Guarding Against the Moderately Unlikely

From McClatchy’s excellent investigation into how Barack Obama got it wrong on offshore drilling:

“It’s really important to understand you have decades of nothing going wrong,” said one senior administration official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity as a matter of White House policy.

“The last time you saw a spill of this magnitude in the Gulf, it was off the coast of Mexico in 1979,” said a second senior administration official. “If something doesn’t happen since 1979, you begin to take your eye off of that thing.”


How often in recent years have we been plagued by this problem? Not black swans out of nowhere, but merely the recurrence of somewhat unlikely events that just haven’t happened for a while. A big hurricane hits New Orleands, a leveraged bubble bursts, a drilling operation goes badly awry. And unfortunately both the business world and the government world seem equally incapable of grasping the fact that “unlikely to happen on any given day” and “will never happen” are totally different things.