Saturday, April 30, 2011

Biggest U.S. College?

According to this NYTimes article, Miami-Dade is:

With an enrollment of 170,000, Miami Dade is the country’s largest college (not including online universities). Ninety percent of its students are minorities, and it graduates more black and Hispanic students than any other college. This is no small accomplishment in light of the country’s stubbornly low college attendance and graduation rates among minorities.
It's drawn 3 Presidents to speak at commencement.

Friday, April 29, 2011

US and India on Food

Ajay Shah's blog has a post discussing a new CPI (consumer price index) for India.  What's interesting is the weighting

Sub Group New CPI
Rural Urban All India CPI IW
Food, beverages and tobacco 59.31 37.15 49.71 50.20
Fuel and Light 10.42 8.40 9.49 6.25
Clothing, bedding and footwear 5.36 3.91 4.73 13.28
Housing 0.00 22.53 9.77 5.33
Miscellaneous 24.91 28.00 26.31 24.94 

Don't know what the weights are for the U.S. but wikipedia gives this: They are weighted this way: Housing: 41.4%, Food and Beverage: 17.4%, Transport: 17.0%, Medical Care: 6.9%, Other: 6.9%, Apparel: 6.0%, Entertainment: 4.4%

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Trump Game: "I Am So Proud of Myself Because..."

All you need to do to play the game is to complete the sentence made notorious by the Donald:

"I am so proud of myself because...."

Extra credit if you complete "I am so proud of myself because I've accomplished something that nobody else has been able to accomplish...."

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Why Do Things Go to Hell in High School

I've been distracted by a plumbing crisis, but I saw a favorable piece on Jeb Bush mention that Florida scores under him did great, except they fell off when tested in high school. Matt Yglesias has a piece on Milwaukee, comparing scores of different systems, but they all fall down in high school.  I suspect it's a tribute to one three-letter word: sex.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Bureaucrats and Experts

What's the difference between a bureaucrat and an expert?  Here's a NYTimes science essay in which a doctor compares his relationship with plumbers over a puzzling problem with his dishwasher to the relationship between patients who have their own theories of their illnesses and a doctor.  He ends:
When matters of personal health (or home appliances) are at stake, we want a lot more than expertise from our experts. The rational world suddenly loses its appeal; dull, steady scientific observation seems only dull and steady. We want some pixie dust, a little magic, an eccentric genius who can see through the usual mumbo-jumbo to the core of the problem (paging Dr. House).
But until our prince comes, we are left with the most basic, bare-bones determination: do we trust this guy or not? And this decision, rather than following along a perfectly manicured line of reasoning and evidence, relies on that least scientific of all human inclinations — the simple leap of faith.
 So what distinguishes a bureaucrat dealing with the public from a plumber dealing with a homeowner or a doctor dealing with a patient? I suspect in some cases, perhaps many, an FSA technician at the desk in a county office is seen as an "expert" by the farmer she's serving, rather than being viewed as a "bureaucrat".  One thing which strikes me is: in the doctor/patient, plumber/homeowner scenarios both parties share the same goal, curing the illness or fixing the appliance.  When the relationship is viewed as bureaucrat and customer/client there's little or no assumption of a shared goal.

The Ultimate in Customization of Farm Programs

The Rural Blog has a piece reporting a suggestion southern farmers will push for an individual option: the ability to choose between direct payments and the ACRE program.  I guess it's not the first time farmers have had a choice: the SURE program was also an option.  I understand the logic: northern farmers like crop insurance, southerners don't, so you make both sides happy by giving them a choice.  It's logical, but it's confusing to explain and hard to administer.  I hope someone is asking GAO to look at the tradeoffs of offering options.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Form and Reality: Binding Signatures and Notaries Public

Our legal system tends to operate on notarized signatures: you take a document to a notary public, present proof of identity, sign the document and the notary impresses her seal.  But these days it seems one could document a signing by technology:  use a video camera to record the proof of identity and the person signing. Of course, it's likely it will take a century or two to change the rules to use the new technology.

The Military Bureaucracy

The Project on Government Oversight cites a Sen. McCaskill oversight hearing with reference to "brass creep", then includes some stuff on the Air Force's bureaucracy:
  • “In the last seven years alone, the service has shed nearly 43,000 airmen while adding 44 generals.”
I'm not sure USDA would do much better.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Importance of Statistics

Via Marginal Revolution, a post which explains why the housing bubble never showed up in the cost of living index.

And Yglesias wonders whether finance really adds to the GDP.

 The bottom line to me: there's the set of activities which are paid for; the set of activities which are reflected in various indices, the set of activities which provide real value to people.  The three sets overlap, but don't coincide.

