Thoughts From a Distance #2

16 March 2020

Thoughts From a Distance is a series of daily ruminations written while self-quarantined during the 2019-2020 COVID-19 pandemic. In order to mitigate “corrections” from hindsight, each day’s thoughts are posted on the following weekday with minimal editing.

By Trauma, Alas

A confession: I still live with my parents. While harmful to my pride and marriage prospects, this arrangement may benefit my survival.

See, my mother has the paranoia of a Soviet-era babushka. Our cupboards and cabinets have always been stuffed with canned goods, excess medical supplies, gift wrappings preserved from past Christmases. I have never recalled seeing the back of our refrigerator. Her first impulse towards leftovers was to squirrel them away in the freezer, only to have them reemerge years later when she did not feel like preparing a meal. There wasn’t cash underneath the mattress, but only because that would be the obvious place to look.

These types of habits are unsettling for those who prefer order, the possibility of finding a particular canned good without needed the sponsorship of an archaeology department, and so forth. All the other members of the family had gotten in minor spats with her over it at some point or another.  But when the economy began shutting down and people flooded the markets to buy supplies, we were glad for her peculiarities. We did not have to brave the crowds in order to stock up, facing shortages and markups, because we had prepared in advance. Not that this stopped my mother from making a few additional shopping runs.

My mother’s strategy of excessive stockpiling is a clear example of what Nassim Taleb calls antifragility, a behavior with a positive response to uncertainty and instability. Under normal circumstances, our household paid a minor “fee” for hoarding: messiness, shouting matches, cans expired in a previous century. But in rare crisis situations, my mother’s behavior could be the difference between survival and starvation. The cost of the behavior is small and frequent, while the payoff is rare, but unbounded (you would trade an infinite number of days with messy cabinets for additional years of life). Compare this to someone I once knew who boasted about only having enough food on hand for the week. In a crisis, this person is at best squeezed by the market, and at worst reduced to eating the neighbor’s cat.

I wonder how many “irrational” traits are only revealed by luck and circumstance to be vitally useful for survival.

How did my mother come by such a trait? By trauma, alas. Hers was a difficult childhood. Post-traumatic growth, the oft neglected cousin of post-traumatic stress, helped mold some of her helpful quirks. As I write, our bathtub is full of water, just in case the plumbing goes out.

So when I wonder whether our society will learn from this pandemic, recognize and confront the existential risks exacerbated by our hyperglobalized society, I think it might. But, alas—

If They Plan in Weeks, You Plan in Months

A heuristic: Prepare an order of magnitude beyond what the average person is preparing for. Right now, most people are buying food for the next few weeks; my mother is planting vegetables in the garden.

Airline Bailouts and the Reverse Broken Window Fallacy

As the economy retracts and international travel comes to a halt, President Trump is signaling that he is willing to bail out the airline industry. “It’s not their fault,” he says; “No one could have predicted this.” This is weak-minded thinking. Businesses are not expected to predict the future, but they are expected to prepare for it. A restaurateur is not expected to know whether they will be undone by a change in customer taste, an unexpected competitor, or embezzlement by the co-owner. But they are expected to be prepared for turbulence; we may shed a tear when the restaurant goes out of business by misfortune, but we do not rush to save them with taxpayer dollars.

Change the scale from an individual business to an industry and somehow people lose this clarity. People suddenly become concerned with the loss of jobs, in a way they were not when our lone restaurateur went under. (If I could have any socio-economic principle named after me a la Murphy’s Law, it would be this: Every slack-jawed economic idea will, under duress, rest its laurels on job preservation or creation.) The public becomes so concerned with saving the status quo, they fail to consider whether their generosity is actually an act of heroism at all.

