But wondering is easy. So is spinning counterfactuals when you already know which unlikely disaster befell you.
The hard part is deciding which unlikelihoods to prepare for out of a universe of improbable possibilities. And then comes the still-harder part: persuading your fellow citizens to pay for those preparations. If global policy on climate change is any reflection of people’s desires — and it is — then the human race is unwilling to spend much of anything to prevent even a near-certain threat to its well-being.
Certainly we should be spending a lot more on such prevention, for the same reason prudent people buy hefty insurance policies — in case our cars crash, our spouses die or our houses burn down. We are the richest generation in history, and we should divert a little of our wealth into making sure the species isn’t wiped out by things that have wiped out species in the past, whether it be climate change or asteroids or supervolcanoes. And to ensure that all manner of critical infrastructure — power grids, health-care systems, supply chains — is more robust to more ordinary shocks.
But to do that, we’re going to have to agree to spend money — and quite a bit of it. As both voters and individuals, we must make it clear to CEOs and politicians that we’re willing to pay extra for reliability insurance. And up until now, we’ve done the opposite, demanding the lowest price right now.
What’s that, you say? The people you know love government-provided insurance? Yes, but what they like is social insurance, which isn’t really insurance; it’s a system of transfers to cover near-universal risks such as illness, aging and unemployment. Politicians spend a lot of time debating how much of that kind of insurance to provide and almost no time talking about true insurance, or insurance against rare risks — the sort that may never happen but will be devastating if they do.
There’s no ideological gap on true insurance: Everyone does too little. Left-wing European governments were caught just as flat-footed as we were by the financial crisis and the pandemic because they, like us, were paying more attention to other things. And while a Texas run by progressive Democrats might have better integrated the state with other power grids, or kept electricity prices more tightly regulated, regulators would have faced the same trade-off as deregulated utilities: lower prices for consumers now, or invest in hardening the system against rare events such as single-digit weather on the U.S. southern border?
Political incentives being what they are, I’m skeptical that regulators would have done much differently. And before you say that is obviously wrong, ask yourself what other rare events we ought to be preparing for and how much you’re willing to spend to abate them. If you stop with the disaster you happen to know about, you’re no wiser than the people you think failed.
Yet that is where we usually stop. Texans will no doubt demand that their politicians spend the next few years hardening the state’s electrical grid against a recurrence of recent travails, much as the federal government will surely assemble a massive stockpile of N95 masks and hand sanitizer. And if the Yellowstone supervolcano ever explodes, the ash-strewn survivors will undoubtedly gather around their campfires and agree that America should have invested more in geothermal preparedness. But precious few of them will have been among the oddballs who want the United States to invest now in defusing supervolcanoes, diverting asteroids or otherwise guarding against the inevitable disasters that currently seem most unlikely.
We can do better than that, but only if we spend less time on recriminations, or refighting the last war, and more on the unknown future. We should be demanding a Rare Disaster Czar, instead of waiting for more 9/11 Commissions. It’s satisfying to blame others for failing to anticipate whatever we can now see clearly in the rearview mirror, but it’s far more important to worry about the road ahead and the dangers that haven’t yet come into view.