Homeland Security Doesn't Do Cost/Benefit Analysis; They Just Do Fear And Bluster

from the you-might-die!!!!!! dept

This should hardly come as a surprise, but a new paper that analyzes money being spent on Homeland Security finds that it’s incredibly wasteful (found via Julian Sanchez). You can read the full report (pdf) by John Mueller and Mark G. Stewart, which probably confirms what most people were already thinking. Basically, Homeland Security has ratcheted up spending at a massive rate, and there’s little to no effort to judge that spending against the actual risk reduction. That is, there’s simply no one doing any sort of real cost-benefit analysis on this spending. The report seeks to do some of that, and what it finds isn’t pretty. From the abstract (with my emphasis):

The cumulative increase in expenditures on US domestic homeland security over the decade since 9/11 exceeds one trillion dollars. It is clearly time to examine these massive expenditures applying risk assessment and cost-benefit approaches that have been standard for decades. Thus far, officials do not seem to have done so and have engaged in various forms of probability neglect by focusing on worst case scenarios; adding, rather than multiplying, the probabilities; assessing relative, rather than absolute, risk; and inflating terrorist capacities and the importance of potential terrorist targets. We find that enhanced expenditures have been excessive: to be deemed cost-effective in analyses that substantially bias the consideration toward the opposite conclusion, they would have to deter, prevent, foil, or protect against 1,667 otherwise successful Times-Square type attacks per year, or more than four per day. Although there are emotional and political pressures on the terrorism issue, this does not relieve politicians and bureaucrats of the fundamental responsibility of informing the public of the limited risk that terrorism presents and of seeking to expend funds wisely. Moreover, political concerns may be over-wrought: restrained reaction has often proved to be entirely acceptable politically.

In seeking to evaluate the effectiveness of the massive increases in homeland security expenditures since the terrorist attacks on the United States of September 11, 2001, the common and urgent query has been “are we safer?” This, however, is the wrong question. Of course we are “safer”–the posting of a single security guard at one building’s entrance enhances safety, however microscopically. The correct question is “are the gains in security worth the funds expended?” Or as this absolutely central question was posed shortly after 9/11 by risk analyst Howard Kunreuther, “How much should we be willing to pay for a small reduction in probabilities that are already extremely low?”

Among other things, the report looks at everyone’s favorite DHS boondoggle, the naked radiation scanners at the airport by the TSA. Apparently, DHS was directly told by the GAO to study the cost-benefit and it refused to do so. The same is true of other DHS expenditures:

Indeed, at times DHS has ignored specific calls by other government agencies to conduct risk assessments. In 2010, the Department began deploying full-body scanners at airports, a technology that will cost $1.2 billion per year. The Government Accountability Office specifically declared that conducting a cost-benefit analysis of this new technology to be ?important.?12 As far as we can see, no such study was conducted. Or there was GAO?s request that DHS conduct a full cost/benefit analysis of the extremely costly process of scanning 100 percent of U.S.-bound containers. To do so would require the dedicated work of a few skilled analysts for a few months or possibly a year. Yet, DHS replied that, although it agreed that such a study would help to ?frame the discussion and better inform Congress,? to actually carry it out ?would place significant burdens on agency resources.?

Of course, from a political perspective, this makes perfect sense. It’s all game theory. You don’t get praised and promoted for doing a cost-benefit analysis that saves taxpayer money from wasteful and useless projects if a terrorist attack happens. So the end result is that the incentives for everyone at DHS to just spend as much as possible in the hopes that it stops something, knowing that if anything bad happens (as it inevitably will), all of the blame will go towards anyone who said “we shouldn’t do project x that would have prevented attack y.”

Of course, the real problem is that this is exactly what our enemies would like. They don’t care about “terror” for the sake of terror. They want the US to spend itself silly to completely bankrupt the country. And it appears to be working. That doesn’t make me feel any safer at all, no matter what the cost.

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Comments on “Homeland Security Doesn't Do Cost/Benefit Analysis; They Just Do Fear And Bluster”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Are the gains in security worth the funds expended?

