Friday, September 30, 2011

The Solar Decathlon and the Weather

Several colleges are participating in the "Solar Decathlon", a contest to build green housing within a set of constraints, with the model house erected on the Mall, or this year in West Potomac Park.  U of MD won the architectural award.  This year since Tropical Storm Lee went through earlier this month the sun has been in little evidence.  That's unfortunate, because many of the features of such houses depend on reasonably sunny weather, which the DC area usually has in September, but not this year.

WSJ Gets Something Wrong

Greg Mankiw links to a Wall Street Journal story about SSA and the processing of disability claims.  It includes this paragraph:
The directive stemmed from a wrinkle in the federal calendar, in which this week fell between the federal government's 2011 and 2012 fiscal years. This happens every five or six years, as officials are allowed to count just 52 weeks in their calendar. Counting this week would make the current fiscal year 53 weeks long. That meant any applications for disability benefits completed between Monday and Friday wouldn't count toward the annual numerical targets set for Social Security judges or field offices.
This is, of course, wrong, at least in the sense the federal government's fiscal year is 365 or 366 days, not 52 weeks.  I suspect SSA set up weekly and yearly targets in their workload reporting system, with no provision for part-week reporting.  So this is a case where the bureaucratic system pinches the applicant, and shouldn't occur.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

ARRM Bill S 1626

Farm Policy has the text of the Brown/Thune/Lugar/Durbin   bill establishing the Aggregrate Risk and Revenue Management Program. Given the prominence of the co-sponsors, it's got to be taken seriously.  See this for a diagram of the calculations.

I'm too far away from current law to comment reliably, but I didn't see the commodity-specific determination as all that specific in the bill's language.  I do wonder about WTO compliance, because the program is tied to planted acreage and seems to discourage switching to new crops. That was a prime selling point for "Freedom to Farm", which became the direct payment program.

In terms of administration, I surely hope FSA and RMA have merged into one entity, because I don't see how it can be effectively administered otherwise.  Assuming FSA writes the checks, they need the RMA APH and insurance premium amounts, plus the planted acreage and the actual production.  I shudder at the complexities.  I also wonder how MIDAS would plan to handle it.

French Bureaucrats Are Like American Bureaucrats

Words of experience from Dirk Beauregarde:
"The problem comes from our new boss. Like animals marking their territory as only animals know how, our new big chief is busy reorganising his new "kingdom" by changing acronyms and getting all his staff to play musical offices. Only a question of time before the new headman starts to come up with ideas - I believe they are called initiatives -
Initiatves are generally old ideas that get rediscovered when a new boss open the bottom draw on his desk and finds files crammed with "ideas". These ideas have been consigned to the bottom draw[er] because they were essentially bad ideas, but the new boss will get them out, dust them down, set up a commiittee to look at the idea and how it can be implemented. After the committee has held endless meetings and rehashed the unworkable idea into words of several syllables, the old idea becomes a new initiative. We are bound to follow the new "policy" and thus are asked to attend hours and hours of training sessions, given by people who don't understand the new initiative themselves.
Of course, nothing works, or if it does work, it is because we all ignore the initiatve and do things the old way. No matter, things are working and the credit is thus given to the boss and his new idea.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Sod/Swamp in New Farm Bill?

Philip Brasher reports Sen. Grassley is undecided on whether sod/swamp provisions should apply to farmers who buy crop insurance.

I don't know how well NRCS and FSA are doing these days in coordinating their work flows, but back in the old days LaVonne Maas and Sandy Penn got gray hairs trying to work out the problems.  Making the eligibility data available to crop insurance companies would be a new challenge.

[Just joking about the gray hairs]

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Bittman and Cooking

Sunday NYTimes columnist Mark Bittman had a misleading article entitled "Is Junk Food Really Cheaper?"  His answer is "no", but he cheats, hence my "misleading". What he compares is junk food/fast food to meals cooked at home.  Buying the ingredients and cooking at home is cheaper.  An economist would object, however, that he fails to account for the cost of the cook's labor. You answer: but my wife isn't paid?  Makes no difference, you need to include the value of her time, which is more than minimum wage. Do that and I suspect you'll find a fast food meal is cheaper than home cooking.  Throw in home delivered pizzas or TV dinners and the good old days of home cooking really lose out.

He briefly considers a calorie versus calorie comparison, but avoids carrying through with the comparison.

I can agree with his point that Americans generally, even those on food stamps, have enough money to eat well if they cook, and cook wisely.  USDA even has recipes for such diets.

But that "if" is a big one.  Few people really like to cook, not on a regular basis.  It's a chore, like milking cows or gathering eggs. Bittman recognizes this: "The core problem is that cooking is defined as work, and fast food is both a pleasure and a crutch." He goes further by saying fast food is addictive..

His penultimate paragraphs:
To make changes like [returning to home-cooked meals] this more widespread we need action both cultural and political. The cultural lies in celebrating real food; raising our children in homes that don’t program them for fast-produced, eaten-on-the-run, high-calorie, low-nutrition junk; giving them the gift of appreciating the pleasures of nourishing one another and enjoying that nourishment together.
Political action would mean agitating to limit the marketing of junk; forcing its makers to pay the true costs of production; recognizing that advertising for fast food is not the exercise of free speech but behavior manipulation of addictive substances; and making certain that real food is affordable and available to everyone. The political challenge is the more difficult one, but it cannot be ignored.
 Of course, the real answer is for women (or their spouses) to leave the workplace and return to the kitchen.  Good luck to Mr. Bittman to push that!

Seasonal Dairy?

One of the certainties of my life has been that dairy farmers work harder than other farmers, since they have to milk cows 365 days a year.  Turns out that's not true, you can go with the "seasonal" approach as described by MO extension. (For those not familiar with mammalian milk production, a cow's milk production dwindles slowly as time from when she last gave birth grows. Dairy cows are milked for about 300 days, then "dried off" for the last two months before they give birth again.)  I follow the concept, but it used to be that milk prices were higher in the winter months, when milk supply was lowest, so there was a financial incentive to spread calving times out, not to mention the need to get a monthly milk check.  Things may have changed since I was a boy.

