Monday, February 28, 2011

Farm Programs Leave a Twisting Trail

Over the years farm programs have left their mark in many unexpected places.  For example, the price support programs in the 1950's accumulated a big pile of surplus commodities, much of which were sent overseas under the PL480 program.  Under part of the program, instead of being donated commodities were sold for the local currency, such as rupees. The accumulated rupees built up in US government accounts, and were used for various purposes, including one described in this Chapati Mystery post. accumulating research materials.

RD Takes a Hit

Rural Development loses $29 million in broadband funds in the 2-week Republican/Democrat budget deal. What's worse is the implicit criticism from both sides of the agency's capabilities.

Funny Paragraph of Feb 28

Megan McArdle scores, in an aside in her generally skeptical post about the Rolling Stone article on the military psy-ops in Afghanistan directed towards Congress:
[On a side note: really?  Someone in the military thought they needed secret psychological techniques to wrest more money for the military from John McCain?  This is like embarking on a course of anabolic steroids in order to prepare for taking candy from a baby.  But I digress.]

Sunday, February 27, 2011

UK Versus US Government

Don't remember to whom I owe a hat tip, but this provides an overview of how social policy is administered in the UK.  A couple excerpts:
Local authorities are forbidden by law to do anything which is not expressly permitted by Parliament; local authorities which want to undertake any special initative need to promote a private Act of Parliament

Despite the existence of a "council tax", local government has very limited discretion in its ability to raise money, and it is not permitted to exceed central government limits. Loans cannot be taken without express sanction. Central governments can make the availability of grants conditional on compliance with their policy.
Compare this to our federal system and we see once again how weak our government really is.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

How Do You Know a Blogger Is Far Gone

When he writes something like this:
"I CAN’T STOP MYSELF:  I subscribe to all the NASS California Crop Reports.  I love these, mostly because they read like poetry.
His real reason is the eminently logical one: statistics gives him a basis in reality, unlike the ephemera of the media.  And who is he: a very good blogger on water issues in California, water which grows much of our fruits and vegetables.

USDA IT a Big Loser

According to this post at Gov Loop,  the Obama administration's drive to consolidate federal data centers has one of its biggest targets in USDA, going from 46 data centers now to 5 in the future. (Only DHS has a bigger percentage drop.)  The large number of data centers is a reflection of the decentralized nature of the department, which I've referred to in the past.  The history of USDA is the development of individual agencies, each doing business its own way, and each resisting efforts by the departmental offices to consolidate. 

When I joined ASCS, we had data processing centers in New Orleans, Kansas City, and Minneapolis. In the 70's the department took over the mainframes and the Minneapolis office was closed.  But today, FSA uses centers in New Orleans, Kansas City, and St. Louis, having picked up the latter from the 1994 reorg with FmHA.  I say "uses", because the centers are run by the department, though last I knew FSA had programmers in both KC and St. Louis.  Congresspeople tend to resist closures, so whether the new Tea Partiers can overcome that chauvinism and the Obama administration can enforce its ideas will be interesting.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Announcement on Women/Hispanic Claims of Discrimination

Vilsack announcement.  Ironically, Firefox tells me the site is untrusted. The link is now working.

Big Versus Small Farmers

Even in the UK there's tension between big farmers and small farmers.  See this post from Musings of a Stonehead on the position, as he sees it, of the National Farmers Union in the UK.  (Also see the sunset photos and the Victor Hugo poetry of the preceding post.) 

It's the old story: if government regulations apply equally to everyone, the burden is greater for the small producers and therefore the big guys get a competitive advantage.  If they don't apply at all, the little guys get the advantage.

What I Don't Understand About Crop Insurance

This quote:
For quite a few years, GRIP has had a good grip on many farmers.  It is a crop insurance policy that is easy to deal with, and it usually pays, despite how good of a crop you had.  GRIP is the Group Risk Income Policy that is based on county averages, and if calculated revenue was below the projection at the early part of the year, GRIP policy holders would get an indemnity check.
What I don't understand--how can an insurance company make a profit on a policy which "usually pays off".  

Google Goes After Farming

Just what farmers need, the world's biggest search engine going against them.  (Turns out it's something called "content farms", I've tried wikipedia but I can't figure out whether "content" is a field crop, fruit or veggie, or some kind of livestock.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

It's Called Catch-22

If you insist on time to read about the issue on which you're voting, you get bad press. If you vote without having time to read all the pages, you get bad press (as when the Dems last year were criticized for voting on healthcare reform without reading the bill.)

The Sound of Bloggers

That is, chewing the cud, which fits someone who grew up on a dairy farm.