Food Movement Meets the Tea Party

Partly due to the rise of the tea party, there have been a number of laws passed and more bills proposed which have the effect of exempting a state from some sort of federal regulation, whether or immigration, health care, or whatever.  Now the food movement has gotten into the action, passing local ordinances exempting locally grown food from state and federal regulation, as in this  Maine case 

On the anniversary of the start of the Civil War, it's a good reminder that Americans have a deep rooted impulse to secede from government, whether the subject is slavery or food.

Surprising Sentence: Cell Phones

"Today, almost three-quarters of the world's people carry a wireless phone"  from a Wall Street Journal piece via Ann Althouse. 

The focus of the piece is on the ability of social scientists to study data associated with cell phones and smart phones, etc. and draw conclusions on politics, mental health, physical health, and lots of other stuff.. As one says: "a gods-eye view".

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Fed Salaries: Government Employee With Summer Cottage

A different perspective on federal salaries: in the 1930's my uncle was a researcher at Beltsville on animal nutrition. Had a nice house in the DC suburbs and a summer cottage near Annapolis while supporting wife and two young kids.  Today I doubt an ARS scientist could manage a cottage on a single salary. Most likely he'd be saving money for college tuition.  Of course, even back then a private feed company hired him away from USDA.

Human Ingenuity in Evading Rules

One of the constants in a bureaucrat's life is the fact the people with whom she deals will often spend a good deal of effort in evading the rules.  Whether it's taxpayers stretching the truth in preparing tax returns or seeking legal or semi-legal tax shelters, farmers reorganizing their farming enterprises to evade limitations on farm program payments, or disaster victims claiming losses which exist only in their mind, evading rules is ever-present.

Chris Blattman is a professor who runs experiments in Africa.  The gold standard of social science experiments is "randomization", dividing subjects into two matched groups and trying something on one group you don't use on the other.  He ran into the rule evasion phenomena in a recent experiment.  He ends the discussion:
"The researchee defeats the researcher. I wonder if they realized that they could completely insure one another and get the outcome they want. Would I be that surprised if one managed to track down my blog and saw the idea as it is? I’m now not so sure…

Friday, April 22, 2011

One True Sentence

From Kevin Drum:
The Great Collapse was a big enough, and unexpected enough, event that it should have changed your mind at least a little bit about something.
So what has it done to my mind?

  • Less credibility for big shot managers.  When you read about Lehman Brothers going under, or Citigroup's troubles, their books were so screwed up they didn't know where they were. Outsiders checking their books would find a few billion more losses every day or so. 
  • Alan Greenspan loses most of his reputation.
  • Less credibility for economists, particularly Bush's.
  • Diminished reputation for Barney Frank and other Dems who ignored warning signals. I'm not convinced by the right wing thesis that pushing home ownership was the original sin which caused the collapse, but the push to get low income people into home ownership created an atmosphere in which the con men who made liar's loans could flourish.
That's a few lessons; there may be more.

Supply Side Solutions to the Cost of Medical Care

I commented on this on Yglesias's blog in the past. Rather than focusing only on cutting demand, either by regulating what procedures and devices are approved (Obamacare) or by cutting the money available to spend on medical care (Ryancare), we need to seriously expand the supply of care, thereby cutting prices and hopefully costs..

We could do this by opening our gates to all medical professionals from other countries. Here's an interesting post on Chris Blattman's blog about the effects of such migration, including these sentences: "For decades, more nurses have left the Philippines to work abroad than leave any other country on earth. Yet in the Philippines today there are more Registered Nurses per capita than in the United Kingdom. This happened because so many Filipinos trained up as nurses to take advantage of opportunities abroad that this more than offset the departures."

We could do this by contracting with some universities to develop new schools of nursing and medicine.

We could do this by changing the laws so someone licensed as a nurse or doctor in one state could practice in any state.

We could  reduce certification requirements, offsetting the laxity with increased transparency. I'd rather be treated by a doctor with lesser qualifications but a long history of success than vice versa.

We could forgive a portion of student loan indebtedness for those medical students who go into primary care for x years.

We could allow nurses to do in medical clinics what we allow them to do in schools.

We could encourage medical tourism: people going to Mexico or India for operations (as the Amish do now).

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Coates and a Hispanic Museum

Ta-Nahesi Coates has a post on the push for a Hispanic-American museum in DC, playing off a NYTimes report.  The comments are particularly good.  I revert to my suggestion that the USDA Administration building be converted into a museum.

Nagging: Redundancy or Consistency?

