Worth Dying For

[Amazon Link]

It's been too long since I last read a tale of the exploits of Jack Reacher. This book (number 15 in the series) is set soon after the events of 61 Hours which ended with a Reichenbach-Falls-level cliffhanger. Did our hero escape from a seemingly certain demise?

Spoiler: yes, he did. And he's on the way to Virginia, smitten with Susan, the voice on the phone that was of significant assistance in 61 Hours. Unfortunately, that takes him to an unnamed small town in middle-of-nowhere Nebraska, where his natural talent for blundering by chance into massive deadly conspiracies seemingly kicks in yet another time.

The town is essentially owned, operated, and terrorized by the Duncan clan, three scions and an adopted son. They are assisted by a small band of ex-Cornhusker football players, ones not quite good enough for the NFL. (I'm sure the University of Nebraska loved the implication that one likely postgraduate career path for their football jocks is being a brutal thug for small-town crime lords.)

On the evening of Reacher's arrival, the Duncan son pops his wife in the nose (a common occurrance). She calls the local watering hole, where the local doctor is getting shitfaced on scotch (also a common occurrance). The doc doesn't want to get involved in an act of defiance against the Duncans, but Reacher shames him into a house call.

Things don't go well when the Duncans find out. Pretty soon Reacher is battling the Cornhusker thugs, trying to discover what's going on. Also solving a decades-old mystery. Also dealing with incoming professional enforcers worried about the disruption in supply of whatever it is the Duncans are providing.

At points, the choreography of the various characters make Worth Dying For resemble a French bedroom farce, except with armed criminals, no sex, and a high body count. But things sober up, as the Duncans' crimes are slowly revealed, and rough justice is delivered.

Foolproof

[Amazon Link]

Yet another shout out to the intrepid librarians at the University Near Here: I requested this book on Interlibrary Loan, but it turned out to be unavailable. So UNH ordered it for its own shelves, and put it on hold for me. This is pretty good service, especially when you consider I'm not a paying-customer student or a faculty member, just an IT droid from Sector 7-G. (But an intrested droid: please see my 2014 discussion of The Norm Chronicles for details on my interest.)

Hopefully, people with more serious academic needs will check it out in the near future.

The author, Greg Ip, is a writer for the WSJ, so it's not surprising that his prose is accessible and understandable to a wide audience. The book's subtitle is "How Safety Can Be Dangerous and How Danger Makes Us Safe". (Which you can see over there on the book's cover, unless you've blocked ads, which you shouldn't because they are completely tasteful.) Paradoxical! But, as it turns out, completely sensible. The pattern that Ip explores is (roughly):

  1. People detect a situation that puts their lives, health, or property at risk;

  2. Steps are taken to mitigate the danger;

  3. These steps make previously-risky behavior less risky;

  4. Lulled, people respond to the new less-risky environment by engaging in more of said behavior.

  5. But, since the risk was only mitigated, people still get bit! (Or, alternatively, get bit by a new risk that suppressing the previous risk revealed.)

  6. In either case, however: return to step 2.

Ip shows how this pattern develops in all sorts of situations: natural disasters (floods, hurricanes, fires, …); finance (personal, national, global); transportation (automobiles, airplanes,…); etc. Once you understand the process, you start to see it everywhere.

Note that "minimizing risk" is not a good option. People voluntarily taking on risk is a driver of prosperity; denying that path would make us all poorer.

Note also the involuntary assumption of risk: this happens mostly when government steps in, offering bailouts for "too big to fail" institutions, underprices flood insurance, or lends tuition money to womens' studies majors. As taxpayers, we're all on the hook for that stuff, and we didn't ask to be.

But Ip argues, semi-convincingly, that even the occasional bailout has its benefits, if it tides over an institution that can straighten out and fly right in the future. Moral hazard, sure. But if other options (again) make everyone else worse off, saying "well, at least we avoided moral hazard" is cold comfort.

I've been interested in this topic for years, and Ip's general thesis is not new. For example, I remember reading Aaron Wildavsky's Searching for Safety, a similar discussion, back when it was written in the late 1980's. In fact, my major quibble with Ip's book is that he doesn't acknowledge Wildavsky at all, and makes only a brief reference to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who's also done popular work in the area.