My hypothesis is that man is the only creature who is capable of self-deception. Because society includes many self-deceiving men and women, this can be a major societal-level problem.
The self-deception I’m concerned about relates to our (generalized) inability to calculate costs, estimate risks, and make trade-offs. The detrimental effects of societal self-deception are magnified by the government’s almost unlimited ability to borrow money.
Distortions to perceived reality caused by deficit spending and the associated self-deception driven by the issue are seen everywhere: it starts with unsustainable transfer payments, but also includes all other government programs, to include those of national and homeland security. That’s because the out-of-sight-out-of-mind nature of deficit spending (especially at the current tens of trillions of dollars level) masks what should be a basic costs-risks-benefits problem; that is, how much security do we need and what is it worth?
It brings to mind Creedence Clearwater Revival, who opined in Fortunate Son (in the era’s Vietnam context)
When you ask them “How much should we give?”
Ooh, they only answer more
So today, when we ask (or better, if we ask) “How much should we pay for our security?” Ooh, they only answer more. Perhaps this is because we really aren’t paying; we’re borrowing. This means the value-added of all sorts of government programs are seldom questioned as long as the borrowing can be sustained. The LA Times has chosen to focus on the homeland security value-added aspect of this issue.
A decade after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, federal and state governments are spending about $75 billion a year on domestic security, setting up sophisticated radio networks, upgrading emergency medical response equipment, installing surveillance cameras and bombproof walls, and outfitting airport screeners to detect an ever-evolving list of mobile explosives.
But how effective has that 10-year spending spree been?
"The number of people worldwide who are killed by Muslim-type terrorists, Al Qaeda wannabes, is maybe a few hundred outside of war zones. It’s basically the same number of people who die drowning in the bathtub each year," said John Mueller, an Ohio State University professor who has written extensively about the balance between threat and expenditures in fighting terrorism.
"So if your chance of being killed by a terrorist in the United States is 1 in 3.5 million, the question is, how much do you want to spend to get that down to 1 in 4.5 million?" he said.
It’s really a very profound question. And it’s generally ignored.
State and local emergency responders have undergone a dramatic transformation with the aid of $32 billion that has been dispensed in Homeland Security grants since 2002, much of it in the early years spent on Hollywood-style tactical gear, often with little connection between risk and outlay.
"After 9/11, it was literally like my mother running out the door with the charge card," said Al Berndt, assistant director of the Emergency Management Agency in Nebraska, which has received $163.7 million in federal anti-terrorism and emergency aid grants. "What we really needed to be doing is saying, ‘Let’s identify the threat, identify the capability and capacity you already have, and say, OK, what’s the shortfall now, and how do we meet it?’"
The spending has been rife with dubious expenditures, including the $557,400 in rescue and communications gear that went to the 1,500 residents of North Pole, Alaska, and a $750,000 anti-terrorism fence — fashioned with 8-foot-high ram-proof wrought iron reinforced with concrete footers — built around a Veterans Affairs hospital in the pastoral hills outside Asheville, N.C.
West Virginia got $3,000 worth of lapel pins and billed the federal government for thousands of dollars in cellphone charges, according to the Center for Investigative Reporting, which compiled a state-by-state accounting of Homeland Security spending. In New York, $3 million was spent on automated public health records to help identify bioterrorism threats, but investigators for the department’s inspector general in 2008 found that employees who used the program weren’t even aware of its potential bioterrorism applications.
In some cases, hundreds of millions were spent on ill-fated projects, such as when Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano earlier this year pulled the plug on the Secure Border Initiative, a Boeing Co. contract that was to set up an ambitious network of surveillance cameras, radar and sensors as a 2,000-mile-long "virtual" barrier across the U.S.-Mexico border. Originally intended to be in place by 2009, the endeavor was plagued with cost overruns and missed deadlines and wound up costing $1 billion before it was canceled.
So has this been (and will it be) worth $75 billion a year? I know I’ve drawn my own conclusion.
But a bigger question is one of whether the U.S. government every really intends to ever pay off its borrowing (and if it does, when and how)? And why ponder such things? Because at some point, what can’t be continued won’t. When that happens, the issue will then become a national and homeland security concern of societal-level significance.