Worst Case Scenarios, Ctd

Kinsley weighs risks:

Leonhardt says (borrowing with credit from Robert N. Stavins, a Harvard economist) that we tend to underestimate risks that are hard to imagine and overestimate risks that are easy to imagine.  It is the first problem that worries Leonhardt...

My worry is the opposite of Leonhardt’s. It seems to me that in America, at least, we are much more prone to the second type of error: overestimating small risks of large disastersand underestimating, by comparison, the smaller, everyday risks of life. Leonhardt himself provides the clearest example: people who, after 9/11, decided to drive rather than fly on long trips. In the next year there was no new terrorist attack on airplanes, but deaths in traffic accidents went up because more people were driving. That was like buying insurance against asteroids. Or, to take a more tendentious example, it’s like nuclear power. For a generation we’ve gone without it to protect ourselves from a catastrophic risk, only to find that perhaps this was a mistake because, without enough reflection, we were increasing the risk of a somewhat smaller catastrophe like the one in the Gulf.