this fall and winter and go wildly higher by next spring and summer. When one adds the trade boom, this advances the price escalation. Trade data lags about two months so we are always slow to see those impacts. Trade will likely continue to accelerate and this will encourage even stronger prices than the supply reductions expected for late this year and 2009.

The movement upward has begun for cattle, where prices have been up nearly $10 per hundredweight in the last three weeks. Given the coming declines in pork supply and the more than vigorous export growth, hog prices should not be far behind. If U.S. consumers don’t want to buy up the last of the cheap pork, the world is anxious for the opportunity.
John is skeptical--livestock producers are currently taking it in the neck, apparently.

Monday, July 14, 2008

My Next Door Neighbors

I blogged about the sales history of the townhouse next door a while back in the context of immigrants pushing up the price of housing until the bubble burst, partially inevitably and partially due to Rep. Tancredo. Prices went up and up, then down. According to the Fairfax County real estate site, my neighbor had bought it for $369,000 in 2006, Wells Fargo took it for $265,000 and sold it to a guy in DC for $187,000 two months ago. !!!

The Definition of Poverty

An article in the NY Times on a proposed new definition of "poverty" in NYC:

The nation’s poverty measure was developed in the 1960s and was based on a 1955 study that showed that poor Americans spent roughly a third of their after-tax income on food. Ever since then, the country’s poverty levels have been gauged by tripling the annual cost of groceries.

That model, while updated for inflation, has been criticized for being out of date, inaccurate and not taking into account how expenses like housing vary nationwide. According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, families nowadays spend one-eighth of their income on food, with more money going to transportation, child care and housing. Nor does the federal model measure the financial impact of government assistance programs.

I'm not sure whether this implies the cost of food has dropped so much, or that we're spending more on big cars, big houses, and big operations. I'm also cynic enough, and conservative enough, to point out that "poverty" is relative. When LBJ launched the "war on poverty", it was won.

Megan and the Drivers

Megan McArdle has a controversy going over people who ride bicycles in the city and exactly how much they should obey traffic laws. A bit amusing, as I remember the "law and order" folks back 40 years ago and [unfairly] attribute their views to modern-day libertarians and conservatives.

On a more serious note, the problem with speeding in cars and jaywalking as a pedestrian and exploiting the confusion surrounding the definition of a bicyclist is it's the liberal fallacy, or maybe the rationalist fallacy: the person believes their intellect and grasp of the situation is right and infallible, not allowing for Murphy's Law. (Of course I speed and jaywalk, even though I'm a bureaucrat I'm also human. I'm just saying, particularly for an older person, life has many surprises.)


How come "estate" has two meanings, very opposite in meaning? In the U.S. it means a big old place, or a big old pile of money. In Britain it seems to mean a bunch of poor people in one place, what we might call a [low income] housing project.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

On Home-Grown Tomatoes, or the Virtues of Middlemen

I mentioned yesterday our first tomatoes have ripened. Yes, they're tasty, much more so than the store's tomatoes. But, some thoughts:
  • One of the problems of growing a garden is feast and famine, you have too many or too few. The first few tomatoes of the year are enjoyable, but we always plant more than we really need, so they can become a burden. (The same goes for zucchini, though more so, at least until the squash beetle lays its eggs.) Or, as my gardening neighbor, a lady from Vietnam was complaining, the chipmunks ate all her beets.
  • Because we like regular habits, one way to even out the highs and lows is to draw from multiple sources and multiple areas. (Our peas are long gone, while my cousin in MA just started harvesting hers around the Fourth.) But to do so, requires some overhead--negotiations with farmers, etc. And I don't like to negotiate, nor am I good at it. So leave that stuff for the stores, and accept the idea of less tasty tomatoes as a trade-off.
  • I read, probably in the Times or Post, someone whose experience with community-supported-agriculture fits the above. She commented on getting a lot of kale, when kale was in season, with the comment phrased to say, I really got more than I really wanted. Then her CSA went out of business, and she was too lazy or too busy to link up with another.
Middlemen, like Arthur Miller's salesman, deserve a bit more respect than they get.

Habits Are 45 Percent of Life? Incredible

That's the factoid buried in a NYTimes story on the importance of habits in everyday life, and how big companies manage to instill new habits in the American consumer. The thrust, though, is the importance of developing new habits in developing countries, such as the habit of washing one's hands after using the toilet. (I'm disappointed there was no comparison of the relative difficulties of teaching this habit in Ghana, versus in hospitals to doctors.) The discussion of the manipulation is disturbing, but the need for positive habits is unquestionable, which makes the story very interesting.

