Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Closing Post Offices

By chance I grew up in a place which used to have a post office. It was a "fourth class post office".  You've never heard of such a thing?  They used to have them back in the late 1800's, but it was closed before the turn of the century. So instead we were served by a rural delivery route out of a post office 3 miles away, in the same small town which housed the central school.  "Central" because it represented the results of consolidating a bunch of one-room school houses into one school system.

My point is simply that the consolidation and centralization of facilities and infrastructure is not a new thing.  See this Rural Blog post on the current go-round.

Have Rice Growers Capitulated on Direct Payments

I noted the change of position on the part of the cotton growers here supporting a revamped crop insurance program over direct payments.

Al Cross also notes it here, calling it a seismic shift.  In the context of our 5.8 earthquake last week, I'd call it a 7.0 in the political landscape.  It shows how much impact the emphasis on cutting the 10-year deficit projections is having.  Just a year ago I'm sure I could have found many references to the idea that current programs were doing the job and the 2012 farm bill should just be a simple extension of the 2008 (which was mostly an extension of 2002, which was a modification of 1996...)

I checked the Rice Producers website, but no positions on farm bill that I saw.  I suspect they'll not fall into line.  The problem for them is: rice is irrigated, that cuts their production risk, so the major risk they have is market prices.  It will be hard to come up with crop insurance to cover that.  On the other hand, to the extent that my cynical mind suspects the cotton producers of waking up to the fact that payment limitation doesn't apply to crop insurance, maybe the rice producers will be swayed by the same consideration?

Foolish Question of the Day

Conor Friedersdorf asks:
Will listeners of Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, Lara Ingraham, and the many other conservative broadcasters who talked up O'Donnell, and impugned the character of her critics, hold them accountable?
To be fair, it's a totally rhetorical question, but I enjoyed his search of the archives.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

New England Floods, Deju Vu All Over Again

For those of us who have graced this earth for long enough, lots of things ring our bell making echoes of the past.  That's true for the floods in Vermont and upstate New York, reminding me (after a little googling) of the hurricanes which hit Connecticut twice in 1955, followed by a heavy storm.  From a site on the subject:
On March 19, 1956, Governor Ribicoff made the following statement before the United States Senate Appropriations Committee listing "what the 1955 floods cost Connecticut:"
  • "91 persons dead and 12 others missing and presumed dead.
  • 86,000 persons unemployed.
  • More than 1,100 families left homeless.
  • Another 2,300 families were at least temporarily without shelter.
  • Nearly 20,000 families suffered flood damage.
  • Sixty-seven of our 169 towns were affected by the floods.
  • The damage to individual property, to business, to industry, and to State and municipal facilities has been estimated at almost half a billion dollars."3

An Ode to Washington DC and Think Tanks

Justin Wolfers bids fond farewell to the Brookings Institution and Washington, DC.  It's a reminder of some of what goes on behind the scenes of public policy. 

Monday, August 29, 2011

Do Only Old Trees Fall in a Hurricane?

I used that generalization today in an chat, but I suspect I might be wrong. When old trees fall they damage things, when young trees fall they don't.  I say that because the tree that fell closest to our house (about .25 miles away) was about 5 inches in diameter.

Determining Disability: On Silos

I found this blog post at Pro Publica to parallel concerns about using the same acreage reporting process for both FSA and crop insurance.  The logic is the same: Social Security Administration has a process for determining whether someone is disabled; Education has a provision to forgive student loans for those who are disabled; why not piggy back the student loan forgiveness on the SSA process?  Sounds good, but as usual there are good bureaucratic reasons not to, at least according to Education.

I suspect the reality might be that Congress, the public, and the bureaucrats all are envisioning an over-simplified perfect world.  If someone looked at the situation worrying about margins of error and marginal returns on investments, the end result might well have been different.  But that's not how we usually look at things, much to the dismay of economists.

Funniest Sentence, and Truest, of the Day

" If I were President of the United States, my blog posts would read somewhat differently."  That's Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution at the end of a post on Monetary Policy with Excess Capacity (which I didn't devote the neurons to understanding.

Cotton Growers Throw in the Towel on Direct Payments?

Via today's Farm Policy, here's a press release from the National Cotton Council. I read it as conceding the end of direct payments and counter-cyclical payments in favor of this:
The revenue-based crop insurance safety net would be complemented by a modified marketing loan that is adjusted to satisfy the Brazil WTO case.
 Now a question for those working on MIDAS: how do you create software for this? My points, based on sad experience from the past;
  • trying to do software in the midst of farm bill consideration and implementation is like trying to have a picnic during a hurricane: management's time and attention is concentrated on adapting to changed circumstances, and there's none left for those working on the project
  • even if you can continue working on your project, the odds are great your end-product won't fit the new farm bill.  That's because no one in management (i.e., Congress, the President, or the Secretary) knows what the hell FSA operations will look like in the future.

Surprising Science Fact(?) of the Day

:Some of the scholarly literature suggests that the economic damage resulting from hurricanes is a function of wind speeds raised to the eighth power."

That's from Nathan Silver at the Times blogging about the media coverage of Hurricane Irene. 

Sunday, August 28, 2011

On Adapting to the Weather on the Farm

We didn't grow corn in my time on the farm, which was long ago anyway, so his content is mostly a mystery to me, but John Phipps has an interesting post outlining 11 steps he and his son are taking to adapt their operation to changes in weather/climate.  I'm not sure they're not preparing to fight the last war; one of the things I think we know is that weather in the future will be as variable as in the past.  To me that means that adjusting farming operations is likely to pay off over the long haul, but not necessarily the short.   (As a side note, I saw somewhere that one place we got additional acreage from is by doublecropping; apparently in southern Illinois and other places it's now possible to follow wheat with short season corn.)

