Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

May 1, 2014

DHS: Value received and perceived

Filed under: Budgets and Spending — by Philip J. Palin on May 1, 2014

The current Department of Homeland Security annual budget is $46.3 billion. For the roughly 314 million residents of the United States the cost-per-person-per-year is about $147.45.

With our tax payments (and debt service) we jointly cover the expenses of TSA, CBP, FEMA (including the disaster assistance fund), Secret Service, ICE, Coast Guard, NPPD (especially the cybersecurity function),  related research and development, and a bit more.

Through various grants and programs a significant amount of money flows to states and localities.  For example, early this year the rural county where I live received an emergency management grant of $12,500.  The volunteer fire departments and Sheriff department received more.  Even in a small place like this it can be tough to keep track.

I’m not interested in showing you how much I make or pay in taxes, so I won’t share the formula I am using.  But I estimate that in 2013 my wife and I paid into the federal government about $600 that was used to support DHS activities.  Given the per person estimated cost noted above, we could complain we are paying more than our “fair share.”  But given our income and a progressive income tax system, I don’t find it especially unfair.

Still… is the value received worth the value paid?

Our support to DHS is four-times our annual contribution to local public radio.  It’s less than we give our church each month. It’s less than the one-time charitable gifts we made to support recovery after Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy or Typhoon Yolanda. My father recently visited for a few days. Entertaining him and extended family cost more than our  DHS support for twelve months.

Certainly, the experience of value is much less direct.  I enjoy listening to public radio everyday.  I have a whole host of favorite shows: Prairie Home Companion, On Being, This American Life, the news.  I try to avoid TSA as much as possible. But that does not mean I want TSA to disappear.   As an average citizen — who is seldom water-borne — I have almost no contact with the Coast Guard.  But I have enormous respect for the Coast Guard.  DHS just warned all of us to stop using Microsoft’s Internet Explorer.  I use Google’s Chrome.  But I would much prefer that DHS  have the resources it needs to lead domestic cybersecurity instead of DOD.

I have much more familiarity with DHS activities than the average citizen.  So while many assume it is a banal and bloated bureaucracy, I have personally encountered proof.  But I have also been privileged to be in the presence of public servants who demonstrate great creativity, courage, and profound commitment.  In this case I would, if I could, show you a formula for determining value.  But anything roughly accurate is beyond my algebraic competence.

I am left with an impression, less than an assessment of value.

If DHS had to support itself with direct mail solicitations it probably would not get my $600.  But as a portion of the taxes I pay, it feels to me like a bargain.

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Comment by Hopeful

May 2, 2014 @ 7:40 am

Like many Americans, I certainly value the collective security that DHS, along with several sister departments, helps provide me to live a life of my own choosing. No doubt freedom has a cost. However, based on my own experiences of interacting with various DHS agencies as well as my perceptions from media and other sources, I have the sense that what is being done could be accomplished more efficiently. The resulting savings could be used to extend the activities of agencies to issues which we all know are not adequately funded. As you note, cyber security is the glaring example. I think DHS has made some small progress in this area – but they still have too many bean counters and people who are doing “assessments” and far too few people who are actually helping the private sector, state and local governments, and even foreign countries do the activities to increase security. Too many DHS personnel seem to think their advice, critique, and reams of doctrinal blabber are productive ends unto themselves. I am hopeful that Secretary Johnson will continue to review the activity of specific units of various agencies and make evolutionary changes as appropriate. And even with an understanding of the nature of the work, I am also hopeful that they can find ways to be more collaboratively engaged and less punitive with their partners.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

May 2, 2014 @ 11:33 am

Hopeful: Thanks. Sounds like you may work more closely with DHS than I do. Familiarity breeds… well, lots of different things.

This is a powerful sentence: “Too many DHS personnel seem to think their advice, critique, and reams of doctrinal blabber are productive ends unto themselves.” I’ve met my share of those folks. I occasionally worry that I am becoming one of those folks.

And — not but — And I am still not unhappy with the value I think my family receives from a personal investment of $600 per year.

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