Saturday, October 31, 2009

Curse my long heels...

I blame my parents.
Track coaches have long claimed that the best sprinters are born, not made. Now, new research on the biomechanics of sprinting suggests that at least part of elite athletes’ impressive speed comes from the natural shape of their foot and ankle bones.
Using ultrasound imaging, researchers compared the feet of 12 top college sprinters with those of 12 mere mortals. Surprisingly, the athletes had particularly short heels and longer-than-average toes — features that actually put them at a mechanical disadvantage when running.
“What we found is that sprinters actually had less mechanical advantage than the non-sprinter subjects that we tested,” said biomechanics researcher Stephen Piazza of Penn State University, co-author of the study published Friday in the Journal of Experimental Biology. “This was surprising to us because we expected that sprinters needed all the help they could get.” [More]

It's a wonder I get anywhere.
What's the deal with Argentina?...

Who loves us?  Or who loves the US?

The table above (from PEW and the APSA report I blogged about earlier) shows that there is considerable variation across both time and space in how favorably publics regard the United States. There is much of interest to be explored here, especially for our political behavior audience given that PEW is very generous in making its data available for further analysis.
There is a notable Obama jump, especially in Europe but also in some other countries like Indonesia, Nigeria, and Brazil. It is not clear whether foreign publics like Americans better because they elected Obama or that they like the U.S. better because it now has a president they believe they can work with. It is also not clear what actual cooperation this will buy Obama. A clever political scientist may figure out a way to study that question.
The patterns do suggest that publics are responsive to policy. The Iraq war led to drops in support, especially in the Muslim world. In Russia, the main drop came with the Kosovo war (this is better visible in time trends that go back further). In Asian countries where the US provides strong public goods, support is pretty high. In countries where the US provided tsunami relief, support for the US went up. (One would almost suggest that interests matter, but that would be heresy in the public opinion world.) [More]

Of course we don't care what the rest of the world thinks, right?  Except China, of course (since they hold a bunch of our debt).  And maybe the UK, since they have supported our wars faithfully.  And Israel, since their lobbyists can beat up anybody else's.  And maybe Russia.  And Saudi Arabia....


Friday, October 30, 2009

Another take...

Heard from the IL Corn Growers today.  This is the (lengthy headline):


OK. Not quibbling with that conclusion, but wait - there's more!

Here's the source data.

 So my take-away (you have to say that frequently in any serious communications discussion) is this graph.

Source: IDOA

As you can see from the IL Dept of Ag survey linked above, there are several esoteric categories of "till".  I lump them together as "not-no-till", because what farmers are always pointing to environment-wise is how no-till answers critic's questions.

Remember Blake Hurst's now famous answer to Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma.
The biggest environmental harm I have done as a farmer is the topsoil (and nutrients) I used to send down the Missouri River to the Gulf of Mexico before we began to practice no-till farming, made possible only by the use of herbicides. The combination of herbicides and genetically modified seed has made my farm more sustainable, not less, and actually reduces the pollution I send down the river.  [More]

It may be that Hurst is a committed no-tiller on all his acres, but here in Illinois that experiment is running out of gas, I think.  Read the numbers, build your own graph.  I think we are being a tad duplicitous wrapping ourselves in no-till righteousness when the trend to me looks otherwise.

Most of us know why.  No-tilling corn after corn doesn't work for most of us. As we move to more corn, we move away from no-till, at least on corn/corn acres.  To be sure, no-till beans are climbing somewhat, but let's face it, the fragile soil is bean stubble - not stalks.

Even at face value only 1 acre in 7 of corn is no-tilled in IL and it hasn't changed much in 10 years. Trotting out no-till as our answer to every environmental and energy criticism is dubious misdirection.

Could higher corn prices via more ethanol mandates essentially kill no-till?

I think it's possible.

[One curious note is the sporadic occurrence of this survey.  Don't ask me - our state government is um, hard to rationally explain.  Also, the survey is tabulated in fields, not acres. Again, no idea. Finally, national figures more recent than 2004 are hard to find, but IL was the leading state by acres then.]

Thursday, October 29, 2009

I'm not a fan...

Of Budweiser beer.  But this guy is.
I tend to regard myself as Crooked Timber’s online myrmidon of a number of rather unpopular views; among other things, as regular readers will have seen, I believe that the incitement to religious hatred legislation was a good idea (perhaps badly executed), that John Searle has it more or less correct on the subject of artificial intelligence, that Jacques Derrida deserves his high reputation and that George Orwell was not even in the top three essayists of the twentieth century[1]. I’m a fan of Welsh nationalism. Oh yes, the Kosovo intervention was a crock too. At some subconscious level I am aware that my ideas about education are both idiotic and unspeakable. But I think that all of these causes are regarded as at least borderline sane by at least one fellow CT contributor. There is only one major issue on which I stand completely alone, reviled by all. And it’s this; Budweiser (by which I mean the real Budweiser, the beer which has been sold under that brand by Anheuser-Busch since 1876) is really quite a good beer. [More]

Daniel lays out his case convincingly (it's a great read), right up until I actually taste the suds.
Don't see this sentence very often...

From our counterparts overseas:
Ganari Takahashi’s first career, making pornographic movies, made him $10 million. He hopes his second, growing fruit and vegetables, will help upend a farming system that costs Japanese taxpayers $45 billion a year.
He’s one of an increasing number of Japanese farmers who say they can make a profit by leaving the world’s most heavily subsidized agricultural industry and selling directly to consumers rather than through the national cooperative.
“Profitable farming is the same as pornography,” Takahashi, 50, said in an interview near the 3.2 hectares (7.9 acres) of farmland near Tokyo he bought in 2006. “You have to create an image and make it cool.” He sells eggplants and peppers online and at his vegetable-themed restaurants.
Farmers like Takahashi are challenging Japan Agricultural Cooperatives Group, the country’s dominant distributor of rice and vegetables, which sets the price of everything from feed to fertilizer for its members. Their initiative may help cut subsidies as Japan’s new government struggles to contain spending, as well as lower prices for consumers and make trade agreements easier, said academic Masayoshi Honma. [More] [My emphasis]
Maybe I don't have the right business model (heh).
Before they disappear...

