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A hand at stopping milk spilling

Ben Yale Published on 30 June 2010

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Rube Goldberg was a noted cartoonist of the first half of the 20th Century. Among his many honors was a Pulitzer Prize for political satire. But we know him today not for his satire, but for a series of popular cartoons where he depicted complex ways to do simple things like wiping a window, teeing a ball without bending over and wiping the mouth with a napkin.

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His graphic satires of the ever-growing use of “gadgets” in American life became so well known that in the 1930s Webster’s Dictionary added his name to its definitions. A Rube Goldberg contraption today means something that “accomplishes by extremely complex, roundabout means what seemingly could be done simply.”

Rube Goldberg machines (RGMs) are a series of generally simple contraptions strategically placed and orchestrated so that one eye-catching event ends by setting off a completely different one, which in turn triggers the next.

We have seen the art form he created used for entertainment in such movies as the opening scene in Pee Wee’s Great Adventure, The Goonies or Honey I Shrunk the Kids. In the 1986 comedy with Tom Hanks and Shelly Long, The Money Pit, Hanks, playing Walter Fielding, makes a simple misstep that sets off a chain reaction resulting in the construction scaffolding surrounding a house being remodeled collapsing, bringing down the house with it.

More recently, internet-upstart rock band OK Go recently featured an RGM in its YouTube hit music video, “ This Too Shall Pass – RGM Version .” In the video, a toy truck runs into a line of standing dominos, which set off a chain reaction of dozens of unrelated events leading to the singers being shot with paint balls.

Rube Goldberg Inc., through its website, promotes the perpetuation of this art form through a national Rube Goldberg Machine Contest. The 2010 competition held in March called for at least a 20-step process within a six-by-six-foot cube space to dispense hand cleanser. Next year the challenge is to water a plant. (See www.rubegoldberg.com for more details.)

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Rube Goldberg machines (RGMs) with their kinetic energy, improbable paths and results, swirling balls, falling bricks, tripped mouse traps, flying arrows and other creative machines, captivate us. The pleasure comes in the end when after all of that movement, something simple happens like turning on a light.

How would you design an RGM? For example, a ball falls on the raised end of a teeter totter, causing the other end to flip up. As it flips up it bumps on a switch, turning on a light – the goal of the machine. But how did the ball get to fall on the teeter totter? Design it so that it rolls down a ramp. How did it roll down the ramp? It was properly placed there and held in place by a stick. When the stick is pulled away, the ball now rolls down the ramp, falls onto the upper end of the teeter totter, the totter flips up, flipping the light switch and the light comes on. How does the stick get removed? It could be anything. As you can see, the process goes on and on, potentially without limit.

Each step in an RGM requires precise placement of an object with a controller that ultimately hits a particular target in the right place, at the right time and with the right speed and force to set it off into motion. Timing, placement and design are critical. There is no room for ambiguity or hesitation. The ball that drops must be heavy and hard, not a sponge ball; it needs to hit something hard and unbending like a board, not wet spaghetti or a pillow.

As “Rube Goldberg” has since become a term to describe the unnecessarily complex, it can also be applied to elements of dairy policy, both those now in place or proposed. The 50-some steps used to produce a blend price in the FMMOs has the appearance of an RGM. Proposed supply management programs, too, have characteristics of RGMs. But are they?

As one listens to proponents of these proposals, they certainly have some telltale characteristics. Start with a simple step (compute a low milk-to-feed ratio, for example) and a chain of events go into play, one after the other, leading, ultimately, and without doubt, to the successful restoration or preservation of producer milk prices. All of the steps, carefully described, can, according to supporters, only cause one result. Each step is simple; when placed in a line, the first triggers the second and then the third and subsequent steps. These steps establish assessments for violators who are above their base production, payments for producers who are below or donations to food banks, research funds and whatever else, so that, without fail, supply and demand equilibrium are established.

