Prior experience not required…

Ask me anything posts rarely disappoint. They often lead me down rabbit holes that I’d otherwise never end up finding. Today’s post is one of those.

If I’m absolutely honest, I wasn’t expecting to write a post about flour and yeast this week. Baking isn’t a skill I have. I wish it was, but my forays into anything involving baked goods have so often ended in disaster that I let other people make my bread and bring in the Amish experts when I need anything fancy. That there was a disruption in the flour and yeast universe just wasn’t something that was on my radar until someone asked my thoughts on the supply being bought up by “people… with no prior experience.”

Being generally a free market kind of guy, my initial response is mostly that I don’t care who is buying products at a micro level and that sooner or later the supply chain will shift to accommodate new demand realities. Digging a bit deeper though, I don’t think having a whole slew of new home bakers out there is necessarily the worst thing that could happen. Whether it’s baking, cooking, or running a nuclear power plant, there was always a time when the people doing those things had no prior experience. Excluding them from the market is bad business – and will decrease the number of potential people in the future bringing baked goods to work once the Great Plague is over. In other words, everyone has to start somewhere… and where better than a point in life when we all have wide open stretches of staying indoors and needing something to occupy the hours.

From a slightly different perspective, I think the broader lesson to be learned here – about yeast, cleaning supplies, or toilet paper – is that it’s probably a good idea to have a little more than we think we’ll need from week to week or month to month. Just in time delivery works well for a lot of products, but when it comes to the basics of everyday life, keeping what you already know you’re going to use in 30 to 60 days on hand suddenly doesn’t feel like a terrible idea, does it?

Towards a new federalism…

Change is coming. It’s so palpable that if you’re not too fried by the endless stream of immediate and pressing news you can almost feel it. In the long history of this republic, huge, sweeping change has never come in the good times. There’s no incentive towards structural change when the good times roll.

Over the last hundred years, the biggest changes in this country occurred following economic catastrophe and war, specifically the Great Depression and World War II. It’s probably too easy to assume that once we come out on the other side of the Great Plague we’re likely to see considerable changes coming to how healthcare is delivered and a host of changes surrounding the financial sector – strengthening unemployment insurance (and associated processing systems) at a minimum. Some of the changes will inevitably be of such scope and scale that 30 days ago they’d have been laughed out of the room rather than rushed through implementation. What would have seemed radical under the old version of normal could fairly easily become the new normal of the near future.

Those changes are coming – and no politician who’s interested in reelection will dare to stand against many of them.

Where the social compact that undergirds the republic regularly changes over time, the bigger change I suspect we may see is an unprecedented whipsaw in how we view the “federal” aspect of our federal republic. Since the Civil War, the government in Washington has increasingly centralized the powers of government. The pendulum swung so far that direction that some even argued that we had evolved beyond the need for states; Perhaps that we would best be governed in super-state, regional arrangements. 

What we’ve seen on the last three weeks in New York, California, and my native Maryland (among others), is activist governors leading the response to a health emergency in the absence of clear guidance from the federal government. In some ways, they’re the governors who understand the basic theory of emergency management – Local response is supported by the state while the states draw resources from the federal government when their own resources are exhausted. In this case, though, the federal resources barely seemed to get off the ground and governors were left to coordinate between themselves and directly with industry in an effort to fill requirements – while shaming what resources they could out of the administration. 

I wonder if this isn’t the first step towards a new federalism – one that reverses some of the 160-year long aggregation of authority to officials along the banks of the Potomac. There’s plenty of examples of state governors getting their response to this thing exactly wrong, though, so management at the state level is no guarantee of better results. Still, there’s part of me that thinks anything that reduces the authority of the federal government outside the scope of its “core business,” the better off we’re likely to be in the long run. I’ve been confounded lately by the people who with one breath screech “Trump lies” and then with the next weep bitter tears that the president hasn’t issued a nation-wide order confining citizens to their homes. Personally, I get a little nervous when any president or chief executive – puts on the mantle of “emergency powers” only to be laid down again when he or she decides the crisis has passed. History tells me that rarely ends well. 

In any case, there are changes coming. I’m not smart enough to tell you exactly what they’re going to be… or where the law of unintended consequences is going to jump up and bight us in the collective ass.

