Sunday, February 28, 2010

Media Bias--Telling Us What We Want

Via Marginal Revolution, a study which seems to show that newspapers give their readers what they want, in the way of political bias--that is, there's a correlation between the political leanings of a paper's market and the political bias of the paper.

Fraud and Investigations

Got an email from a person who challenged me to investigate the fraud in the farm loan program.  It wasn't sent as a comment, so I won't be more specific, and indeed it was not specific in its allegations.  I would have hoped that any regular reader of the blog, all X of them, would have inferred I'm retired and just bloviating these days; any investigations, particularly of farm loans which is an area I never was directly involved with, are out of the question.

But for anyone who believes there's fraud and abuse going on, here's the OIG site for reporting.  Because the OIG types are bureaucrats, they'd love to have a nice juicy case of fraud to boast of investigating, so go ahead and make their day.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Are Farmers Wealthy Parasites?

That's a question raised by this excerpt from a farmgate post on ERS research:
" For more than 10 years the median income for farm household has surpassed that of the average US family by a margin of anywhere from 3 to 21%, and farm family wealth has been 4 to 5 times [emphasis added] that of the average US family...."
Of course, my mother would add that farmers are land rich and money poor.  And the rest of the story/sentence is:
"but economists say farm family budgets are either very solid or very weak and 5 to 8% of farm families have negative household income each year, and there is a larger percentage of farm families in the poverty level than the percentage of non farm households. In brief, farm income is highly variable from year to year."

So, the plight of the families at the bottom end of the range is a justification for programs which help the whole range?  Are the fulminations of the greens true--that the programs favor the big farmers and not the people who are really in need?  Maybe, but consider this:
"USDA’s examination of farm households discovered that large farms, which were defined as $100,000+ in sales, had higher instances of both wealth and poverty than farms as a whole and all US families as a whole. Those farms make up only 16% of all farms, but income poverty is 22% among persons living in those households, compared to 14% for all farm families and 12% for all US families.
That counters the stereotype of small poor farms.  All in all, data to support and challenge all preconceptions.

Friday, February 26, 2010

An "A" for Obama

For transparency, at least.  From the White House blog:

Today’s release is just one example of the many efforts that were recognized by a consortium of independent outside government reform groups that gave the Administration an A for its first-year actions making government open and transparent—and these actions have also been praised by other outside experts.  This Administration’s concrete commitments to openness include issuing the Open Government Directive, putting up more government information than ever before on and, reforming the government’s FOIA processes, providing on-line access to White House staff financial reports and salaries, issuing an executive order to fight unnecessary secrecy and speed declassification, reversing an executive order that previously limited access to presidential records, and webcasting White House meetings and conferences.

Photo Friday

Via Chris Blattman here's the site of a photographer who has a series on "bureaucratics"--nice pictures.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

"Maintaining the Story" and Local Food

Here's a UWisconsin-Madison  release on the problems of interfacing (my term) farmers and customers of locally grown food. It's hyping a study they did.  They see rising demand but problems in meeting it.  One problem:
"One common concern cited in the report is maintaining the story behind locally grown food. People who buy local food are often willing to pay a premium for knowing where and how it was grown, a big part of the appeal of farmers' markets."
To me that almost sounds like a version of NAIS--associating a product with a story.  So if big retailers push big packers into animal identification, maybe locavore buyers push the locavore farmers into identification of produce?

NAIS Failure

From Chris Clayton  on the responsibility for the failure of NAIS:
...who at the top of the buying chain pushed back down and stated they would reward cattle feeders and ranchers for using USDA-approved ID systems? Who announced they would dock cattle that started arriving at the packer without approved-ID systems? Who defended the system at the animal ID meetings for packers? The packers complained about the idea of being responsible for essentially retiring tags when animals were slaughtered. The packers also let the livestock groups and USDA take the lead on NAIS and it has failed.
Animal ID would be a national system today if Tyson had simply decided six years ago that is the way it's going to be.
I think it's an overstatement, but points the way to the future. It's rather like when Wal-mart adopts green standards or goes organic--it has a big impact.  So too, if the big buyers push animal identification, their suppliers are going to comply.  But that's true only for the animals and the suppliers involved with the big buyers.  Meat packers would influence beef and pork, but not bison or ostrich.  And those small producers who don't sell to the big packers wouldn't feel the pressure.  So we would, and I expect we will, evolve to a two-level system.

The River of Riches

That's the title of a book I'm reading now. (It's not new, but Tyler Cowen plugged his new book, which isn't yet at the library).  It's by Joel Mokyr, and the subtitle is : Technological Creativity and Economic Progress.  It's interesting, although a bit overwhelming in the number and variety of innovations and inventions he describes.  I'm only up to the late 19th century but I'd recommend it for anyone interested in how and when society changes the way it produces goods.

