Thursday, March 31, 2011

Our Weak Federal Government--States Control Fed Employees

In any rationally constructed bureaucracy, the leadership of the organization can control the hiring and firing of the people who do the organization's work.
Right?  Anyone disagree?

So we're all in agreement the Social Security Administration is not a rationally constructed bureaucracy.  As the FederalComputer Week reports:

"Under a joint federal-state funding relationship, SSA pays the full salaries of state employees who do initial processing of disability claims under the federal Disability Determination Services program."
 Because they're state employees, not Feds, some 19 states have furloughed these people, meaning SSA can't timely service these claims.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Food Movement's Dilemma

 I think it's fair to say the food movement is mostly left, sometimes libertarian, but still mostly left.  As such I'd expect them to be responsive to this post at Understanding Government, noting an article on hunger in America.

But I'd also expect them to appreciate this guy's efforts, serving as a middleman between his neighbors who grow food and make artisanal products and the residents of the DC area:
A longtime foodie and serial entrepreneur, Kostelac is convinced that his old neighbors in yuppie Washington will pay premium prices for produce and meat from the small farmers who are his new neighbors. Now, in this refuge from his failures in the city, he sees opportunity — in the leaves of the grapevine that wraps around his front gate, the morel mushrooms that sprout beneath a shade tree and the wild raspberries that grow faster than ones he planted — that he might have overlooked before.
 So,  the dilemma is: what does the food movement support? Do they want to raise taxes to provide more food stamps to low-income people so they can pay some of the "premium prices" ($3.25 for a bunch of basil, $29.25 a pound for brisket)? Do they want to spend money to subsidize Mr. Kostelac's neighbors so they can reduce their prices?

A cynic, and I'm occasionally one, might say if everyone is eating organic basil in their pesto, what's the point--where does one turn in the effort to prove one's taste is superior?

Members of Congress Receiving Farm Payments

EWG has released their list of current members of Congress who are directly or indirectly receiving farm program payments. The majority own shares in some sort of legal entity(ies); few get payments directly.

Past Sins Recalled

Katrina Vanden Heuvel in the Post on having standards for pundits:
Fox News trumped even that, trotting out retired Marine Col. Oliver North, the former Reagan security staffer who orchestrated the secret war in Nicaragua, to indict President Obama for — you can’t make this stuff up — failing to get a congressional resolution in support of the mission in Libya.

Predicting the Future, Achenbach Is Prescient

See his last paragraph quoted here.

Nitpicky Morning

First Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution writes "cache" when he means "cachet" and then Jonathan Adler at Volokh Conspiracy writes "principle limit" when he means "principal".  Standards is gone all to hell.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

How Do Economists CAPTCHA This Data?

Guy Gugliotta has an article in the Times on the use of Captchas to interpret scanned text through a special software program.  Apparently when you see 2 words in the Captcha, one is a true word which the software knows, the other is scanned text which the software isn't sure of.  So if you get the true word right, you're a human and the software will consider your answer to the other.  Very interesting. They claim 500,000 hours of brain effort are being spent on replying to Captchas, so their software converts that to useful work.

It raises the question to me: how are economists capturing these gains to utility (or however they'd word it)?  It's unpaid work, but it's very useful, converting the poorly scanned texts of old NY Times and 19th century books into readable, accurate English. Come to that, how do they account for the improved research which historians can now do using Google Books and Google Scholar?

My Loss of Faith in Japan

The Japanese are great engineers, right?  And their society is unified.  And in the face of disaster they cooperate, they don't loot, they work together.

But my faith is severely undermined by this factoid, from a Times piece on the supply of electricity:
In theory, the Tokyo area could import electricity from the south. But a historical rivalry between Tokyo and the city of Osaka led the two areas to develop grids using different frequencies — Osaka’s is 60 cycles and Tokyo’s is 50 cycles — so sharing is inefficient.
 Darn right it would be inefficient.  That's even worse than the division of the US into separate grids, where the Texas grid doesn't really connect with the others so the idea for wind power on the High Plains doesn't work well.  It reminds me of the difference in railroad track gauges which we used to have.  (The Erie Railroad had a wider gauge than others; Southern roads varied.  The idea was to create a monopoly, a niche. It's rather like the difference between Apple and Microsoft: Gates went with open architecture and the advantages of networking; Jobs went with closed architecture and the advantages of specialization.  For years it looked as if Gates had the better argument, but now we're starting to doubt.)

Best Sentence of Mar 29

Comes from Tom Rick's The Best Defense, a pilot explaining the deficiencies of the F-22 for ground support.

"The Raptor also lacks the armor and the price tag required for fecklessly dueling Grunts who own automatic weapons and hate pilots who make more money and look better than they do."

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Farmland Bubble

Yes, 4 percent appreciation a month equates to "bubble".

From Farm Policy:
Meanwhile, Elizabeth Williams and Marcia Zarley Taylor reported on Friday at DTN (link requires subscription) that, “Midwest farmland is appreciating so fast that even professional appraisers are humbled by the pace. A good-quality parcel of farmland sold for $11,500 per acre around Bloomington, Ill., earlier this month. That’s up $3,000 to $3,500 from a year earlier, said Charles Knudson, an appraiser with 1st Farm Credit Services.
In September, Knudson appraised a central-Illinois property at $8,100 per acre for an interested buyer, but it sold at auction in February for $10,150 per acre. He’s now appraising farmland at 4-percent-per-month gains, a rate that landowners once savored on an annual basis.”
 And see Robert Shiller's discussion at Slate.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Rabbit, the Carrot, and a Tail of Locavores

Via Marginal Revolution a fascinating story on carrots.

Now carrots should be one of the quintessential locavore vegetables.  They're easily grown, provided you don't have heavy clay soil and keep the weeds down, they can overwinter in the ground if the frost doesn't go too deep (protect them with leaves), they're nutritious, and furry critters like them.  As I remember, we used to store them in our cold cellar (actually the pump room off our regular cellar).  So under locavore theory it should be possible to raise and sell locally grown carrots in most of the U.S. The food movement also attacks the big industrial farms producing grain and cotton which they claim is founded on the basis of government subsidies. By implication, fruit and vegetable growers are smaller and unsubsidized.

