Thursday, June 30, 2011

Clinton Rossiter and the Roles of the American President

Clinton Rossiter was an interesting man, a professor of mine.  He wrote a book called "The American Presidency" and taught a course on it.  One of the themes was that the President had many different roles.  I think that's being ignored in the liberal angst over Obama's deficiencies as what I think Rossiter called: "Chief Legislator".  The meme is that Obama is not a good negotiator; he doesn't play hard ball well enough; he gives away the farm too early in the negotiations. People cite LBJ as the polar opposite; someone who played the game very well, always searching for an edge and a master of persuasion.

The meme may well be true, but one thing worth remembering is the many (16 maybe?) roles of the President.  Not every person will do every role well.  Nor is a person's performance under his own control, much is dependent on circumstances.  Beating up Obama may feel good to liberals, but they ought to stick pins in their Sarah Palin doll instead.

Cultural Transformation in FSA II

I wonder why I thought of FSA when I read this post from Chris Blattman?

Astounding Blog Post

I'm astounded, not by the idea women wearing red are most apt to be picked up when they hitchhike, but by the idea people are still hitchhiking.  I haven't seen a hitchhiker in many many years.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

How To Avoid Cheating on Exams--the French Way

The always interesting Dirk Beauregarde discusses the handling of the big French exams, although his discussion is just a bit opaque.  He includes this factoid:

"Once the exam is over, the various appointed correctors (teachers) will head to their appointed exam centre and retrive their exam scripts. Teachers never correct in the same town where they live or teach, therefore on the day that they have to retrive the scripts, the drive, or take the train to a different town. In the case of my better half, she took a 200 kilometre round train journey to get her scripts from Orleans. The teachers from Orleans will either have gone to Tours or Bourges."
 Imagine if that happened in the US.  I can't.
[Updated to add the link]

Budget Savings from Cutting Direct Payments

Chris Clayton reports on a study by FAPRI:
"If direct payments are eliminated and there isn't a rush to ACRE, there would be a 10-year budget savings of about $41.7 billion from FY 2012 to 2012.
Yet, if everyone jumped into the ACRE program, assuming it stayed as is, then the budget savings over 10 years would likely fall to about $18.9 billion, FAPRI stated.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Cultural Transformation in FSA

Secretary Vilsack's "Cultural Transformation" has now become a mandatory training module, as outlined in this notice

I noted in a recent newspaper article on lessons of Secretary Gates, based on what he's learned working for 8 Presidents, he said: My experience has been over the years that if you try to impose change on an organization, you will fail,” he said.  The context was the need for the Army to become better at and focus more on training foreign militaries (like the Iraqi and Afghan armies), but he figured forcing it on the Army would become Gates' idea which would evaporate when he left DOD.

So, does Vilsack's cultural transformation have a chance?  I don't know.  It would be nice to see the training and the supporting documents, but they're only on the FSA intranet. Based on my experience with past mandatory civil rights, disability, and sexual harassment training I've some doubts.  The training sessions I remember best were on dealing with unions and disability.  That's because of the instructors: one was a retired government manager, the other a lawyer in a wheelchair. (Actually most memorable session was in the Jefferson Auditorium with the infamous "penis" flap, but I won't go into that.) I've my doubts that on-line training can be effective, given the resistance old white males (like me) will have to the subject.

I think there's a bigger chance of doing cultural transformation by redoing the business processes, to pick up jargon from the 1990's.  If your database tracks things like all contacts with customers and their outcomes, and your employee evaluation system rewards outcomes, you can change the agency. (Think of how Amazon or Netflix has tweaked its systems over the years.  Amazon can look at your aborted purchases, shopping carts abandoned in mid process, and react to them.  I keep getting emails from them offering me deals in areas where I went halfway and stopped.  That's very impressive organizationally.)

The other way to change the culture is to change the way you recruit your employees.  When I first went to the program division in 1978, there were 2 professionals who were women, both in the analysis side.  The operations types were almost totally male former county executive directors.  I think the culture at the county level was for the mostly male directors to do the PR and handle relations with the farmers, while the mostly female clerks/program assistants handled the detail work, the paper-pushing.  That often meant, when the males came to DC and had to design processes they weren't as good as the women would have been.  These days it seems the pendulum has swung so women are in the majority. I wonder how that's changed the culture in DC.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Can You Sneak Beets?

Obamafoodorama has a post of an interview with Sam Kass, the chef/gardener czar at the White House.  Despite the Obamas disdain for beets, he still plans to sneak them into a meal.

That's what he says, meaning he's either incredibly stupid or incredibly skillful. 

I like beets well enough, though beyond buttered, pickled, and souped I don't know what you do with them.  But beets are to me the vegetable least likely to be snuck anywhere. What other vegetable is there which will stain a deep red everything it comes in contact with?  You just can't do it without the diner's knowledge.  It's like saying in 1960 you're going to sneak Marilyn Monroe into a meeting of Catholic clergy. 

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Rotate NRCS and FSA Employees?

In order to get the national security types, the FBI's and ATF's and so forth, to talk to each over, some Senators are saying, let's do what we did in DOD with the "purple" reforms of Goldwater: require employees of the different agencies to rotate among them.  Maybe Congress should require the same sort of rotation among employees of USDA in the field offices?

