Thursday, January 29, 2015

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Let's all hum...

The "Lumberjack Song" in honor of the most dangerous job in the US.

Seems to me like we're getting safer, but then a graph of children killed on the job would be much less encouraging.
Our own p.c problem....

 Jonathan Chait wrote a dense, but helpful essay about the rise and reaction to intense "political correctness" in leftist circles. This won't interest many of you, but as I waded through it (Chait is a thoughtful observer and polished writer) the anecdotes he relates kept ringing a bell in the back of my mind.
These ideas have more than theoretical power. Last March at University of California–Santa Barbara, in, ironically, a “free-speech zone,” a 16-year-old anti-abortion protester named Thrin Short and her 21-year-old sister Joan displayed a sign arrayed with graphic images of aborted fetuses. They caught the attention of Mireille Miller-Young, a professor of feminist studies. Miller-Young, angered by the sign, demanded that they take it down. When they refused, Miller-Young snatched the sign, took it back to her office to destroy it, and shoved one of the Short sisters on the way.Speaking to police after the altercation, Miller-Young told them that the images of the fetuses had “triggered” her and violated her “personal right to go to work and not be in harm.” A Facebook group called “UCSB Microaggressions” declared themselves “in solidarity” with Miller-Young and urged the campus “to provide as much support as possible.”By the prevailing standards of the American criminal-justice system, Miller-Young had engaged in vandalism, battery, and robbery. By the logic of the p.c. movement, she was the victim of a trigger and had acted in the righteous cause of social justice. Her colleagues across the country wrote letters to the sentencing judge pleading for leniency. Jennifer Morgan, an NYU professor, blamed the anti-­abortion protesters for instigating the confrontation through their exercise of free speech. “Miller-Young’s actions should be mitigated both by her history as an educator as well as by her conviction that the [anti-abortion] images were an assault on her students,” Morgan wrote. Again, the mere expression of opposing ideas, in the form of a poster, is presented as a threatening act. [More]

I was frankly more puzzled than anything by this involved incident, having zero experience of this type of rancor. But it slowly dawned on me there are issues in agriculture that have generated our own system of similar p.c.  For examples, undercover animal rightist action or GMO opposition has only one acceptable response from producers. While several degrees less strident and threatening, there is little room in our media for any response that leans away from support for the status quo.

We are quick to take offense, implacable in argument, and inflexible in negotiation on the biggest issues facing our industry today. Our conduct is analogous to the rabid victimhood-seeking of the left, albeit much less prolix.

Chait nails the longer term problem with this strategy/mindset.
Or maybe not. The p.c. style of politics has one serious, possibly fatal drawback: It is exhausting. Claims of victimhood that are useful within the left-wing subculture may alienate much of America. The movement’s dour puritanism can move people to outrage, but it may prove ill suited to the hopeful mood required of mass politics. Nor does it bode well for the movement’s longevity that many of its allies are worn out. “It seems to me now that the public face of social liberalism has ceased to seem positive, joyful, human, and freeing,” confessed the progressive writer Freddie deBoer. “There are so many ways to step on a land mine now, so many terms that have become forbidden, so many attitudes that will get you cast out if you even appear to hold them. I’m far from alone in feeling that it’s typically not worth it to engage, given the risks.” Goldberg wrote recently about people “who feel emotionally savaged by their involvement in [online feminism] — not because of sexist trolls, but because of the slashing righteousness of other feminists.” Former Feministing editor Samhita Mukhopadhyay told her, “Everyone is so scared to speak right now.”That the new political correctness has bludgeoned even many of its own supporters into despondent silence is a triumph, but one of limited use. Politics in a democracy is still based on getting people to agree with you, not making them afraid to disagree. The historical record of political movements that sought to expand freedom for the oppressed by eliminating it for their enemies is dismal. The historical record of American liberalism, which has extended social freedoms to blacks, Jews, gays, and women, is glorious. And that glory rests in its confidence in the ultimate power of reason, not coercion, to triumph. [Same]
That was the trigger for me: exhaustion. Agriculture's unrelenting self-promotion and rigid sanctimoniousness has become boring. And if you haven't gotten the Tweet, that is the greatest sin in public discourse these days.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Are we hunkering?...

