The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

The Inability to Do Basic Things

So, we now have multiple cases of packing plants which have spread Covid-19 cases through the workforce.

These businesses have workers cheek to jowl, but most did not make even basic efforts.

Let us say that you can’t find official protective devices.

Have cloth ones sewed, three layers. All it takes is someone who knows how to use a sewing machine. Label them with numbers one to six, large print, plus each worker’s name.

I’ve seen reports that cloth masks are good for about two hours, then they have to be cleaned. So, you give each worker two sets of six. For their first two hours, they wear the one labelled ONE, and so on. Compliance can easily be checked. At the end of the shift, they all go into a bin for cleaning, and they are hung on the outside of workers’ lockers (these sorts of jobs have worker lockers) or other appropriate place for the next shift.

Does this cut it all down? Heck no. But it’s a start, and it only requires the plant manager and his logistics people to get off their asses.

There’s some weird sort of incapability in much of the Western world today. We seem unable to even carry through the basic motions. We just sit around stunned, doing the least amount possible unless ordered to do otherwise. When authority fails, we fail.

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April 30th US Covid Data


It’s Impossible to Overstate How Broken America Is


  1. Lex

    See my comment from the other day. In a competent emergency response this is exactly the kind of early action you’d expect to see. Is it the best option? Maybe/probably not but given the contours of the situation it’s a reasonable plan and it’s immediately actionable. Theoretically, large corps have health & safety personnel that often cover some amount of industrial hygiene duties. To be sure, most H&S people are useless cop types but IH consultants like me are all over the country. I could put together plans for these people for a few hours of billable time. Would you be surprised to learn that my phone is not ringing off the hook? And I guy like me would be able to tell these people that even if they can get the industrial type N95’s that they’d be better off with cloth masks because the industrial N95 has an unfiltered exhalation valve.

    I hate to use South Park, but I’ll be damned if almost every facet of the US isn’t run by underwear gnomes.

  2. Dave Dell

    In my opinion… A large part of the problems facing us are due to a mismatch between authority and responsibility. My entire stomach churning career I had no authority to actually do my job but had 100% of the responsibility if results were mediocre.

    Authority in a lot of jobs (meat packing plant managerial staff for instance) is the ability to spend money. They probably have some pretty severe restrictions on discretionary spending for anything, let alone these front line efforts. This brings us up the ladder to corporate. There the upper mid-level managers have authority. Mostly, it is the authority to say NO. The authority to say YES is grudgingly given a bit higher in the hierarchy at corporate. Sometimes no one really knows where the authority to say YES resides.

    This mismatch between authority and responsibility is true of all organizations, business, government, non-government, and charitable, beyond a size large enough to have managerial staffs. It means we are incapable of the flexibility as a country, state, county, church, sewer improvement district, etc. to confront unusual circumstances that require quick, sensible action requiring the spending of significant amounts of money coupled with changes in work/personnel practices.

  3. Larster

    This is the result of treating people as an expense not a valuable resource. If they get sick, order up another van full of migrants, says the modern manager.

  4. GlassHammer

    “There’s some weird sort of incapability in much of the Western world today”

    It’s not weird, you don’t provide mitigation for things you are not worried about losing/replacing.

  5. GlassHammer

    It would strike me as weird if any company or industry voluntarily did this because protecting workers is not normal. Heck protecting assets in general isn’t normal.

    Western management is a process of maximal extraction, minimal reinvestment, and short term planning.

    It is what it is.

  6. Ché Pasa

    Bodies are rotting (in UHaul trucks) in the streets of Brooklyn. No one seems to know what to do. The systemic failures are beyond outrageous.

    Slaughterhouses don’t know how to keep their workers reasonably safe in the midst of the pandemic, and from appearances, they don’t much care. It’s not their problem. They’ll just shut down and let everyone else take the consequences. Vegans are said to be delighted.

    The various agencies that should be handling the Outbreak like they would in any other disaster or crisis act like they’re paralyzed, or they’re frantically doing the wrong thing, or they’re wildly competing with one another to do… nothing? The sclerotic and idiotic response to the pandemic is so widespread, it looks deliberate. As long as it’s only or mostly “those people” who get the bug and die, what’s the problem?