Lines Heard in the Theater Watching "Contagion"

From the movie, as the epidemic is gaining speed:
"The Secret Service has moved the President to an undisclosed location.

Congress is trying to learn how to work online"
From the audience:
"Why bother"

Monday, September 26, 2011

Improving Federal Websites

If you've bitched, you can offer input.  See this link for a schedule .

[Update--Another link   ]

[Second update: link to the government site]

Papa and the Bulls--Barcelona's Last Bullfight

By chance the Sunday paper had a review of a new book on Hemingway and this morning I see on Treehugger that Barcelona held its last bullfight.

My impression is Hemingway's reputation started slipping in the late 50's, even before his suicide, and continued to decline until recently.  He certainly loomed large in the early 50's, writing for popular magazines and being a presence.  My first contact with his writing was a bullfight article, though I can't remember where it was published.  One thing which he thought he saw in the bull ring, but left to us all, is: "grace under pressure", his definition of "guts".  The popularity of that phrase is still growing.

Great Untold Story: James Angleton's Offspring

James Angleton was the long time head of counter-intelligence for the CIA.  Some say he was paranoid about moles in the CIA; others say he was right. 

Anyway, his widow's obituary was in the Post this morning--sounds as if she was an interesting person in her own right: a history scholar and a poet with several volumes published.  But what struck me was this final paragraph:
Survivors include three children, James C. Angleton of Los Angeles, Guru Sangat Kaur Khalsa of Great Falls and Siri Hari Kaur Angleton-Khalsa [emphasis added]of Espanola, N.M.; two grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
How does one connect these dots, particularly when you throw in the fact that in the CIA, dominated by Ivy Leage WASPs in his time, he was apparently half-Hispanic, albeit a Yalie and a poet?

Sunday, September 25, 2011

US Refrigerators 3X European

That's a factoid from a NY Times article on an automated refrigerator recycling facility: US refrigerators are three times the size of European ones.

Eliminating Earmarks = Eliminating Ag Research?

That's from Farm Policy: "Sen. Stabenow noted that, “And in the current budget situation, the way we fund ag research has been eliminated, a lot of that through direct funding to universities and through community designations and so on, what’s been called earmarks in the past. And that’s fine to change that structure, but it wasn’t replaced with anything. And so we’ve seen huge cuts in the current budget that are very concerning to me."

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Yellow Margarine

Via Ezra Klein, a history of coloring margarine. New York was one of the states in which Parkay margarine was sold white, with a packet of coloring which you kneaded into the product to turn it yellow. I remember my mother doing this, so it must have been right at the end of WWII.  I'm sure mom, being a true believer in the virtues of dairy, was not using margarine willingly.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Picking on FSA

Just a late afternoon Friday thought:  my impression is that FSA was the first government agency to be dinged by GAO/IGs for issuing payments to dead people.  That was maybe 3 years ago, but since then there have been a number of agencies hit the headlines for the same problem, including this week OPM.

Was that just chance, because someone has to be first, or do the dark forces have it in for FSA?

Obama Overreacts Again

With the Shirley Sherrod incident the Obama administration over reacted: fearing adverse publicity they pulled the trigger first and then worried about their aim. They may be doing it again in the case of conference costs (the $16 muffins which were reported in the Post earlier this week.).  The Washington Post piece includes a reaction from the Hilton Hotels explaining, including this: " In Washington, the contracted breakfast included fresh fruit, coffee, juice, muffins, tax and gratuity, for an inclusive price of $16 per person."  The Post rather weakly says they relied on the DOJ's OIG report, which cited "$16 muffins"--in the print paper this morning this correction was buried inside on the Federal page.

In Obama's defense, there's a very small window in which to calibrate one's reaction, and the politics of modern media are such it's usually better to shoot first.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Gee Modern Technology Works

Was at a Starbucks this afternoon to get coffee, a deviation from my usual routine of getting coffee at the Starbucks in the local Safeway. Was struck by the guys ahead of me, both of whom paid by using their cell phone (I've no idea which one). The Times today had an article on Google Wallet, which makes your phone into a credit card.  I've no idea whether the guys I saw were using that, or some Starbucks application.  Anyhow, it's amazing.

Copier Jams Are So Twentieth Century

This MSNBC piece reports that the Federal Reserve's decision yesterday was 7 minutes late because they had a copier jam, preventing them from distributing the release to all reporters simultaneous
You see, in the arcane world of covering the Federal Reserve, reporters are "locked up" in a room at the Treasury and forbidden to release the Fed statement until every reporter has a copy. This is to ensure a level playing field.
Then all the reporters get a signal to transmit the news. The idea is to get the Fed statement out there before the next reporter because the financial markets hang on every word, comma and period.
This sounds like the process used for NASS crop reports, which can also move markets.  John Kenneth Galbraith's only novel dealt with a plot to get an early look at the crop report and exploit the information.

My question: why don't all such institutions just post their data in the cloud, with email/twitter notifications to the relevant people.  Avoid this 20th century stuff and recognize everyone and her brother has an Ipad now.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Farm Bill Politics

Charlie Stenholm, who I believe used to be Rick Perry's Congressman, writes finis to farm subsidies in this Politico article

Best News of the Day from Achenbach?

"It traces a path that can now be constrained a great deal, and if you look at this map from the Aerospace Corporation you’ll see that it’s not going to hit the U.S. Capitol and disrupt the highly productive political process that is going to solve the fiscal conundrum and put Americans back to work."  From a post on the predicted splashdown of the UARS satellite.

