Saturday, January 31, 2009

Our Missing History

Read Fred Kaplan on the chasms in our federal archives. The one problem with his piece is he's citing a National Archives study from 2005, not 2008. So when it says the National Archives can't accept Powerpoint, it's probably obsolete information. But still scary (since Condi Rice was denied access to Rumsfeld's Powerpoint presentation pre-Iraq war, showing how key such things are).

One's Belief in Reason Suffers

From a Consumer Reports piece [subscription probably required--emphasis added] on finances:
Retirement-planning strategies encourage investors to diversify beyond safe vehicles such as bonds and CDs. Our respondents who had planned were less conservative, in general, than those who hadn't. Before the meltdown, that approach benefited them, according to our 2007 survey. But it proved punishing during the unusually severe market downturn of recent months. So pre-retirees who had done more planning reported worse losses, on average, than those who hadn't planned.

Those Bureaucratic Rules Snag TARP Oversight

Armit Paley in the Post reports that an instrument of good government reformer-types, the Paperwork Reduction Act, is slowing efforts to oversee the use of the TARP (Troubled Assets Relief Program) money. The good Senator Grassley attacks OMB for its "red tape".

(I'm assuming the reference is to the requirement that OMB approve all requests for data from 10 or more members of the public--that's the "OMB number" in the upper right corner of most forms the public will see. Usually takes a while for OMB to approve an agency's proposed request, because people like the good Senator Grassley attack bureaucrats who want needlessly to bother good hard working citizens with silly requests for information.)

Friday, January 30, 2009

New Trees for Old?

The NYTimes has an article on the spread of "rain forests". Yes, I wrote spread. It seems the phenomena of abandoned farms/plantations reverting to the "wild" isn't limited to the Northeast. (I've some nice photos which show a big change in the landscape where I grew up over 80 years or so--but that's a project for another day.)

I've put the quotes in because there seems to be controversy among the scientists over whether the reforested land is of much ecological or environmental value. The article is also unclear, as here: "In Panama by the 1990s, the last decade for which data is available, the rain forest is being destroyed at a rate of 1.3 percent each year. The area of secondary forest is increasing by more than 4 percent yearly, Dr. Wright estimates." No way to know whether the percentages are off the same base--the way the sentence is worded one would assume not, but then the point of it is lost.

The earlier part of the same paragraph:
"About 38 million acres of original rain forest are being cut down every year, but in 2005, according to the most recent “State of the World’s Forests Report” by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, there were an estimated 2.1 billion acres of potential replacement forest growing in the tropics — an area almost as large as the United States. The new forest included secondary forest on former farmland and so-called degraded forest, land that has been partly logged or destroyed by natural disasters like fires and then left to nature."
The point is, the world is more complex than the protagonists on any side usually admit. As a bonus, here's chapter 2 of a book which tries to display visually how U.S. agriculture has changed, with the prime farming areas moving West. (The upstate NY area from Albany to Buffalo has dramatically changed in this regard.) The focus of the chapter is more on prime farmland shifting to urban uses, but what was prime in 1820 is now forest.

Blogging Secretaries

The TSA (Transportation Security Admin) has a blog, and they just referenced their Secretary's blog. I'm not terribly impressed by the content, but it's a step. Presumably she has some staffer who really does the writing, said staffer also being the one who will see the comments about E-Verify (checking ID's of new employees to scare off illegal immigrants).

Maybe Secretary Vilsack and the new head of FSA, whoever she is, will do their own blogs?

One Obama Promise Broken

Nextgov's post says "Unfulfilled", but in my mind, broken is broken. (Not that he can't fix it later.)

I think it's a lesson for good government types--it's easy to promise but harder to perform.

What was the promise: to give the public 5 days of access to legislation before Obama signs it. Sounds good. But when you are a politician eager to show progress and claim credit, it goes against the grain. So as soon as the House and Senate passed the legislation reversing the Supreme Court's decision in the Ledbetter case (the time frame for filing a discrimination complaint over unequal pay starts with the first paycheck) Obama did his signing ceremony.

The problem is the bureaucrats, of course. There are bureaucrats in the House and Senate, and the White House. They have their routines to move bills from one step to the next. And they don't necessarily listen to campaign promises. So the bill got moved along, showed up on Obama's secretary's desk as ready to sign. Ideally Rahm Emanuel would have remembered the promise and had a series of meetings with the bureaucrats to iron out the details of moving an electronic version of the bill to a website for comment and holding for 5 days. But he didn't, so smart-xxs types now are pointing fingers at the administration for breaking promises.

(IMO, it was a stupid promise--he would have done better to promise a thorough overhaul of the law making promise.)

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


The "21" club has dropped its absolute tie requirement. For you whippersnappers, good restaurants used to require a coat and tie. But no more, according to today's NY Times. And "21" used to be the epitome of style and fashion, which country bumpkin farm boys had vaguely heard of, but movie stars like Bogie frequented. [updated]

And do I need to mention this piece of "how-to" advice--disgusting it should be on the web. :-)

For everyone who mourns the loss of standards, I recommend Gran Torino, which my wife and I saw yesterday. (Of course, Eastwood is the star of my favorite movie, Kelly's Heroes, which no one has ever heard of but it captures the nihilism of the late 60's perfectly.) Eastwood's character's granddaughter has multiple piercings, need I say more?

It seems the old Catch-22 is at work. In a poor economy, restaurants have to lower standards to compete. In a boom economy, consumers have to try the worst things to try to stand out. What's an old timer to do?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

One E-Mail System for USDA

From Vilsack's press conference:
It [updating USDA systems] will not be easy. It's not easy because the way in which technology has been developed in the Department over time has been that each subcabinet area, each agency of the 29 agencies that make up the USDA, all of them have made, to a certain extent, independent decisions about the technology. And so one of the keys is to try to make sure that we work to develop a consistent system so that, for example, the Secretary of Agriculture can send one e-mail to employees on any issue as opposed to what happens today where multiple e-mails have to be sent because different agencies use different computer systems.
Not sure he really wants to send an email with 100,000 addressees.

The Human Cost of the Presidency

Mr. Morris has a blog post at the NYTimes interviewing people who took many of the photos of Bush over the years--more or less the expected fare until you get to the last 3 photos, snapped after his last address to the nation. They show the toll, and touch even the heart of someone who didn't think much of him.

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Rice Crisis, Revisited

The NY Times has an article today on the effects of rice prices in Senegal. Last year's high rice prices caused rice farmers there to increase their acreage:

It is a great thing that local growers are finally expanding production, he said, but their investments are incredibly fragile.

