Two More Things to Worry About

author: Arnold I. Barnett, Sloan School of Management, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
published: Jan. 6, 2014,   recorded: June 2007,   views: 1918
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Description

In customary, loose-limbed form, Arnold Barnett reprises two of his favorite themes: improvements to the U.S. Electoral College, and aviation safety.

First up, Barnett’s suggested fix for national elections, which through the “fun-house mirror” of the Electoral College, permit winner-take-all results. His formula involves a weighted vote share, akin to the weighted average professors use for determining a course grade. His equation would shift power to smaller states, without slighting the larger ones -- while still closely following the popular vote.

He then offers an abundance of statistics that should relieve antsy air passengers of much anxiety. The precise metric Barnett has settled on, “death risk per flight, in first world domestic passenger services,” has improved 70 fold since the 1960s, when a passenger had a one in 1 million chance of dying in a plane crash. Says Barnett, “When you consider all the things that can go wrong in jet aviation that would lead to death of passengers, the fact that the risk level is now one in 70 million constitutes the 8th wonder of the world.”

While air travel to developing nations does not provide as much reassurance (the chance of dying in a plane crash is one in 2 million these days), the numbers show steady improvement, and Barnett’s research demonstrates it doesn’t much matter whether a passenger flies the local carrier, or a ‘first-world’ airline.

The real risk in air travel comes from threats posed by terrorists and criminals, and Barnett doesn’t provide much solace in this quarter. He dismisses one suggestion that laptops be eliminated in airline cabins, because “work you can’t do on a plane is time you can’t spend with your kids at home.” On the other hand, positive bag matching, which all U.S. carriers used to practice, would be another helpful layer of security. Barnett believes that “labor relations in the airlines are so brittle that they are afraid to ask baggage handlers to take on an additional task.” He’s worked out the math, and shown that should one airliner be blown out of the sky, and three others set to go off within minutes, “realistically there’s nothing we can do—there’s not enough time to communicate a credible warning to lead to measures to reduce the risk to other planes.”

Yet, even though the risk of terrorism is greater by far than the risk of dying in an accident, “we can’t give up flying because of it.” Concludes Barnett, “We’re in an uncharted area -- making judgments to continue to live our lives, and making adequate precautions, and we don’t know what that means.”

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