Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

The Death of Risk

Daniel Henninger writes today about the lessons one might garner from a fresh look at the frontier thesis of Frederick Jackson Turner and why, right now--as events conspire to make people less and less willing to countenance risk--is a very good time to take up such a study and such a conversation. Without expecting to embrace everything in the thesis, I agree that it’s not a bad place to begin a conversation. Besides, walking around reading Turner will make all the right people mad at me.

Discussions - 8 Comments

Never read, but always struck me that Turner stated a fairly obvious thesis that many a person was thinking of; and nowadays I would be inclined to think that, besides the scholarly spade-work, it probably amounts to little more than geographical Croly-ism. School me if needed.

The death of Risk is Certainty but the most that mortals can accomplish is simply probability. But I say we are experiencing both the death of risk and the decay of probability. Probability of course decays back into Risk. Risk is reborn until models and assumptions are retooled so as to contain it.

In regards to the wounds suffered by the financial industry almost all of it seems to involve the birth of risk in the death throws of probability.

It is somewhat fun to speak in this manner...it is a manner befitting a time before man had conquered risk and narrowed in on certainty with greater precision.

The sweet irony in saying that risk is dead is that those institutions whose jobs it was to kill it failled. What after all is a devirative, if not a wager, a price derived from a probability between parties to protect against a future change. What was AIG in the business of doing if not killing risk?

Risk is not dead. The actuaries of today may provide for kings and executives a clearer picture than a majority of prophets in ages past could muster but were they in the position of Samuel a great number would be left in cells to rot.

In any case even this does not address the sense of what Henninger was trying to get at with the entrepreneurial and frontier spirit, let alone what Turner might have made of it...but I can't help but think that this topic belongs with the thread on education, and the risk taking student. The most enlightened but sad comment pointed out that the "organizational kid" was more practical oriented as he was oriented to the nature of knowledge as communal and not individual or original and was thus able to learn more because he lacked a desire to risk or an appreaciation and gratitude for what he already had thus having neither by nature or nurture a headstrong temperament.

The desire to risk for risk sake alone, is unatural to those who are grateful for the present condition they enjoy. Thanksgiving being hardly past I might goad Brutus by saying that I was contented with my football, my familly and my turkey. The proverbial frog in the boilling pot is also grateful. And gratefull citizens would never have risen up against Great Britain, as the declaration itself acknowledges.

Strange then in this sense to say that gratitude is the death of risk...of course this is explainable from motivation or will and not from knowledge or calculation, ergo calculated risk or the will to calculated risk...the will to calculate risk of course is the measure of how far one is willing to go to avoid or conquer it.

It is about calculation and the need to calculate, and if Fortune is a woman it is funny that the old study Hayward posted to Julie had the math majors being the most chaste.

You'll have to school me more in Croly first. And my own reading of Turner was superficial and dim to my memory (freshman year of college) so I'd need to review both before commenting further on this. It just strikes me that Henninger is right that something like what Turner discusses is missing from American character these days--and not to our credit or general welfare.

My unschooled reading of Turner was that the open frontier, gave those who came here a spreading and expansive spirit that led to a spreading and expansive American character. The frontier was always an outlet for individualism. Open land meant open people. Once there was no outlet, the character of the nation would have to change. I liked him, though not his conclusions as I understood them. As I say, I was reading without direction.

On the other hand, I was forced to read Croly, who made me sick. I thought he saw individuality as bad by definition. I choked on him.

I thought Turner regretful of the end of the frontier and the sad change he saw as inevitable in that. Put a dominant individual, like Achilles, on the frontier and he is amazing. Put him in a tenement and look out. Turner never said that. It was my mental picture on reading that paper and my Achilles wore a cowboy hat, too.

Therein is the really sad possibility that Americans as they were will just not be possible any more. We can't be what we were, because we don't have what we had. Still, when we see someone like that, we like him. We might not always want to live with him, though. Not in a close society, anyway.

As a side issue, is this why Americans like space exploration fiction so much? We miss the frontier and what it allowed us to be. We extrapolate that into a fantastically unlikely world, where reality seems to be that we would have to live encapsulated.

