Homeland Security Doesn't Do Cost/Benefit Analysis; They Just Do Fear And Bluster | Techdirt

Techdirt is outraged, but this isn't just Homeland Security, it is the whole damn government which doesn't systematically compare benefits to costs.

 

"Homeland Security Doesn't Do Cost/Benefit Analysis; They Just Do Fear And Bluster from the you-might-die!!!!!! dept

This should hardly come as a surprise, but a new paper that analyzes money being spent on Homeland Security finds that it's incredibly wasteful (found via Julian Sanchez). You can read the full report (pdf) by John Mueller and Mark G. Stewart, which probably confirms what most people were already thinking. Basically, Homeland Security has ratcheted up spending at a massive rate, and there's little to no effort to judge that spending against the actual risk reduction. That is, there's simply no one doing any sort of real cost-benefit analysis on this spending. The report seeks to do some of that, and what it finds isn't pretty. From the abstract (with my emphasis):

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. 

In seeking to evaluate the effectiveness of the massive increases in homeland security expenditures since the terrorist attacks on the United States of September 11, 2001, the common and urgent query has been "are we safer?" This, however, is the wrong question. Of course we are "safer"--the posting of a single security guard at one building's entrance enhances safety, however microscopically. The correct question is "are the gains in security worth the funds expended?" Or as this absolutely central question was posed shortly after 9/11 by risk analyst Howard Kunreuther, "How much should we be willing to pay for a small reduction in probabilities that are already extremely low?"

Among other things, the report looks at everyone's favorite DHS boondoggle, the naked radiation scanners at the airport by the TSA. Apparently, DHS was directly told by the GAO to study the cost-benefit and it refused to do so. The same is true of other DHS expenditures:

Indeed, at times DHS has ignored specific calls by other government agencies to conduct risk assessments. In 2010, the Department began deploying full-body scanners at airports, a technology that will cost $1.2 billion per year. The Government Accountability Office specifically declared that conducting a cost-benefit analysis of this new technology to be “important.”12 As far as we can see, no such study was conducted. Or there was GAO’s request that DHS conduct a full cost/benefit analysis of the extremely costly process of scanning 100 percent of U.S.-bound containers. To do so would require the dedicated work of a few skilled analysts for a few months or possibly a year. Yet, DHS replied that, although it agreed that such a study would help to “frame the discussion and better inform Congress,” to actually carry it out “would place significant burdens on agency resources.”

Of course, from a political perspective, this makes perfect sense. It's all game theory. You don't get praised and promoted for doing a cost-benefit analysis that saves taxpayer money from wasteful and useless projects if a terrorist attack happens. So the end result is that the incentives for everyone at DHS to just spend as much as possible in the hopes that it stops something, knowing that if anything bad happens (as it inevitably will), all of the blame will go towards anyone who said "we shouldn't do project x that would have prevented attack y." 

Of course, the real problem is that this is exactly what our enemies would like. They don't care about "terror" for the sake of terror. They want the US to spend itself silly to completely bankrupt the country. And it appears to be working. That doesn't make me feel any safer at all, no matter what the cost."

David Levinson

Network Reliability in Practice

Evolving Transportation Networks

Place and Plexus

The Transportation Experience

Access to Destinations

Assessing the Benefits and Costs of Intelligent Transportation Systems

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This page contains a single entry by David Levinson published on May 17, 2011 8:21 AM.

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