The Political Economy of Homeland Security
The week before U.S. Navy Seals killed Osama bin Laden, at least one prominent media outlet took note of an academic paper examining the return on America’s homeland security investments. Although politicians have offered varying opinions in the week since bin Laden’s killing about the ongoing need for such investments, the paper itself has received little additional notice. An event like bin Laden’s death should, however, amplify rather than reduce our interest in assessing where we stand and where we are heading.
The study’s authors, John Mueller of The Ohio State University and Mark G. Stewart of the University of Newcastle, argue that the country’s one trillion dollar investment in homeland security since the 9/11 attacks should be assessed on the basis of risk reduction and cost-benefit returns. Using such techniques, they argue, one would be hard-pressed to justify the massive scope and scale of investments given the miniscule returns achieved.
I am not sure this finding surprises many people reading this blog. Moreover, I am reasonably confident that a at least some of you question whether it even matters.
The homeland security enterprise, like national defense, has rarely considered cost-benefit returns significant criteria for making decisions. To the extent that analysts consider risk reduction, they accept the extremely low short-term probabilities of an attack while assuming something catastrophic (by some measure or another) will occur eventually.
This ensures that debates usually focus on whether or not we are thinking about the right rare event, rather than whether or not our efforts will actually make any difference at all. The opportunity costs of the investments rarely receive any significant attention.
Even if we cannot justify making all homeland security and national defense decisions on the basis of risk-cost-benefit analyses, we should be able to agree that securing should short-term yield from our investments makes sense even if long-term benefits remain our ultimate concern. Too often, though, the short-term benefit is measured solely in terms of the immediate satisfaction of having mollified critics or addressing the exigencies of whatever crises called our past decisions into question.
As a community concerned with how we prepare future practitioners, these tendencies to focus too much on the moment on one hand and too far into the future on the other should concern us. Most of the techniques we teach new practitioners have very limited efficacy in these situations or have very little evidence to recommend them.
Allied disciplines, like political science, public administration, engineering, economics and policy analysis, employ more robust theoretical frameworks in their analyses. Although homeland security practitioners recognize many if not most of these methods, it seems we rarely use them. Why is this?
As we look to the post-bin Laden future, I suspect we would do well to recognize that most of the investments we made had little impact on the ultimate success of the mission to locate and eliminate the world’s most-wanted terrorist. As we look for ways to address the atomized residue of al Qaeda and its affiliates, we would do well to ask ourselves which investments make the most sense.
We can invest in the development of democratic institutions and the popular expression of the principles of democratic self-governance, including respect for human rights and economic and environmental equity. Or we can continue supporting the status quo ante, which equates stability with subsidies to military-industrial oligarchs and their patrons.
Applying cost-benefit analysis does not in or of itself ensure democratic outcomes. But the absence of any consideration of the economic value of investments in homeland security like anything else ensures that those who have the most to gain enjoy more say in the decision than those who have something to lose.
Building a sustainable homeland security future may not mean ensuring stability in the short-term, especially if it comes at the expense of our economic security. Investing our national wealth — especially our human and social capital — in institutions that promote freedom will generate a more stable long-term future only if we are willing to accept that speed and certainty matter a whole lot less than the price we pay in terms of blood and treasure.