Kudos and Brickbats FSA County Offices: Strongly Recommended

Mr. Blankenship, a wheat grower from Washington, testified before the Senate Ag committee last week.  Excerpts from his testimony
"In my case, FSA is the easiest local office to deal with. FSA personnel are better trained
than others and more familiar with the actual impacts of changes to program eligibility, payment
limits, etc."

"All in all, the partners in Blankenship Brothers probably make 10 separate visits of several hours to our FSA office per year, minimum, for sign-ups, certification of acreages, CRP status checks, SURE eligibility questions and returning paperwork once proper signatures are collected."

"This GPS-based data management system meshes very well with the GPS-based mapping
recently adopted by my FSA office"  (But otherwise interaction is all paper, with FSA dataloading.)

"The differences between administrative perspectives of offices have caused
some producers to go so far as to buy a small parcel of land in a neighboring county in order to
transfer all of their acres to that county’s FSA office."
I strongly recommend it.  NASCOE will be pleased with it, as he leans towards FSA administering programs.  What he may not fully appreciate are the limitations on making programs operate the same way.

It's good to learn that the effort people like Kevin Wickey (NRCS) and Carol Ernst (FSA) (among many others) put into GIS so many years ago has finally paid off, at least for one operator in one county office.

Inefficient Government: If I Were Dictator has a post on changing your address if you're moving. It's a link to a page with a (short) list of links to sites where you can change your address (USPS, SSA, IRS, VA, USCIS.). 

Now if I were dictator, the government would have one place to change your address.

Global Warming: Northwest Passage for Whales and Plankton

This story from MSNBC suggests that the Northwest Passage is now available not only for cargo ships, but for whales and plankton.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

School-End Poems

Dirk Beauregarde has school-end poems, including one familiar to me:

No more pencils
No more books
No more teacher's dirty looks

But I don't know the others.

Liberals Destroy Everything

Not only do liberal historians eat vigorously away at the foundations of our American history (see this link for the most recent attack on one of our Founding Fathers), now a liberal blogger is talking of blowing up the moon!  Is there no end to their destructiveness? Have they no shame?

Peter Falk, Government Efficiency Expert, Dies

After a long and brilliant career, the famed government efficiency expert, Peter Falk, has died at age 83.  For further details, see the obits in the Post and Times.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Unmeasured Improvements in Productivity

Charles Kenny talks about the importance of spreading corrective lenses to the third world.  But how about the improvement in life from lasik eye surgery over corrective lenses?  Does that show up in the CPI?

How about the change from chemical to digital photography?  Or I'm reading "The Emperor of All Maladies, A Biography of Cancer", by Siddharta Mukherjee.  Still early, but it's good and I'd recommend it.  He comments on the the amazing jump in the number of effective medicines between 1940 and 1950.  Where does the reduction of pain and the curing of illnesses get counted in measurements of productivity?

Thursday, June 23, 2011

2010 Payments in EWG Database

EWG has updated their database with 2010 payments. As they note, they aren't getting the data they used to, because Congress changed a "shall" to "may" and USDA knows enough to follow the wink.  As I think I've said before [in the comments on the post], the $6.7 million estimate of the cost strikes me as bogus.  The only justification I could think of would be if KCMO has redone the file structures on the mainframes to accommodate the changes in the payment limitation provisions in the 2008 Farm Bill (attributing payments to members).  If the mainframe files changed, that would require changing the programs you run against them. 

To my mind, the EWG database should be a USDA database.

It All Depends on Whose Ox Is Gored

Or James Fallows wrote a famous Washington Monthly article many years ago saying the same thing as reported in this Monkey Cage post by John Sides on scholarly research: if you were subject to the draft and going to Vietnam, there was a (slight) tendency to make you more liberal and more anti-war.

Bureaucracy at CitiBank

This Technology Review post blames bureaucracy at CitiBank for permitting a breach of security which exposed customer data.  It's so simple anyone could do it.

Acton Was Right

Lord Acton is famous for having said: "Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely."  That's the lesson from prisons, where as Tyler Cowen passes on, most sexual abuse originates with the staff. 

I'd add, when you have young troops in a foreign land with weapons, there's a power imbalance with the local civilians, so abuse should be expected.

Flash: Half of Americans Below Average

This prompted by this post at Roving Bandit.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Props to Fed Bureaucrats

Kevin Drum posts a chart comparing the accuracy in processing health care claims.  Which organization is best?



The Post this morning has an article on the completion of the reconstruction of the Pentagon. Took 17 years because they redid the structure without closing it down.  I mention this only because USDA's South Building is about 10 years older than the Pentagon and is also being renovated.  I don't know where they are with the project, but I did see the House ag appropriations process raided the USDA building fund for various favorite programs.  