Outdoor advertising, mainly billboards, are suffering in the current business slowdown.
Online, the only platform that is expected to grow this year, will grow 9% this year and reach 14.9% share of global ad expenditure by 2011. Newspaper and magazine ad expenditures will continue to decline through to 2011. Television, cinema and outdoor will return to growth in 2010, followed by radio in 2011. [More]

Like painted barn roofs and sides, we could see the slow decline of this medium.

But before they go, some true masterpieces (these are my 3 favs):




[via infonation]
Inequality and land values...

I have been following (with difficulty) a series of exchanges about income inequality starting with this by Will Wilkinson.  The arguments have been cogent and enlightening, but I still think the concept of shifting the focus to consumption inequality provides glib non-answers to some very real problems.

Nonetheless, in the midst of this thought, I ran across this view that really struck me as important for farmers and landowners.
So: as income inequality goes up, more money flows to the well-off, who use it to buy financial assets.  Conversely, less money flows to the poor and middle class, who respond by increasing their debt level.  Both of these mechanisms produce a higher demand for financial assets and therefore promote asset inflation.
Turn that around, of course, and you limit asset inflation but promote consumer inflation instead, which has to be held in check via periodic recessions.  So the question is, which would you rather have: periodic modest recessions or long periods of stability interrupted by occasional huge bubbles bursting?  The latter is typical of the "Great Moderation" of the post-1980 era, and Steve argues that it's been economically destructive in multiple ways:
First, in exchange for apparent stability, the central-bank-backstopped "great moderation" has rendered asset prices unreliable as guides to real investment. I think the United States has made terrible aggregate investment decisions over the last 30 years, and will continue to do so as long as a "ride the bubble then hide in banks" strategy pays off. Under the moderation dynamic, resource allocation is managed alternately by compromised capital markets and fiscal stimulators, neither of which make remotely good choices.
Second, by relying on credit rather than wages to fund middle-class consumption, the moderation dynamic causes great harm in the form of stress from unwanted financial risk, loss of freedom to pursue nonremunerative activities, and unnecessary catastrophes for isolated families.
Finally, maintaining the dynamic requires active use of policy instruments to sustain an inequitable distribution of wealth and income in a manner that I view as unjust. In "good times", central bankers actively suppress the median wage (while applauding increases in the mean wages driven by the upper tail). During the reset phase, policymakers bail out creditors. There is nothing "natural" or "efficient" about these choices.
Regular readers will be unsurprised that I generally agree with all this, although I might put it a little more pithily: rich people tend to do really stupid things when they have too much money lying around for too long.  So do poor people, of course, but in their case "too much money" is only enough to buy a bigger TV, not enough to blow up the world.  That's why I think getting a handle on rising income inequality is important.  To paraphrase William F. Buckley, if I had an extra million dollars to divvy up, I'd rather give it to the first thousand names in the New York City phone book than to the CEO of Goldman Sachs. [More]

While I do not currently think farmland is in the bubble category, I do think it will be one wealth-form of choice for those with lots. In the same light, commodities share a common linkage with top-heavy income distribution.

From a Bloomberg survey of economists:
Respondents see China, Brazil and India as the markets with the most potential, and commodities as the asset of choice, replacing stocks as the most desirable investment class in last quarter’s survey. Real estate and bonds are out of favor, with 40 percent saying bonds will have the worst returns over the next year. [More]

To tie it all up, as long as most  of any income gains continue to accrue to a tiny number of people at the top, assets like farmland (which is held separate from "real estate" in most investor eyes) seem to be golden.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

What if the dollar gets so weak...

McDonald's closes shop?

Hey - it happened in Iceland.
We sort of assumed that McDonald's could be profitable almost anywhere — perhaps even the surface of the moon — but apparently Iceland's economic problems are too much for the world's largest fast food chain to handle.
Bloomberg is reporting that all of Iceland's McDonald's will close at the end of the month due to the collapse of the country's currency. In order to remain open, the restaurants would have had to start charging the equivalent of $6.36 for a Big Mac. According to the Economist's Big Mac Index, the world's most expensive Big Macs are currently located in Switzerland and Norway — where they cost about $5.75. [More]

The puny dollar strikes most farmers as a great thing, since our world trade is essential to profits. I agree, but with some caveats.
  • No whining about oil prices as the buck plumments.
  • There will be some inflation costs on the consumer level, but harder to see on the farm input scene other than...
  • Fertilizer could become very painful again.  In fact, I'd be putting more on right now it I had the umm, cash and it could actually be applied.
Could this ultimately lead to the end of the greenback (are they still truly green?) as the reserve currency?  This is likely already in progress, and I'm not sure there is much we can do about it unless the recession takes a double dip and every other currency look even uglier.
IN SHORT, the dollar-reserve system is already fraying. The question is, what will happen next? Economists are not good at predicting timing—when will all of this happen? And things don’t always move smoothly. During the crisis, the dollar actually strengthened. With the U.S. government providing guarantees on money markets and other deposits—and a U.S. government guarantee having more credibility than that of many developing countries—money sought a safe haven. America, from where the crisis originated, seemed safer than those countries that were the innocent victims.
And the dollar may continue to be strong for some time because what is happening elsewhere could be worse: worries about inflation are also arising in other countries. There may be even less confidence in, say, Europe’s ability to manage its affairs, and if so, the dollar may strengthen further, not because of confidence in the United States, but because of a lack of confidence in other markets. No wonder that, with all these uncertainties, almost the only thing we can be certain of is that markets will be marked with volatility.
As we move (hopefully) toward a global reserve currency, there will be inevitable bumps in the transition along the way. There are, of course, alternatives to the SDRS approach. We may create a multiple-exchange-rate system, in which countries diversify their reserve holdings between the dollar, euro and yen. Over the long run, this system could be highly unstable, as in one period the euro will appear stronger, and funds will shift there, weakening the dollar and strengthening the euro. In another, just the opposite may happen.
Or we may begin to form regional reserve systems. They also manage and dole out reserves for a group of countries but on a smaller scale (along the lines of the Chiang Mai Initiative in Asia, which has been greatly expanded during the crisis). Latin America is discussing doing something similar. One of the ways of creating the global reserve system is through developing and then interlinking these regional efforts.
Whichever path we take, like it or not, we will be moving away from current arrangements, the dollar-reserve system. There are only two questions: will the movement away be orderly or disorderly, and will America play a part in shaping the new system that will emerge? I believe that the transition to the new system will be smoother and that both the United States and the world will benefit if we stop putting our heads in the sand and help create the worldwide reserve system that the globalization of financial markets requires. Keynes recognized the need for such a global reserve currency seventy-five years ago. At the Bretton Woods meeting of 1944, in a costly act of self-interest, the United States blocked the full implementation of Keynes’s scheme. This is an old idea whose time has finally come. [More]

Compared to the 2009 harvest - a work still in progress - the strength of the dollar will remain further down my worry list.

