What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Repetitive question syndrome. In my particular area of effort, questions are unavoidable. That’s fine. Nothing I’m tinkering with is overly complex, so the answers generally come easy. The real kick in the junk is when the same question comes from three people who all work in the same office. Maybe sort some shit out among yourselves before blasting away on the email… because, honestly, anyone after the first person from your organization is going to get a verbatim copy/paste response, regardless of what subtle differences they inject into the question. I don’t mind doing the work, but I absolutely mind doing it three times with vaguely different shading.

2. Entitlement. I know this is going to be a hard pill to swallow, but no one owes you anything just because you happen to exist. The level of entitlement I see, particularly on Twitter, is almost breathtaking. I have no idea where people find the nerve to think they’re somehow entitled to the exact job (or societal permission to not work) they want, in the city where they want to live, in a home they shouldn’t have to pay for, with food and healthcare all provided on demand at someone else’s expense. Being a guy who left home at 22, schlepped all over the country to work where the opportunities presented themselves, and made shit tons of sacrifices to build the life I wanted to live, I truly don’t know from where they get the nerve. 

3. Junk email. The longer the Great Plague rages, the more junk email I get from any company with which I’ve ever even thought about doing business. Look, I know everyone is jumping through their ass trying to stay in business, but I don’t need 10 emails a week from the company I bought a watch from five years ago. It’s not going to make me want to buy another watch or really any widget I’m not already thinking about buying. I like the companies I use on a regular basis, but honest to God being regularly spammed makes me want to look at other options… which sadly would just lead to even more pointless email which would fill me with even more hostility. There are about 50 businesses that are one or two more emails way from earning a “send directly to trash” rule. 

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. 

Home is a funny place…

I grew up in what many people would describe as “the sticks.” The town where I grew up was so small it didn’t warrant having its own stoplight. You had to drive to the next town down the crick if you wanted to see one of those in action. Most of the towns in the area were so small that for all practical purposes that if a particular service was available in the county, it was considered fairly local.

Once upon a time, the region was a powerhouse of both light and heavy industry. Generations of a family’s men made their living by “going down the mines.” By the time I was a kid, most of that world was dead or dying, though I’m old enough to remember the last of the coal trains rumbling through the center of town to be used out there in the wider world beyond the ridges and valleys of home. Some bits of that life have clung on grimly, but it’s a world gone now for 30 years.

You’d never know it from listening to people, though. Even now, there’s an inexplicable feeling that tomorrow or maybe the next day an enormous, smoke belching factory will spring up along the banks of the Potomac and all will be well again – that the future can be exactly as it was in the past.

I’ve got an expatriate’s love of my home town (of the region, really), even while knowing I’ll likely never do more than visit occasionally. Maybe I see its charms and its flaws a bit more clearly because I’m looking from the perspective of someone who hasn’t lived there in over two decades.

Home is a funny place. 

One of the favorite local sports is bitching that business don’t want to open, or industry has left, or that six other things are fucked up and use to be better… but then immediately bitching and complaining when someone opens a new business or has the audacity to try something different.

The county is getting its first Starbucks. Already people are out of the woodwork bitching that burned coffee, overpriced, unpatriotic, corporate chain Starbucks would dare to open a shop locally. My favorite bit of local-ism is that “Having a Dunkin would be better.” Some of us are old enough to remember when there use to be one of those, too. It went out of business, so maybe it’s not as popular an option as people seem to think.

A few weeks from now, the furor over Starbucks will dry up. Everyone will be back to bitching that they want more stores or restaurant chains. Bring on a Panera or a Chipotle or an Outback. But take my word for it, as soon as one of them announces they’re coming, that business will be awful, their food will be overpriced slop, and we don’t want them here.

You’d be hard pressed to find an area more desperate for new business and economic development… as long as it changes absolutely nothing.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. If you’re going to push out a metric shit-ton of new mandatory training and tell everyone in the universe they have to take it sometime in the next ten days, it seems to be that the first step might be to make sure the end users are in some way functional before it lands on hundreds of thousands of desks as a short notice must-do task. Maybe it’s just me, but proclaiming something must be done and then making it physically impossible to do feels like a pretty shit way of doing business… Not that I’m in any way surprised.

2. I’m trying to schedule someone to come out and give me a quote for three new window binds that approximately match what’s currently in the house. So far, one can’t be bothered to call back, the next wants me to dismount one of the existing blinds and bring it in so they can look at it, and the third really thinks I should consider getting new window coverings for the entire house. You wouldn’t think it would be this hard to get people to show up and take my money, but yet here we are.