But, as it turns out, two companies grow 80 percent of the carrots in the U.S.  And recent growth in their sales has been, not through flogging organic, naturally grown carrots, but by producing packaged "baby carrots", all clean and ready to eat.  (Disclosure: I buy them regularly.)
Bolthouse Farms sells nearly a billion pounds of carrots a year -- the carrots Farhang kept hearing about -- under a number of different brand names and supermarket labels. Only Grimmway Farms, a few minutes down the road in Bakersfield, California, sells more, just barely. Together, the two companies control more than 80% of the carrot market in the United States

A Doctrine, A Doctrine, Where Is the Doctrine?

Much of the commentariat is asking Obama to declare a "doctrine": a rule which describes when he will use military force and when he won't.  I suspect if he were a Republican in the same circumstances I too would be calling for the President to enunciate some rules.  As he's not, thank goodness, I'm more in favor of the "Pragmatic Rule": if it works, do it; if you can get away with it, do it; if you fail, the decision was wrong.

It's hard for any politician to declare the "pragmatic rule", but they follow it more closely than they do the "Golden Rule".  While most Americans would like us to be idealists, to be the city on the hill, I think even more vote based on the "Pragmatic Rule".  We'll see, both whether Obama's Libyan/Middle East policy works and whether voters reward or punich on that basis.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Government Reform

The White House's "Government Reform for Competitiveness and Innovation Initiative" has, I guess, learned some lessons from the first initiative Obama had to gather input, which was quickly overrun by birthers and assorted crackpots.  This time around they're limiting input to Feds, and this is the beginning of the terms and conditions:

As Federal employees, we want to hear your insights about government reforms that can promote competition and innovation. This invitation is limited to Federal employees.
We hope to receive many diverse ideas and opinions about what works and what we can improve. All contributions will be posted without identifying information. This is designed as a community-moderated event in order to retain focus on the designated topic and to ensure that the event remains appropriate for an audience of all ages. Accordingly, we ask all participants to agree to the following Terms of Participation:
• You agree to post only ideas related to making government more effective and efficient. Our goal is to produce ideas that will improve the way that government operates.
• Because Americans of all ages will be able to view these ideas online, we ask all those who elect to participate to conduct themselves in a civil manner - to refrain from posting threats, obscenity, other material that would violate the law if published here, abusive or racist language, and sexually explicit material.
• This is a forum for federal employees to submit substantive ideas on improving the efficiency and effectiveness of government. This is not a forum for airing grievances against co-workers, supervisors, or anyone else in your organization. We reserve the right to take down any such inappropriate submissions or any other submissions that may compromise the privacy of federal employees or other individuals.
• Do not submit identifying information.
Sorry to say as a taxpayer I'm not really impressed with the ideas submitted.  And it's too bad 2 years into the administration they haven't figured out how to obtain good input.  Maybe they should hold a competition: give cash prizes for the input designs which produce the highest ratio of good input to trash.

Pollan and Fossil Fuels

Pollan claims, according to Tom Philpott's summary on an interview, that we won't have the fossil fuels to keep our current "industrialized agriculture"  going in 30 years or so.  I'm not clear what he means.  If he's assuming "peak oil" so the price of diesel and inputs to fertilizer plants go up, that's likely. My impression, though, is that large diesels are at least as efficient as small diesels, so unless Pollan sees a reversion from tractors to horses/mules/oxen I don't see the problem.  To the extent we replace fossil fuels in our transport, we'll also be able to replace them in agriculture for motive power.  If we go to electric vehicles with the electricity supplied by nuclear, by sunlight, by wind power, by fuel cells, by whatever, we can go to electric tractors. (I'm not sure whether electric motors or diesels generate more torque.) 

Yes, the phasing out of oil might raise the prices for fuel on the farm and possibly the cost of fuel, but I fail to understand how it would force a change in the mode of agriculture.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Social Security Deserves Praise for Missing Goals

Social Security administration hit some performance goals and missed others, according to this Federal Computer Week post. They deserve praise on two counts: first for publicly reporting and publicizing their results which I haven't noticed other agencies doing, second for setting goals ambitious enough they might not make them.  It's good to aim high, even if you fail.

The Definition of "Virgin"

Credit Walter Jeffries for the definition of "virgin", as well as "gilt" and "sow" and the Seven Silly Sisters.

More seriously, a reminder that small farmers have to sacrifice comfort and sleep to tend their animals.

The Unseen Benefits of Technology

Reston Patch has a post on the Fairfax County 9-1-1 Call Center.
“Back in the olden days, 18 months ago, much of the on-site emergency response coordination between departments had to be completed by telephone at the dispatch center,” said Steve Souder, the 9-1-1 Call Center’s director. Sometimes this would require multiple phone calls back and forth.
“Before cell phones, if an accident occurred on a highway, someone would have to drive to the next exit and get off to look for a pay phone,” Souder recalls.  “The caller had to have coins available to place a call and once the 9-1-1 call was placed, hoped they remembered approximately where and in which direction the accident took place.” ....
The call is automatically assigned a code for the type of emergency—police only, fire, basic life service—and as the communicator enters details, that information immediately becomes available to police, fire and rescue dispatchers who place calls to responders.
Since all police, fire and rescue units are equipped with global positioning systems, dispatchers can immediately tell who is closest to the emergency. The police department can immediately pull up a history of responses for a given address. Public safety communicators also have instructions on how to walk the caller through life-saving techniques until responders arrive. 
Answering 9-1-1 calls requires the ability to handle the more than 100 different languages spoken in Fairfax County. The county uses the services of Language Line headquartered in Monterey, CA to assist in taking the call.

The net result of all this should be faster response to emergencies, with long term effects on reduced deaths from accidents, reduced hospital costs from accidents, less property damage from fires, more effective police protection.  Of course none of these gains will show up on the front page of the newspapers, nor will any be credited as more effective government.

Will Christopher Hitchens Go to Heaven?

Reading "American Grace, How Religion Unites Us and Divides Us" by Robert Putnam of "Bowling Alone" fame and David Campbell.  In one section  they cite a poll showing that most people think most people will go to heaven: that is, most Catholics believe Protestants can go to heaven, believe Jews can go to heaven, etc. So Americans mostly are tolerant and don't hold strictly to theological teachings. At least, that's what Putnam and Campbell say.  But I note the survey didn't think to ask whether atheists and agnostics, like maybe Christopher Hitchens or Albert Einstein, could go to heaven.  I wonder what such a survey question would reveal: is entry to heaven based on the life one led or the beliefs one has? I also wonder who will get into the heaven which features 76 virgins?  Is heaven segregated by belief?