But on to agriculture. The main chemical fertilizers are nitrogen, phosphorus, and potash/potassium.  As Mokyr observes, there's a long history of creating such fertilizers, but the "father of fertilizer" was Justus von Liebig, (1803-1872). I don't know if you count the making of potash by burning trees, as did my great great grandfather who settled in Ontario county and cleared his land.  The potash was shipped east for soap, glass, and fertilizer. Late in the 19th century mines were developed.   Nitrogen came from mining Chile's guano deposits.  Also in the mid 19th century super-phosphate was developed (making a more soluble form by treating phosphate rock with sulfuric acid.

[Revised the title so it fits the first sentence of the post.]

Not a Millennial

Via Kevin Drum, I took the Pew Research quiz determining how much like a member of the Millennial generation I am.  Answer: 13 (very unlike).  I guess it's those tattoos and text messages.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Klobuchar for SCOTUS? or President?

Via Volokh, a long post by Tom Goldstein predicting what happens in Supreme Court positions.  (Short answer: Stevens retires, Ginsburg doesn't.)  He runs through the possible candidates, ending with Sen. Klobuchar. From what little I've seen of her, I was mentally tipping her for POTUS.  When you ask, who will run for the Dems after Obama, and who might be the next female candidate, she seems to me to stand out.  Remains to be seen whether she would want either job.

[Updated: I Googled "Klobuchar for President" and found I'm out-of-date.  Here's a discussion--apparently she has too much of a sense of humor to be President.  Not a disqualification in my eyes--our most humorous President was also our greatest.]

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Comprehensive Information Management System

FSA put out a notice describing the Comprehensive Information Management System (CIMS), not to be confused with SCIMS.  CIMS tries to accomplish what we played with in 1992--reconciling data between FCIC/RMA and FSA data.  The farmer who has crop insurance ends up reporting her crops and acreages twice.  Because the programs differ, there are rational differences in the data.  Because the history of the programs and agencies differs, there are historical differences in the data.  A farmer, and her representatives in Congress, are naturally not eager to understand the differences.  The dual system opens the way for confusion and fraud.  One way to solve it would be to consolidate the programs. Another way to solve it would be to consolidate the IT systems. Both options have the advantage of simplicity, at least in concept, as in KISS. But politics and bureaucracy rule out both.

The worst solution is the one Congress mandated--a rear-end process copying the FCIC/RMA and FSA data into one place so the data can be matched and compared.  (I'm sure I'm unfair to CIMS--no doubt the process of creating it uncovered some places where the data elements themselves could be tweaked for compatibility.)  I say "worst", because the solution probably doesn't simplify anything for the farmer, nor does it put in place any checks to keep the farmer from misreporting.  All it does is enable FSA bureaucrats to identify conflicts, and possibly fraud.  That's better than nothing, so progress is being made. It remains to be seen how well the process will work in 2010.

Twelve Years Ago in FSA

Found an article in Government Executive from 1998 with a good overview of the bureaucratic structures and policies which led to conflict between FmHA and ASCS people after the reorganization.

Centralized Versus Decentralized: Unmanned Drones

Government Executive has a post on the management of drones.  Turns out management of air space is problematic--when you call in an airstrike, you want everyone else (all drones and planes) out of the way.  But years ago we refused to designate an overall manager of drones, so now there's problems in coordinating drone flights over Afghanistan.  As a country we tend to believe in decentralization, which definitely has advantages in encouraging innovation and flexibility.  But there's a time for centralization as well.  Wisdom consists in figuring out when and where to use each tactic.

Faking It

Freakonomics has a post, and a lot of comments, on the subject of "faking it" (pretending one is religious when you aren't, liberal when you're conservative, etc.) in order to enjoy the benefits of fitting in.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Bureaucrats Hall of Shame: Samuel Swarthout

According to a review of a new volume of Jackson papers:
"He [Jackson] also  refused to listen when Martin Van Buren warned against the appointment 
of Samuel Swartwout as Collector of Customs for the Port of New York, yet Swartwout became the first man to steal one million dollars from the U.S. Treasury (pp. 177-178).

Environmental Impact and Nostalgia

Chris Clayton passes on an academic argument that USDA should be doing an environmental impact statement for farm programs, with the implication that the green types may well sue based on the argument.  I'm no expert in such issues, but I remember back when the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, which requires the impact statements, was passed, and ASCS scrambled to figure out how to comply with it.  As I remember the lawyers of the day decided an impact statement was needed for the Agricultural Conservation Program (the cost-sharing for conservation practices program which has evolved and evolved since then). I guess they said there wasn't enough direct impact of the production adjustment programs on the environment.  As I remember the Directives Branch in which I worked got stuck with the assembly and typing job, since we had by then bought some IBM Magnetic Tape Selectric Typewriters.