Wasted too much time this morning reading smug/sarcastic/funny tweets about the East Coast Snopocalypse Fail. In the process, I stumbled across this:
I don’t mean to say we’re in a panic, but we are behaving like buffoons. Obviously, if people really were afraid of going hungry, they’d be stocking up on batteries and cans of beans and would skip the baby arugula. (Blizzard tip: Salad greens are both perishable and low in energy-content. Don’t buy them.) No, this is a different kind of frenzied state than you’d find during a genuine catastrophe—less frightened than nervously excited, not so much survivalist as shopaholic. In fact there’s a name for such behavior, which takes prudence as a beard for gluttony. The word is hunkering, in the specifically American sense of digging in and taking shelter. It’s the anxious form of self-indulgence, where fear is fuel to make us cozy. The end is nigh … let’s eat!Official weather warnings feed this hunker culture. They talk in terms of quantity, not quality—an implicit exhortation to go shopping. Meteorologists say that a crippling and historic storm will dump several feet of snow or more. “More”—that’s what drives the hunkered mind: The weather will be so excessive, with so much snow on top of snow, that we should take excessive action. Politicians gin up excessive numbers, the bigger the better: We’ve got 700 pieces of equipment at the ready, says Boston’s Mayor Marty Walsh, and more than 35,000 tons of salt. On Sunday, New York City’s Mayor Bill de Blasio rallied local hunkerers with a call for immoderation: “Whatever safety precautions you take in advance of a storm,” he said, “take even more.” Got that? It doesn’t matter what you do, exactly, as long as you do as much of it as possible. [More]

Interesting. But then it hit me - is much of agriculture in a slo-mo hunker mode right now? We have been warned about the "party being over" for like, ever. Those admonitions have only gotten more shrill as grain prices swooned. And it could be there is a small portion of our conscience nagging that we really didn't totally deserve the money that fell from the skies (for grain producers) the last few years.

You can make your own judgement. But if we are hunkering, it seems to me we are likely to overshoot, just as happened in NYC. Carrying this train of thought one step further, I think there might be some competitive openings should the worst case not arrive on time, or fail to show up at all. 

People are slow to abandon "hunker mode". Maybe because it seems to admit their own erroneous thinking, maybe because they remember a late hit sometime during their lives. I don't know for sure, but I think I'm going to risk unhunkering early. 

Or maybe I never really hunkered that much to begin with.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Free market measles...

I'm trying to move past the stupefying idiocy of refusing to get measles vaccinations. (Yeah - I'm looking at you, CA). We have learned from GMO's, climate change, evolution, etc. that we are not going to reason effectively with those who embrace non-science, so what else can we do?

First, there are reasonable grounds for compulsion.
1. Phillips v. City of New York (2d Cir. Jan. 7, 2015) reaffirms that the government may mandate vaccinations. It may mandate vaccinations for everyone, and it can certainly mandate them for everyone who goes to public school. Seems quite right to me; there may indeed be a presumptive constitutional right to be free from unwanted medical treatment, but such a right can be trumped by the very strong public interest in preventing people from becoming unwitting carriers of deadly illness. (And not immunizing oneself creates a threat not just to others who choose not to immunize, or whose parents choose not to immunize them, but also to others who can’t be immunized because of age or medical condition, or whose immunity is imperfect.)Such statutes often do allow religious exemptions, but that’s not a matter of constitutional obligation. In Phillips, the one of the plaintiffs did try to claim the exemption, but the trial court found that her “objections to vaccinations were not based on religious beliefs,” and the plaintiff didn’t appeal that finding. [More]

I know, I know - Big Government Overreach - but this is clearly overridden by the Spock Principle: The needs of the Many outweigh the needs of the Few. Actually, this principle is woven through many common law fundamentals, and as Volokh points out above, has been upheld in various forms.

