Trust, but Verify

ShipOfFools_web_07292016“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves,
so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” (Matt 10:16)

Trust, but Verify [1]

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

My experience as an intern in Western Europe Branch in 1979 led me to aspire to a career as a European analyst. During my graduate school years, this aspiration gave me a reason to invest more in language study than my peers because I saw an immediate application as a Western European analyst, even if it was not my primary motivation for the study. So along the way, Cornell University sent me to study both in Puerto Rico (before my federal experience) and in Germany, and Michigan State University aided me with six weeks of intensive French, courtesy of the U.S. State Department, presumably so that I could begin work also in West Africa. By the time I joined Western Europe Branch as a full-time analyst in 1985, I could read and converse at various levels of proficiency in Spanish, German, and French, which was, in part, why I was recruited to join the Western Europe Branch after about a year with World Trade Branch.

In discussions over my transfer, my focus was to be researching feed manufacturing in Spain as lead investigator for a joint research project between USDA and an experiment station in Zaragoza, Spain. The project with Spain focused on improving our understanding of the prospective entry of Spain into the European Community (EC), which occurred the following year (1986). The project also had a tricky administrative goal of converting the project budget of several hundred thousand dollars from an administrative travel fund into a fund earmarked for research, as promised in the project proposal. As lead investigator, I would have a budget greater than most managers in the building which offered research flexibility, but it also would make the project a prospective “takeover” target for jealous competitors. To prevent any such tampering with the project, I asked to report directly to the branch chief, which would cut out a layer of management, and my request was granted.

Broadly speaking, it was expected that corn import demand in Spain would decline as import levies helped French corn to compete better with U.S. imports—the reasoning was simple, the levies would prevent U.S. corn from being imported until the French corn supplies were exhausted. Domestic barley would also substitute for U.S. imports, but primarily in swine rations, not broiler rations where corn was preferred. Spanish consumers, much like their U.S. counterparts, preferred a yellow chicken—the yellow color came either from corn consumption or from introduction of marigold flower pedals into the rations; chickens fed barley, which offered similar nutrients, turned the chicken meat a sickly bluish-white color. Unfortunately, we had no studies of the Spanish broiler industry from which to assess possible impacts of EC ascension. This deficiency motivated a trip to Spain to confer with my counterpart, Luis, and to see if a broiler study might be undertaken by the Spanish team.[2]

While the Spanish project got started, I continued to publish trade papers based on my statistical work in World Trade Branch. While I was proud to publish a study of EC trade, my methods study attracted more attention, in particular, because the chief economist of a large rice corporation enjoyed the case study of the Thai rice trade that I had used to illustrate my points.[3] That study and my outlook report on the rice trade were apparently unique in giving attention to the rice trade. While other minor crop reports could easily have been written, interest dropped off after the corn, soybean, and wheat markets were reported.

The Spanish project generated an interesting six-week trip in 1985 in which I traveled to Malaga on the Mediterranean coast to attend a conference of the International Association of Agricultural Economists.[4] During this ten-day conference I spent time with many classmates from Göttingen Universität in Germany and made contacts with agricultural economists from all over the world. I mostly remember the awkwardness of seeing former professors eying the topless women on the beach and being targeted by foreign intelligence officers via other women—I never realized how political agricultural trade could be. During the rest of my time in Spain, I needed to check into the embassy—a required courtesy call which mostly annoyed the attaches who were already busy—and to spend time in Zaragoza with my counterpart.

The most productive part of the trip was visiting different feed manufacturing plants to hear first-hand about their procedures and concerns. Their procedures included sample rations, which showed substituting energy (corn, barley, tapioca, etc) and protein (soy meal, sunflower meal, etc) components and proved helpful in a later study of Spanish import demand for corn (1987). Their primary concern back then was the low quality of U.S. corn exports, a problem that was later corrected.[5]

After five weeks in Spain, I traveled to Germany for a week to visit old friends and to confer with them about what I had learned in Spain. Although Germany was also part of my responsibility as a country analyst, the interest in trade with Germany was much less than Spain, in part, because trade with northern Europe and the policy environment were well-established.

Although I expected to return to Spain for a follow up visit, it never happened. My branch chief was diagnosed with lymphoma in the winter of 1986/87 and was quickly unable to function, even though he continued to come into the office.[6] In his absence and after his death, my role as chief investigator came under fire and I suffered fairly arbitrary criticism until I gave up the project. At that point, I requested reassignment to the European situation and outlook unit, but my research responsibilities—just not the project leadership responsibilities—followed me into my new job making the whole arrangement rather stressful.

As a country analysts working in situation and outlook, I had both country (Spain, Germany, and other EC countries) and commodity (cotton and oilseeds) responsibilities. I really enjoyed the outlook work, which included making a quarterly export forecast for roughly 40 commodities, and I began developing a quantitative procedure for estimating exports. I did these estimates with a Lotus spreadsheet macro program which took 40 quarters of export, price, and export sales data and computed three estimates of exports (an elasticity estimate, a linear projection, and a percent change over the previous year) and a graph depicting the forecasts and historical data. I worked with another analyst to write a report outlining the procedure so that the procedure could be used by other country analysts.

Resistance to this export model arose from two quarters. The first point of resistance came from the other country analysts who were primarily former state department analysts with master’s level training, but no quantitative training—at the time, spreadsheets, like Lotus, were new and scary to many people. Most analysts estimated quarterly exports as simply the previous year’s number; only one other colleague routinely used the export sales figures to compute a percent change of the previous year.  Furthermore, employing this model would require that historical data be accumulated and analyzed, which would require time and effort even beyond learning to use the spreadsheets.

The second point of resistance came from policy analysts who had trouble accepting the results from back-testing which showed that the elasticity estimates were the most reliable.  EC imports were not believed to be price sensitive because of the EC variable levies. In fact, the back-testing suggested that a two-step decision process was involved. In the first step, imports were totally restricted until domestic EC production was sold. Then, in the step, imports were purchased from the lowest cost supplier. Hence, price sensitivity in the second step essentially explained the results from the elasticity estimates.

As far as I know, follow up studies of price sensitivity were never completed because later in 1987 senior agency management  announced a reorganization with the stated objective of eliminating the country analyst program. The world of trade was changing as improvements in transportation and communication reduced the need and the growth of large international trading firms reduced the desire for specialized country analysts in the public sector—why listen to a country analyst when you can pick up the telephone or hop on a plane to speak directly with your counterpart elsewhere in the world?

During the reorganization, positions throughout the Economic Research Service were opened up for competitive bidding so I applied for and was granted a transfer out of the International Economics Division and into the Rural Economy Division where I began a new career in finance in Finance and Tax Branch. Finance was entirely new for me so this was a huge move at the time—both professionally and emotionally—because I had spent years preparing for work in European affairs and had almost no training in finance.  Yet, the move into finance proved to be one of the most important career decisions that I ever made. The move led to a series of promotions which made it possible to buy a house and to afford to have my wife, Maryam, stay home to raise our kids.