Making Government More Efficient

Paul Light has another report out on how to make government more efficient.  IMHO it's a mixed bag.  One of Light's idee fixes is flattening the bureaucracy, cutting out all the deputy assistant under secretaries.  While that's valid, I'm reminded of Al Gore's similar efforts back in the 1990's.  He wanted to cut out layers of management, but what really happened was that "section chiefs" got called "team leaders" or some such nonsense.  That was a response to the reality that if you have 3 GS-13's supervised by a GS-14 who's in turn supervised by a GS-15, you can't simply fire the GS-14 and downgrade the GS-15.     I think many of Light's proposals suffer from a similar problem: they state a goal, but fall short on the nitty-gritty of how you reach it.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

When in Washington, Redefine

When is an "earmark" not an earmark?

Answer: when it's a "programmatic request", also known as an earmark from the past which has now been incorporated into routines.

BTW, it should be noted the first time Congress decided to tap DOD funds for research was in 1992, I believe at the instance of Dems.

Mr. Pincus as always is good on the nitty-gritty.

[Updated: Project on Government has a post providing more detail.]

Walmart and Pigford

The Supreme Court decided a case involving Walmart yesterday.  Ann Althouse has a summary of the case which is clearer than what I've seen or heard elsewhere.

I thought of Pigford.  

I wonder if it would have been recognized as a class action lawsuit if the Walmart case had been decided before Pigford.  To me, though not a lawyer, the cases seem similar.  In both a national organization is being sued for discrimination. In both cases there's some decision making done at the national level and some at the local (regional or store for Walmart, state or county for FSA).

If Walmart had been decided first, USDA/FSA could have argued that there was no national discriminatory policy in effect, therefore there was no "class" to file a class-action suit.  That would have required the aggrieved parties to file suits at the state or county level.

Of course, Congress could have stepped in, I guess.  They stepped in to extend the statute of limitations because Pigford hadn't been filed timely so I guess they could have waived their wand and said that black farmers/potential farmers were a class.

Of course, if Walmart had been raised back in the early 90's, Sandra Day O'Connor would have been on the Court and so the verdict likely would have been 5-4 the other way.  Does the different result yesterday reflect 8 years of Republican Presidents or a change in the national climate of opinion, or maybe just chance? 

RMA Screws the Pooch

From Farm Policy today:

A program announcement from USDA’s Risk Management Agency (RMA) yesterday stated that, “RMA has released ‘Climate Change Impacts on Crop Insurance,’ a study completed in May 2010.
“This report was recommended by the General Accounting Office in its 2007 report, ‘Climate Change—Financial Risks to Federal and Private Insurers in Coming Decades Are Potentially Significant.’ The GAO recommended that RMA and the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Flood Insurance Program separately analyze their Agency’s potential long-term fiscal implications of climate change and report their findings to Congress.”
(FarmPolicy Note: The report does not appear to be available electronically- directions for obtaining a copy of the report can be found here).
I mean--you're announcing a study a year after it was completed and you don't have it available on line?  That's a violation of some law and/or executive order.  Of course, the fact they're studying climate change would also be illegal, if the *(*S*#E Republicans in the House of Representatives have their way.  See Chris Clayton.

The War Powers Act and Libya

Congress and the President are in a fight over the application of the War Powers Act to Libya.  A thought strayed through my increasingly empty mind the other day: I wonder if the flyers are getting combat pay.

This morning the paper reveals they aren't, they're getting "imminent danger pay", something of which I've never heard and something which apparently applies to military in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other places. It may oversimplify things, but until they get combat pay, I'm okay with not calling it "hostilities".  And meanwhile I suggest Congress look into the need for "imminent danger pay".  We haven't had many troops killed in Turkey in the last few years that I can remember.

Monday, June 20, 2011

A Second Look at Vertical Farms

Treehugger has devoted two posts to Gordon Graff's MA thesis designing what they call a "vertical farm."  Having been critical of past vertical farm enthusiasm, I have to admit this one looks more reasonable.  I'm mostly impressed by the fact there's no reliance on sunlight, but instead they rely on good old fluorescent bulbs, using a drum . Graff seems to have accounted for a lot of the costs and there's no claim for organic agriculture.    The biggest problem would be the economic justification: could a lettuce farm, that's what it grows, make as much money as uses of the same amount of capital applied to the same site?  (That's pointed out in the comments found on the second link.)

The Natural Limits on Prying

Kevin Drum has good fun mocking the rapidly expanding military use of drone aircraft as a jobs program (described in an article in today's Times).  But he's picking up on a ratio which I see differently: From his quote of the Times article:

The pressures on humans will only increase as the military moves from the limited “soda straw” views of today’s sensors to new “Gorgon Stare” technology that can capture live video of an entire city — but that requires 2,000 analysts to process the data feeds from a single drone, compared with 19 analysts per drone today.
In other words, for all the security cameras in public places, and all the surveiling which is being done, current technology requires human eyeballs and human social recognition skills to make sense of what is captured.  So if someone want to follow my life, it means a couple people working 8 hours a day to monitor it. 

My bottom line: just because data is accessible, as through a security camera, doesn't mean anyone has the incentive to watch and (mis)use the data, considering everything else they could do with their time.

France Versus UK

From Dirk Beauregarde, in the context of a planned road trip:
Looking at the map of Britain though, everything seems complicated. France is criss-crossed by a set of logically placed and well-built motorways. The British road system though has more than a passing resemblance to a diagram of the human nervous system. The French plan their transport links, the British just seem to make them up as they go along. Building of roads born of necessity, rather than some pile-driving, republican principal, to link every outpost civilisation in France with Paris.