    They don’t know what to do — though as Lex has pointed out, “what to do” has long been figured out and protocols that work are fairly straightforward and relatively easy to implement. Instead, we see constant re-invention of what to do and how to do it while the bodies pile up and the virus spreads.

    Re-invention every few days.


  7. GlassHammer

    Che Pasa

    You reinvent when you don’t like the answer.

    Enough said.

  8. GrimJim

    As GlassHammer said, Western Management is designed for maximal value extraction at minimal cost. Most managers I know and have dealt with, all the way up through executives, no longer have any serious capability for critical thought beyond that, and are utterly incurious as to anything else. They cannot even have a serious conversation outside meeting those requirements.

    And of course, they are utterly without morals or ethics, as one cannot function in modern Western Management with either a moral compass or ethical standards. Protecting employees isn’t even on the radar under the best of circumstances, as all that is obviated by the cutting of all Federal and State enforcement agencies and everything else is covered by the arbitration clause…

  9. Ian Welsh

    Dave Dell,

    yeah, many years ago I wrote an article saying that power was the ability to say yes, and most people can only say no.

    Didn’t realize plant management would be that restricted.


  10. Eric Anderson

    Ian said:
    “… we just sit around stunned, doing the least unless ordered to do otherwise. When authority fails, we fail.”

    I submit this stems from the rights v. duties conundrum the capitalist class created through their incessant capitalist propaganda to sell moar … Moar … MOAR!

    Who want’s to watch an advertisement (again, capitalist propaganda) telling you what your duties are? No. It’s all about what YOU can do for ME.

    Learned helplessness. If you can’t buy a solution on Amazon, well, it doesn’t exist.

  11. Eric Anderson

    Dave Dell:
    I commented before I read the comments. Seems we’re of like mind.

  12. Will

    Ian this is an absolutely fascinating topic. You could (should!) write a book on this!

    I’ve noticed this same thing and it bothers me. I’ve even spoken to people around me about it. Want to know the absolute worst part? I know this is going on and even knowing this I see it in my own actions once in a while. The fear of failure or something can creep in and paralyze me. Or something.

    I remember my pickup had a vibration years ago and I just decided to jump in an see what was wrong. Snatched the transfer and transmission out of it one saturday morning. Took a plate off and started moving things around. Found a bad output shaft bearing and took the transfer case into to the shop for a quick repair. All this as a kid who who was barely old enough to shave.

    25 years of experience and a heck of a lot of mechanical engineering classes later I wouldn’t dream of doing that. Am I just getting old and scaredy? Did education rob me of initiative? Is it wisdom or just cowardice masquerading as wisdom? I mean sometimes I’ll just grab a chainsaw or a socket set or a jigsaw or whatever and start doing something new… but other times? Not unless I KNOW what I’m doing.

    Sometimes I miss that kid who just laughed at the odds and the experts.


  13. GlassHammer

    Am I just getting old and scaredy? Did education rob me of initiative?

    No, you just aren’t as reckless because you know a bit more.
    You are also trying to be more precise with you answer to keep the problem from coming back or to keep from introducing a new problem.

    This world needs people to slow down and think things through.

  14. nihil obstet

    The explanations in this comment stream so far address the main issues. There’s a subsidiary that provides a platform for those issues. The two prime directives for an employee of a large organization are 1) Don’t make a mistake; and 2) Don’t be in the vicinity when a mistake is made. Violate one of those directives and you suffer consequences ranging from job loss to career ending. The financial consequences can be devastating. So nothing gets done. Managers don’t do anything out of the ordinary that might turn out to be wrong (either in reality or just in their superior’s mind), and workers don’t push because they also have internalized mistake-avoidance.

  15. Dale

    All this has been said before, but here goes..
    1. We don’t teach our children problem solving in school anymore. It is all teaching to pass exams. One of the chief reasons my wife and many of her friends retired.
    2. There is no organizational history in most businesses. No empathy. No planning long term.
    3. Remember the propaganda we were told about why the Soviet Union failed. Looks just like what I’m seeing happening here now.
    4. People don’t get paid to think. No pride or praise for a job well done. And you wonder why we aren’t problem solvers?