“We don’t have any control of the market,” he said. “There is huge volatility, and that makes it very difficult to protect their investments.”

If farmers lose a lot of money this year, they are unlikely to risk planting again, Mr. Ly said, which could prove catastrophic.

In a report released in November, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations warned that low prices this season could create an even worse replay of last year’s crisis by discouraging planters from producing.

“If prices were to remain depressed in 2008-9 and plantings for next year are affected,” the report said, “a similar, if not more pronounced, price surge may be witnessed in 2009-10, unleashing even more severe food crises than those experienced in the current season.”
In a nutshell, this is the economics of farming field crops. Farmers are "price takers", with no ability to adjust production to meet demand (unless organized into a cartel, like OPEC or the tree crop growers). Good prices one year brings expanded production the next, leading to boom and bust cycles, which are very hard on the individual farmer, particularly the small, young, and/or struggling one.

Problems With Wikipedia

I think there's a systemic problem with Wikipedia's coverage of certain topics: specifically the "hot", gloom and doom topics which bubble to the top of the media. The problem is the people who care most about the topic, and who therefore are most likely to do or edit a wikipedia article, are those whose emotions are stirred by the impending disaster. (In other words, all the young whippersnappers out there who haven't had the experience of ups and downs I've had.) When the disaster is looming, people edit wikipedia. When the disaster fades, the people whose emotions were engaged have moved on to other topics. Or they're reluctant to admit forever they were wrong. My proof:

the latest price for Rice is for April, 2008.
the "2008 global rice shortage"
the 2007-2008 world food crisis.

None of these reflect such data as this from USDA:
Global 2008/09 rice production, consumption, and ending stocks are raised slightly from a month ago, while trade is little changed. The increase in global rice production is due primarily to a larger 2008/09 rice crop in China, which is up 4.2 million tons to 135.1 million, and the largest crop since 1999/00. The increase in China’s crop is due to an increase in both area harvested and yield and is based in part on national and provincial government information. Global ending stocks are projected at 82.7 million tons, up 1.8 million from last month, up 4.0 million from 2007/08, and the largest stocks since 2002/03.
Or this from FAO:
Prices for most agricultural commodities have dropped significantly and swiftly in recent months. World grain prices have fallen by over 50 percent from their record highs earlier this year. International prices for other important foodstuffs, such as vegetable oils, oilseeds or dairy products have also drifted downwards, even if they still remain above their longer term trend levels. Rice is still expensive but prices may follow the path for other foodstuffs as the new crop comes on stream, export restrictions are relaxed and demand shifts further to cheaper alternatives.
or this:

Cereal supplies rise, international prices fall

FAO’s forecast for world cereal production in 2008 now stands at 242 million tonnes (including rice in milled terms), 5.3 percent more than in 2007 and a new record. Among the major cereals, the most significant production expansion is forecast for wheat, up 11 percent from last year, but production of coarse grains is also forecast to surpass last year’s record by at least 3 percent, while rice production is anticipated to exceed the already excellent results achieved in 2007 by more than 2 percent. A combination of exceptionally high prices, which encouraged plantings, and generally favourable weather conditions contributed to the boost in world cereal production this year.

Vilsack Wants Comments?

According to this press release, Vilsack is extending the period for comments on the payment limitation regs, although signalling no change in their provisions for the 2009 crop year. He also talks of his priorities--FSA IT and Pigford among them.

BTW, note the URL has been compressed by tinyurl. (One of my correspondents has mentioned the long length of the USDA's URLs. I haven't regularly used, but it's useful.)

France and US on Religion

Mr. Beauregard blogs on Sarkozy, the impending strike, and Obama--here's an excerpt:
Put in republican terms; Obama's inauguration speech was filled with religious leitmotifs. Unthinakble in France; Our conception of the republic is resolutely secular. The Republic is a bulwark against religion and the ravages of religion. In the States the Republic protects the Church from the ravages of the state. In the morning, French kids don't salute the flag or sing the national anthem. The French are not a patriotic lot. certainly chauvinistic but not as patriotic as the Americans - and all that shapes internal politics. An American will run the flag up at home, and tell you with a big smile and hand on heart that he or she believes in God. In France, you can be interned for such behaviour. The psycholgy shapes people and shapes politics.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Stimulus and Government

John Phipps has a long post, arguing for stimulus investment in infrastructure as opposed to tax cuts. It's worth reading. Two points he misses, though:
  • government spending on infrastructure is highly visible. We can see how FSA spends its millions, and thus judge whether or not it spends them wisely or not, or even spends them timely. We can't similarly see the ways in which tax cuts are used.
  • there's the assumption that government will be more stupid in its spending than the private sector. Again, because of the difference in visibility, the assumption can't be proved. Suppose a tax cut goes mostly to personal consumption spending, meals out, bigger cars, bigger houses, more vacations, more luxuries. My Calvinistic forebears shout from their graves that's wasteful, not productive.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

FSA, IT, and Stimulus

Here's an article on Nextgov about FSA and the $245 million. Two of the final paragraphs:

Patrick Hanley, project manager for the program to modernize the farm benefits system, said the agency is working closely with the Office of Management and Budget to make sure the new systems would comply with the federal enterprise architecture, to ensure FSA's systems can share information with other federal agencies. Hanley said the $245 million in the House stimulus bill would allow FSA to stabilize the current infrastructure and initiate modernization efforts. The money would satisfy estimates for the first two years of implementation, Taitano said.

Agency officials also are looking into commercial off-the-shelf software solutions that could help with payment processing, according to Hanley. But the initial focus will be on infrastructure and making sure the back-end servers and network are capable of handling the volume of transactions at FSA, he said.

Many years ago (i.e., 1989) we were working on the cost-benefit justification for the replacement of the System/36's with the idea there would be a big bang, big buy. Like Sisyphus, we kept rolling the rock up the hill, and having it come back and squash us. Best I can tell, in the 20 years since there was a piecemeal replacement of System/36's with AS/400's, a gradual migration of some common functions and certain programs to the Internet, and a bit of integration between NRCS and FSA. (I'm probably biased in my assessment.)

To the extent USDA needs to buy more servers and network hardware, that should be doable within this FY. That is, it may be "shovel ready". I don't know about software development--GAO has questioned USDA's management of the MIDAS project. See my posts here and here

FSA has moved its payment function out of the county offices to centralized processing in Kansas City. That's been operational for a month or so, and hasn't blown up, yet. So I'm not clear on what COTS (commercial off-the-shelf software) could help.

