After you’ve been almost twenty years a bureaucrat, you think you know all the tricks in the book. With that kind of experience, one might be forgiven for thinking they’ve seen it all before. Even so, I’ve learned an important new skill this week that is sure to improve my abilities as a professional bureaucrat going forward.
Like the very best skills in every field, this technique seems deceptively simple. All you have to do to start is say “I agree with everything you’ve just proposed.” Then follow that statement with the qualifier, “with the following changes” and proceed to list half a dozen ways in which you’re going to change the proposal you’ve just nominally agreed with.
For a moment, the poor unsuspecting fool you’re dealing with might even think they’ve gotten the approval that they need to move something forward. Only later once they’ve digested the proposed changes will they realize their proposal may have been changed root and stem.
The good news is that this approach doesn’t have to be a one-and-done. You can keep on agreeing with the thing you just changed while proposing further changes through endless iterations. It’s the bureaucratic gift that keeps on giving. If you’re confident enough, you can keep this self licking ice cream cone rolling on for days or weeks, maybe even months under the right circumstances.
A lesser man might be enraged when realizing he’s been played by such a smooth operator. Not being a lesser man, I’ll just consider it a lesson learned and a new skill I’ll very quickly adopt for my own kit bag.
1. The US Postal Service. I probably shouldn’t say this out loud while my taxes are in transit, but they should have arrived at their destination by now. Emphasis on the “should have.” In any case, I’ve just received a Christmas card. It was postmarked on the 20-somethingth of December and delivered to me here on the homestead just in time for Valentine’s Day. Maybe I should award points for it getting here at all based on some of my other recent experiences. Increasingly the expectation that products and services should work as advertised feels like something that’s just too much to hope for.
2. Baltimore. One of the perennial joys of living in the State of Maryland is the unending shitshow that is Baltimore City. In a state with some of the most restrictive gun laws in the country, we somehow are home to one of the world’s largest live action shooting ranges. Year after year the legislature pours ever increasing amounts of money into the city, because surely that will fix all the problems. Let’s not get hung up on the fact that when asked, the city government generally doesn’t seem able to tell anyone where the money they’ve already been given went or what improvements were made as a result. For my entire adult life, Baltimore has been governed by increasingly feckless “leaders” whose sole purpose in life seems to be finding new and more ridiculous ways to convince Annapolis to give them mountains of cash. The city government either needs to get its house in order or the state should step in and get the city into line. Allowing it to continue to swallow prodigious amounts of tax dollars without showing even the most marginal of improvements feels downright criminal.
3. Mind reading. It’s worth repeating from time to time that mind reading is not among my many varied talents. If you tell me you want something, I’m going to proceed from the assumption that you know what you want. I’m going to do my best to give it to you – not some version of what you requested, not something with the flavor of your request, but the honest to God thing you asked for to the best of my abilities and within the time allotted. If it turns out what you end up with isn’t what you want, I can promise you that the issue is almost always with the description of the requirements, not with my being way out off the edge of the map somewhere.
I’ve started getting up early. Maybe I should say I’ve started getting up earlier. My standard wake up time at 5am seems to have been early enough to make most people a little twitchy. A morning that starts at 4-something would likely send them ranging completing around the bend.
I don’t hate my slightly early wake up time though. I’ve always had something of a fondness for the early hours of the morning, before the rest of the world wakes up and tries to ruin the day. I generally resent the fact that the human mind and body require sleep at all. Laying there in the darkness for hours at a time doing nothing of note feels like a tragic waste of more than a quarter of the available hours in the day. That’s fertile enough ground that I’ve covered here before.
For the last couple of weeks, I’ve consciously made the effort to be out of bed no later than 4:30. Some people would use that time for working out or making breakfast. It’s what I should do. Of course what I’m really doing is using the extra thirty minutes to read another chapter or two and giving the critters some extra ear rubs before leaving for work.
It’s been good having a reminder first thing in the morning of why there’s value in tolerating monumental levels of fuckery during the day ahead. It helps stifle the quiet inner voice that tells me to load up the truck and just keep driving instead of turning into the parking lot. I’m sure there are plenty of people who would rather get that extra thirty minutes of sleep in the morning, but I’m finding those few extra minutes spent actually doing things I enjoy to be almost invaluable.
