The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020


All of us nod to the authority of those who through a combination of education, training, and life experience have acquired extensive knowledge about a subject at hand. That's even more true in the arcane corners of "science," where the problems are often exceedingly complex, the language is nearly indecipherable, and the stakes are often quite high. Given that reality, laypeople rely on the experts' authority and guidance and hope that the models they create accurately predict the future, and therefore inform their decisions — decisions that affect not only them, but everyone else.

Our reliance on authority is understandable, but it has to be constantly calibrated against the predictions that have been offered (often driven by models), and the resultant decisions made based on the advice that has been given. We should perform either explicit or implicit risk analysis to weigh the decisions driven by the experts' advice against the broader impact of those decisions in the short, middle and long term. Above all, we need to be pragmatic, applying common sense, even when it conflicts with the advice of our experts, particularly when their past projections have been provably incorrect.

Victor Davis Hansen has written a very important treatise on 'authority' — our reliance on it, and the consequent dangers and benefits of unquestioning acceptance of the advice provided by authority. He writes:
The virus will teach us many things, but one lesson has already been relearned by the American people: there are two, quite different, types of wisdom.

One, and the most renowned, is a specialization in education that results in titled degrees and presumed authority. That ensuing prestige, in turn, dictates the decisions of most politicians, the media, and public officials—who for the most part share the values and confidence of the credentialed elite.

The other wisdom is not, as commonly caricatured, know-nothingism. Indeed, Americans have always believed in self-improvement and the advantages of higher education, a trust that explained broad public 19th-century support for mandatory elementary and secondary schooling and, during the postwar era, the G.I. Bill.

But the other wisdom also puts a much higher premium on pragmatism and experience, values instilled by fighting nature daily and mixing it up with those who must master the physical world.

The result is the sort of humility that arises when daily drivers test their skills and cunning in a semi-truck barreling along the freeway to make a delivery deadline with a cylinder misfiring up on the high pass, while plagued by worries whether there will be enough deliveries this month to pay the mortgage.

An appreciation of practical knowledge accrues from watching central-heating mechanics come out in the evening to troubleshoot the unit on the roof, battling the roof grade, the ice, and the dark while pitting their own acquired knowledge in a war with the latest computerized wiring board of the new heating exchange unit that proves far more unreliable than the 20-year-old model it replaced.

Humility is key to learning, but it is found more easily from a wealth of diverse existential experiences on the margins. It is less a dividend of the struggle for great success versus greater success still, but one of survival versus utter failure.

So far in this crisis, our elite have let us down in a manner the muscularly wise have never done.
Let's be real. Our elites are doing the best they can in a very difficult situation, but they are hardly infallible. Given the toxic politics that have arisen in a presidential election year, the elites (a.k.a., the four constituencies) are more than eager to suggest that: (1) we could have and should have acted sooner and lives would have been saved, (2) saving lives is the only consideration moving forward, even if we destroy our economy, and (3) that those who suggest that we must re-open the economy advocate that we jettison many of the worthwhile health guidelines that have been put into place.

Let's take each numbered point individually.

(1) You're driving down the road for an important event and see ominous storm clouds on the horizon. You're not sure that the storm will hit nor are you sure of the severity, but given the dark clouds, it's obvious that there a problem miles and miles away. Do you exit the highway immediately (an abundance of caution) and miss the important event, or do you continue driving, turning on your car radio to get regular reports regarding severity and location? The vast majority of us would opt to drive on with an eye toward evasive action later on, if things become untenable. Metaphorically, that's what happened in January and early February of this year, and to suggest that we should have exited the road based on less than definite information (hindsight is easy) defies common sense.

(2) Quoting from the NYT Morning Brief:
While acknowledging the importance of getting the U.S. back to work, governors and mayors said on Sunday that public health concerns were their priority.

Gov. Philip Murphy of New Jersey, a Democrat, said of returning to a semblance of life before the coronavirus outbreak: “It’s not job No. 1, because right now the house is on fire and job No. 1 is to put the fire out.”
At the risk of being overly flip, what Murphy is advocating is akin to suggesting that the fire can be put out by dropping a 1000 bomb on the house. The flames would undoubtedly be extinguished, but the house would be destroyed completely and there would be rather substantial collateral damage to other houses in the neighborhood. The question is: Which is worse, the existing fire or the bomb we use to extinguish it?

(3) In order to make their argument to keep the economy shuttered, the four constituencies create a strawman argument. NO ONE is suggesting that we go back to "normal" immediately. Any re-boot of the economy would be location and industry dependent—COVID-19 hot-zones would stay closed and things like sporting events and concerts, demanding the concentration of large numbers of people, would remain shuttered for a time. Ther most vulnerable populations would remain sheltered for the broader population. Businesses that would re-open would be required to adhere to stringent CDC health guidelines—masks for all employees and visitors/customers, a comprehensive cleaning regimen, and six foot social distancing, maybe even temperature checks every workday.

Experts are important in this crisis, but they are not gods nor are they even close to infallible. We cannot jettison common sense when expert suggestions are made.