Trust and modesty

I have friends who say that the decision of politicians to paralyze the whole economy is madness. That politicians would only make these decisions because they themselves would not have to bear the cost of economic decline. The bill would be paid by others. Politicians, on the other hand, would only show actionism in order to be well received by the voters.

Could be theoretically. But in practice this is highly unlikely.

Firstly, this consideration assumes that the current decisions of politicians in the Corona crisis are risk-free in terms of the effect they have on voters. One can imagine what would happen if the emergency did not occur – even if the politicians’ actions were to have the causal effect of preventing the emergency from occurring in the first place.

How would Angela Merkel look then, if at the end of the year only 2,000 seniors had died who would have died anyway, perhaps of a cold, with her first direct television address to the people beyond the New Year’s speech? – First woman as Chancellor of Germany, 15 years in office? Merkel risks a lot: at the end of her career as chancellor she could go down in history as the woman who brought Germany’s economic power to the brink of collapse because of a cold.

Secondly, this argument is based on the assumption that at this point in time one can already assess well enough how high or low the risk is. That you can also take responsibility for the risk of getting it wrong. But at present the information available is contradictory, unclear and confusing. The risk, on the other hand, is huge and even worst-case scenarios are far too little unlikely.

Given the magnitude of the risk posed by the corona virus, you either have to have a great deal of knowledge or be megalomaniacal to be sure of your opinion.

I do not presume to assess the danger, so I am acting on the recommendations of those who most likely have better information and are advised by smarter people than I am. I do as they say. Although and because they are politicians. I trust politicians, not because they are infallible, but because they are likely to make fewer mistakes than I do.

What we had always thought

In the latest episode of the podcast “Hidden Brain”, historian Nancy Bristow describes the 1918 influenza epidemic, when decisions made by politicians had far-reaching consequences. For example, a parade in Philadelphia in the face of the influenza epidemic was not cancelled, as many had demanded. The decision of a politician, which brought death to thousands of people a few weeks later.

The historian says that the decision-makers at that time did not have the advantage of being able to look back, as we have today. We should therefore be soften our criticism of those responsible at the time. In the vast majority of cases, politicians would have done the best they could, but we must remember how difficult it is to make decisions in such a situation when you don’t know in which direction the pandemic is developing. And then, in a remarkable afterthought: she herself had only understood this last week.

Bristow has written a book about the influenza epidemic. I’m sure she spent years researching the subject. And here she now says that she missed something that she only realized last week, at the very moment when we are in a similar situation with the COVID-19 pandemic.

What is it that she became aware of? Written as a sentence, it sounds almost trivial: That in retrospect one looks at a situation differently than when one is in the situation. It is relatively easy to understand that in a situation information is missing that one can only have later. The politicians in 1928 only knew that the flu would kill thousands of people after the flu had killed thousands. Before that, it was just one of many possible options, and one could certainly think with good reason that the danger was unlikely, not worth canceling a major parade.

Only later did people know what had happened and only with this knowledge, is it easy to clearly distinguish a right decision from a wrong one.

Nancy Bristow is certainly a very, very smart woman. She teaches at a university, she writes books. And she didn’t realize that information that you have or don’t have at a certain point in time influences decisions at least as much as the differences in the character traits of politicians?

Everyone should know this from their own experience. That you change your mind when you have new information. You have just decided not to eat anything in the evening and by chance there is still the lunchtime meal standing around in the kitchen. So you have made a decision, then the state of information changes (you become aware of the rest of the lunch) and you change your mind. Things like this happen to me 10.000 times a day.

Obviously people find it difficult to remember that at some point you didn’t know what you know now. Nancy Bristow does that, I do that and it explains why when I think about my former self, the phrase “Oh, how stupid I was” comes to mind instead of the much more plausible: “Too bad I didn’t know that, yet…”.