MT/ST's were an early and primitive form of word processor.  Few people much younger than I will appreciate the advances technology has made in that area.  Why back in the day we not only walked in the snow uphill both ways to school 5 miles, but we were able to type copy very fast and with no errors, ever. Standards have purely gone to hell since then, and it's all the fault of computers.

A Reason for the Estate Tax

From a post at Overcoming Bias on a study of management of firms in a variety of countries:
Inherited family-owned firms who appoint a family member (especially the eldest son) as chief executive officer are very badly managed on average.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

France and Homogeneity

Read a good book called something like: "Discovering France", which was an impressionistic history of France in the 18th and 19th century, with emphasis on the differences  in language and culture among the different regions.  One of the things you see in Mr. Beauregarde's blog is how extensively the state regulates the society and culture.  This post at Strange Maps touches on both themes: the underlying differences and the homogeneity.

Silence Is the Law in France

From Dirk Beauregarde: You aren’t even allowed to mow your lawn on a Sunday (unless you have an old manual mower).

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Actively Engaged Definition

Via Farmgate, an Iowa State interpretation of FSA notices.

Russians and US Work Together

According to a vendor at the farm machinery show--their GPS uses both US and Russian satellites.

Farmers Markets Are Not Simple

See this post.
The study identified five preference-based consumer segments: market enthusiasts, recreational shoppers, serious shoppers, low-involved shoppers, and basic shoppers -- each with significantly different demographics and behavior characteristics. 

The Reality of Government

Those of us who have wasted too much of our time attending to how the government works know the reality often differs from what's reported in any media. Via Orin Kerr at Volokh Conspiracy, here's a piece on how federal judges are appointed. Similar processes are at work for other appointees.

Nationalism at Work

The National Archives has a post daily which shows a document from their archives keyed to that day's historical events.  Today they disgrace themselves by their nationalism:

Transcript of John Glenn's Official Communication with the Command
 Center (detail)
John Glenn conducted the first manned space orbit of the earth on February 20, 1962. This is the transcription of his in-flight communication with Mission Control in Florida.
Read more at Our Documents
Or maybe just their youth. Yuri Gagarin was, of course, the first man to orbit the earth; Glenn was the first American into space. [Corrected--my memory is poor, Alan Shepard was the first American into space, Glenn was the first American to orbit the earth. (Remember the fireflies in "The Right Stuff"?]

Friday, February 19, 2010

Those Tunnels in the White House Garden

The make-shift tunnel in our community garden is down--whether the owner took it down before the snow or whether it was damaged by the Dec or Feb snows I don't know.  I wonder how the White House tunnels have held up under the weight of the snow.

The End of the Most Surprising Post Today

From those dour lawyers at Volokh:
"But it is in fact theoretically possible that there will be three vacancies at the Supreme Court this summer."

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Pigford Agreement

See here for the text of the statement from USDA and Justice.  I'm not clear how the process will work, whether it differs from the prior one. Congress still needs to appropriate $1.15 billion in addition to the $100 million already done.

All It Takes to Achieve Efficiency: Leadership?

From Federal Computer Weekly:
"When the Office of Management and Budget issued Bulletin 96-02 in October 1995, the number of data centers was believed to be about 200. The OMB directive ordered all federal agencies to close, consolidate, modernize and/or outsource their data centers to increase efficiency and reduce costs. "Industry experience suggests operational savings of between 30 percent and 50 percent from consolidation when compared with unconsolidated operations," then-Budget Director Alice Rivlin wrote.
Fifteen years later, the number of data centers stands at about 1,100, according to OMB."
People should remember such episodes when they focus on what the President can and can't do.

Back When Being a Millionaire Meant Something

From the 1930 blog:
"A record 511 people reported income over $1M in 1928; 26 reported income over $5M, with 11 of those in NY State."
Compare that to this, from Business Week (Bloomberg):
"The 400 highest-earning U.S. households reported an average of $345 million in income in 2007, up 31 percent from a year earlier, IRS statistics show."
So the incomes of the rich have multiplied many times since 1930.  (I won't give a multiple because the figures are apples and oranges.)

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Looking Down the Road and Maneuvering--Rep. Peterson

From FarmPolicy:Peterson said he is opposed to the Obama administration’s plans to cut $8 billion from crop insurance expenditures over the next 10 years, in part because he wants to preserve as high a baseline for agriculture as possible for the next farm bill or reconciliation negotiation."