I find the factoid incredible, because about 95 percent of my life is habit.

A Good Book

Nicholas Kristof highlights the Greg Mortenson book in today's Times. I should have blogged about it when I read it, if I didn't. Mortenson turned a failure at mountain climbing into a success at building schools in the mountains of Pakistan/Afghanistan. Inspiring and down to earth. The book runs the danger of being saccharine, but it's not.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Corn Growers Fight Back on Ethanol

Amidst the tides of public opinion, which wash back and forth over the landscape, why do the Iowa corn growers remind me of King Canute? According to Brownfield, they've upped their assessment in order to fight for corn-based ethanol.

First Tomatoes

Okay, with that title you expect a paean to the pleasures of eating the first-home grown tomatoes of the year. Consider it done.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Farm Workers, from ERS

A summary paragraph from the new ERS publication on farmworkers:

What Did the Study Find?
• In 2006, an average 1.01 million hired farmworkers made up a third of the estimated 3 million people employed in agriculture. The other 2.05 million included self-employed farmers and their unpaid family members.
• Productivity gains have gradually reduced the total agricultural labor force and the number of hired farmworkers within it.
• Expanding nonfarm economic opportunities for farmers and their family members have increased farmers’ reliance on hired farm labor.
• Despite new patterns of Hispanic population settlement in rural areas, the geographic distribution of farmworkers has not changed significantly in the past decade. California, Florida, Texas, Washington, Oregon, and North Carolina account for half of all hired and contracted farmworkers.
• Hired farmworkers are disadvantaged in the labor market relative to most other U.S. wage and salary workers. On average, hired farmworkers are younger, less educated, more likely to be foreign-born, less likely to speak English, and less likely to be U.S. citizens or to have a legally authorized work permit.
• According to the National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS), which offers the most precise data available on farmworker legal status, half of all hired crop farmworkers lack legal authorization to work in the United States.

Bio Fuels

On the one hand, USDA is being pressured to release the Conservation Reserve Program acreage for growing annual crops, on another there's pressure to roll back the ethanol mandates/subsidy, and on a third there's discussion of converting to cellulosic ethanol. But, as this Slate article says, there's tradeoffs. Every acre of land on the face of the earth has a current use. If you want to change the use, you trade off one thing for another: it may be food for fuel, it may be greenhouse gases versus carbon traps, it may be wilderness versus cultivation, but there's always trade offs.

FSA's Mood

The head of the Iowa FSA office says FSA is under pressure, because Iowa farmers are under extreme pressure. (I remember the PIK days of 1983 when farmers were going bust because the bubble of the 70's had burst and ASCS was trying to run a new program as a bailout measure.)

Thursday, July 10, 2008

NAIS and Veggies

From a Post editorial in reference to the salmonella problem:
"Ms. DeGette points out that the technology exists to trace food and produce from the farm to the dinner table. It's time that Congress put that technology to work to protect the food supply."
In that context, it's hard for those who oppose the NAIS to gain traction.

As a followup, Nextstep cautions Congress on trying to mandate technological fixes.

More on ACRE

The ACRE program really makes me shudder, and this from farmgate doesn't help. Why? Because FSA had, and I think still has, a general "misaction/misinformation" provision. The idea being if a bureaucrat tells you something wrong and you act on it, or if the bureaucrat does something wrong which harms you, FSA should make you whole.

From a philosophical standpoint, it's interesting. (There's a certain parallel to the FISA debate going on--the bill that just passed the Senate which Obama and Clinton differed on holds the telecoms harmless/gives them immunity from suits for past acts taken in accord with instructions from the executive. To my mind it's much the same philosophy as misaction/misinformation.) Looked at one way, shouldn't the government expect its citizens to be knowledgeable and to look after their own interests? If so, if a bureaucrat misinforms you, why shouldn't we expect you to know better? To be pejorative, should the government be encouraging its citizens to rely on it? (Conservatives/libertarians can do a great riff on this.)

The political reality is that we have the misaction/misinformation law--write your Congressperson with a grievance and one of the first questions the FSA person who handles the correspondence is going to ask is, was there misaction or misinformation? And, in my experience, the agency will often lean towards saying "yes". If the farmer goes out the door confused, it was the FSA person who confused him. (All farmers are smart, just as all children are above average.)

