Doubts…

Maryland’s governor started out a few weeks ago cautioning residents about the virus. Over the last several weeks, those advisories took on ever increasing urgency as it because clear that politely asking people to stay at home wasn’t working – as they continued to congregate at beaches, parks, and bars. Then he ordered those places shuttered… and people found other ways to gather. This morning he announced a wide reaching “stay at home” order, providing criminal penalties for for doing those things we were previously advised to avoid.

Aside from my own instinctive chafing at government so dramatically curtailing the scope of our collective liberty (even in the name of a good cause), I have serious doubts about the average citizen’s ability or willingness to comply with what are currently open ended orders to stay put. Americans have a long and storied history of going where the government of the day tells them not to go. It’s in no small part the story of our nation’s westward expansion… although I don’t think the desire to move the family west to homestead Nebraska is going to be the issue in the here and now.

I’ve spent a large portion of my adult life being utterly happy staying home. That’s not true for most people. It’s even less true when you can’t tell them how long they’ll be expected to stay put. Many of us are starting week 2 or 3 of this new normal and despite the gallows humor that suffuses social media, there’s a decided undercurrent of fear and worry out there too. How long my fellow citizens are willing to sit in their homes with those two companions remains to be seen. 

I’ve got my doubts that “indefinitely” is going to be an answer some, or even many, will accept as the weeks continue to stretch on, even if that means going about against the best medical advice and in violation of our newly instituted executive orders. 

What I learned this week…

I’ve had a raging coffee habit since my freshman year in high school. Under normal circumstances,  my average intake is about a pot a day, so call it 10-12 regulation sized cups.

While I’ve been more or less at home continually over the last two weeks it seems my intake of tea has increased dramatically while coffee consumption has cratered. I still need that 5AM kick in the face that only steaming hot coffee can provide, but after three or four cups, I’m moving to tea for the duration of the morning and the entirety of the afternoon.

I’m sure someone could uncover a deep psychological reason for the shift, but at least some of it is practical, I’m sure. Coffee and plenty of it is easy to come by in the office – mostly by way of the thermos on my desk that keeps it scalding hot through most of the day. Proper tea brewing isn’t impossible in a cube farm, but it is, even if only slightly, harder than making a regular cup of joe… Mostly because of my refusal to use the employer provided tap water or the kettle surely tainted by the aforementioned water. 

I suspect when all this is over, assuming the republic doesn’t collapse into some Mad Max-style free for all, I’m going to end up needing  to buy a damned electric kettle to take to the office.

Thats’s it. That’s the big voyage of self discovery triggered by a week working from home. Sorry if you were expecting some kind of big finish.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. The disconnect. No, I’m not in any way annoyed by being disconnected from people. I love that shit. It’s the disconnect from the schedule that’s throwing me off. Here we sit. I know it’s Thursday because the calendar says so but it doesn’t feel like Thursday. It doesn’t feel like Monday. I’m not sure if it feels like any day at all, or whether it’s all the days and none of them simultaneously. The days have become utterly interchangeable and that’s unsettling.

2. Extra dirt. I wasn’t prepared for the extra dirt involved with being home 7 days a week. I mean it makes sense. I’ve let the dogs in and out 37 million more times than usual this week. A certain wild, young rescue dog has already churned the yard like we’re Iowa farmers preparing to plant the back fourty. The week’s rain has turned his work into a quagmire… and they’ve both been trying to drag it all directly into the house on their paws.  That more time home equals more cleaning should be surprising, but after working for the last twenty years it’s just not something I ever considered. 

3. Outlook web access.  On a normal telework day, I log in through a VPN connection and my laptop behaves just as it normally would in the office. With the crush of new people working from home this week, VPN is running near capacity. The alternative is old fashioned web mail, which works well enough for sending basic email. The catch is, it doesn’t pop up meeting reminders the way Outlook does before a schedule meeting… and that leads to a flurry of emails asking “wherrrrrrrre are youuu?!” I mean what am I supposed to do, look at the calendar and memorize the day’s schedule like some kind of ignorant savage?

Maryland, my Maryland…

On March 25th, 1634, along the shores of the Potomac at St. Clement’s Island, subjects of the English crown first set foot in the Provence of Maryland.

No one loves to rant and rave about the government in Annapolis more than I do. Despite their never meeting a tax they didn’t want to levy and general disregard for the rights of citizens, I’ve always found myself drawn back to Maryland – to it’s shore, and its marshes, and its mountains. I never manage to stay away long. For all its political foibles, I simply do better when my feet are firmly connected to the good soil of my native country.

There’s more than enough going on in this old world of ours to keep me blogging every day for months. It would be incredibly easy to fall down that particular rabbit hole. It’s important during these times to remember that we’ve been doing what is hard here in this corner of the world for 386 years now. I don’t even want to guess how many “ends of the world” we Marylanders have endured in that time.

I’m a native son of Maryland and today I’m taking a break from the pandemic to celebrate it.