Geithner and Turbo Tax--the Loss of Expertise

Jim Lindgren at Volokh tries to recapitulate Mr. Geithner's experience using Turbotax back when he was an IMF employee and failed to file properly (as self-employed). I think it's an example of the loss of expertise when we incorporate knowledge into our tools. I know when I filed my taxes on paper, I was much more aware of what I was doing than when I answer Turbotax's question. As I told my wife, it's sort of a mindless exercise now (which made her feel very good about the accuracy of our returns).

It's the same sort of thing I saw back when I worked for ASCS:

A district director took me around his district in North Carolina. He told me he tried to have his office managers (i.e., CED's) assign their best clerk to handling "reconstitutions" (i.e., the changing of farm records), because it was complex and important. Some 15-20 years later I found myself responsible for the people who were automating the process, trying (and perhaps failing) to make it simple and easy for any program assistant to handle.

Along the same lines, I remember an employee discussing the new word processor (one of the first with a CRT screen where you could actually insert and cut and paste and see the results of your action). She said it was nice, but she used to be proud of her ability to type fast with no mistakes. And now she was losing it, because the machine took away the premium on not making errors.

Just as, baling hay rendered obsolete the skill of making a good load of hay on the haywagon (i.e., defined as one where you got the maximum of hay on the wagon, placing your fork-fulls so that the hay bound together (i.e., being attentive to the direction the stalks of hay were lying on the wagon). And I suppose now the skill of stacking rectangular hay bales on the wagon or truck is obsolete, as you just use the forklift on the tractor to move the big round bales.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Cheering Thought for Farmers

Brad DeLong posted a link to this old Jared Diamond article, entitled "The Worst Mistake In The History Of The Human Race", which was the invention of agriculture.
There are at least three sets of reasons to explain the findings that agriculture was bad for health. First, hunter-gatherers enjoyed a varied diet, while early farmers obtained most of their food from one or a few starchy crops. The farmers gained cheap calories at the cost of poor nutrition. (Today just three high-carbohydrate plants--wheat, rice, and corn--provide the bulk of the calories consumed by the human species, yet each one is deficient in certain vitamins or amino acids essential to life.) Second, because of dependence on a limited number of crops, farmers ran the risk of starvation if one crop failed. Finally, the mere fact that agriculture encouraged people to clump together in crowded societies, many of which then carried on trade with other crowded societies, led to the spread of parasites and infectious disease. (Some archaeologists think it was crowding, rather than agriculture, that promoted disease, but this is a chicken-and-egg argument, because crowding encourages agriculture and vice versa.) Epidemics couldn't take hold when populations were scattered in small bands that constantly shifted camp. Tuberculosis and diarrheal disease had to await the rise of farming, measles and bubonic plague the appearance of large cities.
So, farmers are the root of all evil.

Early Up, Pigford

Pigford and civil rights is an early topic for Secretary Vilsack. (I like the name--I can remember how to spell it, I could never remember with Schafer whether there was a "c" or not, how many "e's", etc. and I'm too lazy to look it up.) He also in his remarks hits the food issue.

We See Ourselves? in Him and His Speech

Professor Stanley Fish at the NYTimes discusses the inaugural speech as an example of "parataxis" (which I translate as one damned thing after another). Dr. Krauthammer at the Post discusses how flat the speech was and how interesting the speaker is. I've seen lots of other reactions, which range over a wide spectrum, mostly following political preferences.

Twill be interesting to see how it looks 10 years from now.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Newsflash: President Has a Bit of Power

For those who were worried over whether President Obama really has any power, the sad news is he lost his Blackberry. According to Treehugger he gets a secure replacement. So even a President can't resist government rules and regulations. Long live the bureaucracy.

Reminder to Foodies: Advise and Consent

The "foodies" (i.e., organic, locavore, sustainable advocates) have been proposing names, first for Secretary of Agriculture and now for posts within ag. I found the following excerpt from a Government Executive piece on USDA appointment to be a reminder of where the power really is:

Meanwhile, a House Agriculture Committee member and a key Senate aide said they believe Chuck Hassebrook, executive director for the Center for Rural Affairs, is a top candidate for deputy secretary.

Other Capitol Hill sources said a Hassebrook nomination would be highly controversial and might not make it out of the Senate Agriculture Committee because he has been such a strong critic of farm programs. Hassebrook is an advocate of strict farm program payment limits and favors more spending on nonagricultural rural development.

Lesson to the Alice Waters of the world: you don't have the power. To get it, you need an "Emily's List" and get your hands dirty, not cleaning vegetables but in the day to day politicking that elects Reps and Senators.

Finally the Truth: Elections Are About Cats

From an interview at the Monkey Cage (with a political scientist who ran as a libertarian in NC governorship race):
Political scientists tend to think elections are “about” issues. I think elections are about cats. Specifically: would I let this [candidate] watch my cat for a week? Would I give him the key to my house? Would I trust her to feed ol’ Tabby, and change his litterbox? Issues are secondary. People vote for the person that they think they can trust.
And a compliment for a blogger I follow:
Drezner, on the other hand, has the perfect mindset. He is just serious enough, and has a heterodox moderate-right-libertarian political viewpoint that makes almost EVERYONE angry, and certainly makes everyone think. To my mind, Drezner is the best poli sci blogger, and always will be. A good poli sci blog has to focus on world affairs and trade, not just the U.S.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

FOIA and Sec 1619

A commenter asks whether Obama's executive order on FOIA impacts Sec. 1619 of the 2008 farm bill. (See my previous post.) My answer, given with a little research but no law degree is: No.

I think 5 USC Sec.552, the FOIA, has the answer in
(b) This section does not apply to matters that are-- ... (3) specifically exempted from disclosure by statute (other than section 552b of this title), provided that such statute (A) requires that the matters be withheld from the public in such a manner as to leave no discretion on the issue, or (B) establishes particular criteria for withholding or refers to particular types of matters to be withheld;
I think Sec. 1619 exempts the data from disclosure.

A Poem I Like and a Teacher I Can Take

I liked some poetry growing up, but my taste stopped with Mr. Frost and college. But I ran across this poem by the late Snodgrass, which University Diarist has now posted with an interpretation. It probably appeals to old men like me more than whippersnappers and women.

Obama Missed a Chance

I was pleased Obama took a second to thank the wait staff at the luncheon in the Capitol yesterday. But he missed a chance to ram his message home in his speech. If, in the context of small steps being important, he had asked the million+ on the Mall to take responsibility for their trash it would have been great (that is, if they'd planned ahead with the Park Service to have designated sites for garbage). The reality of the day after the first black President's inauguration is a lot of black workers picked up trash from the Mall.

Radiation Alert: FSA Computers Use Cobalt

That was the typo in this Nextgov post on the $250 million for FSA computer fixes in the stimulus package.