What I learned this week…

It’s week two of the crisis, but I’m still learning things. I’m leaning so many things that honestly it’s just easier to list them.

1. Bread, the book says, is the staff of life. In a crisis the breads I like most – sourdough and seeded rye – stays on the shelf longest. Even when most else is picked over, I can usually find one or the other in stock. So I’ve got that going for me in the apocalypse, which is nice.

2. Two monitors isn’t a luxury. I’ve spent the last two weeks working exclusively on a laptop. It’s find for basic word processing, but if you get into any heavy lifting in Excel or find yourself needing to edit the fine print in PowerPoint, there’s just no substitute for dual monitors. If I thought they’d get here before the Great Plague is scheduled to end, I’d order up a pair of cheap screens to retrofit the home office, even if it did temporarily crowd the much prettier Apple rig sitting on my desk.

3. Last and finally, I need to talk to myself more often while I’m working from home. After almost two weeks of having just a few phone conversations and occasionally talking to the animals, my throat feels like ground chuck now that I’ve spent the day chittering with people in the office and fielding the random phone calls. It’s probably also because of today’s distinct lack of afternoon tea and honey.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Spring mix. Look, a hungry tortoise needs to eat. I’m slowly working on getting George to accept pelletized dry food as a supplement, but it’s a hard sell for a boy who was raised from day one eating fresh leafy greens. Fortunately, there hasn’t been a shortage of spring mix, kale, or collared greens, but I still have to schlep out to get them… and that happens just about every 4th or 5th day, because fresh greens get slimy in a hurry. I’m a past master at drying off and storing spring mix in layers of paper towels, but what I really need is for that stuff to just last for another day or two before turning to slime so I can knock down the mandatory trips out of the house from two each week to one. 

2. Masks. Reports are that the CDC is considering recommending everyone where a mask when they leave home, which is exactly counter to the recommendation that the general public didn’t need masks that they’ve been pushing for weeks. Adjusting to new information is fine, it’s how science is supposed to work. Except it can’t work that way right now. The CDC suddenly recommending that everyone should wear a mask when there aren’t enough of them in the supply chain to satisfy the demand just of the medical community is irresponsible. Sending 300+ million people out to panic buy masks will make them even harder to acquire. Even if it is the best medical advice, in the current environment it doesn’t make sense.

3. Essential. A former boss of mine could always be counted on to remind you that “words have meaning” whenever you wrote something that wasn’t exactly the way he would have put it. The thing is, you see, he wasn’t wrong. Words absolutely have meaning. We use them to convey information. The word that seems to be creating the most struggle this week is “essential.” Sure, everyone wants to feel like they’re important. They like to believe that they’re the cog without which the great machinery of state can’t run. There are jobs that can’t be deferred for a month, a week, an hour, or a minute. There are jobs that need doing right fucking now. Despite what people or bosses think, most of us don’t really make the cut. 

Rent strike…

I read an article this morning calling for a 90-day or longer “rent strike,” which seems to be a classed-up way of saying even if someone can afford to pay their rent, they’re not going to do it. The assumption of this movement is that property owners across the country should just absorb the cost of housing for people who can’t or won’t pay.

Until a few months ago I was the smallest of small time landlords – having one condo unit that I rented out. Over the years of owning the place I squirreled away enough operating funds that I was able to make repairs and hold two or three months cash reserve to tide over those months between the departure of one tenant and the arrival of the next. In my very best year, I cleared $1495. Most other years I was lucky to break even or be a few hundred dollars in the black when we did the final accounting. There were more than a few years when I had to augment the rental income with cash infusions from my “day job” to make sure all the bills got paid.

That’s all a long way of saying that expecting landlords across the country to carry the freight of a rent strike indefinitely is absurd. Even assuming the property owner has a “day job” what they’re suggesting would have driven me into the loving embrace of the bankruptcy court at about the ninety day mark. 

The big bad landlord these people want to screw over isn’t only the 10,000-unit holding company or Bank of America, it’s also the retiree who lives down the street or the working man across town who took a step on the property ladder by buying a trashed property and fixing it up. I’m well aware that blood from a stone isn’t a possibility, but the fact that social media is running amok with people who want to portray withholding all rent, especially by those who have the means to keep their obligations, as a heroic act of rebellion is just infuriating. 

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. 

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.