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Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Complacency-Over-reaction Cycle

We had a another series of potential bad snow storms last week. The weather patterns looked eerily similar to last year when we had our famous snowmaggedon. This event resulted in scores of people being marooned on highways for hours, including school children trapped on school buses. This year we were prepared with many school systems closing in anticipation of inclement weather, health systems cancelling patients, and government offices sending people home. What happened was basically nothing. No one complained, yet. The memory of last years debacle was still reasonably fresh in our minds. However, I can confidently predict that this memory will fade and when it fades, we will again become complacent.

I came to realize that this sort of cycle, between over-reaction and complacency is characteristic of virtually all human endeavors. When faced with preparing for the future, do we err on the side of doing too much or too little? It depends upon the circumstances we find ourselves in and the memories we have of recent events. No matter how we act at any given time we run the risk, or perhaps the certainty that we are destined to over- or under reaction at some point and we will be wrong. Furthermore, in retrospect we will look stupid, either preparing for some unlikely eventuality or something which  happened and appeared to be something we should have anticipated. We will be pilloried by the professional Monday morning quarterbacks.

This phenomena courses through basically every aspect of human existence. Look at the news at the recent vaccination controversy. When I was growing up, vaccinations were not questioned. There were not many of them and those which were available targeted diseases where people had actual memory can contact with. Not take the polio vaccine? You had to be absolutely crazy since there were actual people who were you neighbors who were in iron lungs at some recent point in the past. Fast forward 60 years and we are at the top of the curve, with some parents wondering why we would inflict so many shots on our kids for diseases that NEVER happen. Oh, they do happen....

In foreign affairs, we had the greatest generation which navigated us through WWII and the aggression of Nazi Germany. They witnessed the folly of appeasement and the world war that followed. They also witnessed the over-reaction which resulted in deployment of US troops throughout the world over the next 50 years with less definitive and optimal results. Why did we do all this? What were we thinking? We were thinking that the greatest risk was associated with doing too little but experience has informed us that you perhaps can err in either direction. In the near term, what do we do about the local aggressions of Russia and Putin? Is he the next Hitler or a desperate leader of a marginalized and shrinking country?

We will never get it perfectly right. It is not possible. Furthermore, defining whether we got it right or wrong cannot be defined simply by whether the outcome obtained at any given point in time was what we viewed as ideal. The future has yet to happen and when it arrives we can discern whether we have undershot or overshot our desired goals.

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