References

Hiemstra, Stephen W. 1985. “U.S. Share of World Rice Market Declines,” Rice: Outlook and Situation. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Economic Research Service (ERS). March.
Hiemstra, Stephen W. 1986. “U.S. Farm Exports to EC Continue Falling,” Foreign Agricultural Trade of the United States. USDA. ERS. November/December.
Hiemstra, Stephen W. and Arthur B. Mackie. 1986. Methods of Reconciling World Trade Statistics. USDA. ERS. Foreign Agricultural Economics Report No. 217. May.
Hiemstra, Stephen W. 1987. The Effect of Spain’s Entry into the EC on the Demand for Imported Corn. USDA. ERS. Staff paper No. AGES870916. October.
Hiemstra, Stephen W., and Stephen MacDonald. 1987. Forecasting U.S. Agricultural Exports Using the Trade Estimates System. USDA. ERS. Manuscript. May.

[1] “Trust but verify” is an expression made famous by President Ronald Reagan who used it to characterize his negotiation strategy with the USSR.

[2] This proved to be an elusive goal because the researchers in Spain were dedicated livestock researchers.

[3] Over the years, the United States and Thailand have competed for the honor of being the world’s largest rice exporters, but rice exports are small compared with corn, soybean, and wheat exports here in the United States.

[4] August 26-September 4, 1985.

[5] Export corn was sold by grade. If the Spanish purchased number 2 corn, then the exporter would purchase U.S. corn (which was typically number 1 quality) and add foreign matter to lower the quality to number 2 grade. This addition of dust and water to the corn lowered the quality and rendered the corn a mess by the time it was imported in Spain. Complaints about such practices to Congress eventually forced changes to the grading standards to remove the incentive to add foreign matter.

[6] When he heard his diagnosis, he knew that he would soon die. During his career in the Air Force, he worked in a nuclear storage facility and was exposed to excessive radiation. All of his colleagues in the facility suffered the same fate. He was close to being eligible to retire and preferred to retire rather than leave government on disability, but he did not live that long.

 

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Turf

Cover for Called Along the Way
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

“And you shall not go up by steps to my altar,
that your nakedness be not exposed on it.”
(Exod 20:26 ESV)

Turf

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Early in January 1983, I finished the last interviews that I had planned for my dissertation project, which had kept me busy for the previous six months. My dissertation eventually was entitled—Labor Relations, Technological and Structural Changes in U.S. Beef Packing and Retailing (1985)—but at that point I just returned from driving all over the mid-west and as far west as Colorado visiting companies and their union representatives.

Context

At the time, cattle slaughtering plants all over the Eastern Corn Belt were being shut down, usually after a lengthy strike, due to competition from integrated cattle slaughtering and beef processing plants on the high plains, especially Nebraska, Kansas, and Texas. Managers and union officials were eager to tell the story of their plant; how they had worked there for their entire career; and how the plants were now being shut down and being sold for scrap. The integrated plants kept humming along, located next to enormous cattle feedlots with tens of thousands of head of cattle and employing immigrant workers from far away places, who lived in trailer parks, spoke no English, and were members of union from outside the meat packing industry.

Interviews

My interviews were both fascinating and deeply disturbing, as I had a front row seat observing the merger of two industries—cattle slaughter and beef processing—creating enormous, new efficiencies in production and eliminating large numbers of highly paid, blue-collar union jobs. And having returned from my adventure in technological change, I found my own funding cut off before I was able to even write down my experiences.

World Changing under My Feet

Classmates a year or two ahead of me interviewed for teaching positions, started work, and finished their dissertation projects while working on their new jobs. In my case, I interviewed successfully with the University of Hawaii, who found my master’s research on Puerto Rican agriculture directly pertinent to their own agricultural research. When push came to shove, however, a friend of mine with no such experience was offered the position because he was presumably closer to finishing his dissertation.[1] Worse, a year later when I reached the same point, cutbacks in funding announced by the Reagan Administration led the land grant universities to curtail their hiring altogether. Much of the research previously done in the universities was federally funded through cooperative agreements that were cut and never again funded, leading the field of agricultural economics into a long term decline.

Going Home

With my grant money cut, I had to leave Michigan State University without finishing my dissertation. Normally, doctoral students who leave campus never return and the rule of thumb is that about two-thirds of the doctoral candidates never complete the dissertation. Some of these students actually list their degree as ABD, “all but dissertation”; others simply quietly suffer ridicule the rest of their careers. No one expected me to return from Northern Virginia where I moved back in with my parents for the first time in about a decade.

The hard times continued at home. The Reagan Administration announced arbitrary, back-to-back hiring freezes on federal agencies, including the USDA office that wanted to hire me. Without a job or any prospect of a job, I lived in my parent’s basement and worked days to type my dissertation on my father’s manual typewriter. I ventured outside the house once a week to have lunch with our associate pastor, who considered me a good prospect for his counseling business, and occasionally to interview for different USDA offices hoping to be able to hire at some point.

Starting Work

The last pay period of 1983, I finally was able to start work in USDA—the timing was a godsend because the Reagan Administration introduced a much less generous retirement system on January 1, 1984. In USDA, I was encouraged to join the World Trade Branch (WTB) in International Economics Division where my old supervisor was the new branch chief. WTB focused on developing and maintaining international agricultural trade statistics. My new supervisor offered me several projects to choose from, but I chose to work with an old friend, who had been a branch chief but was pushed out with the change of administrations. I owed him a favor and hoped that I could help him improve his standing within the group.

Reconciling Bilateral Trade Statistics

The project involved reconciling bilateral trade statistics (country to country trade figures published by the United Nations) with the Food and Agricultural Organizations (FAO) summary statistics on trade with the world (total exports and total imports), which were considered the more reliable numbers. An export table, for example, would list the country in focus, total exports reported by the FAO, and all the destinations where a particular commodity, like wheat, corn, or soybeans, would be exported. My friend spent the previous year reconciling all the countries of the world for only one commodity, wheat, because he needed to hunt up these export destinations manually in each country’s trade statistics books. He had lots of trade statistics books in his office.

Idea for Automated Project

I spent about a month reconciling trade statistics by hand before I began having second thoughts about my choice of projects. As my mind wandered one morning, I realized that these tables that I was filling in with country yearbook statistics were all computer printouts. If the figures were all in computer files, then the numbers could be reprogrammed to reduce the amount of manual labor required to complete the tables because we had two estimates for most trades: the export reported by one country and the import reported by their trading partner.

Comparing those two estimates, we would be able to identify both trans-shipments and missing data, which would be a really big deal because during the Cold War many countries tried to hide their trade, particularly with Communist countries. The United States, for example, embargoed trade with Cuba back then, but making such comparisons would allow us to identify cheaters among our trading partners. I checked with our computer staff, verified the existence of these data, and, then, approached management with a proposal to automate the construction of review tables. Management was intrigued and I was given a few weeks to see what could be done.

New Computer Language

I was encouraged to learn a new computer language called SAS and spent a month deciphering the SAS documentation. Everything was done on an IBM 370 computer which meant that I also had to learn to program in Job Control Language (JCL) and, later, to manage a series of SAS programs with a CLIST script. In the end, I had a menu driven system for managing trade statistics that USDA continued to use for more than a decade. The analytical side of the project was published as a Foreign Agricultural Economics Report—Methods of Reconciling World Trade Statistics—from which we garnered an invitation for our team to travel to Rome, Italy to brief the FAO, which we had to turn down, and a briefing later for the Central Intelligence Agency, who was interested in using our procedures for tracking contraband trade more generally.

