The fence is in great shape, but the cattle are starving…

May 27, 2011

via DailyKos; TotH to Jim Fallows (who gave TT an early venue back in the salad days of U.S. News and World Report)

As our mores are manipulated, and our freedoms pre-empted, by the War on Terror (and the related wars on Drugs, Piracy, et al.), the temperature in the pot is rising.  Consider, e.g., Daniel J. Solove’s recent essay “Why Privacy Matters Even if You Have ‘Nothing to Hide’” in The Chronicle of Higher Education (an excerpt from his new book, Nothing to Hide: The False Tradeoff Between Privacy and Security, Yale University Press).

The nothing-to-hide argument focuses on just one or two particular kinds of privacy problems—the disclosure of personal information or surveillance—while ignoring the others. It assumes a particular view about what privacy entails, to the exclusion of other perspectives.

It is important to distinguish here between two ways of justifying a national-security program that demands access to personal information. The first way is not to recognize a problem. This is how the nothing-to-hide argument works—it denies even the existence of a problem. The second is to acknowledge the problems but contend that the benefits of the program outweigh the privacy sacrifice. The first justification influences the second, because the low value given to privacy is based upon a narrow view of the problem. And the key misunderstanding is that the nothing-to-hide argument views privacy in this troublingly particular, partial way.

As Solove goes on to demonstrate, there are lots of reasons to fear the disappearance of our privacy, from the erosion of basic freedoms to the encroachment of commercial manipulation. And there are other, less direct but equally insidious results of the cloud of anxiety and fear that is forming– for example, the counterproductive xenophobia that’s blocking immigration reform.

But for the purposes of this post, I want to flag the simplest of the issues one might raise, the one that goes plainly and simply to cost.

Homeland Security is a big enterprise:  In 2010 the Department of Homeland Security had over 200,000 employees and spent over $56 billion; that was larger than the budgets of the Commerce, Labor and Interior Departments, plus the EPA, combined.  And of course, that doesn’t begin to describe the expense fully:  the Departments of Health and Human Services, Justice, and Energy all have significant Homeland Security responsibilities; the Defense Department has large “coordinated” expenses; corporations pay extra security and incur extra compliance costs, and states and municipalities are also on the hook.  All in, HSRC estimates, 2010 expense was close to $175 Billion.

And Homeland Security is a growth industry.  As the Economics Blog at Lawrence University observes (citing a George Washington University study, pdf here), in real terms (2005$), the Homeland Security budget has more than doubled since the 2000 “pre-9/11 base year,” accounting for more than 40% of U.S. regulatory spending and more than half the personnel as well.  By 2014, total Homeland Security expense is expected to top $200 Billion… over a quarter the (2010) size of Social Security or Defense spending; two-thirds the cost of Medicaid.


But while these mammoth numbers raise all kinds of immediate questions, both about how they’re being spent and about what other programs they’re preempting, the deeper concern is their longer-term implications.

Not surprisingly, educators and guidance counselors have taken note of the Security trend.  By 2005, over 80% of the community colleges in the U.S. offered preparatory curricula for Homeland Security work, as do the for-profits (Phoenix, Capella, et al.)– and the course offerings continue to grow…  even as, overall, reduced funding means fewer classes available in more traditional areas that prepare students for careers in health care, business, education or whatever else.  Indeed, high schools are beginning to institutionalize Homeland Security prep (e.g., here).  In a domestic economic environment in which unemployment has rocketed and stayed stubbornly high, Homeland Security has become a rare bright spot, a promising path to a job, a job with a future…

There’s a cautionary tale told in the Southwest: the story of a rancher so concerned with protecting his cattle from rustlers that he invested more and more in fencing… until he’d so diverted his resources that his powerfully-protected herd starved to death.  We in the U.S. are beginning to look all too much like that imprudent rancher, burning more and more of our resources in the overhead of protection… at the risk of starving the very things that we mean to protect.

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