Edition 3: Lost in the mail

How the pandemic hurts those with the least. Also: B.S. jobs, and is Tesla OS coming?

Thanks to everybody who signed up last week for The Lobby! I hope you find some useful insights and interesting articles in these weekly digests.

This week’s macro themes are the continually growing divide between the haves and have-nots of America, and the changing nature of work amidst the pandemic.

A Postal Service truck in Thomaston. Some rural residents are wondering whether they could still trust the mail to handle their packages, animals and ballots.

Image credit New York Times

Rural America Faces New Worries With Postal Crisis

With delays raising fears that the United States Postal Service is being hobbled by a combination of financial problems, politicization and pandemic, farmers and other rural residents say they are particularly vulnerable to the crisis roiling the postal system. And while President Trump’s own words have raised alarms that the problems are part of an effort to keep Democrats from voting by mail, many of those being hurt the most live in rural areas that overwhelmingly support the president.

It’s well known that the USPS is not a profitable business, but profit-making is hardly the reason for the Postal Service’s existence. The affordable and reliable coverage of the postal service has long been a lifeline for the underserved, as USPS has served as a basic communication utility for all Americans. For many, it is an essentially component to their livelihood.

Given recent budget cuts and political turmoil, the postal service’s ability to deliver “packages, animals and ballots” safely and punctually is now in question, and the people who live at the fringes of modern society are the first to feel its absence.

Jerry Volenec with cow

Image credit The New Yorker

How Suffering Farmers May Determine Trump’s Fate

Volenec told me that he’s grateful to Trump for his political awakening. “I may as well have been asleep before 2016,” he said. “Without Trump’s arrogance, the way he behaves, I probably wouldn’t be paying attention. Provided that he doesn’t drive this country into the ground before he’s replaced, I think he’s woken up a lot of people.”

On the subject of rural America, this is an excellent, in-depth look at the seemingly inescapable destruction that decades of shortsighted policymaking have wrought on small-time farmers.

Told through the experiences of farmers in Wisconsin’s Driftless Area (a Democratic leaning, rural region that swung to Trump in 2016), it explores the history of Big Agriculture, the political mobilization of small farmers, and the real consequences of economic and political upheaval on family owned farms.

This election cycle, this downtrodden, increasingly outspoken population is being targeted for their importance as swing voters. They’re ready to stand with the candidate they believe can save their future.

The Post Office Mess Is Meant to Exhaust You. Don’t Let It.

Mr. Trump’s alternate reality should not be tolerated just because he’s the president (this is different, it should be said, than taking him seriously). There are not two sides to voter suppression. Just as there isn’t a case against Ms. Harris’s citizenship. Nor is there any legitimate case that Mr. Trump is owed a third term.
It will be an exhausting, uphill struggle.

As headlines become increasingly, maddeningly politicized, it’s important that we continue to look for truth and journalistic integrity in reporting (and the media) we consume.

The decreasing credibility of our policymakers have placed the onus of expertise on journalists and the general public. With the President himself tossing out false cures, fringe conspiracy theories, and unprecedented claims with reckless abandon, it’s difficult to make sense of what’s real, what’s legal, and what’s good for anybody anymore. The name for this strategy, coined by Steve Bannon, is “flooding the zone” - and only a continuous and concentrated effort can deflect the chaotic deluge.

[Flooding the zone] seeks to disorient audiences with an avalanche of competing stories. And it produces a certain nihilism in which people are so skeptical about the possibility of finding the truth that they give up the search.

The United States faces a constant uphill battle against misinformation, and it’s about to get more intense as the election draws near. It’s exhausting, but the most important thing we can do as the voting public is to stay alert, stay informed, and separate the signal from the noise.

A masked waiter serves a group at an upscale restaurant in Virginia, days into its reopening amid the pandemic.

Image credit The New Republic

The Real Pandemic Gap Is Between the Comfortable and the Afflicted

The facts are these: We have a country where poor, non-white people are suffering and dying from a mysterious virus and where rich, white people are continuing to live their lives mostly as comfortably as they did before. Our leaders have abdicated their responsibility to do anything about it, and there seems to be no mechanism for throwing them all out… the fact remains that in America, when something collapses, it lands on the backs of the poor.