Underlying these proposals as presented today are “triggers.” The term “trigger” suggests an immediate and dramatic response and result. Aim, pull trigger, gun fires, bullet speeds, target hit, victory! Clean, quick and effective. The implication is that the event (such as a price level, milk-to-feed ratio or gross milk margins) triggers automatic government intervention into the lives of dairymen, directly and effectively.

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In current proposals, milk production limits range from 92 percent to 108 percent of a dairy’s previous year’s production. If a producer produces more milk than allowed under this program, the next event takes place – the USDA assesses and collects an assessment, fine, tax or fee from the offending producer. Then the funds are spent – to non-offending producers, food banks, international aid, animal feed, research or why not the general treasury to reduce the national debt.

But these are not “hair triggers,” ones easily and lightly set off. Most require that the triggering condition (price, ratio or margin) exist for at least a quarter.

Dairy programs and supply management would not be like a fast-moving RGM. They would be like an RGM for harvesting food from a seed, requiring steps to plant a seed, see that it grows and at a certain step trigger harvesting. Steps would be separated by months, not split seconds.

To illustrate (see illustration to left) this slow-moving RGM, the triggering device for one proposal is a three-month average of the milk-to-feed ratio below 2.0. Assume for this example that the three months which met the trigger were March through May of a given year. However, remember that dairy accounting always trails milk production by a month. So whether the trigger – a three-month average milk-to-feed price ration below 2.0 – is reached will not be known until mid-June. That’s a month-and-a-half delay in pulling the trigger.

Now the truck, the trigger, knocks down the first domino. At that point, production limits (let’s say no growth – 0 percent) go into effect for the next three months (July through September). Dominos continue to fall through the next quarter until the end, when it is determined if the next event is triggered – the producer exceeds the allowable production. If he or she does, the last domino falls on a mouse trap, which springs into the air, releasing the string holding down the helium-filled balloon. It is now mid-October. This payment comes out of the milk check paid in November for October milk.

The ascending balloon tips the balance of a stick holding a ball on the other end. The producer tells himself he does not want to pay anymore so he complies with the production response. The ball runs down a ramp, which turns on an electric typewriter, which writes a check to the compliant producers. They say they want a check so they will comply. The typewriter carriage moves right with each character typed. After enough are typed, it hits a glass full of milk, which spills, resulting in less milk.

It is now December. Supply is down, demand is in balance, producer prices rise. Producers jump up and down in joy. Why wouldn’t they? Oh, if life, dairy life, were so simple.

In an RGM, the dominos have to be set just so, and the mousetrap in line, and the balloon string under the mouse trap, and the balanced board with the ball precisely set, the typewriter poised to type, and the glass of milk in line with the carriage. They are physical objects and must be particularly placed.

What about the case of milk production? There is a lot more going on than simple steps. Just consider that between 2008 and 2009 the marketplace, not the USDA, dropped demand for milk and subsequently producer prices, by about a half and raised feed prices, resulting in nonexistent margins. The magnitude of those market measures exceed any kind of proposed supply management assessments. Still, 18 months later we have more milk than when we entered this mess. Guaranteed someone will mess with the logic of the machine.

That is the point. At every step of the way, human beings stand between the trigger and the next event. Even under the best-laid system, unintended human events and decisions can stop a falling domino, grab the string of the balloon, catch the ball and/or move the glass out of the path of the typewriter so it does not spill. The movements and reactions in their lives are not simple mechanical triggers, but combinations of multiple forces or triggers far more complex and varied than the simple ones that proponents argue.

An RGM to reduce milk production would require a string of machines that go past writing a check to producers to turning off power in the milking parlor, or opening a valve in the bulk tank. That is not going to happen. Somewhere along the way a human hand will reach out and undo it. Supply management cannot be an RGM, not because it lacks complexity, but because humans are not machines. Put in the chain of events, they invariably do something human and will keep it from reaching the eye-catching, entertaining end. PD

Ben Yale
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