Tuesday, December 03, 2013

A thought about government funding of anti-terrorist activities.

The perception of risk seems to reflect many things other than the probability of death and injury. Familiar risks like those of gun violence and auto accidents don't seem to be as worrisome as risks related to recent events that got a lot of media attention -- 9/11 and mass shootings.

The news media of course focus on "newsworthy events" rather than continuing social problems; the more likely the images relating the events are to generate an emotional response and draw viewers, the more likely they are to be played over and over on television, placed above the fold on newspapers, and featured on web pages.

Ideally we would like to see Congress allocate public funds in such a way as to do the most good. If it can save 1000 lives with one program but only 100 with an alternative program at the same cost, we want the most cost-effective program to be funded. But if voters mistakenly believe that their risks are greater from the less cost-effective program, legislators may get away with voting for the less cost effective alternative.

If voters don't know how much a program costs then they have even less opportunity to judge whether it is cost effective. Thus the intelligence agencies that have secret budgets don't get the voter scrutiny that would encourage them to be cost effective.

People also like simple solutions to simple problems. Drone strikes against terrorist leaders are easy to understand; the use of soft power to reduce extremist anger against the USA is harder to understand and harder to measure the impact.

And of course, politicians respond not only to the expressed concerns of their constituents, but also to the interests of the major donors to their campaigns and to the lobbyists who help them raise money and obtain (one sided) information on issues. Put billions of dollars into a  secret intelligence industry, and don't be surprised if politicians become seized with the urgency of funding the contracts given by the government intelligence agencies.

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