In America Mosques Become (Protestant) Churches

One point made in American Grace (a book I've just started reading) is that, in the U.S. the original template in religion is the Protestant congregation(al) church.  That template is very different from the pattern of religion in many other countries.  The evolution of religion in the U.S. has been for other denominations/religions to become more like the Protestant congregational  church. It may be  this is because the U.S. has a competitive religious marketplace, so every religion has had to complete with the original template.  It's the old tale: competing organizations tend to imitate each other

Thursday, March 24, 2011

What Wisdom Do Statisticians Have

From a Nate Silver post((on a theory predicting the Republicans are almost sure to maintain control of the House in 2012):
The issue with this model, and some others like it, is what’s known in the statistical business as overfitting. This occurs when the number of variables is large relative to the sample size: in this case, the full version of Mr. Enten’s model contains six variables, but is used to explain only 15 cases (Congressional elections in presidential years since 1952).
A general rule of thumb is that you should have no more than one variable for every 10 or 15 cases in your data set. So a model to explain what happened in 15 elections should ideally contain no more than one or two inputs. By a strict interpretation, in fact, not only should a model like this one not contain more than one or two input variables, but the statistician should not even consider more than one or two variables as candidates for the model, since otherwise he can cherry-pick the ones that happen to fit the data the best (a related problem known as data dredging).
If you ignore these principles, you may wind up with a model that fits the noise in the data rather than the signal.
 Seems to me there's a relationship with our construction of narratives.  The more detail, the more variables, we can stick in and still have a cohesive story the more satisfying it is. So what Silver says is that stories aren't scientific explanations, they're history.

Simulators for Everything

University Diaries points to this dairy cow simulator for vet training, and for artificial inseminators.

The Question of the Day

From Joel Achenbach:

How do we become the organized people who are ready for the Big One when the ordinary tasks of daily life — the mundane stuff — the tedious grind of being a taxpaying citizen — are already overwhelming us?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Second Thoughts on "Industrial Farming"

I usually resist the meme among the food movement of dissing the "industrial farmer", ".  However, I saw this "Agrosecurity Checklist" on the site and noted the extensive references to "employees", which is a reminder that farming has changed from my mental picture of it.  I just don't think of farmers as having employees, at least not full-time employees, but many do now.

The Ride of the Valkyries--and the Furies?

Maureen Dowd writes about the idea that the Obama people who ended up pushing for the no-fly zone were women: Rice, Power, Clinton.  She missed the fact that two of the people commanding the effort were Major Gen. Margaret Woodward and Rear Adm. Peg Klein.  For Furies, see this.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Washing Machine, and Clean Water

Via Ezra Klein, a TED talk claiming the washing machine is the great invention, by Hans Rosling. Actually, he uses it more metaphorically to discuss growth of wealth and population and green concerns. But it triggered my memory:

My mother would remember Mondays on the farm.  Monday was wash day, of course.  There were ironing day and baking day and I forget what else.  When she was young, they had a "dog power" to run the washing machine, and their dog would know and hide on Mondays, which was a story she'd repeat regularly over the years.  I never asked, but I assume they heated water for washing as we did, using a coal/wood stove, possibly with a boiler on the stove, or through a heating coil contained within the stove. I assume the washer simply agitated the clothes in the water, with a separate wringer (set of rollers to squeeze water out of the clothes. I vaguely remember the two big wash tubs used for rinsing the clothes, which then would be run through the wringer to wring out the water (could almost make a tongue-twister out of that). Then of course the clothes would be hung on the line to dry.

Mom's washing machine was a wringer washer, with no dog to run away and a wringer as part of the machine.  It still presupposed a supply of heated water. And clothes were still hung to dry. It definitely required more work than today's washer which simply requires loading soap and clothes and pressing buttons.

So my point: while Rosling is right to talk about the importance of the washing machine in freeing women to learn to read, and to read books to their children, the machine itself and the detergents available to us, assume the presence of clean, preferably heated water.  In that sense, public utilities, taking the human waste away by keeping it separate from the clean water provided for drinking and washing, become the greatest invention.

A Political Scientist (International Relations) on How To Arrange a Marriage

Dan Drezner passes on a great lesson in marriage planning, dressed up as commentary on Libya.

Monday, March 21, 2011

High on the Hog, Surprising Factoids

High on the Hog, subtitled "A Culinary Journey from Africa to America" is a broadbrush history of slavery and race relations focused through the prism of food, food crops, food preparation, cuisines, etc. It's well-written, although I'd quibble with a couple items where I think an urbanite showed lack of agricultural background.  One was a reference to a slave being given 17 "stalks" of corn to subsist on.  Possible, but more likely "ears".  Another was a reference to an early writer (circa 1600?) who claimed that native Americans could raise 200 English bushels of wheat per acre.  The cite may be accurate, but it shows credulity by the writer.
A couple factoids: It has the surprising claim that the death rate for sailors on ships engaged in the slave trade was higher than the rate for the Africans held captive. Although the author, Jessica Harris, is a professor, it's not footnoted within the book.

I could explain it: if the analysis includes the whole trip for the sailors, time spent off the coast of Africa waiting to fill the slave ships was notoriously unhealthy.  And, there was a definite economic incentive to keep captives healthy enough to survive the Middle Passage.  So the factoid might be right, but I'm still uncomfortable

Another factoid: France's Code Noir in 1685 prescribed the diet to be provided to French slaves. The U.S. federal government never had such a provision and apparently no states did either.  That's a reflection of the difference in government between France and the U.S.: our governments are weaker and less prescriptive; French governments, whether monarcharies or democracies, are more centralized and prescriptive.

Politicians Break Promises, Even Their Wives

From Obamafoodorama:
In an interview with the New York Times given the day before the groundbreaking [of the White House garden], Mrs. Obama announced that the entire First Family, including President Obama, would be pulling weeds in the Kitchen Garden, “whether they like it or not." With one exception.

“Now Grandma, my mom, I don’t know,” Mrs. Obama said of her mother, Marian Robinson, working in the Kitchen Garden.

