Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

May 11, 2011

Saving vs. Spending

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,Futures,Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Mark Chubb on May 11, 2011

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.

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4 Comments »

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 11, 2011 @ 9:39 am

The key sentences in this most excellent post by Mark follows:
“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?”

The answer is pretty simple to me! If competent most HS practioners and this includes administrators know that any b/c analysis will not be positive in the form of benefits. This is why “Fear” is the primary factor used even though I am not sure fear is reduced by HS expenditures.

And if they are not competent then most have no understanding of risk assessment and analysis. This encompasses most of the DHS leadership.

Comment by Jeff Bowers

May 11, 2011 @ 2:43 pm

Well said. The very term “investment” implies forethought and planning, while the homeland security money we have spent as a nation over the past decade has been for reactive purposes. It’s like the difference between investing in the stock of solid, proven companies and day trading the latest hot penny stocks. We have seen real, tangible benefits from the hurried scramble for homeland security funding, but these are ancillary and tend not to comprise a coordinated strategy. For the past decade we’ve been in the midst of a homeland security bubble, not unlike the financial bubbles we’ve weathered, and the event that makes that bubble pop will make us all step back and wonder: just what did we do with all that money and human energy?

Comment by Christopher Tingus

May 12, 2011 @ 7:23 am

Gentlemen, We are unfortunately out of time and as the greatest nation at one time in history, truly led by patriots, men and women who placed their nation before their own self-agenda and dysfunctional manner, We served many, however as the Middle East turns into conflagration and we see the “Brutes of Tehran” step in and control not only Iraq, but aim its WMD’s w/full intent to present shock and awe in the Middle East and the German-led EU new and well trained fast deployment Army takes the reigns, let’s hope and pray that We are spared for our DHS political appointees and the incompetncies we have seen as well as thse misspent monies will only show how pathetic we have transitioned….

We are at great peril and let’s keep close eye on those 100 WMD’s in Pakistan by the way — I know India is certainly keeping a keen watchful eye!

The partisanship, the ineptness of this administration and for the most part those on both sides of th Congressional aisle, well, suree, let’s raise th debt ceiling and put the last nail in the coffin — We are not only bankrupt some $15 trillion fiat federal reserve notes, but bankrupted in present and any future ladership and especially at DHS!

God Bless this beloved Republic and thank you to all those who serve w/hand over heart at NSA and others so enlightened as to the corruptness inherent in humanity – the corruptness found within the halls of Congress so affected by those w/special intersts and Congress prostituting itself so blatently, espcially starting w/my own district’s Mr. Barney and his pals…What a charade, what dastardly deeds portrayed indifferent to the populace….

Taxation with no reprsentation just as we started out and fled the King and his men as depicted by the reenactmnt I once again stood to watch our militia this recent cold April early morning on Lexington Green!

Christopher Tingus
chris.tingus@gmail.com

Pingback by Saving vs. Spending | Security Debrief

May 17, 2011 @ 8:02 am

[...] Saving vs. Spending – Homeland Security Watch 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. [...]

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