Keeping Us “Safe”

Since 2001, airline passengers — regular people without weapons or training — have helped thwart terrorist attacks aboard at least five different commercial airplanes. It happened again on Christmas Day. …

And yet our collective response to this legacy of ass-kicking is puzzling. Each time, we build a slapdash pedestal for the heroes. Then we go back to blaming the government for failing to keep us safe, and the government goes back to treating us like children. … Since regular people will always be first on the scene of terrorist attacks, we should perhaps prioritize the public’s antiterrorism capability. …

President Obama: “The American people should be assured that we are doing everything in our power to keep you and your family safe.” …  Obama … did not call for Congress to cut spending on homeland-security pork and instead double the budget of Citizen Corps — the volunteer emergency-preparedness service. …  He did not demand that the government be more open with us about the threats we face.

More here.  This is indeed puzzling, but it seems related to our medical over-insurance.  We know we could save on average by paying less less up front, and then making more last minute decisions on which med treatment is worth the cost.  And perhaps we even know we wouldn’t be any less healthy in this scenario.  But we don’t want to make such stressful decisions; we like putting it out of our mind and paying high status docs huge sums to affiliate with us and deal with it.

Similarly maybe we prefer to pay our high status leaders to inefficiently deal with terrorism for us, rather than facing the stress of thinking we each may have to deal with a terrorist ourselves, even if that would work better, and even if that’s what really happens anyway.  See also our neglecting to support ordinary folks’ discouraging of auto accidents.

Fear of (thinking about) death is a very powerful thing.

Added 3p: Justin Fox:

If all the various elements of the intelligence community had simply Tweeted their findings, the hive mind of the Internet (or, more specifically, some 14-year-old in his bedroom in Bakersfield) would have blown the whistle on Abdulmutallab weeks ago. … And what’s the best mechanism known for sharing and weighing dispersed information? A market. … [Yet] in all the public discussion of what went wrong in the Abdulmutallab case, I have seen not a single mention of the Policy Analysis Market, as the Pentagon called its project, or the terrorism futures market, as everybody else called it. Hanson hasn’t even brought it up lately on his blog. So I figured it was time to rectify that.

Big government agencies hate to change how they do things, especially changes that threaten their autonomy.  So they won’t change unless the public cares much more about outcomes than the appearance of “doing something.”  At the moment, the public hardly cares about either.

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  • Chris

    Do we like putting stressful thoughts (terrorism, medical intervention) out of our minds?

    I don’t think we necessarily want our high status leaders to protect us from terrorism. I think it is more likely that our leaders don’t like the idea of us doing things for ourselves. “I can’t stop terrorists, America, so you have to” is a statement that would lower the status of our leaders, in contrast to “we are doing everything we can to stop terrorists.”

  • jeorg

    What makes you think this is what citizens want? Maybe it’s just the way bureaucrats justify their money and power.

  • lemmy caution

    I agree that the threat of terrorism is overblown and the willingness of passengers to act is a good thing. However, both Abdulmutallab and Reid were able to make an unstopped attempt to blow up their planes. In both cases, the bombs failed in the first attempt and the passengers and crew subdued the terrorist before the terrorist could make additional attempts.

    It could be that it is hard to make and/or smuggle an effective and easily detonated bomb onto a plane. That would be a good thing.

    Unfortunately, if an effective and easily detonated bomb is smuggled onto the plane, history suggests that the terrorist will have a chance to set it off before passengers can react.

  • Lamech49

    Are you relying on some public choice framework to argue that the prevailing policies are inefficient? If not–if you’re just saying that some costs
    shouldn’t count in people’s net benefit calculus–what distinguishes costs that should count from costs that shouldn’t?

  • Matt

    I really like the idea that the government’s best bet is to collect information on terrorists. This would seem most effective. Also, this post goes to show that, even if the government can deter terrorists it cannot completely stop them or keep them from existing. The person with the best chance of stopping an attack is a person that has an oppurtunity to.

    Robin, can you explain quickly what a Policy Analysis Market is?

  • bellisaurius

    I think the interesting part of this is how terrorists affected the individual’s calculus of how plane born acts will turn out.

    The old model was: Guy hijacks airplane, everyone’s life is miserable for a while, but if you keep your head down, you’ll probably be OK. Theoretically, piracy and kidnapping work on this model.

    The model changes when people think someone’s going to run into a large object, or blow something up. Then, someone will realize the possibility of death is high enough to take a risk, thereby foiling an effort.

  • Alan

    So they won’t change unless the public cares much more about outcomes than the appearance of “doing something.” At the moment, the public hardly cares about either.

    Isn’t the public making the rational choice here – after all the absolute risks are very low, in fact lower in the last decade than ever before, if you accept Nate Silver’s analysis. I think that the current security measures prevented a reliable device being brought aboard, hence the failed shoe/pants attempts. I am not convinced that much more effort should be put into this.

  • cournot

    I don’t see what’s inconsistent about wanting the government to do a more efficient job of handling terrorists: i.e. less generic inspection and more profiling. Recognizing that they must do something, I would prefer that they do less for the average US passenger and more — much, much more — to discomfit people from certain demographics. If all this did was create the same level of security and error while shifting costs from the general public to the unluckily profiled, this would be a worthwhile tradeoff that is both more efficient and more just. Some adjustment to be more Israeli-like and less politically correct would be easier for the government to do (technically) but harder of course from the social/politically correct/signalling to SWPL standpoint.

    • Nick Tarleton

      If all this did was create the same level of security and error while shifting costs from the general public to the unluckily profiled, this would be… more just.

      How’s that again?