An industry bailout is a sort of inverse of Bersiat’s Broken Window Fallacy. In its original formulation, the naïve observer concludes a window broken by vandals is a gain for society because it creates work for the glassmaker, while in actuality the benefit is illusory; the funds spent buying the new window would have been spent elsewhere in the economy anyways and society is now short a window. A bailout begins with a visible cost, or rather an extortion. Pay a cost or lose an industry. Political leaders pontificate on job losses, the taxpayer grumbles and ponies up. Just as before, we end the scenario back at the status quo as it was before the crisis (be it window smashing or economy crashing) and we deem it a gain for society. But what would have happened if we let the industry collapse?

Let’s assume the industry in question still services a consumer demand; even economic policymakers are not stupid enough to want to keep something like the floppy disk industry alive. The airlines clearly fit this mold. People may not want (or be able) to fly now, but they will once the pandemic is past. The airline industry goes bust: workers laid off, Chapter 11 filed, upper management escapes on their golden parachutes. What happens next? Some combination of the following:

  • Foreign competitors move in once consumer demand revives. They hire domestic staff to run operations (likely from among the recently laid off staffers of moribund domestic industry) and are able to purchase equipment from the recently bankrupt domestic airlines.
  • A private source of capital fills the niche, either by buying out the failing companies, or by purchasing some of their equipment and starting a new company.

In either scenario (bailout or no bailout), we end up with an airline industry. In both scenarios airline employees are likely to face furlough (either from bailed out companies temporarily reducing operations, or functionally the same as the open market niche is colonized by other companies) followed by staff reductions to match slower demand (these reductions will likely better match reality in the no bailout scenario; it’s easy to be generous with the money of others). The notable difference is that in bailout world the existing upper management get to keep their jobs at public expense, while in case of collapse they get to live off their Swiss bank accounts and work on their memoirs.

The Parable of the Broken Window is about unseen consequences. We see the benefit to the glassmaker, not the loss to society. In the Corollary of the Bailed-Out Industry, we see what we have saved at public expense, failing to see that we could have gotten the same benefit for nothing had we left it to private capital.

Apologist who brandish the “too big to fail” argument trotted out in 2008 should be met with this retort: Why should industries large and vital enough to merit public insurance be allowed to run independently? If they are truly so vital to our country that any major perturbation would be untenable, then the airlines should be nationalized, not given a check from public coffers. From my analysis above, it should be clear I think the airlines do not meet the benchmarks for nationalization, and that airline industry will be fine regardless of the fate of individual firms.

Thoughts From a Distance #1

Thoughts From a Distance is a series of daily ruminations written while self-quarantined during the 2019-2020 COVID-19 pandemic. In order to mitigate “corrections” from hindsight, each day’s thoughts are posted on the following weekday with minimal editing.

13 March 2020

History from the Inside

 

Yesterday, the 12th of March 2020, will remain in my memory as the day Americans realized their lives were about to change. The contingencies of history always seem to beggar belief from distant generations. It seems improbable that two of the largest religions in the modern world arose from the backwaters of Roman Judea and tribal Arabia—but only in retrospect is it clear these particular movements, out of all of their competition through the ages, would emerge ascendant.

If future historians and epidemiologists look with amused confusion on the American chapter of the coronavirus epidemic, they should rest assured that if it did not begin with these peculiar set of circumstances, it would have begun with another set equally arbitrary. As it is, the major morning news on the day the American public began to wake up were the cancellation of the National Basketball Association (NBA) season and the diagnosis of beloved actor Tom Hanks with the virus. The educated perhaps will scoff that this sea change was not ushered in by reasoning or government decree. But those who are blessed (and perhaps cursed) with analytical minds so often forget they belong to a vocal minority; motivation by abstraction is the exception rather than the rule.

I watched, while working as a substitute teacher in a special education classroom, the aides begin the day with jokes and dismissals about the crisis, regurgitated naïve talking points. By lunch, they were worriedly discussing whether they would be paid in the event of school closures.

