Boring Risks and the Case for Blogs

Bruce Schneier’s talk on how we get risk wrong contains (per Ezra Klein’s summary—who has time to watch 21 minute nonfiction videos?) this observation:

“What newspapers do is they repeat again and again rare risks. I tell people, if it’s in the news, don’t worry about it. Because, by definition, news is something that almost never happens. When something is so common, it’s no longer news — car crashes, domestic violence — those are the risks you worry about.”

Very well put! And very disturbing. We are used to focusing on one side of this problem, i.e. that the media overplays sensational stories. But we tend to forget the flip side. Chronic policy problems like rising health care costs, low teacher salaries, and Baumol’s cost disease (more or less three names for the same problem, actually, but never mind) simply don’t change day to day. As a result the media underplays them, unless an anecdote can be used to illustrate them. And the more unrepresentative the anecdote, the better it is for selling papers, since only a counterintuitive story makes a psychological impression.

Thank goodness for blogs. Ezra Klein can post repeatedly about spending and deficits, Kevin Drum about the details of financial regulation, and Mark about drug policy without having to claim that these are new problems or subject to fantastic and unprecedented solutions. Heck, a particularly clueless blogger can even post something about the rhetoric of budget politics on the morning after we kill Bin Laden, and his job will be safe.

This is our comparative advantage. We’re the people who are free to tell you about risks that are boring but ubiquitous, boring because they’re ubiquitous.

[Cross-posted at Same Facts]

Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl is a Visiting Professor in the Program on Ethics, Politics, and Economics and in Political Science at Yale University.