Friday, February 26, 2010

It Had to Happen Sometime

Really, I know, one of the problems with focusing on hot button issues is that you tend to forget that, among the millions of topics you don't discuss, you and your rhetorical opponents probably share a lot of common ground. Today, Charles Krauthammer moves out of his normal, limited sphere of subjects and standard demagoguery to discuss "the price of modernity", and (IMHO) gets it right.

Toyota's problems remind me of my first car, a 1960's-era VW Beetle. (A car that, despite its virtues, was not an unreasonable inclusion in this list of the worst cars of all time.)
I owned about half a dozen Beetles, and repaired hundreds, which gave me an abiding respect for the Beetle's construction quality (at least until the factory was moved to Mexico) and first-hand knowledge of its unforgivable faults - the windshield washers depended on air from the spare tire, the cylinder heads constantly worked loose, and the windshield defogging system often left you blinded at critical moments.
And talk about accelerator problems? In cold Saskatchewan winters, ice and snow would accumulate by the accelerator pedal. I would clear it away, but I also carried a bottle of antifreeze to periodically melt away the ice I could not otherwise remove. Why? Because if I did not, sooner or later when I hit the gas the ice would bend the tab that held the accelerator cable and... instant deceleration I could do nothing about without stopping the car, bending the tab back and reattaching the cable. Really nice on a highway. And what fun in the winter - it's 20 below zero (C) and the windows inevitably frost up on the inside - I had to choose between constantly scraping the window with one hand while peering through the tiny hole I cleared in the ice, or driving with the side window open and scraping less frequently. And that antifreeze had more than one purpose - in the winter months the car required a periodic splash into the gas tank to keep ice from forming in the gas line. Heck, the car was a few years older than I was, so nobody would have expected state-of-the-art, but if a modern manufacturer were to build vehicles with the same quality we enjoyed in the 1960's and 70's, Ralph Nader would be able to turn Unsafe At Any Speed into a multi-volume series.

Those developing and manufacturing products should strive for perfect safety, but there's always going to be a cost-benefit trade-off and in some contexts "perfect safety" is not something that can actually be obtained. As society has become safer, our perceptions of what constitutes an "unreasonable risk' has shifted. Most notably for children, a lot of activities that were taken for granted in past generations - e.g., going to the park to play or riding on public transportation - are widely considered "too dangerous" to do without adult supervision. If I were to extend the trend to the point of a reductio ad absurdum, we could reach a point where it's deemed too dangerous to go outside because we might get hit by lighting - something that once was an example of an absurdly remote event transformed into an unacceptable risk.

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