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Tom Ricks and the Right Metrics

I like Tom Ricks' blog, the Best Defense, even though I'm a natural-born civilian whose military career is 42+ years in the past.  He's included some discussion on various metrics useful in war (no, body count which was used in Vietnam is not useful), including stuff from Mr. Kilcullen which seems perceptive.

But this post focuses on how metrics should be used.  I think some of the observations would work for metrics used to measure bureaucracies.  I believe James Q Wilson observed that government bureaucracies often occur because their outputs aren't measurable; the idea being that if the output is measurable it could be sold in a market.  That's one reason why the various proposals for paying bureaucrats for performance are difficult.  It's also why it can be hard to motivate a bureaucrat. Job satisfaction comes from feeling you're accomplishing something, that you can see the results.

Dutch Dairymen and the Move to the US

  The Wall Street Journal has an article on the process by which Dutch dairymen have moved to the US and the problems some have faced. (Sounds like a combination of the boom, over enthusiasm, and some hype from an early mover, not that the farmers described represent all Dutch dairymen who've moved.

Hat tip: Farm Policy

Monday, February 15, 2010

Easy Data Collection

Megan McArdle alerted me first to the possibility, then there was a more elaborate post here.

What's the possibility?  Using a Google Docs spreadsheet/form combo to capture data.  In McArdle's case, she's using it to capture the name and addresses for her wedding invitees.  As a bureaucrat, I can't help but remember a number of occasions when I would have liked an ad-hoc report from state offices.  But trying to get Kansas City to gin up a short report was difficult.  Granted, in many cases the data I wanted was sitting in the county files and could be extracted by using Query/36 and uploaded, but there were some cases where asking the office to data load something would have been helpful.

Now, thanks to Google, it's available.  Or, to be realistic, it would be except undoubtedly the FSA hierarchy will put some limits and restrictions on using Google, like: "Do not ever use it."

Sunday, February 14, 2010

"So Yesterday"?

Post has an opinion piece entitled: The Case Against Banning the Word "Retard".  It's a good discussion of changing terminology, "word fetishes", etc. But this struck me:
"The Ad Council and the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network have developed a Web site,, that, much like, encourages the public to sign a pledge to cease using the phrase. (The slogan: "Saying that's so gay is so yesterday."):"

As a man of yesterday (or even the day before), I protest this term as unfair.  It stereotypes people of a certain age as out of it and no longer a full participant in society; it establishes a hierarchy of those who are with it and those who are not; it demeans those who feel affection for the norms of yesteryear.

A Return to Supply Management

Actually not a return for dairy, because dairy has never had a mandatory supply management program, but a return for agriculture generally, because tobacco and peanuts did have such programs. There seems to be some support for instituting one, based on this Agweb post:
Maddox supports the Holstein association’s proposed supply management plan, known as the Dairy Price Stabilization Program. The plan calls for a national, mandatory program that sets a base for milk production and assesses producers a fee if they exceed it.
I don't recall, but I think other countries have had such plans.  And it might be bureaucratically possible.  The key to supply management is to have complete reports of product flow from the farm to the next step, such as the tobacco warehouse. Is it likely?  It would need legislation. And my gut answer is: "no", but we'll see.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

ERS Food Environment Atlas

ERS has an interactive map here.  (Warning, I had a problem with Firefox 3.5.3, but not with Chrome or Firefox 3.6. And you may have to "reset the map")  It displays state level, and some county-level data, on various parameters relating to food: availability of supermarkets, availability of fast food, demographics, consumption per capita of various kinds of food, etc. etc.

I think I owe a hat tip to Obamafoodorama.

Friday, February 12, 2010

So Long Myer-Emco

The Post reported today that Myer-Emco, a high-end audio-video chain, is going out of business:
The death of MyerEmco can also be blamed on changing consumer behavior. In the past, specialty stores such as MyerEmco could charge more than big-box rivals, such as Best Buy, because they employed highly trained sales-and-service staff who were knowledgeable about the products they sold.

But with the proliferation of product information on the Internet, consumers are far less likely to walk into a bricks-and-mortar store and spend time speaking to an expert about a premium audio receiver than they once were. Consumers can learn about the receiver by consulting online experts and reading customer reviews. Then, they shop online for the cheapest price on the product, altogether bypassing specialist retailers. And even if prices at a specialist retailer were comparable to Big Box and online sellers -- as they were at MyerEmco in recent years -- the smaller stores carried a reputation for higher prices, and that perception has proved difficult to change.
The logic works for me.  But isn't this just a small example of a change in how information is handled in the economy? There's probably lots of instances where someone who used to know something others didn't has lost that edge.  I'm thinking of pharmacists, whose patients can now look up illnesses on the Internet; government operatives who deal face to face with customers, repairmen, etc.