 

The Counter-Virus

 

A fraction of the people in the United States understood the magnitude of what was going to happen. These people coalesced through social media platforms such as Twitter. Those fortunate enough to be connected to the right nodes—my high-value nodes included Nassim Taleb (@nntaleb), Joe Norman (@normonics), Luca Dellanna (@DellAnnaLuca), and Yaneer Bar-Yam (@yaneerbaryam) —gained awareness of information too nuanced and rapidly evolving to make it through any mainstream journo-tainment vector. We saw the first warnings based on the precautionary principle, followed by further warnings based off the developing spread and containment attempts in China, South Korea, and Italy. When the medical system in Italy began to break under the load, we were connected to accounts confirming the risk of secondary and tertiary effects—and how quickly, with inadequate measures, things could fall apart.

Some of us became vocal agents in a spreading counter-virus; I began to argue with friends, coworkers, and relatives who remained unconvinced of the dangers, perhaps convincing a few. If we were lucky, one of those we’d convinced would start spreading word within their social circles. Case in point: I caught my mother on the phone with her brother, working to debunk the “less dangerous than flu” fallacy. I suspect our counter-virus is less contagious than our adversary, but thanks to social media we had less friction across our transmission vectors. Time will tell whether our spread was rapid enough to make a difference.

In these opening days, when there still appears to be time to flit away on such nonsense, there has been talk about the dangers of the “infodemic”. While the suggestion that misinformation about the pandemic will spread through social media is real, the cure is far worse than the disease. The “infodemic” perspective does not acknowledge the potential positive effects that can come out of a distributed communications system, such as the precautionary counter-virus. I cannot imagine how much further behind our country’s response would be if we had to rely solely on mainstream media outlets and official channels.

 

Vindication Feels Better with a Black Eye

 

On the 12th of March I arrived for work at a Southern California high school, determined to assess the staff and administration’s preparedness for the coming crisis. There was also a staff stage performance (for charity purposes) scheduled for the following week I intended to get cancelled or postponed (I guaranteed my resolve by refusing to learn my lines).

The consensus was confusion. Teachers had no directives on distance learning—the first template I saw was from a diligent coworker who developed it independently. District workmen were rapidly installing new hand sanitizer stations, yet I was sure the school would be closed by Monday. Most dishearteningly, a friend who worked there had just returned from a two-week conference in Switzerland (with a sightseeing stopover in France), just making it past the European travel ban. She claimed to have not been screened upon her arrival and walked over to the school’s front office—seemingly as an afterthought—to see if they had any concerns about her returning to the classroom. She seemed a little hurt when I suggested she should be self-quarantining; evidently the virus “panic” had been the butt of frequent ridicule from the conference attendees.

I called out of work today, Friday the 13th, and told my employer I would not be returning next week either. By the end of the day, every district in the county had shuttered its schools.

While the risk of community exposure for an additional day was non-trivial—especially given I live with a high-risk individual—the tangible payoff from my decision was aligning my beliefs and actions. I knew intellectually schools needed to close as quickly as possible, the upside of a few extra days of class was dwarfed by the potential downside of community spread. But my grim confidence gained whatever savor it could from the day’s wages I forfeited. Hunger may be the best sauce, but action is the only sauce for one’s ideas and values.

 

Stage Nerves

I have felt a tension and sharpness within me these past days. I can feel it clearly in my chest as I have laid in bed each night. It isn’t panic, or fright. It is the nervousness of the actor waiting for the thunder of hands, great gouts of stage light, the trigger of dialogue.

Why Birds Do You Awake?

Why birds do you awake when that stagehand

Morning grasps rope to unfurl the land?

Have you not heard what the gremlin told me?

God bestows no reward for poetry.

Each sweet voice from its cage is doomed to fly,

A moth to live upon the night, and die.

 

Why, mockingbird you ask, am I awake?—

No harsher than one’s own advice to take.

Did I declare the ugly scamp’s word right?

Then I must banish even Truth from sight,

A boy exhaling into Winter’s air;

the joy—for a moment—it hanging there.