Confounding Stereotypes

At the back of our minds, I suspect many liberals believe some of the opposition to President Obama is based on race.  That's why this Nate Silver post this morning is surprising.  It seems when you compare his 2008 vote percentages by state with 2010 poll percentages by state Obama has gained in the deep South and has lost less in the Plains states.  In other words, the nation is less divided in their opinions of him.  Presumably he's surprised some (a few) in those states by outperforming their expectations, which were low, and disappointed his most fervent supporters by being more centrist and less the prophet of change.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Sectional Politics and Partisan Politics

A reminder: not all politics is national and partisan, or local.  Some is sectional, as this quote from Farm Policy shows:
U.S. agriculture — and particularly southern agriculture — faces perhaps the most daunting challenge in decades to get its message before Congress and the administration, says Chip Morgan, executive vice president of the Delta Council at Stoneville, Miss.
“With the crafting of the 2012 farm bill in the hands of predominantly non-southern House and Senate Agriculture Committee members, many of them brand new to Congress, ‘our challenge is to make a concentrated effort to educate the new members about the importance of agriculture and to emphasize to them that one policy may not fit all segments of agriculture,’ he said at the annual meeting of the Mississippi Rice Council at Cleveland, Miss.”
 Southern ag doesn't believe as strongly in crop insurance, and dislikes much more strongly payment limitations.  My generalization, for what it's worth: southern crops like rice and cotton are higher in value per acre, and southern agriculture still feels the effects of the way the land was originally settled.  Used to be AAA/ASCS had an administrator from corn/hog country and an associate administrator from cotton/rice country, or vice versa.  Both sides had to be represented.

On the Universality of Murphy's Law

Tom Ricks quotes from another blogger, applying Murphy's Law to determine which person in a company will make first contact with the enemy.

On Globalization

Two straws in the wind:
John Kelly is a local columnist for the Washington Post.  His wife is now working in the Netherlands, so he's writing about the problems of having a bi-continental marriage, and attracting correspondence from others who have to deal with the same problems. His daughter is also college-hunting, including UK universities.

Apparently people from 47 countries have ordered pizza from Madison WI pizzerias to feed the demonstrators.
Remembering back to the post WWII era, I'm amazed.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Unions and Public Employees: Federal Versus Wisconsin

I follow Kevin Drum in my general attitude to unions: they're a necessary part of the republic, but they have their problems like other parts of the republic.  I was in management when ASCS employees in DC voted in a union. Managers got some orientation on how to deal with the union.  The bottom line seemed to be: do what you should have been doing all along.  That is, document poor performance, consult with employees on what you're doing, etc.

Of course, federal employees can't use unions to bargain over pay.  I've forgotten most of what I once knew about the laws and regulations.  It seems, though, Wisconsin employee unions could bargain over wages. So in one sense, what Gov. Walker is working for is to make those unions as powerless as federal unions, not that that's very obvious from the discussion.  The big difference I can see is the requirement about voting for the union every year.  That's really critical.  I suspect the reality of unions, as for other institutions, is many members lose enthusiasm after time.  So inertia takes over.  People go with what's easiest.

Monday, February 21, 2011

CSpan Program

Frank Sesnos hosted a program at GWU with Ari Fleischer, Dana Perino, Mike McCurry, and Dee Dee Myers which is here. I recommend it: lively, friendly, informative, idealistic.  (All four said things will be better in the future.)  Perino noted no one is delivering the NYTimes to her grandfather's ranch in Wyoming, but now he can get it online.  I guess he, unlike some other residents of rural areas, has broadband access.  But that's nitpicking--the program was a good way to decompress from a day where my sacred routine was disrupted. Perino said, and the others agreed, Washington is not as partisan a town as it comes across in the media.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Power of Bureaucrats in a Parliamentary System

A sentence buried in a discussion of French agriculture at blog on the EU's Common Agricultural Policy:
"Many traditional farmers had turned against the Sarkozy government, when Michel Barnier (then minister of agriculture) reallocated some €1.4 billion Single Farm Payments to extensive grazing under the Health Check provisions.
Think what effort it takes for our government to reallocate a few millions from one farm program to another, much less close to $1.75 billion.

Also of interest--the note the French government has been paying farmers to reduce their nitrate leakage, and the refusal to make public the amount of payments tied to individual farmers.  (USDA has also refused to continue to give EWG this information. IMHO on rather specious grounds of expense.)

Sidewalks and Paths in Reston III

I've blogged on this before, but here's a new perspective on paths versus sidewalks in Reston: paths accommodate strollers, sidewalks create unsettled norms: if a stroller meets a couple walking, who has right-of-way.

Funny Paragraph of Feb. 20

From Alex at Marginal Revolution, ending a piece on the Feds trying to suppress an embarrassing con job perpetrated on the CIA.
Are you surprised that Playboy would break such an important story? I was, that is, until I remembered that Playboy has been uncovering fakes for a long time.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Republicans in the House and Agriculture

President Obama proposed, again, some cuts to farm programs by reducing figures in the payment limitation figures.  One would figure those stern, tight-lipped budget cutters in the House would be glad to agree to his proposal.  Politically it would seem wise to say: we'll pocket all your cuts and we'll cut some more.  (I'd put this into poker terms, but my mother thought poker was a tool of the devil.)  But not so, as Sallie James observes at Cato.  Bottom line: political principles are remarkably flexible, much like cooked spaghetti.

The Fallibility of Memory

President Obama proposed a big cut to the program which helps low income people with their heating bills. See Pro Publica's discussion here.  Now I would have sworn the program originated under Carter in response to the big rise in oil prices and the embargoes of the 70's.  But while a weatherization program seems to have begun then, the LIHEAP was begun in 1981.  I repeat, 1981!  The first year of Ronald Reagan's term, the President notorious for being personally amiable but professionally hard-hearted.  And 1981 was the year he was cutting taxes and some programs.  So, what happened then?

