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Rebuilding

It’s painful to watch a sports team coast for years or decades on former glories.

“Never mind the losing,” they say: “Keep coming to the ballpark and paying through the nose for snacks and souvenirs. After all, the ghost of So-and-so still inhabits this field. And who knows? You might catch a glimpse of him.”

The truth, as everyone can see, is that these teams aren’t those teams of yore. And a mismanaged team in legendary uniforms is pretty hard to watch.

Sooner or later, it’s time to rebuild. And once you make that decision, buckle up: it’s going to look different, it’s going to take time, and it can’t be done by half-measures.

After all, the only thing worse than a refusal to rebuild is a constant rebuilding. Then you’re the Browns: named after a founding father of the league and with a proud history, but with a new coach this year, a new GM the next, and a new quarterback after that — and precious little to show for all that on the field or the scoreboard.

Watching “Unorthodox”

Watching the first half of the Netflix series about a young Hasidic woman’s attempt to leave her community in Brooklyn, I was first captivated by the images of travel and music.

Those are scarce commodities these days, of course, so the plot line that unfolds in a Berlin conservatory offers plenty of food for the homebound soul.

But the cultural portrayal leaped off the screen, too: this tiny (admittedly elite, adapted for the screen) slice of Berlin is filled with people of all colors, cultures, and characters. They slip effortlessly between languages and deal openly but relatively lightly with their country’s past.

My first reaction was, “They are who we said we were.” But then I realized that’s not really true: even if we take this ludicrously small sample as representative in any meaningful way, what really matters is that the culture, the history, and — crucially — the promise are different.

Saying that contemporary Germany is like the United States is like comparing the two countries’ constitutions: you can spot the resemblances, but Germany’s resembles — and does not resemble — that of the United States in specific ways, for specific reasons.

Covid might hasten a constitutional crisis in the United States, but the virus isn’t going to help us write a new “basic law,” as U.S. and allied intellectuals did in defeated Germany. We’re going to have to do that for ourselves, but we don’t have to do it truly alone: more than 200 years on, there are plenty of other examples of similar ideas on different evolutionary paths to borrow and adapt.

Normal?

Mean-reversion is an enormously powerful force — and all the more so for being so drastically underrated.

It’s why new-year’s resolutions don’t stick, habits are hard to change, and the status quo wins as much as it does.

A couple of weeks ago, I was musing about what it might look like to return to “normal,” and I realized (again) that we’re still not far enough into the new. “Normal” still brings up images of office buildings, ubiquitous air travel, and pretty much limitless energy consumption.

Of course we’re all sick and tired of being sick and masked and tired, and of course we’re all looking forward to enjoying the freedoms and opportunities we used to take more or less for granted.

But.

For one thing, taking the climate emergency seriously will require adaptations much wider in scope and longer in duration than anything we’ve experienced thus far with Covid. Five months into really living with Covid, this story still isn’t getting enough play.

For another, what if we’re not looking at the right means in the right ways? More than 75 years of unprecedented global peace and prosperity, if truly unprecedented, means we might have some much bigger and tougher long-term mean-reversions on the horizon.

Fear-mongering or facile historical analogies won’t help us prevent or prepare for the possibility, but neither will willful ignorance. More connected and more prosperous isn’t necessarily normal. Still less more prosperous because more connected.

Not every generation lives through something like this, but the decisions we make now will surely shape what’s normal for generations to come.

Failure, Future, and Faster

The most important article I read this past week was David Leonhardt’s long-form exposé on “The Unique U.S. Failure to Control the Virus.” (This pairs well with Jonathan Swan’s viral interview with the president on HBO/Axios.) There is a conclusion or two that I’d quibble with here, but it’s essential to understand the situation of the United States in context: simply, we failed to move fast enough, failed to coordinate economic and health policy, and — above all — have been shouting more lies and confusion through a bigger megaphone than anyone else. We’re still suffering in a way that no other developed “peer” country is, it shows, and the beatings will continue until morale improves.

Another article worth reading comes from the NYT magazine. It asks, “What if Working From Home Goes On … Forever?” The better question might be, why wouldn’t or shouldn’t it? There will be reasons to go back to working in person, but they’ll be discrete — and by the time that’s generally possible (let’s say at least a year from now), our habits, baselines, technologies, and workflows will have adjusted tremendously. Most U.S. workers didn’t know what Zoom was in March. Now it’s a verb, and so ubiquitous as to be exhausting. Consider how much and how quickly they’ve iterated in that time, and consider how many other companies are working like crazy to make software for a truly remote-first world. “Skype, only better” is one promise; “international business meetings, only better and without the jet lag” is a new category just coming into focus.