Administrative Efficiency

This automation of manual processes was an important theme during the Reagan Administration, which was especially interested in administrative efficiency. Information technology groups maintained large databases throughout the government. Often times there were poorly understood by other staff tasked with research and administration. In order for technology to improve productivity, data systems need to be understood well enough by other staff that procedures can be integrated with the data.[2]

In order to take full advantage of the automation, regulations and procedures may need to be updated and staff retrained, a process that could take years even if it were a priority. Because such changes are not usually a priority, professional groups that may be disadvantaged by the change have enormous incentive to resist the change. Secretaries may not want to learn to use a word processing program; analysts may not want to learn a new spreadsheet program; programmers may not want other staff learning to program. Nevertheless, success in this project required transgressing administrative and professional boundaries, which was not always appreciated or tolerated.

Fruit of My Labor

In my case, the data system that I developed yielded about half a dozen publications (see reference citations). The invitations cited above led to promotion and I was offered a very interesting job in Western European Branch.  Having already established a career, my doctorate had no tangible effect on salary or my government career until much later.

References

Hiemstra, Stephen W. 1985. “U.S. Share of World Rice Market Declines,” Rice: Outlook and Situation. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Economic Research Service (ERS). March.
Hiemstra, Stephen W. 1985. “U.S. Share of the World Wheat Market Declines,” Wheat: Outlook and Situation. USDA. ERS. May.
Hiemstra, Stephen W. 1985. “U.S. Share of World Wheat Flour Market Declines,” Wheat: Outlook and Situation. USDA. ERS. September.
Hiemstra, Stephen W. 1986. “U.S. Farm Exports to EC Continue Falling,” Foreign Agricultural Trade of the United States. USDA. ERS. November/December.
Hiemstra, Stephen W. and Arthur B. Mackie. 1986. Methods of Reconciling World Trade Statistics. USDA. ERS. Foreign Agricultural Economics Report No. 217. May.

Footnotes

[1] As it turned out, he never finished his degree. He did not possess the “killer instinct”.

[2] The Kennedy Administration developed many new administrative procedures in the 1960s. This came well before automated systems were widely available.

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The Killer Instinct

“Go to the ant, O sluggard; Life_in_Tension_web
consider her ways, and be wise.”
(Prov 6:6)

The Killer Instinct

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In my first professional job as an economist, I interned with the Economic Research Service (ERS) in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), where I found a summer job in 1979 with Western European Branch in the International Trade Division. After spending a summer living in Puerto Rico, my Spanish was excellent for an economist and I was assigned to assist with research on the agriculture of Spain.

If the truth be told, federal agencies are not sure what to do with interns. Interns typically are sons and daughters of senior managers or others in positions of authority within the government. Because of their connections, managers generally farm them out either to staff interested in having help or interested in working with young people, but there is seldom any expectation that they will accomplish much of anything—before micro-computers came on the scene, they frequently had no certifiable job skills. The majority of interns stand for most of the summer in front of the photocopy machine or simply putt around for the time they are present. I was a bit different because I came trained in agricultural economics and spoke Spanish.

In the late 1970s, Spain was a major importer of U.S. corn and soybeans and had not yet entered the European Community (EC). The U.S. supported Spanish entry into EC to strengthen their economy and bolster their political stability and commitment to NATO, because the U.S. had strategically important military bases in the Azores Islands, among other places. But U.S. agricultural exporters were concerned that Spanish entry into the EC would threaten lucrative U.S. grain exports, as a result of Spain’s adoption of the EC’s infamous import levies on grain. Consequently, my office was interested in producing research to facilitate discussions about Spanish agriculture.

In discussions about my work during the summer, I proposed assembling a statistical bulletin focused on Spanish agriculture. Statistical books were tedious to produce, but popular as publications because most researchers at that time did not all have access to the libraries, such as the Library of Congress and the USDA library, that we had in Washington. My proposal was enthusiastically approved by management, but the support staff almost rioted.

The poor reception with staff could have been anticipated because in the 1970s publications were not automated like today. For my part, I would spend the day looking up numbers in Spanish census books and translating the row and column headings. Row and column sums were computed with a manual calculator (the following year I was given an electric calculator) which required punching a bunch of numbers and then pulling down a large handle which produced a distinctive crunching sound. I recorded all these figures and titles on lined (or graph) paper in pencil and double-checked all numbers and calculations marking changes with  a nice red pencil .

When I finished my work, this table was then passed to a secretary who typed it all up on an IBM Selectric typewriter on large sheets of camera copy. Tables bigger than an 8.5 * 11 inch sheet of paper were photocopied and reduced in size to be 8.5 * 11 inch—the term camera copy described this process. This process was tedious to begin with and errors needed to be corrected with white-out, which could only be done with great effort to line up the typewriter and, then, only a limited number of times. If too many errors were made, the entire table needed to be retyped. Needless to say, I went through about three secretaries before I found someone with the accuracy and persistence to complete the task.[1]

The tedious nature of assembling a statistical bulletin, both for the researcher and the secretary, sealed my reputation as a researcher because it demonstrated that I had the “killer instinct”—the ability to design, implement, and complete useful projects without undue supervision. The project also convinced me of the merits of computer automation, which became a theme later in my career. The bulletin that I prepared in a summer of mind-numbing work also became the template for  country bulletins undertaken by other analysts .[2] Consequently, I was invited back for a second summer’s work as an intern and, when I finished my doctorate,  was hired as a full-time researcher—not for my intellect, but for my energy.

REFERENCE

Hiemstra, Stephen W. 1980. Selected Agricultural Statistics on Spain, 1965-76. USDA. ERS. Statistical Bulletin 630. March.

[1] After President Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers, my expert secretary later applied for and received training as an air traffic controller, which was at the time an unusual career path for a woman and additional testimony to her talent and persistence.

[2] For example, a statistical bulletin like mine was prepared for Portugal, but it took an entire year to complete.

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Iranian New Years

ShipOfFools_web_10042015“An excellent wife who can find?
She is far more precious than jewels.”
(Prov 31:10)

Iranian New Years

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

My experience of living off campus during my years at Cornell University convinced me to return to live in the graduate dormitory, Owen Hall, when I started my doctoral program at Michigan State University in the fall of 1979. Owen Hall housed single students and most of them were international students, in part, because American typically chose to live off campus after a brief stay in the dorm. Being both American and a doctoral candidate set me apart, I quickly learned, because most students in the dorm only sought a masters degree and quickly graduated.

Because my friends in Owen Hall were mostly foreign students, I was frequently invited to foreign student association parties, including the Turkish club (the best food), African club, Brazilian club (the wildest parties), and the European club. Having studied in Germany, the European club was my favorite and I had many European friends, but the international students were not parochial and typical outings on the weekend included students from all over. Over time, my best friends were Senegalese, Jordanians, Turks, Nepalese, and Iranian—my few American friends were mostly from my own department (agricultural economics)—but the largest number of my friends were Iranian.

My Iranian connections grew over time, in part, because the Iranians had an active soccer team that I practiced with on Sunday afternoons and, in part, because following the Iranian Revolution many Iranian students stayed in the United States for additional graduate work, including doctoral studies. Doctoral candidates in Owen Hall tended to gravitate towards one another, perhaps,  because they were simply around longer.

Owen Hall had a nasty habit of forcing residents out of the dorm during the summer to make room for the summer students which meant that we were forced to live off campus, which was a hardship for those of us without cars because we had to walk long distances to daily classes and to buy necessities, like groceries. Because the single rooms in the apartment complexes filled up quickly, the summer hardship included taking on a roommate—something unnecessary in Owen Hall. One summer I shared an apartment with a Turkish friend, Halit, but the following summer I had an Iranian roommate named Parviz, who was a doctoral candidate in electrical engineering and owned a car.

