This article, “Terror, Security, and Money: Balancing the Risks, Benefits, and Costs of Homeland Security,” by John Mueller and Mark Stewart, should be required reading for every senator and representative in Congress, no matter what. And they should be forced to actually read it, completely, from front to back.
The cumulative increase in expenditures on US domestic homeland security over the decade since 9/11 exceeds one trillion dollars. It is clearly time to examine these massive expenditures applying risk assessment and cost-benefit approaches that have been standard for decades. Thus far, officials do not seem to have done so and have engaged in various forms of probability neglect by focusing on worst case scenarios; adding, rather than multiplying, the probabilities; assessing relative, rather than absolute, risk; and inflating terrorist capacities and the importance of potential terrorist targets. We find that enhanced expenditures have been excessive: to be deemed cost-effective in analyses that substantially bias the consideration toward the opposite conclusion, they would have to deter, prevent, foil, or protect against 1,667 otherwise successful Times-Square type attacks per year, or more than four per day. Although there are emotional and political pressures on the terrorism issue, this does not relieve politicians and bureaucrats of the fundamental responsibility of informing the public of the limited risk that terrorism presents and of seeking to expend funds wisely. Moreover, political concerns may be over-wrought: restrained reaction has often proved to be entirely acceptable politically.
To put it really plainly, we are vastly over-spending when it comes to “security” compared to the actual risk that terrorism poses.
It’s a bit like a person whose house was broken into once, and now they’re afraid it might happen again, so they have a massive underground safe room installed which costs 10x more than the total value of their house.
To take this analogy a bit further, this hypothetical person would also have to have effectively bankrupted themselves, spending many, many, many times more than their annual salary on this “safe room” along with better locks and multiple home alarm systems.
Of course, thanks to all this stuff, all their friends and neighbors never come over to their house anymore – it’s just too hard to get in the front door (too many locks, the alarm keeps going off unless you open them in the right order, etc.), and once you’re inside you’re uncomfortably aware that you’re being recorded on camera for the entire duration of your stay.
So, this person loses all their friends, and probably any family that’s living with them (they go stay with friends or other relatives), until they are left, all alone, in the ordinary house that is fortified with every imaginable security device.
Except that they are constantly harassed by debt collectors, because without any family left in the house contributing to the household income, they don’t have enough money to pay for all the loans taken out to install all the security.
And the final irony will come when a burglar breaks in through the upstairs window, which doesn’t have an alarm on it because it’s up so high, but nobody noticed that there’s a tree right next to it, so all that money spent on security was really wasted. (And the money spent on that underground “safe room” was also wasted because the burglary happened while the person wasn’t home.)
I think that if the sort of scenario I described above happened in real life – even if it wasn’t quite as extreme – we could all safely agree that the person spending all this money is overly paranoid and maybe even just a bit crazy and maybe needs some serious therapy.
Now substitute the hypothetical person for the United States of America and replace the house with our country, and the safe room and security systems and door locks with “homeland security” and my analogy is complete.
And yet nobody thinks it’s odd, paranoid, or crazy for our government to act this way, when we’d all probably agree it’s very odd, terribly paranoid, and almost certainly a bit crazy for an individual to do the same.
Unfortunately, our government will continue to spend without assessing the risks, benefits, or costs for as long as they are allowed to. They won’t step back and take a look at what they are doing until we, the people who elected them, tell them to. (Or more specifically, until not doing so puts their re-election at risk.)
You know where I’m headed with this. So get out there and tell your elected representative what you think! And tell others to do the same!