What You Can Control
As the nation paused on the fifth anniversary of September 11 to remember the events of that day and remember the victims, it was also a time for reflecting on how we changed and adjusted to a world we were unfamiliar with.
The newspapers and television sets were overloaded with thumb sucking, retrospective pieces pontificating on myriad subjects. In the days following those tragic events, everyone seemed to agree that the world had changed forever-and changed dramatically.
Today, it's not quite so clear. In November 2001, experts and layman alike would not have expected America to go another 58 months without a major terrorist attack.
Most Americans' daily lives have changed little externally. People who happen to live in New York or Washington, D.C., understandably feel apprehensive when a public building is evacuated, usually because someone absentmindedly left a bag in a waiting room. But terrorist plots in various stages of development also have been foiled in places as disparate as Columbus, Ohio, and Miami. John F. Kennedy's remark that anyone who wanted to trade his life for the president's could do so now hits a lot closer to home than it used to. Now you don't have to be a big shot.
The change terrorism imprinted in our collective national consciousness caused people to stop and think about what was really important to them. If there was a lesson to be learned, it's that life is short (even if you live to 100), and it's worth spending more time on what's really important to you. The desire to spend more time with family and friends played an instrumental role in fueling the housing boom.
There seems to be a consensus that, while we are better prepared to stop terrorist attacks than we were five years ago, vast room for improvement still exists. But the obsession of the media and politicians with terrorism, as understandable as it is, tends to obscure other problems in our society. Remember, any actuary will tell you the average American has a much greater chance of being struck by lightning than by a terrorist attack.
In all likelihood, a much bigger train wreck is coming. It's a disaster we all can see and could even stop dead in its tracks. And this audience is more familiar with the problem than almost anybody.
Remember the savings crisis? There are two schools of thought about it, and both have their merits.
Several years ago, one of the 20th century's greatest economists, Milton Friedman, wrote a libertarian-slanted piece in the Wall Street Journal, arguing that the savings rate should be the sum total of what individual Americans decided to save, not what a bunch of ivory tower types thought they should save. In many ways, he's right; it's their money, not the bureaucrats or professors. Just get ready for a choice between 70% tax rates or streets strewn with homeless seniors.
Decades ago, Australia tired of having too many penniless retirees and started sweeping 9% of all workers' paychecks into savings accounts with investment options. It's not unlike automatic 401(k) plan enrollment programs, except down under there is no opt-out provision. That may not be very libertarian, but the middle-class, fifty-something Aussies I've run into in recent years act a lot more financially secure than many middle-class Americans.
My point is not that one system is necessarily better. It's just that we might all be a little better off focusing on the things we can control rather than those we can't.