Once in a Lifetime

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The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

– Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (c. 1080)

That’s a poem attributed to Omar Khayyam, an 11th century Persian philosopher and all-around genius who lived near the modern-day city of Qom, the epicenter of the COVID-19 plague wracking Iran today.

Here’s another philosopher and all-around genius, David Byrne, saying the same thing one thousand years later.

And you may ask yourself
Am I right? Am I wrong?
And you may say to yourself
“My God! What have I done?”

– Once In A Lifetime (1981)

David Byrne lives in the modern-day city of New York, the epicenter of the COVID-19 plague wracking the United States today.

It’s all the same, you know. The dad in Qom coughing up a lung who loves his kids and is loved by them is exactly the same as the dad in New York coughing up a lung who loves his kids and is loved by them. I know we don’t think of it that way. Hell, I know plenty of people in my home state of Alabama who don’t even think a dad in Montgomery is the same as a dad in New York, much less a dad in freakin’ Qom, Iran. But they are. The same, that is. Exactly the same.

We will never win this war until we regain our sense of empathy, until we regain our ability to appreciate the pain that others endure in their struggle against this common enemy.

It’s how Gandhi defined religion.

I call him religious who understands the suffering of others.

Of course, most of our leaders wouldn’t know Gandhi from a hole in the head.

Instead, our leaders, if they think of empathy at all, think in terms of Steve Martin’s advice.

Before you criticize a man, walk a mile in his shoes. That way, when you do criticize him, you’ll be a mile away and have his shoes.

You know what people without empathy are, right? They’re sociopaths, and I use that word in an entirely clinical sense. Because that’s what we are today, clinically speaking, a society largely governed by high-functioning sociopaths in both our economy and our politics, humans devoid of empathy for any other human outside of the narrowest bonds of convention. And they’re training us to be just like them.

It’s not a left/right thing. It’s not a Republican/Democrat thing. It’s not an American thing. It’s not even a boomer thing.

It’s a Nudging Oligarchy thing. It’s a Nudging State thing. It’s a Long Now thing.

Why do high-functioning sociopaths and their Renfields manufacture bullshit “analysis” to convince you that the sky is green and it’s only the olds anyway so what’s the big deal and the really important thing is to go back to work and save their wealth the economy? It’s not really to minimize the disease. That’s just the text. The sub-text … the REAL message … is to minimize your empathy, to convince you to abdicate your autonomy of mind and heart to THEM.

The real message is to convince you that 2 + 2 = 5.

Iakov Guminer, Arithmetic of an alternative plan (1931)

In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it. Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality, was tacitly denied by their philosophy. The heresy of heresies was common sense.

And what was terrifying was not that they would kill you for thinking otherwise, but that they might be right.

— George Orwell, 1984

The Long Now is the Fiat World of reality by declaration, where we are TOLD that inflation does not exist, where we are TOLD that wealth inequality and meager productivity and negative savings rates just “happen”, where we are TOLD that we must vote for ridiculous candidates to be a good Republican or a good Democrat, where we are TOLD that we must buy ridiculous securities to be a good investor, and where we are TOLD that we must borrow ridiculous sums to be a good parent or a good citizen.

And where we are now TOLD that we must join our leaders in sociopathy and division to be a good American.

What do I mean by sociopathy and division?

I mean the way our political and economic leaders beat the narrative drum about how this virus prefers to kill the old rather than the young, as if that matters for our policy choices, as if older Americans are lesser Americans, as if we should think of them differently – with less empathy – than Americans who are more like “us”.

I mean the way our political and economic leaders beat the narrative drum about how this virus prefers to kill those with “pre-existing conditions”, as if that matters for our policy choices, as if chronically ill Americans are lesser Americans, as if we should think of them differently – with less empathy – than Americans who are more like “us”.

