Friday, June 02, 2006

Astoundingly Stupid Math: the Bullshit of Homeland Security Funds Allocation

Hat tip to Making Light for the following.

As you must have heard, this week, the US Department of Homeland Security released information about the allocation of anti-terrorism funds to US cities. New York City, which is about 15 miles south of where I'm sitting right now, had its funding cut by 40%. The mayor of NYC pointed out the stupidity of this, saying "Whenever we catch someone involved in a terrorist plot, they've got a map of NYC in their pocket".

More information about the allocation has gradually been getting out. It turns out that the allocation method was remarkably simple. In their applications for funding, cities listed assets that they needed to protect. What DHS did was take the number of listed assets from all of the cities that were going to be recipients of funds, and give each city an amount of funding proportional to the number of assets they listed.

So, the Empire State building is equal to the neighborhood bank in Omaha. The stock exchange on Wall Street is equal to the memorial park in Anchorage, Alaska. Mount Sinai hospital is equal to the county hospital in the suburbs of Toledo, Ohio. The New York subway system (18.5 billion passenger-miles per year) is equal to the Minneapolis transit system (283 million passenger-miles per year). The Brooklyn Bridge is equal the George Street bridge in New Brunswick, NJ.

We know, perfectly well, how to estimate relative values and risks - the insurance company does it every day. Did our government do that? No. They ignored the established math of how to do it right, in favor of a stupid, a mind-bogglingly stupid, a deliberately stupid formula that would screw over every single actual high-risk location in the country, so that they could shove the money at people who don't need it.

• We know, perfectly well, how to estimate relative values and risks - the insurance company does it every day. Did our government do that?

Hi first comment here. I enjoy reading your blog. This is off-topic but can you suggest a not-too-technical book on how the insurance calcs are done, or even something that discusses the most basic calculations. Thanks

By  Jav, at 3:42 PM

• Jav,

This really isn't my area, so I can't recommend any books based on first-hand experience. The general area is called actuarial mathematics and risk theory.

The reviews for this look pretty good.

By  MarkCC, at 3:54 PM

• It would be bad math if anybody actually believed this money was meant to go to terrorism targets in the first place. Don't be so naive. This is pork being deliberately diverted to the Monkey King's supporters, and for that purpose, any excuse for cutting funding to cities full of educated people will do.

By  Anonymous, at 3:44 AM

• Thanks for the recommendation Mark. Sorry for the late reply. The book definitely sounds interesting (as does the review on amazon) I've placed an order for the book and am hoping to learn something interesting about the insurance models. Thanks again

By  Jav, at 4:38 PM

• Reminds me of something local: Guy was renting out his building and land to a Social Security office. Government wanted him to build some concrete barriers (which would destroy much of the small parking area) to make the place terrorist proof. At his own expense, and he wouldn't get any more rent. All this in a small town.

He's making them move out.

By  Bronze Dog, at 10:19 PM

• Why should DHS hand out money to local governments at all?

By  Joseph, at 3:42 PM

• Joseph:

The reason DHS should give money to local governments is very simple.

As a nation and a society, we have made the decision that there are things in the public interest of the nation as a whole, and that it is therefore the responsibility of the nation as a whole to pay for them. This includes national security things like the military, border control, immigration control; support for transportation, including roads, railroads, and airports.

Preventing terrorism is something that our government - our elected representatives - decided is an issue of general public interest. I think they were right, for two reasons:

(1) When terrorists attacked NYC and DC, they weren't doing it just because they wanted to attack NYC and DC - it was an attack on the nation as a whole, with those two cities as symbols of the country as a whole.

(2) Doing significant damange to any of the large cities in this country doesn't just damage those cities. If you could, say, blow up a large bomb in the financial district in NY, you can damage the entire economic infrastructure of the country. If you blow up downtown DC, you don't just take out a piece of a relatively small city - you take out the federal government.

Just like we consider it reasonable and appropriate the federal government to use tax revenues from the entire country to support schools in Arkansas, or to build roads in South Dakota, it's reasonable for the government to use tax revenues from the entire country to provide security for the particular places in the country that are targets of terrorists trying to attack the country.

That's the point of the money disbursed by DHS. To provide security for places that are likely targets of terrorists. NYC, DC, Boston, LA, Chicago - these are the places that are likely targets. They are the places that deserve the support of the country to prevent tragedies. On the other hand - to allocate money in the federal budget for anti-terrorism; to take money from the taxes taken from the income of every resident of the country in the name of protecting the country from terrorism; and then to use that money *not* to prevent terrorism, *not* to defend likely targets, but to just give money at random to places that are not at risk in order to reward supportive congressmen - that's a disgrace.

As a New Yorker, I particularly resent it - because it's *my* home that's been a target; and my state gives far more money to the federal government than it receives in federal spending. But when we need support for something real, something important - we don't get it.

By  MarkCC, at 4:07 PM