New Farm Bill

Farm Policy has some discussion of a new farm bill from which I gather different commodity groups may head in different direction as they try to cope with budget pressures.  On the other hand, if the super-committee writes the farm bill instead of the Ag committees, it will be logistically easier to just modify current legislation.  And that would be easier for FSA to implement, rather than a return to the old days with each crop (grouping) having its own program. It will be an interesting study in interest group legislation.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Government "Waste"

Politico and other media outlets have pieces on the Gallup poll, which seems to average the guesstimates of their respondents to say that 51 percent of Federal tax dollars are wasted. Room for lots of ambiguity there: does "tax dollars" include FICA or Medicare taxes?  What is "waste"--how many of our aircraft carrier groups are "waste"?  So much ambiguity it's relatively meaningless, but it makes a good story.

As for me, if I stipulate that spending in accordance with legislation passed by Congress is not waste, my guesstimate is less than 5 percent waste, and even that is high.

How the Cost of Crop Insurance Grows

Farmdocdaily has a post on the 2012 wheat insurance.  The main paragraph:
The 2012 projected price of $8.20 is $1.01 higher than the 2011 price of $7.19. As a result, guarantees will be higher for the same coverage level in 2012 as compared for 2011. Take, for example, a 75 percent Revenue Protection (RP) policy for a unit having an Actual Production History (APH) yield of 55 bushels. In 2012, the minimum coverage level is $338 per acre (75% coverage level x 55 bushel APH x $8.20 projected price). The 2012 minimum guarantee is $41 per acre higher than the 2011 minimum guarantee of $297 per acre (75% coverage level x 55 bushel APH x $7.19 projected price). For the same APH yield and coverage level, 2012 minimum guarantees will be 14 percent higher than in 2011.
And since the government's exposure and subsidization of cots changes as the guarantees change, the possible cost to the taxpayers of wheat crop insurance is rising.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Obama's Proposals

Obama has released his deficit reduction proposals.  For agriculture he proposes to eliminate direct payments, cut crop insurance and support SURE. The following are from pages 17-19 of the plan.

Eliminate direct payments. The direct payment program provides producers fixed annual income support payments for having historically planted crops that were supported by Government programs, regardless of whether the farmer is currently producing those crops—or producing any crop, for that matter. Direct payments do not vary with prices, yields, or producers’ farm incomes. As a result, taxpayers continue to foot the bill for these payments to farmers who are experiencing record yields and prices; more than 50 percent of direct payments go to farmers with more than $100,000 in income. Economists have shown that direct payments have priced young Americans out of renting or owning the land needed to enter into farming. In a period of severe fiscal restraint, these payments are no longer defensible, and eliminating them would save the Government roughly $3 billion per year. [Note: why they don't claim the $4+ billion figure I don't know.]

Reduce subsidies to crop insurance companies. Crop insurance is a foundation of our farm safety net. Our Nation’s farmers and agricultural bankers understand the value of this effective risk management program, and currently 83 percent of eligible program crop acres are enrolled in the program. However, the program continues to be highly subsidized and costs the Government approximately $8 billion a year to run: $2.3 billion per year for the private insurance companies to administer and underwrite the program and $5.7 billion per year in premium subsidies to the farmers. The Administration has made a continued effort to improve the crop insurance program by covering more crops, while implementing it more efficiently In 2010, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the crop insurance companies agreed to changes that saved $6 billion over
10 years from administrative expense reimbursement and underwriting gains while also
improving service to underserved States. The Administration believes there are additional
opportunities for streamlining of the administrative costs of the program. A USDA commissioned
study found that when compared to other private companies, crop insurance companies’ rate of return on investment (ROI) should be around 12 percent, but that it is currently expected to be 14 percent. The Administration is proposing to lower the crop insurance companies’ ROI to meet the 12 percent target, saving $2 billion over 10 years. In addition, the current cap on administrative  expenses is based on the 2010 premiums, which were among the highest ever. A more appropriate
level for the cap would be based on 2006 premiums, neutralizing the spike in commodity
prices over the last four years, but not harming the delivery system. The Administration,
therefore, proposes setting the cap at $0.9 billion adjusted annually for inflation, which
would save $3.7 billion over 10 years. Finally, the Administration proposes to price more accurately
the premium for catastrophic (CAT) coverage policies, which will slightly lower the
reimbursement to crop insurance companies. The premium for CAT coverage is fully subsidized
for the farmer, so the farmer is not impacted by the change. This change will save
$600 million over 10 years. The Administration also proposes modest changes in subsidies for producers. Today, producers only pay 40 percent of the cost of their crop insurance premium on average, with the Government paying for the remainder. This cost-share arrangement was implemented in 2000, when very few producers participated in the program and “ad-hoc” agricultural disaster assistance bills were regularly enacted. The Congress increased the subsidy for most insurance coverage by over 50 percent at the time to encourage greater participation. Today,
participation rates are 83 percent on average, and the rationale for high subsidy rates has
weakened. The proposal would shave two basis points off any coverage premium subsidy
levels that are currently offered above 50 percent, saving $2 billion over 10 years. Farmers
who have premium subsidies of 50 percent or less would not be affected.

Better target agricultural conservation  assistance. Farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners share a critical role in conserving the Nation’s soil, water, and related natural resources. The Administration is very supportive of programs that create incentives for private lands conservation and
has made great strides in leveraging these resources with those of other Federal agencies
towards greater landscape-scale conservation; however, the dramatic increase
in funding (roughly 500 percent since enactment of the Farm Security and Rural
Investments Act of 2002) has led to difficulties in program administration and redundancies
among our agricultural conservation programs. At the same time, high crop prices
have both strengthened market opportunities to expand agricultural production on the
Nation’s farmlands and decreased producer  demand for certain agricultural conservation
programs. These current economic realities and the ability to better target existing funding
for maximum environmental outcomes support a proposal to reduce the deficit while
preserving the most important agricultural conservation programs. To reduce the deficit,
the Administration proposes to reduce conservation funding by $2 billion over 10 years
by better targeting conservation funding to the most cost-effective and environmentallybeneficial
programs and practices. Even under this proposal, conservation assistance is
projected to grow by $60 billion over the next decade.

