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Why is Common Sense not Common?

Why is Common Sense not Common?

FRIDAY, February 26, 2021
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As vaccines begin to roll out, there is increasing awareness that vaccines are not the silver bullets to kill the pandemic.  First, there are lots of people who do not like vaccinations.  Moreover, if COVID-19 resides within one part of your community, you might still get infected even with the vaccine shot. 

Andrew Sheng

Second, the available vaccines are being very unfairly distributed.  As public health expert Gavin Yamey observed in Nature magazine: “As I write this, 191 million vaccination shots against COVID-19 have been administered; more than three quarters were given in just 10 nations that account for 60% of the global gross domestic product. In some 130 nations with 2.5 billion people, not a single shot has been administered. High-income countries represent only 16% of the world’s population, but they have purchased more than half of all COVID-19 vaccine doses.”

Third, we don’t even know whether there will be a Next Normal, since so many things are changing so fast that conventional knowledge is having trouble coping with change.   The New Normal is super-fast change, with COVID-19 mutating as fast as vaccines are being innovated. 

Given all such complexity, let’s draw some simple common sense lessons on what to do next.  

First, change has happened so fast that even experts are likely to be wrong.   Relying on medical expertise alone means shutting down the economy, and that has indeed very tough costs.  To be fair, there is so much distrust and fake news that no one knows who to believe anymore.  .  

Second, in a chaotic transition with no agreement, we have to focus not on the “best”, but on what is practical and achievable.   The best cannot be the enemy of the good.

Third, common sense tells you that in a crisis, cooperation is the only practical way out of the mess.  But there are lots of people who think that demonizing and fighting each other on the basis of fundamental beliefs and values is what matters.  That cannot be right, because if small fights escalate to nuclear war, there will be no one left.  We have to accept that we live in one over-crowded planet in which we have to live with people we do not like, whether we like it or not.  Migration is like shuffling deckchairs on the Titanic. 

As someone trained to think logically and rationally, the US elections woke me up to the fact that no amount of facts and rational arguments can convince Trump supporters to accept the evidence that the majority won.  We need to accept that there will always be a wide range of opinions on everything, so deciding issues democratically will be a noisy affair.  Since public opinions are very polarized, it would make sense to start the process of building social consensus on what we think the post-pandemic economy and social system should look like.

Common sense tells us that top-down solutions where a small group decides how the present is being shared (as we see, unequally) will not do.  We will need bottom-up feedback mechanisms to ensure that each individual, community, nation and together, the world, will move towards a more green and inclusive place with peace and hopefully prosperity.   

Actually, we are in this chaotic phase because we have moved from a Unipolar to a Multipolar world.   This is because not only is the hegemon power having an intense internal debate on what to do domestically, its foreign policy is also being questioned by the rest of the world.   Do the rest of the world want the United States to remain as the world’s policeman?  And can America even afford this role, given her rising deficits?

These common sense questions have a paradoxical answer.  Political scientist Professor Deborah Stone in her book, “Policy Paradox” identify politics in any country as the art of reconciling conflicting differences arising from race, religion, values, and interests that are not always rational or rather emotional.  If the state is to stick together without fighting or civil war, these conflicts must be resolved amicably.  But since those who advise the politicians are the economists and lawyers who are trained to think rationally, the solutions proposed, certainly those introduced in the last 30 years, don’t seem to work as intended.   For example, America preaches equality since its founding and yet Black Americans still face serious racial discrimination.  Why is it that in the richest country with the best medical facilities, native Americans have a COVID-19 mortality rate two and half times higher than the whites and Asian average?

In short, rational solutions may not be able to explain let alone solve irrational or emotion social conflicts or issues.  

The common sense answer is that human beings are both rational and irrational at the same time.  Just because scientific theories work in practice in nature, this does not mean that social science theories work in societies that do not conform wholly to rational thinking.  The smartest solutions are those that the people will accept as something that is simple to understand, looks fair and works.  Simply writing complex laws and rules, which is the standard political or bureaucratic response to crises, can fool some people some of the time, but not all of the time

What is the most urgent task to re-build after the the pandemic and global economic devastation?   Conventional politics works through contentious debates where the opponents try to score points against each other, so that what makes headlines in the social media is what counts.  What we need is a proper dialogue, not monologues that talk past each other, on how we together imagine a better future, and then how we can work together to deliver that future.  

Common sense tells us that within a family, if we don’t talk together, we don’t belong together.   We are no longer a collection of tribes and villages, but 7.8 billion people living in a crowded burning planet of our collective creation.  Time to begin the first step of healing through local narratives, that will eventually form the basis for a global narrative of diverse plurality.    

If we fail, we have only ourselves to blame, no one else.