With all eyes fixed on Japan, it seems like a good time to reflect on risks and consequences. (Actually, its hard for me to think about anything else, and it is fascinating how much traffic to this blog has dropped since the crisis began, presumably because people are spending their time on other sites.)
The thing that has always been so creepy about nuclear power — and the thing that policy makers have seemed unable to grasp — is not that there is a risk, or even that the AVERAGE risk of nuclear power is high. Indeed, there is an arguably good position that the average at least short term risk is low, compared to other sources such as coal. It is rather that IF something serious goes wrong THEN the consequences will be devastating, widespread, and irreversible.
The public (as opposed to many scientific policy makers) see this instinctively, which is why there is such public skepticism about nuclear power, and why even “minor” problems can cause such skepticism to escalate quickly.
Maybe we have the opposite problem with access to justice. Cuts in access programs are (maybe) seen as just adding up to background noise, not having dramatic, widespread, or irreversible impacts on society as a whole. It may be that the intentionally non-analytic “story telling” approach that access advocates have taken to raise money for access to justice plays into this weakness.
Perhaps we need a more analytic approach that shows not just the individual impact, but the broader impact of failing to provide access. Examples that might resonate:
- The foreclosure crisis occurred in part because banks and security packagers were able to get away with bad practices because they were never challenged in individual cases.
- Failure to reduce evictions not only hurts the individuals who lose their homes, but drives whole neighborhoods into downward spirals.
- Allowing employers to get away with illegal employment practices hurts not only the individuals, but the entire labor market, which becomes corrupted.
- Not bringing dead marriages to an end distorts the labor and housing markets.
Note that these all argue for an understanding of aggregation of effects, which is much harder than showing the damage of a dramatic incident.
Then there is the dramatic incident theory — like nuclear meltdown at least at first apparently statistically unlikely, but dramatic in its effect:
- The frustrated litigant who shoots up the court or the workplace
- The abusive parent, who is not held to account, and takes on the classroom full of kids
- The person who does not get health care and unknowingly spreads a drug resistant infection far and wide.
Maybe its time to build these into our mathematical models for the consequences on inaction on access. As experts on public opinion study the impact of the nuclear crisis in Japan on attitudes to risk, they may have something to teach us in this area.
Bingo, Richard! The question is: how? We can often assess a dollar value to the actual services (e.g. pro bono, self-help centers), but it is much more difficult to assign a value of not doing something.