Rosen on DHS

More on that Rosen piece in the New Republic on the Department of Homeland Security (a name we should change, by the way) that Dave Rittgers just wrote about.  As Rosen notes, a society that is rational about danger, in the sense of equal attention to risks of equal magnitude, would not have created a Department of Homeland Security (much of what the Department does, of course, has nothing to do with terrorism).

What I like about the article is that Rosen also points out that ours is not such a society. For social, psychological and bureaucratic reasons we prefer protection against some risks to others of greater danger. We demand total protection against terrorism. The Bush Administration, therefore, could not resist the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2003.

Leaders then face unreasonable public demands for wasteful protection from terrorism. What should they do? To me there are basically four alternatives.

1. Tell the truth and risk the political consequences. It seems likely that politicians cannot survive such honesty and will therefore rationally avoid it, but there are counterexamples.

2. Cave and spend tons of money.

3. Fake it. Ratify people’s inflated fears and then claim falsely that the programs you’ve put in place greatly reduce the danger, while holding down spending you know to be wasteful. This, Rosen argues, is basically what the Bush administration tried to do.

4. Insulate decision-makers from democracy with science. Make bureaucracies that combat dangers that people overly fear into technocratic domains. Use fancy sounding terms like risk management and analysis that appear scientific to limit public demands from protection: “We would like to give you a grant to protect your waterpark, but our risk-vulnerability algorithm says we must not.”

The solution is unclear to me. But we have a panel on these issues at the conference that Dave just mentioned. It has the catchy name “Domestic Security: Risk Management and Cost Benefit Analysis,” and includes me, Jim Lewis from CSIS, Cindy Williams from MIT, Jeremy Shapiro from Brookings, and Bruce Schneier. John Mueller, whom Rosen also cites, will also be speaking at the conference. Sign up if you’re into this stuff.

*James Fallows has written several good articles on the same topic.