PATIENCE, GRASSHOPPER

The number of American soldiers who’ve died in Iraq since George W. Bush declared victory from the deck of that aircraft carrier has been many times the number who died before that declaration of victory. So it’s not always clear that victory is something to celebrate. Likewise, I conjecture, those who’ll die from Covid 19 after we reopen the economy will be at least as many as died before we did so. So either we have to concede that closing the economy didn’t save any lives, or we have to acknowledge that the lives of those who are about to die aren’t as valuable as the lives of those who already have. Neither sounds very palatable. So how can we spin it to make it, well, less unpalatable?

I think what we have to say is that when we went into lockdown, we didn’t know that it wouldn’t lower the area under the curve, or even if we did, we wanted to flatten the curve so as to match the health care available to the demands being placed on it. So by flattening the curve we hoped we might be able to lower the area under it.

That could wash. But it doesn’t explain why we’re opening now rather than earlier or later. I suppose the explanation is that the when of reopening represents our best guess as to where the equilibrium lies between loss of life and loss of quality of life for the rest of us.

That would make sense, were it not that that’s not how this decision was made. There’s nothing we know now that we didn’t know back when we went into lockdown. So what’s changed – and all that’s changed – is that we lost patience.

If this be doubted, think of being on hold to get through to customer service. You know you’re in the queue, but you don’t know how many callers are ahead of you. At what point do you say fuck it, hang up, and get on with more important things? It’s not that you didn’t need to get hold of customer service after all. It’s that the importance of doing so diminished with the transaction costs already expended, even though – and this is the kicker – you know that, the more you’ve already expended, the less you’ll have to continue to expend to speak to an agent.

Is this just one of those foibles made famous by cognitive psychologists like Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky? I think not, and here’s why:

In Canada we have single payer health care. If you need a knee replacement you go into a queue. The government knows that if you have to wait too long, if you lose patience, you’ll head south, pay out of pocket, and then resent having to pay through your taxes for a service you didn’t get. And if enough Canadians resent paying taxes for services they don’t get, they won’t pay it. The system will be voted out of office. That’s why our government does its utmost to lower wait times. And, for the most part, it does a pretty decent job. Certainly good enough that very few Canadians would want to return to patient-payer health care.

So impatience is not a mere foible that policy-makers can simply ignore. Or if they do ignore it, they do so at their peril. And that’s the reason we’re reopening the economy, notwithstanding that the curve hasn’t flattened, and probably won’t, especially now that we’ve reopened the economy.

Some pundits – generally on the left – think we’re making a grave mistake by reopening. That by doing so we’re knowingly killing people. They’re right that we’re knowingly killing people. But they’re wrong that this is a mistake. Jonathan Haidt has argued that people on the left have only two moral taste buds: justice and utility. But those on the right have several more, including (what Haidt could have summed up as) ‘seemliness’. Donald Trump knew how to appeal to that broader moral palate. That’s why he was elected in the first place, and that’s why we’re reopening the economy. And why the thousands of people we’re killing by doing so likely won’t count against him come November.

This is not to say he’ll win in November. Nor that he hasn’t egregiously mishandled this pandemic. But he has shown he knows how to handle our impatience.

No blog entry of mine has a bottom line, though each does have a last one. This one has two: 1) Don’t be too impatient with the impatience of others. And 2) Customer service knows that, which is why they keep having to reassure us that “Your call is important to us.”



Categories: Editorials, Everything You Wanted to Know About What's Going On in the World But Were Afraid to Ask

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