[via free exchange]
Grain Cart Book Review...

For all of you who get stuck in the grain cart, some advice on stuff I've been reading in 12 minute intervals.

Old Man's War by John Scalzi

The premise is targeted right at me:
With his wife dead and buried, and life nearly over at 75, John Perry takes the only logical course of action left him: he joins the army. Now better known as the Colonial Defense Force (CDF), Perry's service-of-choice has extended its reach into interstellar space to pave the way for human colonization of other planets while fending off marauding aliens. The CDF has a trick up its sleeve that makes enlistment especially enticing for seniors: the promise of restoring youth. After bonding with a group of fellow recruits who dub their clique the Old Farts, Perry finds himself in a new body crafted from his original DNA and upgraded for battle, including fast-clotting "smartblood" and a brain-implanted personal computer. All too quickly the Old Farts are separated, and Perry fights for his life on various alien-infested battlegrounds. Scalzi's blending of wry humor and futuristic warfare recalls Joe Haldeman's classic, The Forever War (1974), and strikes the right fan--pleasing chords to probably garner major sf award nominations.
Good writing and several sequels if you like it.  But for a boomer like me the idea of a new, improved version of myself at 75 is pretty darn engaging.  For sci-fi, it's better than most with very strong character development.

Another hint: my Kindle and an LED headlamp work superb in this situation.

What - you were expecting War and Peace?

[Update: No wonder I like his books.]

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Two things...

I've never understood.
  1. Renminbi
  2. Yuan
So: renminbi is the name of China’s currency; but yuan is the denomination of bills, the unit in which prices are measured, etc.. The closest parallel I can think of is Britain’s currency, which is sterling, but whose unit is the pound.
In the case of Britain, however, everyone is easy on talking about the pound’s value, the pound’s exchange rate, and so on; if you talk about sterling’s value, most non-Britons will have no idea what you’re talking about. But for whatever reason, using yuan in the same way draws disapproval.
But here’s the thing: talking about the number of renminbi per dollar is also, as I understand it, wrong — as wrong as talking about the number of sterling per dollar. Renminbi is the currency, but not a unit of the currency. [More]

And...I still don't.

And how do you pronounce it, fer cryin' out loud?

Friday, October 23, 2009

The shirt and shorts...

Don't help.

Is this bike really necessary?

[via infonation]
Color me extremist?...

Since I opine freely (and for free, I should point out) on a wide range of subjects, this may apply:
People with relatively extreme opinions may be more willing to publicly share their views than those with more moderate views, according to a new study.
The key is that the extremists have to believe that more people share their views than actually do, the research found. [More]

But that is where my self-defense kicks in.  I consider my opinions to be almost entirely a minority viewpoint. Let's face it, I oppose ALL ag subsidies, have doubts about ethanol, can understand the objections some have to veal production and gestation crates, and quote from the NYT.

Name one other farmer that far from the mainstream.

But this delusion can create a feedback loop.
“You have a cycle that feeds on itself: the more you hear these extremists expressing their opinions, the more you are going to believe that those extreme beliefs are normal for your community.”
A similar process may occur in groups such as political parties.  Moderately conservative people who belong to the Republican Party, for example, may believe that people with extremely conservative views represent their party, because those are the opinions they hear most often.  However, that may not be true.
Morrison said when she and her colleagues were thinking about doing this study, they had in mind the phrase about the “silent majority” in the United States, which was popularized by President Richard Nixon and his vice-president, Spiro Agnew.  They referred to the silent majority as the people who supported the war in Vietnam, but who were overshadowed by the “vocal minority” against the war.
While there may not be one monolithic silent majority in the United States, Morrison said this study suggests that the minority may indeed be more vocal in some cases.
I'm pretty sure I'm mistaken about a number of my opinions, so I reserve the right to amend them.  That position itself is extreme in an era of "but-you-said-before" journalism.

The interesting thing is how the Internet and blogs have allowed me to inflict these ideas on youse.

What are you thinking?

In fact, blogging may be becoming legit.
In other words, blogging is now a diverse, popular and successful enterprise that covers a multiplicity of online writers, from extensive Twitterers to self-described Mommybloggers to tightly written, up-to-the-minute, smartly edited online publications like this one--a "professional blog" by Technorati standards. And it's in that last sense that blogging is becoming a farm system for future journalists, who are apparently riding out the economic downturn pretty well (on average, at least). Think about that for a moment, and then remember how many traditional journalism jobs have been lost over the same period.
So here's the radical suggestion: Let's redefine what blogging means. If you're writing self-absorbed or inexpert opinions about the minutiae of daily life, without hyperlinks, fact checks or any pretense at engaging with the news, you're a blogger. You probably fall into the lower categories of pay in the Technorati survey if you in fact make any money at all. But if you're a writer for an online publication, one that takes real-time stories, updates them as events unfold, reference your quoted facts, break stories and produce original writing then shall we just say you're a journalist? An online one, but a journalist all the same.
And when you maneuver your thinking in this direction, you come to a strange new conclusion: Journalists who write for online versions of their (perhaps historic, perhaps not) newspapers are the same as journalists who write for totally different online news portals. Even the Pulitzer committee has said online entities can consider themselves eligible for its prestigious prize, with some limitations. [More]

Yeah - a Pulitzer.

There's a goal.

[Thanks, Linda]
As good as it gets...

I have spent the last two days recovering from the "windsprint" bean harvest earlier this week.  We have two days left, weather permitting.  I was simply too pooped to post when I got in. Jan and I never worked much past dark when it was just the two of us and many fewer acres, but this is now and this is 2009: Harvest of Doom.

Ha-ha, just kidding of course.  But then I checked with some friends who were switching back to corn after 2-3 weeks.  Guess how much it had dried in the field?

