The French Army in 1940…and the American CDC in 2021

Andre Beaufre, later a general, was in 1940 a young Captain on the French general staff.  He had been selected for this organization a few years earlier, and had originally been very pleased to be in such elevated company…but:

I saw very quickly that our seniors were primarily concerned with forms of drafting. Every memorandum had to be perfect, written in a concise, impersonal style, and conforming to a logical and faultless plan–but so abstract that it had to be read several times before one could find out what it was about…”I have the honour to inform you that I have decided…I envisage…I attach some importance to the fact that…” Actually no one decided more than the barest minimum, and what indeed was decided was pretty trivial.

The consequences of that approach became clear in May 1940.

It is interesting that Picasso had somehow observed the same problem with French military culture that then-captain Beaufre had seen. As the German forces advanced with unexpected speed, Picasso’s friend Matisse was shocked to learn that the enemy had already reached Reims.

“But what about our generals?” asked Matisse. “What are they doing.”

Picasso’s response: “Well, there you have it, my friend. It’s the Ecole des Beaux-Arts”

…ie, formalists who had learned one set of rules and were not interested in considering deviations from same.

I was reminded of this history by a sequence of posts at twitter.  Joanna Masel, a theoretical biologist, says the CDC contacted her (following an NYT story) about an app she helped develop to notify people (anonymously) about possible covid-19 exposure. Her group put a very informal preprint on github nearly immediately, and a more formal one on medrxiv soon after. A CDC coauthor was added to shepherd it through MMWR, which is described as “CDC’s primary vehicle for scientific publication of timely, authoritative, and useful public health information and recommendations.”

The preproposal was rejected. Informal feedback was that they liked it but were so backlogged that a peer reviewed journal was likely faster. This initiated 6 months of clearance procedures needed for CDC coauthor to stay on paper.

What CDC staff spend a LOT of time on: rewriting manuscripts with meticulous attention to style guides. Eg, Methods must follow exactly the order they are used in Results, all interpretation must be in Discussion not in Results, etc. to a point truly unimaginable in my field.

and

6 months and endless CDC work hours later, after new CDC edits overclaimed efficacy in ways we deny, at CDC’s urging we removed the CDC coauthor in order to terminate clearance to instead make the deadline for a relevant CDC-run special issue…On top of minor revisions from reviewers, more style guide edits required by CDC journal editors. Eg because style bans reference to an individual as a primary or secondary case, we now refer to individuals who test positive v. infected individuals v. those infected by each. After resubmission in <30 days, rejected months later despite green light from peer reviewers. Bottom line from CDC editor: because our data is now too old, we longer conform with journal guidelines….

So after the manuscript spend the vast majority of the previous 12 months on CDC desks not ours, we were rejected by the CDC because the data had become >12 months old.

Doesn’t this sound like a replay of what Andre Beaufre observed?

I saw very quickly that our seniors were primarily concerned with forms of drafting. Every memorandum had to be perfect, written in a concise, impersonal style, and conforming to a logical and faultless plan–but so abstract that it had to be read several times before one could find out what it was about…”I have the honour to inform you that I have decided…I envisage…I attach some importance to the fact that…” Actually no one decided more than the barest minimum, and what indeed was decided was pretty trivial.

See the costs of formalism and credentialism.

1/4/2022:  Updated to correct name of Picasso’s artist friend.

Worthwhile Reading & Viewing

Use of mechanical tools may improve language skills.

The logistics crisis as an introduction to concentration risk.

Thousands of Chinese photographs saved from recycling.

The Two Countercultures.

Green shoots for nuclear energy–in the EU?

Why the ‘woke’ won’t debate.

Teams solve problems faster when they are more cognitively diverse.

The psychological and social costs of the college admissions game and the college treadmill.

