I would rather consult a twice convicted Vegas bookie on the odds of a terrorist attack than any number of government- or industry-subsidized risk whisperer purveyors of formulae.
Why? Because the latter — whether they do this openly or subconsciously — tailor their products to their masters, who increasingly call for risk assessments as a means of demonstrating how much more their given operation or jurisdiction merits funding over a lesser competitor, i.e., an entity not nearly facing so much risk of dire consequences.
The same approach holds true regardless of whether the risk calculation involves the likelihood of terrorist attack or of natural disaster. The master wants as much of the pot of available money as can be won by legitimate wrangling and maneuvering, as for Urban Area Security Initiative funds. Hence the recent news from the New York Observer (details here) that an amendment has just passed the House that would enable New York City to receive more anti-terrorism funding.
Where do calculations of risk come into play?
This amendment proposes that only the 25 “highest-risk” cities would receive UASI funding. Alas for those cities that may actually be more vulnerable because they lack the resources to detect, counter, or mitigate an attack. One wonders if America’s adversaries are sufficiently respectful of such maneuvering to heed the risk whisperers and to limit their attacks only to the 25 designated cities.
Now for a return to the Vegas bookie. Isn’t he a little more palatable by contrast? Why? Because he has a vested interest in the results of his oddsmaking. If he is wrong, the bet that has to be paid off affects his bottom line. If he is right, the profits are what he has earned.
Today’s risk whisperers, by contrast, have everything to gain and nothing to lose by offering their dire predictions and calculations of relative risk.
First, no public or private institution accords risk assessors executive decision-making authority. This is why the Department of Energy, despite generations of sponsoring Sandia and its computationally intensive risk assessment methodologies, does not look to its own in-house risk gaugers to decide budget priorities to counter leaks of nuclear secrets or security breaches.
Second, risk whisperers have no skin in the game. They suffer no penalty for getting it wrong. Instead, they have the luxury of proclaiming that unknown variables came into play, or that their advice was imperfectly followed, or any other reasonable-sounding excuses.
Imagine what would have happened if carnage experienced at Oklahoma City, Virginia Tech, or Fort Hood had to be anticipated through the same risk assessments that now determine which 25 cities are in greater danger than any others. Would any of these venues have made the list? Probably not. One can already hear the disclaimers being whispered: not the same kind of attack … different situations … other variables.
But the bookie would have to pay for getting it wrong and, so chastened, would be a little more careful in handicapping the next event.
Give me the bookie any time.