0.5%  (Which is essentially zero with the rounding error.)

I think the corn may be as dry as it's going to get.

This is not encouraging.  So I'm looking at a 40 year old (my guess) Super B Dryer I have driven around on one farm and estimating how long it will take to push the rest of the crop through my 30 year old Shivvers unit.

I'm taking my time (thanks to the 1.3" rain) looking for options, which is complicated by almost 100% spring 2010 contracts for delivery.  Meanwhile, the grain industry is likewise losing hope of a miraculous solution.

This harvest is about moisture now.
Iowa farmers who were able to get back into fields on October 16 and 17 are reporting that the grain is coming out wetter than normal, with corn moisture content of 30% not unusual. Grain elevators and ethanol plants that buy corn generally want the grain to have a moisture of less than 15%. Farmers will have to spend more money on propane and electricity to dry corn this fall.

Farmers are also reporting corn coming out of the field at kernel weights lower than the 54 pounds per bushel USDA standard that is needed to qualify as the No. 2 Yellow corn grade. In some areas of the state, corn stopped maturing in late September due to the cooler, wetter than normal weather, which has resulted in smaller and lighter weight kernels.

The hard freeze that struck Iowa the weekend of October 10 to 11 put an end to the 2009 growing season pretty much statewide. Farmers say a full assessment of the frost damage to this year's corn crop has yet to be made. There is still some corn with green leaves in some fields in some areas of Iowa.
I'm not the only one airing my frustrations and fears - but I hope I've learned to pause occasionally to try to make some sense. This current situation doesn't look like some speculator conspiracy, just a phenomenally-rare double-fault*.

One question for you ethanol suppliers: Is there an upper limit on moisture you can grind in dry milling plant?

One thing is clear.  This year will be a test for our patience, civility and professional conduct. [Note the even more intense venting on forums (fora?) and blog comment sections] So if I post less than normal, it's because I am less than normal, and I don't want to drift mindlessly over too many lines of propriety in my more anxious moments.

*Please listen to my commentary this week on USFR.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Ya know those captions on your TV screen?...

Sometimes they don't work out the way we plan.

[Yet more]

Monday, October 19, 2009

All burgers are not equal...

Some people take hamburgers very seriously.  In fact, it's a little unnerving.

To this end, I decided to do a tasting of "single-malt burgers, carefully noting what distinguishes each cut from the rest, as well as cataloguing all the flavors that come under the umbrella term "beefy," in the hopes of coming up with the ultimate blend. The Blue Label Burger, if you will. I pulled out my boning knife and meat grinder, and headed to the butcher, determined to master the art of burger blending.
In choosing cuts of beef that could go into the burger, I first made a broad decision: This was to be an everyman's burger. Fancy-pants burgers exist, but they are contrary to the spirit of the sandwich. There would be no dry-aged cuts, no special breed cows, and nothing that is more suited for a steakhouse in my blend. Burgers, like good charcuterie, are about taking the cheap and ordinary, and converting it into the sublime. For this reason, I set an upper limit of $8 a pound for the cuts in my mix, which narrowed down my options to eight cuts: sirloin, chuck, short rib, skirt steak, hanger steak, flap meat, brisket, and a surprise entry—oxtail. [More]

Of course, at the other end of the spectrum is the grisly tale of how other burgers are blended that has been much in the news.
The frozen hamburgers that the Smiths ate, which were made by the food giant Cargill, were labeled “American Chef’s Selection Angus Beef Patties.” Yet confidential grinding logs and other Cargill records show that the hamburgers were made from a mix of slaughterhouse trimmings and a mash-like product derived from scraps that were ground together at a plant in Wisconsin. The ingredients came from slaughterhouses in Nebraska, Texas and Uruguay, and from a South Dakota company that processes fatty trimmings and treats them with ammonia to kill bacteria.
Using a combination of sources — a practice followed by most large producers of fresh and packaged hamburger — allowed Cargill to spend about 25 percent less than it would have for cuts of whole meat. [More]

My reaction to this sad episode is 1) don't buy hamburger, buy ground beef and 2) eat your burgers well-done.  I am not giving Cargill a pass - and I doubt litigators will either - but right now hamburger is a riskier food than other cuts of beef for the obvious reasons above.

Regardless, it is the extremities of the curve to lower food costs for consumers that is widely hailed as the answer to income inequality by making it cheaper for the poor to live better than they used to on low wages.  I suppose this works out in the equations, but maybe they are not pricing in the externalities and increased risks.
A number of other recent studies indicate that measured income inequality has been overstated due to inadequacies in traditional methods for constructing price indices and estimating real income. For example, in the latest iteration of a much-discussed paper Christian Broda and John Romalis find that
the relative prices of low-quality products that are consumed disproportionately by low-income consumers have been falling over this period. This fact implies that measured against the prices of products that poorer consumers actually buy, their “real” incomes have been rising steadily. As a consequence, we find that around half of the increase in conventional inequality measures during 1994 - 2005 is the result  of using the same price index for non-durable goods across different income groups.
Many popular narratives about inequality are grounded on the alleged fact that wages and incomes at the middle and bottom of the distribution have been stagnant for decades. It appears that this, too, may be an artifact of insufficiently sophisticated methods for constructing the price indices used to calculate rates of inflation. Using an updated price index, Christian Broda, Ephraim Leibtag, and David Weinstein [pdf] find that
the real wages at the 10th percentile increased by 30 percent from 1979 to 2005. In other words, the real wages of low earners have not remained stagnant, as suggested by conventional measures, but actually have been rising on average by around 1 percent per year.
No doubt  there are sensible methodological objections to all these studies. But taken together they are impressive. Suppose we accept their upshot. Suppose economic inequality has actually increased very little lately. Suppose that the American lower and middle classes have over the last few decades enjoyed gains from economic growth equal to those enjoyed by the bulk of the upper class. Would you conclude that Krugman raised a false alarm? I hope you would. Would you say the United States’ socioeconomic system is really pretty fair after all? Would it change your opinions about what does or does not need to be done? [More]