Reid and Lincoln

For a while yesterday there was a bipartisan compromise jobs bill.  Then Sen. Reid decided to split the bill, bringing the jobs portion up for a vote earlier and delaying the rest until later.  This has the effect of screwing Sen. Lincoln, who's in trouble in her home state of Arkansas and who has been pushing for a disaster program for her farmers, who were too cheap to spring for the full deal on crop insurance.  Why?  Because her disaster program was in the big bipartisan package, but not in the trimmed down version.  See Chris Clayton and Lincoln's site.

Of course, including her package is the sort of logrolling which has earned some opprobrium recently, so Reid can claim to be adhering to good government principles and worrying about the deficit.

The Greater Value of Females

From an Extension post on the economics of sexed semen:
"Where bull calves may be worth only $50, heifer calves may be worth $450"

A Reason To Be Politically Incorrect

Dirk Beauregarde passes on an article about burqa-wearing robbers. (They held up a post office, not a bank.)

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Hidden Costs of the Storms

We subscribe to both the Washington Post and the NY Times, home delivery.  This week's storms have interrupted the delivery service, though the Post man is doing very good. Sometimes I have hit the local Starbucks to get caffeine and Times, but other days I'm forced back on reading online. The Post has a regular web site, while the Times has both its website and a new, standalone, Times Reader app. 

There's no comparison between the two for ease of reading.  The Times Reader is legible, fast, and easy to use. The best thing about the Reader is the ease of scanning through it. In the old days I used to read almost every word of the Times, but as I age I skim more and more, and the Reader is great for that. The Times might end up the loser from the storms, because I've found it so easy to use I'd almost be willing to sacrifice the paper copy and rely only on the Reader (which I think would be $4 a month, compared to like $90 for the paper version). If that's true of others, and if their profit margin is still bigger on home delivery, that would be their hidden cost.

I say "almost" because my wife wouldn't agree--she likes to take the paper paper and the cats off and read in bed.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Productivity of Organic Grain Farmers

North Dakota State is pushing its budgets for organic field crops.  An excerpt:
“A primary assumption for all the crop budgets is that the marketable yield of organic production will average about 70 to 75 percent of conventional crop yields,” Swenson says. However, experienced organic growers have achieved higher yields. New organic growers and those with less success in managing pests and fertility under an organic system may find it difficult to achieve 70 percent of conventional yields. Also, to meet stringent standards, the cleanout for organic grain typically is greater than for conventional markets. This also is a factor in estimating marketable yields.”
Harshaw's Law No 1, which I haven't repeated in a while: you never do it right the first time you try.

Biotech Crops

Farmgate has a post on the effects of the adoption of biotech crops in the US.  Here's the summary:
The increase in production efficiency with the use of seed with biotech traits to provide insect resistance or herbicide tolerance has resulted in more bushels being available to the market. More production means a lower price in most markets. The result of growing use of biotech crops has lead to a $25 billion dollar loss to farmers over the past 10 years, but a gain for consumers. Even without the use of biotech seeds, production would have increased, but not enough to replace the loss.
I'd observe you could set up some boilerplate like so:
"The increase in production efficiency with [insert relevant innovation] has resulted in more bushels being available to the market.  More production means a lower price in most markets.  The result of [innovation] has led to a $[insert amount] dollar loss to farmers over the past 10 years, but a gain for consumers."
I blogged recently about farmers cooperating and competing, particularly in the context of carbon cap and trade/environmental legislation.  I'd repeat the observation here--in the case of innovations which work out (and not all innovations do--I remember when birdsfoot trefoil was the next great thing) the early adapters will gain an advantage, but an advantage which rapidly fades.

Good Work by Kennedy Center

My wife and I had tickets to the Kennedy Center tonight.  About an hour ago I got a (recorded) phone call saying the performance had been canceled and to check the website for further instructions. It took them maybe half an hour to update their instructions there, but they have them now (exchange, donate, refund).  It's good work by them.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

The Productivity Explosion

We have a jobless recovery because productivity is up so much.  John Phipps meditates on the subject, and sees these three items for farming:
"The oncoming work force in agriculture takes far less time to learn new computing skills and applications, is more willing to experiment, and faces simpler ways to resolve the decreasing number of hangups. (We outlived Vista, for example). While we are only scratching the surface of what computers can do, we are far more likely to tap that potential with farmers who learned keyboarding early, as opposed to hunt-and-peck dinosaurs such as yours truly.

