David R. Henderson  

Krugman, Mueller, and McCain on Terrorism

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I don't say this much, but Paul Krugman has a very good column in today's New York Times. It's on the horrible events in France and is titled "Fearing Fear Itself." The title is, of course, a takeoff on the FDR line in his first inaugural address: "We have nothing to fear but fear itself."

Here are two key paragraphs:

So what was Friday's attack about? Killing random people in restaurants and at concerts is a strategy that reflects its perpetrators' fundamental weakness. It isn't going to establish a caliphate in Paris. What it can do, however, is inspire fear -- which is why we call it terrorism, and shouldn't dignify it with the name of war.

The point is not to minimize the horror. It is, instead, to emphasize that the biggest danger terrorism poses to our society comes not from the direct harm inflicted, but from the wrong-headed responses it can inspire. And it's crucial to realize that there are multiple ways the response can go wrong.


Paul and I might disagree on how much dignity there is in war, but put that aside.

The passage above reminds me of John Mueller's excellent article "A False Sense of Insecurity?" in the Fall 2004 issue of Regulation. Specifically, this:

Throughout all this, there is a perspective on terrorism that has been very substantially ignored. It can be summarized, somewhat crudely, as follows:
. Assessed in broad but reasonable context, terrorism generally does not do much damage.
. The costs of terrorism very often are the result of hasty, ill-considered, and overwrought reactions.

Mueller continues:
Until 2001, far fewer Americans were killed in any grouping of years by all forms of international terrorism than were killed by lightning, and almost none of those terrorist deaths occurred within the United States itself. Even with the September 11 attacks included in the count, the number of Americans killed by international terrorism since the late 1960s (which is when the State Department began counting) is about the same as the number of Americans killed over the same period by lightning, accident-causing deer, or severe allergic reaction to peanuts.

Elsewhere in the article, Mueller writes:
What we need is more pronouncements like the one in a recent book by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.): "Get on the damn elevator! Fly on the damn plane! Calculate the odds of being harmed by a terrorist! It's still about as likely as being swept out to sea by a tidal wave. Suck it up, for crying out loud. You're almost certainly going to be okay. And in the unlikely event you're not, do you really want to spend your last days cowering behind plastic sheets and duct tape? That's not a life worth living, is it?"


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COMMENTS (34 to date)
Thomas writes:

Mueller's argument (which I read when it appeared in Regulation) relies on the (implicit) assumption that terrorism and "lightning, accident-causing deer, or severe allergic reaction to peanuts" are mutually exclusive. But they are not. Terrorism is an additional threat to life and limb.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Thomas,
Mueller's argument (which I read when it appeared in Regulation) relies on the (implicit) assumption that terrorism and "lightning, accident-causing deer, or severe allergic reaction to peanuts" are mutually exclusive.
No it doesn’t.

Richard writes:

If terrorism never rises beyond what it is today (one Paris like attack every few years or so), then we can rest easy. However, the Muslim population is growing in the West, and there seems to be no indication that radical Islam as a force is abating.

Let's say that there are 5 million Muslims in France. Imagine we get to the point where each year .01 percent of them decide that they want to die for Allah (not unreasonable at all, I'd bet). That's 500 terrorists a year.

In the Paris attack, 8 terrorists killed about 150 people. That's about 19 deaths per terrorist.

Thus, if we have 500 terrorists a year killing 19 people each, that's 9,500 deaths a year. A huge problem. Even 100 deaths a month would paralyze the economy and likely set off a mass exodus.

You can't just wish away the overreaction, it's part of human nature.

In conclusion, Western leaders are playing with fire through their immigration policy.

Richard writes:

Just to add one point, my thought experiment didn't even count the possibility of ISIS purposely sending terrorists into Europe as a conscious strategy, and the fact that the Muslim population is growing every year.

We've been pretty lucky in the past. European and American Muslims have not been as violent as those in places like Palestine and Iraq. However, there are good reasons to suspect our good luck won't last.

pyroseed13 writes:

I understand the argument, but I only agree with it up to a point. We still exercise precaution to minimize the risks that we are frequently exposed to. I am more likely to get in a car accident than killed by a terrorist, but that doesn't mean I am going to just buy any lemon. The challenge is deciding how much we are willing to spend to minimize the risk of a terrorist attack, not whether we should minimizing it at all. I don't think you would necessarily disagree with that, but some libertarians really don't seem to take the threat of terrorism seriously.

