“No risk it, no biscuit” said my friend John as we sat down for a curry the other night. He’s a trader, and tends to think of almost everything in terms of risk.
Later on in the conversation we got on to the topic of ‘common sense’, and how it seems to be disappearing from life as we know it. “Common sense is just risk” came John with his usual refrain, but I have to totally agree with him this time. What we call common sense is all about risk, choosing to take risk at an emotional level rather than having somebody with a risk assessment form show up and fill it out whilst wearing a hard hat and hi-vis jacket then finally saying “I wouldn’t if I were you, something bad might just happen”. Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes a lot about emotional mechanisms and their relationship to risk in his excellent ‘Fooled by randomness’ (I’ve not yet got around to the more popular ‘Black Swan’). He points out that without emotions, without common sense, we become incapable of making decisions. That’s bad at an individual level, but it’s worse at a society level. When we substitute common sense, emotion and competence with process then there might be high hopes that the processes will be efficient and infallible, but in reality that’s almost never the case. Our overall productivity is now choking on broken process in almost every area of daily life. The most egregious examples seem to be associated with ‘terrorism’ where almost any amount of unproductive inconvenience is acceptable if it is supposed to save ‘just one life’ from a massively low probability event. No common sense, no risk management. But it’s not just about terrorism and associated government fearmongering, it seems that the tabloid press has convinced the general public that no amount of risk is tolerable in any area where the state can possibly intervene with some misconceived legislation (backed up by enforcement that slews randomly between incompetent and heavy handed).
What can be done to fix this?
I fear that there are no easy answers. This one’s a combination of individual and social responsibility, individual and social risk appetites, education, unwinding complex legislation, honesty from politicians, cynicism of the popular press… the list goes on.
 If anybody knows what the government is doing about the threat to the public from lightning strikes, and where I should stand in line for my lightning security theatre then please let me know?
 OK, I realise here that I’m asking for the impossible. Something intimately intertwined with this whole problem is that it seems to be acceptable mandatory for politicians to be liars. Goodness in politics seems to be measured in units of liarbility.
Filed under: grumble | 2 Comments
Tags: common sense, politics, risk