Sunday, May 31, 2009

ERS and Locavore

ERS is doing a conference on locavore. It's not true USDA is in thrall to big ag--it's better to view agencies like ERS and Extension as bureaucratic entrepreneuts--willing to follow the crowd whereever it wants to go because that's the way to get the right people on the Hill to support your appropriations.

On Cooking

In today's Times Amanda Hesser has an op-ed criticizing Michelle Obama for saying cooking isn't her favorite thing, etc. I'm not impressed with the column, particularly this paragraph:
The twist, of course, is that convenience foods save neither money nor time. As Marion Nestle pointed out in her 2006 book “What to Eat,” prewashed romaine hearts cost at least $1.50 a pound more than romaine heads. And the 2006 U.C.L.A. study found that families saved little or no cooking time when they built their meals around frozen entrees and jarred pasta sauce.
Ms. Hesser neglects the critical saving, at least for the old geezers and the lazy: effort. And most convenience foods save effort, if not money.

On a sidenote, have we had any spouses in the White House who enjoyed cooking to the extent they sat the chefs down? (If I remember, Calvin Coolidge did some of his cooking, at least according to Backstairs at the White House.)

Kristof Versus Shakespeare

I remember we read Julius Caesar in high school (9th grade maybe?). I vaguely remember someone, maybe Caesar, saying not to trust skinny men (like me) who are hungry and discontented.

But today in the Times Nicholas Kristof has a list of 15 things to do to stay safe in the sorts of countries he visits and in number 9 he disagrees with the great Will:
9. When you arrive in a new city, don’t take an airport taxi unless you know it is safe. If you do take a cab, choose a scrawny driver and lock ALL the doors — thieves may pull open the doors at a red light and run off with a bag.
I'm glad to know skinny is getting some respect.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Czars and Bureaucracies

This article at Government Executive argues that Obama's "czars" reflect and counter a bureaucracy's resistance to cooperating with other bureaucracies. Makes sense, but what happens when the bureaucracies in conflict are the Navy, Marines, Army, Air Force in DOD or NRCS, FSA, RD, APHIS, etc. in USDA? (Though it seems Secretary Gates is reasonably effective in managing DOD.)

Motorcycle Babe for Justice?

I don't like motorcycles. When I was young, occasionally a motorcyclist would come bombing up NY route 369 to the corner (it was a reasonably flat and quiet ride from Binghamton, or maybe from the Chenango Valley State Park). The noise would carry across the valley to our farm, disrupting the rural tranquility. To a young boy it represented the intrusion of urban aliens into our agrarian paradise. No, I don't like motorcycles.

But, given this sentence from the Times profile on Judge Sotomayor, I'm ready for her to be on the Court: "One incident that figures largely in firm lore was a seizure in Chinatown, where the counterfeiters ran away, and Ms. Sotomayor got on a motorcycle and gave chase."

This was when she was with a law firm that was trying to protect trademarks from counterfeiters, particularly high-end pocketbooks. It's the urban equivalent of Justice O'Connor's youth on her Arizona ranch.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Unpleasant Report for Bureaucracies

It seems bureaucrats are better at paying their bills timely than the bureaucracies they run--from a Government Executive article on a Congressional Research Service report:
According to the most recent data from the Office of Management and Budget, in January 2009, governmentwide delinquency rate for centrally billed card accounts -- those paid by an agency rather than an employee -- was 19.23 percent. The average delinquency rate for individually billed cards was 6.25 percent, data showed.
USDA was one of the worst agencies, though apparently DOD distorts the picture.

Boom Over for Organic Dairy?

That's the theme of this NYTimes article, describing farms which went organic in 2005 or 6, and now are having problems. I never got into the business details of our farm, so I'm not sure who we shipped our milk to and whether there was a contract. I suspect not. Apparently organic dairies have contracts with their processor, presumably to ensure compliance with organic standards?

One of the problems the organic people run into is the math of a niche market. Generally speaking, the bigger the market, the more fluctuations will damp themselves out. (Unless, that is, you have a bubble like the subprime or dot-com ones--then the bigger the market the harder the fall.) So the article mentions the possibility of selling milk into the conventional milk market, or trying to sell locavore/raw milk.

One result of the problems will be the less efficient organic producers will fail, meaning the average size will increase, moving organic dairy further away from the organic ideal.

[Updated: Of course things aren't good for conventional dairy either, as this LA Times story says.]

[Updated II: John Phipps comments on the same article. I'm struck by the fact that even for organic dairies the cost of [bought, I assume] feed is 50 percent or more of total costs.]

NRCS Gets Dinged

A couple pieces of bad news for NRCS:

  1. EWG says they could improve the job they're doing with EQIP in the states in the Mississippi watershed. "We found that, up to now, EQIP has not been deployed as effectively as it could be in these 10 states. The methods used to decide how to spend EQIP dollars within a state and which farmers will get those dollars are more likely to result in diffuse and fragmented efforts to reduce pollution from farms, rather than the focused and coordinated effort needed to clean up the Mississippi River and its tributaries."
  2. Farmgate reports on a court case USDA lost in Iowa, having to do with the definition of "wetlands" under swampbuster rules:

    In his summary of the case, Iowa State’s McEowen says, “So, in essence, USDA harassed the plaintiff with bogus wetland violation claims for many years which placed the plaintiff within the potential peril of bankruptcy and continued to maintain its bogus claims in an attempt to avoid paying the plaintiff’s attorney fees.” He says that is not new, and quotes another case, in which the court said, “…there is no worse statute than one misunderstood by those who interpret it.”

