Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

June 8, 2011

Politics or Policies?

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,Congress and HLS — by Mark Chubb on June 8, 2011

Over the past few days an interesting theme has emerged around homeland security budget deliberations. As Jessica, Chris, Phil and many commentators on their posts have pointed out, we have no shortage of views about what’s right or wrong with the way we’ve been spending money over the past ten years or about how we should spend money in the future.

As I read these interesting and very informative perspectives, I could not help but think that despite all the discussion of politics this situation is more a problem of policy and the tendency of politicians to confuse the two. The distinction I intend here is simple: Politics concerns itself with competing conceptions of the good related to who, why, where and what; policy extends these judgments by focusing on how, when and how much.

No doubt the competing narratives about whether we’ve spent wisely or whether the proposed cuts go too far are steeped in politics. But the policy questions raised by the decisions unfolding before us have very real implications for programs, processes, people and ultimately what we choose to call progress.

This last point — how we define progress — illustrates the central problem confronting politicians and policy analysts alike. Politicians tend to define success very differently from policy analysts.

A simple semantic distinction might make this problem clearer. Public officials often use the terms efficiency and effectiveness carelessly. If we’re talking about economic (aggregate) efficiency — welfare maximization — then they may not be all that different. But when we talk about efficiency the way the current budget debate seems to be — as a question of productivity or throughput, then it is far less clear that the two terms have the same meaning.

Indeed, when politicians frame budget cuts as a way to hold public administrators accountable, they usually want to improve productive or managerial efficiency, rather than aggregate efficiency. As a consequence, it should come as no surprise when policy analysts and public administrators raise concerns that these decisions will compromise the effectiveness of their programs.

This, of course, sets off a knee-jerk response on the part of politicians, who suspect that the policy analysts and public administrators are only concerned with their own welfare, not the public’s. For their part, the policy analysts and public administrators usually respond to such rhetoric by wondering aloud (albeit under their breath) about the parentage of their political masters.

I am not usually one to suggest that such complex problems have simple solutions, but this might be an exception to that rule. The current budget debate underscores why it is important for us to produce a better understanding of how homeland security contributes to aggregate improvements in welfare. These gains can take many forms, not all of which are economic in nature, but which nevertheless all have some form of value.

Security is a value. So is liberty. Clearly people have competing conceptions of what they would be willing to pay to feel secure. These decisions are in essence a question of how much liberty individuals are willing to sacrifice to feel safe.

We can monetize the value of security by asking ourselves how these individual decisions play out in light of different political or policy choices. Perhaps more importantly, we can assess the ways competing policies affect these tradeoffs. By questioning not just how much we have spent and on what, but also by examining how airport security, for instance, has facilitated or inhibited the desire of individuals to travel as measured by passenger trips taken and the health of the industry, we can assess whether our political choices and policies resulting from them have had their intended effects.

Obviously, these techniques have limitations. Not the least of which is the difficulty measuring how well our investments help us prepare for threats we have not yet imagined. These questions require politicians to trust the policy analysts and public administrators rather than second-guessing them and moving beyond the who, why, what and where to concern themselves with how, when and how much.

Gaining the trust to tackle these difficult questions makes it all the more important that we establish some common ground between the politicians and policy analysts when it comes to deciding what investments to make and how to make them. As such, both groups would do well to review a primer on welfare economics and transaction cost economics before the final vote on the budget.

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4 Comments »

Comment by William R. Cumming

June 8, 2011 @ 1:45 am

Few in Washington want to discuss or develop policies. All about picking sides once the issue is announced whatever its validity. Many false issues floating around Washington these days. Unemployment is a real issue. The model of an economy driven by the consumer is finished so what replaces it? How militarized should our foreign policy and foreign relations policies be? Whether diplomacy and foreign aid should be funded adequately? US participation and funding of multilateral organizations such as the UN? Congressional organization and oversight? Politicized judiciary? Well you get the question underlying all of the above–what future do WE want for US?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

June 8, 2011 @ 3:46 am

Mark, Some admittedly inchoate thinking, certainly not ready for the “front page”, but as is often the case, you and I seem to be thinking about some similar themes.

The liberty v. security tension is, perhaps, more an 18th century philosophical construct than a dialectic that has pragmatic meaning in contemporary America.

We have and take extraordinary liberties — mostly for granted.

More to the point — maybe — is the pragmatic outcome of liberty, which is the opportunity to create personal meaning or (again maybe) to be ipso facto creative. In the 18th Century liberty was seen as a necessary precondition for creativity. To fulfill the intent of a Creator God we were to be creative, which required the expression of Free Will.

In the 21st Century we have learned (I think) that liberty may well be necessary to creativity, but is not sufficient. Meaningful, productive, effective (as you used the term) creativity also requires risk and any risk worth the name involves the possibility of failure. We will sometimes — often — choose wrong. Creativity requires experiencing the consequences of our choice (moral hazard?).

Too much security is antithetical to creativity. Moreover we may also be discovering that security has a particular tendency toward ephemera, illusion, and delusion. John Comiskey recently noted that risk management is expensive. Health insurance, pensions, TSA, and aircraft carriers are all very expensive and reasonable people may disagree regarding the return-on-investment and the realistic possibility of a guaranteed return.

Rather than liberty v. security, I wonder if we might better focus on the tension between creativity and destructiveness?

Again… I am very uncertain and exploring, but I appreciate your essay prompting the questions.

Comment by William R. Cumming

June 8, 2011 @ 6:21 am

Some indications that financial support in various ways needed to support creativity and follow through. That seems to be now the province only of certain elites in the USA and the inherent capability of an educated populace that drove innovation now subject to corporate capture and thus often not exploited since surivival of the corporate officers and management more iimportant than innovations.

Also two productions, Enemy of the State and Gattaca, explore the surveilance society and implications of DNA libraries. Also the five part BBC series THE LAST ENEMY interesting exploration of security vis a vis individual privacy!

Comment by Philip J. Palin

June 8, 2011 @ 6:43 am

Bill, And further to your first paragraph, the supposed security of a corporate job and related benefits has certainly withered.

Some more loose thinking, better suited for a bar than a blog (but I don’t often get a chance to visit a bar): The extraordinary competitive advantage the US enjoyed from the end of WWII until the oil shocks of the 1970s propagated an economic myth that we could have largely risk-free liberty in the economic domain. US victory in the Cold War — and the elimination of the military draft — propagated a political myth that we could have largely risk-free liberty in the political domain.

To descend to a bumper sticker: “Freedom is not Free.” It is also not especially meaningful in and of itself, freedom’s payoff is in the creativity of free people… but this is less a freedom-from and more a freedom-to.

I am sure all this untethered thinking is also related to Chris’ Tuesday post. At some War College I was exposed to a study of German, Russian, British, Japanese, and US “decision-making independence” in each military. The greater independence, the more creative and aggressive the tactical capability (Army of One). Lesson asserted: The freedom of the American citizen produced a more creative — and therefore more capable — warrior.

Relationship with homeland security? The appropriate task for the second decade is less about imposing security than advancing freedom, less about destroying the adversary and more about empowering the creativity of a free people. (???)

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