The 11 steps demonstrate clearly how much knowledge the modern farmer needs.  It's just a continuation of a long long trend, a trend which puts the small farmer and the older farmer at a competitive disadvantage.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Learning Occupations: Farming

Jennifer Warthan at The Cotton Wife has a too-cute series of photos showing her son <5? imitating his father as he works on farm machinery. 

There are some occupations, farming and storekeeping for two, where the offspring can learn at the knees of their parents.  There must be some life lessons in such learning, I'm not sure what, but there must be.  Of course in the days of the one earner family and the stay at home homemaker, girls learned at the knees of their mothers, but we don't, or I don't at least, grow as sentimental over those life lessons.

On Over Estimating Gardening Interest

Here's an honest gardener at Treehugger: she realizes her eyes were bigger than her willpower, particularly in North Carolina heat.  One of the weaknesses of the locavore movement is this fact; short term enthusiasms erode under the day to day realities of work, drought, insects, flood, mistakes and entropy.

Excessive Incentives

Greg Mankiw links to a video by Jeff Miron, an economics professor at Harvard on 3 myths of capitalism.  His third myth is that capitalism caused the Great Recession: no, no, no--it wasn't capitalists, it was the excessive incentives from government policy. 

Now it seems to me that one argument for the Bush tax cuts, particularly on those with higher incomes, was to provide incentives to entrepreneurs.  So the lesson I take away from Prof. Miron is that we ought to allow them to expire immediately

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Illusion of Asymmetric Insight

The idea of this very long post is that we know we ourselves are full of mysteries, while we know we pretty well understand other people.  Rings true to me.  Apparently the blogger has a book coming out and is using the blog  to stir interest.  He succeeded with me.  An excerpt:
In a political debate you feel like the other side just doesn’t get your point of view, and if they could only see things with your clarity, they would understand and fall naturally in line with what you believe. They must not understand, because if they did they wouldn’t think the things they think. By contrast, you believe you totally get their point of view and you reject it. You see it in all its detail and understand it for what it is – stupid. You don’t need to hear them elaborate. So, each side believes they understand the other side better than the other side understands both their opponents and themselves.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Bubble in Farmland Prices

Farmgate has an index of Illinois farmland prices here.  Here's the recent figures:

2001 123
2002 126
2003 131
2004 138
2005 173
2006 193
2007 216
2008 245
2009 244
2010 264
2011 307

As a comparison, my neighbors house sold for about $100K in 2000 and about $360K in 2006.  Bottom line: see the title of this post.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Rockwells, Art, and Race

This Politico story covers a Norman Rockwell painting just hung in the White House. Obama's too young to remember it, when it first appeared as a magazine cover, so is most of the country.

My family subscribed to the Saturday Evening Post during the 40's and 50's.  I looked forward to the arrival of each issue, because I was ravenous for reading material (no TV in those days). A Rockwell cover was usually notable, something even my parents would express interest in and pleasure in. As I remember, he was the only painter/illustrator of whom that could be said.  The closest parallel today I can think of is the occasional New Yorker cover, but none of the artists of those covers stand out in my mind. It was a sad day when he left the SEP.

The Problem We All Live With was unusual for Rockwell; he didn't usually comment on social issues (except for his version of FDR's Four Freedoms, but that was before my time).  It was also painted for Look, appearing in January 1964.  I was in grad school then, so I would have seen it on the newsstand. I remember, I think, believing that it was a sign of "middle America" moving to the left.  JFK had been dead a month and a half and LBJ was pushing the Civil Rights Act to honor his memory.  (LBJ would go to hell to find some lever to move Congress--as I say, Obama was too young to take lessons.)

When I was young, I used to confuse the Rockwells, because there were two of them: Norman and George Lincoln (no relation), and in those days there was no Wikipedia to refresh your memory as to who was whom. So it took a while for me to recognize that there were two separate people, not one guy who painted well but had evil political opinions. (I've never been good with names.)  George Lincoln Rockwell was the founder of the American Nazi Party, which was a bit more anti-Semitic than anti-black, mainly because Rockwell formed his opinions before the rise of the civil rights movement.  But he did his best to make up for it by changing the "American Nazi Party" to the "National Socialist White Person's Party."

So the two Rockwell's model the shift in American public opinion during the early '60's: one moving left, the other far right.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Earthquake in Reston

We just had an earthquake, first time I've been through one.  Strong enough to knock a few books off a bookshelf  (they were piled high).  My guess is it lasted 20 seconds or so--we'll see what USGS says since they're based in Reston.
[Update: 5.9 apparently and the first of that magnitude in Virginia for a while.  One of our cats slunk down to the basement, very upset, while the other on our bed opened an eye and went back to sleep. Actually, I don't know that for sure, but she was still in her position about 5 minutes after the earthquake. Different strokes for different folks and different cats.]

Agricultural Robots: Progress Report

The Economist has an interesting piece on the development of agricultural robots: machines intelligent enough and adept enough to handle growing and harvesting fruit (mostly), sometimes in greenhouses, sometimes not. (I owe a hat tip to someone, but I had a senior moment.)   Machines can take over some functions, replacing (immigrant) labor and saving money.  The problem is they represent an added capital cost, so they imply bigger operations, more "industrial" farms. One truth the foodies often don't recognize is that fruits and vegetables already represent the most concentrated, most industrial branch of agriculture.  Of course, the promise of cheaper fruits and vegetables is something the food movement can't oppose, is it?