3. Despite the story the media is intent on weaving, you really can decline to support a candidate for office because you have fundamental disagreements with their stated policy positions. To see the prevailing message of the day though, if you don’t support Joe and Kamala, it’s obviously because you’re racist. Feel free to bugger directly off with that fuckery. 

Grains of truth…

I live in a reliably Republican voting county in a blue-voting state. Being one part interested in what’s happening in the community and one-part nosy bastard, I’m a member of several “community based” Facebook groups. Nowhere I visit online is more politically charged than most of these groups. Both the free shit for everyone lefties and Trump is the best president in history crowd are well represented. I think both sides there are idiots, but that’s not my point here.

If you’re anywhere on social media it’s probably impossible to miss the people who are rabidly clamoring to “open now.” Their argument almost universally is centered around some variation of “Well, if you don’t feel safe just stay home” and/or “Small businesses need to start making money.” Take away the vitriol with which those sentiments are spewed across the internet and I fully understand the argument. 

Small businesses, having largely been shuttered for two months, are absolutely in danger of never opening their doors again. The “open now” crowd wants desperately to believe proclaiming businesses open will restore the world to the way it was in February. When the doors to all these businesses finally fly open, this sub-section of people will, I’m sure, crowd in. The other, and I presume larger percentage of people, will not be part of the swarm. This second group are those who don’t feel safe and, on the advice of the first group, have opted to “just stay home.” Sure, they may loosen their self-imposed restrictions a bit, but it won’t be with the free-for-all, madcap, devil-may-care embrace that the “open now” crew advocates. 

Even here in reliably red Cecil County, I have a hard time imagining businesses small and large filled anywhere even close to capacity again any time soon. Business can be all the open they want to be and if people don’t show up in mass, they still won’t make their margin. No one wants to hear this nugget, but my take is that whether open or closed here in last third of May, hundreds of thousands of businesses that were going concerns at Christmastime will be shuttered permanently by Independence Day… and there’s virtually nothing that’s going to stop it from happening.

I don’t take any pleasure in even thinking it because there’s a laundry list of businesses, both small and large, that I patronize, or I use to patronize, fairly regularly. I may be tempted back to a few of the used book shops sooner rather than later – as often enough I’ve had those places to myself even before the Great Plague. But sitting down in a restaurant, packing in shoulder to shoulder at a concert, or even wandering the aisles at the average retail establishment? Yeah, that’s a no from me for the foreseeable future. 

The grain of truth in the “open now” argument is that yes, I will do my own risk assessment and keep my ass at home until I determine (based on the advice of scientists and not politicians) that it’s reasonably safe to do otherwise. Then again, no one has ever had to encourage me to stay home, so maybe I simply lack the impulse that inspires other people to need to pull up a stool to their favorite bar in defiance of basic logic and common sense.

Quarantine fatigue…

The internet is rife with articles documenting the horrors of “quarantine fatigue.” That malady seems to be typified by people going out more frequently, governors rushing to open other-than-essential businesses, and random protests to open this or that state immediately. People have seen the reports that we “flattened the curve” and are now ready to get back to business as usual and spring sets in… even though those reports certainly don’t reflect the reality of every jurisdiction across the country. Here in Maryland, the rate of infection continues to increase – meaning we haven’t yet hit the peak, let along started down its far side.

Among the list of things I’m not is an infectious disease expert. There are, however, lots of smart people out there who are experts in this field – and they’re largely saying it’s way too soon to start having big groups of people congregated in the same place. I wouldn’t take their advice on logistics or operations so it seems reasonable that I shouldn’t try to second guess them when they’re opining about a topic they’ve spent a lifetime studying.

Ready or not, even if it’s against the best medical advice, people are going to reopen this economy. Even people who don’t need to leave, those who can readily work from home and haven’t had any issues of lost pay, seem on the cusp of giving up and trusting to fate out of the lack of ability to keep themselves entertained. You can already see the signs of it in the weekly statistical tracking of people who are out and moving around.

There’s a catch to quarantine fatigue, though. When, after a month or two of this initial experience when the masses insist on restoring “normal,” the Great Plague will spread at an even faster pace than it is now – the number of deaths will increase and we’ll find ourselves facing an even higher curve that needs mitigating. 1918-19 gives us a blueprint of how ugly a pandemic is once we collectively decide all is well and spend a few months forgetting about containment and mitigation. We’ll end up going into the fall and winter far worse off than we were back in March.

Sometimes human nature is painfully predictable.

