Within my lifetime (and long before, of course), life was generally regarded as a pretty risky affair. You invested time or money or effort (sometimes all three) in something - e.g., a business, marriage, education, etc. - but you didn't know how it would turn out. You paid your money and took your chances; you won some and lost some (and some got rained out) - as we used to say on the playground, back in the day.
Indeed, some enterprises turned out to be really risky - to the point of death. My wife and I have a book that presents diary and journal entries written by women who participated in the great American westward migration often called the Oregon Trail. During 1840-‘48 - before the advent of transcontinental railroads - thousands of people endured almost incredible hardships to reach western areas that offered large amounts of farmable land.
Some of those accounts would curl your hair. They are so harsh that they seem like over-the-top fictional - the more so because the writers were women who participated fully in the privations of the journey. Terrible weather, dirt, hardship, starvation, illness, danger, destruction and death were all part of an experience that few living Americans would tolerate for ten minutes, let alone ten months, just to get somewhere to start a new life.
Last night my wife read aloud a passage relating the travelers' attempts to float their loaded wagons and teams down the Columbia River during interminable days of cold, drenching rain - with fires nearly impossible to light, almost no food, equipment breakdowns, hypothermia and untreatable illness. At the nadir of the flotation attempt, the writer's own husband died. The thought of the determination of those families in the face of such hardship makes you want to weep. On the backs of such people was the country built. I regard them with awe and respect.
Do we have such people any more? Maybe. But except for illegal immigrants enduring the privations of border-crossings and evading the authorities in order to seek work and a better life in a foreign culture, not too many people of this calibre are noticeable.
Ours has become the Age of Non-Risk. I pose Exhibit A: news photos of wrecked houses on the Gulf Coast. Appalling damage, and many people have suffered loss. That is unfortunate. But look closely at where those houses stood: within yards of the sea! A wonderful location, to be sure, but a child could see that the risk of damage from storms there would be very high. No matter how pleasing the prospect, building a house right on the beach of a hurricane-prone area is fraught with peril. So why do I say it's the Non-Risk Age, if people take such risks?
I say it because there is no risk. Those people know the federal government will bail them out if a big storm like Ike comes along and wrecks the place. Making good any hurricane damage to risky coastal construction has somehow become the acid test of whether government truly "cares". Ditto for "disaster relief" given to builders of houses in the flood plains of great rivers or in the dry, fire-prone hills of California and other western states.
No matter how ill considered your home-placement might be, the federal government's cornucopia will bail you out. Uncle Sam is now the Insurer of Last Resort - a "power" mentioned nowhere in the Constitution, whose Framers never imagined so profligate a use of the public purse. Covering the 2005 damage from Hurricane Katrina cost upwards of $250 billion. Who knows what Ike will cost? Meanwhile, we are fighting a foreign war, and Democrats are bashing the Bush administration for running up big deficits. Duhhhh.
But funding risky construction in storm and flood-endangered areas is not the final act in this fools' drama. It is only the first. The latest act has been the bailout of financial houses and banks that made enough poorly considered investments during the "sub-prime mortgage crisis" to endanger their very survival. Just days ago the federal government took over floundering mortgage giants Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. Cost to the taxpayers is yet to be determined, but it could run to $25 billion, perhaps more. Now we learn that the government will lend up to $85 billion to the huge international insurance company AIG to prevent its failure. Just preceding that announcement, the Dow Industrial average crashed 500 points (4%) after the Lehman Brothers financial house filed for Chapter XI bankruptcy. Today the Dow is down another 450 points as fear grips Wall Street. Democrats - believing their floundering attempt to take the White House has finally been salvaged - are popping champagne corks over disastrous events that have harmed the financial futures of millions.
The man on the street grumbles about government bailing out rich Wall Street types. But should he really be complaining? The hurricane-aid and bank-bailouts are only the latest in a ruinous series of bailouts that have racked up unfunded taxpayer liabilities estimated as high as $53 trillion. Social Security and Medicare are the big players, but no politician is currently proposing any serious correction of these gigantic wealth-transfer systems. They are the proverbial elephant in the parlor that neither presidential candidate wants to mention.
Every beneficiary now drawing Social Security benefits feels - correctly or not - that he is only getting his due for the taxes he paid in during his working lifetime. But benefits being paid now are not calibrated to taxes that were paid then. Thus, some are shortchanged - receiving far less than they might have realized from private investment - while others make out like bandits on the small amounts they paid in. (I always remind people that the word "social", in Social Security, means the system tilts toward low-income people.) Talk of universal, government-furnished health insurance evokes W. C. Fields' famous question: "Who's paying for all this?"
These huge systems must inevitably fail, unless Congress raises taxes, reduces benefits, or fundamentally changes how the systems operate. (Or some combination of these.) Yet millions of voters go blithely on in the ignorant conviction that government has the resources to keep bailing out failed businesses and flawed, unsustainable systems. Citizens of the Republic have grown accustomed to shifting personal risk onto government. At some point, the gravy train will crash. I think we're seeing the start of it now.
Saying this and knowing how to set things right are not the same, of course. Yet we must start somewhere. One starting point might be an agreement to stop paying "relief" to people who build houses in dangerous areas. Naturally, this cannot happen while hurricanes (and hurricane damage) remain convenient political footballs. If we can't get past even this one issue, we have no hope of putting our citizens back in touch with the risks of real life.
To maintain personal perspective, I like to recall those pioneers floating heavily loaded rafts down the Columbia River in the pouring rain. We have no concept of what they went through and how easy we have it, by contrast. I don't say we should make things artificially difficult for ourselves. But shifting all risk onto government is going to mean big trouble down the road. It's very risky business.