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March 3rd, 2017

Taking Risks

I heard a radio interview with economist Tyler Cowen in which he explained that Americans have become too risk averse. We're unwilling to move to where the jobs are. We're unwilling to quit safe jobs with predictable income and medical benefits to embark on entrepreneurial adventures into the unknown. The tech innovations which have captured the imagination of the public and investors alike allow us to retreat inside of ourselves. Amazon lets us stay at home rather than going out into the world to buy things. Netflix gets us out of having to go out to the movies or to other public forms of passive entertainment. Social media surrounds us with our own opinions so that we don't have to ever venture outside of our cognitive comfort zones.

I actually agree with most of that, but I don't trust Cowen's motivations. He seems more interested in the dynamism of the economy than he is in the well-being of individuals and families. From my perspective, a steady-state economy in which people are challenged and supported to the right degree to help them flourish would be better than a growing economy in which we are left to fend for ourselves in an environment stocked with temptations to degrade our bodies and pursue prizes which bring neither lasting satisfaction nor health. We humans can run ourselves ragged and burn out in a booming economy. We can also set healthful priorities and exercise good judgment and find ways to flourish in such an environment, but the deck is stacked against us.

When it comes to risk-taking, I've always operated at the margins, far from the comfortable middle of the bell curve. As a kid, I took crazy risks on my bike and suffered many wipe-outs that could have easily left me with permanent disabilities in both brain and limb. It never occurred to me to ask my parents to buy me a helmet. It's not that I thought I would look like a dork to my friends. It just never crossed my mind.

At age eleven, when my father was stuck in a traffic jam trying to get out of a crowded movie theater parking lot, I got it into my head that I could run home faster than he could get there by car. Home was a couple of miles away. I proposed the competition, and he accepted. The first obstacle in my race home that night was a four-lane highway. I was just a step away from reaching the far side of the highway when I looked over my right shoulder and saw car headlights just inches away. The car struck me, and I am alive today because I went up over the top of the car rather than being thrown to the pavement and run over. I escaped that bout of risk-taking with just an arm broken in two places.

In high school, I wasn't good with girls, but it wasn't for lack of trying. I took risks, but my efforts mostly yielded rejection and frustration. Early sexual encounters were all cases of girls or women choosing me rather than the other way around. Still, none of those encounters would have happened if I'd been at home watching television. I was out in the world making irresponsible choices involving cars, alcohol, drugs, and sketchy scenes, which is to say, "engaging in risk-taking behavior."

As an adult, I have moved to different states and even different countries with no specific plan for how I was going to earn a living and support myself and later my family once I got there. I have worked on fishing boats in Alaska, taught English in Japan, tried to start a homestead farm in Arkansas, and always... ALWAYS wanted to make a living as an artist. When I was younger, I wanted to write and draw comics. Later, I pursued a career in media. None of these decisions were the safe and sensible play.

And where has my risk-taking gotten me? I'm approaching my 49th birthday, the age at which I should be at the peak of my earning, the cruising altitude of my career, and I'm essentially broke. Worse than that, I owe a considerable debt to the IRS. I'm divorced and rarely see my children. I am dependent on the good will of others to keep a roof over my head.

To be fair, I often took risks that were against the advice of people who had a clearer take on the likely benefits and consequences than I did, but for the most part, we are encouraged to risk our security in an environment in which vital information about what sorts of risks are likely to bring us fortune and which will leave us bewildered and impoverished are deliberately kept secret. My every financial failure has been a success for someone. Risk-taking in an environment designed to prey on those who gamble and lose is not a recipe for a healthy society, but seemingly it is good for a certain stratum of society, the stratum that gets bailed out when their bets don't pay off.

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