The second wave of productivity boost arises from connectivity.  Let's face it - we are the Borg. Our farms never have to pause to share information between brains (In fact, many of us are looking for ways to control the "sharing") From locating tools to sourcing parts to explaining how to unplug the header, farmers don't have to travel "there" first to solve the problem. The result is more experiential knowledge is available all the time and with ease.

The other big change for the better is technology is overcoming our aversion to writing. From e-mails to stored text messages, more of our communication is searchable, readable, and permanent. The gains for information leakage and loss are likely immense. "

French Drugs

From Dirk Beauregarde:  "Talking of drugs, last France exported 7.1 billion Euros of the legal kind. The French pharmaceutical industry is very healthy"  That triggered my curiosity.  According to Nationmaster, the US is the leader in drug exports ($8 billion) just ahead of Germany, Switzerland (both about $7 billion), Belgium and France (although France's total is much less than Dirk's figure, but there likely are differences in definitions.

Monday, February 08, 2010

NY Times and Pigford

The Times weighs in on the second go-round of the Pigford case.  Some day I'll muster some energy to write more about it, but today I'm exhausted from shoveling snow.

Joke from Monkey Cage

John Sides writes about the late Lee Siegelman and I particularly liked this last bit:
Lee often said that he loved three things. He loved Carol. He loved his cats. And he loved political science. He was fond of a quip about the South Dakota farmer, emblematic of the reserved and modest Midwesterner, who loved his wife so much he almost told her.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Corporate Money and Lobbying

Kevin Drum has a couple posts tied to an LA Times article.  They looked at the political contributions and lobbying of the soft drink industry, which rose dramatically when there was talk of taxing soft drinks in the interest of fighting obesity.  It's an important issue, particularly in light of the "Citizens United" decision of the Supreme Court.  But I comment on Drum's post there are other sources of leverage, particularly for what Ike called the "military-industrial" complex.  And Eugene Volokh, at Volokh Conspiracy, has an interesting post on California's experience with rules at the state level similar to the new Citizen's United regime.Apparently in CA the biggest contributors are not corporations, but unions and Indian tribes. 

Dairy Program Faces Revision

The Dairy Talk on Agweb Blogs includes a post covering possible changes in the dairy program, ideas of the head of the National Milk Producers Federation. Some points:

  • going to an insurance program covering--return over feed cost.
  • current price supports effectively put a floor under world-wide dairy prices. 
  • the voluntary reduction program under Cooperatives Working Together needs help--too many free riders.
There's a bunch of comments.  Mine is similar problems were faced in the programs for grains and cotton. People thought other countries were free riding on our efforts to adjust production.  And long ago, in the days of the Hoover administration, efforts to talk farmers into reducing production without government payments or coercion fell flat on their face.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Snow and Ethics

We live in a townhouse cul-de-sac that's Y-shaped, about 30 or so houses on each arm of the "Y".  The Reston area has just gotten about 20 inches of snow, which offers an object lesson in the ethics of libertarian rugged independence.

Generally I'd say we're rugged independents here.  Each of us operates on his or her own time schedule and concepts.  Some get out before the snow has stopped, others will appear in a couple days. Some people shovel their way to the common sidewalk (on cluster property), and stop.  Some don't shovel.  Others shovel some part of the common sidewalk.

Once we get to the parking area, we're still independent.  The cluster pays for the area to be plowed (heavy 4-wheel drive pickup with front blade).  Usually that works okay.  But today, one person got his 4-wheel drive SUV backed out of his space (ignoring the advice to stay home and off the roads), and then got stuck.  Fortunately it wasn't at the entrance to the cul-de-sac, but it was at the base of one branch of the "Y", meaning that side didn't get plowed.  The late word is that the 4 wheel drive has gone out on two of the trucks of the contractor, so that side may never get plowed.

Even where the plow went, it couldn't do all that much.  For most cars, there's 5 feet between the back of the car and the plowed area, at least on the side that got plowed.  (Unfortunately because of the configuration I've got about 15 feet behind my car.)  So each of us is faced with the job of shoveling snow off the top of the car, from the sides of the car, and from the back of the car to have a chance to get to the plowed lane and then stuck. Now comes the test.  The best tactic which serves everyone's interest is to carry each shovelful of snow to the front of the car and dump it the other side of the sidewalk from the car.  The best tactic for each person is to get out early and dump the shovels of snow on his neighbor's car, or behind his neighbor's car in the plowed lane.  You may be hindering the people who live on the part of the cul-de-sac further from the street from getting out, but it saves you work.