We are obviously not intuitively able to understand that at an earlier point in time one might have seen things differently. That perspectives can change over time and that at some point you might be able to see what you couldn’t see before. And that, seen the other way around, sometimes you can no longer see what you saw before. Most people are unaware of the latter in particular: that what used to be clearly in sight sometimes can become invisible.

If you dig in your life you may come across such cases from time to time. One indication of cases where the perspective has changed significantly is that you can no longer explain what “drove” you to a certain decision.

It is laborious to think oneself into such cases. The human brain is lazy and has therefore invented a shortcut: Intuitively, it makes people think that they have always thought the way they think now.

It hurts

The old man looks beautiful, sitting in the spring sunshine, smoking a cigarette. In passing I greet him briefly and when I pass him again 10 minutes later, I take a heart and speak to him.

Which means I walk past him first, stop, think for a few seconds, turn around, go back and talk to him.

It’s not easy for me to talk to people. That is the reasons why I usually do everything myself. I do not like to ask for help.

Lately I have gotten into the habit of watching myself think. To look at what’s going on inside me. I observe what I feel, focus my attention on the thoughts and feelings that rise up inside me and try to hold them for a moment to be able to look at them. In this way I sometimes succeed in perceiving things in me that normally pass away so quickly that they escape my consciousness.

He looks so beautiful as he sits there in the sun, whether I may take a photo, I would like to draw him later, I ask.

The man answers “No“.

I turn around and leave. When I walked about 20 metres, I notice a pain rising in me. I turn my attention to the pain, look at it carefully. It is the pain of a small child who has just experienced rejection and cannot understand why.

It would be easy to push the feeling aside. Pushing the feeling aside happens normally automatically, but I focus on the feeling. Without judging, without taking sides. And I notice how the feeling becomes more and more overwhelming, I see how I would love to cry out in pain.

I’m a 47-year-old man, I don’t just start crying in the middle of the street because I’m being turned down by a grandfather I don’t even know.

But for this brief moment, when in the world around me probably less than half a second has passed, I can catch a glimpse of the fear of pain that keeps me from asking someone for something.


The old do not understand what the young do. And because the elders have learned so many things in their long lives and know so much, and yet all this knowledge cannot really explain what the young do, the elders are at a loss for a moment. And then the old people explain that what the young are doing as nonsense.

The young themselves cannot really explain what they are doing, either. The young have not yet found the right words. Because it takes a long time to find the right words. Finding the right words to describe something new, something that did not even exist in the past, takes years and decades. So the young cannot yet have words to describe the new. But the young feel that what they are doing is not nonsense.

They just don’t have the words to explain to the monkeys, who need words to understand.


Things Waiting

A few days ago a man in Lübeck walked through the pedestrian zone and suddenly laughed out loud.

How absurd!

All those shops. Everywhere things waiting to be needed. Everywhere houses with shop windows in which things are displayed, waiting for someone to come who wants them. And all the people who are busy draping things and placing them in pretty light – and who, along with the things, are waiting for someone to come who needs them.

Behind the shops there are storage rooms where more things are waiting, and behind the storage rooms there are warehouses, warehouses of wholesalers, warehouses of transport companies, warehouses of factories; everywhere people who are busy managing things that are waiting to be needed.

Instead of doing it the other way round. Starting with someone needing something. That a person becomes aware of needing something, a jacket or a computer for example, and then making the jacket or the computer and carrying it around. You wouldn’t need all those stupid houses where stuff is just sitting and waiting around.

And the people who spend their time putting the goods in a nice light, they could focus their attention on life instead of focussing on dead things.

People who pay attention to life would be able to know by themselves what they need. But since the vast majority of people do not know what they need, some item has to be constantly held in front of their faces:

It costs energy to permanently seduce people to buy things. You have to constantly present things in a beautiful light and praise them. Otherwise things will clog up warehouses, storage rooms and business displays. “Everything must go!” is written in big letters on posters, because space must be made for more things waiting for someone to come who needs them.

The man laughed for a moment and continued.