Another side issue, what if this dread of risk is just an expression of our dominant generation, the baby Boomers, getting old and seeking comfort and security? America does not have to be defined by us, but has been. Thirty years ago, when we were young, risk looked better. Now, in contemporaries, I only see it as a shadow in the wistful glance of an aging eye. Men get older and lose their nerve for risk. There are still so many of us, aging, we may have a damping influence on American culture. "Gimme Shelter" has new connotations. I always thought it was stupid song, anyway.

John Lewis, yours was not up when I began writing mine. You have such a different perspective than I do. I like yours, but I think you turn around twice in it.

Kate, Thanks for that. Nicely said and very thoughtful.

Yes Kate, I turn and turn, but I agree when turned in your direction with what you say. Ironically there is little risk taking in turning about, since one is hardly ever commited. I suppose, nay I am certain that those who went out unto the frontier had little ability to turn about. Those who came to america made a commitment. They locked themselves into a risk and then had to struggle as if life depended on it for sucess. Of course many of those who went west, went west again and again, but for the most part I get the sense that it was more generational, the oldest son tended and inherited the familly farm and the younger sons went west.

In any case I think Turner did say that in 1880 the frontier was over. In some sense perhaps the frontier today is no longer in america, it is in the son who takes capital from his father and goes and grows corn with modern machinery in Brazil. But strangely enough being a corn pioneer in Brazil one is probably less isolated, less at risk and less at the mercy of fate, risk or fortune, than the younger son who moved from Virgina to Indiana or Kansas. Globalization and modernity shifts and changes the nature of the risks. American pioneers today are likely to be expatriots. Petroleum Engineers in the UAE, the mercenaries of black water USA...those looking to seek fortunes in the so called bric. To some extent all who live in Alaska are pioneers...the ice road truckers, the crab fishermen immortalized in dangerous catch...but even here one cannot immagine what telivision, radio, the telephone and the internet, aviation and shipping have done to shrink the world and homogenize it such that the risks of geography are contained. It isn't that risk is dead, but contained.

In rural Ohio, Camp Arifjan Kuwait or London England I can google earth the source of the Nile, and when I am done enjoy for myself in all three locations a similar Big Mac.

Risk isn't dead, and I agree with your last paragraph in almost all of my turns. I wouldn't blame your generation, or any other in particular. Most Humans want to live in a world protected from the threats of terrorism, piracy, old age, starvation, floods, hurricanes... I might even change my mind and say that Risk is dead, which is close to how I interpret the End of History debate. I mean to a large extent we can and do live lives protected to the greatest extent from risk. I suppose the difference between the possibility in the frontier of old and that of today is akin to the risk endured by the veterans of World War 2 when compared to those of OIF. In both cases the risks are different and greatly diminished.

To turn around again on my rather crude formulation that the death of risk is gratitude or complete satisfaction(which could go back to Plato), to some extent risk cannot exist without something being risked. The greatest risk belongs to those who value the life they have the most and still risk it. Gratitude may then not be opposed to risk but a pre-requisite for it. But this I think is too analytically idealistic, or abstract. Risk for the most part is taken on by human beings who hope to gain more than they stand to loose otherwise.

At this point I want to get into a discussion of EV= return*probability-Amount Risked, but the important point is simply that to calculate this risk one needs a benchmark like the $. Playing the lottery or slot machines always has negative EV in pure dollar terms unless you enjoy the prospect of taking a chance or enjoy risk for risk sake, or have different psychological attachement to gradations of income...

I have met those who simply enjoy the idea of being or getting lucky, and I think this cosmology ends in ruin, nevertheless I think it is these pure worshipers of fortuna who should be laughing at the demise of Insurance Giant AIG. Somehow this species of gambler craves the notion that it is not the end of history. That risk management has not conquered and circumscribed all. That Risk is not indeed dead. Ironically the great majority of people it seems to me believe that risk is dead or at least contained appropriately. Regardless of if our calculations involve dollars or intangibles, we believe our own reasoning or rationalization, confidence prevails over uncertainty and we risk or believe we risk less than we expect to gain.