Extend mandatory disaster assistance.
The Administration strongly supports disaster assistance programs that protect farmers
in their time of greatest need. The Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 provided
producers with mandatory disaster assistance programs for the 2008 to 2011 crops. To
strengthen the safety net, the Administration proposes to extend these programs, or similar types of disaster assistance that are of a similar cost, for the 2012 to 2016 crops. The programs provide financial assistance to producers when they suffer actual losses in farm
revenue, loss of livestock or the ability to graze their livestock, loss of trees in an orchard, and
other losses due to diseases or adverse weather. To be eligible for the programs, farmers must
purchase crop insurance. The Supplemental Revenue Assistance Program provides whole
farm revenue coverage to farmers at a revenue level that is essentially 15 percent higher than
their crop insurance guarantee. Payments are limited so that the guaranteed level cannot exceed
90 percent of expected farm income in the absence of a natural disaster

Sunday, September 18, 2011

A Question of Taxes

From Illinois farmdocdaily, comes this observation, based on their surveys of farmer's accounts, comparing 2001-5 with 2006-10:
It would seem that to add over $100,000 in net farm income while adding just under $6,000 in income and social security taxes doesn’t quite add up! We know that tax rates…even at their lowest…are not at the 6% level. What gives?
 The writer goes on to offer some possibilities, some of which amount to farmers deferring tax liabilities down the road, and warns of a possible day of reckoning (my words, not his). 

I hate to be cynical about the hardworking people in American's heartland, the truest of all Americans, but it might just be that one or two of the farmers is indulging in that oldest of American pastimes, the pursuit of which led directly to our Revolution: fudging on one's taxes.

I'm sure no one in Congress is going to suggest adding one or two auditors to the IRS as a partial fix to the budget.

(To be fair, I should note my understanding of federal tax laws as they apply to farmers is very close to zero.)

One question: if farmers have to pay self-employed SS taxes of 13.3 percent on income less than $102K, shouldn't one expect to see more than $19000 social security and income taxes paid on over $200,000 income? What are the limits to deferring income?

Charles Kenny Takes on the Food Movement

He writes in Foreign Policy in favor of efficiency and against locavores, supporting GM crops and importing food from the Third World over growing out of season crops in the Northern Hemisphere.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Increasing Government Productivity?

Matt Yglesias has this post saying the era of big government ended in the 70's, including a graphic showing the ratio of government workers to private sector workers. 

That says to me there either was a great increase in government productivity since 1975 or there was an unheralded decline in the scope of the federal government.  I don't see any other alternatives.  So, Tea partiers, which one is it?

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Way Congress Works

Congress believes in setting tough requirements, until they start to affect your constituents.  Then it's Katy bar the door as your stalward representatives run for the exits--from Farm Policy
“Some Vermont farmers affected by Tropical Storm Irene are ineligible for U.S. Department of Agriculture disaster assistance because they did not have crop insurance when the storm hit, a requirement under current law. The Welch/Gibson Bill (H.R. 2905) would temporarily waive this requirement, allowing farmers access to USDA assistance. Farmers taking advantage of the waiver would be required to purchase crop insurance.”

Organic Agriculture Is Profitable

I've been skeptical of organic agriculture's promises, so it's only fair I should highlight this piece from the Agronomy people, reporting on a long term U of Minnesota (my dad's alma mater--go gophers) study. It finds that organic agriculture is more profitable than conventional over an 18-year period.  However:
What gave organic production the edge wasn’t higher crop yields, however; instead it was organic price premiums. In their absence, the net return from a 2-yr, conventional corn-soybean rotation averaged $342 per acre, compared to $267/ac for a 4-yr organic rotation (corn-soybean-oat/alfalfa-alfalfa), and $273/ac for its 4-yr conventional counterpart. When a full organic premium was applied, though, the average net return from organic production rose to $538/ac, significantly outperforming the conventional systems both in terms of profitability and risk. And organic production was still more profitable when the price premium was reduced by 50%.
Cost of production was also lower, because herbicides cost more than organic weed control methods.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Repeal the Law

This Federal Computer Week article says the Census Bureau is willing to talk about repealing the portion of the law which prevents them from making public their database of addresses.

And this subsequent article says Census is backing off.   They may save it for a second term, if there is one.


Just finishing up on Elixir, A History of Water and Mankind, by Brian Kagan.  It's quite interesting, filled with facts.  See the Amazon reviews; it's getting about 4.5 stars.  What was most striking to me was the extent and sophistication of early efforts to control water, in many areas of the world long before I would have thought.  For example, the tunnels in ancient Crete and the qanats in the Middle East (Google wants to give you "Qantas" results when you search for "qanats").

It's also striking how often humans were succeeding in living in very marginal environments for many years, but then their efforts were overturned by a sharp change in the climate.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

MIDAS Demo Comments Continued

User One thing which is not clear to me in the MIDAS demos is whether the "user" in the demos is conceived of as the tech in the county office or the producer online.  Conceptually I think it works to have the same basic software available to both, but to make it work I think you need an elaborate upfront security apparatus so that producer A can't change (or maybe even view) data pertaining to producer B but the technician for the office serving producers A and B can do everything.  That means an extensive validation process behind the scenes to check whether the current user has authority to manipulate the data to which she is requesting access.

Organizational Changes  The last demo module, on Reporting, includes a visual showing 12 systems currently in place which would be replaced by the software being demoed. I suspect there are several organizational units in DC, and perhaps in KC, which are currently responsible for the systems.  At least there were in my day and although USDA and FSA don't update their online organizational data as they used to (the USDA organizational directory is 4 years old), I've enough faith in the inertia of bureaucracy to believe it's true today.

One of my problems with the current FSA website, which I may or may not have mentioned, is the hodge-podge of services available online under the "Online Services" tab.  I suspect that's because different siloswithin FSA were responsible for creating the individual options, without having one outfit coordinating.  The result for any producer who tried to make use of online services would be an unfriendly and awkward user experience. 

So I wonder how FSA is going to set up organizationally to handle software development and delivery of services online?

