The Victims of Good Decisions
Sometimes even the best decision will hurt people. What will we do for the victims?
In textbook economics, good decisions always come with a way to help everybody.
This takes some cleverness. If you open your country to free trade, for example, you might expect there to be winners and losers: your exports might help your country’s oil industry, while importing food might hurt your farmers.
But the classical solution to this problem has the government open up to free trade while forcing the oil companies to give up enough of their new profits to cover the farmer’s losses. This way, everybody ends up better off than they started and nobody has the right to complain.
But real life, as always, makes things hard.
Some of you know that I’ve been struggling with headaches for the past couple of months with what’s currently diagnosed as a rare vaccine side effect1. Recently these headaches have also started to develop into more concerning cognitive symptoms: I regularly lose my train of thought mid-sentence. I have to keep a thesaurus tab open as I write because I find myself unable to think of basic words. Huge pieces of the abstract quantitative reasoning ability I need to do my research are just inexplicably gone and I have no idea when or if they’ll come back.
As far as my doctors and I can tell, all of these side effects are much more common in COVID patients (in particular those with “long COVID”) than in people who got the vaccine. From a statistical point of view, getting the vaccine was absolutely and unequivocally the right choice, both for my own health and the health of people around me.
But I hate that I have to specify that every time I talk about how I’m feeling. I hate having to guess people’s vaccination status and whether my answer will push them to stay unvaxxed every time somebody casually asks how I am. I hate seeing people on TV use “side effects” as a bogeyman to support their own selfishness and I hate worrying that writing about my own symptoms only plays into their hands.
I hate feeling like my suffering has to come with disclaimers.
I have been struggling to find an emotional language that acknowledges that everybody (with a few specific health exemptions) should be vaccinated and that I have been hurt and I get to be upset about it.
This experience has made me think about a more general problem. It’s true that a handful of people (three in the US, last time I checked?) have died of vaccine side effects. Their families are feeling real, genuine sadness right now far worse than any of my symptoms, and it doesn’t do anybody any good to pretend it doesn’t exist.
So why is my first reaction to their suffering to focus on how much worse a scenario mass vaccination avoided, rather than how we as a nation could come alongside them in their grief? Why don’t I feel like I owe them anything for personally bearing so much of the pain the vaccines are stopping? Why aren’t our churches lifting them up as saints whose suffering for others helps us to see Christ’s?
Since I first noticed this I have been seeing it everywhere. Saving the earth’s climate means we will need to stop using coal right this second and natural gas in the near future. The science on this is absolutely, undeniably clear.
And this will cost a lot of jobs, many of them middle- or lower-class. This will make the lives of a lot of people a lot harder. But too often we tell people that worrying about their economic future makes them a climate change denier — instead of “let’s bear this together” it becomes “if you complain about bearing this alone it’s because you’re bad” — and we wonder why people find themselves on the other side of the issue.
I think we lose something when we don’t have practice saying “yes, this is the correct decision, and also the pain people experience as a result is real and important.” And I think we lose something when we don’t honor the people pay the price for good decisions, and we lose something when people feel like a death-cult approach to science is the only side that’s taking their suffering seriously.
The same is true for people who lose out from increased immigration, or decreased incarceration, or even the insurance company agents who’d lose out from universal healthcare.
How can we acknowledge that the suffering they’ll experience is real and valid and that we’ve made the right decision overall? When will we find the words to let people express the real grief that the best policies have left them with? What can we do to carry the cost with them instead of just repeating “yes, this was the right choice”?
I don’t know.
I have a headache.
But we should probably figure it out.
I will be getting a second opinion on this diagnosis in early October.