Why are we failing?

Can you have too much concern over safety and security?    Yes, and we do in this country.   Far too much though I don’t expect things to change any time soon.    Our irrational perceptions of risk are damaging our economy more severely than most people understand, mostly thanks to the two massive wasteful spending categories national defense/military and social services.    Ironically each party has its sacred cows for spending and despite the nonsensical bluster from both McCain and Obama we’ll see huge ongoing budget deficits regardless of who is elected.

Humans are designed to act in short term, which is why we should not trust ourselves to do effective long term planning.   This is one of the reasons the founders advocated a small and flexible government and economic structure with high levels of personal accountability.

On a more specific note along these lines Tim O’Reilly notes in a post called Why are we failing at math and science?

Because it isn’t fun any more. When you put safety on the highest altar, what do you give up? When fear of lawsuits — not to mention fear of technology — drives product design, marketing, and public policy, you eliminate science at its roots, in the natural experimentation of kids who want to know how the world works.

Tim’s point is narrower than my general contention that we must learn to accept much greater levels of *certain types of risk* in our daily lives to avoid the ongoing reckless spending.   However the general rule he’s talking about applies to almost all aspects of our lives – from our indefensible military budget of 550 billion (not including the ongoing wars) to obscenely expensive CO2 mitigation schemes.    When people perceive risk irrationally as they tend to do with respect to terrorism and global warming, they accept irrational resource allocations.

I’m actually only suggesting we increase the risk in our lives by a fairly small amount.  Contrary to what people perceive, the riskiest things in our lives are generally cheap fixes.    Auto accidents, for example, are mostly caused by drunk driving, and more seat belt use would save thousands of lives and avert tens of thousands of injuries every year at a tiny fraction of the cost of, say, saving lives with high tech medical interventions.

The military is where most of the waste is but the calculations are complicated by the fact that a “zero military” option would certainly lead to the overthrow of the US by hostile powers.   Clearly the US needs to have a powerful defensive capability, though the notion that this requires spending of over a trillion every two years is beyond the pale and no rational person can be both a fiscal conservative and a big spender on military.    In a similar vein liberal spending advocates absurdly suggest that massive spending on education and social services somehow “primes” the economy to greater heights of prosperity.

Solutions?     Reallocate taxation and spending along rational lines which means massive reductions in spending in most sectors which can fuel increases where spending will do the most good (inner city health care has a huge ROI compared to research hospital neonatal wards).   Third world health ROI dwarfs that in first world.  Why are those guys worth so much less than you or I?