This study, according to Barking Up the Wrong Tree, shows that nagging works. When managers gave the same message over and over, the results improved.  But I'm tempted to disagree.  Back when I was a new manager and having my problems, as in cursing at an employee, my division director gave me a message.  He pointed to another manager in the division, a loud, boisterous man, WWII veteran whose ship had been sunk under him, who was an obvious male chauvinist. That made him seem to be an odd fit to supervise a female manager after a reorganization.  The director pointed out that the vet was consistent; he was always the same. Further he was fair, and the woman in question was assertive and wouldn't take any crap off him  The director said in his view consistency was the great managerial virtue.  Employees could adjust to any managerial style, so long as it was consistent.  Conversely, it was dangerous to be erratic, to be up and down, to jump from one great idea to another.

So it's possible the good results from repetitive messages was caused less by the repetition than by the consistency.

NRCS and Streamlining Delivery Initiative

NRCS has its Streamlining Delivery Initiative, which sounds a bit like their version of MIDAS.  Give credit to them:
  • they have a nice graphic outlining what I would call the "enterprise architecture", or at least the flow of apps.
  • they put up a wiki page on the initiative .  (I haven't quite figured out "wikiagro", whether it's an official NRCS wiki or not.
Not sure how this works with FSA's MIDAS.

    Wednesday, April 20, 2011

    How To Raise the Debt Limit

    Seems to me it would be logical for the Republicans in the House to take Obama's proposed"fail-safe" and attach it to the increase of the debt limit.

    Three Cups

    I read Greg Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea fairly early and was very impressed.  Now 60 Minutes and Jon Krakauer have debunked parts of the narrative.  Seems to me Dan Drezner has a good take on the whole thing.

    Republican Study Committee Budget

    Following are excerpts from the RSC budget (not Rep. Ryan's):

    The DP program provides cash subsidies to commodity producers, capped at $40,000 annually. The payments are based on a historical measure of a farm’s production acreage, and they do not vary based on actual production or commodity prices. Direct payments were originally established in 1996 as a transitional program. However, the subsidies have not been reduced over time.

    The Washington Post estimated that between 2000 and 2006, the federal government made $1.3 billion in direct payments to people who do not even farm. Recently, the Iowa Farm Bureau proposed eliminating the DP program. While the President has called for lowering the cap in FY 2012, this plan would eliminate the Direct Payment program entirely. The savings would amount to $4 billion in FY 2012 and $50 billion over ten years. Although this non-market based program would be terminated, growers could still receive support payments from other support programs such as the Average Crop Revenue Election (ACRE) and Marketing Loan Assistance programs.

    The Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) provides annual payments to producers for five years in exchange for undertaking various land improvements. However, payments under the program can be made to producers who have already undertaken conservation measures.

    Beginning in FY 2012, new enrollees would be prohibited from entering into the program. This policy would result in FY 2012 savings of $35 million and approximately $10.5 billion in savings over ten years. The CBO stated that the “criteria used to determine improvements in existing conservation practices are not readily apparent, and the absence of objective measurements could result in higher payments than necessary.” The RSC’s proposed option is based on the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform’s recommendation to put limits on this program.

    PROHIBIT GENERAL ENROLLMENTS IN THE CONSERVATION RESERVE PROGRAM (CRP). The CRP was established by the 1985 Farm Bill. Its purpose is to remove land from agricultural production, and it is the federal government’s largest private land retirement program. Under the CRP, producers are paid to plant grass or trees on retired acres. Currently, approximately 31 million acres of land are enrolled in the program. The program is economically destructive and takes away farm land that could be used for things such as corn and biomass production. Beginning in FY 2012, new general enrollments in CRP would be prohibited, resulting in approximately $9 billion in savings over ten years.

    Farmers use the Federal Crop Insurance Program to protect their crops from perils by purchasing policies that are sold and serviced by private vendors. The federal government subsidizes about 60 percent of the premiums paid for this program. Beginning in FY 2012, the federal government’s subsidy would be reduced to 50 percent of the crop insurance premium. This would result in a savings of $400 million for FY 2012 and $11.8 billion over ten years. Reductions of this magnitude in the subsidy rate likely would not substantially affect the level of program participation.

    The FMDP is used by agricultural trade associations and commodity groups to help promote exports and provide nutritional and technical assistance to other countries. This program would be terminated beginning in FY 2012, resulting in FY 2012 savings of $35 million and savings of $350 million over ten years. This initiative is something that the private sector would otherwise be spending money on anyway. The private sector should be responsible for promoting its own products, as it receives the profits from the sales of these products.

    The MAP is intended to promote overseas marketing of U.S. agricultural products. MAP funds consumer promotions, market research, trade shows, advertising campaigns, and other programs designed to subsidize the sale of brand-name products in foreign markets by private cooperatives, trade associations, and businesses. Taxpayers should not be forced to pick up the tab for this kind of corporate welfare. The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform even targeted this program as one in need of change. This program would be terminated in FY 2012, resulting in an annual savings of $200 million and $2 billion in savings over ten years. According to the CBO, some analysts believe MAP “does not warrant additional funding because the extent to which it has developed markets or replaced private expenditures with public funds is not known.”