Food Prices and Inflation

Lots of recent discussion of the rise in food prices, including whether it had an impact in the Mid East uprisings.  But the graph in this post, hat tip Ezra Klein, shows the price trends for "foodstuffs" and finished consumer foods. The former (wheat, rice, corn, etc.) are much more volatile than the later, mostly because there's pennies worth of wheat in a loaf of bread, etc. etc.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Impeccable Logic Representative Lucas

From Chris Clayton summarizing a House Ag hearing:
""The agriculture economy is highly cyclical and it changes like the weather in western Oklahoma: fast, sharp, and without notice," said Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla. "This reality helps explain why the mood in farm country today is both upbeat and apprehensive. This fact, along with experience, offer a cautionary note to anyone who might be tempted to cite current economic conditions on the farm as the basis for setting long term farm policies." 


FSA--One Plus, One Minus

One of the draft posts I've had started for a couple days is a criticism of FSA's press release/blog post on counter-cyclical payments.  But before I do that, I need to praise the writer of Notice DCP-247 who got to the point: there's no such payments for 2010 because target prices are too high.  That info was buried in this language from the press release:
Farm Service Agency Administrator Jonathan Coppess announced today that USDA will not issue partial 2010-crop counter-cyclical payments to producers of certain covered commodities. Payments will not be made to producers of wheat, corn, grain sorghum, barley, oats, upland cotton, long grain rice, medium grain rice, soybeans, sunflower seed, rapeseed, canola, safflower, flaxseed, mustard seed, crambe, sesame seed, dry peas, lentils, small chickpeas, large chickpeas, and peanuts. For all covered commodities and peanuts, market price projections exceed levels that would trigger these payments.

If the first sentence had simply said "...will not issue any 2010-crop counter-cyclical payments."  it would have worked.  It's the "certain" which throws the reader, because the expectation is there's two categories: certain crops don't get paid, other crops do.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

A 2x4 for Agency Chiefs and CIO's

I wonder whether the cuts OMB gave some agencies in IT funds were big enough to get the attention of the chiefs of the agencies, remembering the old joke about getting the attention of a mule by using a 2x4. USDA didn't get such a cut.

The Insidious Assumptions We Make

I was often laughed at when I worked for ASCS because to create example cases of how the farm program would work, I always used 100 acres of corn with 100 bushel yield.  Made it much easier to calculate.  It also was unrealistic even in 1980, and would be ridiculous today.  And I vaguely remember the symmetry of numbers leading to a screwup--something which seemed reasonable with the assumed numbers wasn't.

That's the case with Megan McArdle's recent post on savings. She writes;
 Say you're a 40 year old couple with 100,000 a year in after-tax income, and you save 5% of that, the way ordinary Americans do.  (Assume further that it all goes in retirement).
My point? A couple with $100,000 after tax income is earning maybe $120,000 or more in before tax income. Such a couple is probably close to being in the top 10 percent of the US households, i.e., not "ordinary" and not a good example to use for a discussion of savings.

R.I.P. George Buddy

I'm one of these people who tends to be a day late and a dollar slow in keeping up with social [demands, needs, everything I think of has a double Freudian meaning].  I'm sorry.  George Buddy, the blogger at Buddy's Bemusing,died on Feb 4, 2011 after lung surgery.  I'll miss him.

The Return of the Vicious Budget Cycle

I commented somewhere yesterday on the reason deficits are important--it leads to the vicious budget cycle where an ever increasing portion of the budget goes just to pay interest to fat cats bankers. Today the Post has an article on it. An excerpt:
Starting in 2014, net interest payments will surpass the amount spent on education, transportation, energy and all other discretionary programs outside defense. In 2018, they will outstrip Medicare spending.
 I remember the Clinton administration struggling with this. I'm a little afraid that people who weren't grown by then (Yglesias, Ezra Klein) may not have those memories.  It's well and good to point to the fact that inflation is low now despite the Fed's monetary easing, but it's very easy to get behind the eight-ball, to the detriment of needed programs.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Fading Rural Economy

John Phipps describes the closings of local services.  Unfortunately, economics says big farms are more efficient than small, meaning the farming population declines, which puts all the services on which farmers depend under pressure.  Add on the competition from bigger outfits, the easier transportation from cars and good roads, and there's a big current to row against.

Coppess Out

According to Farm Policy:
A news release yesterday from Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Chairwoman of the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, indicated that Jonathan Coppess had been named Chief Counsel for the Committee.
The release added that, “Jonathan Coppess served most recently as Administrator of the Farm Service Agency (FSA) where he oversaw nationwide agency operations including implementation of the safety net programs from the 2008 Farm Bill. Prior to serving as Administrator, he served as the agency’s Deputy Administrator for Farm Programs and previously worked as a Senate aide, focusing on agriculture, energy and environment issues and working extensively on the 2008 Farm Bill. Coppess grew up on his family’s corn and soybean farm in Ohio and earned a law degree from the George Washington University Law School.”
 Generally speaking, this is bad for FSA. Most past administrators I remember have served a full term--4 or 8 years.  Since any political appointee needs a period of brainwashing by the career bureaucrats learning the ropes, the longer the better.  That's assuming, of course, the appointee is capable of learning.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Fantasy Documents

Thanks to Dan Drezner, who was commenting on NY's manual for law in the midst of disasters as described in the Times today, I'm introduced to the concept of "fantasy documents".  From the Amazon product description for the book:
How does the government or a business plan for an unimaginable disaster-a meltdown at a nuclear power plant, a gigantic oil spill, or a nuclear attack? Lee Clarke examines actual attempts to "prepare" for these catastrophes and finds that the policies adopted by corporations and government agencies are fundamentally rhetorical: the plans have no chance to succeed, yet they serve both the organizations and the public as symbols of control, order, and stability. These "fantasy documents" attempt to inspire confidence in organizations, but for Clarke they are disturbing persuasions, soothing our perception that we ultimately cannot control our own technological advances.