Monday, August 22, 2011

Fortune-seeking? Marry a Farmer's Widow

Way back in the day, a quarter section of land (160 acres) in the Midwest was a good farm.  So the farmers grew old and then died, leaving their widows to rent out the land and move to town.   Speculation is that cash rents for good farmland in 2012 might be in the range of $350 to $400 an acre (lost the link--might be farmgate).  I may be old but I can still multiply $400 x 150 (cheating a bit) to get $60,000  annual cash income for my hypothetical widow.

Via John Phipps, Agweb reports the sale of a quarter section in IA for $14,350. I can't multiply that in my head but I guesstimate that's about $20 million. (The same land went in 1956 for about $538 an acre.)

Bottom line: there's some rich widow ladies out there.  And the estate tax is going to become a hot issue.

Roberts on Rules and Regulations

As a followup to a previous post, I note Chris Clayton quotes a Pat Roberts letter to the President reciting all the rules and regulations which might be applied to agriculture.  Strikes me that most of his instances are in the nature of a "preemptive strike"--that they refer to proposed or potential regulations which might adversely impact some farmers depending on how they're written.

This isn't worth posting on, except I couldn't resist the post title.  I suspect he gets tired of plays on "Roberts Rules".

IBM and India

I grew up outside the "Triple Cities" of New York: Binghamton, Endicott, Johnson City.  The late '40's and 50's were a boom time for the International Business Machine Corporation, as IBM was then known. IBM was based in the area; the IBM country club was the place to go; because Thomas Watson had a profit-sharing plan "IBM millionaires" weren't that uncommon; people who had started back in the 30's and worked for 20 years or so had accumulated a tidy nest egg.  (This was a time when a million dollars was real money.)

Much has changed since then, but I was not prepared for this factoid in a Post article on how many of our international corporations keep secret the number of employees they have in other countries:
"Dave Finegold, dean of the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, estimates that 2009, when the company stopped sharing its U.S. employment figure, also marked the first time the company had more employees in India than the United States"

Every Movement Needs Its Bureaucrat: Bayard Rustin

Steve Hendrix has a nice piece on Bayard Rustin in today's Post. He was the organizer of the 1963 March, the unsung bureaucrat who put the pieces together so Martin Luther King had an audience to preach his dream to.  Just goes to show that behind every successful venture there's a good bureaucrat who worries about nuts and bolts.

A bit of personal recollection: the March occurred after I'd graduated from college, but I was home at my summer job.  As a liberal, though not personally committed to action, I shared the concerns of many white liberals, including the Administration, that the March would be a flop.  Either there wouldn't be the attendance to make an impression, or there would be but things would "get out of hand" with violence.  So my personal reaction to the March was not appreciation for King's oratory; it was just another speech on the day, although as time went it got more and more attention.  My personal reaction was relief that the day went so well; in other words that Mr. Rustin had done a good job.

Rustin was one of, perhaps the person, which J. Edgar Hoover pointed to in trying to taint the civil rights movement with both radicalism and perversion.  Which shows when the cause is right, the personal qualities are less important.

Will 2012 Farm Bill Do Away With Payment Limits?

Chris Clayton is finding support for keeping/improving crop insurance, even if that means losing some programs like direct payments and SURE.  And the support is not simply northern Plains and Midwest, but in OK and TX. 

One effect of this is to end the limitation on payments for much of the money the taxpayer spends on farm programs.  As commodity prices rise, the cost of insurance coverage goes up and the government exposure and subsidy grows.  I suspect most of the non-rural supporters of payment limitations, and even people like Sen. Grassley who've supported limitations in the past, will not question this.  My prediction is it will take the food movement a couple years after the 2012 farm bill is passed to begin to make this an issue.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Healthcare: The Importance of Bureaucracy

Suzy Kliff has a post talking about participation in ACA/healthcare reform, noting the very low participation in the pre-existing condition plan.  She focuses on CHIP--Children's Health Insurance Program for its lessons:

What does CHIP do to get kids enrolled? It all revolves around reducing red tape. Eliminating face-to-face enrollment interviews, for example, significantly increases enrollment numbers. Allowing for renewal of benefits by mail, rather than in person, helps too. Pre-populated enrollment forms, where a lot of a beneficiary’s information is already filled out, are currently being tested. In total, anything that makes it easier to sign up tends to increase enrollment. And that’s going to be key to moving 32 million people into an insurance system pretty soon.
One other thing we can learn from CHIP: enrollment levels could end up varying widely by states, and how many of these streamlining strategies they use. In Vermont, 92.4 percent of eligible kids are enrolled in CHIP; in Nevada, only 62.9 percent are. The disparities show just how much can hinge on how states decide to structure their enrollment processes
In other words, it's all about bureaucracy: how well do the bureaucrats at HHS and the state departments design their processes, their forms and websites.  I hope Dr. Berwick is a skilled bureaucrat.

An Economist's Dilemma

Brad DeLong muses over the pros and cons of buying a house in this market.  Even an economist hesitates.

The Monarch and the President

My wife and I watched a DVD on Windsor Castle last night--very good for Britophiles among us.  But I'm struck this morning by the contrast between an image last night and one this morning. 

Last night the DVD showed the Windsor flag raiser: the man whose job it is to raise Her Majesty's personal flag over the castle whenever she arrives.  So the movie maker shot from the flagraiser's perch atop the tower down to the drive approaching the castle showing the Queen arriving: arriving in two black cars. 

This morning Obamafoodorama has a post on a party the President attended last night, traveling in seven black SUV's. 

So the ratio is 2 to 7, which must tell us something, either about pomp and circumstance, past history of assassinations and attempts, relative power, paranoia, or culture.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Fixing Social Security--Kelman

Mr. Kelman has a post at Federal Computer Week suggesting options for a trade: delay the date at which you get social security in order to get higher benefits, such as long term healthcare insurance later.  Like, don't take SS until age 80, in order to have an assisted living home covered.

