Since September 11, 2001, most expenditures on homeland security have been justified because they make Americans safer. This has an intuitive appeal — even if something is expensive, if it means that we’ll be safer then it’s worth whatever cost. Some economists, though, are now arguing that expenditures on homeland security and the war on terror should be subject to the same cost-benefit analysis that other policy programs are.
In a new book called Terror, Security, and Money: Balancing the Risks, Benefits, and Costs of Homeland Security, two economists, John Mueller and Mark G. Stewart, argue that policymakers have been asking the wrong questions about how much to spend on homeland security. In an op-ed on Slate, the book’s authors write that the over $1 trillion spent on security in the past decade has been spent without any consideration of cost effectiveness. As such, they argue, “It is clearly time to examine massive homeland security expenditures in a careful and systematic way, applying the kind of analytic risk management approaches emphasizing cost-benefit analysis and determinations of acceptable and unacceptable risks that are routinely required of other governmental agencies.”
Though some might argue that homeland security is different because it saves lives or improves safety, the authors of the book reject that claim. They argue that since the government has limited resources, massive and unchecked expenditures constrain other forms of spending that could also save lives — for example education, WIC, or environmental regulation. Given the sheer sums of money that have been spent on programs that are unlikely to improve safety, they believe that that money could have been much better spent on more cost effective programs, many of which also have the potential to save lives. Especially in light of budget cuts to police forces around the country, it’s easy to see how one kind of spending to protect physical safety (the War on Terror) constrains spending on similar programs that might have a more direct impact on peoples’ lives.
Policymakers have several easy prescriptions to restrain spending on homeland security while making people safer. Mueller and Stewart argue that any policy passed as part of the War on Terror should undergo the same kind of regulatory restrictions requiring cost-benefit analysis, in line with their article. Tom Nichols, a professor at the US Naval War College, argued that part of the problem is because there are too many disparate organizations that are tasked with keeping the country safe; they should be consolidated to save money and avoid wasteful expenditures.
In a more optimistic angle, Berkeley professor Malcolm Potts has proposed a surprising and significantly more cost effective way to reduce the threat of terror-related violence: providing birth control to women in countries where terror-cells are active. He explains: “The upstream strategy we need to defeat Al-Qaeda and similar groups of men is to educate their sisters and give their mothers the freedom to decide when to have another child. We must do both things together, because unless we also slow rapid population growth, education will never keep pace with growing numbers of young people.”
Even though much of what America has invested in to protect its homeland has not been cost effective, there are thankfully proven methods out there that can significantly save money and make us safer. And, unlike so many policies that result in danger to civilians and our troops, these proposals will hopefully improve the quality of life and safety for both Americans and foreign nationals.
Photo credit: The U.S. Army's Flickr stream.