I mean the way our political and economic leaders beat the narrative drum about how this virus hits certain “hotspot” regions, as if that matters for our policy choices, as if hotspot regions are lesser regions, as if we should think of Americans who live there differently – with less empathy – than Americans who are in “our” region.

The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.

– William Gibson

We are, all of us, old. We are, all of us, chronically ill. We are, all of us, living in a hotspot.

Some of us are already there. Some of us aren’t. Yet.

Age, illness, environment … they are unevenly distributed among us. But they are the future for all of us just the same. What is empathy? It is the recognition of this truth. What is our duty? To shout this truth from the rooftops. To require our leaders to bend to OUR will, and not the other way around.

Enough. It’s time for the Pack to howl.

The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on.

The policy decisions we make cannot be undone. We have one shot at this.

Nor all thy MAGA piety nor all thy Twitter wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line.
Nor all thy SJW tears wash out a word of it.

Given the irrevocable life-and-death nature of our policy decisions today … given the profound UNCERTAINTY that governs the impact of a pandemic on society, as opposed to mere RISK … we should not seek to maximize our utility.

Instead, we should seek to minimize our maximum regret.

A risk is an event where we can assign some sort of reasonable probability to its occurrence AND some sort of reasonable assessment of its potential impact, so that we can calculate what’s called an “expected utility” … in English, so that we can talk meaningfully about risk versus reward of some action or decision. To use Donald Rumsfeld’s oft-maligned but in-truth brilliant characterization, a risk is a “known unknown”.

When people talk about the trade off between the national economic impact of shutting down the country and the national health impact of shutting down the country, they are using the language and the calculator of risk.

It’s not that people are wrong to say there’s a trade off. There IS a trade off. Where they’re wrong is to think that there is some equilibrium here – some sort of balancing point in our policy so that we can maximize our national economic expected utility given our national health expected utility and vice versa.

Where they’re wrong is to think in terms of risk and expected utility in the first place!

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is rumsfeld-1.jpeg

“There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

An uncertainty is an event where either we can’t know the probabilities at all or – as in the case of public policy in the face of a pandemic – we’re only going to play the game once.

To use a poker analogy, my decision-making process for playing a hand is going to be entirely different if I’m only going to be dealt one hand for the rest of my life or if I’m playing all night and every night. If I’m playing all night and every night, I’ll play the odds in every hand, trusting the odds to even out in my favor over time. If I’m only playing one hand, though, where an unlucky break cannot be salvageable over time … what’s my tolerance for that?

In Rumsfeldian terms, uncertainty is an “unknown unknown”, and in his mind (he was Secretary of Defense, after all) the classic example of an uncertainty was going to war. Our war is with COVID-19. We get to fight once and only once. Whether we win or we lose is an uncertainty, not a risk, and we need a decision-making process designed specifically for THAT.

The decision-making strategy designed specifically for uncertainty is Minimax Regret.

Minimax Regret was invented (or at least formalized) in 1951 by Leonard “Jimmie” Savage, one of the founding fathers of what we now call behavioral economics. Savage played a critical role, albeit behind the scenes, in the work of three immortals of modern social science. He was John von Neumann’s right-hand man during World War II, a close colleague of Milton Friedman’s (the second half of the Friedman-Savage utility function), and the person who introduced Paul Samuelson to the concept of random walks and stochastic processes in finance (via Louis Bachelier) … not too shabby! Savage died in 1971 at the age of 53, so he’s not nearly as well-known as he should be, but his Foundations of Statistics remains a seminal work for anyone interested in decision-making in general and Bayesian inference in particular.

As the name suggests, the Minimax Regret strategy wants to minimize your maximum regret in any decision process. This is not at all the same thing as minimizing your maximum loss. The concept of regret is a much more powerful and flexible concept than mere loss, because it’s entirely subjective. But that’s exactly what makes the strategy human. That’s exactly what makes the strategy real when the ultimate human chips of living and dying are on the table.

Minimax Regret downplays or eliminates the role that probability distributions play in the decision-making process.