I don't have a dog in this fight since I'm not on SS and I'm paying for long term healthcare insurance from OPM  The initial logic is attractive, but it works only for the small subset of people who continue working and/or have enough investment income to retire on, as Mr. Kelman does but most people don't.  But just because it doesn't work for many isn't a bit argument for not providing the option.  I keep believing computers permit us to be more flexible without much administrative cost. 

97 Orchard, by Ziegelman

97 Orchard is a book, using a New York City tenement building, now a museum, as a way to link Irish, German, and Jewish immigrant families (who lived there) and to discuss their foodways, their recipes, and the general immigration and Americanization process.  Among the facts I found interesting:
  • 10,000 pigs in city streets in 1842
  • pigs and butter were the primary sources of fat in the cuisine of Irish and Germans, but problematic for Jews who turned to geese (goose fat = "smaltz").  They raised geese in the tenements, then in larger numbers in sites near the East River, until geese were ousted by reform efforts and the availability of chickens from the country.
  • Italian "rag pickers" were much like Dicken's "dust" men (Our Mutual Friend), scavengers who sorted garbage and salvaged usable materials and food from the remains.
  • lots of push carts selling everything in the streets, until Mayor La Guardia finally got rid of them right before WWII
  • there were a number of places/times where WASPs provided food to immigrants: Ellis Island (food was free, paid for by steamship companies), school lunches, Home Relief (in 1931).  WASPs believed in no spices, no strong tastes, lots of dairy (as befits Northern Europeans) and lots of meat.  
  • Irish drank tea at home, whiskey in public at saloons; Jews drank wine at home, tea in restaurants (as in the Russian Tea Room).
The book is good, not great (earning about 4.5 stars on Amazon) but recommended for anyone interested in the area.

Friday, August 19, 2011

USDA's GIS Portal

Nextgov reports USDA is doing a portal to all of its GIS stuff.  The catch is schedule:
The new portal, which is hosted in Amazon's public EC2 computer cloud, is already available to a few divisions within Agriculture and will be launched departmentwide in the next couple of months, Lowe said. The site should be available to the public about six to eight months after that.
Why, if it's operational, does it take 6-8 months to make it available to the public?  Esri is the vendor doing the protal.

More Technology, Less Productivity: Touch Typing

Technology Review has a post noticing that many schools don't teach typing anymore: kids are learning to type on their own, on multiple gadgets and in different ways.

When I had typing class, back in 1957-8, I was possibly the only male in the class, definitely just a handful.  My sister had ordered me to learn to type; she had picked up money by typing college papers for a bunch of males who didn't know how.  Not being the most coordinated of people, I struggled with the class for a good while.  Then finally the drills kicked in, and I was able to pass the 40 wpm test with relative ease.  Later in a work environment, I was able to push my speed even faster.  Though I worked with Ralph Olson, who had started work as a typist for Social Security Administration after WWII, and talked of the high standards they used to have to maintain and how far the current generation (me and the younger people in the office) had fallen away from the standards.

I suppose the need for speed and accuracy in typing is related to the degree to which the typist is serving another's needs and the ability with which errors can be corrected.  So the need for fast touch typists diminishes with the years, just as the need for shoe repairman has diminished. 

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Obama Needs to Dress Down Vilsack [and IL Governor]

Obama sometimes seems not to understand the government of which he's head. The "shovel-ready" projects is one instance.  Another came up on his Midwest tour, and Politico nails Vilsack's scalp to the post. They couldn't find anyone who could discuss possible regulations on dust and noise.

[Update: After blowing up, I reread the story.  I suspect the truth is the Illiinois EPA is responsible for any dust and noise regulations applicable to farmers, as mentioned in the story.  What probably happened was the IEPA person got the buck slip late in the day (either 3:57 or 4:57, it's not clear in the story, or was away on leave.  IEPA should have gotten back to the reporter the next morning.

What I do ding most of the phone responses is not knowing which agency is responsible.  I'd also ding USDA for their ham-fisted response to Politico (last paragraph). Presumably the USDA PR type realizes they're on the wrong end of the stick for this story but their approach is wrong.  You call IEPA to nail down the person who can answer, you get the answer from them so you can handle future inquiries, and you call the Politico to apologize (after all, the problem started with Obama and Vilsack) and offer the answer and the IEPA's name and number.

I'd also ding USDA offices and the Farm Bureau for not being current with the issues and rumors floating in the fine fresh air of Illinois.

Finally, I owe an apology for a too-quick reaction to the story. ]

[Further update: in Obama's defense, he may have been briefed on the Agenda 21 rumors, see Kevin Drum here.]

The Guard

We really liked this movie.  See it. [94 percent on rottentomatoes.  The Irish accents are surprisingly understandable.] 

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

1,800 Motorcyclists = 2 Hours

I've long been skeptical of the "Rolling Thunder" claims to have 50,000 motorcycles participating in their annual Memorial Day ride.  My skepticism is reaffirmed by this alert from the Virginia Department of Transportation, concerning the 1,800 motorcycles which are expected to participate in a 9/11 memorial ceremony this Friday.  The alert says:
The riders are expected to enter Loudoun County from Maryland at 2 p.m. with the
final riders estimated to enter the county between 3:30 p.m. and 4 p.m. The Loudoun
County Sheriff’s Office and the Virginia State Police will be stopping traffic at the
intersections on Route 15 from the Maryland line to the Leesburg town line
 Granted Route 15 from MD to Leesburg is a 2 lane road with a 45 mph speed limit, and the routes Rolling Thunder takes are wider.  Usually the pictures of Rolling Thunder show a double column of motorcycles, so say 2,000 cycles an hour can pass a given point.  That means RT must take 25 hours.

