Stakhanovites in Sweatpants

Notes from a research semester during pandemic

I’m Paul Musgrave, a political scientist and writer. This is Systematic Hatreds, my newsletter about my thoughts regarding politics and the study of politics. The newsletter takes its title from a line in The Education of Henry Adams:

Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, had always been the systematic organization of hatreds.

This week, we’re talking about what one professor—me—has been doing during the plague year.

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Stakhanovites in Sweatpants

A year ago tomorrow, I placed my first orders for face masks for my household. This was well in advance of most U.S.-based mask mandates, but also later than the most avant-garde mask wearers in this country. That date puts me squarely in the lagging category of early adopters, but it also marked the moment I committed to the belief that the pandemic would keep going for a long time—long enough, at least, to make $200 worth of face masks worth it. (Although part of the reason I bought so many was to make sure that we would get any—I worried that the post office would buckle a little faster than it turned out to.)

Well, we are still using those masks, as well as other, nicer-looking ones and masks bought with the express intention of being especially fashionable covers for disposable paper masks as part of a double-masking protocol. And in the thirteen months since pandemic began, I’ve acquired many other purchases designed to support our New Covid Lifestyle:

  • a folding desk

  • a desk blotter

  • two new desk organizers

  • two new office desk chairs (the first one was an emergency temporary replacement, the second one has been much more satisfactory)

  • an array of lighting equipment for teaching online

  • a better camera for streaming

Partly, this reflected a need to provide students with better quality instruction during pandemic; partly, this reflected a need to make my work-from-home quarters organized and comfortable since I’d be spending eight or ten hours a day there.

If anything, I’ve underinvested in work-from-home stuff because I assumed all of this would be over sooner and I underestimated how much time I’d spend working from home. Pretty much the only thing I’ve done since mid-July is work intensely, unremittingly. For the first four and a half months, this involved teaching online—a process that included converting three courses to online versions. That meant months without a day off (including weekends). And these weren’t the “eight-hour-days” of a comfortable office life, where some fraction of the day is spent wasting time or chatting with others; this was the same full-intensity drive I’d last felt when I was studying for comps.

Woman working from home in Paris
Disastrous work-from-home setup. Not enough desk space; bad acoustics for remote meetings; light is variable and probably insufficient; small risk of plunging to death.

This semester, I’ve been fortunate to spend my time on research. Part of that has involved clearing off some of the reading I’ve been doing; most of it has involved working with co-authors to turn ideas into working papers and working papers into articles. Pandemic rhythms means that I’m somehow more in touch with my co-authors around the world than I was when most of us were close together—and the increased familiarity of Zoom and cloud documents means it’s been easier to do co-authoring than ever before.

This isn’t really what I thought the plague year would be like. The crash-stop experience of the first few weeks of pandemic seemed to augur a decline in work and productivity—that we would all hunker down for a couple of weeks, flatten the curve, and then re-emerge into slightly stale offices to pick up where we’d left off. If anything, though, for professional folks, the enduring quasi-lockdown/work-from-home period has been one of increasing productivity and stress, conditional on one’s care responsibilities. That’s probably why employers are happier with work-from-home than employees—somehow, we’ve been able to work much harder than we did when we had to go to the office (although of course they’re not interested in letting employees shift their hours to accommodate child-rearing or other activities).

Employers feared that professional/managerial-class employees would use work-from-home as a way to shirk. Instead, we’ve all become Stakhanovites in sweatpants, working to exceed the second-quarterly plan out of a fear that if we slack off we’ll be left behind. At least it’s better than being branded a “wrecker”.

By now, it’s so well known that pandemic work restrictions have affected folks differently based on their responsibilities—a gendered notion nonpareil—that doing more than acknowledging it would be belaboring the point. Yet it hasn’t been roses and relaxation for the rest of us. In academia, for example, the undercurrent of the reporting about how women and those with care responsibilities have been under-submitting journal articles relative to men (who have been outpacing pre-pandemic productivity) has been that if you don’t have care responsibilities and you’re not overperforming your previous records, you’re probably going to be left behind. As a bonus, all the jobs have disappeared! The net result is that an already brutal tournament has gotten even more competitive and unfeeling.