Frankly, the British road network looks scary, and whereas in France, there is one road to one place, and all roads lead to Paris, British roads go everywhere and nowhere in particular. A sure fire formula, for getting hopelessly lost.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Why Bureaucracy Is Needed: Greece

Two paragraphs from today's NYTimes article on the Greece mess.  The lead-in is that the EU has doubts over Greece's capacity to reform and retrench its government:

“The main problem is that he’s [the prime minister] only been able to deliver on the parts of the austerity package that are easily enforceable and transparent and irrevocable,” such as cuts to public sector salaries and pensions, said Spyros Economides, a political scientist who co-directs the Hellenic Observatory at the London School of Economics. “Unfortunately, the rest of it is a complete mess.”
“It’s very easy to legislate,” Mr. Economides added. “The problem is to enforce legislation. There’s no enforcement mechanism. It’s all done for the eyes of the public.”
My point is Greece apparently doesn't have a reasonably effective and honest bureaucracy, one which will work away in the back rooms implementing the promises of the PM and the laws of the Parliament.  If Greece defaults and becomes another Lehman Brothers, triggering further economic downturns, we can say: "for want of a Greek bureaucrat, the economy was lost"

The Great Bureaucrats of Your US Government (DOD)

As best one can tell, Nick Kristof is right in the NYTimes to praise the accomplishments of DOD and VA, in running a single-payer healthcare system, in doing child care, in running an education system, in being effective with only a 10 times difference in pay between private and 4 star general.   Steve Benen at Political Animal applauds and amplifies. What's complicated is: why?

Kristof suggests a sense of mission.  I'd say a sense of community. Political scientists have found less support for social welfare programs when the relevant population is more diverse; the more closely we identify with potential recipients of aid, the more willing we are to help. Compare the willingness to help the people of Tuscaloosa and Joplin with our non-help for disasters in Africa.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Why Pasture-Rearing Is More Costly

See the picture of the piglet at Musings of a Stonehead. I'm tempted to state a general law: the more control people can exert over nature, the cheaper the costs, but the bigger the danger when the system of control blows up.  There's tradeoffs in all cases.

Friday, June 17, 2011

House Ag Appropriations Action

While the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition often takes positions with which I have some problems, they seem almost always to do a good and detailed job of summarizing what's happening on the Hill.  Rather than resummarize what happened when the House passed the ag appropriations bill, see their summary. 

Just two things I'd mention: one is the obvious--this vote means little, the real action will be how the conference committee reconciles House and Senate bills (assuming there ever is one) particularly the paying Brazil $147 million for cotton program bit).  The other is the fact that the USDA building and facilities fund was raided for other purposes.  No one worries about how the bureaucrats are housed.

Bureaucrats: Ho Hum, the New Faces Leave

A reason federal bureaucrats in many agencies react with a certain reserve to the bright shiny new ideas of the bright shiny new bosses appointed by a bright shiny new President (I'm thinking of GWB, who did you I think I was thinking of ) is they know the boss won't be around long.  A couple years and gone.  See this Federal Computer Weekly piece on Vivek Kundra, the departing CIO.  (Also this piece from Ohmygov and this from OMBwatch)

[Updated:  see this Kelman post on the same subject:

Making major management reforms in government takes time. Ironically, one problem is that such reforms are often not partisan. That sounds good, but it means that when new political appointees rush to eliminate what the previous politicals have done, it just creates "flavor-of-the-month" cynicism among career employees and diminishes the willingness of the career folks to work on any management improvement initiatives politicals promote.
Though I didn't mention it in the previous blog, I remember my annoyance when the Bush folks arrived in 2001 that  within days they dismantled any mention or trace of the Clinton/Gore administration's "reinventing government" effort. It was, so to speak, bush league.]

Why Obama Desperately Wants to Win Reelection

His daughters, who will be teenagers (Obamafoodorama):
"I have men with guns that surround them often, and a great incentive for running for reelection is that it means they never get in the car with a boy who had a beer, and that's a pretty good thing,” President Obama said.

The Role of Rum in the Revolution

I've always been fascinated by a bit I ran across in a Lancaster county publication: British prisoners, I think from the battle of Saratoga were being kept or marched through Lancaster (for a while they were in a camp near York, PA, possibly guarded by men commanded by an ancestor of mine).  There was a dispute over how much their daily ration of rum should be, so much for the men, so much for the women, so much for the children.  Apparently it was accepted on all sides that rum was mother's milk for all.

Today Boston 1775 quotes a letter on another website written by a private at the start of the Battle of Bunker Hill. He says, as they were digging in: "We began to be almost beat out, being fatigued by our Labour, having no sleep the night before, very little to eat, no drink but rum..."

Not something Tea Partiers will tell you about the Revolution.

You Can't Choose Your Allies: John Yoo and Obama

Yoo attacks Boehner over War Powers Act.  As far as I can tell, both Obama and Boehner have flipped their positions, so Yoo is an exemplar of consistency.