(House AG Chair Peterson says he's urged USDA to keep the computer consultants who recommended the money and to do away with the use of "cobalt" (now corrected to "COBOL" in the post). Sounds good, except:
  • I just got through watching Obama talk about new conflict of interest rules. Seems to me hiring computer consultants to implement what they just recommended is exactly the sort of thing our new President does not want.
  • It's very easy to talk about getting rid of COBOL. Unfortunately the FSA systems are so interrelated it's hard. First you have to have a platform to migrate too (which appears now to be a centralized database with internet access). Second you have to maintain the old system, build the new system, and be sure you've handled the interfaces between new and old. (At least that's the way I thought when I worked there. Now I wonder whether we wouldn't have been better off just having the county offices maintain two systems for a couple years. We'll never know now.) And, third you have to respond to the demands from the Hill timely to implement new programs while keeping the old ones going.

To Keep Things in Perspective

From an MSNBC post about the surge in internet traffic yesterday, which strained some sites:

Akamai also maintains an index showing the number of Internet users clicking into online news sites, and today's figures showed a significant spike of 5.4 million users per minute at 11:45 a.m. ET. However, that peak ranks just No. 5 on Akamai's all-time list, just below the first day of the NCAA's "March Madness" basketball tournament in 2006.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Curley : JFKennedy :: Adam Clayton Powell : Obama?

James Curley (and his rival, Honey Fitz, JFK's grandfather) were professional Irish politicians (Boston mayors I'm barely old enough to remember) and corrupt. Adam Clayton Powell was a professional Negro politician (US Rep from Harlem back in the day) and corrupt. JFK was a new sort of Irish-Catholic politician, who didn't run as either.

I think the lesson is that a politician who runs as a representative of a group can often get away with corruption. And it may take a couple generations for the "group" to melt enough in the American pot.

No Pay Raises for Judges

Chief Justice Roberts wants pay raises for federal judges. But as a taxpayer I want performance--if he gets the Presidential oath right next time, I say give him his raise, but not before.

Monday, January 19, 2009


I rarely like the posts at Powerline, so it seems only fair to link to one I do (actually a rerun from 2005 and composed mostly of M.L. King's words.

Inaugural Words

Here's a NYTimes interactive feature which provides word charts showing the most used words in each inaugural address. (I owe a hat tip to someone. ) What's interesting to me is you can click on the word and see how it was used in the address, and then go on to the next uses in future addresses. For example: "people" in George Washington's address. It's nice to see he's talking of the "American people" and the "people of the United States", i.e., as one people, not as the people of the several states. Whereas James Buchanan mostly talks of the "people of the several states" or of the Territory, already conceding the rhetorical high ground to the secessionists.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Post Racial and Post Religious?

Tomorrow is a historic day.

Joe Biden becomes the first Catholic elected to be Vice President, a mere 48 years after JFK was elected.

That fact, and the fact his religion was not an issue and was not much mentioned during the campaign, says something about the U.S.

Extension and Organics

It's not true that USDA is always unfriendly to organic farming. Extension is there for you, though I haven't figured out their website yet. Here's a link to the RSS feeds on organic as of today, apparently these are releases which aren't automatically posted to the website (

Our Bureaucratic Leader

One can say the head of OMB is the chief bureaucrat of the Federal Government. Kevin Drum has a post which includes a picture of him: "gloriously arrayed in full nerd pack".

Some People Look (Too) Far Ahead

Linda Greenhouse in the NYTimes writes about the paths Chief Justice Roberts and President-Elect Obama took to arrive on the platform Tuesday. Ties it to a photo of William Howard Taft, the only man to hold both offices, and, at the very end, suggests that Obama too could go onto the Court after his term(s) of office.

On Dark Days of Winter--Fond Mommas and a Bit of Romance

Reston just got through the coldest day in a good long while, so it's time for some cheer:

  • At the other end of the cultural spectrum, University Diarist gets all excited about her daughter, another sweet older girl, singing on the Mall with Bruce Springsteen and Beyonce.
  • And from the heart of the city which is the source of our discontents, the NYTimes has a sweet romantic story. (Having married late myself, I could identify.) (Hat tip: Noah Millman, at the American Scene.)

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Two Sides--Why Commercial Ag Is Confident

Reading, as I try to, the posts, articles, and books of the locavores, organic farming, and sustainable ag people, I usually sense an emotional conviction of the rightness of their position. There's the fervor of the evangelist about the preachments of the Pollans, Kingsolvers, and Astyks of the world.

When I switch to the other side, the emotional feel is sometimes different. Confidence seems to be the main theme--not worry about soil exhaustion,etc., just confidence that what worked in the past still will work in the future, confidence that reason (science) and hard work together will conquer all difficulties.

This article in Wired on a corn/soybean yield king might explain to the greens some of the emotion.

The First Yell from the AGI Front?

Don't know whether this is a portent, but someone there is who really does not like the new adjusted gross income requirements and forms. Linda Wuebben in the Yankton SD paper feels the information required violates her privacy and in 2 days she's picked up 4 favorable comments. There's also a link to NAIS.

From a bureaucrat's standpoint, you can't implement a payment limitation without collecting data. As FSA learned in the late 1980's, changing the requirements and getting the forms right so that the burden is minimized is always a problem. Our problem then was applying the same process to everyone, which is the bureaucrat's golden rule, but the old 80/20 rule is more practicable and easy to take. People who correctly know they aren't affected by the limitation, who know they're innocent, get a lot more hostile than those who are. (That's a generalization with absolutely no evidence to support it at all.) If FSA could only read minds, they could give the potential cheats the full rigamarole and the honest folk a rubberstamp.

From a taxpayer's viewpoint, it's the old saying: he who pays the piper calls the tune.

Friday, January 16, 2009

A Great Day in the History of American Bureaucracy

Today is the 125th anniversary of the enactment of the Pendleton Act of 1883, according to the Today's Document feature at the National Archives. What did it do, you ask? Establish the Civil Service.

Stimulus Dollars for USDA

Everyone gets a piece of the pie. Though a friend and reader beat me to it, here's the excerpt from Government Executive:

"Agriculture Department

  • $650 million for construction and improvements at National Forest Service facilities
  • $209 million for deferred maintenance at Agricultural Research Service facilities
  • $245 million to critical information technology improvements at the Farm Service Agency
  • $44 million to repair and improve security at USDA headquarters
  • $300 million for fire hazard reduction
  • $400 million for watershed improvement programs at the Natural Resources Conservation Service"
Don't know where the fire hazard is, South Building, maybe? (More seriously, likely in the National Forests.) I know Secretary-designate Vilsack mentioned the technology issue for FSA, but the GAO reports I've read haven't been exactly enthusiastic about the FSA computer project (MIDAS). I wonder how much of the money is for hardware and how much for software, and how much for the computer consultants. And how much of it can be wisely spent in FY2009 (which will have 7 months to go when the money becomes available).