    Now the good that is coming out of this…
    1. We’re talking over the fence to our neighbors.
    2. People are helping each other out.
    3. Neighbors are sharing tools and helpful advice.
    4. We have time for each other.
    5. The world is shrinking to a size we can relate to.
    6. Families and kids matter.
    7. Zoom, Skype, and FaceTime are great tools bringing us closer together.
    8. Life is still good!

  16. GlassHammer

    “1) Don’t make a mistake”
    -Nihil obstet

    No “Aways obfuscate your mistakes” is the number one rule. They make mistakes all the time they just make it as hard as possible to detect.

    The number two rule is “Deny it, deny it, deny it”.

    The best example of the typical Western Manager is Trump. He is the perfect mirror for the management class.

  17. Will

    GlassHammer: There’s probably some truth to that. Lord knows I’ve had my share of Tim Taylor-like “shake it off” moments. Literally and figuratively. 😮

    The comments on how modern day management works are very interesting. The US used to have a lot more locally owned and operated businesses and a lot less huge multi-national corporations. Maybe we traded a lot of go getters for a lot of corporate appeasers.

    For whatever reason, I believe Ian is right in that this nation is not what it used to be in that regard.


  18. S Brennan

    All good comments, well…somebody had to pat themselves on the back instead of just saying “I agree”. But I’m glad. So far, everybody made a cognitive argument without trotting out their standard whipping boy. It’s good to be in concert…even if it’s in lament.

    In order to make myself feel useful during this depressing time, I’ve been donating my time to a project to help reduce the need for medical staff to change PPE for prevention of patient cross-contamination. In brief, a patient may come into a hospital sick with Covid-19 and gain an additional viral load deposited from PPE that protects the occupant but, not the patient. This project may prove useless but at least, I feel like I’m doing something for the “War Effort”.

    I encourage all to see Covid-19 as a call to arms, politics will still be around at wars end, bend yourself to the chore at hand and let your political pony out to the pasture. This looks to be a long war requiring structural impediments to be erected in the post-war period. Let’s take our tattered remnants and weave ourselves into a “great generation”.

    A modest suggestion for the Blog; some people here seem to have had the 1st hand experience and knowledge of the infection. [and by that, I do not mean me, or for that matter, all the other commenters who are expert on things of which they know not], why couldn’t we have a pinned [curated] commentary outlining the “latest best strategies” for initial infection response. I think it will drive readership here and build Ian Welsh’s message into a larger platform without forcing him to kowtow to the DNC [as so many others have].

    The horse has left barn, counting on not getting the disease is a bad bet, let’s help one another. Frankly, after developing sepsis [probably from the drug users encampment that surrounded my workplace] I am likely to die, once infected, as susceptibility to sepsis is a strongly associated morbidity.

  19. anon

    Over two months ago I had friends in Asia insisting that Americans should start wearing masks. I stated on this blog that in early March, I went to a gas station wearing a N95 mask and gloves. I was called “scary” by a guy inside the gas station. I wonder if he is alive now or if he’s contracted the virus as my city was one of the hardest hit in the nation.

    Back then the CDC was telling Americans not to wear masks in an effort to save them for medical personnel. This horrible lie led to tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths as the virus spread and people were still going about their daily lives and working with no PPE.

    Wearing a mask during a pandemic has always been simple common sense that people understood from over a century ago. If you look up photographs of the 1912 Spanish flu pandemic, you can find entire families and even their PETS wearing face masks. Asian countries and their citizens understood this immediately. In normal times and during flu season, it was common to see Asians wear masks out in public. But here in the USA, the first people who were smart enough to wear masks were met with ridicule.

    Something so simple and easy to do continues to be botched by American government and corporations. If masks works for medical personnel, why wouldn’t they protect everyone else from the virus? This should have been a no-brainer. The fact that essential workers are still working without PPE should be enough for a multi-million dollar class-action lawsuit by these workers and their families after all of this is over.

  20. Tom

    Well, I’m glad I have a boss who knows what the hell he is doing and knows we need to land on problems like a ton of bricks and work with incomplete information.