How Come Japan's Life Expectancy Is So High When Fruits Are Expensive

Via Marginal Revolution, a Wall Street Journal piece on the $4000 Japanese watermelon, with mention in passing of their other pricey fruits.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Cynical Me Is Surprised: USDA People's Garden

I cynically said to myself that the USDA People's Garden was likely to be a one-short wonder.  Not so, it seems.  I will, however, go on record with this prediction: unless the spouse of the next Republican President is into gardening, it will not survive a change to a Republican administration.  You heard it here first.

Two-Faced Republicans

Ed Bruske at Grist has a piece on how the House Appropriations committee wants the USDA to change their school lunch guidelines (fruits and veggies, all the stuff kids don't like but the foodies do.)  But USDA says: No, the legislation passed last year rules and not the appropriations language.

Meanwhile, as I wrote yesterday, the House Ag committee wants to overrule what the House Appropriations committee did.

I call the Republicans two-faced, but that's wrong, or rather all sides are two-faced.  Everyone will take advantage of all the multiple choke points and bypasses provided by our system to advance their position and hinder the opposition.  It's "politics", or rather the way politics operates within our historic framework.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Empowering the Bureaucrats: The Case of the Debt Limit

Justice Scalia recently dinged Congress for delegating power to bureaucrats.  I just stumbled (via Tyler Cowen) on the CRS study of the statutory debt limit.  It includes this brief history:

Before World War I, Congress often authorized borrowing for specified purposes, such as the
construction of the Panama Canal.28 Congress also often specified which types of financial
instruments Treasury could employ, and specified or limited interest rates, maturities, and details
of when bonds could be redeemed. In other cases, especially in time of war, Congress provided
the Treasury with discretion, subject to broad limits, to choose debt instruments.
 So something which we think nothing of, the regular rolling over of the national debt, the allocating among bills, notes, and bonds, all that is something Congress once reserved for itself.

The Power of the Rules Committee

Farm Policy reports the likelihood the cuts to direct payments included in the House ag appropriations bill will likely be reversed, through maneuvering in the House Rules Committee.  It's a blast from the past, for those of us who supported liberal legislation in the late 50's and early 60's.  Why?

I'm glad you asked.  The House with 435 members, plus a few talking but nonvoting members, is too big to operate without some sort of management.  What happens is, once a bill is reported from a committee of the House, it goes to the Rules Committee to get a "rule".  Without a rule, it requires a supermajority to get the bill to the floor.  The rule sets the guidelines for the consideration of the bill on the House floor: how much debate, what amendments will be in order, what objections can be heard, etc.  So it seems that Rep. Lucas, the head of House ag, has gotten the Rules committee to agree that a member can object to the cuts in direct payments, presumably on grounds the Appropriations committee overstepped its jurisdiction, and if such objection is heard, the cut is dropped. 

That's probably oversimplified, but it's the way Howard Smith, of VA, used to operate in the late 50's--meant he could kill or water down any initiatives the liberals were trying to push.  JFK, if I remember, succeeded in pushing the House to expand the membership of the Rules committee to add a couple more liberals and make it harder for Smith to wield his power.  But that was only a halfway measure, meaning JFK didn't have a good legislative record when he was killed. Smith, as wikipedia reminds me, was responsible for including "sex" in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, so some good came from the most unexpected place.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Crop Insurance Keeps Me in Business

That's a paraphrase of a farm organization leader from the upper Midwest from today's Farm Policy. It's an opportunity to point out the difference between keeping farmers in business and keeping farms in business. If disaster strikes or prices drop, farmers may leave the land, either retiring or finding other occupations.  But the likelihood is the land they were farming is likely to continue to be farmed. Sometimes the crop will change; tobacco farmers who lost their program may switch to other crops while other farmers may use their acreage to get into tobacco.  And in marginal areas, like the valleys of upstate New York may see the small and mid-sized dairy farms go out of business, with much of the acreage reverting to forest.

Monday, June 13, 2011

How Many FSA/USDA/Gov Websites Are Needed

At one time (circa 1997) I was assuming each county office and each state office would have its own website. Later I had an exchange with a county executive director on the issue.  Currently if I understand correctly, in FSA the states have their own sites but the counties no longer do.

Today the White House announced an initiative to cut the number of federal government websites. They've frozen the URL's, they're studying what they have, and trying to determine what they should have, as follows:
While it’s pretty obvious that we don’t need thousands of websites, what we do need is a little trickier. Should there only be one federal website? Is a more practical solution a common set of templates and standards so that sites are better connected to one another and more consistent to the public? A task force will consult with experts from the public and private sector to develop a policy for government websites moving forward. If you’re interested in participating in this process
 I'm not sure what I think. In part there's the matter of definition: does USDA have only one website, since is a sub of  Does the user really care, so long as they can find stuff easily?  What about update authority; how widely should it be spread?  My 1997 starting point was one office = one site = one update authority.  That's simple, but it's also very much stuck in the mud of the past.   As a user I'm not terribly concerned with offices.  For example, I don't care whether it's the White House, OMB, the OCIO's, GSA, NIST, or what; I want to find the documents and information I'm interested in.  How the government does that best I'm not sure.