Minimax Regret doesn’t calculate the odds and the expected utilities over multiple rolls of the dice. Minimax Regret says forget the odds … how would you FEEL if you rolled the dice that one time and got snake-eyes?

More technically, Minimax Regret asks how would you feel if you took Action A and Result 1 occurs? What about Result 2? Result 3? What about Action B and Result 4, 5, or 6?  Now out of those six potential combinations of action + result, what is the worst possible result “branch” associated with each action “tree”? Whichever action tree holds the worst possible result branch … well, don’t do THAT. Doing anything but THAT (technically, doing the action that gives you the best worst-result branch) is the rational decision choice from a Minimax Regret perspective.

The motto of Minimax Regret is not Know the World … it’s Know Thyself.

Because when faced with an uncertain event, where you only have one roll of the dice on a probabilistic event, that’s all we can know.


So what do I know about myself? What’s MY maximum regret that must be minimized regardless of anything else in this single-play game of coping with a virus that has a natural R-0 of 3+ and is 10-20x more deadly than the flu? It’s losing one of these guys.

We’ve all got a photograph like this. An old picture of the people who matter most to us in the world.

Time flies. Fifteen years. That unhappy little girl in the front row just heard back from college admissions yesterday. Good news.

I’m eligible for AARP now. My mother is now in her late 70s. She has what you’d call a “pre-existing condition” I suppose, but so will I in another 15 years.

The future is already here in this picture. It just wasn’t evenly distributed.

Now here’s the trick. The trick to rejecting the sociopathy and division that our leaders inject in our veins. The trick to engaging the world with a full heart.

The trick is to take the love you feel for your family even if they are old, even if they are infirm, even if they live distantly from you, geographically or emotionally … and extend the knowledge of that love to everyone else.

I’m not asking you to love that dad in Qom like you love your dad. I’m not asking you to be a saint.

I’m asking for empathy. I’m asking you to recognize that there but by the grace of God go I, that in fact you DO recognize exactly that when it comes to your family, that in fact you DO recognize that the future and the present and the past are as one in love … just not evenly distributed at any given time. I’m asking you to recognize that everyone in the world shares this and deserves this. I’m asking you to treat every human as an autonomous being of free will, capable of love and being loved. Just as you would want them to do unto you.

It won’t diminish the love you feel for your family. I promise. Love and empathy don’t work that way. It’s not a transaction.

It’s not a trade off.

And once you stop thinking in terms of trade offs, once you stop thinking in terms of probabilities and projected mortality rates and cost/benefit analysis and this expected utility model versus that expected utility model … once you start thinking in terms of empathy and Minimax Regret … everything will change for you.

Specifically and in terms of policy, what does a decision-making structure of Minimax Regret combined with empathy require?

I don’t know all the details. I don’t know if I’m missing key elements. But I believe strongly that any plan requires these two elements.

Keep our healthcare workers and first responders safe.

If they fall, we all fall. Every worst outcome has this as a common denominator. How do we keep them safe? Massive quantities of personal protective equipment (PPE). Everywhere. On-demand. At a granular level of the front lines.

Create common knowledge of safe zones, safe towns, safe events, safe cities.

Every worst outcome has the opposite: everyone knows that everyone knows that the contagious walk among us, creating a giant Prisoners Dilemma game of constant defection everywhere you look. Every nation for itself. Every state for itself. Every county, every city, every company, every family for itself. How do we create common knowledge of safety? Ubiquitous and rapid testing. Everywhere. All the time.

Empathy + Minimax Regret = How to Fight COVID-19

2 + 2 = 4

I’ll close this with a personal note. Because that’s what this war is for all of us … personal.

There’s another Talking Heads song that everyone knows, and that’s Life In Wartime, which Byrne wrote in 1979, two years before Once In A Lifetime. Here are the lyrics you know by heart:

This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco,
This ain’t no fooling around
No time for dancing, or lovey dovey,
I ain’t got time for that now

Certainly pertinent for today! But these are the lyrics I’m thinking about.