New Idea: Farmers Markets

Not so.  As the Universal York blog reminds us, in the old days there were market buildings, some of some distinction.  See here for the interior and here for exterior.  Those who push farmers markets today need to examine the reasons why they almost vanished in the first place. (DC has the Eastern Market and I think a couple others, so they didn't quite vanish, but there's a fine balance of population density, transportation, refrigeration, economy, female cooks, household help, etc. which formed the ecology in which such buildings could be erected and maintained.)

Friday, February 05, 2010

The All-Powerful President

"Although departments and agencies are supposed to adhere to the president's priorities, they do so only half heartedly."  Quoted in a discussion at OMBWatch of the relative non-importance of the president's budget. Although CJennings quibbles with the description, I think it's fair.  Certainly with DOD there's a long history of gamesmanship between the DOD and the committees on the Hill that hardly qualifies as even quarter-hearted, much less half.

The Louisiana Purchase Versus the Alabama Holdup

The "purchase" refers to the deal Sen. Landrieu got for her support of health care reform; the "holdup" refers to Sen. Shelby putting holds on all Obama's nominees until he gets two projects for his state.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

First He Killed His 51 Cows

And then himself.

See the story in today's NYTimes. Peter Applebone is fairly restrained in his piece on the suicide of a 59-year old dairyman north of New York City. The article says 51 cows is about the limit for a single person.  My uncle ran a similarly sized dairy by himself, at least until his barn burned and he had a heart attack. That tells me there's not been much productivity improvements over the last 60 years, except of course the cows these days probably produce 2-3 times the volume of milk.  But milking 51 cows, minus those dry, twice a day, every day of the year is an intimidating prospect.  It scared the hell out of me.  And at 59, and alone.  (Dairy isn't the most social occupation.)

I assume he raised his cows from calves and he knew them, knew their personalities.  That hurts. [Paragraph revised to clarify.]

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Indian Cotton Production

One of  the "memes" of the sustainable ag/organic farming movement is the belief that genetically modified cotton seeds failed in India.  So I found this interesting:
The statistics of cotton production and consumption in different countries across the world were recently revealed by the International Cotton Advisory Committee, showing a steady decline in cotton production in Pakistan from 2.194 million tons in 2005 to 2.08 million tons in 2009. India on the other hand increased its cotton production from 4.097 million tons in 2005 to 5.34 million tons in 2009. Accordingly, India’s cotton export has increased while that of Pakistan is facing difficulty. China too has increased its cotton production while its indigenous consumption has decreased, allowing a greater margin for cotton export.
The increase in cotton production in India and China is said mainly to be the result of cultivating pest-resistant varieties of cotton seeds, which have not yet been introduced in Pakistan. On the other hand, Pakistan’s cotton cultivation has declined due to several factors ranging from cultivation of traditional varieties and via traditional methods, poor marketing, and failure in making timely payments to cotton producers.

A Time Long Ago

Orin Kerr at Volokh tips the Time article on an argument before the Supreme Court (apparently one of the cases which became known as  Brown v Board of Education case).

Government PR

Government Executive has an article on government PR, particularly in light of Congressional restrictions which date back to when Public Roads was part of USDA.

... the More Things Remain the Same

Andrew Rudalevige at The Monkey Cage posts a memo from Dave Stockman to President Reagan explaining why the big deficit for 1985FY wasn't the Republicans fault with the suggestion Orszag would sympathize.

What's intriguing is the reminder that "Human Events," a conservative mag, was attacking Reagan back then. (I've a vague memory it was a publication to which he paid lots of attention, so the critique must have hurt.)  I also found interesting Stockman's explanation for the explosion of spending on agriculture.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Who Woulda Thunk It--Germans Less Prolix

Kevin Drum has an interesting post on health care reform which I recommend.  But in the comments, one observer claimed the German health care law was 200 pages.  To which another commenter said:
It´s a bit more than 200 pages by now. Although it includes a chapter dealing with German reunification. In time these paragraphs will be "deleted" again.
As a German my trust in German bureaucracy returned when I discovered that the original "mandatory health insurance law for blue-collar workers" from 1884 consisted of just 13 pages.
At least we managed a 15-20 times increase in pages in 126 years. :)
While of course covering everyone by now...

Sometimes a Politician Just Can't Win

The Post this week has reported poll results:  the good news is that people think DC government and DC schools are improving and doing better.  The bad news is that people think less of DC Mayor Fenty and Schools chief Rhee than they used to.

Neither one has been warm and fuzzy during their time in office, but they seem to have improved the operation of government.  As someone who once voted for Marion Berry for mayor, give me performance over personality any day of the week.