And the accompanying question, “have there been any losses?”. It should be obvious to everyone with a baseline grasp of terrorist strategy that the TSA has made air travel far LESS safer, by playing right into the hands of potential terrorists. This spiral will no doubt continue, as each subsequent incident (even if unsuccessful) will spur still more “security” that is precisely the opposite, until we’ve spent ourselves into oblivion.

Dan (profile) says:

Terrorism is an economic war

The American government has yet to figure out what the terrorists already know. Terrorism is an economic war. For every $1.25 stick of dynamite a terrorist shoves in their pants, the TSA spends 100 million.

In business, if you could spend $100 to make your competitor think they need to spend $100,000, you’d do it. It’s called a sustainable competitive advantage.

Terrorists don’t need to get past TSA checkpoints anymore. The TSA has already spent that money. Now, they’ll bomb the transit choke points. Then the DHS will spend more in securing those. And the cycle goes on until the terrorists win.

Someone in the capital might figure this out before it’s too late.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Terrorism is an economic war

+10. This is precisely the point. The brilliant (and yes, evil, but brilliant) strategy of AQ is to get the US to destroy itself. The day the DHS was formed was cause for celebration among our enemies, as it represented a massive victory for them: it showed that we willing to give them a massive ROI.

Now…they don’t even need for the attacks to be successful. They don’t even need for them to be REAL, as dimwit Senator Shumer showed this week. All they have to do is give a little head fake, and poof! a couple of billion dollars is gone…and another…and another.
Meanwhile, education, social services, environment,
everything that’s actually critical to the national
well-being, is drained of resources.

And every grandstanding politician, every bureaucrat with a power complex, is willing to go along with it. These people are cowards, idiots and traitors. They are the terrorist’s best allies.

NullOp says:


Now someone wants to apply all sorts of accounting parameters to DHS. Great! BUT, what if something happens, an event. Oh, now where was Homeland Security? Why didn’t they have the base covered? And a million other questions you Armchair Quarterbacks ask from the security of your home. What many don’t realize is security, as a function, has a lot of waste built in. If you have a cop standing and watching it will cost $50K/year. If you have a camera watching it will only cost $500/year. BUT, what happens if you need help. Fat bunch of help that camera will be. The cop, however, can save your life!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Figures...

“What many don’t realize is security, as a function, has a lot of waste built in”

Only if you do it wrong.

The fact that my seatbelt protects me from being killed when I have an accident more than pays for whatever maintenance cost it may have (if it had any).

But having my private parts squeezed by strangers will do me zilch when a git with a stinger blasts my airplane from the ground. Or releases VX gas in the subway. Or takes hostages at a bank, armed to the teeth with assault rifles. Or …

Keroberos (profile) says:

Re: Figures...

Strangely your cop analogy is an argument against the amount being spent by the DHS on security.

Yes, it would certainly be safer to have a cop standing and watching, but we don’t. Why? because we realize that the expense of the cop doesn’t justify the small increase in safety. That’s why we use security cameras.

To use your argument why don’t we just have a cop for every man woman and child? We’d be safer, but since a cop can’t handle everything, why don’t we just throw in a paramedic, a firefighter, and a search-and-rescue team.

Reductio ad absurdum.

Josh in CharlotteNC (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Amazingly enough, we actually do spend money to prevent lightning (or at least the damage from it).

They’re called lightning rods, and they’re a requirement in many building codes for buildings that are at risk (usually those over a certain height).

Also amazingly, they’re well worth the money – a proportional response. A building with a high chance of being struck by lightning can mitigate that risk by strapping a piece of metal onto it with a wire trailing to the ground, something which isn’t very expensive.

Now let’s try to figure out the how expensive and likely a terrorist incident occurring that justifies the expense of DHS and the civil rights violations of having to be fondled by a stranger, irradiated by a machine, and having our children sexually molested.

known coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

” . . . Now let’s try to figure out the how expensive and likely a terrorist incident occurring that justifies the expense of DHS and the civil rights violations of having to be fondled by a stranger, irradiated by a machine, and having our children sexually molested.”

This makes DHS Sound better than a weekend in vegas.

anymouse (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I only have one thing to say: Aluminum Cranium Protection Device (ACPD)…

I’d be more than happy to furnish everyone in the US with one, for only 1.5 trillion, a savings of .5 trillion dollars is nothing to sneeze at.