Parviz and I reserved a room early in the spring of 1982 and, because we did not know each other well, he invited me to join him for a Noruz party [1] in Detroit. In the days before the party, the Iranians in the dorm were treating me rather shamefully—someone spread a rumor that I was a CIA agent because I had started studying Parsi [2] and because I knew too much about foreign affairs [3]. Meanwhile, Parviz and some of my other friends kept giving me a hard time about looking for a woman interested in long term relationship—I actually had a premonition that I would meet my future wife at this Noruz party and her name would be Maryam!

When Noruz came, Parviz and I drove to Detroit arriving early. Unlike American New Year’s parties, Noruz is more formal, involving traditional Iranian food, candies, ceremonies, and whole families, so I wore a sport’s jacket and tie. To my surprise, I knew quite a few Iranians from East Lansing who, like us, had driven an hour and a half to attend this celebration. Knowing people was important because in Iranian culture it is considered rude to introduce yourself and introductions must be made by common friends, who offer a kind of recommendation to both parties and fill in details about the person that would normally not be easy to disclose.

Later in the evening, a beautiful woman, dressed in a black and white striped blouse with a black skirt and a big smile, walked in with her sister. I asked a friend of mine, Zuheyla, who this was and she asked around, reporting back that the sister’s name was Azar and the woman’s name was Maryam. Acquainted with both of us, Zuheyla introduced us and wandered off to leave us alone. After spending time together at the party, Parviz suggested that the four of us retreat to Greek Town and get better acquainted. The following week, we invited Maryam and Azar to East Lansing for a double date. After that, I invited Maryam out on my own and  traveled to Detroit by bus to see her.

In April, my younger cousin, Ruth, got married in New Jersey and threw a large wedding party. At the party, the Hiemstra cousins had a table to themselves along with other members of the family. Over the course of the dinner, the topic shifted to me—as the oldest cousin, why wasn’t I married yet? I got rather irritated and shot back that what self-respecting woman would date an old guy (27) who did not have a job or even own a car? At the time, most of my American friends already had a car, a house, and a bunch of kids, and were working on a second or third marriage. Many international students, especially Iranians, tended to be a bit older and to delay marriage for financial reasons.

My dad heard about my complaint, took me aside later that evening and promised to lend me money for a car. The following week back at home in Virginia, he helped me purchase a new Honda Civic, which cost about $6,000–it was an ugly brown color, but it ran like a charm. When I returned to school, I found that my car quickly increased my circle of friends in Owen Hall, but, more importantly, I started driving after church on Sundays to Detroit  to see Maryam.

[1] Iranian New Years is always March 31.

[2] My friends routinely spoke in Parsi in front of me and I got tired of not being able to understand what was being said.

[3] I regularly watched the evening news on television and read the Wall Street Journal.

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Unprepared


ShipOfFools_web_07292016“My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me;

nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” (Matt 26:39)

Unprepared

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In graduate school, I met and dated quite a few women, particularly during my time at Cornell University. Ironically, Cornell had just gone “co-ed” during my time there so the girls I met were often quite choosy and many guys I knew had very little success dating. But since my definition of success was developing a more permanent relationship, my frustration with dating grew to be a major theme because the women I dated did not seem to value relationship, except within limited bounds. Offering a 100 percent commitment and finding a 20 percent commitment being offered in return left me feeling used and abused.

Commitment, of course, meant that I needed to make some adjustments—expecting to meet “miss right” meant that I had to become “mister right”. In the 1970s as now, “mister right” had to have the financial capacity to support a family and not everyone was willing to date someone with great expectations. With rapid inflation, high energy prices, and a deteriorating job market, my economics training suggested that the package for “miss right” also needed now to include a serious career, which suggested that dating attractive younger women was risky because a serious career required more commitment than many people—male or female—were willing to invest.

Those women willing to invest the time and energy in a career expressed less interest in men and had much higher expectations, which posed a real problem in dating. The problem was simple—career expectations for men were going down with a weak economy and competition from women while the expectations of attractive women with career potential of eligible men were going up. If women’s expectations were unrealistically high because of the historically unique nature of this problem, then the dating market need not yield a solution—a disconnect would emerge.[1]

This disconnect was obvious to me from the quirky responses I received from American women that I dated. One woman I dated broke up with me because she wanted to spend more time with the rowing team; another women who I dated was still in the process of divorce; still another wanted to meet me and bring along half-a-dozen friends from her department; another was engaged but wanted just to hang out with me until she got married. By the time I left Cornell, I resolved not to date American women because of all the relational confusion and the pain that it caused. It was simply much easier to date foreign students who were more committed to and conventional in their relational expectations.

During the late 1970s, I had a serious relationship (more than a year) with a foreign student—let me call her Betsy (not her name) and let me be vague about time and place and nationality so that I can speak more freely. Betsy and I worked hard to find a financial path to marriage while continuing our education. While that path never materialized, another problem emerged to threw our relationship in disarray.

This disarray began when Betsy and I traveled to her hometown to visit her mother, where Betsy put me up for the night with a friend. In the morning when Betsy came to pick me up, she looked like someone who had been beaten up—unkept and shaken—and she had been. At this point, she shared with me that she was an only child and her mother had had her at a young age out of wedlock; her untimely birth caused a scandal so her parents never married; and in the years that followed her mother became an alcoholic and blamed Betsy for all her troubles. When her mother learned that Betsy was dating an American, she went nuts and beat her up—as a consequence, my introduction to mom never took place.

Unprepared to deal with physical abuse and alcoholism, I quietly freaked out. I had never the financial nor the emotional resources to offer Betsy the shelter she needed. I was no use at all—useless, helpless, and unable to process what was happening. I offered her the support that I could, but I was clearly out of my league, having hit my emotional threshold. Sheltered in family and church, I had never learned to deal with abuse, addiction, or a chronic illness—the bandwidth on my empathy was too limited and I withdrew emotionally. Over the next few months, our relationship melted away, like an ice cream cone left too long in the sun, and we eventually broke up.

In my shame, I started reading about alcoholism, especially Howard Clinebell’s Understanding and Counseling the Alcoholic (1978). I learned to recognize the signs of alcoholism, some of the contributing factors, and the spiritual nature of the problem. More than simply learning the details of the problem and of various groups, like Alcoholics Anonymous, that have attempted to deal with it, I gained an appreciation for the need to study brokenness before attempting to deal with it—a lesson which has served me well over the years. Clinebell’s book was the first counseling book that I ever read; interestingly, it is still in use and is considered a classic in counseling addicts.

The spiritual side of alcoholism is well known. For me, the story of Jesus’ prayer at Gethsemane is most instructive—when we are faced with a difficult pain or decision, do we turn to God in our hour of need or do we turn into our pain? If we turn to God, our faith is strengthened and he promises to walk with us through our afflictions; if we turn into our pain, then we are easily deceived into thinking that our drugs of choice—food, liquor, sex, work, or narcotics—are part of the solution, not part of the problem. This confusion over problems and solutions means that the alcoholic cannot be helped until this twisted thinking is exposed for what it is—Satan’s bondage.

While I was never myself an alcoholic, alcoholism runs in parts of my mother’s family, which suggests that I may be genetically predisposed. Since this experience I have felt fortunate to have learned enough about the problem of alcoholism in time to learn to avoid it—not everyone I know has been so fortunate. During this period of my life, I began avoiding hard liquor and, significantly, I made a serious effort to enter the mission field, applying for a position in Latin America with the Reformed Church of America.