I'm not aware VDOT has ever issued an alert for Rolling Thunder, although to be fair that's not on a workday. 

Walt Finds a Limit to His Ingenuity

One reason I read Walt Jeffries Sugar Mountain Farm blog is my admiration of his ability as a craftsman/handyman/jack of all trades.  There seems to be nothing he and his family can't do on their farm. But he finally met his match.  Judging by the length of this post, recognizing his limits was not easy, perhaps even painful, but we all have to admit there are bounds. It's a sign of maturity.  Not everyone can make a pig plucker that works.

I should add that most farmers, at least those I'd call farmers, are jacks of all trades, even if they don't take it to the extremes Walt does.

Safety on the Farm

Farming is one of the most dangerous occupations, but farmers have one of the best lobbies.  I suspect that's the truth behind this POGO post on Cass Sunstein delaying a revamp of child labor rules. Note the injuries/deaths cited in the piece relate to grain augers and detasseling corn. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Advisory Committee Meeting

USDA blog reports on a meeting with minority farmers"More than 90 farmers, ranchers, educators, economists and civil rights professionals from across the U.S, including Hawaii, Alaska and Puerto Rico, participated in the August 11 meeting in Memphis."

The themes were the good old tunes: coordination, speed, simplicity. I heard those in the 1990's and the 1980's and the 1970's. Amazing how little progress has been made over the years.

[Updated: gave it a title--senior moment]

Why Federal Employees Don't Feel Overpaid

From a Washington Post article on Great Falls, a wealthy suburb of DC which has evolved in the past 20+ years, much of its growth coming from government contractors and those who sell to the government.  A quote:
Even rank-and-file employees benefit. In a recent survey by the jobs Web site, contractors with security clearances earned an average salary of $98,221, or 18 percent more than those doing similar jobs in the government
 To expand this point, federal employees don't feel overpaid because they can see contractors and vendors earning better money.  And they can see people retiring, particularly from the military and DOD, and going into private enterprise making use of the knowledge and contacts they gained while in the government.

Now to some extent it's apples and oranges: postal workers and mid-level bureaucrats are unlikely to move to private enterprise.  And the bureaucrat who resents the hell out of a contractor/consultant who comes in as a savior, but with no knowledge of the agency's business, is unlikely to remember the contractor is taking on a lot of risk: today's contract feast is tomorrow's no-work famine.  But we're talking psychology here, we're talking people, not an accountant's audit.

[Updated: with this--"And in case you're keeping score at home, "Great" Falls was at the top of the list of "top-earning towns," which, you know, shocker, especially when you consider it's essentially a magnet for government welfare recipients, also known as "contractors," the end."

Monday, August 15, 2011

Signs of Age

It's hard to tell when you're getting old, at least until you find yourself creaking when you get out of bed. I think I've found another sign of age, problems in parking.  These days when I make a right or left turn to pull into a parking place I find I'm not doing it fast enough/sharp enough, meaning that the car ends up at least slightly catty-corner in the parking space.  I can't wait for cars which are smart enough to handle parking.

Community Solidarity and Regulations

The Forward has a piece on adherence to regulations.  In sum, a village in NY which is inhabited by Hasidic Jews has a long history of ignoring state and municipal fire codes. I think this is the way democratic politics works.  In cases where a geographic area is dominated by one group, the group runs things its way and ignores laws and regulations with which it disagrees.  Sometimes we recognize things legally, as in giving some sovereignty to Indian tribes.  Or we make exceptions for religions, as with making provisions for the Amish schools, conscientious objectors, and taxes.

I'd also link this phenomena to the Lord Acton adage: "power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely."  I suspect the Hasidic Jews described in the Forward piece would argue that, because of the way the community operates, there's less likelihood of dangerous fires and less need for fire codes.  But in the absence of a significant group of voters willing to agitate for enforcement, the community will rock along unless and until there's a lethal fire.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Advantages of Modern Life: Vaccines

That thought resulted from reading this part of a newsletter from

This portion of an 1880 schedule from Cottonwood Township, Brown County, Minnesota, shows a devastating diphtheria outbreak that took the lives of multiple children in several of the households.

A look at nearby townships showed even more diphtheria deaths, and a quick internet search revealed that it had reached epidemic proportions around this time. If your ancestor’s family disappeared from the area around that time, this could be an explanation. You may find evidence of other events in mortality schedules. I wrote this article about a story I found in some Boston mortality schedules that led to details about a fire in a cotton factory.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

And My Jaw Dropped

From a Matt Yglesias post:

"In response, Stoller gave me seven rather than ten “FDR, Lincoln, Grant, Washington, T. Roosevelt, Truman, LBJ" (The "Stoller" is a Matt Stoller, apparently a leftish type.)

What caused my jaw to drop:  Grant. Grant!!  For most of my life Ulysses S. Grant was ranked in the bottom of U.S. Presidents, with a reputation for ignoring corruption that was hard to shake.  I think only Harding and Buchanan were usually considered worse.  But his inclusion in a top-seven list, even if idiosyncratic, probably means that his support for Reconstruction is winning him support among some.

North America's Farms: Why Mexicans Emigrate

Canada, Mexico, and the US are trying to provide agricultural statistics across the 3 countries.  Here's a map showing the distribution of farms, with each blue dot equaling 200 farms. Because it's static, not interactive, the map isn't great, but it's still interesting.  Canada has an interesting distribution: no farms above the western Great Lakes, but many east of the Rockies and a surprising concentration north of NH and VT. Mexico has about twice as many farms as the US, so the southern part of the country is solid blue.