Disclaimer: ACPD not tested against direct lightning strikes, but are guaranteed to provide more protection than having someone grab your ‘junk’ while you are struck by lightning, so that’s something, right?

RobShaver (profile) says:

If it were only dollars at risk ...

If it were only dollars at risk then I might agree whole heartedly. I saw nothing in the report that put a dollar value on the lives lost.

I’m no fan of how our Homeland Security is operating and I think the Iraq war was really about George W’s vanity, but I don’t thing reducing defense to a ROI equation really does justice to the issue.

Remember when we discovered that Ford executives decided to just pay for the lives lots in Pinto crashes as having a better ROI than making the changes to fix it flaws? Were you outraged or did you say, “Way to maximize shareholder value”?

So I agree that Homeland Security is screwed up. But I think DHS being so screwed up is a symptom of our government, especially the legislative branch, being screwed up. Our two-party system is screwed up. I think that anyone who gets elected must have compromised his/her values in order to get elected because the citizens can’t/won’t pay attention to the issues, but instead vote for the personalities.

You spoke of “our enemies”, but who are our real enemies? You write all the time in this blog about how the USA is browbeating other countries to do what WE want. That’s OUR government do OUR bidding, isn’t it?

I seldom hear anyone ask why some many in the middle east hate us enough to die in the act of protesting what they must feel deeply are the wrongs committed against them.

If they are the enemy then wouldn’t it wise to try to discover why the hate us that much? Maybe it’s for frivolous reasons like jealousy of our affluence. Or may be its because we want to force our consumer society down their throats.

We’ve done that before. Perhaps you’ve read of Commander Perry using the threat of force to “negotiate” open trade with Japan. This took place between 1852 and 1854. Congress voted $20,000 to Perry for this fine work.

In 1858 western nations forced Japan to sign other treaties which that stripped it of much of it’s sovereignty.

How do you think the Japanese felt about the USA then?

Well, enough of this history lesson. I’m really not qualified. I’m just saying, perhaps we should pay more attention to the root causes and less to the symptoms.

I blame myself for not doing enough. Are you doing all you can? All I’m doing is occasionally writing to my senators/representatives and putting a few comments in some blogs.


“We have met the enemy and he is us.” — pogo 1953

Joe Publius (profile) says:

Re: If it were only dollars at risk ...

I can see your point, in the end what we need to reduce the impact of terrorism at home involve political solutions, not just dollars and cents.

At the same time, every valid point needs to be brought to bear to point out the flaws in the current policy, and the economic argument is important. In the end there will be fringe elements for whom no appeal to reason will be sufficient, and that’s who our government is proclaiming to protect us against. This protection is costing us vast amounts of money, without any consideration of whether the amount spent will truly save lives or prevent potential attacks. As others have mentioned, not only is this possibly wasteful, but it is also likely to be a part of the terrorist strategy.

The DHS should take a moment to run the numbers on their actions, if for nothing else than the analysis requiring genuine thought into the effectiveness.

RobShaver (profile) says:

Re: Re: If it were only dollars at risk ...

Thanks for the well though out response. I think you are correct. I just wanted to remind myself that there are other factors beyond the “bottom line”.

So while it’s true that “time is money”, “money is power” is also true as is “follow the money” when searching for “truth”.



Anonymous Coward says:

Re: If it were only dollars at risk ...

Well been there done that, met the enemy and have the scares to prove it. The only thing they understand is what the “radical” leaders tell them, and what they are told the Koran says… anything else is BS to them and you should be killed for even mentioning it… The best way i have found is to wash them in napalm and repeat as necessary…

And sorry the fault lays at the feet of those that took a religion and made it evil (Osama was one)…

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: If it were only dollars at risk ...

oh and spoken like someone that’s never been to the sandbox or rock pile… Spend some time with those that have.. I liked many people in both places… but in the end i didn’t follow their religion so i should die… Hardly a fair trade don’t ya think…

RobShaver (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 If it were only dollars at risk ...

My comment was in reference to your “wash them in napalm and repeat as necessary” comment. Your argument reflects EXACTLY the excuse used by those who attacked us.

I’m neither Christian nor Muslim. I abhor those use violence to achieve their ends and especially those who justify it with their religion.

