Salute to the unknown bureaucrat…

Somewhere in London right now is a nameless, faceless bureaucrat punching tons above his weight class as he struggles mightily to corral monarchs, heads of state, and plenipotentiaries. Each of them is a petty king or queen in their own realm and unaccustomed to going second to anyone. But our bureaucrat will be responsible for ensuring their good behavior if only for an hour or two.

No one will ever know who he is or what he’s done… unless the wheels fall off and blame must find a home. Tomorrow the world will watch the spectacle of Britain honoring one of its most favored daughters. The watching world won’t know or care how the show was made or anything at all about the bureaucrat.

It’s cold comfort, but I’ll know. Or at least I’ll have the barest inkling of what’s gone into making sure the spectacle looks effortless. I’ll marvel at the effort, the sleepless nights, and the frenetic pace. Though you’ll remain forever unknown, I’ll salute you.

The road not taken…

Early this morning I watched the House of Lords and the House of Commons presenting their condolences to King Charles III. Later I watched the solemn pomp and ceremony that carried the mortal remains of Queen Elizabeth II from Holyroodhouse to St. Giles.

I’m struck, more than anything else, with a sense of regret – of the road not taken. When the American colonies careened towards independence in the 1760s and ’70s, there was something greater in our grasp. With negotiation, we could have had American Members of Parliament, American Peers, and unity of the English speaking peoples throughout an Imperial Commonwealth. In the fullness of time, I like to speculate that America could have emerged as a center of gravity to rival the mother country within the Empire. 

But we didn’t. A few men in Boston didn’t want to pay three pence a pound on their tea. The rabble roused, a minority of the population set us off inexorably on the road to independence.  More fool us.

We say Americans have no interest in royalty. Our rapt attention during their great occasions – their births, weddings, and now their funerals – says differently. We’re still very much invested in ebbs and flows of the family of King George III. 

We could have been part of that great stream of history stretching back beyond the Conqueror, beyond Alfred, but here we are, simple spectators despite our ongoing and profound interest. I’m not advocating we turn back the clock. That particular ship has, sadly, sailed. But, God did we miss an opportunity.

This time it’s different…

History doesn’t repeat. Sometimes it doesn’t even rhyme. There are, however, in my estimation, any number of trends we see again and again. Often, though, those trends flow across such long sweeps of time that there’s little or no “generational memory” of the last time they happened. 

COVID-19 was a great example. Confronting widespread plague or communicable disease isn’t something that was fresh and new for 2020. Humans have been dealing with pandemics since the rise of civilization. The last time we faced a pandemic of such scope and scale was a hundred years previously with the Great Influenza of 1918. Given the hundred-year interval, it was an event that had nearly passed out of living memory. Although civilization had seen pandemic many times before, “this time is different.”

The major stock market indexes are down 20% from their highs in 2021. Business reporters and talking heads are wringing their hands about wealth destruction, there being no floor, and the end of capitalism. They’re obviously ignoring the fact that bear markets are a normal part of the economic cycle. In fact, we’ve seen 14 bear markets since 1945. It generally takes about two years for markets to regain their previous high-water mark. We’ve been there and done that, but “this time is different.”

Currently, the United Sates is experiencing a year over year rate of inflation of 8.6%. It’s driving prices of all manner of goods and services higher at the fastest pace we’ve seen since 1981. Many of us are too young to remember anything from 1981, but there it is, right there in the recent history books. In all likelihood the Federal Reserve will crank up interest rates to and a little beyond the pain threshold, pull money out of circulation, and inflation will cool to a manageable level. You can already hear the cries that “this time is different.”

I hate to throw cold water on the almost gleeful panic, but the only thing different this time is that we’re the grown ass adults who happen to be the ones experiencing these events rather than our parents or grandparents. Nothing that’s currently dominating the news is new. It’s the same shit different day that people have been dealing with as best they can for hundreds of years – it’s just that our lifespan is too short to effectively pull back and see the whole board. It’s far easier to believe we’re living through special and unique circumstances that could happen only to us.

Let’s all come back in about 30 months and check my work. 

Three word mantras…

If I’m honest, finding something relevant to drop here every day is getting to feel a bit like swimming against the tide. Sure, I’ve got opinions about damned near everything, but I’m not a foreign policy expert. I’m not an Eastern Europe expert. I’m not an economist. Even though I studied political science, most days I even struggle to get my arms around what American domestic politics has turned into in this stupid century of ours. The way I learned to understand the world is often enough no longer the case or impolite to say out loud.

The best I can manage is trying to take in information from people who are experts in a wide array of fields and try to filter those through my own philosophical and, yes, ethical, lens. I like to think I hit more right notes than not, but the only real way of telling will be looking back here in 20 or 30 years and seeing how it all turned out.

All I feel particularly competent to guarantee at this point is that I intend to keep grappling with events in a legitimate effort to understand the world around me. Here, if nowhere else, it will never devolve into grand over-simplifications like “Orange man bad,” or “Let’s go Brandon.” The world is entirely too complex to be distilled down into three word mantras. I’ll call the balls and strikes as I see them based on as much intelligent commentary and information as I can get my hands on at the time.