    McEowen suggests that USDA should send its staff and attorneys to some wetland education classes, and if courts keep making USDA reimburse land owners for their attorney fees, then USDA may learn what the law is.

First We Kill, No, Intimidate All Lawyers

That's what law prof Ann Althouse seems to advocate as the tag-end of her latest comment on the Sotomayor nomination.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

A Video Is Worth a Thousand Locavore Words

Ann Althouse has a link to a video from which shows how the world has changed in the last 200 years, both in income and health. I may be wrong, but I attribute these gains to the work of human reason working across boundaries, which seems to me to be the antithesis of the locavore movement.

MIDAS and Recovery

Finally got back to the USDA Recovery links. FSA has one, which includes a page with this short piece of info:
$50 million in funding has been provided to support FSA IT stabilization and modernization. $31 million is planned for stabilization and $19 million is planned for modernization (MIDAS).

The Stabilization effort includes improving the management, monitoring and performance of the current web-based system networks, hosting environments, applications, databases and reporting capabilities needed to support customer business transactions on USDA's Common Computing Environment.

MIDAS is an initiative to "Modernize and Innovate the Delivery of Agricultural Systems." Its objective is to streamline FSA business processes and develop an effective long-term IT system and architecture for FSA farm program delivery.
I'll try to do better in checking FSA, because I'm breathlessly awaiting the posting of further details of the expenditures for stablization and MIDAS.

True But Discouraging Words

From Reihan Salam at The American Scene:
As we all know, the tribe of blog readers is small and peculiar in a lot of ways.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Limits of Public Input II

Here's the Open Gov site, which is accepting proposals for better and more transparent government. At the risk of sounding arrogant and condescending (okay, I am) it's amusing and dismaying to see proposals for releasing Kennedy assassination records and the true facts of 9/11, plus a bunch of other idiocies posted to it. (The best and most practical suggestion I saw was for each government web site to display its usage stats.)

NRCS Leaps Ahead Again

The government is now on You-Tube. I went there to check out what they had for agriculture--some Vilsack clips and this NRCS video on the farm bill. I have to say I prefer Susan Boyle, but NRCS should get some credit for being the first USDA agency to take advantage of the new deal.

And via Government Executive, this Nextgov article outlines the government's use of social media and plans for the future.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Government ID's

This piece at Government Executive outlines a proposal to replace the "Real ID" law. I'm particularly amused by this:
"The bill would eliminate a mandate for states to create a national information-technology system for sharing data. Instead, state departments of motor vehicles would have to "take appropriate steps" to determine a person does not have a license from another state."
Meanwhile this Federal Computer Weekly piece covers attempts to improve the ID's of first responders.

Federal Emergency Management Agency officials hope a pilot program demonstrated today to make first responders' credentials interoperable across jurisdictions will expand nationwide.

Run by FEMA’s Office of National Capital Region Coordination (NCRC), the program encourages state and local officials and the companies that run critical infrastructures to ensure that their credentials comply with Federal Information Processing Standard 201.
And Equifax has its own proposal:

Equifax, the big credit agency that already knows more about your flea count than you do, wants to help.

It is developing a service that will let you create an online identity that can assert various “claims” that it will back up. To an online wine merchant, it might back you up when you say you are of legal age. If you are applying to open a bank account, the company might vouch for your entire profile, including name, address, birthday and Social Security number.
Personally, as a confirmed bureaucrat, I'd like one Federal ID card. But that's not possible in our society; we're too paranoid.

There's No Sanctuary from the Damned Consultants

It was shocking to read this item on the feed: The first two sentences under the "Introduction":
Would anyone doubt that a successful dairy farm requires a team effort? Silly question? Not at all. Most dairy farms have groups of people or collections of individuals rather than teams.
It shows how things have changed since my childhood.

The Country's Changing Concerns: Diversity

The Sotomayor nomination prompted me to check Wikipedia, which has a very interesting article on Demographics of the Supreme Court of the United States. Did you know Roger Taney was the first Catholic Justice? And we used to worry about geographic diversity? It's a nice way to view our changing history. (And the Wikipedia article on Sotomayor offers a different view than one will see in the hot button blogs--as a tease, she voted in support of pro-life position, racists, and baseball. )

Monday, May 25, 2009

Safety, Safety, Where Is Safety?

Sara at Down To Earth writes about how to use reusable cloth bags safely. It's a reminder not to take safety for granted, there's a continual conflict between "them (viruses, bacteria, etc.)" and "us", and perhaps also that it's possible to sweat the small stuff too much.

