Friday, June 4, 2010

Underestimating Risk

Journalist David Leonhardt in The New York Times has an excellent article on underestimating risk -- mainly about the BP catastrophe, but also about how we tend to underestimate other risks too, leading other disasters like the economic collapse and anthropogenic climate change.

When the stakes are high enough, it falls to government to help its citizens avoid these entirely human errors. The market, left to its own devices, often cannot do so. Yet in the case of Deepwater Horizon, government policy actually went the other way. It encouraged BP to underestimate the odds of a catastrophe.

In a little-noticed provision in a 1990 law passed after the Exxon Valdez spill, Congress capped a spiller’s liability over and above cleanup costs at $75 million for a rig spill. Even if the economic damages — to tourism, fishing and the like — stretch into the billions, the responsible party is on the hook for only $75 million. (In this instance, BP has agreed to waive the cap for claims it deems legitimate.) Michael Greenstone, an M.I.T. economist who runs the Hamilton Project in Washington, says the law fundamentally distorts a company’s decision making. Without the cap, executives would have to weigh the possible revenue from a well against the cost of drilling there and the risk of damage. With the cap, they can largely ignore the potential damage beyond cleanup costs. So they end up drilling wells even in places where the damage can be horrific, like close to a shoreline. To put it another way, human frailty helped BP’s executives underestimate the chance of a low-probability, high-cost event. Federal law helped them underestimate the costs.

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