Image of business people playing tug-o-war on a rope

It’s good that the re-opening pace is in the hands of governors, right?

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday May 10, 2020

One of many privileges of reaching your bonus years is your ability, occasionally, to use aging as an excuse for curmudgeonly behavior.

That’s good because the coronavirus pandemic and the way it’s discussed by experts in the media – including many “pretend experts” – has brought out the curmudgeon in me.

One of the things that gets my goat is the way new expressions have crept into our language, and no one says anything. Right?

That’s one.  People lay out a premise or pass on “facts” – but before you can question them, they say, “Right?” 

It has the sound of a question mark.  But don’t kid yourself; it also includes an exclamation point!  Right?! 

“Right?!” is a warning, a conversation-stopper.  When someone says something silly or otherwise outrageous and concludes with a “Right?!” that really translates to “Don’t even think about disagreeing with me on this!” 

You hear this one-word expression all the time in the daily briefings by the White House Coronavirus task force.  You hear it daily from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. 

The governor says, “We’re going to need 60,000 ventilators. Right?!  So where are we going to get them?” 

Now we’re off to the races.  Never mind that New York only needed a fraction of the 60,000.  The subsequent discussion is all about who will get those 60,000 ventilators, from whom, through what channels, costing how much, and when.  

Another expression – one of the worst – that now corrupts our language is, “We have to ‘get it right!’” 

Really?  “Get it right?”  Apollo 13 didn’t get it right, but there were many heroes and much was learned before the crisis was over as the failed spacecraft and its crew made it back to earth safely – if not in one piece. 

Why do we so often make things work despite our failings? Answer: We are risk-takers.  We are inventive, innovative, and resilient – especially when circumstances allow, or force, us to be collaborative, to work with others who bring different backgrounds, perspectives and skills to the same objective or aspiration.

Most importantly, humans are adaptable.  That the Apollo 13 crew and its team on the ground figured out novel ways to get back to Earth safely was amazing – but not unusual. 

They  figured out how to preserve oxygen and bleed off deadly carbon dioxide, to maintain warmth sufficient to survive the long journey back to Earth, and to use novel methods to maneuver the spacecraft into a proper angle for a safe re-entry.

When people use the phrase, “Get it right”, the words that follow are often unspoken: such as “…before we [take your pick]” – e.g.,  launch the moonshot, try this therapy, or…reopen the economy after a lockdown spurred by a pandemic.

Put differently, “Get it right” is more often a call to delay – or a reflex to reduce risk.  People, and especially experts, are habitually risk averse.  They especially avoid risk in their area of expertise because they know all the things that might go wrong – regardless of the impact that delay might have on other walks of life, areas beyond their expertise such as economic well-being.

In fact, the case has been made by medical and other dissenting experts that the government lockdown will kill more people than will be killed by the pandemic.

Respected economists make the case that closing major segments of the economy will also exact a death toll – including business enterprises in bankruptcy and among our nation’s most vulnerable.  For example, they point to the elderly (especially in congregant living), poor, sick, homeless and other low income or no income citizens – and even some middle-class citizens who live paycheck to paycheck with low or no savings and nothing to fall back on in troubled times.

Medical experts have already pointed out that limiting elective surgeries is exacting a death toll as people in need of an arterial stent to save their heart or physical therapy to recover fully from an acute health condition are left hanging.

Public health experts assert that requiring hospitals to forego elective surgery and other hospital-based therapies in order to make room for coronavirus patients (in numbers, by the way, that never materialized) has sharply reduced hospital revenues, leaving many hospitals, physicians and other health care providers in a severely weakened financial situation.

As a result of these kinds of unintended effects, the true cost of the coronavirus pandemic cannot be measured only in deaths due to the disease but must also include the deaths, disruptions and hardships resulting from a damaged economy and a weakened health care system.

In these troubled times, when we are beset by a pandemic we do not fully understand – certainly not enough (yet) to prevent or effectively treat – we should remember that experts are, by definition, people who know a lot about a little. 

Clearly, knowing a lot about a little is a good way to discover truths that will allow us to cure smallpox or go to the moon and return safely to earth (most of the time). 

But real life is lived by people who know a little about a lot, by people who’ve learned to make trade-offs between eating meat v. eating or potatoes or renting v. buying a place to live. 

So, we are moving to reopen the economy because more is at stake than just getting sick from the coronavirus.  We should be pleased that generalists (like governors and mayors with advice from business owners and other civic leaders) are calling the shots as they continue to take advice from medical experts who led us through the lock-down phase.  But we are now balancing health values with other values of community well-being, such as jobs, education, public transportation, sport and the performing arts.

Whether they “get it right” with the “soft” re-opening now in the works remains to be seen.  If they do, we’ll all be better off – in part, by recovering our livelihoods and from growing “herd immunity” that will boost our defense against current and future coronavirus infection and death. 

If they do not, we will adapt with a mid-course correction that will be buttressed by the growing immunity.

In the meantime, more people will die from the coronavirus.  That’s a given, no matter what course we take.  But it’s also likely that many fewer will die from other causes.

As the unelected experts continue to hold forth, they will be joined by other members of the community, perhaps with different views.  But elected generalists closest to the people will make the decisions.  That’s the way it should be in a democratic society.

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  1. Kevin Wear on May 12, 2020 at 4:24 pm

    Phil: Have always enjoyed your deep thoughts and insight. Hope your family is doing well! Blessings to you and yours.

  2. Toni Fry on May 12, 2020 at 4:49 pm

    My husband and I were introduced to you and your wife by a mutual friend, Bill Bass. We enjoyed a delightful evening at your home and as a result you wrote an article about my husband, John Fry. Bill and John were USN A classmates and we ended being fellow-residents in Ginger Cove. John and Bill are gone but I continue to read and enjoy your column in The Capital. Thank you,

  3. Bart Michelson on May 12, 2020 at 6:24 pm

    Hey Phil, I enjoyed reading this piece. The context that you developed around experts verses generalist is right-on. Many of these experts, not all, have created fear and hysteria in the minds of millions who unfortunately are not critical thinkers. They generally form reactive opinions and conclusions about information that has been filtered to fit an existing paradigm based on assumptions that have not been fully examined by asking the right questions. Strategic leadership which the country is in short supply must strike a delicate balance between crisis intervention and maintaining systems stability. One has to question how much reflective thinking was injected into the decisions made to shut-down the economy. Strategic decisions have consequences of magnitude that result in second and third order consequences which we are dealing with in the current environment. Outstanding leaders are marked by great wisdom. They have the strategic capacity for sound judgment in situations characterized by considerable uncertainty. My sense is that in the current milieu there not a great deal of wisdom in play to deal with the fog of uncertainty.