NARA Needs Reinvention

I'd agree with the thrust of this Nextgov post, which is NARA builds a museum for records, but doesn't get into the government's handling of records:
A year ago, NARA announced plans to build an Electronic Records Archive, but "has been passive [in] trying to update records management practices at most federal agencies," said Meredith Fuchs, general counsel for The George Washington University's National Security Archives. She referred to a report from the Government Accountability Office that found NARA no longer performed inspections of agency records management programs for e-mail and has not conducted any since 2000.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Organic Internships

This NY Times article says they are more and more popular. College students want to spent their summers working on an organic farm. I guess it's a good way to get cheap help, if you've got the personality and the patience to make it work.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

FSA Office Employees Commute

I remember a state specialist in Washington (state) who refused to come to DC. He had several reasons, but as I recall one was the idea he lived close to the office. And that's the mental image I've had all these years--in the counties the employees are living nearby and there's definitely no rush hour.

I may have to try to reconsider, given this quote from a NASCOE report:

"In my county office I have 2 employees who are each traveling over 86 miles a day." (I wouldn't be surprised if one of the employees had transferred from a closed office, but I don't know. Whatever the cause, 43 miles is a long commute.)

Ag Land Prices Decrease

For a while I thought I was seeing an exact duplication of the 1970's and 80's in the boom and bust of farming, but I guess the land prices never took off quite as much. So now the value of good farmland has dropped only 6 percent, which shouldn't put too many people in trouble.

Friday, May 22, 2009

FSA and Payment Limitation

This Agweek report should, but won't, cause the greens and foodies to have a second thought about tightening payment limitation rules. Why? It shows, at least to someone who's familiar with the process, the complexities of enforcing the existing rules. I'd guess this case has probably taken several years worth of USDA employee time. Bottom line: if someone lies, how the hell does a government bureaucrat find the lie? More important, how do you get enough proof to convince a Federal prosecutor he or she can convince a jury of the farmer's peers to convict? And finally, how do you get the money back? Those difficulties can be daunting. I suspect, but don't know, the psychology is often similar to dealing with a problem employee, or a problem person; it's easier to close one's eyes, to let the possible problem pass, to let the cup pass from one.

That's why we need a certain number of classic bureaucrats, those who self-righteously want everyone to obey the rules, to the letter.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

North Dakota

One of the problems of farming in the "pothole" country of the Dakotas and MN is they expand and contract. I remember in the early 80's they were contracting and the issue was whether the exposed land could quality as cropland under the farm programs. Now the same land is 6 feet under. (Nice to see Dale Ihry has survived FSA for 17 years in the state office.)
North Dakota has been locked in a wet cycle since 1992, said Dale Ihry, program specialist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency. Devils Lake has risen more than 20 feet in that time, he said, taking tens of thousands of farm acres as it grows.

Big Plans Sometimes End in a Little Tinkle

From Obama Foodorama, on the visit of San Fran Mayor Newsom to the White House. Newsom had a "Victory Garden" planted last July(?) but:
The SF Victory Garden was de-installed in early December, because the cost of security guards to keep it from "becoming a toilet" for the local homeless population was about $14,000 a month.
The piece has a couple photos of the White House garden.

French Dairy--A Vote for Metrics

Also from Mr. Beauregard, a post on the crisis of French dairy farmers. Makes me wish we had followed the wisdom of the Founding Father, Mr. Jefferson, and adopted the metric system totally. (I'm too lazy to convert litres into gallons and euros into dollars.)

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Bad News for USDA

USDA had the second largest drop (after SEC, which is understandable given the stock market) in the rating of "Best Places to Work." And OMB director Orszag says he's looking at the poorest agencies to improve.

Ironically, given the pasting USDA's taken over discrimination (Pigford), USDA scores considerably better among black employees than among all employees. And it's fourth! on "support for diversity". Bet that doesn't make many news articles.

A Depressing Sentence, Even for a Geezer

From Dirk Beauregard's invaluable blog on French culture and society:
"Nowadays, very few French girls seem to go topless"
I think the world has grown more conservative, at least in some ways, since my youth.

Quote of the Day

“I run every year,” said Morley, “whether I need to or not.”

From the Ipswich, MA election reporting. Shows public spirit hasn't vanished in MA. (And for the historians amongst us, who woulda thought we still had "Feoffees" in these United States.)

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Torture Works, Ask the Nazis

I strongly recommend the Richard Evans trilogy on the Third Reich. First saw his "Third Reich at War" on the new shelf at the Reston library, picked it up, and read it. It's a big book, focused not on the course of the war, but what was happening in Hitler-controlled Europe from the start of WWII to the end. It's well written and interesting, appearing to a non-specialist as if it's balanced in judgment. Evans follows several individuals who wrote diaries/letters which were preserved, giving another perspective on the events.

After reading the book, I got the "The Coming of the Third Reich", which covers events from the end of WWI to the Nazis assumption of power. And now I'm in the middle of "Third Reich in Power".

One of the things which struck me in this book was Evans' casual mention of torture, which the Nazis used, particularly on the Communists and Social Democrats as they were destroying the two parties. Now the book was published in 2005, so it was well before the current controversies over torture. What I took away was the Nazis assumed that torture worked, and Evans assumed it worked sometimes. I think that' right, at least in terms of a definition of "worked" as bending the subject to one's will. That's not necessarily the same as getting valuable information. (Remember, the North Vietnamese tortured their prisoners and some, including McCain, bent but it didn't do them much good.) But maybe I'm still reacting to the aftereffects of WWII, but we're the good guys, not the Nazis, and we don't torture. If holding to our principles costs lives of some good guys, that's the way it is. As John Wayne would say in some movie, "do you want to live forever".

