Elite Risk Minimization and COVID — Empathy in the Time of Coronavirus (IX)

Newest addition to the family…

Let’s start with a time stamp for this post. This post is being written at the time of maximum gaslighting of authorities regarding COVID-19. I say this because we’ve already passed through a couple of waves in different seasons, around the world. We have reasonably reliable statistics on Population Fatality Rates, and we’re even into variants and mutations, which, other than contagion, pretty much act like the original model. That doesn’t mean things can’t change, of course. But it’s far down the road that would have appropriately justified using the Precautionary Principle back at the beginning of all of this. We have plenty of data on COVID.

We also should realize that in much of the world, they are starting to come out of the Authority-driven Memetic response of the various Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions (NPIs). Sweden, the most modest of all the Western countries, is now a basically Zero Covid state. Great Britain lifted all its NPIs on July 17, “Freedom Day”, and instead of seeing a surge of cases, saw a dramatic drop. I could go on.

But what is happening in the U.S.? Here we’re fighting in all of the Blue States (with skirmishes in the Red States) over masking kids 12 and under who cannot yet be given a vaccine. And it’s not like a vaccine is particularly needed. Kids 12 and under have a death rate from COVID something less than half of influenza, and that rate is already extremely low — something in the range of 1 in 1 or 2M, with 50% of those deaths with sad, extreme comorbidities, such as stomach feeding tubes. One of the things that might help kids, even if catching COVID is a real thing, would be increased ventilation in schools. Yet the debate rages on surrounding masks, which have little to do with physical reality, but much to do, as I have written here (do read this one!) with memetic reality. The goal of the media is almost always to support authority. And it has managed to do that through essentially an 18 month diet, once unleashed, of constant fear.

Needless to say, living in your limbic brain is not good for complex, nuanced thought. Yet here we are.

Why? What happens when a system is apparently stuck in Survival v-Meme hysteria, but in any measurable reality, is not? Real/valid Survival v-Meme hysteria would have to be fueled by bodies in the street, a collapse of the food and water supply, or other such icks. Of course, none if this is actually happening. Even the vaunted “hospital overflow” problem — the original reason given for large-scale NPIs, has turned out to be a bust, over and over. You can read this post for some insight there. As well as for how to actually find things like real hospital and ICU vacancy numbers. Always go to the source. It’s good for your sanity.

Where we are actually stuck in, both physically and memetically, is in Elite Risk Minimization (ERM.) And what is that? ERM is the social dynamic that takes place once a society functionally loses its desire for agency of the majority of its citizens. The information stream the society works on is so gummed up both by fear and polarization, the only thing that matters in the larger, magnified mindset is the preservation of elites. Because of things like the societal polarization I discuss in this post (worth a read — it’s a breakthrough post) everything informationally in aggregate literally whirls in craziness, and even basic facts become contested.

I did a quick “person on the street” interview of a few people (I walk around and ask folks about really basic facts re: COVID) how COVID spreads. These are educated people, so don’t go there. All of them said “respiratory droplets” — which are really not the problem. The real problem with COVID is that it is an aerosol, and can hang, especially in interior spaces, for an indeterminate time. Yet even saying this to you, dear reader, might come as a surprise, and maybe a pushback. This is just a simple fact of the pandemic.

But if you view the statement of this fact that might not support your model of the situation as some attempt to “count coup” on your understanding, instead of discussing in the same matter-of-fact context of the weather, it becomes impossible to find common ground across opposing camps. And COVID’s death rate is basically so low — worst case scenario, looking at larger societal morbidity rates at twice the annual toll from respiratory viruses — you can’t validity ground this yourself because, crazily enough, 628K + people in a society of 330M means not enough people have died. You might have had an elderly, infirm or obese friend die during the pandemic (I had two) but the reality is there is no way for your mind to create a coherent pattern of those deaths on your own. In fact, you’ve likely not known enough people that had COVID and recovered to establish a pattern from that! And for the record, I’ve likely had COVID myself, it wasn’t fun, and in NO WAY am I saying COVID doesn’t exist.