Farmland Bubble Revisited

When people start talking about "phenomenal rises" in land prices, it's definitely a bubble.

Chicken Feed in 50 Lb Bags?

Do I feel like a male chauvinist pig this morning?  Via Yale Sustainable Food Project here's a piece on Female Farmers and people who complain about tools being designed for men and:
"Why, they asked, does chicken feed have to come in 50-pound bags?"
That's the first I've heard of that.  Back in the day, when we walked to school uphill both ways, both chicken and dairy feed came in 100 pound bags.  That was the test of a man.  We'd make a trip to the GLF (Grange League Federation--a co-op) store and load the pickup with bags of feed.  To make it up the hill from the Chenango River valley over to the Page Brook valley dad would have to use second gear, maybe first.  Then he'd back the truck to the henhouse and the barn to carry the bags in.

As a small boy I was impressed by the routine.  As I grew, I could help a little.  But it was a great day when I'd grown enough to be able to handle the bags. As I was born when dad was 52, the timing was right as well--he was losing the strength to handle the bags. To project onto all farm boys my feelings: farm boys have to compete with their fathers, something they can do because they're in the same

Of course, 100 lb bags of feed went the way of small farms--the efficient way to handle feed is in bulk. Bulk feed, bulk milk, bulk farms.

BTW--the women who asked the question quoted above are designing a line of tools:
Adams and Brensinger launched Green Heron Tools in 2008, the first company in the world to make farm equipment designed exclusively for the female body. Thanks to two grants from the USDA, they are releasing their Hergonomic Shovel-Spade (HERS) in the next couple weeks. Every feature is scientifically based on how a woman shovels. It's the first tool of its kind.
 I'm not sure I'm happy about USDA tax dollars going to help undermine patriarchy any more than it's already been undermined by bulk feed.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

California Democrats Didn't Read Their Federalist Papers

That's my take-away from this piece on Sen. Feinstein's money problems with the suspect treasurer:

Feinstein said she and her campaign staff have been unable to access all their bank records at this point because Durkee alone controlled access to the account, which has made it difficult for them to assess how much money is gone.

If they'd remembered their government 101 class, they would have thought: "checks and balances", particularly when money is involved.

Cemeteries and Memorials

A couple random things from today's media--the Times has an article on the military leaving Camp Victory in Iraq.  Part of the process is dismantling the memorials erected to remember various deaths, one of which was going to be transported back to the states. Meanwhile Ann Althouse notes a Tampa Bay piece on memorials: apparently they already have 500 and are looking at more.

Also, when we come back from Herndon from our regular weekend visit to The Tortilla Factory, there's a wooden cross erected by the on-ramp to the Fairfax Parkway.  I assume it commemorates some teenager who lost control there and died in the accident.

Finally, there's the famous factoid about Reston: it has no cemeteries.

Discussion: in the old days when I was young, people would gather on Memorial Day at the cemetery to cleanup damage and remember the dead.  Commemorating death was a communal activity because the tombstones represented people were ancestors and relatives of the people living in the community.  As a little kid you'd go around and see the names on the big family stones: Thompson, Kittle, whatever, and be able to connect them to the farms and houses you saw along the roads.

Today we no longer have that community, that communal knowledge, and we likely no longer have that cemetery.  Hence the individualistic drive to commemorate a death, a tragedy, with something along the roadside.

My memories of course evoke a rural/small town atmosphere.  I'm sure in the big cities cemeteries were very different, particularly as regards class. But my memories were/are in stone; the inscriptions on the stones gradually fade and erode, but my great great grandmother's grave stone, who emigrated from Ireland and died in 1850, is still legible.  For better or worse, the more individualistic monuments of today don't have that enduring power.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Slashing Crop Insurance?

Here's  a quote from Farm Policy, which I could duplicate from other pieces of propaganda information put out by the friends of crop insurance.

The article noted that, “Federal lawmakers have slashed more than $12 billion from crop insurance programs since 2008, [Moran] said, noting that subsidized crop insurance is important in a state that this year was ravaged by everything from flooding to drought.
  In the interest of fairness I should point out that a "slash" is not always a "slash".  Suppose the direct payment program is cut by $1 billion, or conservation programs are cut by the same amount--those could be called "slashes".  But those slashes are not the same as the slashes of crop insurance.

Why? Because those programs are fixed amounts, and a cut to them is by a fixed amount.  But crop insurance is an entitlement, so the government's budgetary exposure is not constant.  The exposure goes up and down (mostly up recently) according to program participation and crop prices.  So those slashes are calculated, based on the current conditions and projections, but the real spending cuts can only be determined after the fact.

The second reason is more indirect: program proponents make sure everyone is aware of "slashes" to the entitlement, but the increases in the entitlement creep in on little cats paws.  I'm not really picking on crop insurance; the identical logic and political posturing occurs among proponents of food stamps.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Carter Returns: Zero Based Budgeting and Broccoli

Those of us who remember the distant past better than today will know that President Carter was elected on a promise to make the government more efficient and effective by moving to zero based budgeting.  That's why the federal government has been so great over the last 35 years.

Now the Senate Ag committee is directing USDA to do the same:
The Committee believes it is necessary to carefully examine each agency’s budget requirements from a zero base, rather than by reviewing only incremental changes as they occur year to year. Such a change in method would both assist the Committee’s appropriating and oversight responsibilities and it will also require agencies to systematically examine all of their budgetary requirements on an annual basis to ensure they relate properly to their mission within the Department. Therefore, the Committee directs the Secretary to develop and present USDA’s fiscal year 2013 budget requirements from a zero base and such presentation should include an examination and justification of each program, project, and activity and allocation of FTEs and related items. The Secretary is further instructed to provide a report to the Committee on Appropriations of both Houses of Congress by November 1, 2011, on the status of this directive.