    The federal government first enacted price support for wool and mohair in 1947, and the National Wool Act of 1954 established direct payments for wool and mohair producers for the purpose of encouraging production of wool as an essential and strategic commodity. This support was last re-authorized in 2008 despite a complete lack of a compelling need for government support of mohair. Beginning in FY 2012, wool and mohair subsidies would be eliminated, saving taxpayers $4 million in FY 2012 and $40 million over ten years. This budget would return control over supply, demand, and price of wool and mohair to the free market.

    Tuesday, April 19, 2011

    Pot-Filled Fantasies of Farming

    Treehugger has a post on "sunless farming" (not vertical):
    The idea is to figure out how to grow crops in these regulated indoor places so that anyone can grow crops anywhere -- from buildings placed next to supermarkets and malls, to high-rises with a spare floor to rent, and so on. The researchers believe that any space of 1,075 square feet set up with the right equipment and layers of plants could provide a fresh diet of produce to 140,000 people.
    Amazingly, some people actually take this seriously.  Maybe they're smoking pot, which by the way is the major crop which is already being grown under lights.  This Freakonomics post links to research on the energy demands and carbon dioxide impact of our current marijuana industry. Two paragraphs:
    California, the mecca of medical marijuana, is by far the worst offender. There, the indoor pot industry is responsible for about 3 percent of the entire state’s electricity use, or about 8 percent of all household use.

    Some of the biggest growing facilities have a carbon footprint on par with many industrial medical and technology operations. According to Mills, a typical indoor marijuana growing facility has “lighting as intense as that found in an operating room (500-times more than needed for reading), 6-times the air-change rate of a bio-tech laboratory and 60-times that of a home, and the electric power intensity of a data center.”

    Cutting the Deficit, Cutting Safety

    Part of the fallout from 2011 budget fight is described in this article in the Washington Times:
    The Justice Department is freezing efforts to create a single radio network that allows its various agencies to talk to each other — a key recommendation of the Sept. 11 panel.
     I remember blogging on the need for such a network way back near the beginning of this blog.

    Stock Up on Peanut Butter Now

    That's based on the word passed on by Farm Policy, which reports Texas peanut growers are switching their acreage to cotton, based on the high prices for that crop.  As a result, we might have to import peanuts from Argentina.

    Monday, April 18, 2011

    My Taxes Are Too Low (and So Are the Obamas)

    I've noted my procrastination, so you'd expect I would file my tax returns today.  I have to say my taxes are too low, we should be paying more.  And so should the Obamas, even though they seem to be paying about 25 percent.  And worst of all IRS doesn't have enough people.

    Paarlberg on Foodie and Libertarian Myths

    Via Farm Policy, Robert Paarlberg has an article at Good Food.  A couple excerpts here:

    Our federal farm programs are designed to supplement the income of farmers, not subsidize the production of food. Most federal farm support programs either give cash to farmers whether they grow more crops or not, or boost farm income by raising crop prices through import restrictions, market controls, or temporary land set-asides, all of which make food artificially expensive, not artificially cheap.

    One USDA study in 2008 found that over the previous 25 years the price of un-subsidized fruits and vegetables—controlling for season and quality—had fallen at almost exactly the same rate as the price of chocolate chip cookies, cola, ice cream, and potato chips. So that other popular claim—Americans are obese because unsubsidized healthy foods have become more expensive—is also bogus. 

    Sunday, April 17, 2011

    This Is Surprising: Pun in Stone 35000 Years Old

    From a NYTimes book review:

    In the caves of our Paleolithic ancestors, 35,000-year-old figurines have been found, each appearing to be a naked woman when viewed from one angle and an erect penis when viewed from another.

    Saturday, April 16, 2011

    Political Appointees Versus Careerists

    The chief flack at USDA is leaving to join Rahm Emanuel in Chicago.  She's been charged with discrimination according to this post.

    At DHS there was tension between the careerists in charge of FOIA requests and the political appointees.

    Without any knowledge of the particulars I'd suggest the following could be true:
    • the political appointees are young.  Except at the highest levels, political staff appointees tend to be whippersnappers on the way up, looking to make their mark.  They've attached themselves to the bigwigs (i.e. Secretary and below), or rather they've successfully networked with the bigwigs. 
    • the political appointees are inexperienced.  Likely they don't arrive with an extensive background in the rules of FOIA, or the agency or department.  Likely they don't arrive with a lot of experience managing people. 
    • the political appointees are attuned to the expectations of the Secretary and the President.  That's their reference group; that's who they want to impress.
    • the career employees are old.  The political appointees are dealing with the top of the career hierarchy, which usually means people who've risen within the ranks, meaning they're older.
    • the career employees know the rules and the agency.
    • the career employees have seen political appointees come and go, so they're likely to be skeptical of  them and their new ideas. By the same token, they're less impressed with the Secretary and the President than the appointees.
    All in all, a formula for conflict.

