Posts Tagged ‘security’


The furious to-do about Obamacare has obscured a basic fact about modern Americans: Most of us, certainly the middle class, are sheltered by a complex web of insurance. Some insurance coverage is privately provided, such as life, accident, fire, flood, travel, liability, burial, and consumer product insurance. And some is government-provided or -required: Social Security, Medicare, unemployment, bank deposit, car, health, mortgage, food, crop, disaster insurance, and so on. All of these, without which American middle-class life as we know it would not be recognizable, are relatively recent developments. It is not that insurance per se and even complex versions of it are new; merchants have hedged their commercial gambles for millennia. What is new in the last roughly 150 years is the extent to which average people have gotten access to financial devices which, by sharing risks, have reduced the economic uncertainties in their lives.

This development, told in part by historian Jonathan Levy in an a multiple award-winning 2012 book, Freaks of Fortune: The Emerging World of Capitalism and Risk in America, was not without political and moral controversy. Moreover, the consequences of reducing individual Americans’ insecurity have more than once introduced great national economic uncertainty.


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Risk Taking

President Obama made a key social science claim in his second inaugural address. He said, “the commitments we make to each other–through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security [and presumably through other parts of the welfare state, too]–these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.”BHO

This passage includes a put-down of Mitt Romney’s controversial campaign comment that 47% of Americans supported Obama because they were dependent “takers.” (See an earlier post on the 47% comment.) More fundamentally, Obama’s statement asserts that government-provided security does not undermine individuals’ entrepreneurial spirit, but instead bolsters that spirit. An interesting – and controversial – hypothesis.


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Shaken but Secure

The horrific images from the Japanese earthquake-tsunami have probably shaken everyone’s confidence. When a nation so modern – so modern that its technology is considered cutting edge – is knocked down so badly, with thousands of citizens dead and many more left in the cold dark for days, with food running short, communities isolated, and anxieties about a nuclear energy threat, the rest of us can only wonder how secure we are.

STR/AFP/Getty Images

The anxiety will pass. The worst of tragedies – like the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami which killed 230,000 people and the 2008 earthquake in China which took 68,000 lives – pass into vague memory as we go about our daily lives. (The public’s amnesia for natural disasters drives emergency preparedness experts batty.) But the experience at the moment creates a sort of historical flashback to an era when it was a lot harder to feel secure, when insecurity was the norm.


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