There are a grand total of 50 working days between me and kicking off a what I affectionately think of as The Greatest Shitshow on Earth. Fifty days sounds like a fair amount of time. Maybe it should. The reality, in the belly of the one of the world’s great bureaucratic organizations, though, is that 50 days is almost nothing. It’s closer to the time it takes to order and receive supplies than it is to what it takes to deliver a major project.
It’s fifty days to start, two more to do the thing, and a grand total of fifty two more days before this particular piece of work slips astern. It means I’m going to wake up every morning for the next fifty two days a little bit more annoyed than I was on the previous morning. It’s possible that at some point during this endless march of days, my eyes will physically roll right out of my skull.
I’d love to tell you it’s all for a good cause or that the return on investment makes the sheer weight of aggravation somehow worth it. I can’t and it isn’t. The whole thing is a fucking vanity exercise devised and propagated by echelons higher than reality. Look, I’ll go whatever way someone points me, and deliver whatever they ask for as best I can, but don’t ever expect me to pretend it’s an exciting opportunity to do great things. It’s just one more dumbass thing I’m doing to stay off the breadline.
Look, I’m as big a fan of federal holidays as anyone in the country. There’s a problem with Washington’s Birthday, though. Well, technically it’s not a problem with the day itself. It’s more of a problem with what comes after it… which is a long, monotonous, fifteen week slog through spring to the next officially recognized holiday.
Fifteen five day work weeks in a row. Hell might be other people, but that long stretch between holidays gives it a yearly run for its money as far as I’m concerned.
There’s nothing to be done about it, of course, except remember that I have a small mountain of annual leave I have to burn off before the end of the year that I can tap into if things get dire. I’ll do it if I have to, but those days never feel quite as good as the freebies.
There was an article in The Atlantic this week that described what I regularly refer to as That Sunday Feeling as “low grade existential dread.” That sounds about right. What’s more, turns out there are actual studies that try to define and explain the phenomenon.
Turns out I’m not alone in my Sunday afternoon melancholy and it has been a recognized feature of the end of the weekend since before the formal weekend was even really a thing. I’m not sure if that’s a bit of information that should make me feel better beyond the understanding that misery loves company.
So what did I learn this week? Mostly that Monday ruins Sunday for all of us. Someday maybe I’ll learn something cheery.
1. Deficit spending. If reports are to be believed, in the first four months of FY 2020, the US government took in a single quarter record amount of tax dollars – some $1.18 Trillion. It also had record quarterly expenses of $1.57 Trillion. In the first four months of this fiscal year, the government ran a deficit of approximately $444 Billion. In a budget where millions of dollars are effectively rounding errors, I’m left to wonder if the problem isn’t so much that taxes are too low as it is that we collectively just spend too damned much money. Once upon a time there was a subset of Republicans called deficit hawks who raged against borrowing money to finance the operation of the government. They’re long gone, of course. No one in the elected levels of government has any interest in slowing down the gravy train. Having seen the inner workings of government, I find it absolutely laughable to think that in the last 90 days we’ve put $1.57 Trillion to its best and highest use. The percentage of it that’s been wasted would be staggering to behold if anyone was able to do the accounting. The first order of business should be slaughtering the sacred cows. Until that happens, I’ll stand firmly on my platform of not one more penny in new taxes.
2. The pall of ambivalence. I’m kicking off a 4-day weekend and the last couple of weeks have cast such a gloom on the proceedings that I’m, at best, mostly indifferent. Maybe my mood will improve a bit after a string of days allocated to hanging out with the animals and reading. It usually does… but I’m not optimistic about how long the restorative effects of that brief interlude will last.
3. Out of office messages. As a “professional” I understand that out of office messages are supposed to contain brief, helpful information such as the date you should return or an alternative point of contact people can reach in your absence. As such, I can’t shake the feeling that they really don’t convey the more subtle message that the sender is conveying. For instance, instead of saying something trite and derivative like “I will respond to email and voice messages as quickly as possible when I return,” I feel that the more frank and honest out of office message might read something like “I’m burning off a day of vacation time in an effort to hold on to the one small shred of sanity I have left. I’m not checking my office email or voicemail. If you call me at home or send me a Facebook message asking about work stuff, I’ll ignore you and do whatever I can, whenever I can to make your life less pleasant. Whatever the issue is, as far as I’m concerned it’s more of a “next week” problem and not something I’ll be spending any time thinking about between now and then.