For example, Clarke studies corporations' plans for cleaning up oil spills in Prince William Sound prior to the Exxon Valdez debacle, and he finds that the accepted strategies were not just unrealistic but completely untenable. Although different organizations were required to have a cleanup plan for huge spills in the sound, a really massive spill was unprecedented, and the accepted policy was little more than a patchwork of guesses based on (mostly unsuccessful) cleanups after smaller accidents.

While we are increasingly skeptical of big organizations, we still have no choice but to depend on them for protection from large-scale disasters. We expect their specialists to tell the truth, and yet, as Clarke points out, reassuring rhetoric (under the guise of expert prediction) may have no basis in fact or truth because no such basis is attainable.
 It rings true to me, and I might add other documents to the fantasy category: strategic plans, for example. I've always thought those were paper exercises divorced from reality.  Environmental assessments and economic impact statements also might fall into the category.

ID Numbers in India

The Economist has an interesting piece on India's attempt to give each person a biometric ID.  I've always liked the idea, because I'm a bureaucrat and it's a bureaucrat's dream.  India, with its British civil service heritage, has a much better chance of carrying the project through than we have in this country, even though it's also a federal republic and its central government seems to be weaker than the UK's.

Kinsley Calls Me a Fine Person

That's Michael Kinsley in his Politico column suggesting we shouldn't want housing prices to rise.  He suggests the lower housing prices, the easier for people to buy.  Current homeowners who are looking to upgrade should also like lower prices.  Only those current homeowners who aren't looking to upgrade really benefit from high prices. 

I think he's right, at least about my being a fine person, and probably about housing prices. Certainly reading the narrative in All the Devils Are Here, which is a fine book BTW, suggests the housing bubble was a disaster for everyone.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Hypocrisy--Tea Flavored

From Farm Policy:

As a sidebar with respect to farm spending and the tea party, Jonathan Ellis indicated on Saturday at the Argus Leader Online (SD) that, “A new poll of 401 South Dakota tea party supporters is available today. The poll is the most comprehensive public analysis of the movement in this state…[and]…Eighteen percent have an immediate family member who receives federal farm subsidies. Yet 47 percent think federal farm payments to farmers and ranchers should be left at current levels or increased.”

Rummy: Bush Was a Bad Bureaucrat

That's what I get from this Politico piece, based on a Wall Street Journal interview, arguing Donald Rumsfeld critiques Bush and his administration for being bad bureaucrats. 

Defense Appropriations

The draft House appropriations language includes the 2011 DOD appropriations act. Skimming through, I get the sense of lots of history being buried there, lots of lobbying done.  For example Section 8068 requires military facilities (PXs and clubs) to buy their wine and malt from local distributors. They are permitted to buy liquor from the lowest cost vendor.  Or Section 8074 freezes the Pacific fleet command setup to that in place on October 1, 2004. What's the story there?

I also note they're banning the use of ARRA funds for signage (not in the DOD part, but the other part of the bill).

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Will the Republicans Read 359 Pages

The House bill which concludes: This Act may be cited as the ‘‘Full-Year Continuing Appropriations Act, 2011’’ has 359 pages.  Inasmuch as some Republicans mocked the Democrats for voting for bills they had not read, I would think turnaround is fair play.  Any guesses as to how many Republicans can claim they read the whole thing, without having their nose grow?  Even more interesting, any guess as to how many Republicans can read and understand even 10 percent of the bill, without reference to other material?

Program Cuts for USDA

The Sustainable Agriculture Coalition has a post describing the cuts to be made in the discretionary and mandatory programs of USDA.  The media seems to have focused on the appropriations cuts, but as the post notes there are also proposals to require the Agriculture Committee to cut programs under its jurisdiction.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Revised Republican Cuts of USDA

It looks as if the Republicans, in their effort to cut $100 billion, have added to the previously announced cuts of FSA and NRCS other items, and deepened their cuts of WIC.  (Figures are in millions, with the first one the cut from FY2010 as enacted, the second one from FY2011 as Obama requested.) (Here's my previous post.)

