Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Safety, Danger, and Attention Span

Glenn Reynolds has a good review of Tom Vanderbilt's latest book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us). The main point is that added safety features can make us behave more dangerously. He follows a tangent and raises a very interesting point:
This approach could be taken beyond the world of personal transportation. We’re in the current financial mess in part because things that were actually dangerous—from subprime mortgages to risky financial instruments that no one fully understood—felt safe and ordinary. Modern financial markets, with computers, regulations, deposit insurance and bond ratings, felt as routine and as smooth as that four-lane highway in Spain, causing a lot of people who should have been paying attention to doze off. Investors might have been more careful if it had felt like they were driving down a twisty mountain road with no guardrails, especially since we really were engaged in the financial equivalent of high-speed mountain driving, only without the discipline of fear.
I wonder if there isn't some way to make government and the economy feel more dangerous without actually making it more dangerous? Or would this just be like someone setting their clock ahead 10 minutes to avoid being chronically late?