The Timing Shifts for Crop Insurance Payments

Chris Clayton has another post on crop insurance.  One of the things Congress often does is play with the timing of payments so the totals for fiscal years come out right.  Sometimes they'll move payments forward so if they're working on a budget for 2011FY the payments will be made right at the end of 2010FY.  Because the budget for 2010FY was passed last year, there's no harm done to the budget process.  Or, as they did for crop insurance, they'll delay some payments to fall outside the budget window (maybe the year of the budget, or maybe the 5 or 10-year window).  The better parts of our media will sometimes note these games in passing, but I've yet to see a comprehensive article that crosses years.  For example, one year it's crop insurance, another year it's deficiency payments, but when everything is done and paid, what has happened?

Bureaucratic Inertia in Budget Language

From the budget page 101, a description of what FSA does:
Farm program activities include the following functions dealing with the administration of programs carried out through the farmer committee system of the FSA: (a) developing program regulations and procedures; (b) collecting and compiling basic data for individual farms; (c) establishing individual farm allotments for farm planting history; (d) notifying producers of established allotments and farm planting histories; (e) conducting referendums and certifying results; (f) accepting farmer certifications and checking compliance for specific purposes; (g) processing commodity loan documents and issuing checks; (h) processing direct and counter-cyclical payments and issuing checks; (i) certifying payment eligibility and monitoring payment limitations; and (j) processing farm storage facility loans and issuing checks.
This language would have fit what ASCS did when I was hired in 1968, it would have been pretty good in 1933 when AAA was first created, but there's been little updating since (except for specifying "direct and counter-cyclical" payments).

Russia and McDonalds

The NYTimes has an article on how McDonalds venture in Russia has evolved over the years. It's been there for 20 years, has 235 restaurants, has been able to develop Russian suppliers for 80 percent of its needs, except for French fries.

From Leadership to Sap in a Couple Generations

The original saying is "riches to rages in three generations", but my adaptation fits RFK jr's. advocacy for vertical farming.

Monday, February 01, 2010

The Shoemaker's Children

The old proverb says something about shoemaker's children being the last to get shoes.

It must also apply to direct deposit of federal checks, given this from Nextgov (on today's budget proposals):

The Obama administration also plans to use IT at the Treasury Department to reduce costs. The department plans to pay all employees electronically, eliminating the need to send paper check stubs, generating a savings of $2 million a year, OMB reported. Currently, Treasury sends paper pay stubs to more than 100,000 workers.

John Phipps, Competition, and Cap and Trade

John Phipps operates 2100 acres with his wife and son.  He posts about the competition he sees rising from the whippersnappers who have taken over the world (the President could be my son, for crying out loud):
I suddenly noticed these younger colleagues, and when conversing with them, I reinforced my belief the biggest challenge facing me and our our farm was leaping up with the competition arising all around us.

In fact, I think it is safe to say one of our worst fears has been realized: the best and brightest have returned to the farm.  And they are quietly accruing by sheer ability and economic advantage the bulk of the market share for farmers.
A couple points:
  • one is the obvious one--the conventional wisdom is that farming is dominated by the old. Not so from John's view.
  • the second is more subtle--the balance of cooperation and competition.

There's the old joke about the two guys in the woods who see a bear, who starts chasing them.  One guy says: "we've got to outrun the bear", the other guy says: "all I have to do is outrace you".  I remember that joke when I see the Farm Bureau and other ag associations talking about how "[pick your proposal, starting with "cap and trade] will be bad for farmers." Over the years the farm and crop groups have persuaded their members they share common interests.  And they do--if they can unite and lobby Congress to pass programs benefiting corn farmers, or dairy farmers, then everyone gains.

But while cooperation, viewing oneself as part of a community of corn farmers, or dairy farmers, works sometimes, it doesn't always. That's what John is reminding us of.  In the case of a changing environment for farmers, some farmers will suffer and some will profit.  I'd typically expect the younger, more technologically-oriented farmers to adapt better to change, to outrun their older, more change-averse colleagues. So, if you're a farmer and you know you're above average in smarts and capability, then you should welcome changes in your economic environment, you should want some bears around because you can outrun your fellow farmers.

But then, one night you listen to Garrison Keillor and remember maybe your self-confidence isn't so well grounded.

Reducing Payment and AGI Limits

That's in the Presidents budget(page 71):

The Administration proposes to limit farm subsidies to wealthy farmers by reducing the cap on Direct Payments by 25 percent, and reducing each of the Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) commodity payment eligibility limits for farm and non-farm income by $250,000 over three years. This proposal will allow the Department of Agriculture (USDA) to target payments to those who need and can benefit from them most, while at the same time preserving the safety net that protects farmers against low prices and natural disasters.