    Unfortunately America has managers, not leaders, in charge. A leader would have, upon learning this was a class IV pathogen, stopped all flights and border crossings, ordered everyone to wear a mask, stopped all sales of alcohol and tobacco, ordered restaurants to switch to takeout only, ended all non-emergency Dental visits, ended all veterinary work for house pets, ended all abortions not necessary for the life of the mother and moved those to a hospital, mobilized laid off workers to head to the farms and help keep the food flowing without waste, threw hundreds of billions of dollars into testing and medical support, and accepted the fact the economy is fucked and given out a debt jubilee to everyone while paying their salaries for the duration.

    Managers, well we already see their priorities right now. Especially with the food distribution network that has completely collapsed when millions are now reliant on food banks which are empty. We have the food, but it can’t be distributed as its cheaper to destroy it than recalibrate the commercial food supply chain to the domestic supply chains.

  21. gnokgnoh

    Dave Dell,

    Your comment about being able to say NO, but not having the authority to say Yes, in large and small organizations is absolutely my experience. But, this characteristic is a side effect of complexity and highly specified expertise, in my view. Take, as an example, a car assembly line, service organizations, such as dentist offices and other small businesses, and even tech companies. If asked to do something you don’t have the expertise to do, let alone have been hired to do, you either say No, or you hedge.

    Middle management is a different thing. Middle management, even in smaller businesses always answer to the owners. This is true, even in non-profits (my line of work), where there are no owners. The middle manager answers to the President, who is hired by the Board. It takes an extremely enlightened owner or President of a non-profit to relinquish control, especially if the company operates on very tight margins, which is the case for most small businesses.

    The example of Tyson Foods and the closing of their meatpacking companies bothers me, because that clearly is a business that is run by owners who have been lulled into some idea that they are invincible. Middle managers that don’t provide protective equipment for their employees only end up putting themselves out of work. The hand of ownership and the cost margins must have been very heavy. Most companies are cowed by liability and would never have taken those risks, let alone the risk of having to shut down your industrial meat plants. Perhaps the really didn’t believe that coronavirus is serious. I hear that a lot.

    Also, frankly, I don’t think it was ever better. We just think it was better, because we know more, we have more information about our own dysfunction. I’m not talking about farming or homesteading, where everyone had to do know how to do everything. There are few universalists any more.

  22. gnokgnoh

    Two edits:

    Perhaps they really didn’t believe that coronavirus is serious.

    I’m not talking about farming or homesteading, where everyone had to know how to do everything.

  23. krake

    Unit managers rarely have the ‘luxury’ of refusing blame. As front-line handlers of hourly labor (across multiple sectors, but esp. for QSR, retail and technical service locations like chain oil-change shops), a substantial percentage of mgmt skill is depliyed in absorbing and defusing blame: from customers, m-u mgrs, corporate and crew. It’s why burnout and turnover are so high. Those rare few adept at deflecting blame move up, often to m-u positions, where they always do more harm; a principle or algorithm which also explains most politicians, whose chief skill is always blame-misdirection.

  24. gnokgnoh

    More examples,

    In 1972, I did all the work on my own Mustang. Besides having access to garage with a drive-on pit, it did not take complicated tools or know-how.

    Today, I can do some things on my car (change oil, brake shoes and rotors), but all of the automation, fuel injection, and other technologies require specialized equipment and training. Besides, I don’t have the time to learn it all, even if I can Google it. So I say no, and take it to the local garage where Tom works on it. I’m okay with that.


  25. GlassHammer

    On Masks my two cents are as follows:

    -Tea Towels work pretty well, really anything made to soak up spills should work due to the tight weave
    -I find it much easier to adjust fit by attaching via cord and knot instead of elastic bands
    -A doc gave me this tip, tie it behind your head/neck if it’s anchored to your ears (some people make them this way)it’s going to bother you more.

  26. Hugh

    The case for capitalism was that it produced the best products at the lowest prices. But with the capitalism we have, the opposite is true.

    We also lack solidarity. Aside from the civil rights movement back in the 50s and 60s, most social movements were eliminated by the Red Scare tactics of Wilson in the early part of the 20th century. Unions followed. So now we have most people invoking special exemptions. It’s their religious right. It’s the 2nd Amendment. They have a right to keep their business open no matter how many of their fellow citizens it kills. We are fractionalized and factionalized. There are plenty of people out there who know how to do the right things. Our whole system though is based on keeping them marginalized.