But your brain and sensemaking needs both examples, and others inside your social network that you trust, to develop a larger shared understanding. If that doesn’t happen, well, you’re left with the “experts”. Your fragmented sense of knowing, already exacerbated by fear from media streams, just can’t validity ground this experiment on your own. And then when you add a lack of socialization, mask wearing, and other anti-social effects (like depression) into the mix, society is serving up a Perfect Storm of paralysis in knowing. Which is, needless to say, anti-empathetic and anti-agency.

So you’re left with the v-Memes of your elites, who, through outsize energetics (money) and other markers of status sit astride the various rigid hierarchies that run our world. And their level of kindness and mercy is directly indexed to the cultural sidebars enforced inside those elite communities, and their level of practiced empathy.

As we’ve seen, with the endless supply of videos on both Left and Right of the political spectrum, it ain’t great. Elites partying while the server-folk serve them canapés are easily found on Twitter. Gavin Newsom goes to the French Laundry. On and on. They’re inside their own little community of other rich folks (and this extends to private schools, and childrearing pods) while the rest of us suffer through mask-wearing, or school closures, because our mask wearing protects you, and your mask-wearing protects me — one of the most clever psychopathic tropes yet invented, considering how masks fundamentally don’t work.

Back up a bit. While it’s fair to say that they don’t work to prevent the spread of COVID. But they DO work — to truncate human interaction, and maintain homeostasis inside the social system. Because they’re wrapped around your face maps to the level of social scales that we believe we CAN control in this pandemic — which is barely about 1mm off your body. This limbic scaling (immediate control of your physical boundaries) fits nicely in the larger model.

Since the elites do have the time to know all the various stuff I’ve mapped on this blog (that absolutely doesn’t mean that they do, of course), but perhaps you don’t, you’d think “hey, why aren’t more of them being good humans and pushing back on this claptrap?” As with all things informatics in an unconscious/subconscious social structure, the answer is in the information flow. Or rather, in the lack of information flow. Our elites have been isolated from the population for a long time. They quite literally don’t feel your pain, because there would be almost no way they would be connected to you. Their kid is in private school. Their house is in the gated community. Service people show up and deliver packages to one’s door, and in this day and age, that even includes food behind pizza and Chinese take-out.

It didn’t use to always be that way. Two of my favorite books by James Howard Kunstler are the story of built architecture in the US titled The Geography of Nowhere and the companion volume, Home from Nowhere. The killer point that has influenced my thinking tremendously — we used to be more understanding of poor people’s lives because they lived with us as the help. We saw the challenges they faced raising their kids, making ends meet, and such because they were in our lives. Not badged in some kind of strange uniform, descending on our mini-mansion to clean the pool or mow the lawn. I myself experienced this. Growing up as a child of a doctor, and living on a hobby farm, we had alternately an African-American cleaning lady that raised me, as well as a lawn man whom I would assist with various chores. I’d bring him water when he was hot, and though he was quite reticent, we would talk. I still can remember both their names (Jeannette and Marvin) — so it was not just a passing incident.

When you are not connected to people, you can generate whatever bullshit you want to justify your own self-interest. One can find whatever flavor of, alternately, oppression or opportunity online to rationalize your mental model. That is much harder to do when the person who is working for you is present in front of you. And over time, it’s just accepted that this is “the way things are.” Which then reinforces the homeostasis of a rigid hierarchy.

What’s really crazy is that this kind of disconnection in our society, since we’ve generated income gaps (and therefore social connection gaps as well) is not only limited to rich/poor. A book now a bit dated (the income gaps are even more extreme!) titled Richistan: A Journey through the American Wealth Boom and the Lives of the New Rich chronicles this among the various strata of the New Rich. This might sound like a non-issue, but this is not true. One of the things that has grounded this country forever in how we treat people across the strata of our society is how our Establishment functions — rich people who care about the fate of the entire nation. With the incredible shift in fortunes from the influence of Old Money to New Money, we also lose continuity in information flow in our Burgher/Baron class. This is no call to some return to a hidebound elite. But it is worth understanding that not all people who are rich are necessarily evil. They are, however, harnessed to an increasingly sequestered, and curated information stream that is further removed from reality. And this lack of validity grounding increases more egocentricism of perspective. And hence, more ERM.