    Friday, April 15, 2011

    Prohibit Contractors Who Are Delinquent on Taxes

    Since I yesterday urged the firing of federal employees if they didn't have an agreement to pay back taxes, it's only fair I should today urge the blacklisting of any Federal contractor who hasn't paid their taxes. POGO has a summary of the problems

    New USDA Website

    USDA has redesigned their main website.  I had some criticisms in the comments, but my opinion is probably idiosyncratic.  [Updated:  here's the link to the comments.]

    Most Terrifying Sentence of the Year

    " Not only could Republicans win the majority, but it’s within the realm of possibility that they could gain a net of 13 seats, which would allow them to beat any Democratic filibuster in the next Congress."  From a Nate Silver rumination on the upcoming Senate elections.

    Thursday, April 14, 2011

    Fire Bureaucrats for Terminal Stupidity

    On the one hand, Michelle Singletary of the Post has a column entitled "Don't Be Afraid of the Taxman" (taxperson?)  On the other hand, the Post's Federal Eye discusses a move in the House by Republicans to fire any federal employee who owes back taxes.  Put the two together and I reach a position which may be surprising: fire federal employees (and DC councilmen, are you listening Marion Barry) who owe back taxes without getting a repayment agreement within 6 months.

    A failure to get an agreement is prima facie evidence of terminal stupidity.

    I'd hasten to add, I don't think the House Reps are going about it the right way, no hearings, no full consideration. But federal employees are civil servants and should meet a higher standard than ordinary mortals.

    Those Overpaid Bureaucrats at CIA

    Seem to be taking their knowledges, skills and abilities to find ( lower-paid ?) jobs in the private sector according to the Washington Post.

    The Return of Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Thanks to Obama

    25 years ago when we were also concerned about deficits, one of the instruments was Gramm-Rudman-Hollings,which provided for automatic cuts in expenditures if deficits exceeded a pre-determined level. 

    President Obama makes a return of GRH an important part of his deficit program.  See Keith Hennessey's summary [See this Yglesias post for more discussion.]

    GRH is burned in my memory, given the problems it caused us to administer it. If it returns, I wish FSA luck.

    Wednesday, April 13, 2011

    Erosion, NRCS, andConservation Compliance

    NYTimes has an article on erosion, focused on Iowa erosion rates.  Hits the highlights: the rates of erosion, the impact of high crop prices, land coming out of the Conservation Reserve Program, strip cropping and contour farming as incompatible with big equipment,  renters possibly sacrificing the long range health of the land for short range profit, NRCS enforcement of conservation compliance rules, etc. It even includes the hit to NRCS administrative budget in the new Continuing Resolution. The only thing it didn't mention was the similiarity of the current situtation with that in 1973 (and Earl Butz, when the economic situation

    What's not clear to me is how much of Iowa is considered to be highly erodible.  I remember visiting Sherman County, KS for Infoshare in 1991 and farmers were still bitching about the classification of most of their land as HE.

    Dependence on Foreign Imports

    Alex Tabarrok seems to think this is funny, but coffee is serious business. I'm sure FSA would be able to implement a program to encourage the growing of coffee.

    Was MIDAS Hit?

    From a Federal Computer Week post on the budget resolution:

    More directly, the Agriculture Department’s CIO office would get $40 million, which is $22 million less than in 2010 and $24 million less than the president wanted.

    Michelle's School Lunches--a Chink in His Armor?

    Just skimmed a piece about a school district banning lunches brought from home, which included a reference to kids tossing lunches mostly uneaten.  Made me wonder: if there's 10 million school children by next year who are unhappy with their lunches, does that mean there will be millions of parents who are unhappy with Obama? After all, her school lunch campaign is probably the one effort of the administration which is obvious and impacts the lives of Americans 5 days a week.  Here's a related post at Obamafoodorama.

    Bureaucrat of the Day: Walt Whitman

    Whitman was a clerk in DC during part of the Civil War (his day job--more famously he visited the wounded in hospitals). He was a copyist, or bureaucrat, a human copying machine and some of his output has now been discovered according to this Post piece.  The article ends:
    “Honesty is the prevailing atmosphere,” Whitman, in previously discovered documents, said of his colleagues in the bureaucracy.
    “I do not refer to swell officials, the men who wear the decorations, get fat salaries,” he said. “I refer to the average clerks, the obscure crowd, who, after all, run the government. They are on the square.”

