Really `Risky' Times

by George F. Will
Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company
Reprinted with permission of
The Washington Post (January 11, 1998)

Americans probably watch the networks' evening newscasts with eyes as dull and lifeless as oysters on the half shell. The news Americans receive is that they are trapped in a tightening vise of risks.

Recently a network newscast (NBC's, but the three are alike, for reasons we shall come to) began with stories about Sonny Bono's accident and the risks of skiing. (Should helmets be mandatory?) There also was a story about the risks of "our everyday lives" -- "even the simplest activities can be more dangerous than you may think." (Odds of "getting cancer from an average number of X-rays, one in 700. Your odds of dying in a home accident are one in 130; a car accident, one in 60.") There was good news on the risk front -- a report that middle-aged men who eat certain kinds of fish once a week "can cut their heart attack risk in half." But the broadcast included bad news germane to that good news: The obligatory story of impending environmental calamity concerned "alarming new information about the state of the seas," which are "now very much at risk."

Just another day of journalism in this risky time.

Of course there never has been a safer time (the biggest recent risk-reduction was the dissolution of the Soviet Union); tomorrow almost certainly will be safer than today; many of today's risks can be minimized by routine urban wariness (stay out of the very few neighborhoods where the vast majority of violent crimes occur) and other forms of prudence (do not gather cash from an ATM at 2 a.m.); some risks result from demanded conveniences (e.g., ATMs); some risks are substantially optional (AIDS, coronary heart disease and lung cancer, among other afflictions, are largely results of behavior well-known to be risky); some risks are coveted consumption goods (skiing vacations at Aspen or Tahoe); some risks (driving small "fuel efficient" cars) are encouraged by "progressive" public policies; other risks are encouraged by pork-barrel politics (federally subsidized insurance encourages people to build homes where the insurance market tells them not to build, such as on flood plains, and artificial, meaning politically influenced, prices for many things, from grazing land to dairy products, encourage Americans to consume unhealthy amounts of fat in red meat, cheese and other things); the elderly are increasingly at risk of suffering many afflictions because medicine has radically reduced the risk of dying earlier from other afflictions (pneumonia) . . .

Rational worrying is a learned skill. (White-knuckle fliers land in Los Angeles, sigh with relief, and relax in cabs that were last inspected at Studebaker dealerships and are driven in rush hour traffic by strangers driven by strange demons.) Rational worrying requires weighing two primary variables, the probability of an event and the magnitude of that event. Living next to a nuclear plant involves a minuscule likelihood of a large disaster. Driving to the grocery store in this era of road rage -- that is worrisome.

Irrationality about risks results in, among other wastes, public regulations and expenditures that do not fit reality. So, just as young doctors should be told that all their patients are going to die, everyone needs reminding that there always will be a few especially important causes of death. Always.

One reason we live in an age of irrational anxieties is that television, a dispenser of perceptions, is an efficient instrument for erasing the distinction between measured risks and perceived risks. Furthermore, television news is produced largely by and for baby boomers, who in their narcissism constantly congratulate themselves on discovering new things (sex, cigars, injustice, martinis, risks). Now they are turning 50 and discovering a cosmic injustice: They are going to die. Is this fair? Can't Congress produce just one more entitlement?

If this generation of whiners had been born just 50 years earlier, many of its members would have died before learning how to whine. (Peter Brimelow reports in Forbes that infant mortality is less than one-tenth the rate in 1915. Soccer moms leading stressful lives in their station wagons are at least alive: Today fewer than one in 10,000 women die in pregnancy. In 1940, one in 300 did.)

Obsessing about physical risks comes naturally to a society that defines the good life in terms of material well-being and thinks the aim of politics is the ever-finer fine-tuning of life's fairness. News you will not see reported on the evening newscasts: the parallel decline of the riskiness and the serenity of life in such a society.

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