Reference

Clinebell, Howard J. Jr. 1978. Understanding and Counseling the Alcoholic: Through Religion and Psychology. Nashville: Abingdon.

[1] Evidence of this disconnect between the expectations of men and women was everywhere to be seen, but it was most obvious in the high divorce rates during this period. Many of my male colleagues in graduate school had married their high school sweet-hearts who supported them both financially and emotionally during graduate school only to divorce on graduation—evidence that the guys were taking advantage of their new earning power to divorce.

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Evangelische Kirche

ShipOfFools_web_10042015“Grace to you and peace from God our Father
and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Cor 1:3)

Evangelische Kirche

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Towards the end of my summer in Puerto Rico, I briefly began attending a church, but not long enough to get involved or remember the name.[1] In that church, it became immediately obvious that I should have attended church from the moment of my arrival because I would have met more people and learned more Spanish—I knew my English Bible well enough that I did not need to look up the translation when I read the Bible in Spanish. So later when I returned to Cornell University, I ordered a Spanish Bible from the American Bible Society[2] through the mail.

My experience with church in Puerto Rico led me to seek out a church immediately after I arrived in Germany. From my dormitory on Rosenbachweg, I was able to walk or take the bus to a number of churches, but most had one thing in common—few if any members. Most churches, even cathedrals, that I visited in Germany were empty on Sunday morning with only a few old widows and the pastor in attendance for worship. The exception, I learned, was a little village church, Kirche Herberhausen, which my friend, Hermann, drove me to one Sunday.

Kirche Herberhausen was different because it was packed every Sunday with women and students, many of whom no doubt attended Göttingen’s seminary. Every week worshipers would come in, grab a hymnal (gesangbuch) from a shelf near the door and have a seat—even the loft was full most weeks. Then at the appointed hour, the pastor would come in through a door in the chancel, give his sermon, and leave again through the chancel door—he never engaged the congregation in conversation or shook anyone’s hand. In Germany, clergy receive a government salary and are not dependent on the morning offering. In a Christmas visit to Germany in 1982, I learned that Baptist churches in Germany, who are not officially sanctioned by the government, operate more like American churches and one gets a hand-shake.

I remember the Sunday morning routine at Kirche Herberhausen clearly because I had to decide each week whether to walk or take the bus. The bus schedule either brought me to church very early or about ten minutes late, in which case I would not be able to get a scarce hymnal.

In my first attempt at using the bus, I arrived more than an hour early and, because the church door was locked, I stepped out for a cup of coffee at a local restaurant, whose door was also locked. But I noticed as I stood there that people kept walking by me and around to the back of the building. So I joined them going to the back of the building and through the door. There I discovered a room full of men—apparently, the tradition of frühschoppen (morning pint) amounted to men tipping beers while the women attended church. I later bought a hymnal and started walking to church, which was interesting because Herberhausen and Göttingen are separated by a beautiful park.

In addition to a hymnal, I bought a German Bible, complete with concordance, to supplement the New Testament with Psalms that I had brought with me from home. Like any typical student in those days, I traveled to Germany wearing my winter coat and carrying a backpack, which meant precious little space for a full-size Bible. Most of my biblical study at that point in my life was of books in the New Testament so not having the Old Testament did not crimp my style, but I came to love this new Bible.

My beloved German Bible never made it home. As I packed to leave for home, I was moved to ask a friend whether she needed a Bible. Being Catholic, she responded that she had never even owned a Bible so I left my Bible with her. Consequently, my only German Bible today—other than my New Testament with Psalms—is published by the American Bible Society and does not include a concordance.[3]

Shortly before I left Germany, I received admission to several university doctoral programs, including the one at Michigan State University, which I accepted in a long distance call from Germany. This call became an interesting talking point because the department secretaries perpetuated the rumor that I was myself German and every time a foreign student needed to be picked up at the Lansing Airport I got tapped with the responsibility. Of course, I did not mind at all because I met some very interesting foreign students, but I did not immediately learn the reason for my good fortune.

Between my experience at the Kirche Herberhausen and the influence of my friend, Jon, who had become a Lutheran pastor, when I studied at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan I began attending University Lutheran Church (ULC),[4] whose pastor was German. Like many university churches, ULC’s charter called for them to reserve a portion of their leadership positions for college students so I was quickly elected to serve on the worship committee and became chair of the committee, which meant that I also served on church council.

While I was happy to be of some use to the church, it was probably a mistake in view of my busy schedule with doctoral studies. Instead of fellowship and quiet time with the other students, I found myself engaged in long committee meetings focused on ULC’s stressful financial problems and discontent with the pastor. The financial problems arose because the church built a small cathedral without adequately estimating potential growth, only to find themselves strapped with a burdensome mortgage. The pastoral problems were compounded by weak and obstinate lay leadership. I remember being so frustrated with one attorney on the personal committee who instead of offering reports would dodge and weave reasonable questions—after a point I made it a personal policy to walk out of the meeting and read a book outside whenever he would make a report.

My mistake in taking on such responsibilities at ULC ultimately soured me on the Lutheran church, perhaps because I never really had a chance to enjoy it, and when I left East Lansing to live and work in Northern Virginia I returned to worship at Lewinsville Presbyterian Church, where my parents were also members. Still, it was at Kirche Herberhausen and ULC that I came to appreciate the usefulness of the liturgy for dispensing God’s grace in spite of the limits of our linguistic abilities and human frailties in our hour of need.

[1] I walked from my boarding house on Calle Manila in Santa Rita to church so it could have been several churches. However, it was likely las Iglesias de Dios Pentecostal.

[2] The date written in that Bible is August 20, 1978.

[3] The American Bible Society does not publish Bibles with concordances, in part, because the concordances pose a fault line in arguments on how to interpret scripture.

[4] http://ulcel.org.

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The Internationals

ShipOfFools_web_10042015“For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you
not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think,
but to think with sober judgment, each according to the
measure of faith that God has assigned.” (Rom 12:3)

The Internationals

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

When I was still at Cornell, I had a friend and colleague from Zaragoza, Spain, by the name of Luis, who invited me to join a Latin group in playing soccer. Our soccer games together became a regular thing and I focused on soccer during the warmer months, leaving pickup basketball in the gym as a winter sport.

During my year in Germany, basketball again became a regular Monday afternoon activity which was always followed by a trip to the same sandwich shop for a baguette with schinken (the German equivalent of country ham) and, of course, a good German piltzner. After having spending so much time on the bench in college, it was not hard getting used to being a star playing basketball in Germany. Basketball was a relatively new sport in Germany; local professional teams all recruited American players to upgrade their teams, so I had a distinct advantage on the courts relative to my German friends. But still, although my friends tolerated me scoring points in basketball, scoring the only goal in the annual graduate/undergraduate soccer game was another matter!

Soccer became an even more important part of my life when I entered the doctoral program at Michigan State University in the fall of 1979 and lived in Owen Hall, the graduate residence center. Owen Hall had an intramural team which helped me get to know international students across the campus because of year-round daily pickup games late in the afternoon. When it was warm, we played outside; when it was cold, we played in the gym. The intramural competitions were in the fall, but the real focus was on the afternoon games. When Owen Hall’s team manager graduated during my first year at Michigan State, I took over as team manager and named the team: the Internationals.