I'm also struck by the security line. Edward Hodgman at Understanding Government blogged on the problems of getting into the Treasury Department. I know many would like to blow up the IRS (I'm joking), but few feel that strongly about USDA. When I started work at USDA there were 16 entrances to the South Building, all unguarded. Now?--don't ask.

And does NRCS have a watershed program on the back burner?

DTN Editor Endorses Locavore Agriculture

Sort of. The link requires registration. Here's his conclusion:

Some Americans are willing to pay more for locally grown food. Surveys say so, and I believe them. At least some of the time and for some foods, I am willing to pay more. As more and more people patronize farmers markets and prefer local foods at the grocery store, some farmers will see profit in diversifying to meet the demand.

But transform agriculture? Somehow, I don't see it. The future will likely offer more opportunities for different approaches to agriculture to exist side-by-side; local food can co-exist with larger operations serving larger geographies. It will not do away with large, specialized farms. Even if their numbers grow, locavores are likely to remain a trendy minority. For most of us, the rule will be everything in moderation.

An "Exclusive" House Ag Committee

Prof. Pollan has suggested making the House Ag committee "exclusive" (i.e., so important a member can only be on one).

Here's a piece which explains what's involved and why it may not work.

Another of his suggestions is separating nutrition (i.e., food stamps) and agriculture in the appropriations process, in order to facilitate cutting costly farm programs. He argues food stamps are safe in a Democratic Congress. Given his premises, I still think he's wrong--the food stamp/farm program linkage has, over the years, benefited both sides. Rural blue-dog Dems and Republicans, who once were deficit conscious and will return to that state at noon on Jan. 20, always oppose food stamps.

I too well remember my feelings in 1965, when it seemed liberals were destined to dominate forever. That dream quickly ended. Even though it's hard for young whippersnapper Dems to realize now, their dominance now will surely end, sooner or later. So I'd advise Pollan not to advocate structural changes now based on the assumption of a Democratic Congress.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Transparency and Obama

Why doesn't the Change site carry the prepared testimony of the cabinet nominees? Looked for Vilsack's testimony from yesterday--not available.

Transparency in USDA

I've blogged on this before, but the Environmental Working Group has an article from the Salina Journal. The issue is the extent to which FSA/NRCS information is publicly available--the 2008 farm bill inserted a prohibition on releasing data:

From the end of the article:

"When we got wind this was going to be inserted without any debate, we heard from two camps in the FSA," Cook said. "One saying they didn't agree with it, and thought we ought to know -- while another side helped draft it."

The privacy provision was inserted in conference committee, after both the House and Senate had approved different versions of the bill. Conference committees generally work out compromises between those different versions, but can also insert new provisions, which Cook said is what happened in this case.

Although I don't always like EWG's stands, I'm in favor of transparency here. (Though, inconsistently, I don't like the idea of private entities making bucks by serving as middlemen with the government.)

So Much for the Powers of the USDA Secretary

This excerpt from Chris Clayton's post on Vilsack's hearing tells all:

Southern lawmakers from Ranking Member Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., to Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., and Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., stressed to Vilsack that he needs to understand he represents all of agriculture. To that end, these senators emphasized that USDA right now has gone too far in writing rules for the farm bill that will adversely affect southern agriculture. Lincoln said USDA's rules are "completely out of the ballpark from what our intent was."

Bread and (Breast) Milk

From a New Yorker article on breast milk (author Jill LePore will take questions at the New Yorker site):
"(A brief history of food: when the rich eat white bread and buy formula, the poor eat brown bread and breast-feed; then they trade places.)"

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

How Government Changes

Ezra Klein discusses the background to Cass Sunstein's new post. What's interesting is over the course of 25-30 years it's become accepted on all sides that the President's OMB should have control over regulations. It's a common practice: one party does an innovation which the other attacks. But when the roles switch, the innovation starts to become more acceptable. Soon it becomes an established practice.

A Little Love for Comerford

Tom Philpott at Grist gives a little love to the existing White House eating arrangements, and chef. Nice to see.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Outstanding Conservationist--Could Her Child Follow?

Article on the outstanding conservationist in Minnesota. She's been farming 53 years and milks 32 cows. I wonder, though, whether she's a good role model for the future. Could the next generation make their living * on 250 acres of dairy beef/calf operation?

*"living" defined as a modern life, frugal but with many mod cons, and the possibility of college for the kids.

What the article doesn't say is how many years she's been getting up at 4 a.m. to milk those cows and who's handling the milking while she's gadding about in the big city of St. Paul, MN.

Here a Scam, There a Scam, Everywhere a Scam

Though this doesn't rank with Mr. Madoff's scam, Treehugger reports at least one manufacturer of small wind turbines grossly exaggerated its potential output.

Just a reminder that people are con artists in every walk of life, from Wall Street to Green Street.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Bush's Place in History

Jacob Weisberg at Slate comes not to praise George W but to bury him, saying invading Iraq, the global war on terror, and the current financial mess are his three worst decisions but that we don't know that much about the inner workings of the administration. This isn't an outlier--there seems to be general agreement Bush is a bad President, and always will be such.

Not that, as a firm Democrat, I particularly like GWB, but I've lived too long to agree. Harry Truman left office with terrible ratings, but he's now very highly regarded, so things can change. A more recent example: Mr. Greenspan retired not so long ago with high praise from everyone, except for a few who thought he might have followed his irrational exuberance speech in the 1990's with some cold water on the high tech bubble. Now he's being blamed for the current mess.

The reputations of many of our presidents have fluctuated over the years. I'd suggest Bush's reputation will improve if:
  • there is a significant terror attack on US soil (I don't think it will occur)
  • Afghanistan stabilizes (in my view Bush's failure to get an exit strategy there is his worst failing)
  • Iraq muddles through (the Korean "police action" was a big deal in Truman's rep as left, but now it looks okay). If 30 years from now Iraq is where South Korea is now, Bush will benefit, regardless of how flawed his administration was in (not) planning for the post-war.
  • things like No Child Left Behind, the AIDS initiative in Africa, Medicare drug benefits, or other initiatives became seen as significant milestones. (Truman's integration of the armed forces seems larger today than it did then; Ike's interstate highways loom larger today than they seemed in 1960.)
Conversely, I can't imagine much which would hurt his reputation more than it is now.