Mrs. Robinson "would probably sit back and say: “Isn’t that lovely. You missed a spot,”" Mrs. Obama said.
 But when an aide was asked about follow-through:
The aide said she wasn't aware of any Presidential or First Daughter weeding or harvesting action, but added that it might be going on "during private family time."

"You never know," the aide said. She added that Mrs. Obama, in her interview, "may have been joking" about the First Family weeding the Kitchen Garden.
  If I remember correctly, I was always dubious about the premise.  Given the schedule I presume Mrs. Obama maintains, it would be very hard for her to herd her family to the garden on a regular basis.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

When Is an Earmark an Earnmark

The Sustainable Ag Coalition believes that ATTRA lost its funding because Congress thought it was an earmark:

One very distressing casualty of the continuing series of Continuing Resolutions that are keeping the government open but cutting funding week by week is the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, known as ATTRA.  ATTRA’s $2.8 million was cut entirely in H.R. 1, the House-passed full-year Continuing Resolution from mid-February and that proposed program termination was unfortunately including among the $6 billion in cuts adopted by Congress this week in the new short-term Continuing Resolution keeping the government operating through April 8.
The justification for cutting ATTRA appears to be a misperception that it is an earmark.  Indeed, like earmarks, many Senators and Members of Congress request funding for ATTRA every year, as they do for many programs.  However, unlike earmarks for projects in specific congressional districts, ATTRA is a nationwide program, authorized in the 2008 Farm Bill, and it has been included in presidential budgets through many administrations over several decades. 
 What they don't mention is that the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service is not a federal agency, as the name might imply (and I first thought).  It's the outcome of a cooperative agreement with the Rural Development Service--in other words federal money provided to a cooperative.  Here's the general blurb from RD:

We have over 80 years of experience working with the cooperative sector and remain the only federal agency charged with that responsibility. USDA Rural Development has been providing support to cooperatives since the Cooperative Marketing Act of 1926, promoting the knowledge of cooperative principles and practices as well as collecting statistics on cooperative activities. The Cooperative Program provides assistance for rural residents interested in forming new cooperatives and administers programs that fund value-added producer grants, rural cooperative development centers, and small socially-disadvantaged producers.
We also provide resources to local cooperatives to support a department-wide effort known as, 'Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food'. This initiative, led by Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan puts an increased emphasis on regional food systems, which will have direct and significant benefits to rural communities. Lear [sic] more here:
Now if the appropriation is specifically for that cooperative agreement, it comes pretty close in my mind to an earmark. If RD is given a lump sum of money for cooperative agreements and decides to give $2.8 million to ATTRA, then it's not.

Friday, March 18, 2011

MIDAS Presentation II

Some more random thoughts on the MIDAS presentation::

Two things struck me about the geographic distribution of the field people they've brought in to work on it:
  • there's no one from the western third of the country.
  • there's only one person from the southeast.
Now I understand that with the phaseout of tobacco and peanut programs and the establishment of Freedom to Farm direct payments regional differences in agriculture and in landownership and operation aren't as significant as they used to be. And I know all the hard-headed SOB's capable specialists who used to staff the state offices have now retired. So what you have in the state offices are easy-going types anxious to improve operations.  But gee, just for small p political purposes it'd be good to have a more diverse set of people.

Another nit to pick: the presentation refers to "SAP" as if everyone knows what/who they are. 

And finally, it seems I won't be able to restrain myself from commenting on MIDAS, so I've added a label for it.

What's Hard About Farming?

Bob at StonyBrookFarm has a two-word answer: making money. Read the whole thing--Bob and wife came to farming as adults, BTW.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Recommended Website

I'm curious about people.  Blogs are great; people say more on blogs than they often do in person, at least when I'm the other person. So whether it's a depressed English English teacher in central France or a crofter in Scotland or an artistic photographer and farm wife or various farm blogs (Phipps), Colorado corn/beans, or cattle, or African-American urbanite who's into Jane Austen (yes) and rap (ugh), I enjoy them all.

I want to (belatedly) add to that list Butterfly Moments. Read it.

Moving Day

One thing which always startles me is the concept of "moving day", the various laws which set a specific date for real estate leases to expire.  Apparently there are such laws in some states, pertaining to farmland at least.  And in France according to the estimable Dirk Beauregard it's illegal between November and late March to expel tenants. It's part of an article on French housing, including the imposition of rent controls in Paris. 

Another Pet Peeve--Obama Disappoints

The Post puts up Obama's latest memo on reorganizing trade and competitiveness functions.  But, much to my chagrin, it's in monospaced type, not proportionally spaced.  Way back in 1970-1 I was researching a replacement for the IBM MT/ST (magnetic tape selectric typewriter), which got me into CRT displays (like 7x9 pixels) and into the difference between proportional spacing and monospaced.  The NIST article which convinced me said that type designers over the centuries since Gutenberg had figured out how to maximize readability by controlling spacing, using serifs to lead the eye, etc., but that typewriters, because of the mechanical constraints sacrificed that readability.  Ever since I have objected to using monospaced type on PC's and the Internet. It's too bad the word hasn't reached all of Obama's staff--I had expected better from him.

Michael Kinsley and Budget Cuts

I agree with Michael Kinsley most of the time, but not on the issue of budget cuts. He says whenever budget cutting is in the air, there's a template for arguments--note, I like the template:

1. Expression of general support for deficit reduction. Reference to easy answers (there are none). Reference to burden (all must share).
2. Reference to babies and bathwater. Former should not be discarded with latter.
3. This program/agency/tax break is different. A bargain for the taxpayers. Pays for itself many times over. To eliminate or cut would be bad for children/our troops.
4. Cost is small (a) as percentage of total budget; (b) compared with budget of Pentagon; (c) compared with projected cost of health care.
5. Optional comparisons: to cost of just one jet fighter or 3.7 minutes of War on Terror
6. Names of famous people who support this program or tax cut, especially Colin Powell. Other good names: Madeleine Albright, Natalie Portman, George H.W. Bush (not W), Warren Buffett.
7. This is not about fair, responsible, across-the-board budget cutting. This is about the other side irresponsibly pursuing an ideological agenda, penalizing programs it doesn’t like.
(Read more: 
So, if I like the template, which points out the dynamic of budget cutting fights, what do I have a problem with?  Kinsley says most domestic programs are incremental: the more money we spend, the more outcome we are likely to get, whether it be roads, dams, orchestras, whatever.  But the military, he says, is different.  Security is binary; we either spend enough to be secure or we don't.  That's where I have a big problem. The truth is often that we define our security interests by our capability, as in Libya.  If we had more military might available, we probably would define our security interests as requiring the overthrow of Qaddafi, even if it meant "no drive zones". Since might is tight right now, we're a lot more hesitant. 

