GUEST OPINION: Losing one's senses filling out a census

  • This artwork by Nancy Ohanian relates to the U.S. Census.

During the recent fiscal cliff "debate," we heard repeatedly from the Republican leadership that the problem facing the nation is runaway spending because of too much government. From many in the small business community (affectionately known as "job creators"), we heard that while taxes may be the biggest problem, over-regulation comes a close second.

As a manager of a vineyard/winery, I disagreed with them, that was, until this month when I received the 2012 Economic Census from the U.S. Department of Commerce Census Bureau, Economics and Statistics Administration Bureau and the 2012 Census of Agriculture from the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service. (All of which raises the question: What are the differences between a bureau, an administration and a service? I should know as a former extremely low-level employee of the Small Business Administration, but I don't.)

The first is 18 pages, two of which are "left intentionally blank for processing purposes" and consists of 30 questions; note questions 23 through 25 and 27 through 29 are "not applicable." The questions range from question 3 operational status: "As of the end of 2012" — we have five choices, "in operation," "under construction, development or exploration," "temporarily or seasonally inactive," "ceased operations," or "sold or leased to another operator" — to an unnumbered blank space of about two-thirds of a page labeled; "Remarks (please use this space for any explanations that may be essential in understanding your reported data)."

I can't even come close to figuring out how anyone could fathom what "explanations" would be "essential" for an employee of the U.S. Department of Commerce Census Bureau, Economics and Statistics Administration when trying to answer, say, question 6, e-shipments: "Did this plant use any electronic network to control or coordinate the flow of any of the shipments of goods reported in 5, line A? Or, were orders for any of the shipments reported in 5, line A, received over an electronic network?"

On the list of electronic networks they listed email and the Internet but didn't include texting from cellphones or other devices, so I guess that they do not count. Perhaps, I could ask for clarification under "Remarks"? But I won't. I'm worried it wouldn't be deemed essential.

The Agriculture Census isn't as bad, although it is hard to fathom why in Section 32 "Practices," in addition to asking whether we use reclaimed water or "practice alley cropping or silvopasture" (It's combining trees with forage and livestock production; I had to look it up.), they also asked do we "raise or sell veal calves?" It's not like the questions are difficult to answer (in our case yes, no and no). But who wants to know this stuff?

Are we the subjects of some bizarre social science experiment? Is there a renegade comedian at the USDA? Why is there a National Agroforestry Center, and which senator or representative stuck it in the 1990 Farm Bill resulting in them getting a question in the 2012 Census? Why are questions 23 through 25 and 27 through 29 "not applicable?"

Now I'm not complaining .<TH>.<TH>. OK, yes, I'm complaining. It's going to take us days to fill out the forms, and we are a pretty simple operation. So I ask, whatever happened to the Reduction of Paperwork Act of 1980? Why isn't the Office of Management and Budget doing its job?

I'd appreciate some answers while I'm busy answering legally mandated questions, if anything because, as they say, turnabout is fair play.

Laurence G. Sterling is operations manager of Iron Horse Vineyards in Sebastopol. He lives in Sebastopol.

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