The Internationals competed well because I recruited international players from the daily pickup games where I was able to observe how well they played. Most were graduate students; many players had played semi-professionally or at the varsity level in their home countries before coming to study in the United States. I had players who could dribble the ball in the air (or head the ball) as long as they wanted and some could goal-kick from mid-field. With such serious players, the undergraduate American intramural teams really could not compete; when we practiced with the Michigan State varsity team, we held our own until the younger players wore down our players with their sheer athleticism. As manager, I could play anytime I wanted, but I seldom substituted myself into games when I had a full complement of players. I was able to recruit good players, in part, because I promised that they would play the entire game—a promise that I worked hard to keep.

In competition, my role was, in part, to keep the team together. Greeks did not play easily with Turks and strong willed players often would get in each other’s hair. It helped, however, to play a zonal defense, which gives everyone an equal opportunity to play and which also allowed us to adjust positions to match the strength of our opposition.

Like adjusting our zones to match the opposition or uncertainty, we routinely employed several strategies. One strategy was to identify the one or two talented players on an American team and assign someone to mark them—partially abandoning a zonal defense. Because most American teams had only one or two good players, this strategy worked extremely well in intramural competition. Another strategy was more of a person—we had a talented female player on the team, which was unusual in the early 1980s. Men on opposing teams would frequently underestimate her abilities long enough for us to score a goal or two at their expense.

The Internationals took the gold cup in 1982 using a strategy that we only used once against our chief rivals—the Pink Panthers, which was the only other team composed of international students involved in our daily pickup games. The Internationals and Pink Panthers both typically won all their games up until the final match where they faced off against each other. In 1981, we dominated the final match until the Pink Panthers targeted for injury our star forward: Manuel, a fellow agricultural economist from Spain. Manuel got upset and walked off the field; the Pink Panthers then proceeded to win the game and take Gold Cup. The manager of the Pink Panthers had a well-earned reputation for dirty tricks and it worked—he was also well known for his white-hot temper.

The strategy used in our 1982 final match was very simple—if the Pink Panthers attempted again to win the match by injuring our players, one of our half-backs would provoke their manager with a good swift kick in the shins when the referees were not looking. As expected, when the Pink Panthers began to loose the game, they became very physical and our half-back executed the plan. When kicked, the manager came out swinging and was immediately red-carded. Forced to play down a man, the Pink Panthers lost and the Internationals took the Gold Cup.  A Mexican player, who had turned down my invitation to join the Internationals and played with the Pink Panthers because he wanted to be on the winning team, left the field in tears.

After joining the federal government in Washington in 1984, I continued to play soccer for a couple seasons with an FBI team, but it proved to be a fool’s errand. Not being with the FBI, the team did not fully accept me as a player and, because I worked all day in Washington DC, playing soccer resulted in frequent injuries. In my last soccer game, for example, I sprained my ankle.

My friend, Luis, returned to Spain after graduation and became the lead investigator on a joint research project between his experiment station in Zaragoza and my office in USDA here in Washington. When I was appointed to lead the U.S. side of this project, I traveled to Zaragoza to undertake research on Spain’s mixed feed industry. Knowing that I would be in Zaragoza with Luis, he invited me to bring along my soccer shoes and to play with his team—the only problem was that he was a much better player and I ended up spraining my ankle, which made for a painful trip home.

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Senior Year Transition

ShipOfFools_web_10042015“Behold, I have set before you an open door,
which no one is able to shut.” (Rev 3:8)

Senior Year Transition

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

My senior year in college at Iowa State University (1975/76), I thought that I was bullet proof and signed up for 18 hours, including graduate level micro and macro economics classes. Other classes, like economic history, computer science, and statistics, provided important background for later studies and work in my career. Outside of class, I had a steady girl-friend—one of the few—in college, and I worked in the cafeteria in Wilson Hall, where I sometimes felt out of place.

For example, my floor in Wilson Hall had a successful basketball team that frequently went out to practice and played a game once a week. Although later during my time in Germany I was the star of the graduate student basketball team, here playing for Wilson Hall I mostly sat on the bench during games—most of my college buddies had played varsity-level basketball in high school, being from small high schools where everyone was given the opportunity to play. By contrast, because my own high school basketball team  took state champs throughout my high school years, only the most dedicated players made the team. Consequently, I felt out of place sitting on the bench while my team beat other teams.

But I also felt out of place trying to date small town girls. Most students at Iowa State came from Iowa and, because they hoped to remain in the Iowa after graduation, they remained closely tied to high school friends on campus. As an out-of-state student, it was difficult to break into these high school cliques. Unlike the movie stereotypes of rural kids dying to get out of their small towns, these were kids who were intensely loyal to their hometowns and chose careers to make that outcome possible. My cousin in Cedar Rapids, for example, never left Cedar Rapids—even to attend college; my roommate studied computer science, in part, so he could remain in Ames after graduation. Consequently, I felt out of place socially at Iowa State and ended up dating a bright young Iranian girl who I met in one of my economics classes.

My girl friend and I dated for several months, but later broke up because she criticized my car. In my sophomore year, I worked in construction for several months in the summer before transferring to Iowa State and used the money that I earned to buy a used 1967 Volkswagen beetle. I was intensely proud of my beetle, in part, because I had paid for it myself. Being Iranian, she assumed that my family could and should buy me a new and better car while I knew that the gift of a new car was unlikely. Thus, her criticism amounted to a cultural misunderstanding, but at the time this criticism simply cut too deep and we broke up. We remain friends, however, and she went on later to a doctorate and to teach agricultural economics at an important university.

Supporting my interest in international economic development, I took a series of classes in economic history. Although economists often envisioned economic development in terms of dollars saved and invested, the actual experience of economic development was often more of an historical process where key policies either supported productive investment or diverted resources away from useful investment into consumption activities. Understanding the difference was an important theme in economic history, which made it fascinating and helpful in explaining why some rather poor countries prospered while other comparatively rich counties squandered even better opportunities.

My history professor at Iowa State was a rather brilliant, but frustrated[1], professor from Yale University who did not like my term papers and was not particularly interested in explaining why. Actually, he threatened to flunk me if I signed up for the next class in the economic history sequence. After working unsuccessfully to please him with several papers, I went into his office and sat on his desk until he explained the problem. The problem was that I conceived of history as a chronology (or narrative) of events over time, while he saw history as the product of deductive reasoning. According to the deductive method, a paper should state a hypothesis and set out to provide it with historical observations. When I then adopted a deductive method in my next paper, he liked my papers and, in the process, I learned to pay attention to methods of argumentation when I would venture outside of economics to study other fields.

My lesson about focusing on argumentation methods came up again in studying macro-economics. The economics department at Iowa State was well-known for using quantitative methods, but my macro-economics professor preferred an history of thought method of argumentation.[2] The tension between these two methods set him at odds with the department so when he began drumming students out of this class (a common approach among professors trying to minimize their required teaching load) he quickly found himself isolated also from students—a class of over 20 students soon became a class of only 4 students. I soon had the distinction of being the only undergraduate student in the class after he  expressed open disdain for undergraduates generally and reiterated such comments even in private meetings.[3]

Stressful as some of my classes turned out to be, senior year was also physically exhausting and I frequently got only about 4 hours of sleep at night, preferring to catch sleep during dead time during the day. Not being a coffee drinker until much later, I took caffeine pills in a vain attempt to stay awake in the evening. Normally, I would study until eleven p.m. then go jogging to wake up so I could a couple more hours; then, at six a.m. I worked the breakfast shift in the cafeteria.

