Homeland Insecurity

On and around September 11, politicians and the media did what one would expect; they honored those who died on 9/11/01 and congratulated those who have kept us out of harm’s way. Honoring the former is certainly appropriate as is expressing appreciation for those who have keep us safe. What we fail to examine, however, is the enormous price of keeping terrorists at bay – is it worth the cost? Many otherwise rational people will tell you that avoiding another attack is worth any price – whatever it takes. Yet everything has costs and benefits. Could our enormous homeland security expenditures be spent in a way that better enhances our collective well-being?

Before tackling the risk-reward equation we must examine the beliefs that have driven our behavior relating to terrorism. The first belief is that no cost is too high when it comes to deterring terrorism. Fear of death is, understandably, a mighty motivator for preemptive action. A second, complementary belief is that if we spend enough we can deter terrorist attacks. Are these beliefs accurate? A recent paper by Professors John Mueller (Ohio State University) and Mark Stewart (University of Newcastle in Australia) evaluated whether we are getting our money’s worth from the trillion dollars of cumulative security costs (both direct and indirect). Their conclusion: to be cost effective these expenditures would have to deter one 9/11-style attack or over 1600 Times-Square type attacks every year. Since 9/11 style attacks take years to plan and carry out and 9/11 could probably have been thwarted if we had heeded the intelligence reports available in 2001 – despite much smaller security outlays – current security costs seem hard to justify. Moreover, smaller scale attacks are almost impossible to stop – we can’t put metal detectors or bomb-sniffing dogs on every train and bus.

A look at the opportunity costs involved should be equally sobering. According to Mueller and Stewart, America’s spending on counterterrorism (excluding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) exceeded all anti-crime spending by billions of dollars. Yet in 2009 – the latest year for which detailed statistics are available – there were 13,636 murders in the US. – more than four times the number of people killed on 9/11. Looking only at gun violence, criminologist Phillip J. Cook estimated that this crime alone costs Americans $100 billion annually in emergency medical care for the victims and related injuries. In addition, individuals who experience violence are likely to have lingering mental and health problems; what this costs society is unknown, but certainly substantial.

Over a million people die each year from cancer and heart disease yet the National Institutes of Health (NIH) spends less than $8.0 billion a year on cancer and heart research. We pay far more attention to possible terrorist attacks than to other increasingly frightening threats: crime, disease, nuclear plant melt downs and climate change (have you noticed the rising devastation from earthquakes, hurricanes and tornadoes?)

Terrorist attacks cannot be completely eliminated no matter how much we spend. To minimize these threats we spend an inordinate amount of government money relative to that for crime and disease – both of which kill many more people each year. According to Mueller and Stewart the chance that someone in the United States will die from a terrorist attack is 1 in 3.5 million per year. The chance of being killed in a car accident is far greater. When it comes to terrorism, the need for feeling secure overrides financial considerations; worst-case thinking controls and distorts public and political debate. Given our limited resources and mammoth deficit, we must strive to minimize our emotional reactions to admittedly scary experiences and base our spending on thorough cost-benefit analysis undertaken by objective, disinterested experts.

This entry was posted in Blogs On Current Affairs & Events, Economics and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>