I'd also note the Amish concentration in Lancaster county, PA. The concentration of smaller farms shows up as an almost blue dot. 

Friday, August 12, 2011

SSA Bureaucrat

The Post had a laudatory article on a Social Security bureaucrat Thursday. It seems she figured out that not all diseases/disabilities are the same. By segregating  out and fast tracking those disabilities which are in some sense obvious (i.e., Lou Gehrig's disease--ALCS, etc.) she drastically improved the turnaround time for the claims.

This fits one of my mantras I developed over the years.  If you tried to design a software system which would handle all possible situations, you rapidly got yourself into the weeds, lost in a maze of conditions and with software which would be hard to test, hard to train on, and late to deliver.  The better strategy was trying to handle 80 percent of the cases with something simple and fast.  The big advantage was intangible: software developers felt lots better because they were accomplishing something to help the county offices, the users; the users felt better because they got something halfway timely which helped them.

Overlapping Missions? USGS and NRCS

Here's a study of nitrates in rivers in the Mississippi basin, showing no consistent decline over the last 28 years (1980-2008).  What struck me is, while reported via a USDA agency (, the study itself was done by USGS.  Turns out there's something called The Mississippi River Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Action Task Force.  I guess NRCS is a part of it--there's an Ann Mills on the task force, though because the URL behind her name is screwed up I wasn't able to check on her.  The Task Force has EPA, Corps of Engineers, Interior (USGS), Commerce (NOAA), USDA (NRCS and extension), and the National Tribal Water Council.  Quite a group of agencies.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Herr Roesler and the German Melting Pot

Here's his wikipedia bio, of Vietnamese ancestry, he's a German politician, currently a cabinet minister, which blew my mind when I saw his picture.

We don't think of Germany as being a melting pot; a Google search for the term doesn't yield much.  This after all is the land of ethnic purity, but no more it seems.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Chopsticks to China

Via Freakonomics, here's an article on an entrepreneur who's making and shipping chopsticks to China from Georgia--turns out we've got cheaper wood than they do.

I must say, when we spent our honeymoon in Britain many years ago, I was struck by the difference in traveling from London to York and from DC to New York.  Miles and miles of trees and unused land in the US; not so much in Britain.

AMS Follows My Advice? NAIS

Unlikely, but AMS announced a proposal for animal identification that:
livestock moved interstate would have to be officially identified and accompanied by an interstate certificate of veterinary inspection or other documentation, such as owner-shipper statements or brand certificates. The proposed rule encourages the use of low-cost technology and specifies approved forms of official identification for each species, such as metal eartags for cattle. However, recognizing the importance and prevalence of other identifications in certain regions, shipping and receiving states or tribes are permitted to agree upon alternative forms of identification such as brands or tattoos.
 That's essentially what I suggested a while back when they asked for comments on the previous NAIS proposal: a two-tier system, one tier for animals moving in the big commercial channels, the other tier for locavore/food movement types.  Now it seems from Walt Jeffries post at that my compromise isn't enough, but I'm not clear how his toes are being stepped on. Last I checked his meat was sold at outlets in Vermont only, so he wouldn't be subject to the regs.  Though it's possible he has a mail-order business which reaches outside the state but I'd think the rules could easily cover that case. 

How Good Is Crop Insurance: Is This Strange?

From Bloomberg, hat tip Farm Policy:
The worst Texas drought in more than a century has left cotton-crop conditions that rival the Dust Bowl of the early 1930s, forcing farmers to abandon more fields than ever before.
Most growers will at least break even  [emphasis added] this year from insurance claims, with the reimbursement rate on policies higher than the price of New York cotton futures, according to a Bloomberg News survey of seven analysts, brokers and farmers.
 I think there's a problem here, either with crop insurance or perhaps with the writing.  If you look lower in the story, the break even bit may reflect one grower's expectations.  But it appears the insurance covers $1.23 a pound, which doesn't seem right, though I'm stuck in the days of a target price just above $.70.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

History Makes a Difference: Bees and Levy Flight

Once, long ago, I was good at math.  No longer.  But I still have a soft spot for math-like writing.  Here's a Technology Review post on the math describing how bees search for nectar sources.  It's something called "Levy Flight", described as:
The most effective way to comb an area is to search it at random using jumps that vary in length according to a power law.
But new research has shown while that works for cases where you just have nectar sources spread out in space, if you introduce a third variable, a predator, the pattern is changed as the bees adjust their flight patterns to avoid the predator.  In short: history makes a difference.

Another Cheerleader for President?

Much discussion about the probability Texas Gov. Rick Perry will run for President.  Some thought the country isn't ready for another conservative Texas Republican as President.  That may be, but I know I'm not ready for another Texas cheerleader as President--from a Conor Friedersdorf post on the press descriptions of him:

"Perry is fresh-faced and chipper, just as you would expect a former Texas A&M yell leader [emphasis added] to be. 'He marches up to the lowliest employee, greets them by name, shakes their hand, and looks them in the eye,' says one staffer. 'He's as friendly as a puppy.' ~ Dana Rubin, Texas Monthly 

How'd That Work Out for the Rural Areas: FDR in 1933

Matt Yglesias quotes from FDR's inaugural, in the context of whether Obama is a good leader, but I'm interested in this one sentence:
Hand in hand with this we must frankly recognize the overbalance of population in our industrial centers and, by engaging on a national scale in a redistribution, endeavor to provide a better use of the land for those best fitted for the land.
That belief has a long history, and it carries on today, when some in the food movement argue for revivifying rural areas. The New Deal tried, they even had a Resettlement Administration, bits and pieces of which ended up in the Farmers Home Administration and now FSA, but it didn't work as they thought it should.  I think the bottom line is: most rural areas (measured in area) in which farming is the main occupation will continue to lose population for the foreseeable future. I note today there's a Mid-Atlantic exposition/conference on precision agriculture coming up; it's the first one.  If they can do precision agriculture in this area, that further cuts the need for labor and increases the need for capital, all of which means a further expansion of the size of farms and a further cut in farm population.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Those Good Old Days in Herndon Education

These days Herndon is one of the centers of the Internet.  (I believe it's true that as a byproduct of how the Internet evolved, some of the main switches, or whatever the right term is, are located within or nearby Herndon. 