 

 

Byron Kai Bennett

Prayers to an Empty Room

 

“Frenchmen conjured the exquisite corpse

as a parlor game;

An American hobo mistook the grass

for the uncut hair of graves.

And how will it ever end?

Unless the day finally arrives

When we have compared everything in the world

To everything else in the world.

Who cares if some oneyed son of a bitch

Invents mosques in the clouds?”

I.

How many nights have I fallen on my

Knees mouthing prayers to an empty room

As I considered the color of silence?

Unaware faith is hinged like a Dutch

Door with only the lowest portal unlatched.

 

I imagined the voice of God

Possessed the furor of Lions;

Yet I heard only the broken tongue of Sparrows.

 

II.

 

This morning I witnessed an Angel

And knew him by three signs:

The dark tone of his complexion

(If stories speak of alabaster,

why not ebony?)

The screaming color of his clothes

(If stories speak of radiance,

why not gaudiness?)

And by the wild contortions of his body

(If stories speak of grace,

why not ungainliness?)

 

And as he maneuvered his

automobile through the intersection

The Angel told me this:

“Do not despair of praying to an empty room

Any more than the sower despairs of planting in an empty field;

For the clearing of weeds and thorns is the long work of many hands.”

 

Though he spoke with the voice of God

He possessed not the furor of Lions,

But instead the broken tongue of Sparrows.

 

III.

 

If Truth wears a shawl of cold astral

Flame, then I am a pinprick in the side

of a box. If I am filled with Holy

Spirit but refrain from Hallelujahs and

Care not especially for Jesus,

Resist the temptation to expand me;

A wider lens would be blinded by the Sun.

 

Let me drink from the dirty washbowls of prophets.

My bowels expel what is unclean from me,

as the water expels what is unclean from me.

 

How the space between our words is as

Incalculable as the space between Atoms!

The physicist describes the universe as stretched fabric

Bulged by balls, so it might fit in our heads;

What reality matches the cipher of my skull

Escapes my mouth like breath in winter.

 

So I speak of the voice of God

Possessing not the furor of Lions

But instead the broken tongue of Sparrows.

Joseph Byron Bennett

All Through The Long Summer

 

pharisees

robed in green and gold

flock from the courthouse grove

to which they shall return for evening prayer

in interim assaulting with pious declarations

 

hard fruit

they roost and eat

from the underside of a frond

why he is perched upside down?

one demands of the Groundskeeper

 

below

in the schoolyard hedges

tomcat is forgetting night terrors

eaten out bellies of strays that hang

in black jaws like crescent moons

treasure!

polyethylene-encrusted

so engrossed in struggle

you are forgiven for thinking

he was wrestling an Angel

 

dawn

a child on christmas

turning a loose glass bulb

illuminating dewey orbs

hung on leylines of spider’s silk

constellations

strung between disparate space

each lattice vibrating gently

it seems to the fly

with the force of far-off Knocking

 

unseen

in a nook of sheet metal awning

hen bows her head

upon a manger of twigs and trash

awaiting the booming voice

june

and its implications further than alpha centauri

heaven closer than the Principal in his garage

rearranging courses on the master schedule

all through the long summer

 

 

Joseph Byron Bennett

 

A Well Awaits a Where

 

A well awaits a where:

A chameleon concealed with an eye all askew

Stone-lidded rims ascending terrace rings.

 

Note the warm jellied tongue:

The interstate vanishes between hairless lips,

A boisterous room silenced in a slurp.

 

You imagined you were:

Hand-painted celluloid in the breath of a frame

Liquified by the belly of that gaze.

 

Foolish to have assumed confidence in a where:

Tailights, the attractive ends of women

Only winking will-o-wisps.

 

A sacrificial slip; a cry, a fall:

Fetched to that iris altar

To nightscape and a boulevard lined with lampposts.

 

Gravity’s inversion mirrored in energy:

Every little lighthouse radiating

A reassuring cold.