Taking it on the chin…

A few months ago I, somewhat tongue in cheek, told a coworker the best thing that could happen for my hopes of eventual retirement would be a few years of a bear market to suppress prices and let me “back up the truck” to buy shares at deep discount prices. As long as I can keep working and manage not to drop dead of the Andromeda Strain or whatever the appropriate name for this bug is, I suppose I’m technically not wrong… but boy is it a great big case of be careful what you fucking ask for.

The US economy is currently suffering through a system-level shock the likes of which almost no one alive has personally experienced. For those of us above a certain age, the closest we’ve come is listening to grandparents or family elders tell their stories – and wonder uncomprehending about why all those years later they still saved their soap slivers in a mason jar or insisted on getting three cups of tea out of each bag.

I like to think this isn’t the start of Great Depression 2.0. The fact that the economy was roaring along at breakneck speeds just a couple of weeks ago gives me enormous faith that it can be resuscitated… eventually. Once they’ve exhausted all other options, Congress will push through bailout plans to pour trillions of dollars through the front door of the Treasury. The Federal Reserve has committed to buying government debt with reckless abandon.

Even with herculean efforts, a host of businesses will fail. No economic recover package ever passed through government can prevent that. Cash flow is the life’s blood of business and with that flow stopped, even temporarily, many won’t have the deep reserves it will take to emerge once we’ve arrived at the new normal. The best we can manage in the moment is likely following a “harm reduction” strategy – of propping up what we can and finding as soft a landing as possible for those in the workforce who are displaced.

It seems that President Trump is determined to take a short cut through the amount of time science says we need to keep the clamps on the economy. That’s a foolish and stupid take, but in some ways, I can understand the instinct. Even those who get through the pandemic with little or no ill effects will feel the unnatural consequences of an economy gone to hell in a handbag.

There’s a point where declaring business as usual will make sense. I don’t think that’s this week. I don’t think it will be next week. If you believe science, and you should, it’s not even likely to be in the next month.

As you know, I despise the media obsession with calling this the “war against COVID-19.” Even so, I take a degree of comfort in knowing that historically, the United States almost always loses the first battle of every war we’ve ever been in. We take a punch right to the chin, get knocked down, and then get up off the ground angry and looking for payback.

Today we’re still on the ground, but we’re going to get up, and when we do, we’re going to be collectively pissed the hell off and ready to do what needs to be done.

A war footing…

I hear a lot of calls to “put the nation on a war footing” to battle COVID-19. There’s a lot to unpack in a statement like that. Going on a “war footing” has implications beyond what people seem to think it means.

A few nights ago I heard one of the endless number of network talking heads claim that during World War II, Ford Motor Company was making a new 4-engine bomber every 63 minutes. That statement is absolutely true… but only if you’re looking at a range of dates from 1944 or ’45.

The B-24 Liberators built by Ford would darken the skies over Europe and the Pacific by the end of the war… but when America entered the war in 1941, exactly none of those planes had been built. Ford didn’t start building the plant (Willow Run) to build those bombers until about 1940. The plant wasn’t finished until 1942. In ’42 and ’43 production suffered from a combination of issues ranging from supply shortages, product quality, labor/management disputes, and the sheer learning curve of translating automobile production into building aircraft. What worked for building cars didn’t always translate directly into building airplanes.

Because of these challenges, Ford didn’t meet their legendary “bomber an hour” goal until 1944 – three years after America went to war and four years after they began construction on Willow Run, and only a year before the war ended.

All I’m saying is try to bear reality in mind when you hear someone say “just tell a company to ‘start making’ Product X,” whatever the product happens to be. It took Ford two years to get there even when they had the plant and equipment in place. There’s a lead time from demand signal to production. Companies that build respirators likely aren’t sitting on a lot of spare plant capacity “just in case” a once-in-a-century pandemic breaks out. New plant and new producers can be brought online, but it takes time and a massive infusion of capital… and the faster you want it, the more it’s going to cost. There’s no way around it.

If you’re saying you want the US economy to focus on kitting out the supplies and equipment needed to respond to COVID-19 to the exclusion of almost all other consumer goods, we can do that. We’ve done it before… but putting us collectively on a “war footing” has long lasting consequences and second or third order effects that absolutely no one has even started to consider.

What I learned this week…

Back when I was a young, still wet behind the years bureaucrat, I thought I wanted to be a professional emergency manager. You may remember me from such natural disasters as Hurricane Katrina, when I spent two months learning more about the bottled water, ice, and refrigerated trucking industry than is strictly reasonable.

You might be wondering what that has to do with what I learned this week… Well, it’s mostly that it seems so very little has changed in that world. Reports will never be on time. No one will read them when they are published. And the numbers being reported will never ever match.

I also learned that emergency management is probably a young man’s game. Things I once would have savored now regularly leave me trying to hold back a disgusted cry of “What is this fuckery?” and “What ignorant sonofabitch thought this was a good idea?”

Maybe that last part hasn’t really changed so much, though. I vaguely remember a whole lot of eye rolling during Katrina too.