    Tuesday, April 12, 2011

    Personal Lobbying and NASCOE

    For some time I had kept a post in either Crooked Timber or Monkey Cage unread, because I wanted to link to it.  That's a way of saying I don't have the URL handy.  The post reported on some research into what tactics were most effective in swaying Congresspeople.  As I remember, email campaigns, even letter writing campaigns, were of little use.  At the other end of the continuum was personal lobbying by someone the Congresswoman knew.

    I mention this because I just read the latest update from NASCOE, the association of FSA employees, which reported on their annual legislative session, meaning they bring in people to walk the halls of Congress and lobby the aides and members.  Included in the reports was a lament from one of the officers saying NASCOE used to have someone in every (rural) Congressional district who knew the Congressperson and could get through to them when it was time to lobby.  The lament was that retirements in recent years had depleted the ranks so they no longer have such contacts.

    Now NASCOE isn't unique; I'd wager every big widespread Federal bureaucracy has employee groups with the same approach.  It's such influence which makes it hard to do things: for example, to reorganize NRCS and FSA because the rival employee groups tend to neutralize each other.  So the known present becomes the enemy of the possible future.

    Good Legal Writing: Fish and Kagan

    Here's the end of a Stanley Fish post discussing Justice Kagan's style:
    Nothing flashy here. Just a steady unrolling of point after obvious point in a relatively tranquil and moderate prose punctuated by an occasional flaring of amiable wit — “not really,” “what ordinary people would appreciate the Court’s case law also recognizes.” (Sometimes even the Supreme Court rises to the level of common sense.) If I am right, what we are seeing here is the emergence of a powerfully understated style of argument, inexorable without being aggressive, comprehensive without claiming to be so, regnant even when it is on the losing side. I look forward to more of the same.

    Monday, April 11, 2011

    The Debt Limit and CCC Payments

    John Phipps notes that farm program payments made through CCC (Commodity Credit Corporation) could be impacted by failure to raise the debt ceiling. 

    That fits with my memory of the old days--our release of deficiency payments would be delayed until Congress got through with the debt limit. Of course, I could be misremembering; it might be the delay was in passing language giving CCC money.  CCC has statutory authority to borrow money from the Treasury for its operations.  So if CCC writes drafts on the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City up to its limit, it has to suspend payments until Congress appropriates money to reimburse the Treasury.  Complicated, I know, but that's what happens when you have both lawyers and accountants messing around in your business.

    Carolyn Hax on Our Budget Problems

    Carolyn Hax is the Post's advice columnist. Today's column starts with a query from a two-career, two child family, where the wife is feeling a bit overwhelmed. Her advice is appropriate, not only for the question, but also for the US Congress and political system in dealing with our budget problems:
    ". It’s so easy to focus on the individual items that make up your life: We need to do X for the kids, we need Y amount of money, Z is necessary for my job and I need this salary, etc. That’s because they’re small, incremental decisions, often conveniently black-and-white, so making them brings a sense of progress — all while leaving the bigger, scarier, grayer issues entirely unaddressed.
     Since semi-conservative columnist Robert Samuelson is also in the paper bemoaning ":
    government has promised more than it can realistically deliver and, as a result, repeatedly disappoints by providing less than people expect or jeopardizing what they already have. But government can’t easily correct its excesses, because Americans depend on it for so much that any effort to change the status arouses a firestorm of opposition that virtually ensures defeat.

    [I was astonished to have Samuelson say that Rep. Ryan would "gut defense"; my impression which may be wrong is that he didn't touch defense beyond Sec. Gates' proposals.  But anyway, when we look at the big picture, as Ms Hax exhorts us to, through Ezra Klein's eyes, we find the current law will end the deficit.  (What he doesn't say is government spending increases as a percent of GDP--the point is that tax provisions on the books would raise enough, assuming the PPACA provisions are implemented.)

    Unforeseen Consequences: Ebooks

    The rise of ebooks may mean the decline of donations of used books to library book sales.

    Sunday, April 10, 2011

    How Politics Works--Kaplan, the Post, and Reps

    The Washington Post has a good article on their Kaplan subsidiary, which started out as a test preparation business, was purchased by the Post to diversity their business, became a for-profit education business making big money off low-income students who take government loans. Ir captures some ways our political system works:

    You take a worthy cause which appeals to most, especially the left--helping people get more education, particularly people who have been in the workforce and want to improve themselves and people who couldn't go to college right out of high school.  This taps into the idealism of the left.

    You implement it using a method which appeals to the right: a competitive market in for-profit educational institutions and which rewards the entrepreneur.This taps into the greed of the right.