Departmental Administration and Offices (137.7) (105.9)
Inspector General (8.7) (4.5)
Research Education and Extension
Agricultural Research Service (185.1) (84.3)
National Institute for Food & Agriculture (217.1) (150.7)
Other Research (13.2) (20.8)
Marketing and Regulatory Programs
Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service (75.0) (32.3)
Agricultural Marketing Service (9.4) (11.8)
Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (1.6) (3.9)
Food Safety and Inspection Service (88.4) (52.7)
Farm Assistance Programs
Farm Services Agency (190.4) (205.3)
Risk Management Agency (3.1) (5.9)
Natural Resources Conservation Service (172.5) (46.2)
Rural Development
Rural Housing Service Loans & Grants (208.8) (35.1)
Rural Business Loans & Grants (33.2) (51.4)
Rural Utilities Loans & Grants (204.5) (6.3)
Rural Development Administrative Expenses (35.8) (40.4)
Domestic Food Programs
Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants &
Children (WIC) (747.2) (1008.2)
Commodity Assistance Programs (26.0) (7.6)
Other Nutrition Programs & Administration (9.0) (32.3)
Foreign Agriculture Service
Food for Peace (PL 480) (687.0) (544.0)
McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition
Grants (109.5) (20.0)
Foreign Agriculture Service (14.9) (83.4)
Food and Drug Administration (241.0) (220.2)

Friday, February 11, 2011

Budget Cuts Help IT?

This Federal Computer Weekly  piece argues that Republican budget cuts will, in the long run, help IT, because the only way to accomplish program goals will be by using technology. I'd beg to differ. If budget cutting were logical, we'd see more money added to IRS to do a better job of collecting taxes. We'd see upfront investments in IT.  We'd see reorganizations.  My experience is budgeting isn't logical, so we'll see the IRS hacked, we'll see IT money cut back to mere maintenance, and we'll see organizations fiercely defending their turf against the world.

The Bad Teacher and the Bad Boss

Some blogging on teacher evaluations. A quote from one:
The only observation I'll make is that I suspect many reformers see teacher evaluations as a second-best approach. In an ideal, less litigious world, managers would be empowered to make hiring and firing decisions based on a number of factors, e.g., does this teacher play well with others, does he have the "soft skills" he needs to do his job well, does he use a variety of strategies to keep easy-to-teach students in his class while fobbing off harder-to-teach students on others, etc., that are hard to quantify.
 I think the comment shows the blind assumptions common to us bureaucrat types.  Specifically, the assumption is that you have the ideal principal doing the evaluations. Stating the assumption does, I think, show its falsity.  We all know no one is perfect, so we're going to have imperfect principals evaluating imperfect teachers.  That reality is one strong reason to have teachers' unions, or unions of public service employees.

Yes, we could all imagine scenarios in which the principal does her evaluation using sound information on many factors.  The reality is different, particularly because evaluation is something few people enjoy doing, or receiving, so it's likely to be done poorly. 

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Use of New Technology

I wonder how well and fast some innovations penetrate society.  For example, I guess you can assume everyone who uses a PC these days knows how to use a mouse. Remembering Windows 2.0, that was not something you could assume. (The first PC's FSA provided had Windows 2.0 on them.)  So maybe it took 10 years or so for us to convert to a Windows WYSIWYG environment?  But how about sneakier stuff, the bells and whistles software types add on.  Does anyone use everything in Word?  How about Google Maps?

The reason I ask is I just realized this week that the Street View in Google Maps could be used to see where in Ireland my great grandfather lived before he emigrated to the US in the 1820s. Apparently Google hasn't done Germany yet.

Crop Insurance and the LA Times

Via Farm Policy, the LA Times had a long article on crop insurance, using the hook of fraud in the program to include some more serious discussion.
The program ballooned, thanks to insurance industry lobbying and federal rules that make it tough for farmers to go without coverage. Although the amount of acreage covered remained relatively stable, the value of insured crops climbed to $78 billion in 2010 from $36.7 billion in 2001. Premiums, tied to the volatility of the commodity futures market, jumped in price. Agents' commissions, which are tied to crop prices and premiums, have tripled over the last decade.

The trouble, critics say, is that private insurers and their agents reap most of the benefits while the public still picks up the losses.

In 2009, taxpayers shelled out nearly $4 billion to the 16 insurers involved in the program, according to the USDA's Risk Management Agency, which administers the program. Of that, $1.5 billion was paid in commissions to an estimated 15,000 insurance agents. Because there were more gains than losses, the USDA said it retained $1.4 billion, some of which came from farmers' premiums.
 Must be nice to have one's income triple in a decade.  Although it's probably true that many crop farmers have done equally as well in the new century.

A Coming Glut of Almonds and Pistachios

That's my prediction, based on these figures from Chris Clayton:

Speaking of which, all you rolling in the money corn and soybean farmers, figure this math out. Last year, some of these guys in the valley got about 4,000 pounds an acre off their pistachios, and sold them at $2.50 a pound. Production costs for a pistachio crop is about $2,000 an acre. And it's a wonder why private investors are willing to pour money into pistachio or almond orchards that won't make a crop until three to five years.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

USDA Farm Cuts

House Appropriations Committee is proposing the following cuts in 2011 FY (the next continuing resolution):

"Food Safety and Inspection Services -$53M
· Farm Service Agency -$201M
· Agriculture Research -$246M
· Natural Resource Conservation Service -$46M
· Rural Development Programs -$237M"
 No detail on what's involved. No cut to SNAP (food stamps) but WIC takes a $738 million hit.  Not sure why it's better to fund the poor instead of women and infants.

NY Dairies Can't Win

Not only have corn prices gone through the roof, but the roof is falling, at least in Saratoga and Washington counties, NY on several farms.