I was was part of the US/Viet Nam war, saw no combat but did see some deaths from it. I supported that war at the time but I know now our leaders lied to us to get us deeper into it. Now I think we were wrong to be there in that capacity. (The dominoes never fell as threatened.)

I’ve not well traveled but lived in the far east for a year and have spent time in Mexico, China, Korea, Australia and the Philippians. I found only friends in those places.

And I sign my name to my comments.



Keroberos (profile) says:

Re: If it were only dollars at risk ...

The problem is security is always an risk assessment/ROI. You do it yourself every time you get in your car. You would be much safer if you had a car with a roll cage/5 point restraint system, but you don’t, do you? Why not?… You made a risk assessment and decided that the ROI wasn’t worth the added expense (maybe not consciously but we as humans do it all the time).

Jay (profile) says:

Re: If it were only dollars at risk ...

“But I think DHS being so screwed up is a symptom of our government, especially the legislative branch, being screwed up. Our two-party system is screwed up. I think that anyone who gets elected must have compromised his/her values in order to get elected because the citizens can’t/won’t pay attention to the issues, but instead vote for the personalities.”

How can they? Effectively, I believe a lot of people understand that Congress for the most part is “bought”. All three branches have a part to play in collusion, and it seems that more and more, the people have less they can say with the government.

“That’s OUR government do OUR bidding, isn’t it?”
It’s actually not. But the avenues of having our government stop these acts is quite limited. Protesting is now done online. The protests of Manning’s treatment isn’t given much media time because of the controversial issues at stake.

“How do you think the Japanese felt about the USA then?”
“We have met the enemy and he is us.” — pogo 1953

How aptly fitting. I can only lament as we watch the trainwreck that is our government continue to hurt the US’s good name in the name of immediate profit.

*shakes head sadly*

Anonymous Coward says:

DHS and TSA have NEVER been about security.

These agencies are the means for politicians to DO SOMETHING about terrorism. Their methods, procedures, etc. are designed for the express purpose of providing political cover and making the people see them TAKING ACTION.

Terror is like gas prices, there are no quick, easy fixes. But the news monster and the electorate won’t stand for that, so we end up with what we’ve got. In the mean-time, everyone who plays in the government profiteering game has the same blank-check that the anti-communists had during the Cold War.

MAC says:

Stupid DHS...

X-Ray scanners…
Simple metal detectors work for 99.99% of all guns and about 90% of knives.
Passengers work real well at thwarting any wood be hijackers.
When was the last time there was a successful hijacking in the US? I’ll give you a hint; it was almost 10 years ago.
No one, I repeat no one or even a group will ever successful hijack a plane in the US again.
The passengers will fight them and if need be, they will go down just like the plane in Pennsylvania did. The bad guys will never get control again.
So, why do we need body scanners?
The answer is we don’t; we just need for the passengers and crew to outnumber and out fight any potential hijackers.
If I were on a plane and some idiot tries to hijack it or blow it up; I will do everything in my power to subdue, or kill them. And from the looks of these guys, they really don’t want to get on my bad side because I will bring it.

stk33 says:

Terrorists and Enemies

Isn’t it funny that there are so many reasonable comments, which all however are talking about “terrorists” who “won”, about “enemies” who “need” exactly this, and so forth.

There are no “enemies”, dudes. None at all – other than in your minds. The only thing that is over there is our government who saw brilliant business opportunity, excellent new consumer demand for new trillion dollar industry. Which they have used to the fullest – the government is now the biggest employer, and average pay+benefits is 2x the private sector. They create jobs and careers plus they give business to myriad of private firms, research grants to universities, and more. Security is what is driving this country today, like it or not. That’s the reality, that’s the benefit – compared to which the small fact that the pretext for all this is totally made up can be quietly ignored. Excluding of course occasional projects by the FBI when they approach yet another illiterate Arab patsy, stuff him with money and promises, and after year of hard work gather the harvest planned and implemented by their own hands.

So shut up and enjoy your careers, your government contracts, your benefits, and pray it only gets bigger so you can continue to pay off your mortgage. Because if it suddenly gets back to senses, to this cost/benefit ratio, then lots of folks will be suddenly out of jobs – until someone figures

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