Belmont Club

Rare Events

The average newspaper headlne reader would be forgiven for thinking that 1) America is collapsing under a crime wave; 2) airliners, especially those based in Malaysia are falling out of the sky at an alarming rate and 3) the world is on the brink of international chaos.  But the numbers tell a different story.

Despite the dissatisfaction with the police in Missouri and New York, murder rates in America are actually at historic lows.   “The number of homicides in the United States’ biggest cities hit record lows again in 2013 as the murder rate nationally continued to drop to levels not seen since the 1960s,” writes Time. Every year the numbers drop ever lower.


The trends in air travel are even more dramatic.  Airplanes are now so safe that some analysts say that pilots are losing their skills. “In 1959, as the jet age was only beginning for passenger airplanes, there were 36 fatal accidents in every one million departures, according to a recent Boeing Co. report. That quickly plunged to 2.4 fatal accidents in every million takeoffs by 1969. In the past decade, the fatal accident rate for airlines hasn’t been higher than 0.6 per million flights.”


Even war is far less frequent than it used to be.   Here is a graph of the Pax Americana.  Nearly 3 generations have known nothing but a general peace. For nearly everyone alive today the oceans have always been without U-boats.  Even in the last century global air travel was a given and today teenagers think the Internet and Skype are ours by right.


Given the evidence it’s hard to reject Colin Powell’s argument about America:

“Far from being the Great Satan, I would say that we are the Great Protector. We have sent men and women from the armed forces of the United States to other parts of the world throughout the past century to put down oppression. We defeated Fascism. We defeated Communism. We saved Europe in World War I and World War II. We were willing to do it, glad to do it. We went to Korea. We went to Vietnam. All in the interest of preserving the rights of people.

And when all those conflicts were over, what did we do? Did we stay and conquer? Did we say, “Okay, we defeated Germany. Now Germany belongs to us? We defeated Japan, so Japan belongs to us”? No. What did we do? We built them up. We gave them democratic systems which they have embraced totally to their soul. And did we ask for any land? No, the only land we ever asked for was enough land to bury our dead.”

But before we congratulate ourselves on the excellence of our world we should recall something that insurance companies have always known.  When commonplace dangers become  rare events we tend to lose our ability to gauge their risks.  They occur with such a small frequency that society loses its intuitive ability to anticipate them.  There is something unreal about worrying about an asteroid strike even though a glance up at the cratered face of the moon should prove they occasionally happen.

In Third World countries where power outages are fairly common, most households will have some form of emergency lighting such as flashlights and candles.  They may even have emergency food supplies in the form of canned goods or dried food.  But in  countries where power outages have become rare events nobody prepares for them any more. If an outage happens, we just wait for the lights to come back on. We simply expect them to fix it.

Modern cities maintain only a few days of food in supermarket storage.  Our computerized just-in-time inventory systems ensure that our limited stocks will always be replenished by trucks coming in from the farm areas.  Australia for example, has about two weeks’ worth of liquid fuels.  Why store more when the tankers from abroad will keep things topped up as they always have?

As they always have.

Andy Pasztor, writing in The Wall Street Journal says that airline safety advances can actually have disadvantages.  “As the industry gets safer, it gets harder and harder to reduce the accident rate further. In addition, advances in cockpit technology and aircraft reliability can lull pilots into complacency, and even erode basic flying skills because computers do so much of the flying on commercial airliners.”

On Air France Flight 447 pilots flew into the ocean because they believed their computerized displays.  The displays were wrong because a rare event had blocked the pitot tubes, causing the instruments to be fed the wrong airspeed data.  But disbelieving the computer is almost always more dangerous than believing it.  In the overwhelming number of cases you should believe the computer.   You can argue that the pilots on Flight 447 did the statistically correct thing by augering into the water.

Part of the reason improvements in aviation are becoming harder to obtain is there is so little gain to be obtained at the margin.  How can you improve on perfection? Airliner safety is already so good that any major changes may make only it worse.   The problem is similar to cosmetic surgery for famous beauties. If you already as beautiful as Megan Fox or Scarlett Johannson the chances surgery will improve your looks are slim.  More likely they will make you uglier.  On the other hand, if you are a person disfigured by burns and already ugly cosmetic surgery will probably be beneficial because there is nowhere to go but up.

James Fallows writes in the Atlantic that nobody really cares about the US military any more. Maybe in part this is because it is a victim of its own success.  War — real mainstreet war — is such a rare event in the West that fear of enemy action is now an alien emotion.   “Did we have the sense that America cared how we were doing? We did not,” Seth Moulton told me about his experience as a marine during the Iraq War.”  Nobody thinks about “victory” any more.  Nobody thinks about the armed forces any more, except to argue for more or less money.

But the real sense of existential urgency, as in caring about defense issues because your life depends on it, is gone. Max Blumenthal, a senior writer for Alternet wrote dismissively of Chris Kyle  “I haven’t seen American Sniper, but correct me if I’m wrong: An occupier mows down faceless Iraqis but the real victim is his anguished soul”.

Only a person who is absolutely, utterly secure in his personal safety could say this with such touching candidness.  These are the words of a person certain the lights will work,   confident the supermarket will open and that his airplane will arrive at its destination and at worst only be delayed.

Max Blumenthal and pilots who have implicit trust in the infallibility of their computerized airliners are textbook examples of why increasing perfection can lull us into a dangerous complacency.  Who can be ready for a rare event? After 70 years of peace and at 0.6 fatal accidents per million flights who can believe there’s any reason to worry any more?  “It will never happen to me.”

Recently purchased by readers: 41, A Portrait of My Father by George W. Bush
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Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with you friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.

The War of the Words for $3.99, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity for $3.99, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures at Amazon Kindle for $1.99, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea $0.99, how China is restarting history in the Pacific
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