Other nuggets from the report:

On reorganization, which must:
"follow a thoughtful analysis of implications for budgetary resources, services to customers and employees, and inherent dynamics within the Department that might result. Toward that objective, before moving forward with the implementation of any substantive reorganization, the Department is instructed to conduct a detailed analysis of the savings, efficiencies, and implications of these changes. In addition, an understanding of the methodology used for determining these factors and some form of demonstration of the results anticipated is required. Any timetable for implementation of the changes suggested obviously will be driven by the fiscal resources available and it may be prudent to give consideration to a tiered implementation as conditions dictate rather than a full scale Departmental shift that would be far more complex and potentially expensive. The Secretary is instructed to provide a report, consistent with the guidance outlined above, to the Committees on Appropriations of both Houses of Congress not less than 60 days prior to the implementation of any Departmental reorganization. The Secretary is further reminded of the reprogramming instructions set forth elsewhere in this bill for the purpose of any implementation stage of a proposed reorganization.

My interpretation: Vilsack--be very very careful about reorganizing.
Broccoli Production.—The Committee has been informed that the Department has dedicated funding toward spurring broccoli production in the eastern United States. The Committee is aware that that farmers have invested considerable amounts of time and private funding into research on soils, crop management practices, and new broccoli varieties to develop and maintain a successful broccoli production industry on the East Coast. The Committee directs the USDA to work to ensure that Departmental efforts do not compete with or detrimentally affect privately owned, family-farm business operations.

My interpretation: don't encourage new broccoli farmers because we want to protect the existing one.s

Those Inflexible Bureaucrats

In the hotel business. The NYTimes "Haggler" column covers consumer issues.  Today's is on the problem of hotels charging a "resort" [flat] fee not accounted for in the Priceline bid price.  Lots of resistance to revealing such fees up front--the column closes with this:

"“Most of the hotels charging resort fees have told us that, operationally, they can’t bundle the resort fee into the base rate and then guarantee us that their front desk personnel won’t go ahead and charge it again at the front desk,” he wrote in a follow-up"
When government bureaucrats are this inflexible, they get laughed at.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Exporting Timothy Hay

Via Tyler Cowen, here's a totally totally surprising article from the Seattle Times.

I never in a thousand lifetimes would have expected anyone in the US to make money by exporting timothy hay, but they do, it seems.  The hay on our farm was a mix: timothy, orchard grass, assorted vegetation.  It was not great hay, to say the least.  Apparently this outfit in Washington has great land and can make great timothy hay, hay which looks great, because that seems to be the major criterion for the Japanese who are the leading importers.

The secret is the hay is fed to racehorses (originally here in the US, now in several countries).  So the hay is not important for its nutritional value, it's important for its looks, so the trainer can assure the owner that the horse is only eating the very best, the best because it's greenest.  Given the uncertainty involved in racing, it's like the superstitions ballplayers have, something which gives emotional reassurance to all concerned.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Surprising Factoid of the Day

According to Elixir,A History of Water and Humankind, by Brian Fagan, it took a long while for Europeans  to figure out that the rain and snow accounted for the water in the rivers.  He gives da Vinci credit for first seeing that, but it wasn't confirmed until the 17th century.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

On Cross Training and a Mea Culpa

Readers of this blog need to remember I'm a geezer, subject to memory lapses ( and fits of insanity). Today my routine has been disrupted by a routine dental appointment, so I finally remembered to check my comments on this blog.

There's one comment from June I'd like to respond to via a post. The original post suggested cross-training NRCS and FSA employees (I should have included RD when collocated).  The commenter responded that having soil scientists and engineers fill out paperwork is a really good idea (he/she was being sarcastic, I suspect). 

I think I can probably expand my commenter's position.  He/she would say: "Look, NRCS spends its money on technical expertise.  The agency does its work in the field, not pushing paperwork.  Cross train your FSA people in pushing paper all you want, but having trained engineers do paperwork is a waste of government money.  Further, to the extent NRCS pushes paperwork, it's not really NRCS, it's the local soil and water conservation district (i.e., money provided from state funding) employees who do the pushing. "

Let me defend my suggestion, at length:

First, "cross training" does not necessarily mean cross operations.  I don't know what sort of training either FSA or NRCS gives these days to new employees.  At one time FSA had an extensive course for new county executive directors, plus courses for "clerks" as they used to be called.  And new DC employees had a 1 or 2 week course covering what each office in the agency did. I think a couple weeks covering what the sister agencies do would be worthwhile.  At the very least, it might cut the prejudice each agency has towards the other: FSA is just a bunch of paper pushers; NRCS is just a bunch of cowboys who ride around in their pickups, when they aren't cooping. (That's my exaggerated summary of how some employees in the one agency view the other. )  By giving each other an appreciation of the work the agencies do, maybe it might remind the bureaucrats their purpose is neither to push paper nor do soil science, but to help farmers efficiently.  And it opens the way for new ideas.

Second, some numbers.  Senate Appropriations Committee passed the ag appropriations bill for 2012 today.  According to this summary of the contents, NRCS salary and expenses were cut by $43 million, FSA by $28 million, and the farm loan program by $57 million.  Basic political realities say the service center agencies are going to continue to decline in the number of employees, not only FY 2012 but 2013 and beyond.  That says to me the bureaucracies need to be open to new ways of operating.  (I assume that states, which are equally under financial pressure, are also cutting support for S&CDistricts.) So considering cross operations should be on the table.

Third, somewhere today (Post, Times, online, I forget) there was an article about how a doctor heading a medical practice office (maybe 20 people or so) had reorganized to cut his overhead.  The basis was cross training support personnel and rethinking the way they ran the office.  Part of it, I strongly suspect, was personal.  The doctor said he wanted to greet and work up his patient, rather than having a technician do it.  Part of it was organization and sharing duties.  For example, they mentioned having medical personnel who might not be busy making the reminder calls on appointments and having a job stack for support personnel. Implicitly they were implying that with specialist jobs, people sometimes sat around waiting for patients.  That says to me they had good software which could track the work flow so people could see what needed to be done, but I didn't notice that stressed.

