Even before the virus arrived, there were signs of a diminution in the willingness of Americans to take the risks that have characterized our national rise to greatness — and from which all human progress springs. Rates of physical mobility, new business formation and that boldest of bets on the future, childbearing, were all declining, and now give signs of falling further.
The irony is powerful. We live in the safest time, by far, in human history. Nature, starvation, violence, war and disease are all dramatically less likely to harm us than ever before.
Of course, we don’t see it that way. As great psychologists such as Daniel Kahneman demonstrated years ago, we fall victim to the “availability heuristic,” through which, because tragic events are so memorable, we drastically overestimate their probability. The fact that we so rarely experience them personally — compounded by a click-conscious media that ensures we all hear about them instantaneously and graphically — heightens the fear factor.
Barbara A. Bichelmeyer, the University of Kansas provost and executive vice chancellor, wrote wisely to her campus community last summer, “In times of such high anxiety, it is human nature to crave certainty for the sense of safety it provides. The problem with craving certainty is that it is a false hope; it is a craving that can never fully be met.”
Our collective reaction to the covid threat has reflected that impulse — and its consequences. Draconian lockdown policies that fallaciously promised maximum safety remained in place, and retained strong public support, even as they failed to stem the spread and as the collateral damage they inflicted mounted massively. A central question for the years ahead is what lesson we take away from this experience.
As early as April of last year, economists Julian Kozlowski, Laura Veldkamp and Venky Venkateswaran documented in a National Bureau of Economic Research paper the “belief-scarring effects” of the pandemic. They predicted “a persistent change in beliefs about the probability of an extreme, negative shock” and “long-lived responses of beliefs to transitory events, especially extreme, unlikely ones.” Through indecipherable equations and delightful terms such as “kernel density” and “martingale” properties, they made a simple point: We scare easily, and we stay scared a long time.
Manifested in economic behavior, these scholars project, such scarring would seriously damage long-term growth prospects. Carried over into other realms of life, it could produce a widespread risk aversion that is the very last thing the nation can afford now.
With luck, we will draw just the opposite conclusion from the recent trauma, namely that boldness and well-calculated risks are superior to the futile quest for perfect safety. The near-miraculous speed with which effective vaccines have arrived furnishes one example, because it is hard to identify a riskier venture than vaccine research.
Many of the largest research-based companies in the world have exited the field due to scientific failure, regulatory obstacles, huge economic losses and often severe criticism for the sin of trying. As STAT reported in 2018, the French pharmaceutical company Sanofi Pasteur abandoned its effort to produce a Zika vaccine after losing millions of dollars while enduring “horrible PR” for its trouble.
The covid vaccine program at Merck, long one of the finest research organizations of any kind anywhere, ended in failure earlier this year. They are in good company: Scores of firms attempted to solve the covid puzzle, losing untold millions along the way. Novavax, a small Maryland firm, appears to have produced an approvable covid vaccine. If so, it will be the firm’s first success after being in business for 34 years.
But, as always, the risk-takers that succeeded have delivered enormous societal benefits, including the possibility that this pandemic will be conquered — or at least made manageable by the new vaccines they discovered.
Mark Twain wrote that a cat that steps on a hot stove will never do it again, but it will never step on a cold one, either. Here’s hoping we draw the right lessons from our current trip across a very hot stove.