In trying to locate the person that counts the cattle every month for the government I tried telephoning the USDA, which if you’ve ever tried to call them stands for United States Department of Aggravation.
“You have reached the USDA,” says a recording. “If you would like to speak to another computer please punch #3 on your phone. If you would like to actually speak to a real human please stay on hold until a week from Thursday.”
I had expected to talk to some guy in the basement of the USDA that spends his time throwing darts at a list of big numbers. But it turns out that there isn’t an actual real person that counts the cattle for the Cattle On Feed Reports. No surprise, it’s all done by a computer. And the USDA employee that programs the computer would not speak to me on the phone because he thought the USDA phone might be bugged, which doesn’t say much for the USDA’s pest control program either. My source instead arranged to meet me after hours in a dark bar, the regular hangout for an undesirable element of our society… government bureaucrats.
After stepping into the bar I recognized my man immediately. He had 15 pens in his shirt pocket, hair that was departed in the middle, and a face that belonged in a bag of oats. After the subtle pleasantries I got right down to the interview.
“How long have you been counting cattle for the USDA?” I asked.
“Only about two weeks now,” my source replied. “But I was at my last job for over 23 years.”
“Why did you leave?”
“I got paroled.”
“What were you in for?”
“I used to be a bookkeeper and they said my books didn’t balance, or so they said. I suppose they wondered how a guy making $50,000 a year buys a $50 million dollar yacht.”
“Counting cows for the USDA doesn’t really seem like a real job and there are many cattlemen who wish you would just count us out and not publish these figures once a month. All they are do is send the cattle market into a tail spin. Why don’t you stop these reports and get a real job and save up enough money so that some day you won’t have to work for a living.”
“But I’m hardly working now.”
“Good point. But if you aren’t doing anything how do you actually arrive at the Cattle On Feed Numbers. My readers are very upset about this and they want an explanation and the truth.”
“You can’t have both so I’ll just give you an explanation. Once a month we send out questionnaires to all 23 feedlots in the country. At least those we know of. The feedlot managers then throw these questionnaires in the trash. Next we take the time to phone a random sampling of 3 of these feedlot managers, the only ones that will still speak to us, and we ask them all kinds of personal questions the answers to which are none of our business. Naturally a feedlot manager does not have the time or the inclination to give out this information so they lie.. And so we guess. The results of my poll are then computerized using a secret formula and are then issued early to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange for their use. Three months later when those cattle on feed have been slaughtered we revise our figures to match the correct numbers. Then we issue a revised report that is quite different from the first. By using a computer instead of people we can blame the mistakes on “computer error” and no one gets fired. It’s all very simple and ingenious really.”
I knew by now that my informant had just given me the biggest story of my career and so I offered to buy him a drink. “What will you have?” I asked.
“I’ll have a “Thirteen,” my source replied.
“I never heard of that. What’s a “Thirteen?”
“Its a Seven-Up and Seagram’s 7, you know….13.”
“But seven and seven adds up to 14.”
“Really? Oh. well, what difference does it make? Math was never my strongest subject anyway.”