The problem with ERM is that it is a natural outgrowth of limbic fears inside the closed system that the elites inhabit. We talk about understanding risk estimation, but if you’re rich, and there’s only one or two things that can potentially get you, or your kids, you’ll pay extra (a whole lot more extra) to not have to worry about it. Especially if someone else is doing the suffering. Cut seroprevalence of COVID by having everyone (but you) wear masks? Why not? There are a whole litany of excuses one can drum up from masking, including the most insane I’ve been told — masks don’t interfere with breathing. Obviously, masks interfere with breathing. I know because I run the experiment on myself when I have to wear one. I’m doing fine, and then there’s kind of a respiratory debt built up, and I have to pull the thing off my face. Yet I am told over and over again about some ridiculous study about CO2 (I actually dug it up and read it once) that I don’t even have the agency to decide if I’m being suffocated — and if I am, it’s all in my head. That’s some crazy ass gaslighting shit. As a 58 year old man, I am not allowed to even comment. That’s how powerful ERM is.

The other thing that is so fascinating about ERM is that the measures forced on the population are essentially NEVER pro-social nor salutary. Improved ventilation, without a doubt, in interior spaces, can drop COVID dosage, and potentially prevent infection. We’ve seen over and over that places like ships, prisons, and other confined spaces turn into COVID hotspots (this is actually a complicated issue and I should write a post on it). Yet the measures enforced are inherently anti-social, like masking, where the main empathy organ of the human brain has an interface, as well as social distancing. Those little six-foot markers popped right up, far quicker than any other NPI, and even in spite of China being trumpeted as the leader in COVID-Zero talk. It was trivially easy to get on the Internet and see that the Chinese were not standing 6′ apart in line, and in fact, some of the restriction was potentially due to an error in translation. That didn’t make the nightly news, now, did it?

Yet inside the context of rigid hierarchy and its associated v-Meme, all of the masking and social distancing profoundly reinforces the social physics, and the homeostasis of the social topology. You mask, and you get depressed. It’s harder to connect to other folks. Overall, as with all Authoritarian systems, the key markers work toward suppression of energetics of people lower down in the social strata. Lock people up, deny them hugs, don’t let them see others’ faces. Yep — that’ll feed that depression. It’s also why one must be careful about declaring explicit evil in those mandating these things. These are emergent phenomena that come out of a social system proposing a given intervention. It’s not a bug. It’s a feature.

ERM doesn’t just work on physical COVID risk. I had the realization just two days ago that since we’re so far down this particular rabbit hole, it wasn’t just some micro-adjustment of actually catching the bug that was really at stake. Elite Risk Management also means you want to maintain homeostasis inside the reputational algorithms of the social network that’s creating these various ineffective NPIs. If you’ve been for masks all along, you can’t stop now. And the while the reality is that around the world, kids have been going to school without masks, and no non-salutary effects, now that the spotlight has shifted to the places where the issue of ‘return to school’ for kids come up, you simply also have to be FOR masks there as well. To not be for masks on kids, especially in the masks/vaccinated tradeoff world, would mean that the authorities were wrong. And that’s not what authorities do.

Connected action is also off the table, especially as this whole thing progresses. The mRNA vaccines are also experiencing breakthrough infections among some parties. Even though overall mortality from COVID is knocked way down through vaccination (it’s well-established that the vaccine prevents severe COVID infection) ERM has to rear its ugly head once again. That means masks and vaccines — and boosters when they come along. There will be no end to this, because there can’t be. An end would mean an end to homeostasis of the coercive social system. And we simply can’t have that. Everything is working according to plan. The only real problem is that the plan is emergent, and can’t be seen nor surfaced for conscious debate (well, except on this blog). Short take — things will only get crazier. Because signs of status are always, in the long run, fundamentally arbitrary. And usually for show. Ask your neighborhood peacock if you have any questions. If it works, evolutionarily, we run with it.