This rousing read examines the asymmetrical effects of the pandemic on Americans of different ethnicities and different income brackets. The statistics show that COVID-19 disproportionately affects the poor: the population dependent on Medicaid is more than 5 times more likely to contract the coronavirus, compared to those whose income is too high to be eligible. Meanwhile, the very same pandemic that has put millions out of work has simultaneously increased the wealth of billionaires by a further $434 billion.

As they say, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. In light of the pandemic, the rich have been mildly inconvenienced, and the poor are losing everything. As the disparity continues to grow, it seems like a matter of time before something has to give.

Image credit Wikipedia

The Bullshit-Job Boom

British people [were polled] in 2015 about whether they thought that their jobs made a meaningful contribution to the world. Thirty-seven per cent said no, and thirteen per cent were unsure—a high proportion, but one that was echoed elsewhere. (In the functional and well-adjusted Netherlands, forty per cent of respondents believed their jobs had no reason to exist.)

Increasing worker efficiency has brought about a number of luxuries in the last hundred years, but shorter workweeks are not among them. How is it that, despite our fantastic growth in per-capita productivity, we are continually expected to adhere to a 9 to 5 schedule? Could we possibly be filling that time with meaningful work, or are we working for the sake of going through the motions?

This piece is a fun look at the history and modern forms of “bullshit jobs”, of which there are many forms. (These are not the same as “shit jobs”; that is, it’s perfectly possible to be highly compensated for doing essentially meaningless work.)

An anthropologist quoted in the article, David Graeber, puts forth that modern occupation is “a bizarre sadomasochistic dialectic whereby we feel that pain in the workplace is the only possible justification for our furtive consumer pleasures.” While I don’t agree with all the points in the article (I might be biased since my job is mostly administrative), it is entertaining to consider that we’ve convinced ourselves, as a society, that we can only enjoy the fruits of our labor when we’ve suffered for them sufficiently.

How work is changing at Figma

Nearly two thirds of employees said they would consider moving to a non-hub location before the end of 2022 if all roles had the option to be remote. When asked why they were interested in moving or working remotely, [Figma employees] cited cost of living, desire for home ownership, and wanting to be closer to family.

Figma, the company that produces a modern collaborative design suite of the same name, is one of the first tech companies to publicly put forth its plan of action for revamping the way people will work.

This write-up by the CEO provides a behind-the-scenes look at the process they followed to consider the post-pandemic landscape, and how feedback was collected and digested to allow for a hybrid operating model of in-office and remote work.

Their conclusion is that the future indeed requires a balance of in-person collaboration (at “hubs”) with the flexibility of remote work. True remote work is a fairly recent phenomenon - prior to widespread adoption of the internet and online collaboration tools like Zoom, it was basically impossible. Therefore, certain logistic obstacles stand in the way of such a blended model, particularly local employment laws and adjusting compensation according to employees’ cost of living.

The very nature of work hasn’t changed significantly since the industrial revolution, particularly considering the disruption internet technologies have brought to other industries (case in point, the gig economy). The great work from home experiment is certain to go on.

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Image credit Volkswagen

Code, on wheels

The advent of a true, robust operating system for automobiles is, in fact, a huge challenge not only for carmakers but also for the entire tech sector as they will be tempted to join the fray: the likeliest evolution for the car industry is to see a competition between traditional carmakers and tech giants — with Tesla as the maverick — to come up with a car OS that will set the standard for the entire industry.

Finally, something to look forward to: smarter cars. With Tesla firmly in the driver’s seat of personal vehicle innovation (and an exuberant stock price to match the hype), it’ll be a matter of time before your car becomes a personal computing device with the flexibility and integration potential of a smartphone.

Written by the former VP of Quality for the Model S, this article paints a portrait of how Tesla successfully disrupted the car industry with a software-first, rapid iteration approach. It then explores the possibility of a Car OS, and the ramifications that could have on our concept of the personal vehicle; cars today are highly personal, huge purchases that are depreciating assets. Perhaps the cars of the future park themselves, pick you up, or even earn you some side money by “driving for Uber” on the side.

SPAC Man Begins

For anyone who’s been following the stock market lately, SPACs (special purpose acquisition companies) are suddenly the hottest way to go public - sidestepping the traditional dog-and-pony show of investor roadshows and removing the dependency on predatory investment banks, who don’t actually have the company’s best interests in mind.

While SPACs themselves aren’t new, they’ve been uncommon, viewed as a quick and sketchy alternative to the IPO process. But now, especially with the stock market frothing to get in on the next big thing, SPACs are back in style.