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Garrison Keillor Beat You There

Barking Up the Wrong Tree has a post on the errors in people's self-assessments:
In general, people’s self-views hold only a tenuous to modest relationship with their actual behavior and performance. The correlation between self-ratings of skill and actual performance in many domains is moderate to meager—indeed, at times, other people’s predictions of a person’s outcomes prove more accurate than that person’s self-predictions. In addition, people overrate themselves. On average, people say that they are ‘‘above average’’ in skill (a conclusion that defies statistical possibility), over- estimate the likelihood that they will engage in desirable behaviors and achieve favorable outcomes, furnish overly optimistic estimates of when they will complete future projects, and reach judgments with too much confidence. Several psychological processes conspire to produce flawed self-assessments.


SAIC picked up another IT contract with USDA.  This one's for RMA support, the previous one was for FSA and MIDAS.

[Updated: I may be wrong--it seems SRA may have gotten the MIDAS contract.]

MIDAS Presentation

NASCOE has a MIDAS presentation up on its website. (If, like me, you don't have Microsoft Office, you may have to download the Microsoft Powerpoint Viewer. MIDAS is the FSA project, partly funded by stimulus funds, to redo their processes and software.) My initial reaction on viewing it is: been there, done that.  A couple points:
  • one slide has a disingenuous claim that it's not about closing county offices.  I heard that in 1992 with Infoshare, and it made equally as little sense then.  To make the case to OMB and Congress to get the money, you have to argue people will be more productive once the new systems are installed. Because it's a fair assumption FSA won't be serving more farmers in the future than it is now, that means fewer employees to provide better services to the same universe of farmers.  Fewer employees spread among the same number of offices doesn't make sense.  (Now there could be other changes which would alter the logic, but such changes are unlikely.)
  • the people working on this project don't have the burden we had from 1991 to the early 2000's--the effort to include FSA, NRCS, and RD in one effort.  From a quick review of the slides, they aren't even doing the farm loan (old FmHA side), just farm programs. That makes the job much much easier.  Of course, it perpetuates the silos of the different agencies, but since USDA has repeatedly failed at the cross-agency effort, narrowing the scope probably makes sense.

Principals, Teachers, and Google Management

The Times has a piece on Google's efforts to deduce principles of good management.  Interesting.  One bit:
The traps can show up in areas like hiring. Managers often want to hire people who seem just like them. So Google compiles elaborate dossiers on candidates from the interview process, and hiring decisions are made by a group. “We do everything to minimize the authority and power of the manager in making a hiring decision,” Mr. Bock explains.
 One of the problems in establishing a fair system for evaluating teachers is ensuring the principals who are in charge of evaluations are good managers, and fair.  Which raises the question of who hires teachers in today's schools?  I assume the principals.  Maybe they shouldn't in the light of the above?

(And maybe government managers, like me, shouldn't have been deciding on whom to hire.)

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Ezra Klein and Public Employees

Klein argues that public employees haven't had their pay rise much in the past two decades.  That may be true, but public employees saw a big jump in the value of their jobs in the past 3 years. When I started working for the Federal government I knew the rewards for my efforts were reasonable salary, good health insurance, good retirement benefits, and job security, discounting any psychic returns of serving the public (JFK's "ask not...").  I was giving up the possibility of great pay and fast advancement.

My point is there was a trade-off.  You watch these whipper-snappers like Bill Gates, Michael Dell, Ken Lay and now Mr. Zuckerberg come along and make their billions, the whiz-kids and quants on Wall Street making their big bonuses, and you know you traded the chance to make that money in favor of security, etc.  The Great Recession means those go-go careers are a whole lot riskier than they appeared to be in the past, thus my security is more valuable.

A Counter-Cyclical Argument for Direct Payments

House Ag committee writes to House Budget justifying the continuing need for farm programs, including the direct payments, on the basis of the cyclical nature of the agricultural economy. Chris Clayton reports:
The agriculture economy is highly cyclical. When record-high prices fall - which they inevitably will do - having sound farm policy in place is vital not just for producers but for the entire national economy. In addition, it is important to note that while high prices have lead to a 51 percent increase in gross cash income in agriculture over the past nine years; this has been met by an increase in cash expenses of 57 percent. In sum, recent high prices have not made the family enterprises that make up our farm sector any less vulnerable -indeed it has just raised the stakes in what is still an exceptionally risky business.

Thoughts on Earthquakes and Government

Charles Kenny has a very good Foreign Policy article discussing the interrelationship of death rates, government regulation, enforcement and corruption, wealth, and cost-benefit ratios with respect to earthquakes. He notes 10 million children die before the age of 5 each year.

Monday, March 14, 2011

It's Always More Complicated Than You Think: Farrowing Pens

The title of the post reflects one of my firm beliefs.  For example, someone visiting our farm would see a herd (small) of black and white cows. I would look at the same animals and see individuals, simply because I had a history with them.

PETA and the Humane Society have campaigned against farrowing pens.  Musings from a Stonehead has a post presenting the other side of the story. Of course, if Walt Jeffries of Sugar Mountain Farm reads the post, he may have a third point of view.

25 Years Since Microsoft's IPO

That is, Bill Gates has been the richest person in the world for only about the last 20 years, until Mr. Slim took his place. Time flies.

When Self-Interest Trumps Good Governance

Politico runs a story on the proposed redistricting of Virginia. Essentially it protects incumbents. Personally I like the result, if the story is accurate, because I trade Rep. Moran for Rep. Connolly (both Democrats, but Connolly is less flaky than Moran).  But from the point of view of governance it's a bad deal.  Virginia seems to be trending Democratic, but the 2010 election was big for Republicans.  So protecting incumbents means freezing an 8-3 Republican margin in the House and a split in the state legislature (Reps the House of Delegates, Dems the Senate). A much better result in my goo-goo (good government) eyes would be lots more competitive districts, which would mean more interesting politics and a better expression of the popular will.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

On the (Lack of ) Value of Husbands

From an Atlantic article on a study of longevity, hat tip Marginal Revolution:
For example, women who got divorced often thrived. Even women who were widowed often did exceptionally well. It often seemed as if women who got rid of their troublesome husbands stayed healthy—most women, it seemed, can rely on their friends and other social ties. Men who got and stayed divorced, on the other hand, were at really high risk for premature mortality. It would have been better had they not married at all.