But a mere 55 years ago Herndon was still agricultural, as shown in this memory of the school system:
“If you stood at the back of the original school building, there were four buildings, with a walkway leading to the original gym at the end," McGlincy Reed said. "The home economics building was a free standing cottage including kitchen, living, and dining rooms and, I think, two bedrooms. The cannery was on the far right, but before you got to those buildings, the [home economics] house was on the left and the shop/agricultural department was on the right. The whole site was like a quad arrangement. The cannery was on the grounds and used by anyone in the community.”

Obesity, Food Deserts, and a Paradox

Robin Hanson had a post citing research that there was no relationship between poverty and obesity.  That surprised me.

This CDC report shows a strong relationship between ethnicity and obesity--blacks and Hispanics tend to be more obese than whites.
Between 1988-1994 and 2007-2008 the prevalence of obesity increased (Figure 2):
  • From 11.6% to 16.7% among non-Hispanic white boys.
  • From 10.7% to 19.8% among non-Hispanic black boys.
  • From 14.1% to 26.8% among Mexican-American boys.
And a search for "obesity, income" on CDC comes up with this:
  • Among men, obesity prevalence is generally similar at all income levels, however, among non-Hispanic black and Mexican-American men those with higher income are more likely to be obese than those with low income.
  • Higher income women are less likely to be obese than low income women, but most obese women are not low income.
  • There is no significant trend between obesity and education among men. Among women, however, there is a trend, those with college degrees are less likely to be obese compared with less educated women.
  • Between 1988–1994 and 2007–2008 the prevalence of obesity increased in adults at all income and education levels.

Among men, obesity prevalence is generally similar at all income levels, with a tendency to be slightly higher at higher income levels.


The Paradox Identified

So Hanson looks to be partially right, at least with regards to the U.S. And I didn't get into the research to know how well it distinguishes among the variables: ethnicity versus income.  But what's interesting to me is the difference between men and women, particularly for blacks and Mexican-Americans.  Why are rich black men thin and poor black women fat (using oversimple language to make the point) and vice versa? That doesn't seem to me to support the concept of "food deserts". Indeed, it seems to confound any general theory:  genetics, income, environment, etc.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

The Best Reform: Firing Low Performers

That's the message STeve Kelman got from SESers.

I'd draw a parallel between evaluating and firing teachers and evaluating and firing other bureaucrats.  Teachers can, we assume, be evaluated based on whether their students consistently each year improve. For some bureaucrats we may be able to find similar measures of performance, but for most it's going to be difficult.  For both teachers and bureaucrats you have a supervisor whose judgment is going to be invoked in the evaluation and the firing. Unfortunately, I think it's true it's harder to evaluate supervisors than it is their employees. 

On a personal note, thinking back over my career I'm not at all sure how I'd evaluate myself as a supervisor: some years and with some employees I was pretty good, with some employees and other years I was poor.  Rather reminds me of the director's commentary on "The Hunt for Red October" we watched last night.  The director kept saying he wasn't sure whether what he had tried to do came off well.

So, bottom line: while I can agree with the message Mr. Kelman takes away, it's wise to be cautious: a bad supervisor can do a lot of damage.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Does Anyone Follow Track? Read Long Jump

This is a great piece on long jumps and Carl Lewis. Hat tip to the Browser.  I remember Ralph Boston's salad days, if I recall that was just after the breaking of a bunch of different records which seemed unbreakable: 4 minute mile, 7 foot high jump, 16 foot high jump, 60 foot shot put, 10 sec 100 yard dash.  In those days track was a major sport, a major amateur sport, along with tennis. College football and basketball were more prominent than their pro counterparts, boxing was big (the Friday night fights with Sugar Ray Robinson, Carmen Basilio, the ageless Archie Moore).  Think I'll dream on the glories of yesteryear and skip blogging this weekend.

Big Dairies Means Better Milk?

That's the conclusion of a study of Wisconsin dairies, as summarized at

Friday, August 05, 2011

Robots in the Car and the Tractor

Google has a self-driving car project, and now Kinze has a self-driving tractor project.  I guess that's how the 5,000 to 15,000 acre farmer is going to be able to keep expanding. 

5,000 to 15,000 Acres

From Farm Policy, quoting DTN piece:
"Farm Credit lenders in 15 states have received words of caution about the potential for excess risks shouldered by their biggest grain customers. ‘The 5,000 to 15,000-acre commercial grain farmer is emerging as a major customer from Arkansas to North Dakota,’ Ross Anderson, senior vice president and chief credit officer for St. Paul-based AgriBank told DTN in an interview last week."
The idea is these operations are mostly rented land, so they've got a lot of leverage and are therefore assuming a lot of risk.

Risk on the farm interests me.  There have been lots of innovations over the years to reduce risk: vertical integration in poultry, eggs, and pigs; futures; contract farming for popcorn and seed corn, crop insurance, disaster payment programs, production adjustment and marketing quota programs, etc.  But farming evolves; the less risk in one area perhaps the more risk in another.  The safest type of farming is probably still the well-diversified small farm, not having all your eggs in one basket.  But over the last century the US moved away from those farms, a trend which is continuing in this century, as witness the results of planting flexibility.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

MIDAS Takes a Hit?