In the middle of my senior year, I applied to three graduate schools—University of Massachusetts, Iowa State University, and Cornell University, each of which had strong agricultural economic programs, according to my dad. I was offered admission and support at University of Massachusetts, but decided against it. Iowa State admitted me almost immediately, but was slow to offer me financial support. When financial support finally came through, I was assigned to work with a famous, but rather controlling professor. I went to see him several times to try to get to know him, but soon felt uncomfortable with this relationship. When Cornell University later offered me both admission and financial support, I changed my mind and decided to attend Cornell.

By May I had reached a breaking point because of stress and long hours and got sick. When I went to the clinic to get myself checked out, I was not ready to hear the news—I had mononucleosis. I freaked out—my history professor’s assistant just happened to be in the clinic at that moment and ran back to tell him the news—for a full-time student, it might as well have been the plague. Back in the dormitory, my roommate and my friends avoided me leaving me to eat and study by myself. When I told my parents, my dad told me that he had a business trip to Iowa later that month and promised to stop by and to bring me home in about a week. This meant that I had about a week to finish up my remaining classwork.

My remaining classwork turn out to less than expected because Iowa State had a rule that any graduating senior with a B average or better did not need to take final examinations. It was my policy in college to write all my term papers early in the quarter so that I could focus on studying for mid-term and final examinations later in the quarter. Being exempted from final examinations meant that I was essentially finished with my work—all but some FORTRAN programming and a few class projects. Time went by quickly and my father picked me up; we flew home to Maryland; and I spent the next 6 weeks in bed, missing out on graduation ceremonies.

Reference

Johnson, Glenn L. 1986. Research Methodology for Economists: Philosophy and Practice. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.

[1] He was from the east coast and felt that it was a hardship to work in Iowa.
[2] In broad terms, Johnson (1986, viii) classified the different schools of thought in economics as positivism, normativism, pragmaticism, and existentialism.
[3] He later failed to achieve tenure and ended up working for the Federal Reserve.

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Germany

ShipOfFools_web_10042015“Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and
do not lean on your own understanding.”
(Prov 3:5)

Germany

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In July of 1972 before my freshman year of college, I traveled with the Parkdale Senior High School symphony band around Europe. We played concerts and visited tourist sites, such as Saltzburg, Munich, and Venice. Our final destination was Vienna, Austria where we competed in a music festival and played our grand performance in Mozart Hall. Pretty much everywhere we visited, the French that I had studied in high school was useless and most people spoke German. So when I started college at Indiana University (IU) in September, I registered to study German.

German was an interesting language, in part, because it was very logical and a bit counter-cultural. Worried about whether my draft board would accept my application to be a conscientious objector status,[1] I also envisioned that I could immigrate to the Federal Republic of Germany to avoid Vietnam—a completely uninformed idea. Even though I had visited Germany, I knew really nothing about it nor how I would support myself if I went there. Nevertheless, I enjoyed studying German and modern German literature, and continued my studies until I decided to leave IU in 1974.

After leaving IU, my focus shifted to economics, which required catch up work also in mathematics, statistics, and computer science. My language study at Cornell University focused on learning Spanish and on gaining oral and reading competence in Spanish during my time in Puerto Rico. My focus did not return to German until I later realized that Cornell would not support me for continuing with doctoral studies.

My interest in things German was sparked again at Cornell because I had a close friend, Joachin, in the department of agricultural economics who was from Germany. We spent at lot of time together and, because of our friendship, he began dating a student living in my house on Elmwood Avenue. When I learned that my time at Cornell would end once I finished my thesis, he suggested that I apply for an exchange program that Cornell had with Universität Göttingen [2] in Germany—this was a pretty exotic idea because I was only one outside the German studies program to apply. Shortly before I left for Puerto Rico in 1977, my friend graduated and returned to Germany where he was killed in a motorcycle accident on the autobahn, which I learned on returning from Puerto Rico.

On my return, I wrote and defended my thesis, which was entitled: Dual Market Structures in the Food Economy of Puerto Rico (January 1979). The U.S. Census Bureau took an interest in this work and I was offered and accepted a full-time position in Washington D.C., presumably to head up the Census of Puerto Rico. This position was to start in the June of 1978, but one morning in May I received an unexpected call. When I picked up the telephone, a very German sounding voice asked: “do you want to go to Germany?” I responded: “when do you need to have an answer?” He asked again: “do you want to go to Germany?” I managed to convince him to let me call him back in the morning. In the meantime, I called my father who said that I should talk to my supervisor at the Census Bureau. When I spoke to my supervisor, he was emphatic—“take the fellowship; go to Germany!” So I accepted the fellowship—everyone else (six others) who had applied for the fellowship had turned them down, perhaps because of the way the question was posed!

The decision to study in Germany was a big deal, in part, because it bought me time to apply to other doctoral programs and, in part, because I had no idea what I was getting into. Universität Göttingen was in a small university town by that name and, at the time, I could find no map of Germany—at home or in the library—detailed enough to locate the town. When I received letters from the university, they were in German which I could not read well enough to understand. My parents recruited a German woman from Lewinsville Presbyterian Church, [3] who tutored me in the language, but she was too polite to be much help.

When I left for Germany, I did so totally on faith that I would be able to find the university once I arrived. My flight with Icelandic Airlines flew to Luxembourg where the station-master directed me to board the correct train to Göttingen. It took the entire day to travel to Göttingen which was to cause me some heartache because I intended to spend the night in the Göttingen youth hostel, which closed its doors a half hour before I arrived. The taxi driver who dropped me off had already left when I discovered the hostel door was locked so I found myself wandering around the neighborhood looking for help.

Help came in the form of a man attending a meeting in a nearby school—he wasn’t much interested in helping me out, but took me back to the hostel and, much to my embarrassment, started throwing pebbles at the director’s window. The director finally came down and let me in, where I joined the other residents in their evening meal. By then, it was about 8:30 p.m. and I was exhausted, but happy to have a place to spend the night.

In the morning, the director moved me from a bunk bed in the dormitory to a private bedroom. Almost immediately I was visited by a young man who worked as a janitor in the hostel. We tried without success to speak in German causing me great consternation, but then I discovered that he was not German, but Polish and he spoke passable English. He had come to me looking to get advice about finding a college to study at in the U.S.!

After my visit with the Polish student and breakfast, I set out to find the international student office. The office was not hard to find, but the director then informed me that I was a week late in arriving because university registration required that I  visit a number of government offices and a doctor’s office; I also needed to move into the dormitory. In other words, I had two weeks of work to do in one week, but first paperwork, paperwork, paperwork—Sei willkommen zu Deutschland!

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conscientious_objector.

[2] http://www.uni-goettingen.de.

[3] http://www.lewinsville.org.

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Puerto Rico

ShipOfFools_web_10042015“Now the word of the LORD came to me, saying,
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” 
(Jer 1:4-5 ESV)

Puerto Rico

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

One of the formative events in my emerging career as an agricultural economist was the World Food Conference of 1976, which was held at the Stephen’s Theatre at Iowa State University. The conference followed concerns expressed in the 1972 Club of Rome report:

“The intent of the project is to examine the complex of problems troubling men of all nations: poverty in the midst of plenty; degradation of the environment; loss of faith in institutions; uncontrolled urban spread; insecurity of employment; alienation of youth; rejections of traditional values; and inflation and other monetary and economic disruptions..[which have] three characteristics in common: they occur to some degree in all societies; they contain technical, social, economic, and political elements; and, most important of all, they interact.”