If there is a bright spot in all of this, one of the beautiful things about operating in the limbic zone is that since it is fundamentally what we call a “state matching” situation (you’re either happy/sad, angry/scared, no shades of gray) flips will come suddenly. It’s rational debate and shared knowledge that create smooth on- and off-ramps of culture and policy. None of that is promised with this latest round. No figure of authority is speaking, well, authoritatively on the fact that COVID will become endemic. Until we put a stop to this, we’ll always hear about the Sturgis super-spreader (non) event. See how quickly this year’s already been forgotten? And don’t worry about any nuanced story. Just like John Wayne said “never apologize. It’s a sign of weakness,” our authoritarian cowboys ain’t gonna say they’re sorry. It’s just not in the social physics.

So how will all this end? It’s a good question, and I can think of two immediate pathways. The first is noncompliance from enough of the worker-bee class. In my own School, we’re looking at retirement from two key machinists who simply don’t want to take the vaccine. Both are old enough to retire. Teachers are not coming back who don’t want to get vaccinated. And even in the health care system, we’re seeing lots of reports of various health care workers (who are already in short supply) refusing to get vaccinated, and promising to quit. Not good. Noncompliance is an established way that Authoritarian systems collapse, and the signs are popping up.

The other is riots in the streets. I don’t think we’re there yet, though it sure is starting to look like that the good folks of Australia, with their prominent Zero-COVID efforts are getting there. Smart governments know when the people have just had enough of the craziness and pull back. That might be happening over there. But it might not. I’ll be watching.

12 thoughts on “Elite Risk Minimization and COVID — Empathy in the Time of Coronavirus (IX)

  1. You’re much better at empathy than me- which is, of course, what keeps me coming here.

    I say they’re evil. Or maybe “evil” doesn’t mean anything after you kill God, so I’m as right in saying they’re cruel, sadistic tyrants as you are saying they’re poor, scared, misunderstood do-gooders.

    Today in Australia, they shot an entire animal shelter full of dogs for the sole purpose of deterring volunteers from being tempted to break quarantine to come care for them. Including a female that had just delivered puppies. And the puppies.

    When you’re shooting puppies in the head to coerce human behavior, you’re not the good guy anymore (and probably never were). You’re better at nuance than me and can probably excuse this with some framework, and you’re probably right. I just see red.

    Eventually, this will come down to men with guns- coming for me or my husband or my brother or my dogs or, if this drags on long enough, my child, or my farm, or something else that never hurt anyone or broke a law before- and it won’t matter who the good guys are any more. When it comes time for men with guns, it never seems to.


    1. There’s a progression toward evil that happens in every situation, and I would never say what’s happening in Australia now isn’t evil. Things may start as a dynamic of the social system — but sooner or later, the psychopaths seize ahold of the messages (like terrorists) and run with the ball. I’ve written about this in a couple of places — this is the first thing that came up. https://empathy.guru/2021/06/11/quickie-post-dunning-kruger-mental-model-weapons-and-v-meme-amplification/


      1. I’m still catching up on quite a lot of your archived articles and got a bit of whiplash on your changed stance on masks- I had a whole passel of cut and pasted contradictory quotes to question you on before I realized what was going on. 🙂

        In regards to your above response, do you believe that what you agree to be “evil” (for however much overlap our respective definitions have), is entirely the work of hijacking by psychopaths? Or that we are actively creating psychopaths? I argue the latter- while psychopaths are certainly born, my professional experience has long suggested to me that they can also be made without much difficulty.

        As you’ve pointed out in this article and elsewhere, people’s functioning memes aren’t going to “bounce back” to some previous state- we’ve got a large population now convinced that they have the right to demand any horror whatsoever be visited upon anyone they see as a potential source of danger from a vanishingly low-risk (across population) airborne respiratory virus.

        My friends, colleagues, and I have had every possible suffering wished upon us. (To the best of my knowledge, no one in my immediate social group has even contracted covid- not for want of trying- and have thus never actually been a threat to anyone, anywhere, at any point.) Those people will continue to exist- and, as you’ve pointed out, there will never be a public reckoning that any authoritarian COVID-19 memes were “wrong” or a “mistake,” do we not now have a standing population of brownshirts ready to lynch their fellow citizens? Primed to demand “safety” and “justice” from TPTB when the next manufactured crisis arrives, without the messy initial social conditioning we had this time?