Indian Elections and Vandana Shiva

Ms Vandana Shiva is an Indian activist who attacks the green revolution and industrial agriculture. She's pushed the meme of suicides of Indian farmers, who are over their heads in debt.

But this week the Congress Party, which has led the government, won a surprise victory, which is interpreted as pro-industrial, pro-modernization. I was struck by sentences like this one, in the descriptions: "In his last term, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh oversaw a costly initiative to guarantee employment to the poor in rural India and alleviate farmer debt."

I wonder whether the Congress victory means Indian farmers aren't in as rough shape as Ms Shiva claims, or at least they feel the system is responding to their concerns.

A Sentence

From a NYTimes piece on the development and approval of the CIA's use of interrogation methods:
"Without full staff support, few lawmakers are equipped to make difficult legal and policy judgments about secret programs, critics say."
Wonder what that says about lawmakers.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Cap and Trade

I read some discussion that cap and trade had the advantage of enabling the politicians to make more deals than would a carbon tax. I thought of that when I read Farm policy this morning, quoting Chris Clayton:
“People familiar with the situation who spoke to DTN said that [not mentioning agriculture much in the cap and trade bill] doesn’t necessarily mean Waxman sees no role for agriculture, but that Waxman may leave agriculture’s role in the bill to the House Agriculture Committee to add to the legislation. An amendment for agricultural offsets also could come up in Waxman’s full committee debate next week.”
Since Peterson is threatening to kill cap and trade unless ethanol is protected and promoted, that sounds as if there's a deal in the works.

White House Offices, Rumsfeld and Geithner

Blogged yesterday on the proliferation of White House offices--saying they weren't "silos" but might cause other problems. In today's media are pieces which show the pros and cons of White House staff offices.

In the Post there's an overview article, mostly from anonymous sources, on Geithner's management of Treasury:
Government officials, inside the Treasury and out, say the unresolved issues are piling up in part because of vacancies in the department's top ranks. But some of the officials also cite the Treasury's ad-hoc management, which is dominated by a small band of Geithner's counselors who coordinate rescue initiatives but lack formal authority to make decisions. Heavy involvement by the White House in Treasury affairs has further muddied the picture of who is responsible for key issues, the officials add.
That last sentence, which no doubt originated with Treasury bureaucrats, shows some of the problems of having lots of White House staffers, particularly with the clout of Larry Summers.

Meanwhile, the retrospective on Rumsfeld in GQ draws some comment--I've particularly read the Political Animal posts. There's enough quotes from the GQ piece so I haven't spent my time there. See here on slow walking nonproliferation, where an anonymous source said Rumsfeld tried, by "slow-walking" its implementation, to undermine a nonproliferation agreement Bush and Putin had made. Also here on his lack of action on Katrina. That shows one of the reasons to have White House staffers--the bureaucracy doesn't like to implement stuff that's not invented here or is risky. You need staff to ride herd on the bureaucrats (who will fight back by leaking to the media if the staff doesn't do it well).

Meanwhile Sally Quinn, in the Post (she gets my back up, but she's made a career of developin sources) writes the knives are out for another White House staffer, national security adviser Jim Jones. She wants Obama to support him or fire him.

So the question now is, how well is Obama doing with the bureaucracy?

Sunday, May 17, 2009

When Is a Silo a Silo?

That question is prompted by this post questioning the number of different offices Obama has created in his executive office (EO).

I remember reading something once about the evolution of offices. I think the writer started with Britain, which has a long history, and traced the evolution of the cabinet and various positions. (For example, Lord Privy Seal used to be the monarch's "body" man, carrying the official seal of office. Then it evolved to a more bureaucratic position and lost its eminence. )

Part of the argument was to the effect an effective cabinet needed to be small. A "Decider" will abide only a handful of close advisers. George Washington started with a cabinet of four people, secretaries of State, War, Treasury and Attorney General. (Maybe 5--Postmaster general.) And Hamilton and Jefferson were his early advisers. But, gradually, the cabinet offices became more bureaucratic and, by the time of Andrew Jackson we had the "kitchen cabinet" developing--a handful of people, some with official positions and some without, who worked with Jackson.

That trend has continued--Presidents aren't about to risk their reelection and legacy to the abilities of their cabinet officers, so they create more assistants and offices in their own office. (Clinton campaigned against the trend, promising to cut the EO by 25 percent, a rash promise that contributed to his early problems.

Back to the question--as a bureaucrat I'd define a "silo" as an organization which hires, trains, and promotes its own people. The Marines are a silo, NRCS is a silo, etc. People imbibe the culture and drink the Kool-aid when their career is spent within an organization. That isn't likely the case with the EO people, even though the proliferation of offices is likely to lead to other bureaucratic problems.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Most Surprising Sentence About the UK

From Mr. Beauregard at Fabfrog, in a long essay on French youth and their concerns (with his characteristic misspelling :-) )
"Mrs T broughtt the social mobility to the UK that is still somewhat lacking in France." [I just realized, I might need to explain that's Mrs. Thatcher, given there's many adults for whom she is ancient history.]
My impressions of Thatcher derive from BBC programs (and US news reports) of the time, mostly anti, in that she was shown as driving unemployment and poverty up. So the image of her as freeing up social mobility and pushing higher education surprises.