My employer will, in all likelihood, force us back into non-socially distanced cubicles sooner rather than later. Being a guy who likes to be able to pay the bills, it’s not likely I can do much about that. Stores, bars, and beaches are going to open sooner rather than later and there’s going to be a monumental temptation for people to treat that moment as our “return to normalcy.” Mercifully, I don’t need Governor Hogan or Dr. Fauci to tell me that it’s best to avoid hanging out in those places for the foreseeable future.

I’ve always had philosophical issues with blanket “stay at home” orders. They reek of government overreach. Then again I’ve never needed the government to tell me I should be my own best advocate and look out for my own interests. So open anything you want to, I guess. It’ll be a good long time before I feel any need to sit down in a restaurant or movie theater, go to a concert, or let people through the front door here at Fortress Jeff. I don’t need Uncle Sam or Mother Maryland to tell me what does or doesn’t pass the common sense test. As for everyone else, I suppose y’all are on your own.

Let’s revisit this in about October and see where we are. Good luck.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Suppression of civil liberties. See a lot of news articles that include a one liner that “There is concern that the response to COVID-19 impinges on civil liberties,” but I rarely see the next sentence. I almost never see the sentence after that. Where’s the follow-on discussion to that statement? Government absolutely must respond to this as a public health crisis, but responding doesn’t mean that citizens forgo all other rights and freedoms under the Constitution. If it does, I have no idea why we’re bothering to keep anyone alive anyway.

2. Platitudes. I’ve seen a veritable cornucopia of blog posts and status updates positing in a variety of ways “in these troubled times we should just all be kind.” Bugger that. It’s in troubled times that we collectively and individually need to knuckle down, handle our business (whether it’s personal or professional), and do the hard work of living. In the face of troubles is the very last time we should find ourselves curled into the fetal position having a never-ending cry. If ever in our life there was a time to embrace the stiff upper lip of our forbearers, this would be it.

3. Unresponsive retailers. I’m doing my level best to keep small bookshops afloat during the Great Plague. I’m channeling a fair amount of money through online shops around the country and across the water because I value these businesses and want as many of them as possible to come out on the other side of this thing. Now having said that, my great love of small booksellers doesn’t mean I’m going to overlook all the old forms. I still need them to respond to email when an order doesn’t seem to have budged in almost three weeks. Even a simple “Hey, we’re closed up momentarily while the plague passes” would be sufficient. Failing that, I have to start getting the people who run the sales platform involved in a customer dispute cause us all a bunch of grief that could have easily been avoided.

Scorn and Derision or: The Importance of Knowing Your Amendments…

For the entirety of my lifetime, the 1st, 2nd, 4th Amendments* have gotten somewhere around 95% of the total air time of anyone discussing the Constitutional Amendments in any context. The other five percent is given over to the taxation is theft crowd, celebrating the repeal of prohibition, and everything else. The last three years, something of a historical outlier, have also included not insignificant discussions of the 25th Amendment as well. 

After listening to President Trump’s claim that “When somebody is president of the United States, the authority is total,” it appears that we’re going to spend some amount of time in the near future pondering the Tenth Amendment.

The president is right that we do need to develop a plan for putting the country back to work. Sooner or later, we’re going to have to start opening up the economy. Great Plague or not, there’s a limit to how long people are going to tolerate sitting home, watching their livelihoods crumble, and seeing no obvious end in sight. Beyond the statement of fact that the economy needs to be opened, his argument that it’s a decision to be made by the federal executive branch alone is, in a word, wrong. Other words that could have been used here are: asinine, nonsense, bunk, hokum, or bullshit.

Just as the timing and decision to curtail all but essential business was made by state governors across the country, the governors will also establish the timing and criteria by which business is allowed to reopen. It may be done in conjunction with advice from the federal government, it may be backed up with federal resources, but the decision on timing and “how to” resides with the governors.

Given the 10th Amendment’s reservation of powers not delegated to the federal government to the states, there simply isn’t a lawful mechanism by which the president may issue a blanket decree that state and local government, businesses, and educational institutions are open for business. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying. Anyone who insists that the president does, in fact, have this authority, is attempting to empower the executive branch far beyond anything envisioned under the Constitution – and deserves the scorn and derision of those who have grown and prospered under that protection of that great charter. 

Constitutional Amendments Quick Reference Guide:

  • 1st Amendment – Freedom of speech, religion, and the press
  • 2nd Amendment – Right to keep and bear arms
  • 4th Amendment – Freedom from unreasonable search and seizure
  • 10th Amendment – Reserves powers not granted to the Federal government to the states or the people
  • 16th Amendment – Allows Congress to levy a national income tax
  • 21st Amendment – Repeals prohibition
  • 25th Amendment – Clarifies the rules of presidential succession

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.