Decline Watch: America's goat population to remain a mystery

The New York Times reports on the latest cuts to the Department of Agriculture:

Last year, Wisconsin led the nation in mink farming, producing 833,430 pelts. Texas was the undisputed king of pansies, growing 1.8 million flats of the flowers. And no state harvested more hops than Washington, with 24,336 acres. 

This year? Who knows? The government has stopped counting.

Forced to cut its budget, the Agriculture Department has decided to eliminate dozens of reports, including the annual goat census (current population: three million), and the number of catfish on the nation’s fish farms (177 million, not counting the small fry).


The government began producing regular crop reports in 1863, the year after Lincoln created the Agriculture Department. One of the reports being eliminated, an annual sheep inventory (5.5 million head on Jan. 1), can trace its roots at least as far back as 1866. Also ending are reports on bees, honey production, flowers and nursery crops.

The statistics service said it was forced to reduce the frequency of some reports and eliminate others because its budget was cut for the fiscal year that ended in September and it expects further cuts for the current year. The eliminated reports will save $11 million a year.

“These are not cuts we wanted to make, but budget reductions by Congress made it necessary,” said Matt Herrick, a spokesman for the Agriculture Department.

Decline-o-meter: Lord knows there's ample room for cuts in U.S. farm policies, but spending $11 million to obtain accurate figures about a fairly vital sector of the economy actually sounds pretty reasonable to me. 

Of course, the goat census is ripe for mockery, according to the longstanding principle in American political discourse that any government policy involving animals automatically sounds ridiculous. And yes, given the title of this post, I can't really complain about that. 

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images


Inspiring role models for disgraced leaders

As his premiership winds down, Silvio Berlusconi is taking wisdom from a surprising source

“I am tired of not being able to impose my will and not being able to push the policy that I would like. I am more powerful as a free citizen than as prime minister. I was reading a book on the letters between Mussolini and (his mistress) Claretta and he tells her at a certain point ‘You don’t understand that I don’t count at all, all I can do is hand out favors.’ I felt like I ended up in the same situation.”

As I point out the context of a fascist dictatorship, he interrupts: “Of course, I am not a dictator, even if you (in the press) have written that I am for years. What I mean is that the founding fathers of Italy, precisely out of fear that history would repeat itself, went too far in weakening the executive role. I ask you: can you be the head of the government if you can’t make the minister of the economy carry out the economic policy that you believe in?”

While there's some residual fondness for Il Duce on the Italian right and his granddaughter serves in parliament -- this being Italy, she's also a former Playboy model -- he's perhaps not the best historical figure to be reading about as you contemplate the end of your political career. We thought we might suggest a few more appropriate role models for the prime minister to consider:

Winston Churchill: Despite his leadership during World War II, Churchill's Conservatives  were roundly defeated in the 1945 election by the Labour Party, which came into office promising significant reforms such as the creation of a National Health Service -- an idea for which Churchill expressed contempt. He would serve again as PM from 1951 to 1955, though hampered by poor health, and is, of course, today remembered as one of the most important leaders of the 20th century.

Harry Truman: Truman left office with an approval rating of 32 percent -- a record not broken until George W. Bush in 2009 -- mired by criticism of his policies on "Korea, Communism and Corruption." But today, Truman's handling of foreign policy -- particularly the Marshall Plan and the Containment model for confronting the Soviet Union -- are cited as models by both parties. No wonder Bush likes to compare himself, perhaps optimistically, to "Give 'em Hell Harry".

(Other U.S. presidents who were much maligned during their time but have been, to varying extents, redeemed by history include John Adams, Ulysses S. Grant, Lyndon Johnson, and George H.W. Bush. According to Michele Bachmann, that list should also include James Garfield and Calvin Coolidge.)

Deng Xiaoping: At the time he stepped down, Deng was facing both backlash from anti-reform Communist hardliners and, deservedly, international condemnation for the crushing of the Tiananmen Square protests. But today he is remembered primarily as the father of China's embrace of market capitalism,  both preserving Communist Party rule and putting China on the path to global preeminence.

Mikhael Gorbachev: When the man who presided over the dismantling of the Soviet Union -- what his eventual successor Vladimir Putin termed "the greatest political catastrophe" of the 20th century -- attempted a return to the Russian presidency in 1996, he came in a dismal 7th place with .5 percent of the vote. As Anne Applebaum notes, his reputation in Russia hasn't really recovered, but internationally he's hailed as a brave reformer and elder statesman. 


Will Berlusconi ever reach the stature of these figures? Well none of them were ever caught partying with multiple underage girls or referred to the nation that elected them as a "shitty" country, so probably not. But history can do funny things, and it's certainly possible that Italian voters will soon tire of EU-mandated technocracy and look back fondly on the leader who at least kept things entertaining for them. He's certainly guaranteed to have a more enjoyable retirement than his old friend Qaddafi.