Measles can be very dangerous. The effectiveness math demonstrates we need to get to about 96% vaccination rates to provide herd immunity.
It’s also not a coincidence that California has been repeatedly hit by outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases. Vaccine coverage is dangerously low in parts of the state, thanks to the anti-vaccine movement.In California’s Santa Monica-Malibu school district, 11.5 per cent of parents refuse to vaccinate their kids. In nearby Orange County, the figure is 8.6 per cent. In Beverly Hills it’s five per cent—almost, but not quite, a safe level of vaccine coverage.In a large study that observed measles infections in the Netherlands over decades, scientists calculated that 95.7 per cent of a population needs to be immune to measles to prevent regular outbreaks. And since no vaccine is perfectly effective, even more than that number need to be vaccinated to protect the whole community. That’s what herd immunity is: Without a good-sized population of susceptible humans to attack, viruses such as measles just don’t circulate as much, and that protects babies under one year old and others who aren’t able to get the vaccine or don’t respond to it. [More]
Idea: Auction off the rights to be in the unvaccinated 4%. Hey - we're talking Orange County here where anti-vaxxers appear to be mostly well-off. I bet they could raise enough to lower the cost of vaccine for others, or add a new football stadium at the local school.

As is so often the case, The Onion says it best.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Final Solution...

 Farmers may win the war on the EPA with Congressional help. But I've always thought that was not the real threat to our insistence on farming the way we want to. The bigger issue is the willingness of those around us to tolerate any externalities like runoff, smells, dust, etc. If real harm is being done, I can't see how we can prevail in our judicial system regardless of politics.

We may be about to test that theory.
Des Moines, Iowa, is confronting the farms that surround it over pollution in two rivers that supply the city with drinking water. Des Moines Water Works says it will sue three neighboring counties for high nitrate levels in the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers. It's a novel attempt to control fertilizer runoff from farms, which has been largely unregulated.Too much nitrate can be a health risk, especially for infants under the age of 6 months, and it's difficult to remove from water. Filtering out nitrates cost the Des Moines water utility $900,000 in 2013.Bill Stowe, general manager of the Des Moines Water Works, told Iowa Public Radio in an interview last week that "we are seeing the public water supply directly risked by high nitrate concentrations."
Stowe says the source of these nitrates is pretty clear. Farmers spread nitrogen fertilizer on their corn fields, it turns into nitrate and then it commonly runs into streams through networks of underground tile pipes that drain the soil. [More]

This is reminiscent of jailing Al Capone on income tax charges, or OJ on (civil) wrongful death - by civil rather than criminal prosecution. While the burden of proof is on the plaintiff, there seems to me to be consensus that the N especially, and probably the P, is ours. 

While it seems hard to comprehend, farmers could eventually come to demand some regulatory relief that would protect them from civil actions like this. Too, the DSM lawsuit outcome will affect strip-tillers and hillside plowers the same, which won't go down easy either.

The Iowa suit will be closely watched by environmental groups and government entities sniffing around for a tobacco-like settlement jackpot. I think that is a real possibility. It could be funded by a tax of some kind on fertilizer or per acre or (insert your mechanism guess here).  Whichever, cities downstream of us aren't going to let this slip by their treasuries.

Stay tuned.

Monday, January 12, 2015

This is our story...

 A straight-up parody of a crop failure is making the rounds in ag today.

First, it's well done - nobody breaks character and the premise is amusing.  But if you are like me it is more revealing than riotous.

Notice how you stop laughing and start squirming about halfway through.  This is formulaic journalism from the camera angles to the composition to the unctuous announcer.  Any one of us could have written the close, right?

We've assumed this role of victim for so long, we could start doing stories like this by shorthand, just like the old prison joke where inmates told jokes by number.  And if it's that familiar, maybe this is how our story really is shaped - we just insert a new crop and farmer accent.