You make me shiver, I feel so tender,
We make a pretty good team
Don’t get exhausted, I’ll do some driving,
You ought to get you some sleep

Do you have a partner? Do you have a pack?

That’s how we get through a war.

That’s how we get through a lifetime.

Find your partner. Find your pack.

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  1. Hoooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooowwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwl.

  2. Avatar for Kpaz Kpaz says:

    Shit is real… just got the call my uncle passed this am. In Arizona. With just 15 deaths as of yesterday. Today it’ll be over 30 for sure. You think it won’t come because you’re young or you live in Yavapai county or whatever.

  3. You are undoubtedly right Ben, and thanks for another superb article. A question I always end up asking when I contemplate empathy or the lack of it across the top echelons of our economic and political leaders is whether empathy and compassion are in some way an impediment to the kind of ‘success’ we laud in our modern societies.

    Empathy and compassion the characteristics of the cooperative game (like you say), but are the rewards of breaking the game are so large now (and the costs of breaking it so low) that we can’t find a cooperative equilibrium without external enforcement. Rebuilding via the pack works on a smaller scale, I am less sure that membership based social conformity (with the payoffs in modern society as they are) is enough to keep the empathetic and compassionate equilibrium stable. I really hope I’m wrong.

    Thanks as always for the constant wonderful writing.

  4. With you Ben.

  5. Completely agree on rebuilding on a smaller scale. With economy built on just in time combined with lowest cost labor offshoring, we are now seeing the downside. The fix isn’t to wait for DC. Communities should be 3D printing masks, making PAPR hoods from vaccum hoses and clear plastic. We have to fight this virus and most injustice in packs, communities that are (or can become) flexible, nimble, and adaptable.

  6. Avatar for Tanya Tanya says:

    I am so, so sorry for your loss…sending many virtual hugs.

  7. Avatar for Tanya Tanya says:

    As I often am by your posts, I’m so moved by this…but this reached another level for me, you express so eloquently what I’ve been feeling. Thank you, Ben.

  8. I was gonna post on my Facebook: “eli eli lama sabachthani” but after reading your post, I aint got time for that now. Gathering my pack.

  9. And as things fell apart, nobody paid much attention.
    -Nothing But Flowers, Talking Heads

  10. First responders, health care workers, supply lines. I was a NYC Firefighter 9/11 and was dumbfounded how wonderful people pitch together when called to be human. Less Individualism more Humanity. Empathy need not be learned. Ben you are right,it is unlearned. We can do this.

  11. This is terrific. Thank you. It reached me down, ‘where the soul meets the bone’.

  12. Midwest Elderberry (Grower) Cooperative (my pack) is working together to add many more acres of native elderberry. We sold out of all native elder ingredients and many retail products nationally over a month ago, due to explosive surge in demand. Research, as incomplete as it is, suggests that this native plant helps the body to resist inflection, slow age-related health issues, and promote healing. To learn a bit more - including an article specifically focused on COVID-19, go to: https://midwest-elderberry.coop/health-nutrition/.

  13. In the simplest of terms…Love is NOT a zero-sum game.

    On the other side of this, I hope we become a better people, disabusing ourselves of the notions that one can consume one’s way to happiness and that one can borrow one’s way to wealth. Rather, let us hope that we embrace a generosity of spirit.

  14. I’ve used the expected value equation to explain this to people. If the expected value of your near-term death is negative infinity, the only mathematical possibility to ensure a positive near-term outcome is for the probability of that event to be exactly zero. Not close to zero, exactly zero. Just stay home if you’re fortunate to be able to. If not, limit as much contact as possible.

    We’ll sort out the economy later. Jubilee was common in biblical times. It will just look different this time.

  15. So clearly thought out. Wow and thanks. Friend just lost an aunt to Covid-19 in Seattle area. 80+, she didn’t take seriously and ignored offers of help.

