Philobiblon: Economists to listen to

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Economists to listen to

Most writers on economics are about as reliable as an old woman wrapped in a silly scarf peering over a spatter of tea-leaves. They just wrap their prognostications is in an impenetrable layer of jargon to disguise their ignorance of the state of the world.

There are, in my opinion, two exceptions to this dismal rule: Anatole Kaletsky, writing in The Times in London, and Ross Gittins, in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Amidst Australia's latest terror panic - so surprising it coincides with John Howard's efforts to get through another piece of repressive legislation, Gittins today looks at the actual risk of terrorism.

"There are plenty of things that offer a greater threat to our wellbeing than local terrorism, and they aren't getting nearly as much attention or money lavished on them. Getting overexcited about terrorism, in other words, has its opportunity cost.
... It's well known to psychologists that humans have a tendency to overestimate small risks while underestimating big risks."

Gittins points out that an estimated 1,200 American drivers died in crashes caused by a switch from air travel after 9/11. (Despite, I'd add, the fact that the tactics used that day are obviously unrepeatable - since no plane-load of passengers would then sit by and let men armed with Stanley knives take over their aircraft.)
"The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention says the odds of an American dying in a terrorist attack are about one in 88,000. The odds of dying by falling off a ladder are one in 10,000. And, says an article in Foreign Policy magazine, even in 2001, car crashes killed 15 times more Americans than terrorism did."

He points out that incumbent politicians, police and other officials, and the media, all have an interested in playing up the dangers of terrorism out of all proportion.

Gittins conclude:
"Leaving aside the people whose civil liberties are trampled, these mutually enjoyable terror games would be harmless if time and money grew on trees. Since they don't, we'd probably save more lives by putting the same effort into fixing black spots on the Pacific Highway.
Or think on this: buried by last week's avalanche about terrorism was the news that suicide is the leading cause of death among 10- to 14-year-olds in Queensland. Presuming that problem isn't unique to Queensland, might it not deserve a bit more of our attention?"

Ban all ladders! I say. That's about as sensible as current government policies, in Australia, and Britain.


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