Also interesting: "It seems almost natural to go to university."

Friday, May 15, 2009

Exaggerations With Respect to African Land

The headline on this piece, "50,000,000 Acres..." seems to be unsupported. It's carried over from the post to which it refers, but nowhere do I see any supporting figures which add up to 50 mill. 6 or 7 million seems more like it.

I'm skeptical these acquisitions will be terrible. It's not clear how they're going to be farmed. My prejudices say a big farm of 1,000,000 acres is not the way to go. I'd guess the Chinese aren't going to sell off 500 acre farms to Chinese farmers, although China has some recent experience with the problems of communally owned land operated as one enterprise. Assuming the countries can figure out how to manage the enterprises and the land effectively, things could work out. There would be an investment in infrastructure, which many places in Africa lack, and in equipment, fertilizer, and pesticides which African agriculture needs.

Of course the greens would argue organic agriculture in Africa has proven its ability to out-produce the methods currently used in African agriculture. The investments by the countries mean a different model of agriculture (I assume, but maybe the Koreans and Chinese are going for the organic model ;-). We'll see what works.

A Stereotype Confirmed: The Talkative Italian

From a post at treehugger talking about slow food:
Mr. Petrini points out that Italians used to spend 32% of their income on food. Now they spend 14% on food and 12% on their mobile phones.
(I missed commenting on a report showing that people in nations who ate slowly were less obese than those who eat fast. I wonder if the slow eating was the result of lots of talking.)

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Concentrated Vegetable Feeding Operations (CVFO's)

Otherwise known as high-tech greenhouses. This LA Times story describes "energy-neutral" greenhouses, built by the Dutch in CA. (Of course the Dutch--who else believes so completely in human control over the environment, starting with reclaiming land from the ocean.)

The yields are high: 482 tons of tomatoes per acre isn't bad at all.

I'd point out the story describes an innovation which sits on a potential fault line between global warming people and foodies. On the one hand, the greenhouse complex has a low impact on the environment, creating electricity through a solar panel farm, reusing water, cutting water and fertilizer use. But there's some parallels to CAFO's, in the attempt to measure and control all the inputs and outputs. And there's certainly no locavore aspect or organic farming, at least in the romantic, living with nature branch.

Doing Regulations

GAO has a new report on the rulemaking process. (After a law is enacted, usually the responsible agency within a department has to go through rulemaking to come up with regulations which are legally binding on the public.)
Based on the limited information available, the average time needed to complete a rulemaking across our 16 case-study rules was about 4 years, with a range from about 1 year to nearly 14 years, but there was considerable variation among agencies and rules.
As far as I can see, the focus seems to be on the differences among agencies, the lack of data on the process, and the role of OMB's review body (the one Cass Sunstein is to head). Nothing on the impact, or lack thereof, of new technology and Note if it takes 4 years to do a reg, a new President doesn't impact regs until he's almost out the door, or reelected. So much for fantasies of how oppressive the government is--we just can't act that fast.

The Military-Industrial Complex in WWII

Stumbled across this site (Pacific War Encylcopedia) via a comment on Reminds me of my fascination growing up with the navy and WWI and II. Idly surfing it, and trying to exercise willpower, I came on this:

The Alaskas formed the heavyweight tier of a three-tiered cruiser family conceived in 1939 (the other two tiers eventually becoming the Baltimores and the Clevelands.) They were an utterly unnecessary design, doing nothing that an Iowa did not do better, and doing most things much worse; and, at $75 million apiece, they were not that much cheaper than the Iowas. They were originally a response to rumors that the Japanese had something similar in the works, which the Japanese did not.
I'd also cite this bit:
Allied interrogators did not as a rule employ any form of torture. They did not need to. Because the Japanese military code of honor absolutely forbade surrender, Japanese soldiers received no instruction on how to behave in captivity, and those captured felt such shame that they had little psychological resistance to interrogation. Many sang like canaries. However, the fact that officers almost never surrendered meant that almost all prisoners were enlisted men with little or no high-level information to impart.

The Limits of Public Input

According to this Post piece:
Forget about the economic crisis, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and saving Social Security: An online opinion survey released by the White House this week ranks legalizing pot, playing online poker and cracking down on Scientologists as far more important issues
It reflects the limits of the public involvement campaign by the Obama administration.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Fun for FSA Offices--Direct Attribution

FSA just issued a notice on cleaning up their computer files which will be used in enforcing direct attribution of payments for payment limitation rules. Unfortunately the 2008 farm bill caught FSA partway through its change from the System/36/AS400 system (minicomputers in each county office communicating nightly with the mainframe in Kansas City) to an Internet-based solution. A problem with the first system which we fought beginning in 1985 with its first implementation is keeping all the data consistent between counties and mainframe (now it's called synchronizing and software packages handle it, then it was called a pain in the a** and it requires human intervention and troubleshooting). And that means you're dependent on everyone doing their job perfectly and no glitches in the process.

