October 2010

Swatting flies with an elephant gun

by Pitt Griffin on October 31, 2010 · 0 comments

in Politics

You are going to die. The only mystery is how. We know what kills us, but this information is usually ignored, at least by politicians. It is our nature to cloud a simple calculation by multiplying likelihood of an event by its visceral awfulness. This is why TV has a ‘Shark Week’ instead of a ‘Bee Week’ or a ‘Deer Week’.

 When the movie ‘Jaws’ was released in 1975 it kept many Americans out of the ocean and many more went in with trepidation. But among animals that cause human deaths, sharks are rank amateurs. Tens of people die each year because of adverse reactions to bee stings. Deer cause more deaths than sharks by wandering in front of cars. Sharks on average kill 4 people a year worldwide. If you were to assign a likely cause of death to someone going to the beach, death by shark would rank after sunstroke, heart attack, traffic accident, alcohol poisoning, homicide and___________ (you can fill in the blank).

This misunderstanding of fatalities by shark attack doesn’t cost us much. Some people might miss out on a good time by not going in the water, but at least they won’t drown. But this kind of sloppy thinking does have huge financial ramifications when it comes to terrorism.

3,000 people were killed on 9/11/2001 by terrorists. The blow to the economy was in the billions. It was the worst single day for loss of life on American soil since the civil war. And yet deaths from terrorism pale in comparison to deaths from drunk driving (c.11,000 in 2008). Drunk driving itself does not make the top 10. The leading cause of death is coronary disease, flowed by cancer then stroke. I suppose that you might argue that disease is a natural cause and therefore somehow different from the capricious nature of terrorism. Then consider that the 5th leading cause of death in the US is unintentional injury (123,706 in 2007, CDC).

It is not an empty exercise to study cause of death in the US. We spend a huge amount of money to combat terrorism and it needs to be asked if we are getting value for money. We are not. The National Institute for Health’s budget for 2010 was $35 billion. Homeland security’s budget was $54 billion. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan after cost over $1 trillion. Add to that the anti-terrorism budgets contained in local and state budgets and the amount of money spent to prevent something that might kill a few of us dwarfs the amount of money that is spent to prevent things that actually kill many of us.

Well, what about the economic impact of terrorism the hawks will say. I would argue that judged by economic impact the terrorists are succeeding beyond their wildest dreams. On top of the money being spent by the government spent to combat terrorism (see above) there is the economic cost of airline passengers standing in security lines at the airports. But despite that, the biggest threat to our economy is not foreign terrorism but domestic greed.

The collapse of Enron, Global Crossing, ImClone and Adelphia in the early 2000s, in the shadow of the Savings and Loans debacle of the 1980s and Long Term Capital in the 1990s, presaged the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression. Experts in finance traded financial instruments few people understood. When the housing market underpinning these instruments collapsed the financial system which fuels prosperity shut down. Terrorist could only wish to be that effective.

But it should surprise no one that politicians, while having the vapors over a yet unrealized threat, do little to address a real calamity. In fact there are some politicians who think that even modest measures to protect the economy are going too far in interfering with the workings of the capitalist system. In 2010 it is a rare politician who does not run for office promising to slash government waste. Great, start with the staggering waste in the ‘War on Terrorism’ (but then use some of the money to secure our finances and fight disease).


High Times on the High Court

October 30, 2010

In 2007, the Supreme Court decided that Principal Deborah Morse was within the law to discipline a student, Joseph Frederick, for holding up a sign that read “Bong Hits 4 Jesus”. The High Court reversed a decision, by the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, that Frederick’s sign was protected by his First […]

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Common sense on rare earth

October 29, 2010

Rare earth is not that rare and common sense is not that common.  Rare earth is used in the production of advanced batteries, military and electronic devices. It is not something that most people outside of the material sciences and certain manufacturing fields would have heard of until recently. We have heard of them now. 97% of rare earths are mined in […]

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What’s next?

October 27, 2010

 Two items in the New York Times today should prompt us to take stock of the American economy. The first reports that the Chinese have wrested the title of ‘Fastest Supercomputer’ from the US. The second reports that NJ Governor Chris Christie has shut down what would have been the largest civil engineering project ever in […]

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