If you won’t follow the science, at least follow the history…

I got my flu shot this afternoon. I had the flu once. That would have been way back in 2004. It was a miserable few days shifting restlessly between bed and the couch. Every fall since then, I’ve been happy to get something that could prevent me from catching the bug or reduce its symptoms if I did end up catching it.

Having had the experience once, I didn’t need any further encouragement. I didn’t need to be entered for a door prize. I didn’t need someone from YouTube to agree with me. I didn’t need to be encouraged by athletes or movie stars. I did it because over the last 43 years, I’ve been vaccinated against I honestly have no idea how many different things both mundane and exotic. 

None of those previous vaccinations has enabled me to pick up 5G using my fillings or inserted a GPS tracker under my skin. I haven’t grown a tail or developed an insatiable craving for the flesh of babies. History tells me all those previous vaccines did precisely what they were designed to do. 

Smart people, with decades of education and training, have told me the flu shot is far less risky than the thing it helps prevent. I don’t believe them because I’m a rube who just fell off the turnip truck. I believe them because history tells me they’re right.

I am, however, just cynical enough to have gotten the shot at the tail end of a 4-day weekend so if something bad happens, I can take sick leave to cover it instead of ruining perfectly good time I had already scheduled out off.

Professional development reading…

I want to normalize reading at the office. No, not memos or email (although it would be helpful if people would start reading those for understanding too).

First, let me ask that we be very honest for the purposes of this discussion. In all my years as a cubicle dweller I’ve never known anyone who doesn’t dick off some (or most) of the eight hours of any given work day. My best estimate is that in a standard 40 hour work week, most people might spend 20 of them actually knuckled down doing productive work, stuck in meetings, or otherwise engaged. The rest of their time gets pissed away in pointless conversations with people stopping by their cube, out wandering the halls, shopping online, fucking around on Reddit, or otherwise attempting to look busy without really doing anything.

The only difference between any of those time fillers and reading a book at your desk is that some of the other things people use to kill time can give the illusion of “working.”

As an office drone, “Time to lean means time to clean,” doesn’t exactly apply. Sometimes there legitimately isn’t anything that needs doing – or if there is you’re waiting on someone else to do their bit or send a response before you can take the next step. Some days are busier than others – some are jammed full – but there’s plenty of days where there just isn’t shit happening.

I have to think keeping a volume of Civil War history on my desk and reading a few pages in these down moments ultimately feels more workplace-relevant in my situation than chuckling through another post on r/amitheasshole or looping around the cube farm to see what kind of pickup conversation I can get into.

Thoughts on the death of a pipeline…

I was raised in coal country. My childhood memories are punctuated with the sound of a CSX locomotive and open coal cars rumbling through the center of town. I don’t have to tax my memory to recall its whistle screaming as the engine pulled its load across the level crossing at Union Street. Those trains were as much a part of town as any of the buildings that stood overlooking the tracks. Still, they haven’t run coal south through Midland in a long time. Then again, a lot of those old buildings are gone now, too. 

My home town’s entire reason for being was to support the men who went down the mines in the 19th and 20th centuries. I grew up riding bikes in the shadow of draglines and immense tailings piles carted out of the deep mines a hundred years before I was born. Even those “coal banks,” pressed hard against the backs of the town’s two churches, are long gone following a spate of reclamation and restoration efforts made a decade or two ago. It’s a not-so-subtle reminder that, for good or bad, we’re living in the closing era of the coal industry. Government – and the people – are going to demand “clean” energy options going forward.

You can rage against it all you want.  There’s no silk weaving mill in Coney anymore because it didn’t make economic sense in 1957. There’s no Kelly-Springfield plant in Cumberland because it didn’t make economic sense in 1987. There’s no Bethlehem Steel in Baltimore because it didn’t make economic sense in 2012. Maybe you see where I’m going with this line of thought.

Sure, hang on grimly to your plant or pipeline. Get out of it whatever you can in the time it has left. The oil is still going to flow – by rail or truck or one of the hundred other pipelines crisscrossing the continent. A few mines may hang on for decades yet, but the battle is over. Coal from western Maryland will never again fuel the ships of the Great White Fleet. Oil, over the next few decades, is going to be phased out. The future is ugly ass wind turbines marring every mountaintop and offshore vista and acres of solar panels where there use to be open fields.

The economy has always been built on creative destruction. It sucks when you’re on the “destruction” side of the equation. Ask the men who built wagons what happened after Henry made the car affordable to the masses. I take no pleasure in acknowledging this, because the end of this type of industry is going to have real and lasting negative impacts on my old home town and the people I know there. Pretending it’s not going to happen, or that we can somehow reverse the inexorable march towards the future isn’t going to help them, though. 

Times change. Technology evolves. King Canute couldn’t order the tide to go out and we’ll fare no better trying to resuscitate dead and dying industries and ordering the future to be an exacting continuation of the past. 

That’ll be an unpopular opinion where I’m from, but as a lifelong holder of unpopular or controversial opinions, I’m ok with that. 

The darkest day…

This afternoon a vile and seditious mob stormed and attempted to occupy the United States Capitol at the direction of the President of the United States. Their intent was to subvert our laws and Constitution by preventing the Congress from formally counting the votes of the Electoral College.

At best it’s insurrection. At worst it’s treason.

Today we’re watching an attempted coup d’état in the United States of America.

January 6, 2021 should forever be condemned as the darkest day in the history of our republic.