Romney's Short-Sighted Cuts

I think all of the debt reduction proposals probably have a key flaw: they don't distinguish between revenue and expenditures.  What I mean: FSA spends money, IRS takes in money, as do some other government agencies.   It may be logical to apply an across-the-board cut  to the agencies which spend money; it is illogical to apply the same cut to those which take in money.  It's like a family whose wage earner(s) are paid by the hour deciding to economize by cutting everything by 10 percent, including cutting the hours spent working.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Insurance Subsidies: Flood Versus Crop

The Center for Public Integrity has this piece on flood insurance, saying the subsidy runs about 40-45 percent.

They also have an old piece on crop insurance, focusing on the revolving door between crop insurance and USDA.  They report this about Dallas Smith, who used to be a division director in FSA before jumping to the Department under Clinton.
His boss at the time, Smith, maintains that [Ken} Ackerman  [head of RMA] was not removed. Smith, who was then acting undersecretary of farm and foreign agricultural services, asserts that “Ken played an important role in the negotiations throughout. He oversaw the negotiating staff and presented the results of the negotiations to Congress and other oversight bodies.”
But despite Smith’s denials, Ackerman has stated that he was in fact removed as head of the negotiations. Moreover, Joseph Connor, a former analyst at the USDA’s Risk Management Agency, as well as current and former USDA employees, back Ackerman. They state that the real negotiating power was removed from him. And sources close to the USDA say that it was Dallas Smith who was directly responsible.
I'm not sure what the subsidy level for crop insurance is, but using EWG's figures for 1995-2010, it computes to 59 percent.

MIDAS: Remember Year Is Vital I

Coming back to the MIDAS strawman briefly, I just want to emphasize one thing I learned in the 1985-87 time period: the initial planning for the System/36 processes and data slighted the importance of the year.  It was easy to do: most interactions with a farmer at the county office you know which year you're dealing with--it's the current crop or program year.  And because it's just a matter of assumptions, it's a fact which often got lost in our modeling, planning, and system design.

Very briefly, it looks to me as if MIDAS might be making the same error.  I hope not. 

A Weak Obama--Blame the Goo-Goos

There's the perception of Obama as not being a strong leader.  It may be true, but thinking back and comparing him with past Presidents, one problem is that Presidents have lost power since the days of LBJ.

LBJ could arm twist and logroll like no one else we've had in my lifetime. But the Obama good government (goo-goos) regime of transparency and no earmarks limits the feasibility of that.  If I recall Arthur Schlesinger Jr wrote a book attacking the Imperial Presidency, by which he meant LBJ and Nixon, not JFK.  I've not studied the transcripts of LBJ's tapes while he was in the White House, but his "treatment" was legendary.

I can illustrate the sort of thing I mean: Sen. Shelby wants NASA to build rockets in his state.  Sen. Shelby also blocked a Nobelist from going on the Federal Reserve Board and is threatening to block the appointee for the Consumer Protection Board.  Under a President LBJ, there would be a commission appointed to review NASA operations with a view to consolidating them, with Huntsville a prime candidate for the chopping block.  Once Shelby caved, the commission would vanish, or issue a bland report.

But if Obama tried that, all the goo-goos (of which I am one) would be up in arms.

[Updated with link to Shelby article.]

Relying on SSA's Death Master File

This Project on Government Oversight post reports SSA's OIG finds significant problems in the Death Master File, so SSA continues to make payments to dead people.  This is important, because FSA and other government payers rely on hitting the Death Master File to check on payee eligibility. [Updated link] 

The Gnomes of Zurich

This post at Calculated Risk suggests, to me, the gnomes of Zurich are back.  It's a question of which way they jump: help the EU or not.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

MIDAS Strawman

I wonder what NASCOE's members thought of the MIDAS strawman (actually "limited preview") at their recent convention. 

I call it "strawman" because it reminded me of the Infoshare strawman Greg Montgomery created back in 1991.  He had a indexing software package which could do hyperlinks as we know them now--remember 1991 was before the advent of World Wide Web browsers. Tim Berners-Lee put the first website up about a month before Greg did his stuff. Anyhow, while Greg couldn't do WYSIWYG interfaces, he was able to model a lot of ASCS operations running on a PC.   Of course, Infoshare, like other similar efforts since, turned out to be a dead end. 

My first reactions to watching a couple of the MIDAS demos is:
  • I like the software which was used to create the demo.
  • Most of my reactions to the actual FSA software being demoed is probably personal feelings along the lines of NIH. 
  • The one really big (as Ed Sullivan used to say) thing I'd raise is: where is the ability for FSA field personnel to discuss and provide feedback?  They can and will point out the problems in what's being developed, and you need that input as early as possible. 
I'll probably have more reaction later if my energy and interest holds up and I don't get distracted.

Monday, September 05, 2011

10 Years Later

Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton have been making the rounds pointing out the failures to implement some of the recommendations of the 9/11 commission:
  • biometric checking of visitors leaving the US
  • standardized identification
  • realignment of Congressional committees
  • no standard intercommunication for first responders
  • no civil liberties board

The Problems of Top Down Thinking

Some of the security on the Internet is based on "certificates"; different authorities provide trusted certificates to say that A is really A (i.e., is really Google).  ComputerWorld has a piece on some hackers who got into a Dutch authority and got the certificates for the CIA and Mossad.  It's a reminder of potential problems in designed and centralized systems: the more security is concentrated in one place, the greater the rewards for a successful hack job.  If I never provide my credit card number on line, it's never at risk.  If I provide it to Amazon, along with 100,000,000 other people, the rewards to a hacker of getting into Amazon's charge card database are enormous.

Buried in this post at (hat tip Marginal Revolution) is a similar consideration of "smart cars"--the idea is that once all our cars are smart, they can operate much more efficiently than today.  But, as the writer observes, it also means the rare accident could be horrendous.  (Just as railroads increased the possible top-end death toll from one accident by orders of magnitude over stagecoaches.)