Bottomline--he doesn't have anywhere to go but up.

A Kid with a Passion: Gorilla

The National Zoo welcomed a baby gorilla this weekend. The Post story included this sentence:
District resident Max Block, 10 -- who is so enamored of gorillas that he raised $2,500 at a lemonade stand this summer for a preservation group -- had been watching the drama unfold for much of the weekend. He arrived to see the baby Saturday, just a few hours after it was born
That's a lot of lemonade.

Tight Budgets

Chris Clayton at DTN has an interview with the President of the Farm Bureau predicting farm programs will face tight budgets. That, in my opinion, is bad news for the supporters of organic farming, sustainable agriculture, etc., simply because conventional ag has a stronger presence on the appropriations committees than they do.

Crystal Ball on USDA Organization

A commenter on this post asks whether I think the possible reorganization of USDA will eliminate FSA? Dragging out my crystal ball, I see into the future and provide this answer: "Darned if I know".

There seems to be an ebb and flow to these things. Back in the Ford administration there was a push to co-locate county offices which looked forward to some consolidation of administrative functions. Then Carter came in and priorities changed. Around 1984 they tried to consolidate state offices in the northeast, but Congress killed that one. Sec. Madigan started "Infoshare" and the consolidation of county offices in 1991. That effort evolved into the 1994 reorganization splitting FmHA and hiding Rural Electrification within RD, and then the aborted Glickman proposal for merged administrative support. The new millennium seems to have been relatively quiet, except for some more office closings.

I wonder how much NRCS and FSA customers use the Internet instead of county offices. I say this because I'm struck every day by how small the NY Times is when it lands on my doorstep. Newspapers seem to be losing more and more ground to the Internet. Retailers are also hurting now (it's been years since my wife or I were in a department store, though that is partially a reflection of how cheap we are, as well as our use of online shopping). Thinking abstractly, one would say there's fewer and fewer commercial farmers and more and more capability to do things online, so FSA is and should be on the way out.

On the other hand, government reacts slowly to changes and rural areas have lots more clout than the burbs and cities. And Congress seems determined to keep making the programs more and more complicated. ACRE, SURE, and direct attribution are good insurance against major changes in the number or organization of offices.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Old Aerial Photography

Here's an interesting article on efforts to retrieve the old aerial photography used in administering farm programs. The article refers to photos authorized in 1933, which surprises me but is possible. The project in Iowa is to try to identify possible "brownfields" for EPA, but they are historically important as well.

Bush Didn't Stop All Abortion Advice

My impression is that the Bush administration forbade government bureaucrats from discussing and recommending abortions. (On a playoff Sunday I'm not inclined to doublecheck my impression.) But apparently not, as this post from Extension Service shows. (Horses)

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Pigford and Black Farmers

I'm not familiar with Colorlines but Jessica Hoffman has an article on black farmers and Pigford. It doesn't break new ground for those who have been following the subject. Via EWG Pipes

The Times They Are A'Changing: Cotton and Animals carries a couple posts:

1 Cotton (a report on the Beltwide Cotton Conference):
"Now that grain has a solid footing in the old cotton strongholds, it could remain a factor at least for the near future. “Producers are telling me that farming grain is easy compared to cotton. There’s more time for family, for golf, for other things. We’re seeing a lot of grain bins built in the mid-South and they’re sure going to find ways to fill them,” says Tom Barber, Arkansas Extension cotton specialist."

2 Animals:
In 2008, there appeared to be an increase in well-funded animal rights activities directed at animal agriculture, according to the Animal Agriculture Alliance research.

In 2007, the latest reporting period available for review, charitable donations to animal rights groups rose 11% providing activist groups funds to develop activities such as California’s Proposition 2, undercover video operations, legislative initiatives and legal actions. Donations to the extremist People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and its subsidiaries increased 11%.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Most Incredible Sentence of the Week

“The protocol is you’re not supposed to talk to the President directly,” Frank said. from Jeffrey Toobin's profile of Barney Frank in the New Yorker, talking about the famous meeting on the $700 billion bank bailout bill.

My first reaction is: WHAT?

My second reaction is: What?

My guess, after I calmed down, is that this isn't a standard rule of protocol for meetings with President Bush, but a one-time only rule for this meeting. It would allow Bush to understand where all the parties are coming from, without having to do something dangerous, like ask questions.

The Cost of Federalism

OMB released some performance reports. Here's an interesting factoid from the report on improper payments:

Breaking-out the 12 programs identified in Exhibit 4 based on whether they are administered by states or the Federal government, shows a distinct difference in their reported errors. The combined error rate for the five Federally-administered programs was 1.4 percent while the combined error rate for the seven State-administered programs was 3.5 percent. The lower error rate among Federally administered programs may be due to having standard eligibility rules across the program. State-administered programs must follow Federal eligibility regulations; however, each state can define additional (and unique) eligibility requirements. These unique state variances may increase the challenges of administering these programs and could contribute to the higher error rates.
In other words the Federal bureaucracy is more effective at preventing improper payments than the 50 State bureaucracies.

Who Is Right?

David Brooks in today's Times is ambivalent about Obama's plans, ending:" Maybe Obama can pull this off, but I have my worries. By this time next year, he’ll either be a great president or a broken one."

I have to agree--one danger Obama faces as a chief administrator is overestimating the capacity of the bureaucracies on which he has to rely. Coming from outside, he (and most other Dems) have attacked the Bush administration for bad decisions and politicizing the bureaucracy. It's logical to jump from that to the idea the bureaucracy is capable, except for its leadership. Government bureaucracy can be capable, but it works best if you ask it to do something it's done before. The completely new is very difficult for any human, much less bureaucrats.

Standards for "Sustainable Agriculture"

Interesting piece on the steps in the bureaucratic evolution of standards for "sustainable agriculture" here. It's moving along speedily (next committee meeting is May 2009).

Wikipedia has an article on it. I haven't digested the theological differences between sustainable and organic (reminds me of trying to figure out the differences between the Reformed Presbyterian (General Synod) of 1840-70, the Associate Reformed Presbyterians, and the others.) For any advocates of organic farming reading me, be advised that the Wikipedia article states organic is less productive than conventional farming, which of course is heresy. (I must be feeling like pulling wings off flies today.)

Most Discouraging Headline of the Day


Alzheimer's drugs double death risk in elderly

The details are a bit better. The drugs in question are anti-psychotic ones, those used to control outbursts, not those which show any promise of slowing the development of Alzheimers. Bottom line--if I'm raging against my fate, and making life miserable for others I don't mind a shorter lifespan.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Amish Will Take Over Furniture?