 

Jobs Without Workers

It’s well-known that there are currently a lot of jobs going begging, even as employers offer higher pay;  see for example this article.  Bernie Sanders offers his explanation: he suggests that the problem lies in the ratio of CEO pay growth to worker pay growth since 1978, and “Maybe the problem isn’t a so-called ‘worker shortage.’ Maybe — just maybe — the working class of this country has finally had enough.”

I don’t think Bernie Sanders has a whole lot of experience with this whole ‘working’ thing, so it seems unlikely that he really understands what is going on.

Not very common, I think, for someone to turn down a job because someone at a level stratospherically above him makes a whole lot more money than what he is being offered.  Do people really decide against a job at Wal-Mart because Doug McMillon got paid $20.9 million in 2020?  Or decide not to go workin’ on the CSX railroad because of James Foote’s compensation package of $15.3 million? While people are very concerned with comparative pay levels, they are usually most concerned about the pay of people doing comparable work or those one or two levels above them (or below them) organizationally.

So what are the factors that are actually keeping so many jobs from attracting workers?

One factor, I think, is simple inertia: people who have been out of the workforce for several months during Covid lockdowns may be delaying going back to work, even though they know they will need to eventually.  Another factor is the difficulties with child care / education…even when school are physically open, it’s hard to know how long it will be until they are locked down again, so you can’t count on them for a predictable schedule…and also, there are probably a fair number of people not very enthused about sending their kids back to public school at all, given what they’ve learned about them over the past year.

There are also people who are doing work off-books, and may find that by avoiding FICA and taxes…and any reduction in means-tested benefits…they can do better than they’d do at a full-time job.

Certainly one factor in reluctance to go back to work lies in the unnecessarily unpleasant nature of too many jobs…I’m not talking about jobs that, say, involve working in foundries in high temperatures or working outdoors on commercial fishing boats in winter, but rather retail and customer service jobs that feature extreme micromanagement plus schedules that change from week to week.  See Zeynep Ton’s book The Good Jobs Strategy for more on this point. (my review here)  And the enforcement of political correctness, also, makes quite a few workplaces unpleasant places to be.

And there is a feeling on the part of many people that they can’t get ahead, because of the importance of credentialism and contacts.  I’m sure there are a lot of people in low-level positions in banks who would make excellent branch managers, but are not considered for these jobs because they don’t have college degrees…also, branch managers who are not considered for region executive jobs because they don’t have MBAs, and people who do have MBAs who can’t break into investment banking because their MBA is not from a ‘top’ school.  The importance of credentialism varies widely by industry and by specific company within an industry, of course, I suspect many people think it’s more all-encompassing than it actually is, and this is demoralizing to them and creates a ‘why bother?’ mentality.

Finally, there is the problem of skill mismatch: the jobs that are open will often require skills that the potential applicants don’t have, even when unnecessary credential requirements are eliminated.  (Although one would think that the trend toward jobs that can be done remotely would mitigate this problem to a considerable extent, by broadening the geography from which people can be drawn)

What else?

Worthwhile Reading

A teacher’s experiences in an American high school…a highly-rated American high school…with thoughts on the power of incentives.

Related: the effects of easing up on school troublemakers.

Research suggests that CEOs born in “frontier counties with a higher level of individualistic culture” are more effective at promoting innovation.

The market value of Tesla…$1.2 trillion…now exceeds the market value of the entire S&P 500 energy sector.  (The components of that sector can be found here.)

“Believe the science”, bureaucracy, speed, and creativity:  America needs a new scientific revolution.

Planning is a bigger job than planners can do.

Offshoring is not just for manufacturing jobs: Teleshock.  See also my 2019 post Telemigration.

Interesting memoir by a woman who started as a clerk for Burlington Northern Railroad, worked her way up to Yardmaster, and then worked closely for many years with the legendary RR executive Hunter Harrison, focusing mostly on improved data and methods for performance measurement and operational support.  (The author has since made a major industry & career change and is now focused on bioinformatics research related to cellular development!)

 

Rediscovering the Competitive Advantage.