John Phipps links to a post on the history of butter, which the Romans disdained, and apparently it's no longer on the bad food list.  My mother would be glad to know that; she thought milk and eggs the perfect foods.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Scariest Paragraph Re: Boston and Earthquake

From  a Post article on earthquakes:
"We do tend to focus on the expected events. We're going to get blindsided by unusual events. . . . But uncommon events happen," Hough said. "The analog that's worrisome is Boston. Put a 6.1 [earthquake] under Boston. You have all that un-reinforced masonry."

A Sentence To Be Rethought

Gail Collins has fun in the Times trashing Newt, but she got carried away with the last sentence in this paragraph:
Of course, Gingrich is being a better husband this time around. He’s 67! By then, most men have not just finished sowing their wild oats. The oats have been harvested, ground up, reprocessed and turned into soggy cornflakes.

How Old Am I?

Old enough to remember when some college basketball teams would choose between the NCAA and NIT tournaments.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Confirmation of My Opinions

(Don't hold your breath waiting for a post entitled: "My Opinions Are Controverted by Fact".)  Today's Farm Policy includes a couple bits in line with what I've blogged:
  • a discussion by former chief USDA economist Keith Collins on the budgetary impacts of crop insurance, the increased prices and the exposure to RMA.

  • Sheila Bair of FDIC talkiing about the dangers of the bubble (my word) in farmland prices

Great Recession: It Was All Reagan's Fault

Long time readers of this blog may have noticed I've certain people whom I'm prejudiced against: Michael Pollan, John Hinderaker, and Ronald Reagan being 3 of them.  So I was very happy yesterday to discover the true cause of the Great Recession: Ronald Reagan.

I'm reading, sporadically, a book called Reforms at Risk, partly because one of its chapters deals with Freedom to Farm. Another chapter deals with the 1986 tax reform act, the best achievement of Reagan's second term.  To describe the logic which connects the tax reform act to the Great Recession:

  • in the old days, before the reform act, a taxpayer could include interest on personal loans when she itemized her expenses.  
  • the tax experts in the Treasury wanted to end itemizing all interest (and to include fringe benefits like employer-paid health insurance in income, but that's a story for another day)
  • the experts got shot down before Reagan submitted his proposal to Congress, but the 86 act did end the itemizing of interest on personal loans.
  • so one effect of the act was people reduced their personal loans, and increased their loans secured by real estate, because that interest was still deductible.  This meant not only reducing the amount of down payments (fewer 20 percent down loans) but also taking out second mortgages, and taking equity out of the house by refinancing for higher amounts.
  • so the effect of the 1986 tax reform act was turn up the heat under the housing market by increasing the relative advantage of housing loans. Where once the housing market was just simmering away, over 15 years it came to a rapid boil, and then popped.
So, as I say tongue in cheek, it's all Reagan's fault.

    Star Spangled Gene Weingarten

    Gene is a Pulitizer prize winning columnist for the Post, usually funny.  But he's turned his hand to writing a new national anthem, the results of which you can see and hear here. (The Bill of Rights set to the William Tell Overture.)  Hat tip, Orin Kerr at Volokh

    Thursday, March 10, 2011

    Hybrid Generators

    Technology Review has this piece on hybrid generators for the Marines. Instead of sizing a diesel generator to meet peak power demand, the idea is to use batteries capable of meeting the peak demand, recharging them by running a smaller generator when they're drawn down. My Army career ended by running 45KW diesels supporting telecommunications trailers. As I remember it, we ran them at roughly 30KW much of the time, though it varied. The new concept sounds good, though the equipment is significantly more complex, both the batteries and the charging and control software.  That may be a problem: though I was obviously a great operator, the Army didn't expect us to do much. We could start them, shut them down and change the oil and not much more.

    I Call for Immediate Action on Global Warming

    I've been mildly supportive of action to reduce the amount of global warming, and more dismissive of those who deny the science.  But I've felt no urgency until today.  Today is different.  Today is serious. Today we must act.

    Today the NYTimes connects high prices for coffee to global warming. So--I can handle hotter temperatures, I can handle rising sealevels (although Old Town Alexandria is being flooded tonight, so I'm not sure how they'd feel about a .5-1 foot rise), but I cannot handle losing my coffee.


    Time to Garden---Updated

    [March 14] This year we beat Michelle Obama--have some peas and lettuce in the ground. Apparently they aren't expanding the White House garden this year.  Next year they should be able to have it be officially "organic"--wonder if they will?

    [March 20] Here's Obamafoodorama's post on the planting. The post says they have 34 beds, which seems to be an increase from past years.  However, because they've converted the raised beds, i.e., piles of dirt, into boxed beds with wood sides stained a rather obnoxious color they might have roughly the same square footage.  I wonder about the wood--is it naturally rot-resistant or is it ordinary pine? The Reston community garden where my wife and I garden now bans preservative treated wood, so our neighbor guesses her new pine beds may last her 10 years or so.  We installed our boxed beds before the ban went into effect, so the sides are original, about 30 years old.  Contrary to concerns, I don't believe the leaching of preservative represents a serious health danger.

    Unlike my neighbor, who invested in the fancy steel corner posts for making boxed beds, the White House seems to have gone with simple butt joints.  One concern I'd have is the force of the soil inside against the sides may over time overpower the joints. But for now the garden looks good.  The blogt explains the garden is visible to tourists, and thus must look good, hence the boxed beds.  There's also the value of a clear separation between garden and non-garden, a big advantage when you're inviting urban kids who have little acquaintance with weeds or vegetables to work in your garden. Going to the boxed beds does mean a biggish investment in wood and labor.

    Much of what was planted were started plants, cole crops.  They did plant spinach and beets.

    Wednesday, March 09, 2011

    Something I'm Ready to Believe

    From Jack Shafer at Slate, in an article on the NPR fund-raising thing:
    If you've ever hung out with rich people, you know they have a lot of crazy ideas and aren't afraid of expressing them.
    Of course, on mature second thought, I'll just believe it without going to the trouble of hanging out with rich people.  Charlie Sheen is evidence enough.