    The combination of factors  means this happens when a Republican comes to power:
    "One of its [GWBush's administration] key players was Sally Stroup, assistant secretary for postsecondary education, who had been a lobbyist for the biggest for-profit education company, Apollo Group. Soon the agency eased regulations, allowing companies to reward recruiters based in part on the number of students enrolled, or as one government report later called it, “asses in classes.” Like others, Kaplan made enrollment incentives one element of employees’ compensation. Stroup did not respond to request for comment.
    Congress also made a change that helped spur enrollment. In 2006, Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) — then House majority leader and a major ally of for-profit education companies — pushed through legislation that lifted federal loan restrictions for online-only schools.
    Our political parties also can act as checks; the story goes on:
    With the election of Democrat Barack Obama to the presidency, a new team landed at the Education Department, one that took a skeptical view of the for-profit sector.
    And then the magic of the market comes into play: speculators who had successfully "shorted" the housing bubble saw another opportunity to gain:
    Investors were hoping the government would tighten the spigot, a move that would jolt the entire for-profit education sector while leading to a big payday for the shorts. Today, investors have sold short — in essence, bet against — shares equal to about one-tenth of The Post Co.’s outstanding stock, about 3.8 percent of Apollo’s and 31.3 percent of Corinthian’s, according to investment Web site.

    Saturday, April 09, 2011

    Sentence of the Day for Farmers

    From Farm Policy:
    The top five earnings years for farmers in the last 35 years have occurred in the last decade.

    Meanwhile, Rep. Ryan is proposing a 20 percent cut in farm programs, beginning with the 2012 farm bill and implemented as the Ag committees want.

    Friday, April 08, 2011

    Fight Global Warming: Legalize Pot?

     A headline on a post at Treehugger says 1 percent of US electricity goes to grow pot!  So I'm waiting for the green movement to push legalization of pot as a way to move growing pot outside and save electricity for higher purposes, like maybe tanning salons.

    Rep. Paul and Rep. Dave

    Thirty years ago a Republican congressman from the upper Midwest had risen to prominence through his wonkish demeanor and mastery of the ins and outs of the Federal budget. The Republican leadership of that time gave him full power over the budget, which led to major changes in the federal government.

    Today another Republican congressman from the upper Midwest has risen to prominence through his wonkish demeanor and mastery of the ins and outs of the Federal budget.  The current Republican leadership (of the House, not the President this time) have given him full power over the budget.

    Will Rep. Paul Ryan succeed in making major changes to the federal government?  Will he, like ex-Rep. Dave Stockman, the director of OMB, have to be "taken to the woodshed" for going off the reservation and admitting his magic asterisk was bull?

    [Updated:  I should have added, both Representatives were good at getting favorable press coverage; the media loved the wonks.]

    Thursday, April 07, 2011

    Diversity Hidden in Plain Sight

    "When the New York Times recently did a piece on me, Ezra Klein, Brian Beutler, and Dave Weigel exactly zero people complained about the massive over-representation of people of Latin American ancestry that reflected. People saw it as a profile of four white dudes. Which is what it was. But my dad’s family is from Cuba, Ezra’s dad’s family is from Brazil, and Brian’s mom’s family is from Chile."

    Wednesday, April 06, 2011

    Ethical Geezers--Are We a Minority?

    Lots of stuff in the blogosphere on Rep Ryan's proposals.  One thing he does is to exempt people over 55 from the effects of his change on Medicare.  That may be wise politically, but it's not right.  I prefer the approach in the original Ryan-Rivlin plan, where geezers would choose between the current plan and the new plan (supported premiums/vouchers). Best would be a plan which is phased in and which applies to everyone.  No special breaks for geezers, even though we do vote.

    Globalization--a Well-Traveled Baby

    From Chris Blattman's blog, announcing the arrival of his daughter (plus stories on her name)

    "Considering she made it to Cote d’Ivoire, Burundi, Uganda, Vietnam, Thailand, France, England and Canada while in the womb, we figure a name of many meanings (and easy pronunciation) fits perfectly.

    A Lone Voice in the Wilderness

    I must be one of the very few Americans who saw merit in the 1099 provision.  Sadly, Congress has now repealed it, so tax evasion continues.

    Tuesday, April 05, 2011

    How Bureaucrats Act

    On the military theme, this Post article shows even Army lifers don't get and follow the message.  A brigade commander refused to follow the counterinsurgency doctrine associated with Gen. Petraeus and instead used the "search and destroy" doctrine associated, in my mind at least, with Gen. Westmoreland and Vietnam.

    And Joel Achenbach of the Post, who has a book out on the BP well disaster, writes of learning, or relearning:
    One thing I learned doing my book reasearch is that people don’t actually read reports. They don’t read their emails and they are not always in the loop. The one fella over here doesn’t know what the fella over there knows. If I were in charge of things, I’d make sure that any really critical piece of information was posted in the elevators and bathrooms.

