Thursday, September 11, 2003

Day 729:

Sunrise at the Pentagon was really peaceful today. An orange glow off the yellow armored windows was a nice counterpoint to the pink reflection off the sandstone facing, with a pale, almost full moon in the background.

As it was two years ago.

Seeing all the flurry of government activity in those intervening years, I realize that the current Federal budget deficit is driven by many of the anti-terrorism efforts. The deficit, or rather its time-derivative, is extremely sensitive to further terrorist events. What is our vulnerability to this? Would a series of small events within our borders drive the deficit in a completely irrational way?

It's like a statement of relative risk: "I am happy to put Skin-so-soft on my infant to keep away mosquitos, but don't you dare include apples with Alar in the batch you use to make apple juice for school kids." The perception of risk in these two cases is completely skewed by emotion, and the public pressure results in a completely inappropriate allocation of public resources and public attention (unusual amount of funding for control of a small risk, and the media focus on conflict instead of comparative risk). For the Alar case, the risk of developing cancer is somewhere between 5 and 50 per million (Consumer's Union estimate vs. the higher EPA estimate). In these cases I always like to look at my relative risks list, and ask myself: "does this decision make sense?" So - 5 in a million is 1 in 200,000 which puts the annualized risk from getting cancer from Alar consumption somewhere between contracting Malaria and dying from Group A Strep. At 50 in a million, the risk jumps to a level between dying from falling and dying from suffocation.

Now we get to the emotional part: if I am predisposed to doubt the danger, I rationalize by saying "if the danger were truly 50 in a million, we would be hearing about a lot of cancers incontrovertibly linked to Alar, but we are not, and therefore the danger is overblown." Conversely, if I were predisposed to think that pesticides are dangerous, I would say that evidence of risk at this level really does support pulling the product. (A good academic resource for pesticide use risk is the Cornell Environmental Risk Analysis Program).

The question for terrorism then is: "what is the appropriate amount to spend on security against an intrinsically unpredictable event?" And there is no answer, precisely because it contains the emotional and irrational element. However much it takes to feel safe. However much it takes to satisfy the public. And public satisfaction is a moving target. It's not the facts, it's the emotions that count. It's not the science, it's the politics that count. They are both legitimate viewpoints.

I am reminded of some of the analyses of the Soviet collapse, which stated that the Soviet response to the U.S.'s SDI effort bankrupted their system. One has to hope that doesn't happen to us because a small series of terrorist strikes in the homeland cause a totally unproportional, and emotional response.