The Skeptics

Bathtubs, Terrorists and Overreaction

I dislike our national obsession with anniversaries and tendency to convert solemn occasions into maudlin ones; to fetishize perceived collective victimization rather than simply recognizing real victims. That kept me from joining in the outpouring of September 11 reflection, now mercifully receding. But I have reflections on the reflections.

The anniversary commentary has, happily, included widespread consideration of the notion that we overreacted to the attacks and did al-Qaeda a favor by overestimating their power and making it easier for them to terrorize. Even the Wall Street Journal allowed some of the bigwigs they invited to answer their question of whether we overreacted to the attacks to say, “yes, sort of.”

Unsurprisingly, however, the Journal’s contributors, like almost every other commentator out there, did not define overreaction. It’s easy and correct to say we’ve wasted dollars and lives in response to September 11 but harder to answer the question of how much counterterrorism is too much. So this post explains how to do that, and then considers common objections to the answer.

That answer has to start with cost-benefit analysis. As I put it in my essay in Terrorizing Ourselves, a government overreaction to danger is a policy that fails cost-benefit analysis and thus does more harm than good. But when we speak of harm and good, we have to leave room for goods, like our sense of justice, that are harder to quantify.

Cost-benefit analysis of counterterrorism policies requires first knowing what a policy costs, then estimating how many people terrorists would kill absent that policy, which can involve historical and cross-national comparisons, and finally converting those costs and benefits into a common metric, usually money. Having done that analysis, you have a cost-per-life-saved-per-policy, which can be thought of as the value a policy assigns to a statistical life—the price we have decided to pay to save a life from the harm the policy aims to prevent.

Then you need to know if that price is too high. One way to do so, preferred by economists, is to compare the policy’s life value to the value that the target population uses in their life choices (insurance purchases, salary for hazardous work and so on). These days, in the United States, a standard range for the value of a statistical life is four to eleven million dollars. If a policy costs more per life saved than that, the market value of a statistical life, then the government could probably produce more longevity by changing or ending the policy. A related concept is risk-risk or health-health analysis, which says that at some cost, a policy will cost more lives than it saves by destroying wealth used for health care and other welfare-enhancing activities. One calculation of that cost, from 2000, is $15 million.

In a new book, Terror, Security, and Money: Balancing the Risks, Benefits, and Costs of Homeland Security, John Mueller and Mark Stewart use this approach to analyze U.S. counterterrorism’s cost effectiveness, generating a range of estimates for lives saved for various counterterrorism activities. I haven’t yet read the published book, but in articles that form its basis, they found that most counterterrorism policies, and overall homeland security spending, spend exponentially more per-life saved than what regulatory scholars consider cost effective.

That is a strong indication that we are overreacting to terrorism. It is not the end of the necessary analysis however, since it leaves open the possibility that counterterrorism has benefits beyond safety that justify its costs. More on that below.

Objections to this mode of analysis have four varieties. First, people have a visceral objection to valuing human life in dollars. But as I just tried to explain, policies themselves make such valuations, trading lives lost in one way for lives lost in another. So this objection amounts to an unconvincing plea to keep such tradeoffs secret and make policy in the dark.

Pages