  16. The sound of gunfire, off in the distance, I’m getting used to it now.

  17. Such a shame.

  18. Ben – Thank you very much for putting such personal expression of feeling into words. But which leaders are you thinking about? Who lacks the empathy and wants us all to become sociopaths? Are you thinking of Trump and his previous wish to get the economy back up and running by Easter? Xi and his treatment of Hubei as a gulag? Di Blasio insisting just eight days ago that public schools in NY must remain open? The governor of Oklahoma (or was it Nebraska?) who took a selfie of himself in a food court and telling people he will never shut down retail establishments?? The Kentucky Congressman who forced representatives to come back in Washington on Friday? I honestly am not sure. All I know is that lockdowns are spreading and economies are coming to a full stop in an effort to gain control over this scourge. Yes, mistakes were made and our leaders should have been more aggressive from the start. Trump truly says crazy stuff, but Fauci is still there to set him right. For the most part, I don’t see the a concerted effort to convince us that letting the old die is worth the price of restarting the economy.

  19. To the sociopaths in D.C. and in corporate America:

    “Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.” Ephesians 4:28

    Just because the bureaucrats give your company money doesn’t mean that you should keep it…

  20. Avatar for CMG CMG says:

    Well said, as always, Ben. I think we all appreciate, and in some way identify with, your personal perspective.

    A personal note myself. I was at an event a few months back where Scaramucci was the featured speaker. Bear with me here – he said, “I want you to think about the worst person you’ve ever met. Worst one, whether when you were a kid or now. Got it? Well that person would be the best person you’d meet working in politics in DC.”

    Not a novel concept, but enlightening given the source. They’re sociopaths, and there’s a better way.

    Thanks for all you do.

  21. Thank you Ben,

    I think that I find myself so strongly in agreement with you as we have a similar background. We are both sons of physicians. My dad’s wisdom informs me to this day. My dad carried something else with him, antibodies to the 1918 flu. He had it when he was nine years old and forever told the story about being quarantined in Boston and after the quarantine his dad taking him for a haircut and there being two chairs but now only one barber. And my dad always ended his 1918 flu story with “it will happen again.” In addition to his old-school GP practice, he had a side gig as a prison doc. That gig lays claim to ‘all lives matter’ like no other.

    The internet seems filled with a ‘save the economy or save lives’ debate. It should be obvious, save the fucking healthcare system and the rest will sort itself out.

    I’m glad to be part of the pack.

  22. Heartfelt, phenomenal, wish I could share and believe that everyone would read. Unfortunately, they won’t. So I’ve been sharing the picture with a bunch of skittles and a caption in the middle? Here it is:

    Dumb people: it only has a 3% kill rate.

    Smart people: if I gave you 100 skittles, & told you that 3 of them would kill you, you would avoid all the fucking skittles.

  23. So those family pics are beautiful! As a physician, I am very optimistic that your family will be just fine! We, too, had 4 children 6 or less, and now we have 7, soon to be 9 grandchildren, 7 or less, and so we have skin-in-the-game. I am not worried at all about any of my pack. I do worry about Nanny and a bit about myself because we are 65+.
    For me the ‘crisis’ is not about health and is not about finance. It is not about ABT tests, N95 masks, PPE’s, O2, ventilators, remdesivir, chloroquin, hydroxychloroquin, or vaccines. It is not about the DOW, QQQ, TSY, QEillion, or Repomania. It is not about Narrative.
    It is about freedom and its corollary - personal responsibility, the latter in the largest sense.

  24. Avatar for bhunt bhunt says:

    We drink a little elderberry juice every day!

  25. Avatar for bhunt bhunt says:

    Thank you, Chris. I’m so glad to be part of YOUR pack.

  26. Avatar for bhunt bhunt says:

    The skittles metaphor has been making the rounds. It’s great!