  27. Charlie

    This is exactly what happens when the way to having decision making power wrests upon who you know and not what you know. Hence, the decline in even basic decision making outcomes.

  28. Stirling S Newberry

    This is a good thing, the current iteration of Capitalism is going to die. The people who are interesting are the people talking about what happens afterward.

    There will be a new kind of capitalism and a new version of socialism, because, ultimately the hit the twin desires: what happens when things good, what happens when thing are bad.

  29. bruce wilder

    I had a brief encounter today with what seemed to me to be an amazing illustration of exactly how “the inability to do basic things” plays out in perverse bureaucracy.

    I was helping a friend whose small business is attempting to sell curriculum to a small state college in the midwest. As part of their contracting procedure they asked for several documents by acronym. One was a certificate of insurance, which I understand. The rest had to do with data privacy and security and accessibility and referred to checklist instruments that in turn refer to other acronyms representing still more checklists. There is a whole industry of consultants selling services around being able to fill out these forms. Absolutely nothing is done to actually protect personal data privacy and security and very little is done to improve the accessibility of internet services.

    Universities in the U.S. are infamous for their expanding administrations and shrinking teaching budgets. But seeing it laid out was kind of shocking. It was kind of sickening to do Google searches on these acronyms and see website after slick website laying out what is basically ineffectual indirection where purpose might have been.

  30. Charlie

    *Typo. “decision making power wrests ” should be rests.

  31. Eric Anderson

    bruce wilder:
    I’m old enough to remember when planned obsolescence was the only crapification tactic employed to increase profit margins at the expense of the consumer. Seems we need to add planned obfuscation as well.

    I’d love to hear the commentariat’s ideas on other crapification techniques they’ve encountered.

  32. KT Chong

    Germany. Taiwan. New Zealand. Iceland. Finland. Norway. Denmark.

    What Do Countries With The Best Coronavirus Responses Have In Common?

  33. Ché Pasa

    Communications with my health care organization has always been a struggle. On one level, it certainly was today, but on another I was surprised at how simple and straightforward it was. Trying to return a call from a person in my rheumatologist’s office was a failure as I did not meet the protocols for being put through to the office. I was told to wait. The person whose call I was returning would surely call me. Because there was no record she’d already called me, she couldn’t have called me yet, you see. I swear!

    Meanwhile, via My Chart, I was in message communication with the person who called me from the office, and within an hour or so, I was able to arrange an appointment for a video visit without much trouble at all.

    Despite the fact that many things don’t work any more — if they ever did — some things still do or at least sometimes can, and so those who are lost in cynicism have a sense of hope, no?

  34. Willy

    When I moved into my neighborhood 20 years ago everybody had skills to trade. Ron was an electrician. Bob the railroad engineer could repair any power tool. Ernie was a civil engineer and had some good drainage and septic repair ideas. His EE college student kid was our computer geek. Stan the insurance underwriter guy would advise us about risky trees and with his sidekick Pepin, would help us thin out the bad ones so the safer ones could thrive. They were usually maples 100′ tall. Even though I was pretty much the kid of the bunch, they let me be the landscaping and backyard structures building expert.

    We’d learn from each other while working together, doing our own version of neighborly barn-raising. Our wives would organize block parties and block watches and everybody made regular guy attempts to get along and not sweat the small stuff. If there was ever trouble you always had help available, 24/7.

    Good times. Maybe I was unusually lucky back then and just didn’t know it.

    Today all but Ernie have moved on but he’s getting old. None of the younger new guys replacing the old timers seem to have any interest in being good at much of any anything that’s skills-tradeable. Most are software techs who just hire all their electricians, mechanics and shed builders from the outside. Few are even very sociable at all. I don’t know the guy across the street from me or the folks next door, even though I’d introduced myself after they moved in.

    Sometimes I wonder if they’re embarrassed because I do everything house, car and yard myself. Maybe they look down on me because I’m actually getting my hands dirty. Other times I think it’s more likely they just don’t give a shit. They come from a completely different world.

  35. Eric Anderson

    We’re endangered species Willy. Everyone’s a specialist these days. It’s tough to commodify a renaissance human.

