Risk/Reward: Responsibilities, Ranked
Bob Runs the Numbers, Episode 8
I love living in a society. Living in a society offers a ton of benefits! And, it must be acknowledged, living in a society carries a few responsibilities.
Whether you call it civic duty, obligation, responsibility, law, or expectation, we all do our part. This isn’t a radical idea. Social contract theory goes back explicitly to Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, with tenets laid out millennia earlier in the Old and New Testaments and Greek and Roman civilizations; and implicitly as far back as we humans have existed.
This episode showcases a non-comprehensive list of obligations, requests, expectations, laws, and duties that are part of living in a society. Although it’s just a sampling, the items included are in order from items that are effective and worthwhile at the top of the list to items that are ineffective or even harmful at the bottom of the list.
If one thing is prioritized before another, that means I think it’s more important.
Bob Runs the Numbers tries to approach social issues from a mathematical foundation. This stack-ranking exercise is a little different. This list is my personal opinion, based on emotion, gut feel, and empathy, while hopefully still being informed by objective analysis. But the real “math” is the order of the list. Others would order these differently. You would order these differently. But this is, I hope, a framework to help find places where maybe there’s more agreement than we can typically find in social-media all-caps yelling. How would you re-order this list?
Now. If you would re-order this list and put TSA’s shoe-removal requirement at Number 1, then you and I have very deep disagreements about risk analysis. But if you would bump bicyclist’s responsibility to wear helmets up (or down) a couple notches, that’s a nuanced balancing act that lets us dig our fingers into and figure out how and why we prioritize different risk mitigations differently. That’s awesome! (And worth a conversation over a couple of 🍺 rounds.)
Vaccinations (Including Covid Vaccinations)
There are a lot of vaccination-related items on this list. As I’m writing, there’s a lot of sturm und drang about Covid-19 vaccinations, and lost in the noise is the opportunity for a deliberative conversation about balancing risks and benefits. Including Covid vaccinations in a list like this is an attempt to add context to Covid vaccinations so we’re not all yelling into a vacuum.
Times & Places
I’m writing from the perspective of an American in early 2022. Some risk/benefit balances would shift in a different place or a different time. Some of these items specifically mention times (smallpox vaccinations had a higher risk/benefit payback sixty years ago than they do now, for example), and some of them make geographical assumptions (an Ebola vaccine would be more useful in other regions than the US).
A Stack-Ranked List Of Selected Risk Mitigation Actions
Drive on the right side of the road.
Stop at red lights.
Get smallpox vaccination (up until, say, 1965).
Don’t shit in public areas (like in the water supply, or in Safeway’s aisle 8).
Get Covid vaccination (in 2021 or 2022).
Wear face masks around others during an airborne pandemic (say 2020-2022, or 1918-1920).
Ensure that your children get their routine set of vaccinations.
Don’t subject others to second-hand smoke.
Adhere to the speed limit, more or less.
Ensure that a child in a car wears a seat belt.
Ensure that a child bicyclist wears a helmet.
Ensure that a baby in a car is in a car seat.
As a driver or adult passenger, wear a seat belt.
Get annual flu vaccinations.
Wear a helmet as a motorcyclist.
Wear a helmet as a bicyclist.
Get Ebola vaccination.
Wear a helmet as a driver or passenger in a car.
Wear face masks around others when there’s not an airborne pandemic (so all years except 1918-1920 and 2020-2022 🤞).
Get smallpox vaccination (in 2022).
Remove shoes at airport security as TSA directs.
You’ve probably noticed that in general, items higher on the list are legally required while items lower on the list are merely recommended. There isn’t a strict correlation though. (TSA’s requirement to remove shoes at airport security is a federal regulation but is, by far, the stupidest rule on this list.)
Different people would put the “legally required” threshold at different places. I’m generally OK with where the threshold is. Over a conversation 🍺 I might be persuaded that adults shouldn’t be required to wear seat belts or helmets (under the “you’re free to be stupid if you don’t risk others” doctrine) … but those are nickel-n-dime legal adjustments and don’t affect the ordering of this list.
The bottom third of this list largely consists of items that I think are not worth the risk/benefit balance. Requiring helmets for car drivers and passengers would save hundreds, maybe thousands, of American lives per year, but considering the billions of hours of helmet-donning, helmet-doffing, and helmet-wearing to achieve that, that’s a solution that doesn’t rise to the level of “worth it.” In my opinion.
It would be fun to expand this list into more dimensions. (Being a list, all the dimensions needed to be coalesced into one.)
Imagine plotting these items onto a grid with axes for “mitigate risk for myself” and “mitigate risk for others.” Some of these (wearing a seat belt) primarily protect oneself; other items (not necessarily listed above) like joining the military or a service organization are designed to primarily protect or benefit others. Many (like driving regulations and vaccinations) are a combination, of course.
Another dimension might be how obligated something should be: whether it’s a good idea that people should do; or it should be up to private businesses on their premises; or if local, state, or national laws should require it. Maybe someone’s soooo libertarian that they think drivers should be able to be as drunk as they want; or maybe at the other end of the spectrum someone thinks fresh breath should be federally required and the government should therefore supply free Altoids to every American.
But as fun as these extra analyses would be, they would also be more work. So I’ll procrastinate on it … but if anyone else wants to tackle it I’d love to see it.