  • rob

    Terrorism futures market? Trying to think this one through. What if someone is motivated to commit an act of terror in order to win in the market? Of course, in that case, the market should reflect this, the alertness level of everyone would increase–perhaps to the point where the authorities would need to trace the identity of anyone who had bet in favor of terrorism. But then if people knew that by merely placing a bet in the wrong direction it would make them a suspected terrorist, people would be afraid of playing this market–wouldn’t they? Where would the liquidity come from?

  • Jason

    @cournot Yes, definitely. More profiling would help us, in the words of Matt Yglesias, prevent some of the zero terrorism-related aircraft deaths since 9-11.

  • jonathan

    Our society is barely affected by terror and thus it makes sense for us to defer taking personal responsibility. It works the other way in Israel where, because they have had so much terror, individuals regularly have stepped forward to block terrorists. I’m not talking only about private security guards but private individuals. Private citizens have stopped bombers from getting on buses or entering shopping malls and private citizens killed the men who attacked using bull dozers. This isn’t because Israelis are somehow more militaristic – or even because they’ve had army training – but it seems mostly a rational social response to a threat large enough to affect sufficient numbers as to be real for every individual. The odds here are negligible no matter what the government does so we rationally back away from taking control ourselves.

  • William H. Stoddard

    There’s a folk belief in American society that human life has infinite value. Of course this isn’t true; people don’t value their own lives infinitely, as can be seen by their willingness to accept avoidable risks for convenience, and they certainly don’t value other people’s lives infinitely. But a lot of people don’t want to confront that fact.

    Under the compromise that prevailed up until Congress started fiddling with health care, patients didn’t have to confront questions of whether their lives were worth saving, and neither did doctors. Rather, the hard decisions got farmed out to health insurance firms, which then could be treated as scapegoats. Now . . . we’re looking at turning the job over to a government bureaucracy, while swathing its decisions in the comforting rhetoric that surrounds all government bureaucracies.

  • Grant

    Has Robin done a post on how much money we waste on airline safety?

    Airlines in America are absurdly safe when compared to other forms of travel. All that money put into airline safety could safe lives in other fields, reducing the cost of flying and letting more people fly instead of using other, less-safe forms of travel. Much of this cost isn’t monetary, as agencies like the TSA simply aggravate people into flying less.

    I don’t consider this a government failure as much as a human one; people are just paranoid about flying accidents. It seems like free airline markets would over-invest in airline safety as well, though not to the extent the government is.

  • http://www.abs-usa.com Floccina

    I am open to the idea that citizens could over protect. Leaving it to Citizens though more affective could possibly lead to racism and internal conflict.

    Related: In a libertarian world do more people swear off all drugs and alcohol completely?

  • ERIC

    Sure does seem more and more like things simply can’t continue on the course they are going in the US. I hope the US can right itself, I truly do, but I can’t help but think the torch really will be passed to China in the not to distant future…how distant…I don’t know.

    Given how long it took Russia to topple (being way left) and if we agree that the US is becoming increasingly totalitarian in action, I wonder how much longer it will take the US to fall from grace…or will certain states continue to be haves while others remain nots…with widening disparity.

    Question I’d like answered using a market: When will China take the “big stick” from the US?

  • http://www.modeledbehavior.com Adam Ozimek

    Robin,

    I think the public is displaying a classic case of Caplan’s rational irrationality. I wrote about it last week here ( http://modeledbehavior.com/2010/01/01/how-to-fight-terrorism-despite-the-publics-rational-irrationality ) and linked to a paper of yours on terrorism futures markets as a suggestion of policies people might demand of they weren’t rationally irrational.

  • http://www.example.com/~me/ me

    It is indeed possible to contemplate the hypothetical scenario in which intelligence agencies shared information and someone, perhaps a fourteen-year-old in Bakersfield, connected the dots and identified Abdulmutallab as a likely threat.

    What then? I don’t think we’ve thought about this deeply enough. Let’s say, speaking hypothetically, that every US intelligence agency and law enforcement agency received a fax the previous day about Mr. Abdulmutallab, his plans, and his underwear bomb.

    Given the current climate, in which the President and Attorney General appears to be vastly more interested in prosecuting as many US intelligence agency personnel as possible, and even wishes to intervene personally and demand disbarment by fiat of any and all lawyers who did not give sufficiently PC answers when consulted about waterboarding by the previous administration, what do you really think they would have done?

    Abdulmutallab is:

    a foreigner
    non-white
    member of a religion known to be very prickly about perceived slights

    Who wants to bet that the CIA, FBI, NSA, DHS, Michigan State Police, etc., etc., etc., down to the county dogcatcher, would peel the fax off the machine, read it, re-read it, look at the picture, then think “well, it’s probably only talk, and it’s not worth my job,” “Obama and his bunch make it painfully obvious that their sympathies are with these people,” “I can’t risk that this could be a fraud or a false accusation or a prank,” “well, you know, most anonymous tips we get turn out to be false anyway,” and silently throw it away?

    I find it impossible to believe that a great many people in a position to do something about the attack didn’t know everything there was to know about Abdulmutallab, given that he was already on the soi-disant “no fly list.”

    I find it very easy to believe that every single one of them pondered the matter, remembered the current POTUS’s penchant for saying “the police acted stupidly,” and decided he did not want to be sued personally by Abdulmutallab’s high-powered defense attorneys provided by CAIR, and did not want Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam picketing his home.

    One wonders whether Roman officials around 460 AD were likewise more afraid of lawsuits than of the Huns, more concerned about My-Career than about the lives of the taxpayers for whom they putatively work.

  • http://www.pursuitoftruthiness.wordpress.com James

    My university did the same thing. An attempted shooting at the University of Tulsa was stopped by a brave bystander; the university suppresses most of the story and claimed that their official security force and procedures worked to save the day. Both people and officials want to believe that the officials are in control and the world is not chaotic.