Human beings are risk takers when they are confident proud ambitious and generally not gratefull or satisfied or content with the station they hold in life. The abstract pure EV thinkers don't understand the insignificance of dollars to those who have few, reasoning as they do without turning about. Of course to a certain extent the economist sold on the linear EV analytic might explain the willingness of poverty and lower middle class to risk in terms of the "safety net" providing moral hazzard, this I think is also true to a point.

What I also think is true is that no one has provided an satisfactory explanation for why rich and more or less contented Ivy League students should ever risk much academically or otherwise. In point of fact this seems related quite strongly to the force holding together bureaucratic goverment. The sense of having reached near to the limits of ones station that must henceforth be protected from risk. This is Hobbes and in our times documentaries and inquiries on why Hilter was never brought down. This is a way of praising risk and disparaging loyalty, duty and gratitude. Yet there are ways of making these into virtues and risk taking into vice, but thanksgiving is not so dominant of a holiday that Locke can be kept in his box for long.

The first thanksgiving did not stand in the way of manifest destiny, because eating much only stretches the stomach for more?

We do not have, have never had, primogeniture in the US. The oldest son may not inherit all and whoever wanted the family farm either had to split it or sell out or give up his share. Even daughters could inherit in in most states. All of that was a departure from the European way and very good and egalitarian of us. Any son might go west, never mind birth order. I don't know about your family, but in mine, the oldest son was often the one willing to risk and he could if he wanted to. The ancestor of mine who came out to the Western Reserve from Connecticut did so to raise silkworms, intending to make a fortune in the silk business, taking a risk. Mulberry trees grow here, silk worms eat mulberry leaves, but somehow, owing to climate or variety of mulberry tree or other unknown factors, most of the silkworms died, and those who survived produced poor quality silk and the business venture was a bust. Most of the family stayed here, but some of that man's sons, including the oldest, went west, looking for fortune on a new frontier, without the silkworms.

Diverging, I only blame my generation because it is large and dominant in our culture. It is an aging generation and young men, in particular, are more prone to take risks than old ones. No news there. Sometimes that is a matter of satisfaction, for the accomplishments and property that have, but I think some it is an emotional matter, too. They really do begin to lose their nerve later in life. The bold young men I knew are not bold anymore, though they may still speak with a bold-sounding bluster. They look out for their retirement benefits and, awkwardly, I think, are aware that after 65 they face a long, long denouement in which they are the final explainers of themselves. Rarely will anyone be pleased to pay them for their stories or even to keep them going, unless forced to by the government through SS and Medicare. My dad is painfully aware of being a burden to society at 83. He was the sort of man who said he would end his life rather than be a burden, that when he was twenty years younger and more, but each passing year has taken him further from being able to face the risk that death is for him. He claims unbelief, but is uneasy about the possibility that the God he denies might be real. He has become fearful of even a stroll to the mailbox in inclement weather. I see other men I know and love coming to approach all matters in life with the same trepidation.

The Henninger article was right in pointing out that Americans demanding the their government protect them from risk, even with the stock market/monetary type of risk, indicates something about a changing character of Americans. That the market fluctuates, reaching peaks and tumbling to crashes, is actually normal. Yes, risk is not dead, as long as we maintain a free economic system. Risk is inevitable in a free system. However, if the American people do not value freedom enough to tolerate the risks in a free economic system, then we might be risking the death of freedom in favor of the security of an authoritarian system. As I am also getting older, I think I ought to be in favor of that security, but I am not. I am appalled by it.

By the way, AIG is not dead. It is just coming to pieces. Maybe like your bloated Thanksgiving reveler, it has to shed excess to survive. That what is happening to it. The successful pieces of the company sell of the best, of course. The problem for AIG is that other companies are cash-poor and buying even the profitable units, as desirable as they might be, might exceed current capabilities. That is one reason companies are lining up to grab cash from the Treasury Secretary, so they can buy the remnants of failing corporations. They haven't the capital to risk, and everyone is nervous about what is beginning to look like a huge shell game, uncertain if real value is there. Who will get US government funding is a whole new risk factor, due to politics, which increases, rather than decreases worry.

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