The nature of incentives

When I was a young girl I shared a large bedroom with a sister four years younger. We were over a garage that was dug into a hill, and there was an outside door in our room.

I remember I was a terrorist. Really. I remember lying there, before we were both asleep, and talking: “Suppose you rolled over in your sleep and your arm fell off the side of the bed. Suppose your hand fell upon a beard!”

She would lie on the other side of the room, pondering. Then she’d fly out of bed towards me, giving me just enough time to batten down the hatches by tucking myself under my quilt as she screamed and pounded me with her small fists.

I won. Every time.

So why am I recounting this story? Because it’s an analogy. I suppose it’s possible that one night there might have been a bearded man lying in wait. Possible, but not probable. What was I doing? I was promoting fear of the possible. Pretty much like the Department of Homeland Security.

You see, from a psychological standpoint, the DHS and all of its various alphabet agencies, TSA included, would not exist without fear. Fear of the possible. These agencies have an incentive to develop and maintain fear, lest their employees all lose their jobs.

This is not a novel concept, and that’s why there are tools to help rational people determine the risk of the possible. That’s why federal agencies (all, it appears, except the DHS) are required to perform risk-benefit analyses, to determine whether the cure is worse than the disease.

We’d be much better off if we had legislators who insisted on impartial analyses rather than on emotion-driven reactions to possible, yet highly improbable, mayhem. Please ask your representatives why the DHS is exempt from the risk-benefit analysis requirement that is demanded of other agencies. If we got Washington to apply the same reason-based standards to this agency (as flawed as that system may be), I believe much of the nonsense we see would disappear.

That would be a heartwarming event.

Oh: and dear sister, I apologize. I promise I will never terrorize you again.