As far as I'm concerned, USDA's failure to get FSA's basic farmer and farm data moved completely to the Internet shows Secretaries Glickman, Venneman, Johannes, and Schafer were not good managers. (I'm sure they're all greatly concerned about my lack of regard for them.)

Race and Sex Classification of Farmers

USDA is asking for comments on its collection of race, sex, etc. classification of farmers:
This notice announces the OASCR's intention to
request approval for a new information collection aimed at
standardizing and consolidating the race, ethnicity, sex, national
origin, disability and age (RESNODA) data for agencies within the U.S.
Department of Agriculture (USDA) that serve agricultural producers and
This is a result of GAO criticism of USDA's current records, which are based on visual inspection of the farmer.

I plan to write on this some more later. Comments are open through July 13.

The Role of Government

I'm reading a biography of Alfred Sloan (head of GM from 1920's on). Turns out a big controversy then was over safety glass in windshields. Sloan objected, because customers didn't want it, as witness the fact they weren't willing to pay extra for it. (Similar to the 1950's, when Ford (under Robert McNamara) tried to sell a steering wheel with recessed center column, among other safety features, and couldn't.)

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Assessing Performance

Obama is proposing changes in the PART (Program Assessment Rating Tool) system for assessing performance according to this Government Executive piece .And this OMB document. Although the words are okay, I reiterate my feeling: the only way for this sort of thing to be really effective is to get Congress to buy in. For example, Obama proposed cutting a number of programs, based partly on their PART scores. But I haven't heard any Democrats or Republicans agree that was a good basis for decisionmaking. It's the appropriators in Congress who have hold of the money, meaning the hearts and minds of the bureaucrats will follow them, not Obama.

IRS: Do It Right the First Time

Here's a nextgov article on an Obama proposal to move money into more after-the-fact tax auditing automation (the "Automated Under-Reporter System"). In other words, run more matches of 1040 data against other available databases. A trade group for government contractors criticizes the idea, saying IRS should focus on avoiding such things from happening.

In other words, suppose FSA issues a payment to a tax ID. It reports the payment to IRS. IRS expects the tax ID's 1040/tax return to reflect the FSA payment.

In my experience, asking IT people to do a batch match of two files was easy, and that seems to be what we're talking here. Yes, it'd be nice to avoid problems upfront, which is why FSA is supposed to be checking estate ID against death records and asking IRS to verify AGI is under the limits. But if the local landlord of an FSA/NRCS office forgets to report a rental payment, or the person who transcribes an appeal hearing forgets to report the services check, I've no problem with an after-the-fact check. People should pay their taxes, period, whether it's Wesley Snipes or Jane Doe.

Food Safety

NYTimes reports the food system seems to be more safe than it was 10 years ago. It's complicated because we're better at identifying problems than we were. "Industrial ag" can institute more controls, do more testing, police interfaces better, but a problem gets spread much wider. More organic and locavore agriculture depends less on technology and safeguards and more on the integrity and good practices of the farmer.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Worst Question Today

Comes in the Washington Post from Howard Kurtz, writing on the fate of newspapers:
"Why did no establishment media company create a Craigslist, a Huffington Post, a Google News, a Twitter, or other sites that have altered the boundaries of news and information?"
The answer is twofold:
  1. With the possible exception of Huffington Post, which I've never visited, the creators of the other sites were doing something different, but not trying to create "Craigslist", etc. Craigslist as it exists today is the result of a long evolution, it wasn't created in one go.
  2. Established media companies, just as for any bureaucracy, spend their energies doing their established job. The publisher of the NYTimes doesn't come to work every day asking himself/herself: what are we going to do differently today? The workday is shaped by the expectations of his/her employees, advertisers, etc. The creator of Craigslist came to work everyday with no web of expectations--no one had ever seen a craigslist, so he was free to create it. (See the Christensen books for expansion of the point.)

The Iron Lung

The Post carried an AP story about an NC woman who lived 61 years in an iron lung. For those who may be too young, the iron lung added significantly to the fear we had of polio when I was growing up. Epidemics/outbreaks of infectious disease were common enough in my childhood, although down significantly from the previous century. That history makes me very impatient with those who don't vaccinate their children. (And makes me follow Respectful Insolence, a blogger who mocks such people.)

Sunday, May 10, 2009

NIMBY Among the LIberals

Treehugger reports that highspeed rail loses support when the tracks are in your backyard, depressing your housing values. (To show liberals aren't always and everywhere hypocrites, my Representative wrote an op-ed welcoming, albeit lukewarmly, terrorists to his district for trial (the Federal courthouse in Alexandria, VA. )

Our Weak Government

Jason DeParle has a good article in the Times today, discussing the many variances in the safety net among the states:

Just 50 percent of people eligible for food stamps receive them in California, compared with 98 percent in Missouri. Nineteen percent of the unemployed get jobless benefits in South Dakota, compared with 67 percent in Idaho.

Fifteen states rank among the top 10 in providing one form of aid and the bottom 10 in another. California ranks second in distributing cash welfare but last in food stamps. South Dakota, last in jobless benefits, is first in subsidized housing.