We’ve long understood that the cost advantage in freight transportation depends on distance, with railroads, and water carriers where waterways are available, making the longer hauls more cheaply, particularly with bulk commodities.  The cost advantage of rail over highway transportation appears for shipments travelling farther than five hundred miles, give or take.  The railroads, however, have been shying away from much of that intermodal business, that despite signs of strain in long-haul trucking manifesting themselves long before anybody heard of Wuhan, let alone of virology research there.

A week ago, I noted, “There are no short-term solutions, and the railroads have to think about how best to do shorter-haul and retail intermodal trains.”  Then an executive with a freight-forwarding company rented a boat to look at what was going on shoreside at Los Angeles and Long Beach and posted his impressions.  Among his suggestions to ungum the works was an all-hands effort by the railroads to get the containers somewhere inland and let the truckers pick them up there.

I don’t know if somebody in Omaha heard him, or if somebody noticed that there was money to be made.
Union Pacific, the Port of Long Beach, and the Utah Inland Port Authority have announced the launch of direct rail service between the Long Beach and Utah facilities to help address ongoing port congestion.

The executive directors of the two facilities, Mario Cordero of Long Beach and Jack Hedge of the Utah authority, said in a joint statement that the direct, regularly scheduled service “will allow cargo destined for all of the Intermountain West to be rapidly evacuated from terminals in Long Beach to Salt Lake City for further distribution throughout the region. Much of this cargo traditionally moves to Utah, Colorado, Nevada, and Idaho by truck, and thus must be removed from the port terminals one container at a time. Reengaging this direct rail service will allow removal of blocks of containers at a time.”

Cordero also said the agreement immediately reduces pressure on terminal storage, gates, chassis, and the local drayage community on the coast. … It’s a major step forward for exporters from the region.”
It’s a research project for another day to work out why those boxes weren’t already moving on stack trains to Salt Lake City rather than as one container at a time with a driver putting in more than a full day on the road between the coast and Salt Lake.  Several commenters on that post are noting that the reluctance of the railroads to go after those 500 mile intermodal moves goes beyond Union Pacific.  Perhaps, dear reader, you’ve heard of North Baltimore, Ohio.

How much money might Union Pacific have been leaving on the table?  A Railway Age analysis includes this.  “Millions of TEUs [a 20′ x 8′ x 8′ basic container load — Ed.] of international goods are imported to or exported from the Intermountain West annually, but only 10% of this cargo currently moves by rail. This initiative aims to provide consistent, reliable movement of cargo by rail, which improves fluidity and reduces delays of shipments already set to come to the Intermountain region, rather than increase cargo volume.”  The value proposition might have been there as early as 2018, and the allocation studies I referred to at the start of this post are over fifty years old.  And only now Union Pacific and Utah Inland are going after this traffic, and only now claiming the environmental benefits and less highway congestion??

I’m also puzzled by the way Our Political Masters are working the problem.  There’s now a Container Excess Dwell Fee in Los Angeles, applied to containers that aren’t railed out within three days or trucked out within nine.  Forgive me my age, but what ever happened to per diem charges for rolling stock in motion, and demurrage charges for rolling stock sitting around?  The per diem charge is the rental a railroad company pays to the owner of the car for a day, and there used to be a chess game called get-the-foreign-road-cars-interchanged-by-midnight, sticking the receiving road with the per diem charge; while the demurrage charge applied to a consignee who treated a freight car as free warehouse space rather than unloading it promptly and releasing it for service.

Power Line’s Paul Mirengoff suggests that the Biden administration’s efforts to untangle the ports aren’t likely to succeed quickly.  But if you’re thinking about parallels to incapacitated presidents current and past, some of the port jam-ups bring to mind the logistical nightmare that was mobilizing the American Expeditionary Force.  That, too, is outside my area of expertise.

Why, though, weren’t the freight railroads better positioned to go after some of those container hauls before the current emergency manifested itself?

(Cross-posted to Cold Spring Shops.)