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Many USDA economists oppose moving HQ to the Heartland

Politico reports that a whole lot of economists are quitting the US Department of Agriculture due to -- BIG SURPRISE -- the hostile tone toward expertise set by the Trump administration. Top administration officials are pissed off that several reports from the agency's Economic Research Service (ERS) haven't cast Trump policies -- especially his trade wars and tax policies -- in a sufficiently flattering light. In response to the perception they're facing retaliation, ERS economists are skedaddling for private industry at a rate that's much higher than normal turnover, including six economists who all quit on the same day last month. This is no doubt a welcome development, since now the office can be filled with yes-persons who will sing Trump's praises, as is only right and just. Hey, maybe Stephen Moore can finally get that prestige job he's always wanted!

The Curious Case of the Vanishing Economists isn't merely a matter of disgruntled numbers geeks, either -- not with farm income continuing a long decline under Donald Trump. Politico notes it's "dropped about 50 percent since 2013," which makes it all Obama's fault even if things have continued getting worse under Trump. Still, a brain drain at the ERS may be a bad idea when the farm economy is in tough times, possibly. Politico reminds us,

Rural voters were a crucial source of support for Trump in 2016, and analysts say even a small retreat in 2020 could jeopardize the president's standing in several battleground states.

Clearly, the farmers don't need statistics, they need better, shinier propaganda. Maybe another immigration scare will keep them in line. Or maybe (*shudder!*) they'll be lured away by the siren songs of Democrats, since both Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have rolled out shiny new agriculture policies aimed at helping family farms and shifting economic clout away from huge agribusinesses.


Politico also notes a lot of the ERS economists are not at all happy about Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue's plans to put the ERS under the aegis of the USDA's chief economist, which make the office less independent. In addition to reshuffling the org chart, the Trump administration wants to slash the size of the ERS, and to move the whole USDA headquarters from Washington DC to some not-yet-announced location in the Midwest. Not that the move has any nefarious intent or anything!

Perdue has said the relocation was motivated by his desire to save taxpayer dollars, bring the research service closer to major farming regions, and help attract economists who could be deterred by Washington's high cost of living.

And if it happens to cause a lot of malcontent economists to quit, well then, USDA was planning to downsize and if replacements are needed, the agency can find cheaper economists at Moo U.

And then there's that troubling, uncooperative research some ERS economists insisted on publishing, like an early 2018 conference paper by two researchers

that indicated the GOP tax overhaul would largely benefit the wealthiest farmers — generating negative press coverage that staff members said irked senior officials at USDA.

How very ungrateful of them to not be team players! An anonymous researcher who's still at ERS told Politico, "The administration didn't appreciate some of our findings, so this is retaliation to harm the agency and send a message." Presumably from under a desk, while wearing a false nose and glasses.

In addition, a memo from Boss Man Perdue last summer dictated a disclaimer to be used on any peer-reviewed publications by researchers at ERS and other USDA offices, advising readers that findings were "preliminary" and "should not be construed to represent any agency determination or policy." For some reason, researchers seem to object to their bosses undercutting their expertise like that.

Perdue, for his part, insisted to Politico that he just wants GOOD SCIENCE ("good" = "backs up administration policies"):

"In USDA, we want good scientific discovery," Perdue said, when asked about the mandated research-disclosure language. "We want peer-based evidence there. We know that research, some has been found in the past to not have been adequately peer-reviewed in a way that created wrong information, and we're very serious when we say we're fact-based, data-driven decision makers. That relies on sound, replicatable science rather than opinion. What I see unfortunately happening many times is that we tried to make policy decisions based on political science rather than on sound science."

So please make sure your science is peer-reviewed BEFORE you submit it to a peer-reviewed journal, OK? And by "peer" Perdue probably means the political commissar for your office, mmkay?

Because the sole remaining purpose of journalists these days is to torture us with memories of the Before Times, when bureaucracies like the USDA were mostly about making government kind of work in accordance with the "laws," Politico dredged up former ERS Administrator Susan Offutt, who ran the outfit under both Bill Clinton and under Dubya -- and if that doesn't prove she's a Deep State saboteur, what will? Offutt sees political fuckery at work in how USDA is treating her beloved nerd hive, telling Politico

the agency's studies showing how USDA's farm-subsidy programs disproportionately benefit wealthier farmers have been a "perennial irritant" to influential lobbying groups, but an "over-the-top reaction" to clamp down on such reports would be unprecedented.

"Of course, this is not the story the farm lobby wants to tell about struggling farmers," said Offutt. "Controlling ERS would stop unflattering news about federal farm subsidies favoring high-income, high-wealth farm households from reaching the public."

Well, you see, that right there isn't science, that's politics, and is therefore invalid. As are the concerns of current and former ERS economists who worry the move to the midwest is little more than a means of forcing career employees to just quit rather than relocate, thus accomplishing the administration's goal of slashing the size of the ERS without all that trouble of getting Congress to eliminate much of its budget. Gosh, that's crazy conspiracy-theory stuff! All the administration wants is for the economists to get on board with real priorities, like saying America is great, and to ditch low-priority stuff they may find personally interesting, but which don't matter:

"Things like conservation, rural development, food assistance, have just been de-emphasized" in favor of the administration's preferred topics, said one economist who left ERS because of the relocation plan.

In conclusion, we would like to thank the Great Leader for increasing the chocolate ration to several grams less than it had been last week. We have always been at war with Iowa.

Also, if you want a nice cheerful (it is not cheerful) read about Trump's effect on the basic workings of government, check out Michael Lewis's The Fifth Risk, which Yr Dok Zoom intends to spend much of the rest of the week reading, because he is already on vacay and will be until Sunday, GOODBYE.

[Politico / Elizabeth Warren on Twitter]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.

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