We are obsessed with telling our story, but we need a new script, methinks.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Best laid plans, etc...

I'm gonna start posting again, but we're dealing with some health issues here at the Phipps farm. It comes with being our age, but we got a scare when Jan had a serious heart event Friday.  She's good now with complete recovery on the horizon, but my New Year resolution to restart blogging was the first casualty.

Anyhoo, even though blogging is over, I miss it and will get back to the game.

BTW, I will tweet my posts, FWIW. Follow me @jwphipps - you won't have to check here as often.

Where's my catcher?...

 I still don't understand why there is no self-propelled, autonomous grain cart.  (I call it a catcher) It would be controlled by the combine operator, be self-contained and on tracks. I'm thinking a half-cab like a spotter tractor for trucks.

Sure Kinze has the remote control cart, but why haven't we put engines on grain carts like we did for sprayers?

In all the IoT possibilities, I think this is #1 for grain farmers.  This is not a flying car.  It would be astonishingly productive, with a high marginal value during harvest. The three person minimum (combine, cart, trucks) would go back to the dump-on-the-end minimum of two persons, allowing father-son, brother-brother, and husband-wife pairs to keep a combine rolling continuously.

Instead we get drones and multi-hybrid planters - both answers looking for a problem.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Could it affect schools, too?...

 Over the next couple of decades, I think the much-needed infrastructure upgrades in the US will increasingly be financed by private-public partnerships (PPP). I've seen this in action on the Indiana Tollway (I-90), but more about that in a moment.

The theory is interesting. There are trillions of Euros, yen, and yuan with nowhere to invest, especially as the global economy slows. We have thousands of miles of road s and bridges to build and maintain. Americans will not raise taxes for anything. There is an unsubstantiated belief that private construction and operation of public capital improvements will be more efficient.

And we have incredibly efficient new toll-extracting technology.  This last point is the big one. I thought about it when we added E-Z Pass Transponders to our cars because of my work and family in the Chicago area.

I am ambivalent on say, Brazilians owning I-74 and the French building bridges in Kentucky.
Tall said U.S. states are becoming more comfortable with private investment, in part because there are more examples of successful projects and fewer alternatives to pay for mounting infrastructure needs.The U.S. has used mostly fuel taxes and public financing for such projects. And the federal gasoline tax hasn’t been raised since President Bill Clinton was in office. A divided Congress only managed a short-term measure in July to prevent the Highway Trust Fund from becoming insolvent.California passed the first legislation allowing public-private partnerships for transportation projects in 1989. Today, 33 states and Puerto Rico have such authority, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.After years of debating the Ohio River bridges, Daniels and Beshear got on the phone late in 2011 and agreed to split the work, paying for each share separately.Kentucky’s portion includes a new six-lane downtown bridge for northbound Interstate 65 from Louisville and a reconfigured “Spaghetti Junction” where I-65 and two other interstates meet. Indiana is building a new bridge eight miles (13 kilometers) upstream connecting Louisville’s east end with southern Indiana while also expanding highways and building twin tunnels under historically protected property to connect to the new span.Indiana’s history of tapping private industry for transportation work includes the $3.8 billion, 75-year lease of the Indiana Toll Road that Daniels sought in 2006 to pay for roads and bridges. The toll road’s private operator sought bankruptcy protection last month when traffic didn’t match projections.The state’s piece of the Ohio River Bridges uses a different public-private financing model that could require taxpayers to cover any shortfall in tolls. The Indiana Finance Authority issued $677 million in tax-exempt, private-activity bonds in March 2013 on behalf of WVB East End Partners. The authority is also making $392 million in “milestone” payments during construction and annual “availability” payments for 35 years -- assuming the operator maintains the bridge -- using toll revenue on the new spans that the states are splitting. [More]