So, under a brand-new program like ACRE we're particularly likely to have confusion both within FSA and in the agricultural community. We're also particularly likely to see people regretting their choice after a year or two and that's when the claim of "you misinformed me" is likely to be made.

Who Says Bureaucrats Don't Listen

The Director of the Congressional Budget Office listens to David Brooks, and has poetry in his soul, or at least footnote 47 of his testimony.

I Was Wrong, Perhaps [Updated]

I've commented at both Marginal Revolution and John Phipps on posts reporting the existence of a World Bank report that blames biofuel initiatives in Europe and US for 75 percent of a 140 percent increase in food costs over the last 6 years. My comments boil down to: not credible as reported

But the devil's in the details. And people fall into traps of snap judgments. So I might well be wrong for the following reasons:
  • the definition of "food". It can mean the costs to the consumer of articles in the supermarket in the U.S. Or it could mean the prices of basic commodities: rice, wheat, corn, etc. averaged over 6.7 billion people. The impact using the first definition is much less than the second, and there could obviously be variations and permutations of the definition.
  • the definition of cause--which straw broke the camel's back? If you start with 2002 and look at all the changes in production and demand since, there are many things which impact price.
I need to remember the basic economics of agriculture, demand is inelastic and supply is inelastic--changes in supply can cause big changes in price. But so can changes in demand. So a change like biofuels which is new can cause big price hikes. And a new demand is going to seem more significant than a change in old parameters, like the levels of imports by India and China.

Having said all the above, and knowing we still haven't seen the actual study, I still expect the World Bank study to end up at one extreme of the argument, but I can't dismiss it as cavalierly as I did before.

[Update: See here for an update. Via Farm]

True Sentence

"If members of Congress could get away with never voting on anything, they'd probably do it."

Kevin Drum, on a new War Powers Act

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Coral, Algae, and Culture

The NY Times had an interesting article on coral and algae that hits the slow food and cultural markers as well. Carrageenan comes from algae and is used in industrial food (i.e., ice cream). But the algae that were brought into Pacific areas to be farmed are now endangering the coral reefs. And solving the problem is hard:
"Then there are cultural factors. Some Pacific countries, like Kiribati, are populated by what ethnologists call nonconsumers: people who need just a little cash to get by and once that need is met, prefer to spend time with their family, go fishing or sleep.[instead of gathering algae]

There is also “pubusi,” (pronounced poo-boo-SEE) the local tradition in which one person can ask another for pretty much anything, using the magic word, and the other person has to hand it over or face public opprobrium.

“What’s the point of making money if you have to pubusi it all away?” says Kevin Rouatu, a stocky, cheerful former banker who runs the Atoll Seaweed Company in Kiribati."

The conflict between market and non-market thinking/culture exists not only in Amish communities in the U.S. but in Kiribati.

Foolish Optimism from Michael Gerson

Who says in today's column in the Post that:
"Chevrolet and Toyota are only a couple of years away from offering plug-in hybrids that could average hundreds of miles to the gallon. [enphasis added]"

The column segues from fuel economy to hunger to insufficient food stamp funds.

I Never Rode a Bike, But Like the Tour de France

And this feature of Google Maps (offering a bike-level view of the Tour), via the Monkey Cage, is cool.

EU Fights Fat by Free Food

The EU is proposing to provide free fruits and vegetables to kids 6-10 to fight obesity.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

A Different School System

Dirk Beauregard on the French system, now 200 years old:

"For better or worse, the Baccalauréat works, and is still a reasonable indicator of educational excellence, furthermore the Baccalauréat is national and nationalised. Candidates sit the same papers in the same subject at the same time all over France. There are no private exam boards. State education mobilises thousands of teachers to get everything marked within ten days, and all candidates get their results in the first week of July. There is no single Baccalauréat that is easier than another. There is no exam board reputed to be more difficult or better than another. It is true educational equality, and it works. Why reform it, other than the fact it is 200 years old and therefore has to be modernised in the name of fashionable progress.

So, all the candidates, for better or worse, have their results, and this week they are signing on at university. Come Friday, everything will be sorted for the start of the new university year, and France can go on holiday. Kids in Britain will get their results in late August and spend the rest of their summer trying to get a place at university. Seems a bit late to me."

For someone with no children, it's probably easy for me to overestimate the fragmentation (that may not be the right word) of the US education system. I know we have the SAT's and I assume the National Merit exams and the application process to college is being standardized and No Child Left Behind has forced some uniformity. But I'm still amazed at the difference between our system and the Europeans.

