Some years ago I flew to Kansas City from Washington, D.C. The flight was routine until we reached Kansas City International Airport, where a strong winter storm swirled.
The blizzard was so bad that the pilot told passengers he might have to land in Omaha. It was not a popular announcement.
After circling KCI for an hour, the intercom crackled. We’re going to try to land, the pilot said. The passengers cheered.
Then — interestingly — some began to reconsider. Just how bad was this storm? A holiday night in Omaha might be a disappointment, but it would be preferable to crashing in a blizzard. Maybe landing was too risky.
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We made it to the terminal safely, thanks to the pilot’s skill. We also got a good lesson in decision-making: All choices involve a range of possible outcomes, some better than others. The real challenge is finding an acceptable balance between risk and reward.
Naturally, our political class often misunderstands this concept.
This week, Sens. Claire McCaskill and Roy Blunt of Missouri issued a joint news release applauding Amtrak for finding a way to continue passenger rail service in Missouri. A tentative agreement allocates spending for new safety devices called positive train controls.
Some supporters of rail transit want to delay installation of the devices to save money and preserve rail service. Maybe the trade-off is worth it. Maybe the devices are too expensive, or unnecessary. Maybe not.
But fully understanding the policy decision requires consideration of both sides of the equation, not just one. If the devices are delayed, rail service may be saved — but the price will be a transit system less safe than it might otherwise have been.
Other examples abound. Environmental protections can be relaxed, at the cost of more sickness from pollution. We can provide health insurance to more people, but taxes and premiums will go up. Cars are safer but more expensive. Downtown can be rebuilt, but it may cost taxpayers.
The task, always, is balancing costs with outcomes.
Americans should be adult enough to understand this. Most politicians are not, cramming complicated issues into either/or formulas that feed a deep distrust of government.
Had Gov. Sam Brownback simply acknowledged the risk inherent in his economic proposals, he might be in far less trouble today. But no. The sun is shining in Kansas. Don’t let anyone tell you any different.
No matter how much rain you see outside your window.