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Risk-takers and their safety nets

ONE of the ways people flatter themselves these days is to confess with a modest little shrug: ``I guess I'm what you'd call a risk-taker.'' The tribute may be even vaguer than that other fashionable self-recommendation, ``I guess I'm what you'd call a caring person'' - but, oh my, what flair! Risk-taker: The three crisp little syllables conjure up a person in designer dark glasses who trades spectacularly in futures and drives a Porsche to sports car rallies - when not hang gliding.

Risk-takers are the heady stuff television ads are made of: ``I'm only going around once - so clear the track, all you play-it-safe drones!''

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In keeping with this approved image of the moment, the presidential candidates are beginning to ``take risks'' - very, very carefully. Certainly the fact did not escape their notice - to put it mildly - that Ollie North, a risk-taker in every sense of the word, played like a conquering hero in Peoria. Still, it's a long road to November 1988 and the White House, and in politics a risk-taker had best proceed - well, cautiously. And so, among the Democrats, a bit of tentative Dukakis-bashing is going on, particularly by candidates Gephardt and Gore, while on the Republican side, George Bush is discreetly trying to unclasp his hand from Ronald Reagan's without letting go of the President's coattails. No mean feat.

It's a tricky business, being a buttoned-down risk-taker - sounding as if you're laying it all on the line while you're whispering ``maybe.'' But before we all double up with laughter at the spectacle of politicians attempting to drag risk-taking into the middle of the road, we ought to ask ourselves: How much of the boasted risk-taking nearer home is also a matter of style, if not rhetoric?

For there is a distinct inconsistency here. On the one hand, self-acknowledged risk-takers want to ski the high slopes and play the long shots in the stock market. On the other hand, they want insurance for everything - no contingency left uncovered. They preserve themselves and go self-destructive simultaneously, so that the same person who takes a ``recreational'' drug will fret over the effect of a slice of bacon on his cholesterol count.

Have risk-takers ever had a higher anxiety quotient?

The contradiction holds true on the public as well as the private level. From Central America to the Persian Gulf, Americans worry like conservatives but take risks like bomb-throwing radicals.

At one extreme, some talk about the ``acceptable'' risk of ``limited'' nuclear war. At the other extreme, others talk about a no-risk, fail-safe system - a fastidious ``star wars'' umbrella that will protect us absolutely from World War III.

``Acceptable risk'' - the phrase sums up the paradoxical character of today's risk-taker.

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How selective a process risk-taking has become! The go-for-it speedsters in the fast lane can be slowed down to a baby's crawl by the thought of marrying and becoming a parent - which was once everybody's standard risk to the point that it was not regarded as a risk at all. Quite the contrary.

What has made us so proud of our willingness to take risks - and at the same time, so devoted to clauses in fine print, intended to guarantee safe results? There can be no simple answer.

But blinking behind the confusion on the subject, one sees the computer. Without the computer, would the concept of ``acceptable'' risk even be conceivable? For risk - once thought of as a mystery leading one to religion - is now thought of as a mathematical problem driving one to the computer and making even danger pseudo-scientific.

And so we seem both more reckless and more intimidated - and a lot less self-aware - dancing on the same old high wire above the same old safety net but fascinated now by the new supercalculator in between that figures all the odds.

A Wednesday and Friday column

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