  36. Ché Pasa

    Strike Day has arrived. The beginning of what will probably be Strike Month, and perhaps more. We’ll see whether Americans can even do that.

    The Vanguard, of course, was the armed and loud yay-hoos assembling at various capitals to defy the stay-at-home health department orders and demand that The Economy be “re-opened”. This was a nearly exact duplicate of the demonstrations at various capitals in November and December 2000 demanding that recounts end and GWB be installed in the White House forthwith. Complete with guns, yelling, flags and all the rest of the trappings.

    There may be very little media coverage of the strikes as it’s not something the plutocracy wants there to be a focus on, as opposed to the yay-hoos, but by now we’ve all heard about doctors and nurses being silenced about lack of protective supplies, doctors and nurses ordered to take pay cuts in the midst of the pandemic “because there isn’t enough money,” hospitals and clinics closing for the same reason, lack of protective supplies at nearly all essential businesses and activities with concomitant sickness and death. We’ve all heard that maybe 40% or more of US households can’t make rent or mortgage payments, can’t pay their car loans and credit cards and many can’t even afford to buy food. The “stimulus” payments aren’t getting to tens of millions of Americans, and millions of small businesses cannot access the alleged forgivable loans intended to tide them over. Workers are not participants in the various “re-opening” task forces.

    Shortages of basic household supplies and food stuffs continue and worsen, and both business and industry seem incapable — or unwilling — to rectify the situation. The hungrier people are, the more likely they are to revolt. And they’re getting hungrier by the day. “Re-opening” isn’t going to make things better for most people. Perhaps half the labor force will be idled indefinitely no matter what.

    But we see who is in the vanguard, and unless something very profound happens to change things dramatically, their demands and outlook will be in the lead of whatever revolution comes.

  37. @KT Chong

    Wow, that’s really interesting! I can’t quite remember the details, but I think it’s also true that startups that have female CEO’s tend to do better.

    In the case of covid response, maybe what we’re seeing is a modern day manifestation of a deep seated tendency of females to be more protective of the clan, in the sense of acting defensively. I’d be curious to hear what socio-biologists have to say (who aren’t politically correct).

  38. nihil obstet

    On the lack of practical skills — why should a young person today learn any of those skills? Once upon a time, an electrician could support a family with reasonable working hours, including owning a home and taking annual vacations. They could expect this situation to continue throughout their lives.

    An electrician today will have nowhere near such luxuries. Now, to have them, you have to have a high-status white collar job, whether you like working at a desk or not. So you go to college to get credentials for the same jobs that everybody else is getting credentials for and that only a few will actually be employed in.

    You cannot have a skilled, highly unequal society.

  39. GlassHammer

    Well I am one of those young guys learning practical skills from older neighbors.
    They just see me doing work outside, offer advise, and I listen.
    Nothing complicated about it.

    I don’t have all the skills I need but I can’t afford to higher a pro for every job.
    My income is good but not good enough for that.
    I also prefer learning new skills instead of further increasing my knowledge of my specialty because the later has hit the point of diminishing returns. (Costly credentialing for minor gains).

  40. Eric Anderson

    nihil obstet > “why should a young person today learn any of those skills?”

    I was raised to believe it’s because those skills are among the many that make a boy a man.
    I was also raised to believe it’s to make ends meet.
    I was also raised to believe that it’s enjoyable — that there is zen in the focus required to master one’s domain.
    I was also raised to believe the opposite sex tends to find it sexy. My wife is pretty handy, and yeah, I think it’s pretty sexy.

    Just a few reasons to consider.

  41. nihil obstet

    @Eric Anderson

    Those are among the many good reasons to learn the skills. My point is that I don’t see any social support for them. Used to be, you’d learn a lot of them helping along side a parent, and then potentially learn one or more in detail for life’s work. Does that still happen?

    What I see is information to young people about how much more money college graduates will make than those with no high education. And I rather even hear college discussed in terms of education any more. It’s all about job training. STEM, you know.

    A lot of what’s wrong with our elites is that they have no sense of the connectedness of the material and the mental. An electrician is more likely to know, really to know, that lights don’t come on because of magic and the internet isn’t bunch of tubes.

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