      2. I honestly believe we will heal from all of this. We’ll still have enough wealth, and the bedrock culture will reassert itself. But it’s going to take some time. The problem with all behavior that is the result of what we call in nonlinear physics a “jump phenomenon” is that it will happen relatively suddenly, and kinda/sorta without warning.

        Re: masks, etc. — I leave up old posts, and correct my understanding in later posts, to preserve the historical record of my own understanding. I don’t need to be right through all time (and it would be far too much work to edit the whole blog for consistency.)

        Re: are we creating psychopaths? We are ALWAYS creating psychopaths, in varying percentages. I write quite a bit about this if you look at the (very outdated) Readers Guide. Psychopaths are part of the system, just like normalized thought is. The fact that we have 7+B people on the planet, though, roughly not killing each other on a regular basis, though indicates empathy and connection still has the upper hand. There’s a ton of stuff on how that process happens. I like Simon Baron-Cohen’s Empathy 0+/- work. I write about this here: https://empathy.guru/2015/10/23/understanding-the-anti-empathetic-on-an-individual-structural-basis/

        There’s much in your comment, and I do thank you for being thoughtful. I’ve got a bit of a busy day today, but if you have any more thoughts, do share.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. The Basque youth is currently revolting. This weekend in Donostia they even looted some shops in the center. The basque media is fuming. Everyday there is a report on how many ilegal gatherings of young people drinking in the streets, parks etc have taken place, how many arrests, etc. The young people are battling the police throwing beer bottles and stones. They are being criminalised by the political class and the media for not respecting the anti-covid measures. No one speaks for them and they themselves can not probably express it with words ( assuming someone will bother to ask…). France is also revolting, more political there, demos etc. Love reading your posts. Long live emphathy!


  3. Chuck,

    Your last reply to me didn’t enable further replies, but thank you for your time and attention. Reading the linked article now. Your insights are tremendously appreciated.

    I’m not specifically skeptical of comparing physics models to social evolution- they are both chaotic systems- but perhaps I lack the imagination for how this kind of global social conditioning through mass hysteria simply “suddenly goes away.” Did people stare awkwardly at their feet after the witch panic of the 17 century for a few weeks and then just go back to bowling together? (Serious question: I actually don’t know how communities got over the damage done faster than generational replacement.)

    Re: psychopaths. I have an informal theory I’ve bored my brother to death with (as he’s one of the few that will engage me in these conversations for actual pleasure) that I call “psychopath weight limit’ that roughly refers to “how many psychopaths can a given society with its attendant social structures and cultural memes carry non-violently?” with the loose notion that the way a society structures its reward systems will accommodate a variable amount of adaptive psychopathy. When you’ve got more psychopaths than you have acceptable outlets for psychopathy, you get crime at the low end and authoritarian tyranny at the high end.

    No rush responding to this, and you needn’t at all- keeping up with a popular forum requires triage. 🙂


    1. Have no idea what’s going on with the Reply deal. Sorry about that!

      You’re on the right track re: psychopathic weight limit. Once you exceed a certain %, things move to what I call a ‘vampire colony’. I think I talk about this somewhere on the blog. There’s a couple of pieces on how psychopaths operate in social systems. But the real reality is that psychopaths running things simply can’t support the complexity a modern society has to have. In this piece, I discuss Athens and Sparta. Sparta did collapse, but in the process, visited on the Peloponnesian Peninsula hundreds of years of poverty. Here you go: https://empathy.guru/2019/07/15/the-long-view-of-empathetic-evolution-athens-and-sparta-and-our-stakes-involved/


  4. Super good summary to bring it all together – I bet the publisher would appreciate this Wynn did. Ryan

    On Sun, Aug 22, 2021 at 4:29 PM It’s About Empathy – Connection Ties Us Together wrote:

    > Chuck Pezeshki posted: ” Newest addition to the family… Let’s start with > a time stamp for this post. This post is being written at the time of > maximum gaslighting of authorities regarding COVID-19. I say this because > we’ve already passed through a couple of waves in diffe” >


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