Note the mention of the I-90 bankruptcy. Here is one flaw that should be addressed, at least.
Even though earnings “increased every year between 2008 and 2013, they were lower than projected,” forcing the company to devote an ever-greater share of operating income to debt service, Redondo said.Open since 1956, the road spans 157 miles (252 kilometers) across northern Indiana, connecting Chicago to major East Coast traffic arteries, according to its website. It took more than 6,200 engineers and laborers 786 days to complete the project.ITR Concession Co. acquired the rights to operate the road in 2006 from the Indiana Finance Authority, according to a company statement.The Indiana company said it put together a reorganization plan that has the support of more than 87 percent of its senior secured debt-holders and unanimous acceptance from its equity owners.Under the proposal, the company would either be sold through a competitive process or restructured with $2.75 billion in new debt with almost all the equity going to the secured creditors, according to the disclosure statement describing the plan.Since it already has the necessary support from stakeholders, the company asked the court to approve the reorganization plan within 30 days. The sale process or restructuring could run until next August, after the company exits court protection.In either scenario the ITR Concession’s unsecured creditors owed about $8 million, its only other listed debt, will be paid in full.Traffic volume has plunged by about 42 percent on the Indiana highway since ITR took over operations eight years ago, according to data on the website of Macquarie Atlas, the unit that owns ITR.First-half revenue increased about 5.2 percent from last year, including a 7.2 percent jump in the quarter ended in June, according to a Macquarie Atlas statement. Traffic gained only a third of 1 percent over last year’s first-half figures, with a 3.2 percent drop in the first quarter due to bad weather.Toll rates for passenger cars paying cash increased 30 cents to $10 for a full 157-mile trip on July 1, according to an ITR statement. Rates for a typical semi-trailer truck rose $1 to $39.70.Travelers using an electronic toll-collection system pay only $4.65 for a full trip, the same rate since 1985. Electronic collection accounts for more than 70 percent of toll receipts, according to the Macquarie Atlas documents. [More]
This is the Pigovian outcome I find intriguing. As formerly free public infrastructure become toll-paying, how will users respond? With little or no growth in wages (see above), more and more could be priced out of these improvements and forced onto secondary routes. Another response could be greater concentration as commuting from the suburbs becomes more expensive that paying for costly urban housing and riding public transport. (Of course, there is no reason "public" transport would not shift to PPP operation as well.)

My point is I think this is already happening. Americans are driving less, taking fewer vacations, moving less, and becoming more immobile, so to speak. Adding tolls to more miles of roads certainly won't reverse this trend. I'm not sure this is all bad, either, but it is another consumption pattern that will confound our predictions for the future economic performance.

The "blend wall" could keep falling on corn growers, for example. Fewer cars will be needed. Less oil. Shipping costs - by truck anyway - will escalate. There are doubtless other consequences that will only become evident when they manifest to counteract these new economic frictions. 

Supposing this proves successful on the whole.  Could other public services be supplied by PPP's? Schools? Police? Regulators like meat inspection? It sounds far-fetched, but once we shift from a public-goods to user-pays mentality, I think all bets are off. It seems to shrink government, which right now is wildly popular. 

And how many transponders will we need?

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Thoughts about Ebola...

1. Wash your hands. Often. Well.
2. Read this.
3. Remain calm. There is money to be made in this slo-mo panic. Don't let it be yours.

We return you to your regularly scheduled crises...

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Removing the rungs...

Pretty soggy and I've got my video sent for this week, so I need to post. At least, I'm out of excuses. And this is a topic I been grappling with for many months with little success unraveling.

Basically put, does the free enterprise system which so many of us have defended for so long somehow broken down or been superseded? It's hard to look at the flood of numbers that indicate troubling trends and not ask the question anyway.

For example, the story on median income is simply appalling.