A couple comments, which sound hard-hearted:
  • I suspect many of the roofs which succumbed to the snow load were on buildings erected during the last half of the last century.  I doubt either the old-old-fashioned barn on my childhood farm, or the old-fashioned hip-roofed barn which was the standard when I was born would have suffered so.  Their roofs were steeper in pitch than the more modern barns I've seen.
  • I'm not sure why FSA should be involved.  Surely the farmers were carrying insurance on buildings and herd.  If they had insurance and the insurance covered barn collapses because of snow, FSA should not be involved.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Sic Transit Gloria: Ken Olsen

Back in the day (whoops, did I use that already) Once the Digital Equipment Corporation was high in the sky.  I remember using the DEC All-in-one system to communicate with Kansas City, writing requirements and discussing schedules.  This was the mid-80's. In DC we had started our word processing with the IBM Magnetic Tape/Selectric Typewriter, changed to the CRT-based Lexitrons, briefly to Wang, and then to the DEC terminals with their email, wordprocessing and rudimentary spreadsheet package.  (The spreadsheet was an attempt to compete with Lotus 123--I remember using it for some computations, maybe on wheat allotment in the runup to the 1986 farm bill.) 

Anyhow, it was on the DEC that I first learned the golden rule of email: black and white type does not convey your meaning, particularly when you're joking, sarcastic or whatever.  (Early days of smileys.)   All this reminiscing is triggered by the death of Ken Olsen, one of the cofounders of DEC.

It's a cautionary tale, matched in later days by the AOL/TimeWarner saga, Alta Vista, and maybe Yahoo, and Ebay.  Who knows the future?

Cotton Price Supports

Back in the day, Oxfam was waging war against US cotton farm programs on behalf of the African cotton growers (in Burkina Faso, etc.). The argument was the program encouraged US farmers to produce at lower prices, making it impossible for African growers to make a profit.  This was when the cotton price was $.55 or so a pound.

Today, according to this piece by Philip Brasher (hat tip Farm Policy) Oxfam's man in Africa is seeing possibilities for African growers:
Cotton isn't a food crop, but farmers in places such as Mali or Senegal in west Africa could do quite well if cotton prices hold up, Hazard [Oxfam representative] said in a phone interview from Dakar, Senegal. A jump in world cotton prices last year came too late to really benefit farmers as much as it could have, because they have their crop under contract by the time they plant, he said. The world price of cotton shot from 90 cents in August to $1.68 in December, according to the National Cotton Council.
Some west African farmers may switch some of their land from food production to cotton to take advantage of the prices, Hazard said.
 Elsewhere in the piece Hazard notes high food prices may force the poor to cut back on their consumption.

Two observations, after I admit I'm no economist:
  • Last I knew the US cotton program wasn't significantly changed.  Matter of fact Brazil won compensation from us via the WTO. So this big turnaround for cotton means there's other forces at work, stronger forces at work, than simply bad, no-good, unwise, even evil US farm programs.
  • If the high cotton prices will elicit more cotton production from African growers, so eventually might the high rice, etc. prices elicit more rice production.

Women in Special Ops

Special Ops is the glamour branch of the services.  Think of the Delta force operatives in Black Hawk Down.  So it's with some surprise I got towards the middle of this post on Tom Ricks blog and found that women are successfully infiltrating even Special Ops. You can't keep a good woman down, I guess.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Schadenfreude on Disaster

I spent long enough in FSA working on disaster programs (not disastrous programs, though opinions may differ, but programs to aid farmers who suffered a disaster) to feel some schadenfreude (wicked enjoyment at the misfortunes of others) at reports such as this.

It's a true fact: any program, public or private, which puts money on the table is subject to scams and fraud.  Different programs have different vulnerabilities.  Whether it was the compensation for 9/11 victims and families, or Katrina, Pigford, or just a simple scheme to fake an accident, burn down one's factory building for the insurance, or claim a whiplash, you always have fraud.

Of course everyone knows we ourselves are innocent, so only a weak-minded blind bureaucrat would treat us as someone to be suspected, someone whose claims must be verified and whose word should not be taken at face value.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Limiting the Use of SSN's

Nextgov had a post a while back reporting the Navy was limiting the use of Social Security numbers. It ends:
The eventual goal is to have a unique Defense Department ID replace Social Security numbers across all the services. Defense expects to begin removing Social Security numbers from bar codes on service member ID cards by 2012.
 There's a gain to using organization-specific (DOD) IDs instead of nation-specific IDs (SSN's), I suppose. My personal prejudice is for using applications which don't require an ID number at all. After all, if you need to distinguish among the multiple Bill Harshaws who live in the world, a combination  of data works.  Just use the Whitepages application and do a search for a last name and a town.  They'll respond with a list of people with the last name and provide the first names, often the ages, and often the other people in the household.  Usually that's good enough for what you want.

Granted there may be some instances in which the organization needs greater certainty.  For example, consider an ID card.  My VA drivers license used to have the SSN on it, but now it's got a customer ID number.  That's what store clerks write down, or they used to, when they ask for ID for a check or a purchase. Such requests are infrequent now; I'm not sure whether it's because businesses have figured the info is not worth the hassle or what.  The better solution would be a picture of me and my card, which they may be getting.