That's another example of why our government, which the right thinks is too powerful and too oppressive, is in my mind too weak.

(In one of the stories he traces amid the statistics, a foodstamp applicant finds misunderstanding among the agencies, and finally an erroneous USDA web page.)

Saturday, May 09, 2009

FSA Gets Better on Recovery

I've criticized FSA for being tardy in updating their site to cover ARRA (recovery act) activities. They seem to have updated in the last week--here's the IT page. It doesn't say much, except $19 million for MIDAS. In my surfing of websites I mentioned earlier today I stumbled across a joint project of RMA and FSA for crop acreage reporting. I'd like to know more about that.

Bureaucratic Silos

I think it's telling that 15 years after Congress merged part of Farmer's Home Administration with Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service to form FSA, we still have separate employee organizations--NASCOE and the National Association of Credit Specialists and the National Association of Support Employees of the Farm Service Agency.

It's perhaps more telling that a person who prides himself on looking across agencies (that would be moi) hadn't visited the latter two sites until today.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Capping Marketing Assistance--Corrected

From Obama's budget:

This proposal would limit farm commodity payments to $250,000 per person to direct payments to those farmers who most need them. This would be accomplished by maintaining the 2008 Farm Bill payment limits for Direct and Counter-Cyclical Payments ($40,000 and $65,000 respectively), but capping marketing assistance loan gains (price support payments) at $145,000 per person. The 2008 Farm Bill eliminated all caps on marketing loan gains, which were previously capped at $75,000 per person ($150,000 if you had multiple farms). According to the Department of Agriculture's 2007 Agricultural Resource ManagementSurvey, roughly 16 percent of farms had sales of greater than $250,000, yet they collected about 57 percent of all commodity payments.1
I may be missing something elsewhere in the fine print, but I think this is different than Obama's proposal earlier (limiting payments to farmers who have gross income over $500K). [Updated--removed last sentence--I don't think the newspapers were the ones who said Obama was holding to his original proposal--sometimes it's hard to remember what you read where.]

[5-8-09 Correction--I've found the basis for reports that Obama's budget persists in the elimination of payments to farmers getting over $500K--page 86 of the terminations and reductions. So I was wrong, stopping too fast in my research. Apologies for misleading anyone.]

Farmgate Not Uptodate

From Farmgate:
If you sign up for ACRE, FSA offices will require historical farm yield information. At this time, USDA has not released the rules on what documents are required, and what happens if you don’t have them, says IL Extension economist Nick Paulson. Those rules may come soon, since the announced sign-up period for ACRE begins on June 1.
I think this notice covers pulse crop evidence and handbook 1-DCP covers ACRE generally. (I'm interested in the idea that at least some extension people don't follow the FSA website--it takes a long while to convert everyone's habits.) It also looks as if some county offices have put out a newsletter containing a summary of the rules--do a search for "ACRE production evidence" on the website and you get a list of county letters with titles indicating relevance.

Cows Trade Privacy for Contentment

Oregon State brings news--a new device to track how much downtime a cow has. (The more downtime, the more milk. Maybe some bureaucrats are really cows?)
Wanting to help dairy farmers learn more about this to maximize their milk production, Oregon State University has launched research to study the factors that influence dairy cows' comfort level. To do this, the OSU dairy center is using an Israeli-made ankle bracelet that senses when a cow is lying down by determining the angle of her leg to the ground. When a cow lies down, the blood flow to her udder increases, which produces more milk.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

And You Can Fool a Few of the People All the Time

Mostly architects, apparently. Here's another vertical farm/garden building and it won an award. Apparently in the parallel universe these people exist in the sun shines on everyone, whether they're on the north, south, east, or west side of the building. (I don't want to taint every foodie with this nonsense, so I've set up a new tab.)

Farmers and the Estate Tax

John Phipps has an interesting post. Bottom line, the adverse effect of estate taxes on farmers is the lawyers' fees you pay while living, not the tax your heirs pay Uncle.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Ants Freeload? Who Knew?

A very good science section in the NYTimes last week (I lost track of this in draft form), highlighted by a story which disrupts all one's preconceptions about ants. Turns out if you have the patience of Job, or Anna Dornhaus, and track individual ants over their lifetime, some ants freeload just as some humans do. And some "specialists" aren't very good at their jobs.

USDA Has a Ways to Go

The official federal government website,, has tabs for "audiences". On that page, there's a link for "Rural Communities and Citizens". Click on that, and you get to the National Agricultural Library. Once there, there's a "Browse by Subject" heading, with a link for "USDA Rural Programs." Once there, there are four items under "Spotlights", two of which are the 2008 Bush administration proposals for the 2008 farm bill, and a side by side comparison of the 2008 and 2002 farm bills. Rather out of date IMHO.

In addition, the "In the News" section, which displays news items seems to have some problems--when I checked it displayed 3 items from Brownfield, including one which seemed likely to be on the Pigford issue, but when I clicked on it there was a long list of news items, but not the one I clicked on.