The new website is interesting--it got some rave reviews at  I thought maybe it'd be instructive in the context of reducing the number of websites, but I'm not sure it is.

Do Vehicles Deserve Privacy: A Suggestion

ProPublica reports on the schemes some bus companies to evade DOT scrutiny (this in the wake of the fatal accident in VA).

I've read that trucking companies now have a gadget on their trucks permitting them to track where their trucks are. Seems to me there's room for a win-win solution, if only we agree that vehicles have no privacy rights. 

First we put the gadgets on buses as well as trucks.

Second we require companies to either make their tracking records available to the government or allow the government to track the buses and trucks.

Third we develop software to determine from the records whether drivers are driving more hours than they are permitted and whether the trucks and buses are speeding.

All You Need to Know

" — a fun, affordable, and ecologically sustainable passtime."  From Matt Yglesias on coed dorms.

Politico's "Errors" and My Jumping the Gun

FarmPolicy links to this Politico story on the outlook for farm programs.  It also links to this ERS graph

From Politico: 
 "At issue is the estimated $15 billion to $20 billion the government spends in subsidies each year. Originally a Depression-era program, farm subsidies have evolved into a complex maze of economic assurances for farmers: direct payments, federal crop insurance programs, counter-cyclical payments (which trigger when commodity prices fall below a certain mandated level) and other programs. "

From ERS: total payments have been below $13 billion for the last 5 years. 

Now Ms. Cogan might be including crop insurance in her definition, though she doesn't say. It would be good if she were including crop insurance, but I suspect it's more likely she's using a figure stuck in her head from earlier years.

[Update:  It should have been obvious from my quote she was including crop insurance as a subsidy.  So: I was wrong and she was right. 

 I emailed her complaining, she responded immediately, very nicely, and I got off my duff and checked the CBO estimates.  Essentially they've upped their estimate from $16.7 to 17.3 billion because increased crop insurance costs offset the decrease in counter-cyclical payments.  ]

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Lesson for Web Designers: Use Common Sense and Test

That's the gist of this post at "Partnership for a More Perfect Union", which rates Congressional websites. While their advice is directed to Congressional webmasters, it applies to everyone.

Saddest Phrase of June 12: Prison Is a Safe Place

"...prison appears to be a healthier place than the typical environment of the nonincarcerated black male population." 
From a study reported by Barking Up a Wrong Tree, comparing death rates of prisoners with civilians. Part of it may be healthcare differences.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Different Ways to Skin the Cat--Bus Arrivals

Metro has signs showing when the next subway trains will arrive.  That's new since I stopped riding regularly (meaning about 13 years ago, so not exactly a recent development).  It's very nice, though people now will take it for granted.  There's been efforts over the years to do the same for urban bus systems: have the stop display when the next bus is due.  I think there've been a few implementations of this.

A different approach than displaying the arrival time at the stop is probably better; after all, once you arrive at the stop unless it's very late you're pretty well committed to taking that bus. So this approach of Google's seems a lot better: display the real arrival times on your cellphone.  Presumably there's the same logic behind the scenes as when the display is at the stop, but putting it on the Internet and available to cellphones is so much better.

Public Management Conference With No Public Managers

That seems almost be the case (there were two civil servants there) at this conference reported by Federal Computer Weekly.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Erroneous Payment Process and Eligibility

Here's a Federal Computer Weekly article on the administration's hopes and plans for, their portal to try to reduce erroneous payments and the more detailed Federal Times article.

It strikes me as a parallel to one of my better ideas, the FSA eligibility file.  As I've mentioned before, I visited ASCS county offices in the late 60's, spending enough time to observe the detailed work processes.  I remember being struck in one office by the clerk's (this was in the days before they were called "program assistants", much less "program technicians" as I believe today's nomenclature is) systematic process for issuing deficiency payments.  Essentially she had what Atul Gawande has written a book about: a checklist.

Move forward a number of years and we're trying to implement the payment process on the IBM System/36.  But there was a problem between assembling the necessary data to compute the payments and actually approving and printing the checks.  That's where the idea of the eligibility file/checklist came in: a place to record the various determinations which affected payment eligibility (i.e., controlled substance conviction, sod/swamp, etc.). And our Kansas City developers could create a common routine, so any FSA program area could inquire to see if the producer was eligible for that program.

As a digression, I've always regretted we didn't have the available people to build on the eligibility file to automate the source documents  It wouldn't have been that difficult and would have eliminated the gap between the county committee making a determination and getting it  recorded in the eligibility file.

Anyhow, back to the Verifypayment process--it seems to me the Feds could and should take the same approach: make a front-end process which tells the calling entity whether the subject is alive and eligible for the payment.  The website lists some of the major program areas they're focusing on, but the approach could be expanded so that state and local governments could access it, as well as OPM for deceased annuitants. 

Ho Hum, A White House Rural Council

From the USDA blog, an announcement of a cross-cabinet council to focus on rural matters.  The chances of this accomplishing anything significant: zilch.

The "name" members are all cabinet officers, who are much too busy doing their day jobs to spend any real time or effort, much less money, on this.  The people who will actually attend the meetings, after the first one, are assistants to the  deputy assistant under secretary, someone whose time is not valuable. 