In the Farm Policy interview with Rep. Peterson, he says, with regards to the Deficit Control Act process:
"It could impact the effort that we’ve got underway to modernize the computer
system, all of which, in a way, affects producers"

On Hypocrisy and Bureaucrats

Most days I walk over to the community garden where we have a plot.  Watering and weeding are constant chores, chores not often mentioned in the glowing articles on organic and local food.  But that's a different post.

To reach the garden I have to cross Reston Parkway, which is 4 lanes plus turn lanes and is usually still busy from the tail end of rush hour when I'm walking.  So there's a red light for traffic heading north on Reston as I cross.  Some people, I suspect, hang a right from Reston onto Glade (the cross street) so they can try to barrel north on Colts Neck, a less-traveled 4 lane road, bypassing congestion on Reston.

When I'm crossing then, you will be amazed to know there's a small but finite danger that drivers making their right turn on red will not come to a stop.  Further, they may not be looking for a pedestrian walking in front of the stopped cars in the travel lanes because they're intent on making their turn and getting to work, like the good bureaucrats they are. 

Now a person close to me has the attitude with regards to cars that: "they have brakes, don't they."  Unfortunately I've become infected by that attitude, so I tend to walk across the intersection with my eyes fixed on the opposite corner and not overtly looking for someone making a right turn.  I figure they should be obeying the law, right?  They're bureaucrats after all and need to set a good example.

This morning I followed my usual pattern, only to be almost run down by an SUV which made the right turn at about 20 mph, not stopping at all.

Mad? Of course I was mad.  I was crossing with the light and the driver was absolutely in the wrong.  What was even more aggravating is I don't think he ever saw me, after all I was at least 4 feet from his lane.

I fumed as I walked on to the garden. I had the delicious feeling of self-righteousness to savor.  Then I remembered that the walk sign clearly said "Don't walk", so I was in the wrong too.  (I don't usually hit the button to get a "Walk" signal; I walk rapidly and it wastes people's time.)

All in all, a remember of the mote and the beam

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Our Shrinking Federal Government

From prior years, by 2021 our government will have shrunk by about 31 percent.  That's CBO's estimate of how much, as a percentage of GDP, the expenditures for discretionary and mandatory programs, except Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, will be.  (Shrinking from 6.7 percent of GDP to 4.6.)

The Results of Planting Flexibility

FarmDocDaily has an interesting graph comparing the 2007-2011 average planted acreages of program crops with their acreage base acreages (which would be based on historical plantings from way back). In sum, soybeans and corn have increased their planted acreage while cotton, wheat, rice, and  barley have decreased.  Back in the 1920's one farm might have grown most of the program crops, but over the years they became more specialized.  Now because corn and soybeans feed animals, and rich people, including rich Chinese, like to eat meat the whole farm economy is focused on those two crops. 

Sometimes Conservatives Are Right

They often complain about bureaucratic rules.  This requirement that job openings be published in print strikes me as idiotic.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Debt Ceiling Deal

For those who may not have followed it, the deal doesn't force any cuts in the current direct payment program (unlike Sen. Reid's version of last week) nor does it hit federal employees or retirees right now.

Monday, August 01, 2011

A Food Desert in Amsterdam?

This NYTimes piece on Amsterdam praises its accommodation of bicycles:
This in turn relates to lots of other things — such as bread. How? Cyclists can’t carry six bags of groceries; bulk buying is almost nonexistent. Instead of shopping for a week, people stop at the market daily. So the need for processed loaves that will last for days is gone. A result: good bread.
These bits I found by Google says Amsterdam "supermarkets" tend to the small and midsized, no "hypermarkets".  Here's a link to a photo I found of the fruits and vegetables at one supermarket.

Here's some information on trends in fruits and vegetables in the Netherlands: (The source says in 2005 the Netherlands consumed 94 kilograms of fresh fruits and 74 of fresh vegetables, which is about 207 and 163 pounds respectively.  According to this ERS source in 2000 the US consumed 127 pounds of fresh fruit and 201 pounds  of fresh vegetables.)

Trade and Consumer’s Preference

Health concern receives more attention. Organic market is growing Nutritional value and health benefits of 
fruits and vegetables have been well recognized. Consumers are open to new items. Retailers have started offering seasonings and ready-meal packages also.

Convenience trends: people wish to save time. Fruits and vegetables are sold pre-cut, and prepared and packed complete meals and take away are also popular. Fruits are sold from non-food stores like gas station also.

Largest consumers are elderly people. Single household or couples with double income spend most on fruits particularly on exotics. They buy from supermarkets but elderly people and senior citizens buy from retail stores. Elderly and affluent seniors also visit specialized retailers. Bananas are liked by younger generations. Elderly people buy mostly citrus, oranges, grapefruits, and lemons.

Growing interest in local and authentic products- with increasing awareness of the negative impacts on environment on imports (HBD).

Other important features of the market:

I. Market share and importance of supermarket is likely to continue with the increased popularity of one-stop-shopping.

II. Green grocers offers high quality assorted fresh fruits.

III. Number of specialty shops like Indonesian food, Halal food, etc. is growing.

IV. More and more retailers are selling branded fruits such as Tasty Tom tomatoes.

V. Hard discounters and multiple stores are enlarging their offer of organic crops.

Robin Hanson on Education

The maverick economist writes:
Schools are designed to, and do, stifle student imaginations. So why would we care much if teacher imaginations get stifled in the process? Do we care if prison guard imaginations gets stifled?
Sometimes I think he's the avatar of a 16-year old genius who's still in high school.