I find the downplaying of increasing income inequality on the basis that the cost of being rich is going up faster than the cost of being poor to be near nonsense.  And I'm not alone.  Others have pointed out other hard-to-measure economic assets that add to the growing concentration of wealth and income into fewer hands.
What good is money for? Well, in a liberal society, it’s good for two things: more things and more autonomy. The things part is down – as Will is quick to point, goods at the lower end of the consumption scale are cheaper and better working over the past few decades. So even if many consumers have not seen their incomes rise, they feel richer since the goods they are getting are cheaper. True dat!
What I’m more interested in is the autonomy end of it. What about the ability to leave an abusive partner or job without worrying about health care? Travel, spend more time with your family, feel a sense of financial security, etc? Here people less worried about income inequality would say that consumers are in better position to take advantage of this as well since they are richer.
So what they have a cheaper basket of certain goods. Now though autonomy isn’t commodified and sold on a market, the items that we associate with it, insurance, education, perhaps housing, have all seen skyrocketing prices, an effect that blocks out the first effect. This leaves consumers noticeably poorer than they would be otherwise. You’d need to construct a separate index and see the effects played out; I hope researchers are able to do that. [More]

Unlike previous economic slowdowns this one may actually increase income inequality instead of hitting the top earners harder by dropping asset values like stocks. As we have seen, those hundred-million dollar jobs are still out there, but the $50-60K ones are still lagging badly.  Ancedotal information, to be sure.  But we should have income quintiles soon to substantiate this growing and, I think harmful divide.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Winter is relative...

When I spoke in Regina last winter, I met a young woman who was changing careers and she has kpet in touch.  Her new home is...well, read for yourself:
I am Kelli and I am now in the Great White North of Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, Canada. I had a friend encourage me to create a blog of my adventure newsletter I have been sending out for the last month to a few of my friends. So far there are only two newsletters...I can't believe I have been here for a month already...and so I am going to take his suggestion and begin this blog. This one may be a bit long, but as he suggested I should include a little background to bring everyone up to speed. So, I will try to keep this short, but at least set the scene before I leave you.

Well, the story opens with me becoming like many other Canadians, I lost my job due to the economy. Ahh, the day sucked, but I held onto the thought that everything happens for a reason and there is a reason for everything. So, I began my self-preservation and keeping a roof over the head of my son and my son's nanny, my Mom. (believe me when I say thank heavens for Mom's, they are the greatest creation in the world!). And the world does work out for the best as you will find as you read on.

I looked for work for 5 months putting out 55 resumes and received about 5 interviews. In the mean time I kept busy working part-time for a wonderful group of people at a pharmacy across the street from where I lived to try and tried to look on the bright side of life. I was stressed, but I just clung to the thought that everything would be ok in the end. I also leaned on a lot of shoulders during that time and talked to people that gave me some fantastic advice. Well, that 5th interview was with the company that I currently work for and I found myself moving to the Great White North. I was OK with everything because I felt that this was my dream job in a dream location. (Honestly, I even said that in my interview! Ask them, I really did!)

I have had opportunities to work in the north during the summers of my consulting career (8 years total) and fell in love with what I saw. Mind you what I saw was a lot of short trees because I had never been north of the treeline/arctic circle. But, I felt that this was my chance to live in the great white north. My son is young enough that he hasn't started school yet or he hasn't gotten highly involved in activities so it would be a life-building experience for him and me. I want my son to have the things that I didn't have (every parent's dream right?). I also wanted to experience a place that not many others get to see or experience in their lifetime for a variety of reasons. Never mind Hollywood, for this girl the north is where dreams come true :) [More]

Good luck, Kelli!

I'll be following her adventure and will post more from time to time.  Check her blog for the continuing story from what can only be described as a frontier, and a woman as indomitable as any pioneer.
Harvest non-update...

Posting will be rare while we abandon previous meticulous plans for our harvest. 75% of beans are still in the field - targeting for this sunny stretch this week.  But the real puzzler is what to do with 90% of the corn which varies from 24-35%.

I don' think we're going to lose more than 2-3 points additional in the field, and we have a 25 year-old 5-7000 bushel Shivvers setup to dry with.  Only some of the corn is IP and some non-GMO.  Segregation headache! Elevators will soon be full of wet corn  that they will be drying - or very slow, and all of our contracts are for Jan-May delivery.

Final straw: our High Amylose contracts cannot be delivered above 15%.

So....we're flexing our strategy to get corn out of the fields, dried to barely adequate moisture content for storage until Jan-Feb, and then start secondary drying as we free up bin room.

Yields are all over the place from 160 to 220 on successive passes. Tests weights are disappointing at 54# but that's at 24% so it will climb some.

This situation calls for full attention, obviously so don't expect in long, prolix, multi-linked commentary for a while.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Let me write this one down...

A good story is more than just literature.

[via presurfer]
What the hay?...

OK, some cool barn photos.

But can anyone tell me what's up with this one?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Saudi Stimulus?...

Hey - maybe Big Oil is patriotically pulling us out of recession.

Falling energy costs may trigger a U.S. consumer-spending revival that’s faster and stronger than most people anticipate, according to James W. Paulsen, chief investment strategist at Wells Capital Management.
The CHART OF THE DAY tracks household expenditures on energy as a percentage of disposable income during the past three decades, according to data compiled by the Commerce Department. Paulsen had a similar chart in a report yesterday.
The ratio dropped to 4.4 percent in this year’s second quarter from a peak of 6.3 percent in the third quarter of 2008. The latter reading was the highest since 1985 and coincided with record prices for crude oil, which had reached $147.27 a barrel in New York trading. Crude settled yesterday at $74.15 a barrel, a drop of about 50 percent.
“Changes in the energy burden are at least as important” in determining what consumers spend as shifts in their financial obligations, such as mortgage and consumer debt, Paulsen wrote. [More]

Then too, maybe those hysterical optimists on Wall Street are on to something as well.

It's hard to balance these verdant seedlings easily against dismal unemployment picture.  The big question is the delay factor.  And whether we have fundamentally changed consumption patterns in the US.

More home cooking...

