Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Is the Age of Heroic Achievement Over?

If you read Peter Bernstein's book "Against the Gods", the major argument he makes is that Risk Management is the hallmark of the modern age. Sophisticated risk management techniques distinguish an advanced society from a less developed one, but I would like to explore the downsides to this advancement.

The first is cost. As a migrant to Australia from India, I can see some stark differences in the cost of goods and services in the two countries. Everything is so much more expensive in Australia, especially where human labour is involved. A prime reason is insurance. When I briefly had a company of my own in Sydney, a major part of my expenses came from Workers Compensation Insurance, even though I was my company's only employee. Had I taken out Professional Indemnity Insurance, my costs would have been even higher. (Incidentally, I was warned against taking out Professional Indemnity Insurance, because I was told the chances of my being sued for professional malpractice were greater if it was known that I had such insurance!)

In India, a lot of the labour employed by the middle class belongs to the "unorganised sector", and insurance is unknown. I remember being at a friend's place when an electrician came over for some repairs. I was amused to see the electrician also being asked to refix the chain on the family bicycle and also run a shopping errand. He was paid a modest sum for his bundle of services and he never thought the non-electrical requests were out of line. Contrast this with my experience in Australia when I ordered some furniture and had it home-delivered. The delivery guy brought a set of boxes in and left them there. When I asked if he was going to assemble it, he replied, "That's your job, mate."

When a society formalises job roles and risk-manages them to the nth degree, I think costs go up. It may be progress, but there's a definite downside.

The other, perhaps more important aspect of a sophisticated society is the intolerance for failure. It has been pointed out that if NASA had adopted today's attitudes towards risk and project management, the Ranger program would have been aborted after less than 4 attempts. As it happened, the Ranger program suffered no fewer than 6 successive failures before Ranger 7 finally made it to the moon.

What happened there was faith and dogged determination, hallmarks of a less civilised society with less sophisticated risk management in its collective DNA. I think we have lost something that needs to be mourned.
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