Opinion

How fiascos happen

When information changes, plans must, too

This is the editor's letter in the current issue of The Week magazine.

"When my information changes, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?" Some version of this quote, variously attributed to economists John Maynard Keynes or Paul Samuelson, should serve as a guiding principle for anyone trying to make wise decisions. Alas, it rarely does. We human beings hate being wrong — hate it with a passion. Even the most successful people often have brittle egos that can't withstand a change of mind, no matter how much contrary information pours in. The consequences are usually painful. Consider the chaos surrounding the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Whether or not you agree with ending that 20-year-old war, two things are clear: President Biden entered office believing that Afghanistan was worth no further sacrifice by soldiers like "my son, Beau." And when U.S. generals and some intelligence analysts warned the Afghan army and government could rapidly collapse, Biden dismissed that risk, telling Americans that scenario "is highly unlikely." He didn't expect the Taliban to control Kabul as vulnerable allied forces valiantly struggled to evacuate Americans and Afghan allies.

Biden's predecessor, of course, was unmatched in his refusal to absorb information that contradicted his whims and perceived self-interest. When COVID hit, President Trump's panicked insistence it would magically "go away" led to hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths. Several Republican governors are carrying on the Trumpian tradition, insisting that vaccination, masks, and not infecting others is a matter of "personal choice" — even as the highly infectious Delta variant fills their states' ICUs and crematoriums. Once again, more Americans are dying of COVID every three days than died in Afghanistan over 20 years. And millions of Americans are still insisting, against mountains of heartbreaking evidence, that getting a shot is more dangerous than getting COVID. They'd rather be hospitalized or dead than change their minds.

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