The effort to re-invigorate home cooking is reverberating around the blogosphere.  Frankly they don't sound all that hopeful this idea is the magic bullet for obesity, due to several very sound reasons.  However, in the midst of the debate, one useful fact appeared:
Oliver wants to change the way low-income communities approach meals. The problem is that the evidence suggests meals aren't driving the rise in obesity -- snacks are. A 2003 paper by economists David Cutler, Ed Glaeser and Jesse Shapiro looked at an array of different ways to measure caloric intake, and found that most meals aren't getting much bigger. Dinner, in fact, might be getting a bit smaller. The big increase in caloric intake actually came between meals. In 1977, Americans reported eating about 186 calories outside of mealtimes. By 1994, that had rocketed to 346 calories. It's likely even higher now. That difference alone is enough to explain the changes in our national waistline. And it won't go away if we begin cooking dinners but still are purchasing 20-ounce bottles of Coke at the office. [More]

It is this incremental and oblique attack on HFCS (note it is not mentioned, but is nonetheless irrevocably linked to soda) that could bend the demand curve for this corn product.  Although the current high prices for sucrose here in the US (thanks in large part to our protectionist sugar policy) most all have added demand for HFCS, longer term is more problematic, I think. Snacks are big sources of calories and big users of HFCS.

More ominous is the tiny but growing sector seeking out cane sugar-sweetened soda as either a matter of taste (it really does taste different, as I discovered on our cruise to Mexico) or style.

The very properties of HFCS - low-cost, calorie dense, and abundant - all suddenly look less like good things and more like razor blades to a few people. Farmers need to understand that food demands change when people are better fed.  And, boy - are we overfed!
Americans are consuming more calories than they did 30 years ago, and the rate of increase is three times greater in women than men, according to the latest analysis of the diet of the U.S. population published in the February 6 issue of Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
The study finds U.S. women increased their daily calorie consumption 22 percent between 1971 and 2000, from 1542 calories per day to 1877 calories. During the same period the calorie intake for men increased 7 percent from 2450 calories per day to 2618 calories.
The increase in calories is mainly due to an increase in carbohydrate consumption. Men increased the percentage of their daily calorie intake resulting from carbohydrates from 42.4 percent to 49 percent. Women increased their carbohydrate consumption from 45.4 percent of daily calorie intake to 51.6 percent.
The study also finds that the percent of calories Americans take in from fat has decreased, with most of the drop in saturated fat intake. However, the actual number of fat grams consumed per day has changed little since 1971 due to the increase in overall calories consumed daily. Protein consumption for both men and women remained about the same from 1971 to 2000. [More]

The standard answer from agriculture is folks aren't exercising enough.  Fair point, but that does not address the consumption increase in carbs at all.

The economic feedback loop from health care costs via obesity remedies could provide a mechanism to change both sugar and corn policies.  Maybe not much, but the much large pressure for deficit reduction could pose an even sterner test at the same time.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Well done...

The middle road is not untraveled, after all.
Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm signed a bill into law Monday that, according to the Humane Society of the United States, will extend "modest yet meaningful" protections to farm animals. A result of negotiations between animal welfare and agricultural groups, the law requires that certain farm animals have enough room to stand up and turn around and extend their limbs. It phases out veal crates for calves within three years, and battery cages for laying hens and gestation crates for breeding sows within ten years. [More]

My hat's off to the Michigan Farm Bureau, especially, for this exemplary effort.

Meanwhile, partisans of confrontation continue to flood the Intertubes with incendiary rhetoric that does little to solve this issue.
At the heart of the matter is an attempt to fool Ohio voters into thinking that members of the appointed board will be "family farmers." Brenda Hastings, the "farm" lady who appears in pro-Issue 2 ads appearing on television, is the co-owner of a 600-head Holstein dairy operation. Both she and her husband moved their dairy operation from California shortly after Proposition 2 passed there. The Hastings aspire to own a 1000-head herd, not your sustainable organic dairy operation. Nor do the Hastings represent the average "family farm," consisting of a husband-wife-children operation. According to Ohio Against Constitutional Takeover (ACT), one of the biggest sources of misrepresentation and dishonesty is section 3 of Issue 2, which reads:

"This proposed amendment [to Section 1 of Article XIV of the Constitution of the State of Ohio] would [P]rovide that the board shall be comprised of thirteen Ohio residents including representatives of Ohio family farms, farming organizations, food safety experts, veterinarians, consumers, the dean of the agriculture department of an Ohio college or university and a county humane society representative."  [Source: spam from here]

By conflating NAIS with animal welfare, along with several other far-right agenda items, some in the farm community seek to redress a whole range of issues, primary of which, I think,  is how small farmers are being out-muscled in the marketplace by industrial producers.

They are right about that trend and also right about their numbers being much larger than ours.  But they are apparently unconcerned about how powerful the basic economics of industrial ag are, and how it is actually based in sound farm practices.

One of which is avoiding conflict with customers whenever possible.

Monday, October 12, 2009

I'm doing business outside...

From now on.
Economists use a game of trust to reveal our moral intuitions. Person A and Person B are both given £12. Person A is the depositor, Person B the trustee. Person A can choose how much to deposit with Person B: nothing, £4, £8 or £12. When the money is transferred it immediately triples in value. Thus, if Person A gives Person B £8, she is left with £4, while Person B now has 3×8 + 12 = £36. Person B can then choose to give as much back to Person A as he thinks appropriate. If he were to give back £20, say, he would still be left with more than he began. But he could hand over all £36 or nothing at all.
This game has been used to show that humans are not entirely rationally self-interested. But for our purposes what is interesting is this: when subjects are given the hormone oxytocin they are more likely to hand over a larger share of their money, exhibiting greater trust that the other person will treat them fairly. Boosting oxytocin levels is not a high-tech procedure; the hormone can be delivered by nasal spray. Trust is central to our personal and business relationships, and altering trust levels could alter society in a profound way.  Enhancement is not identical to improvement. Pumping oxytocin through the air-conditioning could be used for less noble purposes: companies manipulating their consumers, politicians their voters, or predatory men their dates. [More] [My emphasis]

We think stuff like this is way in the future, but I'm not so sure.  One possible consequence of health cost reform and lower drug profits could be the intensified search for non-medical markets.  Enhancement would seem to be a logical area to add revenues.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

World's Ugliest Buildings...

My favorites:


Actually, there were a couple I kinda liked.

[via monkey cage]
A better answer to Michael Pollan...