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

They're With the Protestant Supreme Court Justices

That's my answer to the question John Fea uses as the title of his post.  I suspect there is some relationship between the lack of mainline Protestants on the Supreme Court and as candidates for President on the Republican ticket.

If You Can't Do It, Change the Rules

Via Farm Policy, here's an article on the possibility of going to 2-year budgets.  It's probably a good idea, but it reflects Congressional failure to pass budgets under the current system.  And the current system reflected Congressional failure to pass budgets under the prior system  And the prior system reflected Congressional failure to take a comprehensive view of expenditures and income.  It's called moving the goalposts.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Brooks and Economics of Healthcare

One of the things I miss in the current chattering classes commentary is a focus on market structure.  The questions of monopoly and pricing power don't play much of a role in current debates.  For me, I remember the strain surrounding the receipt of the monthly (I think) milk check and egg check.  We'd shipped off our milk and eggs, consigned my parents' work to the fates, and waited to see what we'd receive in return.  Open the envelope and see the check amount: maybe it's up, maybe down.  The closest parallel I can come to in today's life is the arrival of the bills for electricity and water/sewage.

In both cases, the person has no pricing power; they're at the mercy of the market structure.  

David Brooks has a piece  on healthcare saying Democrats believe in the power of government experts to cut costs, Republicans believe in the power of competition and consumer choice.  I'd say that misses the fact that government, as purchasing agent for consumers, can have pricing power; consumers in the context of the healthcare market don't.

USDA's IT Reforms

Described here at the CIO  blog.  Everyone is moving to the cloud for email and collaboration?

A Form for Everything

That's the motto of the bureaucrat: if something happens more than once, you need a form. 

Tom Ricks at the Best Defense passes on an example of one.

Having just watched the DVD No End in Sight (which I liked better than his more recent documentary) I'm not sure the form should be called a parody.  See for yourself.  BTW, I think "COA" is military for "course of action".

Monday, June 06, 2011

Erroneous Payments from OPM

Amidst the concern about government agencies making erroneous payments, add another to the list.  Apparently OPM has a problem making annuity payments to dead retirees or their spouses.  The article says they check the SSA's death data, so it's not clear whether it's an OPM problem or a SSA problem.

On Poor Farmers

There's a double meaning in the title of this post.  The usual meaning is farmers whose income is low, low compared to other farmers in the area or nation, low compared to what's needed for a good life in the nation, low compared to someone else. See this Treehugger/Oxfam post.

But the other meaning is farmers who farm poorly, poorly because their land is poor, poorly because they're far away from markets, poorly because they lack the knowledge, the social capital, others have.  Many would like to believe in the Lake Woebegone corollary, that all farmers are above average.  I regret to inform you that's not true; whichever nation or locality we're talking about, some farmers are good and some aren't.  Some land is good, some isn't.  Some land is on the railroad, some isn't. Some farmers have learned from experience what works, some are stuck in a rut.  Some farmers are open to new ideas and techniques, some are waiting to die.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Alfalfa: I Didn't Know That

"  It take alfalfa about a week in hot drying weather to turn into hay. "  That's from this post from Life on a Colorado Farm.

In Broome County, NY alfalfa was not a big crop, wasn't even a small crop that I remember.  Now I'm assuming that Colorado's "hot drying weather" has lots less humidity than we had.  But the big factor would be rain: our usual pattern would be to get rain pretty regularly over the summer, enough to damage and often to spoil any hay in the field.  But the timothy/orchard grass hay which was common didn't take that long to cure.  Mow one day, rake the afternoon of the next day, and bale on the third day would be the normal pattern.  Leave the hay in the field much longer and the risk of rain would be too great. 

So that, plus the difficulty of getting a good stand of alfalfa established, probably explains why there wasn't much alfalfa grown.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

The World Is Moving Too Fast, I Want to Get Off

Seems only yesterday I was reading about quantum physics, and something called entanglement, and how it might lead to faster computers some time in the future.One of those things you mentally file in the "don't have to worry about this, after my expiration date" folder.

Now comes the Technology Review  which posts this--Lockheed Martin just spent $10 million of its hard-earned dollars (they do some work for DOD so some of those dollars used to be yours and mine) for a "quantum computing system".

Friday, June 03, 2011

Mother Love

Via Kevin Drum, see the video of mother and kitten.

Factoid of the Day: Median Age of Adoption in Japan

"median age of adoption in Japan is somewhere twenty-five to thirty?"

From Freakonomics on succession of businesses within families. Also interesting Japan is second to the US in adoptions.

Bad News for FSA?

From today's Farm Policy, a bit from the chair of House ag:

Chairman Lucas also offered perspective on House action with respect to the timing of drafting the 2012 farm legislation.  The Oklahoma Republican highlighted a very important caveat to his current thinking on Farm Bill timing: “Depending on what comes out of Vice President Biden’s working group, if there is a grand compromise on raising the debt ceiling which would entail a substantial cut in spending immediately, that over rules the way I would like to do it.  And we could conceivably have a Farm Bill this fall or winter in a hurry-up fashion.”  (Related AgriTalk audio available here (MP3- 1:37)).
 That could be very bad news for FSA bureaucrats for two reasons:
  • a hurry-up farm bill to implement a "grand compromise" passed late in the year would give very little time for FSA to implement.  
  • I assume FSA management has planned their MIDAS project to reach milestones by next summer--that is to get over the hump before they have to switch their attention to the 2012 farm bill.  If that's true, and you have to assume FSA management plans ahead, don't you, then a rush farm bill is also going to screw up MIDAS.  
The only good bit about a possible rush farm bill might be in a time crunch there would be less opportunity for new programs to come out of the blue; more likely the Hill would make adjustments in the 2008 programs.


