Generators and the median tinkerer

Why don’t we promote emergency generators when the safety precautions can be listed in a few sentences? Because that’s too much.

Mike asks why gasoline generators aren’t routinely sold in places that have lost power after disasters. He then goes on to note, as an afterthought, all the ways in which you can blow yourself up or electrocute yourself if you don’t know how to store gas or use generators.

The second part of the post answers the first. The safety precautions, which take a few sentences to list, aren’t something that an inept person like me would have thought of in a hundred years; in fact, I’d probably screw something up even after reading his instructions. We use ice, instead of generators, to keep food safe after a disaster because few people can be expected to blow up their houses with ice. Meanwhile, the added benefit of having power rather than ice-and-flashlights for a few days is relatively slight. Given actual, rather than ideal, homeowners, the cost-benefit analysis seems easy, and in the opposite direction to what Mike says.

I’m not blaming Mike. Each of us overestimates how “easy” it is to use knowledge or skills that one has oneself and actually enjoys getting more of. Mike is a tinkerer,so he thinks emergency generators are easy–even though to me their secrets scan, to a first approximation, as “magic.” I’m good at languages, so I frequently (but unreasonably) ask my department why we can’t just make knowledge of some foreign language a requirement for new faculty hires. But these are bad habits. Assuming rational ignorance is hard, but it has to be done. The smarter you are in a subject, the harder it is to understand how miraculous your skill seems to others. If you’re super-smart in most subjects, like Mike, you have to tack even more to remind yourself how the median policy consumer lives.

Author: Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl, a political theorist, is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics and Hume’s Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England, both from Princeton University Press. His research interests include political ethics, liberal and democratic theory, toleration, the work of David Hume, and the realist school of contemporary political thought. He is currently finishing a book for Harvard University Press titled The Uses of Hypocrisy: An Essay on Toleration. He divides his time between Toronto and Brooklyn.