Grassley and Hagan on Pigford

The two Senators have introduced legislation re: Pigford claims. From Grassley's statement:
This bill will make 3 changes to the farm bill. First it will allow the claimants to access the $100 million already appropriated in the farm bill, but once that is expended gain access to the Department of Treasury permanent appropriated judgment fund. Second, it will allow reasonable attorney fees, administrative costs, and expenses to be paid from the judgment fund in accordance with the 1999 consent decree. Finally, it includes a section making fraud related to claims a criminal offense with punishment of a fine or up to 5 years in prison or both.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

RSS Feeds--FSA Over NRCS

To track the competition (which is a figment of my imagination because all NRCS employees love all FSA employees and vice versa), score one for FSA. The FSA website displays the RSS feed subscription icon prominently. (I think it's new, although a user has been able to get news releases by email for several years.) I don't see the equivalent on the NRCS site.

Of course, the Assistant Secretary for Administration is a former head of NRCS, which means NRCS alumni have an edge at the upper echelons of the department.

Sometimes I Wonder

How much attention is being paid to e-government? From the FSA explanation of its on-line customer statement:

"The USDA Customer Statement is a special focus of the eGovernment initiatives that Agriculture."

That's the first sentence on the explanation, with no verb after "Agriculture". It might be a false start, because the next sentence and the rest of page reads okay. But you'd think in 3 years someone would have noticed and corrected the error.

Who Watches the Watchers? GAO Lacks Controls

One of GAO's favorite criticisms of hard-working bureaucrats is "they lack controls". Yes, GAO is the home of the original Puritans, where control is everything.

Thus I take particular pleasure from this small item in the Post: a former contract worker for GAO was able to steal 89 laptops from them over a period of 16 months! Sounds as if they need to improve their controls.

Distribution of Organic Production

The other day the NY Times had a nice set of maps showing the distribution of organic production across the country. It seemed concentrated in the blue states, NY, MI, WI, MN, and the west coast. But Michael Roberts adds his expertise to caution us about easy interpretations of pretty pictures.

Good News for Foodies

According to their trade association, sales of organic products grew by 17 percent in 2008. (Nonfood products were up 38 percent.)

Monday, May 04, 2009

What The? Locavore Defends a CAFO?

That's not really the case, but it's a headline grabber. :-) What Walt Jeffries is really doing is defending rationality--mostly notably the fact that any animal operation has to deal with death so the simple fact a CAFO might have a few dead pigs is meaningless. My parents didn't do pigs, but my memory is we'd have a few dead hens in a year from a flock of about 1,000--but when predators got in or we got hit with infectious disease, the toll went up. And we lost some cows--broken hip, milk fever, ingested metal. It happens.

Marian Robinson

Since the President's mother-in-law is just a tad older than I, I can sympathize with her resistance to change as reported in this NYTimes article. (I particularly identified with the plotting her children did to persuade her to move.) Nice to know she's happy.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Words of Wisdom

From a piece in the NY Times on how Daisuke Matsuzaka's former baseball team used the $50+ million they got from the Boston Red Sox for his rights.
“If you are comfortable in the toilets, then everything is comfortable.”
Truer words were never uttered.

Some context:

Whereas the old facilities were dingy concrete latrines, state-of-the-art urinals line the men’s rooms along with high-tech hand dryers built into the bright blue and white tile — the team colors. But the main attractions are the new toilets with TotTo’s Warmlet seats in stalls with floor-to-ceiling doors.

Each stall in the women’s bathrooms holds a Toto Washlet, a toilet and bidet in one unit. These $1,500 fixtures provide a luxurious experience for fans, who may spend their time in the restrooms contemplating the full extent of Matsuzaka’s legacy with the Lions.
And if you're interested in the subject, read The Big Necessity. (The foodies pay lots of attention to the front end, but they're mostly whippersnappers and will find the back end more interesting as they age.)

A Criticism of National Black Farmer Association

Here's a press release criticizing John Boyd and his association

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Best Sentence of May 2

Today the wife is away playing so I'm getting some spring cleaning done. But this is definitely the best sentence I've read today:

"Many of us get unique subsidies for keeping our body temperature close to 98 degrees"

From John Phipps re: cap and trade/environmentalism and farming.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Engber at Slate on High Fructose Sugar

See here for what seems to be a good summary of the corn-derived, high fructose sugar issue.

Limits of Gov. 2.0 is billed as a Social network for Government. (Still don't understand it, but I've added its RSS feed.) There's an interesting post here pointing out the limits of the sort of suggestion system the Obama administration has used, first before inauguration, and now in connection with The main point is, by exposing ideas for user evaluation as they are posted, you get a big first mover advantage. Once you have 3 digits worth of suggestions, only the oddball like me will scroll through and evaluate. The writer prefers this:
Imagine if the National Dialogue first enabled submission of ideas with examples on an equal basis. Then it enabled a simultaneous consideration with an ability of public comment. Then the ideas were vetted based on the public comment received. And finally, the final ideas were then submitted with an alternative analysis based on meritocracy. The final ideas could credibly be considered by the broader audience, based on merit.

Division in the Ranks

The Federation of Southern Cooperatives has an April 23 press release attacking the Black Farmer demo of April 28. Devotes some words to the idea that it's the lawyers who are gaining from the effort on Pigford.