Back To School in France and Britain

Dirk Beauregarde comments on how big an occasion back to school day is in France.  Everyone goes back on the same day, the media reports on the day, and the minister of education will speak.  Towards the end he writes:
"in the UK, this was the first day back at the new "Free Schools" - which seen from this side of the Channel appear to be no more than a chance for any nutter to open his or her on school , - I might be a critic of French education, but I'm glad it is a fully comprehensive, state controlled system."
 Sounds as if the charter school movement has reached Britain. 

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Why Borrowing Is Not Costless

My contrarian side is active this morning--Brad DeLong and other liberals are arguing for major investments in infrastructure today because we need them and the real cost of borrowing (i.e., Treasury interest rate minus inflation) is zero.

Or maybe it's the bureaucrat in me: the nitty gritty is, if we borrow money today at an effective rate of zero, what is the term for which we're borrowing it? Say 10 years.  So the logic is, we can borrow now and pay back in 10 years and the money didn't cost anything.  However, the bureaucrat says: you're committing to either raising taxes and/or getting enough gain in GDP from the investment for which you're borrowing to be able to pay it back in 10 years.  Otherwise, you're committing yourself to rolling over the debt 10 years from now, at possibly a higher rate of interest.

So my bottom line is: the liberals are spinning. IMHO it's not pure spin.  I can agree that improving our transportation infrastructure would be a productive use of money.  And if you don't fix it now, you're going to spend more down the line and probably face higher borrowing costs to boot.  So overall I think the argument for more infrastructure spending today is valid; it's just the idea of costless borrowing seems to me to be spin.

Friedman Scorned in France

Some conservatives blame Milton Friedman for the rise of big government, given his work in developing the income tax withholding system as a bureaucrat during WWII.  So it's a little surprising to read in Dirk Beauregarde's post,the French, those effete socialist-loving big government types, don't have withholding:
"We don’t have « pay as you earn » in France. The majority of French people pay their tax bills in three seperate installments – February, May and September. The last one is the hardest, because you’ve just blown all your money on the family holiday."

Saturday, September 03, 2011

"A Precious Snowflake"?

That's David Roberts describing the sort of liberals who believe in climate change.  He says: "Everyone has their own perfect pony policy solution and disdains all others....You need a left that is greater than the sum of its siloed constituent parts, so that climate is no longer the sole province of “the environmental movement,” gender equality no longer the sole province of “feminism,” worker welfare no longer the sole province of “labor,” etc.—some good old-fashioned solidarity. The left used to have some of that. Why doesn’t it any more? Why does the left seem so much less than the sum of its parts these days?"

His answer: the left used to rely on unions and the liberal mainstream churches, both of which are now shadows of their former selves, and nothing has risen to replace them. 

That rings true enough to me.  I remember Walter Reuther, head of UAW, being big in civil rights issues.  I remember the World Council of Churches, the epitome of establishment religion, also being big in civil rights.  The League of Women Voters was big in political reform, attacking the urban bosses, who were also big, at least through the 1960's.  There aren't those kinds of mass organizations left, just on the right where you have particularly the religious organizations.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Where Do Americans Live

Via Marginal Revolution, here's a map displaying where Americans live, and all those hyphenated Americans: German Americans, African Americans, etc.  It's based on 2000 Census data and people's self-reported ancestry.  The color coding reflects the ethnicity with the largest number reporting in a county. 

Pondering the logic of the respondents is frustrating: I can understand people saying "American" when their ancestors came over 200 years ago, except of course for African Americans who've been here equally as long. But why is so much of the country coded for German-Americans--were the counties so mixed that a 10 percent response was the largest? . The part of the country coded "American" is basically the Scots-Irish area of the country, the Appalachians and the South. Whether or not there was a category for Scots-Irish in the 2000 Census I don't know. I wonder what a similar map for earlier censuses would have shown. 

The map reminds us of our diversity: counties with French, Japanese, Dutch, Finnish, Norwegian pluralities.

12 Percent of Emergency Response Officials Are Idiots

That's my take from this sentence, from a Government Executive post addressing the use of emergency response grants in the wake of 9/11:
And a newly released survey found that a whopping 88 percent of emergency-response officials believe that grants are allocated according to what's best for politicians, not what's best for emergency preparedness.
Perhaps I should be charitable and say 12 percent have a surplus of charity and a deficiency of cynicism.

Conservation Compliance in the New Farm Bill

Chris Clayton has a discussion of farm groups, particularly the Iowa Farm Bureau, and their approach to the new farm bill.  Whether or not to make eligibility for crop insurance dependent on "conservation compliance" is a key issue, which Chris offers thoughts on.  He links to a Des Moines Register blog/report.

Apparently the Iowa FB President wanted the linkage, which presumably would help the passage of the overall bill, but his convention ultimately refused to go along.  The last paragraph of the Register post reads:
"But the delegates clearly were in a mood to revert back to the Farm Bureau’s longstanding opposition to government  involvement in day-to-day agriculture. Earlier in the morning they passed a resolution that would forbid state and federal government agencies from accepting anonymous complaints against individual farmers, and also limit the amount of government reports that could be posted on the internet.
 I'm sorry they feel that way, but as taxpayer I want any reports of possible violation of federal and state law investigated based on the merits, not tossed out because the complainant is anonymous.  That goes whether it's a complaint against a federal bureaucrat or any one else.  I also want more transparency, rather than less.

Kids and Nutritious School Lunches

Petula Dvorack has a column in today's Post on the problems of feeding kids nutritious school lunches.

Bottom line: it's very very difficult.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

The Suicide Belt Sounds Like Minutemen to Me

From Freakonomics on suicide(suicide is twice as common as homicide):
The American suicide belt is comprised of about ten western states, this sort of wide longitudinal swath running from Idaho and Montana down to Arizona and New Mexico. … So, yes the inner mountain west is a place that is disproportionately populated by middle-aged and aging white men, single, unattached, often unemployed with access to guns.

Remember the Minutemen from the 1990's?  It seemed as if a high proportion felt they were mistreated by FmHA/FSA.