It would be too much, though, to blame all of the strains of increased production on employers (although maybe they could be a bit more understanding or appreciative of their unearned bounty of productivity, rather than needlessly cutting benefits and pay). More than anything, one works because there’s nothing else to do. What else to do with a weekend—go to the movies? Take in a play? Have a meal at a restaurant? Every innocent pleasure of the Before Time is like playing Russian roulette. And even for me, there’s only so many times one can rewatch the Marvel Cinematic Universe from start to finish. (Indeed, I’m writing this week’s newsletter as a first-person essay because a combination of post-Moderna fatigue/headaches and noisy maintenance means I can’t concentrate on coding right now, but also it’s not like I can just pop down to the coffee shop with a nice book.)

I’m still unsure what the path forward looks like. By summer, the U.S. should be emerging into the possibilities of re-creating a “new normal”, with many of us able to go into restaurants and stadiums and so on. But work-from-home and mixed-remote/in-person schedules will likely be part of the mix for a certain class of workers for a long time. It’s possible that the roaring-Twenties economy we might get—infrastructure! investment! inflation!—could mean that employers start raising wages and hiring employees again; it’s also possible that remote work will mean that wages will be cut to match employees’ cost-of-living rather than their productivity contributions.

Yet it’s also likely that a lot of us, despite bravado about planning Instagram-worthy trips the moment we can, are going to be stuck with our pandemic productivity addiction for longer than we thought, just like the masks I bought in the expectation they could be useful for a couple of months at the most have ended up being a quasi-permanent part of my daily routine. When everything else disappears, work remains.

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What I’m Reading

This week, I’ve been reading Ron Westrum’s Sidewinder: Creative Missile Development at China Lake.

Westrum’s book serves two purposes: to describe how the Sidewinder missile, a mainstay of U.S. and allied armories, was developed, and to think seriously about how to make military R&D work better by examining the processes at the China Lake naval facility that helped make the weapon possible.

It succeeds well at the first task. Sidewinder’s development was fascinating—the researchers figured out how to make infrared homing technology work using “stone knives and bearskins”, while also figuring out a number of other technical details needed to make one of the first air-to-air guided missiles work. Aviators and engineers will get more out of some of the technical discussions (unless you really care about gyro mountings), but the description of innovating, rapid prototyping, and the necessity of a team being in touch with users amply demonstrates the importance of viewing weapons (and other innovations) as part of a social context.

More interesting—and relevant to contemporary debates—is the distinction between how the government designers of China Lake and the private-sector developers of Raytheon, Philco (yes, that Philco—the TV manufacturer; you get a sense of just how big the military-industrial complex was by the list of firms involved with missile tech), and elsewhere. The government team is the hero: more in touch with warfighters, more willing to find elegant and rugged solutions, and less interested in padding and salesmanship. The eventual design of the Sidewinder missile was so sophisticated but easy to maintain that it won the chief designer, Bill McLean, a following in Soviet weapons-development circles—high praise given that the Soviets excelled in making the kind of robust weapons that the more highly-funded Americans disdained. The contrast between the iterative, design-test-build model of Sidewinder and the acquisition problems that plague contemporary projects like the F-35 and the Ford-class carriers could hardly be clearer. (And, yes, a missile’s a lot less sophisticated than a carrier—but it’s also telling, in Westrum’s recounting, that the biggest failure in Sidewinder came when the program attempted to make several simultaneous breakthroughs rather than focusing on one or two areas.)

The book is less successful as an investigation of military R&D generally, mostly because you can either be super-detailed in tracing a single weapons system or you can try to generalize about corporate versus government R&D, but not both in the same book. The most tantalizing (to me) hints about the limits of U.S. acquisitions policy came from the hints in the book that other militaries, particularly the Soviets and the Israelis, took the Sidewinder breakthrough and used it as a launchpad to make much better weapons for themselves. The notion that the U.S. can get to the frontier of new tech but can’t really sustain optimization past that seems like one worth following up on and much more interesting theoretically than the suggestion that big, unwieldy, and remote organizations will underperform small, nimble, and in-touch organizations.