Kludge, Part 2


So in a previous post, I talked about the concept of kludge. Kludge is the way our systems become "gerry-rigged, opaque and complicated" and increasingly incompetent. Usually this is because of the increasing number of veto points that any proposed plan has to surmount to be approved. I think there are some other sources of kludge as well. So if you're into political science, allow me to geek out a bit on the subject.

Consider this fascinating article on N-95 masks in the US. Hospitals and health care establishments are having immense problems sourcing these. What they don't know is that there are many US companies that manufacture these masks and have massive surpluses. One company based in Miami has 30 million N-95 masks. But he can't find buyers! Not that there aren't buyers out there desperate for these masks; consider this comment to the article:

""I’m a doctor in independent practice, not a corporate doctor. I have reused the same two N95 masks since April, 2020, having been told over and over and over there were no masks. The current suppliers charge 10 times the fair market price. Now we learn there are domestic US companies making certified masks. Where do we buy these? 30 million masks going unused. I don’t know what kind of corruption and graft are preventing the sale of these masks. I will buy 100 of them today. Where do I get them?"

The article goes on to explain how this could possibly be. There's no evil conspiracy, there's just . . . kludge: "These businesses must overcome the ingrained purchasing habits of hospital systems, medical supply distributors and state governments. Many buyers are loath to try the new crop of American-made masks, which are often a bit more expensive than those produced in China. Another obstacle comes from companies like Facebook and Google, which banned the sale and advertising of N95 masks in an effort to thwart profiteers from diverting vital medical gear needed by frontline medical workers."

Here's a more extended example: "Companies like United States Mask, a start-up in Fort Worth, Texas, which began producing N95s in November, may not be able to hold out much longer. John Bielamowicz, a commercial real estate broker who started the company with a friend, David Baillargeon, in the early weeks of the pandemic, said he has been frustrated by the lack of interest from the hospital chains, long-term care facilities and local governments that buy in bulk. Although the company’s masks have been certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Mr. Bielamowicz says many buyers are reluctant to give unfamiliar products a try. Big hospitals prefer to stick with masks they already use because of the time-consuming need to fit-test new models on employees. But many cost-conscious bulk buyers prefer to purchase cheaper Chinese ones. One of the more painful rebuffs came from Tarrant County, where Mr. Bielamowicz’s factory is located. Last month the county disqualified his company’s bid because officials wanted to buy specific Chinese-made models. County officials did not respond to requests for comment. “We got into this business because we were troubled by America’s dependence on foreign manufacturing and wanted to do something about it,” said Mr. Bielamowicz, whose masks sell for $2.25 a piece — a few cents more than those made in China. “Are we going to be left to die on the vine when we’re making N95s at a competitive price?”

The kludge of unresponsive SOPs (standard oeprating procedures) is standing in the way of bureaucratic adaptation to a crisis. It's plain nuts.

Another piece of nuttiness is the kludge affecting our postal system, which used to be the envy of the world. Over the last 13 years, it has bled almost $90 billion. The issue? "[I]n 2006 Congress passed legislation requiring USPS to pre-fund more than $120 billion in retiree health care and pension liabilities." No other business has this requirement placed upon it. At a time when the US needs its postal system more than ever, we have knee-capped it. Now the postmaster is asserting that only a significant hike in postage will save the system. One of the most valuable and competent government services to ever be established has been kludged, and our country may well lose it in the coming decades.

I see these various types of kludge as a sign of national decline. The inventiveness, swift adaptation, and "can do" attitude of the American of World War II is clearly gone. It will probably never return. I mourn that loss.