• joshuahelmer

The rare nonsense of common sense...

Updated: Jul 30, 2020

Common sense is a lie and it's going to kill us all!

OK. That was partly hyperbole, we aren't all going to die (at least, hopefully not before you've all had a chance to buy a copy of my 5-star debut novel Dark Wonders, available here) but there seems to be a gaping hole in our government's strategy around how best to avoid killing hundreds of thousands of people in the coming months.

'Common sense', despite not being a real thing according to Professor Duncan Watts, is a phrase that's been thrown around by Boris and the other puppets running our country with gleeful abandon ever since Covid-19 landed in the UK and, now more than ever, it has become a walking stick our leaders are more than happy to beat us with.

There's no doubt that, despite recommendations to the contrary, we're heading into full blown 'common sense/herd immunity/don't blame Boris' territory over the next couple of weeks and, if the images from Bournemouth are anything to go by, many of us are thrilled at the idea of throwing off the shackles of responsibility and glad to be getting back to happily transmitting an invisible virus between us like a deadly game of 'Pass the Parcel'.

Why are we like this? Seriously, what's our fucking problem? We know it's stupid to hang out on a beach with thousands of strangers during an epidemic, but somehow the idea of 'common sense' has been baked into a nationwide government policy when our entire civilisation has a history of committing horrendous crimes against itself time and time again.

Climate change didn't just happen. Racism is taught. I won't dive into those examples now, though. Instead lets look at something a little easier to unpack that nobody is arguing about.

In 2007, a series of events occurred that threw our world into a financial crisis. In hindsight, it appears that what happened was absolutely predictable. Or so solid 4-star, Oscar winning film, The Big Short, would have us believe.

A bunch of men (it's always men) smashed some numbers together to produce a magic formula to make themselves more money. They then passed this on to all the other money people and everyone realised that, if they lied just the right amount, they could play the stock markets and get rich too.

Well surprise, surprise! Building an international financial system on the basis of hiding fatal frailties in asset-backed securities does not make for the most stable house of cards. But at least we learned our lessons and would never repeat those same mistakes again, right?

(At this point, if you think the answer is "yes, there's no way that financial giants of the world are repeating mistakes that any adult remembers as being the cause of widespread international misery, everything is definitely fine, dum de dum de dum" then maybe you should just click here to go and buy a copy of my debut novel, Dark Wonders, and go about the rest of your day peacefully. I bid you adieu.)

Obviously the answer is NO. Not only are big banks continuing to sell the exact same products that helped tip us into the financial crisis, despite their known frailties, but, it turns out, we've spent the last decade creating an entirely new way to fuck ourselves up in the form of a potentially crushing failure of the car finance market.

Don't you think that this would seem like an obvious point where 'common sense' should have been applied and the money hoarders should have just gone about their hoarding in their regular, non-crisis instigating ways? But, of course, that hasn't happened. And it's because 'common sense' isn't real.

'Common sense' is, essentially, short hand for a range of behaviours that a large number of people have learned to deal with common scenarios. But if some people have never learned those behaviours, or come across those scenarios, how can they act in the way expected?

I think it makes 'sense' to say that creating unstable financial instruments to enrich myself at the risk of sparking international poverty is not, what many people would call, nice. But my understanding of the world as an individual is incredible narrow and, as such, I cannot possibly share the same 'sense' as people working in financial industries. We do not have the same perception of this threat because we do not have the same perspective on the world.

Am I just some savant with exceptional foresight and a singularly perceptive view of the world? No, I just googled stuff. And, from my narrow view of the world, it doesn't take Michael Burry to see that repeating the mistakes of the past, no matter how you try to spin the circumstances in your favour, is a bad idea.

So why is this building of fragile systems happening again? The 'common sense' answer to this one is that people are selfish.

But, to look closer, it isn't 'happening again' at all, it's different this time. The banks selling the CDO's aren't run by the same people. The institutions backing the car finance markets aren't the same as those who were involved in sub-prime mortgages. So the failing of common sense isn't that people repeat undesirable behaviours, but that people don't learn from the experiences of others.

It's said that 70% of all learning is experiential, i.e. we learn from what we do. This is the fatal flaw in the financial markets and it's the same flaw that will be the undoing of our government's Covid-19 strategy.

How can people learn to manage our behaviours during a global pandemic the likes of which we've never seen. For the UK, our population has never been in a situation like this. How would anybody know how to act in a situation where they could catch an invisible virus from someone with no symptoms, pass it on to other people, potentially have almost zero negative impacts personally while still being the reason that somebody else dies?

You can't learn that behaviour. But, unfortunately for hundreds of thousands of people in this country, our government just doesn't seem to care enough to take the right action to protect lives.

A large number of people followed the rules to start with because they were all wise enough to understand that their experience was so limited in this situation that they had to go by what they were told. But as time went on, our learned experiences have meant most people haven't seen the pain involved in contracting Covid-19 or watching a loved one die from it. Our compassion can only stretch so far when the evidence in front of us suggests we're putting ourselves at a disadvantage for no tangible reason.

In short, now that lockdown has been all but lifted before the virus has receded properly, more people will die than need to. And it will be transmitted by people who do not fully follow the flimsy rules about social distancing, the flimsy rules about meeting limited numbers of people and all the other flimsy rules that will break like dry spaghetti the moment Gavin, 38 from Bournemouth gets a couple of Wetherspoons finest pots of piss down his neck and goes for wander to the beach with a thousand other sunburned revellers.

But it's not Gavin's fault. He was just foolish enough to trust the information he'd been given by the people running the country. People trust others they see as being like themselves. It's just a crying shame that so many people see themselves in Boris Johnson, a man whose main skill in life has been absconding from the scene of his failures.

I don't hate Gavin, 38 from Bournemouth for what he's going to do, I lament the decisions that have been thrust upon him. I just wish he'd displayed some common sense and ignored the bastards in charge.

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