No Panaceas

Wednesday, March 24, 2004
The Pork Politics of Homeland Security: Time magazine this week includes a fascinating article by Amanda Ripley on the allocation of homeland security dollars. Here are some pertinent bits:

International terrorism, as most experts will tell you, is not as unpredictable as it feels. Terrorists follow patterns. And while we can't read the minds of zealots, we can get a good idea of what kind of damage they could do in any given location. We can estimate the cost of an attack on a port in Los Angeles vs. an attack on a port in Prince William Sound. We can calculate where a nuclear blast of a given force would kill 500,000 people as opposed to 50,000. These are the logical estimates that insurers and investment banks are seeking as they try to quantify the risk they face.

But while all this strategic thinking is going on in the private sector, the government has responded to terrorism in a less rational way....

...[T]he vast majority of the $13.1 billion was distributed with no regard for the threats, vulnerabilities and potential consequences faced by each region. Of the top 10 states and districts receiving the most money per capita last year, only the District of Columbia also appeared on a list of the top 10 most at-risk places, as calculated by [AIR, a risk-assessment firm] for TIME. In fact, funding appears to be almost inversely proportional to risk. If all the federal homeland-security grants from last year are added together, Wyoming received $61 a person while California got just $14, according to data gathered at TIME's request by the Public Policy Institute of California, an independent, nonprofit research organization. Alaska received an impressive $58 a resident, while New York got less than $25. On and on goes the upside-down math of the new homeland-security funding.


In early 2003, Congress announced a plan that sounded as if it might rectify the distortions in federal outlays?a new $100 million grant for "high threat" urban areas only. In April, Secretary Ridge said seven cities had made the "high threat" list because of population density, the presence of important infrastructure and credible threats?which is to say, because of risk. The roster of cities?New York, Washington, Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago, San Francisco and Houston?matched up perfectly with AIR's list of most at-risk cities. Democratic Congressman Anthony Weiner of New York, which received 25% of the new grant, says, "I was thinking, finally it seems we have a program based on merit, and clearly not based on politics?because a lot of these cities are not exactly Republican bastions."

Soon, however, the list of qualifying cities started mysteriously growing. Ridge's office and Congress had received calls from irate city officials who had been left out. In May the roster grew to 30 cities. But the pool of money also expanded by $700 million, so it didn't seem like a problem. "We're thinking, O.K., we're getting 18% of the pot. That's reasonable," remembers an aide for a New York member of Congress. Then, for 2004 money, the Department of Homeland Security announced an even longer list of 50 cities, including Columbus, Ohio, and Fresno, Calif. And the dollars shrank to $675 million. At that point, Weiner says, he lost heart. "We found a solution, and we're even screwing that up. We have some cities on there that don't even have minor-league baseball teams," he says. "Homeland security is just as much a pork barrel as every other program in Congress." New York City now receives 7% of the money.

Read the article, because it has some nice nuance, but the bottom line is that money is being spread out not because of any direct assessment of risk but because of the nature of Congress, especially the U.S. Senate. California, which has two high risk areas in LA and San Francisco, has as much representation in the Senate as Wyoming, which has no high risk areas. But it's natural for a small state senator, who is hired and fired by the citizens of his or her state, not of the entire nation, to want just as much money as everyone else. After all, Casper, WY or Burlington, VT or Santa Fe, NM might be victimized by terrorism. It takes a majority for a spending bill to pass and small state senators make up a larger proportion of the senate than do large state senators.

Blaming Congress for this is a bit like blaming a scorpion for its sting. Plus bureaucracies, highly attuned to the desires of members of Congress, will tend to conspire in the same distribution game. The one actor that has the ability to overcome these natural parochial tendencies is the president. But, of course, it is easy for the president to fall prey to his own parochialism. After all, the high risk areas we are talking about are not exactly areas of substantial Bush support.

Monday, March 22, 2004
Bush's Approval: I was playing around with approval data while putting together a talk. I thought I would compare Bush's approval with that of other presidents during the same point of their administrations, i.e., March of the fourth year. Here's the breakdown going back to Eisenhower (which is more or less the beginning of time for public opinion analysis):

Johnson: 76
Eisenhower: 73
Nixon: 55
Reagan: 54
Clinton: 53
Bush 2.0: 50
Ford: 50
Bush 1.0: 42
Carter: 41

Everyone above Bush 2.0 was re-elected the following November (counting the Johnson case as a re-election). Everyone tied or below Bush lost. One shouldn't read too much into this data. It's only a bunch snapshots, eight months from the election, and each have an error term. I think the real lesson here is that the Bush is right on the edge and he needs the employment picture to improve a bit.

Here is each president's approval the following October (sans Bush 2.0, of course):

Eisenhower: 73
Johnson: 71
Nixon: 62
Reagan: 58
Clinton: 56
Ford: 51
Carter: 34
Bush 1.0: 34

For reasons I'll get into later, I think the states vote uniformly enough now that Bush will win easily if his approval gets up around 55. He'll probably squeak by at 52.