The Club of Rome project followed the OPEC oil embargo in 1972 and world grain shortages in 1972-74, and it modeled the world economy and predicted catastrophic resource constraints before the end of the twentieth century—because the world’s best and the brightest minds had advanced this premise, it captured the attention of the entire planet. Here was an urgent reason to study economics, particularly agricultural economics, because starvation was expected. As one speaker put it: “ya gotta wanna”. Before you can avert starvation and save the world, you have to want to do it. Before the end the conference, I clearly wanted to.

Another important topic discussed at the conference were results of the Alliance for Progress that was initiated by the Kennedy Administration and focused on economic development in Latin America, but the lessons learned were applied worldwide. Economic development focused, in part, on land reform and modernization of agriculture to boost food production. Because of the successes of Operation Bootstrap in Puerto Rico after World War II, Kennedy appointed Governor Luis Muñoz Marín as coordinator of the program.[1]

When I left Iowa State to begin graduate studies at Cornell University, my interest was to study economic development with particular interest in Latin America, where Cornell had strong ties. One challenge in pursuing Latin American studies was that I had studied German, not Spanish, in college and would need to become fluent. So I enrolled in Spanish at Cornell and looked for opportunities to study in Latin America in doing my thesis research.

Although I had never been to Latin America, my father—the other Stephen Hiemstra—had strong ties to Puerto Rico. All through my college years, my Dad traveled to Puerto Rico because  his work as chief economist for the Food and Nutrition Service in the U.S. Department of Agriculture required periodic visits. As chief economist, he was responsible for, among other things, program evaluation of the food stamp program and, because about two-thirds of all Puerto Ricans were eligible for food stamps, the Puerto Rican program required special attention. Consequently, my Dad suggested that I consider Puerto Rico as the place to focus my research. When I ran the idea by my advisor at Cornell, he was delighted and told me that he had personal ties to the director of the agricultural experiment station at Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico.[2] By the end of my year of college Spanish in 1977, arrangements had been made to finance my studies on the island for the summer.

I flew to Puerto Rico by way of Mexico City (Aeroméxico was wonderful) where I spent ten days with a Chilean friend (and former roommate), Eduardo, who was working at the time for the Inter American Development Bank (IADB). While I expected that Eduardo would use the occasion to share his IADB work experiences with me, but he felt that it was more important to expose me to Mexican culture. For example, in Mexico City we visited the Museo Nacional de Antropología—full of pre-columbian artifacts,[3] Chapultepec—a very large park with canals in the center of the city, and Pirámide del Sol—an Aztex pyramid.[4] Then, Eduardo’s roommate, Cuauhtémoc,[5] invited me to a fiesta de quince años (quinceanera) in Veracruz, Mexico.[6]

My experience in Mexico overwhelmed my sense of social justice between the beggars, small children working as street merchants, and the vast differences between rich and poor. To see old men walking naked in the streets in the very shadows of great cathedrals, startled  and shamed me. Fearful that I would run out of money far from home, I refused to buy much of anything, even from the small children; at one point, Eduardo bought some small trinket from the kids right after I refused even to talk to them—shaming me in my fear. The same fear of the future that keeps us from offering charity in our comfortable surroundings somehow becomes obscenely perverse in the company of those that are absolutely destitute.

The quinceanera also brought shame. The quinceanera was for Cuauhtémoc’s cousin and, because she was now 15, by custom she was eligible to marry. At the party, her friends all lined up to dance with me because everyone knew that I was a gringo and single, but, as a self-respecting 24 year old, I did not know how to react to invitations to dance from a room full of 15 year old girls; in any case, being inebriated, I did not handle it well. After the party, when I objected to sleeping in a bed with three other guys, the family put me up in a hotel—all by myself. When I woke up in the morning in this strange hotel, Eduardo and Cuauhtémoc were nowhere to be seen and I had no money, no idea where I was, a terrible hangover, and not enough Spanish fluency to work it all out. That evening, I found myself at a dinner party as the guest of honor of the young lady’s parents who were anxious to arrange a wedding for their daughter; she, like any other 15 year old, found the conversation tiresome and spent the evening watching television. In the end, I was shamed of my ignorance and I think that Cuauhtémoc found me a disappointment.

After 10 days of tacos (even though freshly made) for the three meals a day, I was ready for Puerto Rico. On my last day in Mexico City, I think that Eduardo was tired of my complaining about the tacos and took me to a nice Mexican restaurant. He ordered dinner for me, but refused to tell me what he had ordered. After we finished eating, he asked if I enjoyed my dinner and I said yes. He then told me that I had eaten cat—to this day, I am not sure what it was.

My flight to Puerto Rico included a fueling stop in Guatamala—I only remember the sweltering heat and humidity. By the time we arrived in San Juan, it was already late afternoon. For some reason, I had expected that someone would meet me at the airport, but I found myself alone in the airport the only white person in a large crowd of black people; while I had read many books about Puerto Rico and its large population of persons of African descent, I never expected to find myself racially isolated in this kind of situation. When I asked for directions to the bus station, I only got blank stares—finally, someone explained that I need only take one of the buses out in front of the airport. Because Río Piedras was not far from the airport, I decided to take a taxi hoping that I would not get lost. It was almost dark—about 8:30 p.m.—when I arrived at the University of Puerto Rico.

For some reason, I expected that the University of Puerto Rico knew that I was coming and walked confidently to the main dormitory with my one large suitcase. When I arrived, a dozen students were hanging out at the front desk when I inquired about a room. The desk clerk knew nothing about me and had no idea what to tell me, but one of the students was from New York and told me that he knew a boarding house with a spare room. So in the dark, about 10 p.m., we walked to Calle Manilla where he introduced me to Matilda, an old woman who spoke no English at all but who had an extra bed to rent for 30 dollars a month. Happy to have any place at all, I took a shower and went to bed, wondering whether I had made some horrible mistake.

Years later (2012), drifting off in church listening to a sermon in Spanish, again I wondered whether I had made a horrible mistake in choosing to get involved in Hispanic ministry. I prayed: “Lord, why have you brought me to this time and this place.” God answered my prayer as I started to reflect on how I had come to Christ through the testimony of a young New York gang member—Nicky Cruz,[7] in the movie, The Cross and the Switchblade.[8] I thought: “Cruz, Cruz—that sounds Puerto Rican.” I later learned that Nicky Cruz was indeed Puerto Rican. In other words, God had brought me to faith at age 13 through the testimony of a young Puerto Rican, even though at the time I had no idea what a Puerto Rican was.

Consequently, neither my “horrible mistake” in 1977 nor my “horrible mistake” in 2012 was any mistake at all.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alliance_for_Progress.

[2] La Estación Experimental Agrícola en Río Piedras. http://www.eea.uprm.edu/estaciones/rio-piedras.

[3] http://www.mna.inah.gob.mx/index.html.

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pyramid_of_the_Sun.

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuauht%C3%A9moc.

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Veracruz_(city).

[7] http://NickyCruz.org.

[8] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=amg_Q4aT6Mg.

REFERENCES

Iowa State University. 1977. Proceedings of the World Food Conference of 1976, June 27-July 1. Ames: Iowa State University Press.

Meadows, Donella, H. Dennis L. Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III. 1975. The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind. New York: Universe Books Publishers.

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