Diary

Talk Is Cheap: What, If Anything, Do Experts Risk in Endorsing the 'Rona Virus Shutdown?

AP Photo/Alex Brandon

Do you think Dr. Anthony Fauci will ever be ruined under any circumstances?

For example, if researchers conclude in a year that social distancing, quarantines, masks, economic shutdowns, and other compulsory actions were unnecessary or even counterproductive–that the United States put its economy in a sling and suspended civil liberties for nothing–will Fauci lose his job, his house, his medical license, and his marriage?

Will anyone force Fauci to give all his money to the newly minted poor he helped create? Will he find himself working at McDonald’s– broke, alone, and forever disgraced?

Not likely.

Unless Fauci says something truly heinous and unforgiveable–something like “There are biological reasons why more men than women are physicists“–he will be just fine whatever hindsight concludes.

A short time after his errors are established, the public and the medical profession will forget his flip-flops, off-the-mark predictions, and financially devastating recommendations. He will fade back into the woodwork at the NIH or CDC, draw his government paycheck uninterrupted, and play golf on Sundays.

Dr. Anthony Fauci really has very little ‘skin in the game’ when it comes to high-stakes decisions about the Wuhan virus. Millions of other Americans are betting their lives, jobs, and futures on the quarantines and shutdowns, but not him.

PERSONAL RISK MATTERS

This is not to shade Fauci in particular. He might be a great guy with the best of intentions. The same might be said for most of the technocrats prognosticating and policymaking right now: well-intentioned folk who, if they are wrong about what they foresee and recommend, temporarily lose a little reputation or nothing at all. They are playing poker with other people’s chips, not their own.

This is a serious problem for our country, and not just in the handling of the Wuhan virus.

Why? Because personal risk matters in decision making. Significant personal risk alters the cognitive process. Common sense and experimental psychology both suggest that human beings vet decisions more carefully when they stand to lose something of great value to themselves. Significant personal risk has a way of focusing the mind and restraining ungrounded predictions, opinions, and recommendations.

Significant personal risk brings out the conservative in all of us.

Military commanders provide an excellent contrasting example. Depending on the historical period, a military general who made a terrible decision risked the massacre of his closest friends; the subjugation of his home country; banishment from command forever; and even his own capture and execution. Military commanders bet their own chips along with the chips of others; and this develops in them a habit of triple-checking their own conclusions and looking askance at speculative maneuvers.

Imagine if Dr. Fauci and other experts were told: “If you bunch make the wrong call, if we find herd immunity or another strategy was the best course, you will lose EVERYTHING, and your good intentions be damned.”

In this scenario, would the experts have been quite so quick and cavalier about quarantines and nationwide shutdowns? Would they have hedged their bets a little more?

Check your gut: what do YOU think?

SEPARATE OUTCOMES FOR THE GOVERNED AND THE GOVERNING

Would you be suspicious of a financial advisor who told you to put your money in rollercoaster stocks, only to find out he holds his own money in low-risk bonds? Would you buy a Kia from a car salesman who drives a Honda himself? Would you heed a politician’s plea to keep your kid in public school while he sends his own kids to a private school?

Would you like the person giving you recommendations to place the same bets he encourages you to make?

That’s the predicament of average Americans these days: technocrat experts and politicians have decoupled their own outcomes from the outcomes of the people for whom they make decisions. The people calling the shots lack any incentive to avoid paths and recommendations that are risky for the populace, because they don’t share those risks.

Pundits call this behavior ‘hypocrisy’. But really, it’s much worse than the mere character flaw of hypocrisy. Indeed, it’s a systemic flaw in our democratic republic today, one that separates the priorities of the governing and the priorities of the governed.

Even those experts and politicians with the best of intentions labor under the unconscious temptation to convince themselves that the decision with the best risk/reward profile for THEM is also the best decision for us all:

“If this works, I’m a visionary hero. If it doesn’t … back to Congress-as-usual or the lab!”

Thus medical experts and politicians can catastrophize all they like and jump into the unknown, only to step back onto terra firma should they turn out to be wrong about the lethality of the Wuhan virus and the best course to manage it. Likewise, lawmakers such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D – NY) will lose nothing should the ‘Green New Deal’ blow up the United States economy and devastate the lower and middle classes. Even if her constituents vote her out and she loses her congressional paycheck, she can trade up for a multi-million-dollar spot as a talking head at CNN or MSNBC.

It’s easy to become excited about fashionable ideologies, scientific theories with thin data, and flimsy utopian fantasies when you have nothing to lose and visionary status to gain. That’s why broke college students tend toward socialism, while business owners and people with families to feed tend to be more circumspect.

It’s irrelevant to this discussion whether social distancing, nationwide shutdowns, or the ‘Green New Deal’ are ‘correct’ in the end. The merry-go-round debate on these issues misses a deeper point about HOW decisions are being made in our country today.

That deeper point is this: anyone making a high-stakes decision for the rest of us should have skin in the game, a tether to keep him grounded in reality. Without the reality-check of personal risk, leaders tempted to bet on flimsy experiments and their own advancement pose a never-ending threat to the society.

Because they are betting with house money. OUR money.