Best SEntence Today

"Sex and food — that's what NYT readers care about the most."

(From a discussion of the long article on Rush Limbaugh in the Sunday magazine and NYT's readers reaction.)

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Most Surprising Factoid of the Day--Africans

"African immigrants in the United States have a higher level of education than all other groups, including white and Asian Americans, staying in school an average of 14.5 years. They have a median household income that is higher than that of black Americans, West Indians and Hispanics."

That's from a piece on their support for Obama in today's Post.

[Update: I suppose there are a number of possible explanations for this: Opportunities in the African countries sending emigrants could be particularly limited for the most educated. The cost of emigrating might be such as to screen out the less educated. Relatively speaking, the US is more attractive to the most highly educated Africans than are other countries which attract immigrants--i.e., Canada for example might attract more than its share of Asians and less than its share of Africans.

We don't know whether they come here into more highly paid slots or, once here, rise more quickly so it's not clear what the data might say about the opportunities to prosper here.

We don't have a feel for the proportions of Africans migrating, do more or less migrate compared to Southeast Asians, for example.

Bottom line: facts are tricky.]

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Only Animal Farmers Are Real Farmers

That's a bold claim, sure to tick off all the grain and fiber producers, but read this post from the Life of a Farm blog and you may understand. As he says: " Thing is the chickens don’t take days off."

(He's under contract to raise layers and finding it more work and more tedious than he anticipated. He also complains about the lack of help, neighbors who cheat SSI, and the possible need for immigrant labor.)

As I say, a dairy or poultry farmer is the only real farmer, because animals will drive you to drink. You may work 18 hours a day planting or harvesting grain, but it's not every day. You can get away. Caring for dairy cows or poultry is a job 365 days in a year, with no breaks, no vacation, always chained to the schedule of feeding and watering, milking and collecting eggs. If any farmer writes about traveling or camping, be assured they're either not a real farmer by my lights or they have some gullible relatives.

Two Southern Products I Couldn't Stomach

Grits and Jesse Helms. I ran into both of them at the same. When my boss sent me to NC in 1969 to learn how the agency really worked, I ate breakfast (and probably supper) at a diner near the motel. Of course I got grits with my eggs, without asking, and the Raleigh TV station had Mr. Helms spouting off about dangers to the American way of life from the radicals in Washington and those who would change the southern way of life. Needless to say, I rejected both: tasteless pap for those with no brains. (Although, to be fair, grits and the "Cream of Wheat" I sometimes had as hot cereal growing up weren't that much different. )

Friday, July 04, 2008

Thoughts on the Fourth

I read somewhere the difference between conservatives and liberals is:
  • conservatives believe the U.S. was perfect when created, and the job is to preserve it. That, as Powerline posts today, in the words of Calvin Coolidge, the principles of the Declaration of Independence are perfect and final. Period, end discussion.
  • liberals believe the U.S. was imperfect and the job is to perfect it. "All men are created equal" may be a noble principle, but it meant "white men" in 1776.
I'm on the liberal side. So was Lincoln, whom Powerline also quotes, though he made his point through clever lawyering. "Government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish..." did liberal work in conservative clothing. In the midst of a war redefining "men" as men of any color Lincoln made it seem as if war was preserving the meaning of the Declaration.

The Best Line I Read Today

"“It seems like age and experience do have a role,” Mr. Nagel said in an interview.

From Floyd Norris in the NYTimes reporting a study of whether experienced fund managers did better or worse during the tech bubble.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Big Farming--The Way It Starts

Josh Ruxin writes an op-ed in the Post about Africa's Food Crisis Opportunity--the idea that the food crisis in Africa still presents opportunities for change:
"But subsistence-level farmers who are not reliant on expensive fertilizer or oil-fueled machinery can sell their excess produce at higher prices, which are still less than prices for food that might be trucked or flown in. The resulting boomlet benefits sub-Saharan Africa's small farmers, who cultivate, on average, less than 2 1/2 acres and who can, with appropriate assistance, expand their production to meet increasing demand....