I'm not sure the strident condemnation of Pollan-esque opinion in the food world is all that productive, but this approach deserves at least considering.
The good news is that there’s no real reason to think that food you prepare yourself is for some reason intrinsically healthier than food someone else prepares for you. Indeed, a normal “home cooked” meal is mostly eaten by people who didn’t cook it. One or two people cook, and the kids or the guests eat. And at the same time, it’s not as if the good people at Taco Bell are serving unhealthy food out of some perverse desire to clog America’s arteries. They’re just trying to make money the best way they know how. If someone—Jamie Oliver, for example—devised an appealing mass-market food product that was better than Taco Bell on the taste/price/convenience dimension but also healthier, well that would be an excellent thing for the world.
And maybe someone could do it. The world’s purveyors of processed foods have noted a real market demand for healthier products. Consequently, they’re poured a lot of time and energy into creating things that at least seem healthier. And so we really have a lot of healthy-seeming options. But they’ve never, as best I can tell, poured all that much effort into trying to create things that are actually healthier. But someone could. Jamie Oliver could do it. Mark Bittman could do it. Michael Pollan could do it. And it would be more likely to succeed than an endless procession of NYT Magazine articles hectoring people about how they should cook more. [More]

If we think our current system of producing food - and especially meat - will continue unchanged by current food trends we may be rudely surprised. But simply vilifying or ridiculing critics don't address the concerns they share with growing numbers of consumers.

Better still, other voices are coming to view the locavore movement with dispassionate eyes, and more realistic expectations.
But even so, something is missing. Most notably, I don’t see how community cohesion necessarily follows the fact that one can, if one wants, interact with the person who grew your food. Historically, such personalized economic transactions were the norm, but they were inherently fraught with risk and tension. In colonial America — a place I’ve studied in some depth — all markets were initially driven by face-to-face interaction. It should come as no surprise that things could get, well, personal. Markets were intensely competitive and exclusive. Everyone knew everyone. And that was often the problem. The court records of colonial New England are replete with personal market transactions gone awry.
When merchant-led expansion fostered systematic trade with distant markets, the nature of local trade changed. Mediators entered the scene. The supply chain lengthened. The personal nature of exchange yielded to standardized norms required by middle men who had only a tenuous connection to the products for sale. Impersonal mediators and distant institutions (such as banks and insurance companies) ultimately diffused face-to-face interactions by placing a buffer between buyers and sellers. Markets became larger and less personal. Neighbors became customers. Legal battles continued apace, but they were not personal. Just business.

Today, as we return to local markets (farmers’ markets have grown from 400 in 1970 to over 4,000 today), who is to say that the novelty of personal exchange will not gradually fade? Who is to say that the mystique of the local farmer will not diminish and that we’ll eventually come to realize that what we’re engaging in at the farmers’ market is, no matter what the perceived social benefits, ultimately an economic experience? Are we about to witness fistfights over the price of baby arugula? Probably not. But if we did, there’d be a historical precedent for it. [More]

I remain convinced industrial agriculture is less threatened by the local food movement than we have over-imagined.  I fully expect significant changes in animal agriculture to be sure, but I also think we can embrace such changes and deliver products with less dislocation than we suspect now.
Another great sentence...

I wish I'd written.  Tracee Hamilton, WaPo sports columnist in a very insightful analysis about why Chicago lost:
The USOC will now have to decide whether it wants to dance to the IOC's tune, and how much clothing it's willing to take off while doing it.
That's metaphoring at its best, folks.

And the stuff about the Olympics isn't bad either.  As my brother-in-law always says, "When they say it's not about the money - it's about the money."
Best post title I've read in months...

From WiredWaterCar Python Offends All 5 Senses on Land And Water


Once installed, the Python will make short work of your trip to the boat launch with an average 0-60 time of 4.5 seconds. Once you get to the yacht club, stun your high society friends by driving the Python straight into the water, pressing one button to retract the wheels and another to start the jet. You’ll be gliding on a bright blue highway in seconds. Far from a glorified Amphicar, this baby can do 60 mph on the water.
In addition to being one of the absolute coolest toys we’ve ever seen, we can imagine high-speed police chases in L.A. might get a bit more interesting if suspects choose a Python as their getaway car.

On land, the Python is a custom-built hot rod that looks like a cross between a Chevy Avalanche and a Corvette. Out on Lake Havasu, where you just know one of these will show up, it’s a 20 foot luxury boat appointed with a polished wood dashboard and a leather wraparound bench seat — just like the Chris Craft you keep at your house in the Hamptons. Sadly, air conditioning, an automatic transmission and a hardtop are not currently available. [More]

Like the personal jet-pack, this idea just won't stay dead.

Clockwork World fades away...

Time from Andrew Curtis on Vimeo.

In several discussions lately, I have noted with surprise the barely contained emotions on all sides of today's political and economic events.  On one hand, I have friends who see the exploding deficit as an immediate threat, even though there are few immediate consequences.  Then there are those who have immediate problems like un- and underemployment whose anxiety is equally, if not more intense.

In essence, we have those who see some catastrophic doom approaching and those who think it has arrived. What these two camps have in common, I think, is deep misunderstanding of how our economy and culture work (or fail) together.

It seemed to be much more straightforward before, and perhaps it was. The world was understandable, like the clocks.  While we couldn't build one, we could see how the gears meshed and even intuitively grasp what made the hands go around. We also thought we understood government and economics in the same way: nice straight supply-and-demand curves, for example.

But as behavioral economists are revealing, groups of people act differently and often counter-intuitively from the individual writ large.  And even individuals can make some pretty "un-clockwork" decisions. In sum, our comfortable analog has been made obsolete. And the economic community is writhing in considerable self-doubt, as long-held axioms seem to be useless.

Much of the emotion is tied perhaps to the conviction this has occurred because of the actions of bad people.  If we could just find them, expose them, or even remove them, we can restore a logical and comforting world.  We're looking for the Clock-Killers, in essence.  This is also easier than trying to build a better Clock.

We may never recover that reassuring (if illusory) sense of mastery over our world, I'm afraid. For Americans, we have finally been matched by wildly unfamiliar social and economic forces we cannot ignore or bend to our will, such as the rise of countries with outlooks vastly different and frankly puzzling. What the inscrutable Chinese do now throws sand in the gears of our clocks.

Worst of all, despite our best efforts and dazzling military supremacy, we can't dominate opponents who baffle us with their seemingly illogical strategies. Like British soldiers during the Revolution we are faced with an enemy who doesn't seem to know the rules.  Forcing our Clock on others is not as possible as it once was.