    You have to remember that people don’t behave the way they are supposed to behave. More generally, executives and managers and decision-makers need to remember that the military truism about battle plans (they don’t survive contact with the enemy) is true of most things in life. A plan is a good thing to have, to be sure, but you have to accept the fact that it will be abandoned in crunch time (and later mocked in the media).

    A Haircut and Morality: Vietnam and Daily Life

    Got my hair cut today.  Two old self-proclaimed Nam vets were bloviating (I've a strong memory of sitting around the tent and talking about the old f--ts who talked big at the VFW or Legion post; we agreed we'd never do that.)  One was boasting about the number of water buffaloes "they'd" shot.

    Then I read this great post at The Best Defense. Mr. Ricks has a quotation from a contributor to a book on My Lai: Evil doesn't come like Darth Vader dressed in black, hissing. Evil comes as a little bird whispering in your ear: 'Think about your career. I'm not sure what's going on. We'll muddle through for the next couple of hours. We'll get over the hill, and we'll go on. I mean, after all, I can't call people in and admit that I can't control, I can't do some other thing.' In my judgment, the evil comes from that point of view.

    After hearing the vets, I might just quarrel with the quote: evil really comes as a narrower and narrower focus on the nearby, so there's no awareness of a moral issue at all.  As in, was it right to kill someone's property and means of livelihood; did it advance the idea of winning the" hearts and minds." 

    Ryan's View

    Apparently, according to Chris Clayton, Rep. Ryan's budget plan would require a cut in farm programs by reforms in the 2012 farm bill.
    In his plan, "The Path to Prosperity," Ryan stated that farmers appear to be doing well, and could manage if Congress were to "reduce the fixed payments that go to farmers irrespective of price levels." Further, agriculture needs "reform the open-ended nature of the government’s support for crop insurance."

    Monday, April 04, 2011

    A Convocation of Swineherds

    We never raised pigs on the farm, so why I follow three blogs of hog farmers, which somehow sounds better than swineherds, I don't know. I'd like to eavesdrop on a meeting of Walt Jeffries, Bob Comios, and the Stonehead  where they compared notes and had a frank exchange of views, as the diplomats say. 

    Sunday, April 03, 2011

    Arthur Brisbane Misses the Point

    The New York Times has a new omsbudsman, Arthur Brisbane. In his piece today, he argues:
    "This [a new integration of web and print operations] suggests to me a companion move The Times should make, one that would help secure a tighter bond with its audience: publishing The Times’s journalism policies in a searchable format and in a visible location on That would enable readers to see more clearly into the news operation."
    Brisbane points out Times' policies are scattered in different places and are hard for the reader to find. It's all very well, but I believe he misses the main point. I, as a reader of the Times, both print and web, could give a damn about their policies. I care  more about the results.  Indeed, it's the reporters and editors of the Times who need to know and follow the policies; it's the people newly recruited to be reporters and editors of the Times who need to be trained in the policies and know where they can find them; it's the managing editors of the Times who need to see the policies in one place so they can direct the newspaper and web site to follow the policies; so finally it is the people of the Times who need to have the policies consolidated and easy to find.

    I'd argue much the same is true for any bureaucracy: you can't serve your clients and customers effectively if you don't know what you're doing; clarity, like charity, begins at home.  The nice thing is once you have clarity at home you can be clear to others.

    Bringing British Cuture and Cuisine to the French

    Dirk Beauregarde reports that Marks and Spencer is opening a store in Paris, trying to alleviate the serious French deficiencies in food and fashion.

    Saturday, April 02, 2011

    The Deficiencies of Non-Bureaucratic Organizations

    Accusing terrorists of being bureaucratic is not a common move.  But this post at the Monkey Cage suggests that's what they need, more bureaucracy.  If I follow the argument, a terrorist group which is united on a common goal could safely coordinate its actions by the typical "cell" organization common to subversive movements.  But when some in the movement have their own ideas, or become motivated by money or the search for prestige the organization becomes less effective, because the cell structure limits the flow of information back to the leaders of the organization and makes it hard for them to allocate money to the best places. So what terrorist cells gain in security, they give up in efficiency.

    Friday, April 01, 2011

    Do We Import Farm Produce, or Farmers?

    That's the question the food movement should be asking based on this Hmong high tunnel project in MA. It's  true that immigrants are more likely to work hard for lower returns, thus fitting the niche for locavore agriculture.

    India Isn't Really So Populous

    Look at the map in this Roving Bandit post, showing the population of the various Indian states, but don't scroll below the map.  You'll conclude, if you're like me, Indian states aren't really populous.  Then scroll.