 

As if to celebrate an arrival:

Suspended paper motes

Drift in eddies intimating a jostling crowd.

 

Yet the street is silent, still but for a pale wind:

An air at home in caves.

Your footfalls provoke a hungry slant.

 

The patient churning of intestinal muscles:

Hastening your orbit around that sluice

Beyond the lamplight’s edge.

 

Joseph Byron Bennett

Bibliomancy

 

Giggling little girl, her pink feet stomping in sand

While Ocean winds up into a striking coil.

He knows she will squeal when spray soils her strands of loam

Persistent in roots of her Zeus-furious hair

As she releases the unshelved missile at him

In an abbreviated tumble of Scripture.

He will look for signs in how the page has fallen

On a verse confirming the playful strength of God,

Crushing the shoreline holes where dwell little creatures.

 

Joseph Byron Bennett

Joy and Thrill

 

joy to the Strollers

who watch Morning straddle the hills

bow-legged from the burden of revelation,

or catch the wrack of Mockingbirds

tussling over a Corn of truth;

even the streaks of Condensation

resemble Stretch Marks as if

a confined prophet were exhaling Breath.

 

thrill to the Poets

who amble without Notebook or Pen

leaving those wives with gendarme eyes,

and let memory sleep about with Day’s trinkets

shameless Animal trysts;

especially the Jeweled

elation of entering into

a woman wearing Nothing.

 

Joseph Byron Bennett

Principal’s Statement Re: All the Feral Cats

 

I would like to correct several pieces of misinformation that have been circulating

over social media

in the lunch line

in the public square where the Chaldean grandfathers congregate to discuss their lost lands:

 

The staff is not

as has been reported

abducting cats from the school’s sizeable feral population

nor are they taking these cats to the sagging portable sheds

which all agree are reminiscent of a witch’s hovel

to eat them.

 

The midnight sleuth will certainly not hear wet sucking noises

the plink of small bones spit like pits

nor will these activities be punctuated by the squealing laughter of Boyd Andersson

beloved member of our Math faculty.

 

I confess that the image of that partially decomposed calico being exhumed

from the basement of the English building

as captured by the students of Ms. Gutierrez’s excellent yearbook class

several of which are still at large

does not paint the school in a flattering light.

 

Nothing about this unfortunate breach in the administration’s

normally Stygian operations

provides any incriminating evidence

w/r/t the mysterious culling of this pest population.

 

No

the sad truth is that the school administration is working with the appropriate authorities

to ensure that the little gremlins are removed from the campus in a hasty and humane manner At least

until the next crisis

or budget shortfall

or the Governing Board becomes bored

whatever it is, it will happen soon.

 

Then

we will abandon this Children’s Crusade

the little padfoots will return

the anonymous staff member can continue their clandestine practice

laying out kibble.

 

Joseph Byron Bennett

Rosemary

 

Her name is Rosemary;

Her mother shouted it as the girl squatted in the lawn.

I later confirmed in passing with my dog,

Peeping in the lacey window where she often sprung like a stalk,

The stuttering streetlamp losing a contest to her kerosene eyes.

Many different dogs I have marched down that way

And watched the girl with a water hose,

So solemn and still she must be the font of one of Dante’s infernal rivers,

Or folding her lank legs into a mud patch

Which seems to crawl from her waist to her crown in strands of filth.

What is the hue of crooked light that must emerge from hearts of men

For her to bare her teeth and recoil at our approach?

 

I have committed all my dogs to dirt;

But a woman in a Sunday dress heaves the trash cans to the curb

First one house then the next, all down the long street.

When she crosses the road I see the hair,

The way those flamekin eyes disavow reciprocation.

 

The entry in the clinician’s textbook seems too small for her;

The Greeks might have seen her as a speaker for the gods.

A memory of white pear blossoms emerges with the final flinch of solar light

And I wonder at the shroud Mary must have discarded

To make this plant bear such bulbous fruit.

 

Joseph Byron Bennett