When we think about something, especially important things, we ought to take the time to put it on a scale against another, related thing. Nothing is unique enough to deprive ourselves of context completely.

I remember in January, talking to a friend in Taipei, trying to come up with estimates for how much worse the novel coronavirus was than the seasonal flu. We were pretty sure it was more than 20x worse and perhaps somewhere around 100x. The error bands were really broad back then (and, as I've said before, Taiwan existed outside of America's collective insanity about whether they counted as "international" in the term "international pandemic").

It's important to remember this idea, even if you get the numbers wrong (and I'm reasonably convinced our error bars included the right guess in there). Everything ought to be a scaled version of something else we understand, and usually we can find a low-multiple comparison (9/11 being "3000x worse than a murder combined with 2000x worse than burning a house down" doesn't really anchor you to anything meaningful unless that's a volume of serious violent crime you're familiar with).

Let's take this recent concern over The Post Office in America. It's a piece of constitutionally protected infrastructure that's necessary for many basic functions in modern life, and given the safety of in-person voting dramatically reduces throughput in polling stations, vote-by-mail will be combined with larger voting windows in many jurisdictions, leading to it being an indispensible part of the republic (I would say, unless an alternative is found, but this is the low-cost alternative, and local jurisdictions simply don't have the money for anything but the lowest cost, reasonably effective method to hold elections – unless you want the nightmare of election security that "come up with a totally new system" entails).

What could we even remotely compare this to? It's tough to say, off the top of our heads. The FactCheck.org page for this is hilariously dumb (in the world of fact-checking you're not allowed to learn from the past – without hyper-specific evidence, something is "baseless", even when you're correct, and if you want to see someone deranged by Trump, look at this postmortem of their failure, that bends over backwards to avoid the conclusion that their way of describing the world is fundamentally impoverished, akin to a Bayesian who refuses to have a prior), but surely we can piece something together. It isn't just a deliberate harm of a public institution for personal reasons, it's for political reasons, is likely to be only slightly successful, and have plenty of collateral damage. Sort of reminds me of Trump's off-the-cuff tariff declarations, combined with something like when Florida's chief executive says their system is meant to be pointlessly difficult to stop people from doing something they didn't like, e.g. collect unemployment (except, it's a self-description, instead of blaming a predecessor – so add in a layer of Trump bragging about his own malfeasance, which is a common enough thing I think we understand it).

How bad are these things independently, and do we see a synergy that might make our guesses different? Well, anything to do with elections is particular sensitive, and since he said that was the purpose, we have to take that seriously. And the unemployment thing violates the will of the voters, that's the core of what makes it bad – but hurting The Post Office isn't just ignoring mere state laws, but the federal constitution. That really isn't a higher grade of misconduct, so I'd say it's like 3x Trade Wars, combined with a 2x Failure to Execute the Office. It's bad, people should be concerned. And the consequences are hard to know in advance, so maybe over-index on making sure something is done. But once you have it in these terms, I think it's easier to mentally handle this. Don't just suddenly go limp, it's important stuff. But we've been here before, with Trump. He loves being incompetent and malicious. It doesn't mean everything is something new and there's never a context – and that feeling of lack-of-context, that's what is driving a lot of anxiety anyway, instead of coherent understanding.