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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

At a time of crisis, we tend to crave certainty — the one thing we have less of than ever.

The big picture: The markets, of course, are full of uncertainty. Record-high volatility (just look at the oil price today) indicates that price discovery is breaking down.

  • No one has a clue what may or may not be "priced in" to the market in terms of how the virus is going to progress or how the economy is going to behave.
  • Some forecasters see second-quarter earnings declining by 10%; others see a decline of 120%. And we're already in the second quarter!

The virus comes with even bigger error bars. (I could be totally wrong, for instance, about our future willingness to mingle.)

  • The number of undetected cases, the fatality rate, how likely asymptomatic individuals transmit the virus, how dangerous it is to touch an infected surface or to pass within 6 feet of others, how family members in close quarters don't get infected, how long the incubation period is, whether recovery implies immunity and for how long, whether the virus is seasonal — all these and many more basic facts remain unknown.
  • Social questions have even bigger unknowns. What is the correct public-health strategy? How strict should lockdowns be? Should wearing masks be encouraged or mandated? Do masks remind people not to touch their face or make them touch their face more? How much certainty should national authorities evince, given the unknowns?
  • National infection rates are equally unknown. The 95% confidence interval for the proportion of Swedes infected by the virus is 0.8% to 8.4%; in Spain, the number infected is estimated to be somewhere between 1.8 million and 19 million.

Why it matters: It's unnatural to live with such uncertainty, so we all cobble together our own set of beliefs about what is true. Then, because we all have different beliefs, finding common ground becomes very hard.

  • Weisberg's Law states that "Any Jew more religious than you are is mentally insane, while any Jew less religious is a self-hater."
  • Something similar can be said about virus paranoia. Everybody more paranoid than you has gone way overboard, while everybody less paranoid is not only putting themselves at risk but is acting in a deeply socially irresponsible manner.

The bottom line: The virus is eroding the shared norms and beliefs that underpin both markets and societies. The consequences are unforeseeable, but unlikely to be good.

Go deeper

12 mins ago - World

HRW: Over 100 former Afghan security members dead or missing under Taliban rule

Members of the Taliban movement patrol Kabul's airport in September. Photo: Valery Sharifulin/TASS via Getty Images

The Taliban have "killed or forcibly disappeared" over 100 former members of Afghanistan's security forces since the group took power in August, a report by Human Rights Watch published Tuesday found.

Why it matters: It means former military members and officials with the ousted government, activists and other Taliban critics are facing peril amid executions driven by revenge — despite Taliban promises of an "amnesty" with no retributions, notes the New York Times, which first reported on the news.

1 hour ago - World

Barbados becomes a republic, replacing U.K. queen with president

Combination images of Dame Sandra Mason, president of Barbados, and Britain's Prince Charles at her swearing-in ceremony in Bridgetown, Barbados, late Monday.

Barbados officially became a republic at midnight local time after Dame Sandra Mason was sworn in as the Caribbean nation's first president in a ceremony attended by the United Kingdom's Prince Charles.

Why it matters: Mason replaced Britain's Queen Elizabeth as head of state Tuesday — removing the country's final remaining colonial tie to the U.K. almost 400 years after the first British ships arrived in Barbados.

Right-wingers making McCarthy sweat for future Speaker post

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy stands with his Republican colleagues outside the House on Nov. 17. Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Right-wing elements in the Republican Party are complicating House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy's attempts to become the next speaker of the House should the GOP take back the majority in 2022.

Why it matters: While McCarthy has worked carefully to build trust among the conservatives who tanked his chances at clinching the speakership in 2015, they're still circling ahead of the next Speaker vote in January 2023.