    From the Horse's Mouth: Michael Roberts on Climate Change

    I'm too lazy today, after a visit to the dentist, to link to the NY Times article on the impact of global warming climate change (people who don't agree the globe is warming will agree the climate it is achangin')on US agriculture, but Michael Roberts clarifies the U.S. may make out like gangbusters. Sure, our corn production will be severely impacted by high temps, but because of inelasticities farmers may see crop losses more than offset by higher prices. Or they may not.

    Those Overpaid Federal Bureaucrats, and a Certain House

    There's a house on sale for $800,000.  I got to thinking about whether the price was too high (the answer: not if the seller can find a buyer at that price. :-), a thought triggered by the note on of the down payment and mortgage payment required.

    Let me wing a few figures, based on the conventional wisdom back when I first bought a house (1976): a 20 percent down payment means a buyer needs $160,000 in cash.  I guess that's probably not a problem, at least usually, because any buyer is going to be selling their current home. Although these days there's many fewer owners who have that much equity in their homes; many owners are under water.

    The principal and interest with a 30-year mortgage is roughly $3,500, or $42,000 a year. Property taxes, at $12 per 1,000 assessed valuation, might be $9,000 or so.  Add insurance of maybe a couple thousand, so you're talking PITI of around $53,000.  Call it $50,000, because I like round figures, and figure what it's 30 percent of and you come out to about $170,000 a year.

    Yes, when I bought my first house, the conventional wisdom was PITI shouldn't be more than 30 percent of gross income, at least that's what I remember.  So, what's the bottom line?

    Almost no federal employee could afford that $800,000 house within the constraints of 1976 wisdom.  I don't know how many houses in the U.S. would go for more than $800,000, but lots.  It's just another confirmation that high ranking federal employees are not overpaid, whatever may be true of lower ranking employees.

    Tuesday, March 08, 2011

    The National Grange--a Remembrance's RSS feed the last couple days has been focused on cooperatives, including this piece on early cooperatives.  The first national one was the Grange,or The National Grange of the Order of the Patrons of Husbandry.  Turns out it was triggered top down: the first organizational meeting was in USDA offices  in DC.

    The Grange was still biggish where I grew up, biggish because the community was so small as to be almost non-existent. In my early years there were the Methodist church and the Grange hall (a barn which had been converted and improved over the years). Some people were active in the church, at least when they weren't turned off by the minister the bishop had assigned.  Some people were active in the Grange, and not the church.  Some, like my mother, were active in both, and got very aggravated when there were conflicts between the two.  In my early years the Grange hall had the facilities for dances and community suppers. But when the church members dug out and finished a basement under the church for meeting rooms, the monopoly on eating facilities was broken. Dancing, of course, was still verboten for Methodists.

    When it was created, and during my mother's early years, the Grange could be the center of social life, at least nondenominational social life. Its organization had roles for men and women, more egalitarian than many of the churches of the time. Economically it could join with other organizations to form buying and marketing co-operatives, like the Northeast's Grange League Federation (Dairymen's League and Farm Bureau Federation) in which my father was active.  Politically it was one of the big three ag groups, behind the Farm Bureau (which my home county claims to have started), and jousting with the National Farmer's Union.

    Lifetime habits and organizational inertia kept the Grange going into the mid-20th century, but then it faded as the car, radio, and TV offered more entertainment possibilities. It's still around, as a visit to the website shows, but not any more in my locality of birth.

    Monday, March 07, 2011

    Sad Sentence of the Day: the Replaceable Kevin Drum

    From a post on the advance of computer intelligence in replacing people, Kevin writes:
    In the meantime, I just hope that Mother Jones doesn't figure out that they could almost certainly find some extremely bright, knowledgable, plugged-in Indian blogger who would work much harder than me and for a quarter of my salary.There probably aren't a ton of Indians who could replace me, but there don't need to be tons. There only needs to be one.
    [Emphasis added]

    Surprising Sentence: Our Growing Obesity

    From a Patch post on the Fairfax police aviation unit:
    "Kaminski said the helicopters do have some restrictions they can fly in. Severe inclement weather can ground the helicopters he said and in some cases with larger patients, the unit may not be able to transport them. [emphasis added]

    Sunday, March 06, 2011

    When the System Is Poorly Designed

    When an IT system is well designed, the user wants to use it because it makes her job easier or better--any data to be entered is new and unique, and needed to produce the output.. At the next level down, the system is so designed the user has  to use it to accomplish the job, hopefully without frustrating the user too much.  At a lower level, the user can defy management and dodge the system.  Perhaps the worst system is one where data-entry is after the fact.  Those thoughts were inspired by this Government Executive article on an Army mental health record system.  Because the medicos aren't entering data upfront, the paper records are to be shipped off and scanned. 

    Changes to Farm Programs

    Chris Clayton at DTN reports on suggested changes or possible changes in both direct payments and the SURE and ACRE programs from an Ohio State professor:

    Zulauf said perhaps direct payments could be reformed in that farmers would receive them only if they have a loss. Going a step further, Zulauf said perhaps a loss should be required for receiving any farm safety net program. Such an idea could save $1 billion to $2.5 billion a year, he said, though Zulauf noted he doesn't have a way to fully model out that figure. Nonetheless, "This is not a small item."

    Programs Which Soar in Cost: Crop Insurance

    A difference between farm programs (i.e., direct payments or counter-cyclical) and crop insurance is significant for budget purposes. Typically the basis for payment for the farm programs is set by law, and won't change until the next farm bill. For crop insurance, if I understand correctly, the basis for payment is updated each year.  So when commodity prices soar, the cost of crop insurance to the taxpayer will also rise.

    When you look at other government insurance programs, like social security or unemployment insurance, the basis for payment also rises as the insuree's salary rises.  The difference here is commodity prices can rise abruptly, as in the last year, while salaries don't rise abruptly across the board.