Maybe I was wrong that the Amish were destined to take over dairy farming in the U.S. This NY Times article describes their push into small business, particularly furniture.

The Amish move into the world of commerce has been more out of necessity than desire. Over the last 16 years, the Amish population in the United States — mostly in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana — has nearly doubled, to 230,000, and the decreasing availability and increasing cost of farmland has forced many of these agrarian families, especially the younger generation, to gravitate to small business as their main source of income.

The businesses, which favor such Amish skills as furniture-making, quilting, construction work and cooking, have been remarkably successful. Despite a lack of even a high school education (the Amish leave school after the eighth grade), hundreds of Amish entrepreneurs have built profitable businesses based on the Amish values of high quality, integrity and hard work.
Prof. Kraybill outlines some of the dangers (at least for those who don't work in family-oriented workshops) for the way of life.

A side note. One of the big limits of the Internet and Google is the fact advertisements aren't captured. One of the striking ads I've seen in the last week is a full page newspaper ad for Amish mantels, complete with pictures showing bearded craftsmen finishing the wood. What it seems to be is an operation that combines a Chinese-built space heater contained inside a wood mantel so the combination looks like a wood fire in a fire place. Of course, 98 percent of the text is given over to the Amish side of the story, only in a couple places is it admitted that the guts of the product are Chinese.

Why a Gas Tax Has Problems

Erin does a post "by the numbers"--note the second item: 45 - miles to the store (it was an 8 hour family trip). While normal Americans have a supermarket around the corner, those who have the privilege of living in the wide-open spaces are dependent on gas. That's why Clinton faced a rebellion among western Dems back in 1993 when he proposed a gas tax.

Fifty Years Ahead of My Time, Public Service Academy

If memory serves, 50 years ago in my speech at high school graduation, I supported the idea of a public service academy, which got some publicity yesterday in the NYTimes. (I think I had read about the French institution, the ENA. After working in the bureaucracy, my opinion is more mixed. The French and British civil services have virtues ours does not. But our country and government is more decentralized than France or Britain, and implementing a European-style civil service would be difficult.

Jimmy Carter tried to take a step in that direction, with the Senior Executive Service. Part of the idea was to create a more professional class of managers who could be moved around and would not spend their careers in a single agency. I don't think it worked. We continue to have problems of inter-agency warfare and conflict--witness the report of the 9/11 commission, witness the Goldwater Act of the mid 80's for DOD, witness the recurring problems in the USDA.

While I'm skeptical that a public service academy would do a whole hell of a lot in improving the quality of our managers, it might help to create an "old-boys network" which could help cross-agency communication and coordination. As a further point, in today's Federal Diary (Wash Post daily column) says federal employees trust their supervisors ' technical ability more than their managerial ability. I, and most other bureaucrats, tend to be skeptical of "managers", people like Leo Panetta coming into CIA, because we think you have to understand the agency and its problems to do a good job managing. I was a good bureaucrat, so I got promoted to be a manager, where I had more faults than I cared to admit. But that's typical of federal bureaucrats, meaning we aren't likely to support a public service academy. But we ought to give it a try.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Power of Economics--Hybrids and Energy, Bad and Good

One of my frustrations with some critics of modern agriculture is their under-estimation of the power of the market. Our current "depression" (as certified by Megan McArdle) reminds us of the effects of wealth, or the lack thereof:

  • Bad for greens--the sales of hybrids, according to this,have dropped more than other vehicles. (Why--they're pricier and take years to pay off any savings, particularly when gas is lower than $2)
  • Good for greens--via Gristmill this DotEarth graph shows China's contribution to carbon emissions has decreased.
  • Bad for conservatives--we're now talking trillion dollar deficits. (I remember when LBJ scored a political coup by keeping the entire budget under $100 billion.)
  • Good for conservatives--no one has mentioned it, but the depression means more people will stay in the job force longer, which should have a positive effect on social security.
My point is that bottom-line economics has a sweeping impact on everything.

Obama, the Organic Man?

The Post runs a story about guys who want President Obama to convert the South Lawn to an organic garden.

I'm sorry, but I disagree, for these reasons:
  • who's going to do the gardening? Obama is already talking about the need to control expenditures. I want Obama doing President things, not obsessing over the best mulch. Hiring people to do your gardening seems rather elitist to me.
  • symbolism is not convincing. How many people followed Bush's example in putting solar panels on the White House? (Do a google of "solar panels white house".) How many are familiar with the actual Clinton/Bush menus (apparently not Alice Waters, according to the former WH chef in the NY Times.)
  • Presidents as symbolic leaders have their limits. The Obamas decided not to send their children to public schools. Jimmy Carter wore sweaters, and got mocked (even though it's a highly rational step--lower the thermostats and add the layers, but we humans can't take a leader in a sweater).
If you want Obama to be green, let him install a geo-thermal heating/cooler system for the White House.

Happy Days Must Be Here Again

If the writer of the Congressional Budget Office's blog is named "Bob Sunshine".

The Budget and Economic Outlook

(I assume he's Orszag's interim replacement.)

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Those Ungrateful French

Now blame us for their short attention span: "Nowadays though, thanks to our American cousins and their short shows, French viewers no longer have the patience to watch TV for more than 45 minutes a time." From Mr. Beauregard, mostly on French public TV, with digressions to the family dinner table,etc.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Wendell Berry and Genetic Modification

Wendell Berry is co-author of a NYTimes op-ed today, arguing for a 50-year farm bill. The focus is on erosion, and surprising, at least to me, he comes out in favor of perennialization of major grain crops, like wheat, rice, sunflowers. I see the logic, but I wonder whether some of the organic folks will really like the idea of genetic modification to that extent.


"Also on the horizon is a possible reorganization of USDA. Hagstrom says that Peterson has said he wants to reorganize the department, but that he may be more concerned with the contentious relationship between the Farm Service Agency and the Natural Resources Conservation Service.“He thinks they don’t work together very well. Well, here is a secret: They don’t want to work together very well. They want to remain separate,” Hagstrom says." Agweek

"Farm Service Agency Administrator Teresa Lasseter said streamlining the agency will continue under the Obama administration, with fewer offices available to serve ranchers and farmers across the country. Southwestfarmpress

Most Surprising Sentence Today

"So it was that the former secretary of war decided to kill the former secretary of the treasury."

American Lion, by John Meacham, page 178
[No, not Rumsfeld out for John Snow's blood, but Eaton after Ingham--in Andrew Jackson's time politics was for keeps, not the namby-pamby sort of stuff of today.]