I'd hasten to add that there needs to be an ID card number, which identifies the ID card itself, but which doesn't identify the person. If I lose my license, VDOT needs to reissue one, and know which actual card was lost and which I should have.  That way, if the lost card pops up in someone's possession they can tell the difference. I don't know VDOT's business processes, but it looks as if they do have such a card number on the license.

Finally, if needed, any organization these days should be able to rely on an email address, which is what they do online. Unfortunately not everyone has one, which is a subject for another day.

Are You Allowed To? The Growth of Freedom

That's what I was asked by a person of a certain age (i.e., older than I) recently. I was offering advice on beginning a blog containing posts about a historical personage. The question, as I recall it, was whether you could address the reader directly in such posts. For example, "dear reader, Jane Doe III was the most important person in Anytown during 1840-1860.  You need to understand her life  because it offers an example of how leaders today should act."

My response was, of course: in the blogging world there are no rules. You can do anything and everything.  Given the person to whom I was responding, mentioning the End User Licensing Agreement Google has us agree to seemed superfluous.

This question measures the gap between the world in which I and the person were raised and the world today.  I can't imagine people in their teens and twenties today asking the same question.  Their world is much fuller of opportunities, of possibilities, and much emptier of rules governing personal behavior with others, whether on the Internet or in person.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

And You Thought Vegetable Growers Didn't Get Subsidies

Foodies often point to the large subsidies given to field crops and complain that fruit and vegetable growers don't get subsidized.  Whatever the truth of the assertion, I want to point to this new FSA program.  Yes, it's for asparagus, which last I looked was a vegetable.  (I like asparagus, fresh asparagus, locally grown asparagus.) Of course the program is for the 2004 through 2007 crop years.

Frankly, I don't have time left in my life to research this, and the link to the body of the regulations does not work (I've complained to GPO) so I'll just fly off the handle.  This is ridiculous.  No bureaucrat can reasonably administer a program this far removed from the current day. Too much changes.  According to the press release, it sounds as if there were a surge of imports during the period.  Someone got some Congressperson to put this in the farm bill, though it doesn't count as an earmark. 

Food Costs

Charles Blow has an op-ed piece in the Times with a table comparing the Mid-East nations (and the US) on various metrics: age of population, inequality of income, food expenditure, Internet penetration, level of democracy. Overall, there's not much difference between Tunisia, Egypt and the other countries. But on food costs, defined as spending on food consumed at home, as a percentage of household spending, the US is down to 6.8 percent (based on the 2011 Statistical Abstract). Most of the other countries, except Israel and the small oil-rich ones,  run from 20 to 45 percent. 

I suspect this is misleading, however, in that in US the 6.8 percent includes lots of processed food, while in the Mid East the 20+ percent is more raw materials, like flour, beans, rice, olive oil and similar ingredients.  So fluctuations in the price of agricultural commodities hits them much harder than in the US>

Friday, February 04, 2011

On Class, and the Lack Thereof

I recommend Tony Judt's The Memory Chalet, a book of essays written as he became immobilized in body by Lou Gehrig's disease. It's getting 5 stars on Amazon. The writing is graceful.  Judt, now dead, was a Londoner, of Jewish heritage, a historian who taught on both sides of the Atlantic but ended up in New York City.

I want to quote from the essay "Bedder".
"I grew up without servants.  This is hardly surprising: in the first place, we were a small, lower-middle-class family who lived in small, lower-middle-class housing.  Before the war [WWII], such families could typically afford a maid and perhaps a cook as well.  The real middle class, of course, did much better: upstairs and downstairs staff were well within the reach of a professional man and his family." [His parents could afford a day-nanny for him. At Cambridge he had "bedders": women who looked after undergraduate rooms. Oxford has "scouts".]
Judt's class-consciousness is British, as are his gradations.  I think he means his family was middle-class because they weren't "working class/lower class"; they had white-collar jobs, not manual labor.  The "lower" part probably implies no college education, not a professional lawyer, teacher, manager. I think it's generally true a higher proportion of Brits had servants (say from 1850-1950) than Americans. Americans had "help", neighbor girls who might come in after childbirth or during sickness.  But anyone who could afford regular employees probably was considered upper-middle-class. 

Having noted this bit in Judt, I was struck when I saw on a newscast a talking head describing a growing "underclass" resulting from people losing their jobs in the Great Recession and being unable to find new employment. To me "underclass" is a bit pejorative, although perhaps not as much as "lower class" would seem.

Surprising Sentence of the Day: Molotov Cocktail

Who was Molotov? No, that's not the sentence, but I write in stunned amazement that most people today have no memory of him. (Only the precocious baby boomer might remember him.)

The surprising sentence, at Technology Review:

"The amount of energy stored in a given volume of gasoline is 36 times higher than a lithium ion battery, 15 times that of gunpowder and 10 times greater than the energy per unit volume of TNT."

It's from an article explaining why they are the great equalizer.