As a counter to the CRS study yesterday which I blogged on, zero is the number of federal employees who make more money than:

  • the NCAA Division I football coach in their state
  • the average employee salary of Goldman Sachs(2006) 2010
  • any full season major league baseball player
  • the winner of any PGA tournament

Thursday, June 02, 2011

The Increased Productivity of Barbers

Got a haircut today.  Spent my time musing about the increased productivity of barbers.  When I first went to the barbershop the barber used scissors almost exclusively, except for using a straight razor and warm lather to trim the areas around the ears and at the nape of the neck.  Then they got an electric razor, which first was used to cut the sideburns evenly (what's a single sideburn).  Today the barber used only a razor, even to trim my eyebrows.

Presumably the switch from scissors to razor means the haircut takes less time.  But there's another reason for increased productivity: more time between haircuts.  I think it's fair to say the universal standard for men in the 1940's was the standard haircut about once a month, except maybe for crewcuts (why doesn't the spell checker recognize "crewcut").  I'd assume these days there is no "standard" haircut.  Maybe we're more standard than in the 1970's, when long hair was prevalent, but I don't think having the standard haircut is nearly as important now as in the 1940's.  (I'll have to check the haircuts on Mad Men the next DVD we get.) So I'd argue that the average time between haircuts is longer today than it was during the 1940's, again increasing the productivity for barbers.

But declining standards for hair grooming isn't the only reason for increased productivity; there's aging.  The male population is older these days, meaning the average male has less hair to cut and is also more experienced at receiving haircuts.  I'm sure it takes longer for a barber to cut the hair of a 3-year old than a 73-year old.

All Us Geezers Aren't Selfish

Matt Yglesias posts on the offer of Japanese geezers to work at the Fukushima plant struck by the tsunami.

Makes sense to me, though I'm not ready to volunteer quite yet.  Check with me when I'm wheelchair bound.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Overpaid Federal Employees?

The Washington Times headline story this moring is 77000 federal employees make more money than the governors of the states in which they live, based on a Congressional Research Service study requested by Sen. Coburn. Doctors and air traffic controllers were the biggest share of the employees.

It's an ingenious study, and terrible PR for the feds, though I'm not sure that it's any real use.

The Pets of Extras: Nothing Too Small for the All-Seeing Eye

The eye of the House Appropriations committee, that is:  From the report on the agricultural appropriations:

Animal Welfare Act.—It has been brought to the Committee’s attention that APHIS is using vital animal welfare resources to regulate the pets of extras in filmed entertainment. While the Animal Welfare Act’s intent is to establish minimally acceptable standards in the treatment of animals in research, exhibition, transport, and by dealers, the law was not aimed at regulating companion animals used as extras in the background of movies and television productions.  The Committee urges the agency to use the Secretary’s discretionary authority to seek alternative means of meeting its statutory mandate, including the option of issuing exemptions or master exhibitor licenses to these pet owners.

Payment Limitation Progressing

Chris Clayton reports the House Appropriations committee approved an amendment by Rep. Flake setting a $250,000 payment limitation on certain farm programs.

Tidbits from the committee report:

Cultural Transformation.—USDA is carrying out initiatives such as cultural transformation without a budget request or a specific appropriation for this activity. One of the concerns is the way in which this initiative is spending scarce Federal resources. According to USDA documents, the Department spent $50,000 to train
900 senior leaders on cultural transformation. This appears to be a legitimate expense; however, USDA spent nearly $500,000 on personnel and travel to send 43 employees to one of the most expensive business schools on the East Coast for a week of training. This does not appear to be a wise expenditure of Federal dollars. Furthermore, the Committee does not believe that holding cultural transformation activities on the National Mall is a wise expenditure of funds either. Lastly, the Department has not defined what cultural transformation is, what requirement is attempting to be met, what the goals are, and what measurements are being used in order to determine its effectiveness

State Office Collocation.—The Committee continues to direct that any reallocation of resources related to the collocation of state offices scheduled for 2011 and subsequent years is subject to the Committee’s reprogramming procedures.

FSA IT.—The Committee does not approve reprogramming the $23,600,000 from MIDAS. In providing the fiscal year 2011 funding level, the Committee expected that $49,500,000 would be spent on MIDAS in 2011. The Committee has acknowledged the tenuous stability of the system and directs the agency to provide a briefing to the Committee by June 10, 2011, on this issue.

CCC Funds to FSA.—The Committee has learned that, through the Commodity Credit Corporation, an additional $20 million has been made available to the agency. The Committee directs the agency to report by July 1, 2011, on its plans for the use of those funds.