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Government Bailout for Organic Farmers

That's what Tom Philpott suggests for British organic farmers here (who have been hurt by the economic downturn and want a temporary switch to conventional feed):
For me, the situation calls for strategic government intervention. Rather than a "holiday" on organic standards to weather the storm, why not temporary payments to organic farmers to cover losses while the slump continues? And in the long term, the government could bring down organic feed costs by creating incentives for organic grain production -- and disincentives for environmentally destructive conventional grain farming.

Federal Web Sites---Recommendations for Obama

Ran across this paper, which is supposed to be submitted to Obama's team. (I don't see it on, but that's probably because that site only covers recommendations from outside the government, not the things recommended from within the bureaucracy.)

The recommendations seem rather unexceptional. However, it's a truth universally known and never acknowledged that within the bureaucracy every set of bureaucrats will argue for more attention and more funding. And there's little attention to integrating web sites and agency operations.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Oaths of Office [Revised]

In helping my cousin with a bit of research, I stumbled on a long paper outlining the evolution of the oath of office taken by British MP's. Then onto this wikipedia article, which covers oaths in a number of countries. And of course Mr. Newdow is suing over the oath of office for Obama.

Because the oath touches on a number of issues: religion, loyalty, nationalism, history, it's an interesting subject:
  • in Britain the oath for MPs has a long history, going from short to long to short. At different times Quakers, Moravians, Jews, and atheists who were elected had problems with the existing oath, which normally led to a modification to accommodate the problems each had. But because the oath is still one of allegiance to the sovereign, some Ulster MPs still refuse to take the oath. So the live issue in Britain seems to be which functions of an MP require the oath, and which don't.
  • by comparison to the Brits, the writers of the Constitution look pretty good. They prescribed the oath for the President in the Constitution, permitted affirmations and didn't include: "so help me God". And they kept it short.
  • I barely remember the oath I had to swear when I became a bureaurcrat, but here it is: "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God". It would be nice for Mr. Newdow to try to shorten that oath.
  • As a side issue, oaths used to be big for the Reformed Presbyterians. And in the first part of the 19th century they'd refuse to take the oath because the government was not covenanted with God. (That's part of my family history.)
  • skimming the wikipedia article is fascinating--consider the differences in oaths between the President of Pakistan, which combines religion and government, and the President of India, which is secular.

E-Government? Pardon My Skepticism

Those who know me know I can be easily seduced by the lure of the new, by the possibilities in the future of this or that. But I'm not entirely stupid, so I have learned over the years to have some skepticism.

Here's an example: Brownfields does a piece based on an interview with Steve Johnson, an Iowa State extension guy, talking about signup, changes in the programs, SURE and ACRE. He mentions some new forms, which the FSA county office should have in draft.

All fine, all correct. But... And it's a big But.

Under the e-government concept, FSA's forms shop has been posting FSA/CCC forms to the Internet for the last 10 years. One would think by now what Steve Johnson would have said is something like this:

"Farmers are going to have a new set of forms to fill out this year. The CCC-926 covers payment limitation information. The CCC-902 (I) and 902 (E) are also new. Now all three forms are available on FSA's forms site--click on the "forms" link off the FSA main site. You can print off copies to read, or fill them out on line..."

Steve does, in the recorded interview, mention using the Internet to research the SURE and ACRE programs. I'm probably being unfair to Steve but these are the possibilities:
  • He doesn't know about the FSA forms site
  • He knows about the site, but didn't think to use it
  • He knows about the site, but was on vacation for the holidays and didn't check it before the interview
  • He knows about the site, knew the forms were on the site, but was confident the Iowa county offices would not have pulled off the forms.
  • He knew all of the above, but thought he would be more in tune with his audience if he didn't suggest they should check the FSA site, but instead should talk to the nice people in the county office.
My point? I don't intend to criticize Steve, who just happened to be the extension person interviewed. My point is 10 years or more after FSA started posting forms, the web of habits, norms, expectations, training, etc. by which FSA, extension, and farmers implement farm programs hasn't adjusted to the change.

Why? I don't know why. It's a reminder that people and institutions are far more resistant to change than those of us who are seduced by the new like to think.

[PS: I note the government forms site doesn't have the CCC-902 or CCC-926 forms yet, which suggests a problem in the way the site works--ideally an update to the USDA/FSA forms site should automatically update the government one.]

Stimulus--What's the Exit Strategy?

The Post has an article on the outlook for the national debt (it will go up, steeply, although the ratio to the GNP would still be below other countries). But the "vicious circle" which Clinton faced may come back--the debt is big enough that the Treasury must pay high rates of interest to sell its bonds, which means interest payments make up a big portion of the budget, which means it's hard to balance the budget, which means more debt, which means more interest....

This ties into another headline--the nation's governors are looking for a trillion dollars.

One problem of the stimulus package, and one problem of "aid" in general, whether it's foreign aid or domestic, is looking towards the future. To the extent the stimulus builds things, that's good, but it also implies a continuing burden of maintenance. To the extent the stimulus bridges a gap in the states' budgets, that's good, but it also implies the gap will end. Often we see in foreign aid dams and highways are built, but fall into disrepair because there was no system to maintain them. Often we see domestic programs sold as "stop-gap" measures which continue on and on.

So my lesson for Obama is the one which Bush didn't learn--determine an exit strategy before you make a big commitment.

Friday, January 02, 2009

A Better Start to the New Year

Is analyzing lessons from the past year, at least if you can do it with the sense of humor Erin shows here. For example: "Never wipe your nose with the same glove that you just used to swat the behind of a cow down the chute." Lots more.

Most Interesting Sentence of the Day

"Often CIA security will call asking to have the bull removed from their property."

From Slate., Emily Yoffe's piece on being an "interpreter" at a colonial farm.

Greens Versus Organic Farmers

As seen in Scotland. The greens have pushed through rules on manure handling, which are adversely affecting the organic farmer who does the Musings from a Stonehead blog.
I'm not aware of similarly strict regulations in the U.S., though NYC is concerned about pollution in its water shed. This is just an example of how "industrial ag", even the CAFO's, is better able to handle the rules and regulations greens will impose to protect the environment. There's always a tradeoff and, in the words of Robert Heinlein, there's no free lunch.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Latinos in New Orleans

I don't know, maybe "creative destruction" (a phrase favored by conservative economists) is right. Here's a link,--New Orleans has gone from 3 percent to 15 percent Latino.

RIP Donald Westlake

Henry at Crooked Timber has the link to the obituary for Donald Westlake, who was one of the best writers I've read. Mysteries, sometimes funny as in the Dortmunder series, sometimes not, as in the Parket series (under his Stark pseudonym). The only problem with his writing was his books were too short.