    Friday, March 04, 2011

    Why So Many Different Government Programs--Tom Davis

    From a Government Executive piece on a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Tom Davis, who for a short while represented me in the House testified:
    But the committee's former chairman added Congress itself deserves much of the blame for redundant programs. He noted that the need for a particular service often arises out of jurisdictional greed.
    For example, if a member of the Education and Workforce Committee wants to enact a job training program, he or she will write the legislation to ensure it falls under an agency in that committee's purview, Davis said. The same philosophy could then hold true for members of Veterans Affairs and Financial Services committees, who establish similar programs under the jurisdiction of their own panels.
    "Under this arrangement, they are all funded differently, measured differently and administered differently," Davis said. "Common sense suggests they should be combined to take advantage of economies of scale, or even just to make it easier for citizens to know these programs exist. We can blame the bureaucracy, but in many ways Congress created the many-headed monster we bemoan in an attempt to protect its jurisdictional prerogatives."

    See my earlier post.

    E. Klein Funny Sentence

    In the first paragraph of a post explaining why he won't see The Adjustment Bureau:
    "But I can't believe in guys in suits with the ability to plan things."

    The whole piece is worth reading, although it's mostly focused on Congress and the President, not the bureaucracy.

    Thursday, March 03, 2011

    Why So Many Different Government Programs?

    GAO has a report out this week outlining duplication in programs among different government agencies.  They find lots of duplication.  I seem to remember similar concerns back in the Nixon and Reagan administrations; one of the reasons for replacing programs with block grants, which Reagan tried to do, was to eliminate such duplication. 

    Why do we have such duplication?  There's no doubt good and necessary reasons for the programs, but I'd suggest one reason is human ego.  Consider a politician, a Congressperson politician. Consider an activist.  Now imagine a " need" for government action, and ask the activist to work for such action and the politician to pass a law implementing such action.  I put "need" in quotes to recognize the word is just a placeholder for different categorizations according to the political philosophy of the onlooker.

    The activist and politician face an immediate strategic choice:
    • do they identify the existing government program and agency which is most closely related to the "need" and try to modify and enhance the program and agency accordingly?
    • do they create a new program to be assigned to an existing agency?
    • do they create a new agency to handle the new program?
    Now consider the incentives they face. If they go with the new program, they can design from scratch, without having to research what lessons may have been learned by the existing bureaucrats running the existing program. Research takes time and energy; any self-respecting "need" requires immediate action.  Furthermore, there are likely other politicians, activists, and bureaucrats already associated with the existing programs who may not like the idea of "Johnny-come-latelies" trying to modify something they're proud of.  And remember money.  More money will be required for the additional government action.

    All things considered, it will be easier for the activist and the politician to go with a separate program, preferably labeled in honor of the pol.  Politicians don't campaign on improving existing programs; they campaign on creating new ones or shutting old ones down. That's the way our government works.

    US as Scapegoat

    We seem to be fulfilling our destiny: every nation has a destiny and ours is to become a scapegoat whenever dueling parties within a country (i.e., Muslim pols and secular pols) amp up the heat.  That's my takeaway from this study.  Remembering the  politics of what we used to call the "Third World", I can well believe it.  Nehru and Sukarno, the leaders of the third world, used to beat up on the U.S. regularly.

    Wednesday, March 02, 2011


    I recommend this article in the Post focused on the now deceased son of Lt. Gen. Kelly.

    Reducing Payment Acreage

    This bit from Farm Policy raises a possibility I missed earlier: reducing payment acreage.
    Congress may also wish to consider reducing the portion of a farm’s acres eligible for direct payments. In 2009, GAO reported that reducing the portion of eligible acres to 80 percent from 83.3 percent might save millions of dollars annually. Further reducing the portion of eligible acres to 75 percent could save millions more each year. Such an across-the­ board reduction would affect all recipients. Moreover, Congress may wish to consider terminating the payments. Some agriculture organizations, including the National Farmers Union and the Iowa Farm Bureau, have recommended phasing out or terminating the payments altogether and using the savings to bolster other farm programs.”
    This would perpetuate a device Congress first use way back in history: achieving budget savings by reducing the payment acreage and/or payment yield formulas.  Instead of being obvious what they're doing, they do it the sneaky way.  Never underestimate the capacity of a politician to be sneaky.

    401k for Governments

    The Times has an article on states looking to 401K type defined contribution plans [employee kicks in a percentage of pay, employer may match part or all of it, retiree gets back the results of investing the contributions, good or bad]. I assumed, as usual wrongly, that most states had gone to defined contribution plans decades ago.

    Reagan's breaking of the air traffic controllers union is widely remembered.  What's less remembered is the redo of the federal retirement system.  Old timers, like me, are under the Civil Service retirement system, a defined benefit system [annuities are based on length of service and salary] with no social security.  During Reagan's time (1986) new employees were put on a three level system: social security, a smallish federal defined benefit annuity, and a 401K type investment plan, with matching from the government. Unlike social security, the government doesn't have a pension fund to cover my civil service annuity or the FERS annuity; those payments come out of the yearly budget. As it turns out, what I first wrote was wrong. I decided to do a little more research before posting and found this link, which explains the unfunded government liability for CSR annuities will rise to about 850 billion dollars in 2030. But the actuaries say that's okay.

    The change was better for the government and employees got more flexibility through the 401k/TSP plan, though they assumed some risk.

    From the Times article it seems many states are still where the Feds were before 1986.  I'm not clear whether the state pensions are indexed for inflation, which the CSR annuities. 

    Pigford Is an Urban Legend? has a post on Pigford, linking to the Congressional Research Service's report.

    Tuesday, March 01, 2011

    Army Chow Has Changed Since 1966

    Matt Yglesias passes on a Slate piece on the military's food program.  Turns out today's recruits have choices
    in what they eat. The modern generation is spoiled, spoiled, spoiled.

    How Great We Are

    Apparently, in addition to being the, or one of the, wealthiest county in the country, we also are healthy, according to this piece in the Reston Patch. The discussion is actually based on Congressional districts, not counties, but it's much the same.  Joe Moran's district includes the Dems closer to the Potomac as well as Reston. According to the map, I should have a few more good years before I kick the bucket, which is nice to know. Goes Piggy

    The RSS feed at has been going wild over the past few days; I'd guess 2-300 posts on hogs, mostly in a QandA format.  Here's their answer to the question:

    Why have pork production units become larger and the industry become more vertically integrated?

    Economies of size resulting in higher profits ? through purchasing inputs cheaper and reducing marketing risk (through contractts), more efficient use of resources, greater access to capital, specialization of labor.

    The same reasons can be used for the increase in average size of farms for many crops.