Risk Aversion

We are, no doubt, doomed to go on hearing about how extraordinarily risk-averse we foolish ordinary Americans are, until the end of this year’s holiday flying season. We will also, no doubt, get to hear from all the usual “expert” risk assessors, who just can’t understand why we ordinary mopes worry more about flying than about driving, more about nuclear power than about peanut butter.

The answer, which most of the “experts” can’t be bothered to consider, lies in the variable most ordinary people consider most important–they worry less about voluntarily assumed risks than about those imposed by circumstance.

Of course, one of the reasons people prefer chosen risks to those imposed from outside is that freedom of choice is a traditional, well-nigh sanctified American value. But in addition, a person who chooses to smoke cigarettes or live in L.A. or eat peanut butter or drive a car, has already at some level done his or her own risk-benefit calculation, and has decided that the benefit, in terms of what s/he personally values, is greater than the risk of loss in the same terms.

Where the risk is imposed from outside, on the other hand, the social risk-benefit equation may actually look a lot better–but the ordinary person on the street is being asked to assume some proportion of the risk while not necessarily being personally offered what s/he would consider enough benefit to compensate. For instance, living next door to a toxic waste dump may create less risk than smoking cigarettes–but what benefit can I derive from my poisonous neighbor? Quite aside from the health risk, it probably reduces the resale value of my home. The same goes for nuclear power, which offers very little in the way of benefits to anyone, except the people who sell it. The cheaper electric power we consumers were originally promised (“too cheap to meter”) has not materialized. On the contrary, Illinois, the most highly nuclearized state in the Union, also has some of the highest electricity rates in the country. I’m not sure any risk, however small, is justified by higher light bills. Smoking, on the other hand, to those who do it (especially these days, in the light of all those warnings on cigarette packs), has already passed the risk-benefit test; smokers honestly believe they get more out of it than they stand to lose, in terms of what they personally value.

So if we ordinary mopes don’t know enough to accept the experts’ risk-benefit calculations, merely because they often involve our taking the risks while someone else, often someone already much better off than we are, gets most of the benefits, too bad for the experts. Of necessity, our vision may be narrow–but it is not as clouded as the folks on the mountaintop like to think.

Red Emma

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