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.

My lane…

One of the best parts of having been around for a while is that “my lane,” those areas of the workflow for which I exert some measure of control or influence, are reasonably well defined. Put another way, I know my boundaries within the organization or of the specific projects I’m assigned. I know what I can and can’t do – or rather what I’m supposed to do and those areas on which I am not supposed to tread. It helps me not dive into the deep end and fire off my opinion without first having that opinion grounded in fact.

It’s important to remember that your lane can change over time. It can narrow or grow wider based on the needs of the organization you serve or on the whims of those who lead it. Because of this, remembering who is empowered to change the size of your lane, also helps you avoid careening through the guardrail and finding yourself upside down in a ditch. 

It’s critical to remember this when someone who isn’t in legitimate position to shift the width of your lane tries to give you a nudge. The fact is, I don’t care if you are a butcher, baker, candlestick maker, doctor, lawyer, or indian chief, if you’re not one of the handful of people who are authorized to change the width of my lane. Despite all their efforts to the contrary, I’ll smile politely, give them and understanding look, and then carry on as if we’ve never had a conversation. 

I am an American bureaucrat. I have honed my craft over years. Who’d have thought that innate intransigence and a prickly sense of how things ought to be done would ever serve me so well.

Amazonia…

The internet is filled with opinions lamenting the decision to locate Amazon’s two new headquarters offices in New York and Northern Virginia. Opponents decry the local tax breaks used to lure in this whale of a business. They decry the traffic it will bring. They lament that the high paying jobs advertised as arriving with Amazon might not go to someone already in the local community. Lastly, they gnash their teeth at the very existence of such a corporate colossus.

The fact is, if New York and NoVA wanted to take a pass on Amazon, there are plenty of communities who would be happy to look past those issues to the virtue of having 50,000+ new jobs forming part of their tax base. They’d realize the sheer volume of other, smaller businesses that will crop up around such megalithic organizations as Google – the coffee shops, and restaurants, dry cleaners, and the inevitable technical support infrastructure that takes root to support big businesses while they focus on “core competency” that all create jobs and bring in taxes.

Look, I accept that bringing in a business like Amazon isn’t a silver bullet. Over eager local governments have a tendency to give away the store to draw in companies of that stature. To me, that says more about bad negotiating on the part of local government than it does a problem with having Google show up next door.

I’d be curious to know, of course, how many of these opinion leaders who rail against Amazon are happily using Alexa, or watching Prime videos, or enjoying their regular free 2-day shipping. Maybe none of them, but I suspect the number is far more than zero. The point is, if you have a problem with the deal Amazon worked out to locate their new headquarters complexes, your issue should be more with local government than with Amazon. I’m as big a critic as anyone when Amazon drops the ball, but in this case, all I see is a corporation following the best interests of the company and its shareholders… you know, doing exactly what a business is supposed to do.

Personally, I’m glad I don’t live anywhere within 50 miles of what is sure to be a traffic snarling nightmare. Dropping a massive distribution center ten miles from the house was more than adequate support from Amazon to help meet my consumer requirements. Where the locate or what they do with their fancy new three-headed corporate hydra is all fine with me just so long as they keep it in one of those fast growing urban centers I hear so much about and way the hell away from my nice quiet woods.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Good ideas. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with good ideas. There is, however, a point in every project when your thoughts need to turn away from adding bells and whistles and focus in on executing the damned mission. Some guy with a bunch of stars on his collar and a shit ton of fruit salad on his chest once said “A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week.” Words that we’d be well served to keep in mind.

2. Voicemail. Calling a designated customer service number and having to wait a few minutes is standard operating procedure. I got it. Calling the customer service line for a major business and then getting shunted to voicemail isn’t going to get the job done. I’m trying to give your company a not insufficient amount of money. I’m calling you at a time that is convenient for me to talk. Chances are you’ll return my call at a time that is not convenient. Then I’ll call you and leave a message. Then you’ll call me and leave a message and so on. Instead of that, I’ll just go ahead and call the next closest registered dealer that handles the same product and spend my money at their location. Thanks for playing, though.

3. Confusion. Job: “a paid position of regular employment.” Holy Quest: “a chivalric journey undertaken by a knight in order to procure or achieve a particular object or end.” More people should know the difference.

Like a used car…

I had another interview this afternoon. Different job. Different organization. Still in roughly the same geographic area I’m in now. It seemed to go well enough, though I may be a spectacularly bad judge of that sort of thing. I generally count not tripping myself on the way in the door as a personal victory.

What I’ve found in interviewing for positions in the local area is that you tend to run into some of the same people. Repeatedly. In both recent occasions, I’ve known at least one of the other people interviewing for the position. Some people would find that awkward. Maybe I should be one of them, but I’m not. One of the helpful skills I’ve developed over the last decade and a half is that I just don’t take any of this stuff personally. And for the most part it really, truly isn’t personal – because the bureaucracy just doesn’t have the time or inclination to care about you the individual. That may sound negative, but with hundreds of thousands of moving widgets it’s generally just a function of trying to find the one that appears like it would mesh best with the other cogs that are already in motion and then cramming it into the available opening.

Look, I’d rather get offered one or both of these jobs than not. I mean I wouldn’t have bothered putting on a tie if I wasn’t at least interested. What I’m not doing is giving these decisions a lot of life or death credibility no matter which way they break. I’d like the chance to do some different work and if neither one of these pans out it seems like I’ve at least cracked the code on getting my resume in front of the people making decisions. Having sent out hundreds of resumes in my time with Uncle, I’m secure in saying that’s easily 95% of the battle.

The other 5% is about selling yourself like a used car. If you’re feeling a little dirty when you’re done, you’ve probably done it right. Talk about life skills no one ever bothers to teach you.

Customer service…

Often enough I’ll put companies that fail to deliver even basic customer service on blast here online. More rarely I get to give the good word when a company does something right. Tonight, fortunately, is the latter.

Last week I stopped by Wawa for a sandwich. That’s not unusual. It happens about once a week. Their consistency is one of the biggest reasons I like the place. I know what to expect when I open the wrapper. Creature of habit that I am, that means a lot. Last week’s sandwich was an outlier, which was why I ended up Tweeting at them in the first place. I didn’t expect anything to come from it other than making myself feel a little better about the lunch I threw away because it reeked of banana peppers.

Thirty minutes later though, I got a note from one of Wawa’s social media team who quickly gathered up my information, appologized, and offered me a sandwich on the house. Again, I didn’t think much about it and didn’t expect anything to come if it. Sure enough, though, this evening there was a letter containing a Wawa gift card in my mail box and they were good to their word.

It’s the one bad experience I’ve had with Wawa in four years of being a regular customer and they made it right without arguing, or elevating it to a manager, or making it seem like the hardest thing in the world. They’re doing customer service right and I just wanted to take this chance to say so.