Status And Glory

Once upon a time it was elites who went to war, who took the risks but could gain the glory. Once upon a time gambling was banned for ordinary folks but elites could take such risks and gain glory if they won. Today, consider this NYT article (in which I’m quoted):

John Delaney, an Irish businessman who founded Intrade, an online prediction market that allows customers to bet on world political, entertainment and financial events, died on Saturday after coming within 50 yards of the summit of Mount Everest. He was 42.

This article said nothing on banning Everest climbs; few articles on Everest climbs do. Yet:

The overall mortality rate for Everest mountaineers during the entire 86-year period was 1.3 percent; the rate among climbers was 1.6 percent and the rate among sherpas was 1.1 percent. During the past 25 years, a period during which a greater percentage of moutaineers climbed above 8,000 meters, the death rate for non-Himalayan climbers descending via the longer Tibetan northeast ridge was 3.4 percent, while on the shorter Nepal route it was 2.5 percent.

Contrast this to strong widespread feelings that bike helmets should be required, even though cyclists suffer only about 7 injuries per million miles of biking, and despite serious doubts if helmets help. Even the proverbial banned lawn darts caused ~30 deaths a year with 10-15 million of them in use, far far less than a 2% user death rate.

Why do ban activities with very low risks yet celebrate very high risk mountain climbing? Status seems the obvious explanation. It takes a lot of money to even attempt to climb Everest. We celebrate high status risk-takers, and ban low status ones.

Need more data? Consider the widespread bans on “noodling”, i.e., catching fish with your bare hands:

Brady Knowlton believes it’s his inalienable right as a Texan to shove his bare hand into the mouth of a 60-pound catfish and yank it out of a river. But wrestling a flapping, whiskered giant as it latches onto your arm with its jaws isn’t among Texas’s accepted methods of capturing fish. It is, rather, a class C misdemeanor, with fines of up to $500. … Rod-and-reel anglers … say noodling is unfair to the fish, since they’re grabbed in their burrows without a chance to swim away. … Missouri … prohibits fish-grabbing on grounds that it would deplete the fish population. (more)

When you picture a fish-noodler do you picture someone high status? Didn’t think so.

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