A colleague from Nigeria wrote to me this spring saying that while the cost of fertilizer had increased by 50 percent, the selling price of corn was up by 100 percent. In other words, those productive small farmers who had had access to the increased capital required to obtain fertilizer had doubled their income in a year. "
And this is, in my opinion, how it starts. Someone doubles their income and invests wisely, maybe more land, more fertilizer, better seeds, better equipment. Doesn't go deeply into debt so when prices slump, as they always do, he or she can ride out the storm, pick up some land and be ready to profit by the next rise in prices. Slowly the operation gets bigger, until the farmer makes a mistake, has bad luck, or grows older and less ambitious. As it gets bigger, it tends to specialize. Gradually the farmers get on the "treadmill", as Professor Cochrane called it, the feedback loop of more productivity leading to lower commodity prices and higher land prices, leading to more specialization and more investment, meaning more productivity.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Compost and Manure

You can have one or the other, but not both, not in abundance. That seems to be the lesson I learned in the past, of which I've been reminded by a couple of the organic/gardening blogs I visit. We had a "slop" pail, into which went the vegetable scraps, beet tops, sour milk, etc. After lunch we'd top the pail up with some water and use it to wet down the chicken mash still left in the feeders. The hens would be attracted, both by the wet mash and by the slop, eat a bit more and presumably lay a few more eggs. And also excrete more manure, which dad and I would have to shovel from the house into the manure spreader to spread on the field. (Hen manure is much hotter than cow manure, so it had to be spread much thinner.)

My mother maintained a compost pile outside, under the lilac bush or in her garden, but with the competition from the hens it didn't really accumulate much. (Enough for her to brag about it though--compost in 1950 was just a tad rare in upstate NY.)

As I mentioned, a couple of the sites I visited mentioned the same sort of competition--you can feed vegetable scraps to the pigs, which are omnivores like us, or you can compost, but not both in full measure. (You also need a balance of materials for the compost, which is hard to achieve in ideal measure over the course of the year.) These are some of the little complications of organic gardening.


Government Executive reports on a growing movement for transparency in government, particularly in the field of government expenditures. As I commented there, I like it, mostly. EWG has done it to farmers for 12 years and they've mostly survived the experience.

Have I mentioned David Brin's Transparent Society recently? I like it.

I'd extend the idea to many areas. For example, Down to Earth has a post about McNuggets--how McDonald's has some housewives looking at their processes. Why shouldn't McDonalds stick video cameras hooked to the Internet in the places they want us to see, and the places we want to see (as mentioned in the post). Granted, very few people would ever want to watch 50,000 birds eating and sleeping, but PETA might check now and again.

If people can use cameras to watch pregnant cows and babysitters and somewhat senile oldsters, we can use them elsewhere.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Bottled Water; or Michael Pollan Might Be Right

I typically respond negatively to those, like Michael Pollan, who say that food manufacturers have stuffed Americans with high sugar drinks. Don't they realize Americans are independent thinkers not to be led around by the nose?

But then I read a story on bottled water, like the one by Shenkar Vedantam in Monday's Post, "What's Colorless and Tasteless And Smells Like . . . Money?" and I think, maybe they have a point; maybe cola companies do have the power to stuff us with sugar water and make us pay for it.

Giving Hypocrisy a Bad Name

John Tierney at the Times has a post on hypocrisy, taking off from McCain and Obama's reversals of positions to discuss psychologists' studies of hypocrisy. He describes an interesting tidbit--given a situation in which people are hypocrites (although acknowledging option B is fair and A is unfair, they take option A), if you keep their brain busy with another task like remembering numbers, the same people suddenly take the fair option. It's fascinating, but...

I like to think well of people, at least until I run into some road-hogging whippersnapper in a Hummer, so I'd quibble with Tierney's premise. He dings McCain for switching positions on Bush's tax cuts over a period of 7 years or so, and Obama for switching on public financing. But note both politicians are being hypocrites, if they are, over time. And we're all hypocrites over time. Is there a parent with soul so dead, who never to his kid has said, don't ever do X, when buried in his memory is all the X ever done? Forgive the poor try at poetry, but my serious point is that time changes our viewpoint. And our politicians, unlike the subjects of the psychologists studies, are making decisions in time.

  • McCain can reasonably say: I opposed the tax cut in the situation in 2001 based on the information I had, in 2008 the situation is different, the future looks different, and my judgment differs.
  • And Obama can reasonably say (perhaps with a tad more difficulty but remember I'm a Dem): no one, not even me or my wife, thought I'd be in the situation I'm in today; no one thought I'd have this fundraising base. I made my pledge as a means to an end, reforming our politics. My campaign has been a model for how our politics can change (no lobbyists, no 527's) and this decision is the right one to ensure my success in achieving office.
I think it's fair to accuse politicians of being windbags, of over-certitude, of selling a penny's worth of ointment as a dollar's worth of cure. And they're hypocrites, just as the rest of us are, even Mr. Tierney.