Finally, on a more personal note, the article that changed my mind and actions the most this week was Ben Kuhn’s “Be Impatient” [HT to last week’s newsletter from Farnam Street]. How fast can you go? How about when you know which direction you’re trying to go vs. when you don’t?

Trends and Changes

Let’s get really, really clear about a few things:

First, the net effect of the ongoing Covid crisis — especially in the United States — has been to accelerate pre-existing patterns. Working from home feels different, but we’ve had the current generation of tools for years, and the digital workforce was already growing. The brokenness of our health and insurance systems shouldn’t surprise anyone; that it’s been breaking even faster in recent months shouldn’t surprise, either.

And the disparate experiences of people of different races, classes, and household-wealth percentiles have been accelerating, too. There was great hope at the outset (in some quarters) that this would be the great reset, but evidence is still lacking. Instead, we’re getting austerity-lite: without the macho “confidence” narratives of 2008, perhaps, but with all the pious tropes of “discouragement” and “disincentives” that just won’t die — even in the face of a pandemic.

The second big thing is to recognize that change — if it’s going to happen at all — is going to have to come through politics (and the culture, which is as ever upstream of the politics).

Politics and Policy

An important and often missed distinction. And it’s now clear we badly need better of both.

In politics, partisanship just keeps metastasizing. Even a cursory glimpse at history (or medicine) would indicate that’s not a good thing. It would also show that it’s very, very hard to stop: being social and political animals, people really like competing in teams — and once team loyalty to a subgroup eclipses loyalty to an overarching (constructed) group, it’s difficult to reverse.

In the more prosaic realm of policy, we simply need better work. And no, more technocratic “nudging” is not necessarily better. Even to the extent that policy organs are in thrall to political dysfunction, there’s no excuse for just plain shoddy work.

Trying to define policy is difficult enough. (Just try doing it for yourself.) But, once you’ve got a working common-sense definition, ask yourself if the results we’re seeing and getting are acceptable.

Further Regionalism

As the United States’ experiment in Lord of the Flies governance continues, more states are starting to work together. Financially and politically, it’s much harder to avoid facing reality at the state and local level.

And so the regional travel arrangements agreed several months ago are now mirrored by a multi-state effort to source and provide rapid tests.

Keep watching experiments like this. The bad news is that the United States is looking ever more like Europe five or 10 years ago: an economic union with no political unity to match (in spite of aspirations and protestations to the contrary). The good news is that reinvention and reimagination of government is almost certainly going to have to happen at the local and state levels — and less sports-like fixation on the presidency in general would be a very healthy thing indeed.

WFH: Tax Policy Edition

Assume working from home is still generally common, at least at some level, two years from now. How would or could employment conditions and tax policy catch up with that?

For example, if a self-employed worker can deduct the cost of her home office (in rent or mortgage by area) from her income, at what point would it make sense for salaried worker to do the same thing — by incorporation if necessary?

Frankly, I don’t know the details on this well enough to begin to attempt the math, but it’s not hard to imagine more salaried positions moving, if possible, toward a B2B or contractor structure.

In the abstract, I would guess that the early adopters won’t be numerous enough to totally unbundle employment, work, salary/income, and insurance at a stroke (in the United States), but I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see gig-like arrangements jump much closer to the mainstream, much faster, and at much higher levels than most people would have predicted six months ago.

Why lose money on a new associate for three years, for example, when you could just contract with the lawyer you really need for the six months you really need her?

***

As long as we’re indulging flights of fancy beyond my sphere of expertise, let’s take this one step further: if a lot of formerly W-2 jobs get reincarnated as 1099 contracts — because employees see a business case to become businesses, businesses see a business case to pay only for what they need by 1099 at 80–120% of what used to be annual W-2 rates, or both — how will we smooth income, investing, and insurance?

Let’s table income and investing for another day, but imagine that a mass dislocation — especially of white-collar workers — from relatively steady to relatively unsteady employment might drive enormously increase enrollment through ACA marketplaces and/or public options.

And that might turn out to finally put enough pressure on our broken insurance system to drive real reform. When enough people who thought they were safe start to feel the precarity of their situation over the long term, they won’t stay quiet for long.