Some important caveats: As I (and others) have said before, presidents probably get much too much credit when the economy is doing well and much too much blame when the economy is doing poorly.Mr. Obama in particular inherited an economy that was really just starting the death spiral set off by the financial crisis, as you can see in the chart above. And as Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff have shown, economies struck by major financial crises generally take 10 years to fully recover.We’re currently in Year 5 after the crisis first hit.  Since median household income hit bottom in the first quarter of 2010, it has risen about $769.36, not nearly enough to cover the ground lost on the way down. [More]

But the story is not grim at all for some of us.

And this is the crux of the matter. THE big debate in economics is whether wildly unequal outcomes are now baked into the capitalistic cake, so to speak. Have we reached a point where the leveling mechanisms (economic mobility) are not up to the task of preventing an ever more concentrated wealth distribution?
But here’s where I become less optimistic than the president. Imagine that same prognosticator had added one more bit of clairvoyance: Despite all those positive trends, the real median weekly pay of full-time workers in mid-2014 would be slightly lower than it was in mid-2011. Or than it was in mid-2008, the year before Mr. Obama took office. Or in mid-2000.It’s certainly possible that we’re on the verge of a pay surge, much as we were in the mid-1990s, when the situation also seemed bleak. It’s also possible that the forces behind the great wage slowdown – from globalization to our often-sclerotic government to (at least for many workers) technological change – are still more powerful than the positive forces. In that case, the wage slowdown won’t end until the country makes much more progress in improving education, cutting medical waste and energy costs and creating a more responsive, nimble government.Either way, the great wage slowdown, or the end of it, will help set the tone for American life in the coming decade. It has already done so in the century’s first 15 years, causing widespread unhappiness with the country’s direction and leading voters to shift partisan directions multiple times. The political turmoil isn’t likely to end until the economic reality changes. [More]
One of our most central beliefs in the US has been the idea of any person could make it big. While that's still true, it is now so rare that we use the same handful of examples to defend it (Zuckerberg, et al.) instead of pointing to people in our neighborhood of circle of friends.
We have been enamored with the example of "the self-made man". I just don't see that option as any more relevant that lottery winners as paradigms of conduct. Mostly because, along with others, I now see circumstance as having become more defining than character.The dynamite and ginger Jack brought to the roofing trade was necessary to exploit this advantage. But listening to him describe the factors that produced Eastern’s early success, I realized I’d fallen prey to the same fallacy that had led Milton Gordon to attribute the achievements of Jewish garment workers solely to their industry and ambition, and not the conditions in which their ethic thrived. The self-made mythology has evolved in its 200 years: from an exuberant celebration of opportunity in the young republic to a stern admonition against excess in the antebellum years; from a naive story of pluck rewarded in the post-Civil War-era, to a brazen defense of money-getting in the Gilded Age; from a beacon to the great wave’s huddled masses, to a pep talk for the young women of the digital age. The one constant, however, has been the idea that character trumps circumstance. I’d caught myself buying into it.Jack knew better. Though an unapologetic believer in the power of hard work to lift men above their means, he allowed that even the hardest worker can’t impose his will on the world—he acknowledged that other men, and other forces, played a role in his rise. Over the years, I now saw, I had revised my father’s story in the retelling to emphasize his accomplishment, and his agency, just as William Temple Franklin had done with his grandfather Benjamin’s story. I’d counted myself a skeptic. It turned out I’d been a believer, and a mythmaker, all along. [More of a superb essay]
My father was a devoted reader of Horatio Alger in his youth. The wretched prose and simplistic plots shaped his view of how the world worked.  I just couldn't see it. After all this time, I think I have found our divergence point: the value of simple labor.

I think we have reached a level of technology that is relentlessly devaluing hard physical labor. Even in agriculture, the idea that hours in the field will translate to success is quietly recognized as incomplete, if not flawed. You need to pick your parents carefully, and memorize the plat book before dating.

Moreover, the example of a hired man going on to become a successful independent farmer pretty much ended with my generation, IMHO. As much as I have suspected our profession evolving into a hereditary agristocracy, I am now convinced.  And to my embarrassment, I am fueling the change by building a castle with ramparts and moat for our family.