  27. Avatar for bhunt bhunt says:

    I have a libertarian streak a mile wide. More than that, I have a liberty and justice for all streak that’s 10 miles wide. But I think (or hope) we can all agree that if there is one task that governments are uniquely suited for and absolutely necessary for it is the coordination (and if necessary the enforcement) of collective action to mitigate a plague.

  28. Jordan Peterson talks about Nietzsche writing “God is dead” and Nietzsche being deeply concerned about the loss of the moral/ethical framework taught by the Church. I wonder if that is one of the reasons that we have become somehow accepting of corruption in political leadership and business leadership.

    On the other hand, the fact that the people who claim to be deeply Christian seem to be the people who vote for Trump seems (a) bewildering given his track record with women and his constant lying, and (b) seems to be evidence against my thesis.

    Perhaps it was always corrupt, only before the internet it was hidden behind controlled media.

    One gets the impression that there was an earlier, more ethical age, but then Slavery, Segragation, Lynchings, McCarthyism, and the assassinations of JFK, his brother Bobby, MLK, Malcolm X, Bay of Tonkin, Watergate, Iran/Contra affair.

    When was Camelot, and where?

  29. Liked that one Ben, I’m a fan of that Rumsfeld quote, him not so much. My personal favourite for navigating through this world is John Maynard Keynes “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do.” Oh yeah, I’m 82 in Aug.

  30. Avatar for bhunt bhunt says:

    Stay safe, Lorne.

  31. Yes - I totally agree with centralized planning to mitigate a plague, although I think (or hope) that such mitigation could still be done without force. The question boils down to which word applies: panic, pandemic, plannedemic, plague, or pseudo-plague. (P value vs P factor)

  32. 3-31-2020: Today’s CV-19 Task Force conference was a disgrace. Previously, we were told that ~95% of tests were negative. Today we learned that slightly more than 1 million tests have been done. Let’s round up to 2 million tests. So 100,000 tests have been positive at the same time that nearly 200,000 cases are confirmed. Maybe my math is wrong That’s funny - my senior thesis was about complex deformations of n-dimensional torii but maybe percents are too complicated?

  33. Wisdom literature is called such because it accurately describes reality. “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” is the first commandment in Hebrew scripture, I believe because it is a clear statement of reality. When I make an idol of myself, or my job, or my success, or my money, or my stuff (and I have done so with each of them), what really happens, what I really experience is lonely emptiness. When I look at myself as objectively as possible, at my worst I am being selfish – it’s all about me. And when I am selfish, there is no space (time, head room, heart room) for love. And empathy springs from love.

    Ben, the most compelling thing about your invitation to be a Pack is the connectedness that happens with the Pack, for it is only in community that I can move from “me” to “we”. Thank you for continuing to write and engage with us.

  34. Just wanted to say…Best. Post. Ever. Thanks!

  35. John, Great article, very thought-provoking as usual. I went ahead and sent in a contribution.

    On a side note, you may want to amend you statement that 100% goes to the effort. Classy.com collects a fee for administrating the donation and it was not possible to find out how much that fee is. Hopefully, it is reasonable. Other donation admin sites often give the donor a choice of providing a “tip” to support the effort but this one did not.

  36. Nice Vega pic. That’s a serious throw back.

  37. Is it actually 3% of the 100, or 3% of the misshapen yellow ones?
    I too enjoyed the article and agree with much of Ben’s points, however I am not certain all the facts are in. The analogy of the poker hand I find interesting but I would add that the room is dark and your prescription isn’t up to date and it is hard to make out whether the card is a diamond or a heart or differentiate between a 9,8, or 3. The better the information, the more sound the measures taken.
    I too have empathy to those most vulnerable, whether it is a vulnerability to the Covid-19 or a vulnerability to 25% unemployment rate.
    Stay safe.

  38. Calls for empathy that don’t segue into learning Esperanto ring as hollow as the rings of Saturn.

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