How Rich Is the Richest Black Person in the World

$10 billion. (He's an Ethiopean.) Hat tip: Chris Blattman

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Why Programs Fail

A bit from a new Center for American Progress study on "Design for Success". Part of their answer to the question is:
"proponents [of a program] tend to focus on the politics and perception of a new idea, rather than on less glamorous questions of whether the program is likely to work or whether it is ready to be implemented. They focus on which stakeholder group might back the idea, how it will play with the media and voters, and what effect it could have on future political contests. These considerations naturally lead to compromises, and ideas get amended to increase political support. The changes, however, are rarely about making the idea more effective when implemented, but about luring the support of powerful players.
The problem, then, is that our program-making process focuses primarily on politics, and only secondarily on substantial policy questions. Questions of implementability sometimes seem entirely absent from the process.
(The study in part is inspired by Atul Gawande's "Checklist" book. )

A related quote, on why existing programs continue:
Finally, the political process rewards people who come up with new ideas, not fix old ones. Interest groups court new policies, and reward politicians who champion their ideas. That means Washington decision makers tend to channel their energies into developing new policies rather than fixing existing programs.
 I've skimmed the report which I like. It's more practical than many efforts.  I particularly like the idea in the report that its proposals should be tested on a trial basis, as they recommend for new programs.  However, I'd fault them for being too much a "new idea" (see the paragraph above) and not attending to how existing efforts in OMB and Congress could be modified and improved in light of their recommendations.  It's good my Senator, Mr. Warner, supports the effort, but how much clout is behind it?

Farmers Replaced by a Printer?

That's possible, at least that's how I interpret the implications of a visionary on Freakonomics who wants to eliminate food waste by printing food, yes printing food.

(I think he's full of barnyard extract.)

The Dirty Little Secrets of Life--Milk

There's all sorts of things we live with by ignoring them; just pass by on the other side of the street.  One is milk.

I'm reminded of that by this extension post on milk quality.

Note the emphasis on "clean" in the writeup.  The dirty little secret is that some amount of manure gets in the milk. It's inevitable. It's something we don't like to dwell on, something I didn't dwell on even when I was growing up on a dairy farm drinking raw milk and fully aware of the fact; just something we live with by ignoring.

2012, Egypt, Huntsman, and Elections

I wonder whether there isn't an opening for Jon Huntsman, former Republican governor of Utah and currently ambassador to China, and possibly a candidate for the Republican nomination for president in 2012. I think a tacit assumption among the tea leaf readers has been that Iraq and Afghanistan will be quiet enough between now and 2012 that they won't be major issues in the campaign.  So the focus has been on the potential candidates and domestic issues.  But if Egypt means an unsettled period for our foreign relations, it might be a challenge for Republican candidates.  About all most of them could argue is: I've more experience with foreign affairs than Obama did in 2008.  That might or might not be true, but it's not a strong argument.  Mr. Huntsman seems to be one who has a stronger resume on foreign affairs, which might help.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Sidewalks and Paths in Reston II

This is an add-on to my previous post.  Took a walk down Freetown yesterday.  It's an area of single-family homes on both sides of the road, with a sidewalk on one side. Most of the homeowners had cleared their portion of the sidewalk so I only had to walk in the road a couple places.  It gives another perspective on paths and sidewalks. 

Presumably, in the beginning there were cities and country. Cities, and only cities, had sidewalks.  And sidewalks were on the land of, or bordered the land of, owners of private property. So there was a neat division: owners cleared their walks, the city cleared their streets.  Meanwhile in the country the county plowed the roads.

Then we come to the mid-20th century with property developments and planned towns.  And road were separated from the private property owners.  So you begin to have "orphan sidewalks", where the old rule that the property owner was responsible didn't and couldn't work. And thus you have the pattern of Reston, where Reston Association clears its paths, VDOT clears its streets, and the sidewalks (which may be on Reston property or on VDOT right-of-way, I'm not sure but both are possible) go uncleared.

How To Sell to Americans: Bigger Is Better

So says this Extension piece quoting the Chile Blueberry Committee. Given Starbucks has just enlarged its highend product, I suspect they're right.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Grocers More Dissipated Than Hollywood?

So says Temple Grandin, although her basis of comparison is a bit limited.
Grandin attended the recent Golden Globes awards event in Hollywood and found the movie people well-behaved – a sharp contrast from a grocers’ convention she had been to in the 1970s.
"That was a total drunken orgy,” she said.
  Interesting speech noted by extension.

Why We Need Metrics

From a Federal Computer Week piece on blogging:
"Perhaps it's ironic that many substandard federal blogs slog on forever while one of the best [Navy CIO's] was killed. Drapeau said the weak blogs endure because they do not call attention to themselves.
“Who complains about horrible, obscure movies that they haven't seen?” he asked. “And given that the financial cost of having a bad blog is very low, there's little to stop most bad blogs from persisting.”

Private Company Screws Up; Government Doesn't

Two articles in the NY Times business section:
I like to tweak those who dis the government. Seriously, I think the key thing is change. Mr. Miller at Treasury is new blood, who left Goldman to serve the public, which apparently he has done quite well.  While government bureaucracies can become hide-bound, the periodic shakeups which often arise from elections counter that effect.  Meanwhile, theoretically private enterprise is subject to the discipline of the market. A loss of a billion isn't going to be serious for Intel's managers, although it may be for the person who oversaw the chip development. I doubt that competition is that much of a factor here--Intel seems to have had market dominance for many years. Instead, publicity is going to be the disciplinary factor: Intel couldn't really keep the problem hidden.  And that publicity may redound on the stock price.