Our Clock-model worked because we all believed in it - not because it was the best or even only way.  Other world systems now compete for precedence, and some seem to have advantages in some ways. The Chinese stimulus seems to have more effective, for example. It is understandable the possibility of having to modify our framework for understanding the world is sufficient to provoke strong emotional responses.

We may never resolve these issues, if history is any guide.  More likely, we will outlive them, as new generations arise who have been exposed to different ideas and had time to build different Clocks to help them impose a sense of order on an otherwise bewildering world.  Bluntly put, most of us struggling today will not have the time or ambition to re-align our Clock with Real Time.

Add in a slow recovery from a massive economic setback, the arguably romanticized memories of better times or a lifetime of personal financial erosion, and continuing evolution of global economics through technology and interconnection, and you have many facing a long future filled with a sense of loss and resentment.

The apparent friction and badly-disguised class warfare in the US today could become standard fare for some time, but all the while those who can will be adapting to it. Those of us who cannot are in a sense "doomed" - not so much to an unknowable "non-Clock" world, but to the personal purgatory of our grief over the changes we did not choose and cannot embrace.

The anger management challenge is two-fold. First to move past the omnipresent fears of those whose world has collapsed through loss of employment, home or savings.  The second is to address the outrage of those who have suffered far less, but feel efforts to help the first group will cause them loss in the future.  Even as more of us transfer from the latter to the former, unless both see some reason to expect improvement personally and nationally, our ability to effect corrective action will be sluggish.

Despite our worst efforts, I think we can see signs of traditional and novel forces at work to right our ship. The decline of the dollar, while laden with significant costs, at least is helping to rebalance trade. The harsh atmosphere of public debate has placed a new premium on courtesy and restraint in action. Indeed subtlety to avoid confrontation and patience to accept slower results could become valuable business skills.

In fact, I think a perverse kind of "going Galt" could be underway, as weary folks simply withdraw from as much public interaction as possible, concentrating on home and family and community.  Rather than withholding gigantic talents like Rand's heroes, today's dropouts are hoarding their attention and concern. What shouting back cannot seem to accomplish, ignoring may mitigate. The result could be we are witnessing the peak of angry citizenship.

Our theories of How the World Works need not be accurate to allow successful lives. The knowledge that is truly necessary is How We Work. Then the Clock can be powered by any system to help us tell time.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

We were un-addicted?...

Mike Wilson piles on uncharacteristically and belatedly with critics still howling about the EPA's Margo Oge's blithering ad lib answers before Congress on the indirect land use issue.

OK, I can understand tossing out some red meat for corn farmers anxious about prices, and blaming the EPA for our troubles is a sure winner

But then he wanders clean off the Rational Reservation with this:
 If passed, this new RFS could derail a growing bio- fuel industry, forcing the nation to become re-addicted to foreign oil — something President Barack Obama campaigned against before the election. [More]
As usual, ethanol cheerleaders omit any actual, you know...numbers or data to back up claims. So let me see if I can find out how they arrived at the belief ethanol was "replacing foreign oil".  Here is my annual review of Bad Guy Oil with domestic production added.

What am I missing?  


I will admit that the 2009 YTD figures show some minute changes, like domestic production rising to 36%, and all usage dropping sharply due to the recession, but the picture remains virtually static.

There is no evidence I can find:
  • We were ever "addicted" in the first place.  We are reliant on foreign oil - mostly from trading partners we call allies - like they are dependent on our grain or services. Lots of trade is not a drug problem, it's an economic benefit to all concerned.
  • We have recently become "un-addicted".  Ethanol has replaced oil, but it is impossible to say from where.
  • We are getting "re-addicted". This language is used to subvert a trade issue into a moral issue. 
Ethanol backers have some issues right now, I realize.  It's hard to claim its use helps reduce GHG emissions when virtually all your proponents reject anthropogenic climate change. No AGW = no ethanol GHG benefit, right?

And the GAO report on the blender credit didn't work out quite like they hoped.
The credit “may no longer be needed to stimulate conventional corn ethanol production because the domestic industry has matured, its processing is well understood, and its capacity is already near the effective RFS limit of15 billion gallons per year for conventional ethanol,” the GAO said. [More]

(Keep in mind too, that if the blender credit disappears, the ethanol tariff defense crumbles.)

But like critics who are outraged simultaneously at the cost of health care reform and efforts to cut the cost are proving, consistency in logic is no longer really necessary.  Anger is enough.

I will agree we have an addiction problem.  We corn growers are addicted to an ethanol industry that requires immense political effort to offset growing economic realities.

[Note:  I dunno - when I add some charts, etc. the HTML gets away from me.  Sorry about the screwy font stuff]

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Confused about upgrading to Windows 7?

Join the club.

[The comments really help.  Not.]
I've heard a piano sing...

But now we can make it talk.

[via rgs]
When economists collide...

Whoa! Can it get nasty!
But I have learned something from this exchange — Tyler discounts arguments couched in emotional, or emotional-seeming, terms. That’s a shame. Sometimes people see and write most clearly when they allow themelves to be angry. It’s then that they feel no obligation to water down their argument with unnecessary caveats or efforts to protect interpersonal relationships. Maybe Tyler never has these inclinations, but I believe that most people do. [More]

But bipartisan support does not mean universal support. As it happens there are detractors on both sides of the proverbial aisle. The New York Times' Catherine Rampell quotes Howard Gleckman, of the left-leaning think tank the Urban Institute, arguing against the proposal. And Greg Mankiw is walking back his support of the plan (somewhat predictably; Mr Mankiw's modus operandi has lately been to support various government interventions up until they stand a chance of actually becoming policy).[More]


2. Ryan's summary of the argument involves several strawmen.  Various polemic phrases are used throughout his post, including "makes no sense" and "nuts."  When you read language like that, it often indicates the writer has not worked hard enough to imagine a sensible version of the idea he is criticizing. [More]

These are the voices, I believe of people who are facing some extraordinary challenges to their fundamental beliefs. It came to a head when Paul Krugman wrote about why macroeconomists got this recession so wrong. After defensive immediate reactions, many of the community began to challenge neoclassical (Chicago) dogma and the rhetoric began to fly.

(The blogosphere is the perfect venue.)

Bam! Pow!