Lawrence Franko writes:

Krugman, and I suspect our distinguished host as well, may have studied many things, but it looks as if they never studied the history of the Islamic invasions over the past 1400 years. The Islamic 'way of war' was based on pin prick, ultra violent raids (Razzias) meant not Just to kill people, but to intimidate and demoralize the infidel by, among, other things making the terrorized, fearful population imagine that the invader was indeed 'the strong horse,' to use Bin Laden's terminology. More often than not, the tactics succeeded in 'softening up' the local population and paralyzing their will so that they became 'like deer in the headlights' during the next, and then the next, and then the next raid by the 'Ghazis.' 'Terrorism' was not a tactic, it was a long-term strategy. (See invasions and conquests of N.Africa and Byzantium and India.) Physical damage was less the immediate point than psychological warfare. Krugman seems not to have noticed that our contemporary jihadis have already succeeded in nullifying our First Amendment to the degree that his newspaper dares not reprint 'blasphemous' cartoons or other criticisms of 'The Prophet.' You 'get away from the fear' by Submitting (which is what Islam actually means). How familiar is Krugman (and our distinguished host) with the Islamic world? Some of us who have lived and worked extensively there are not so sanguine that our only worry should be about what crazy Republicans (or crazy French socialists?) do to retaliate, or better yet, to destroy the source of the virus. Michel Houllebecque's novel Submission my prove just as prophetic as The Camp of the Saints has been.

E. Harding writes:

Deer and peanut allergies are pretty dangerous, though, and there are measures taken by gov'ts to prevent agäinst thēm.

Michael Byrnes writes:

Who is McCain (the Senator?) and what does he have to do with this post?

Michael Byrnes writes:

Never mind... (I'm going to go hide in the corner with the dunce cap).

David R. Henderson writes:

@Lawrence Franko,
Krugman, and I suspect our distinguished host as well, may have studied many things, but it looks as if they never studied the history of the Islamic invasions over the past 1400 years. The Islamic 'way of war' was based on pin prick, ultra violent raids (Razzias) meant not Just to kill people, but to intimidate and demoralize the infidel by, among, other things making the terrorized, fearful population imagine that the invader was indeed 'the strong horse,' to use Bin Laden's terminology.
I don’t know if you realize this, but the second sentence in what I quoted from you above is saying, in different words, the main message from the Krugman paragraphs above and the Mueller paragraphs.

Anonymous writes:

A point I thought of the other day when someone I was discussing this with raised the question: "why just target airplanes? Why wouldn't they just blow themselves up in the airport lobby in a big crowd of people? They'd get just as many." One advantage to targeting planes is that it's just about possible to enact severe restrictions to boarding a plane, enough to make everyone's life a little bit more miserable. If they targeted just big crowds, that's not something any feasible law can address. So possibly a terrorist gets more mileage out of attacking in ways that it's plausible governments will respond to - leaving a much larger legacy than they would if all they did was kill some people and make everyone else feel uneasy for a little while.

Colombo writes:

Terrorism is politics.

We shouldn't dignify terrorism by saying it is different from politics. The bread and butter of all political strategy is the manipulation of fear. Fear is not scarce, but it is a valuable asset nonetheless.

Fear is the stuff all politics is made from. The deaths caused by terrorism are just a faster and farther reaching version of all the other kinds of violence that happen in everyday politics, a mostly bloodless (or far away bloody) reality that people seem to love.

Three ingredients for a man of the 21st century: ignorance, boredom and noise. Not good.

Am I missing something?

Lawrence Franko writes:

@David Henderson
Not quite. Krugman (and you?) seem to think that the only 'wrongheaded response' is to (over)
react via some allegedly counterproductive Bush-Cheney counterattack. Another 'wrongheaded response,' but alas an all to typical one, is for the one(s) attacked to turn inward and blame themselves for the attack, lose hope, and eventually surrender. Especially if the attacks are multiple over a long period of time, and aimed at wearing down the victim. ("Terror is not a tactic, it is a strategy." TM) Have you ever known a woman in an abusive marriage? Alas, my daughter has been in two of them. Repeated attack, wear down the victim, victim loses confidence in herself, eventually adopts attacker's view of herself... Fortunately, my daughter woke up after a while, but will Western Civilization? Or rather will our Dear Leaders wake up? They, alas, seem deaf, dumb, and blind to the threat...not to mention hopelessly ignorant of Islamic and Arab history.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

wrongheaded response' is to (over)
react via some allegedly counterproductive Bush-Cheney counterattack.

Was there ISIS before the US invaded Iraq? Nope. Sounds pretty counterproductive to me.

John S writes:

the number of Americans killed over the same period by lightning, accident-causing deer, or severe allergic reaction to peanuts

Aren't you ignoring the non-zero probability of a catastrophically destructive attack such as a dirty bomb (and the resultant psychological and economic damage)?

Even if the probability of such an attack is low, its "expected value" is great enough to warrant increased caution in Europe, including a re-evaluation of Merkel's open-door policy.

John T. Kennedy writes:

"Fly on the damn plane! Calculate the odds of being harmed by a terrorist!"

What tends to keep me off planes these days is not fear but the intolerable inconvenience and indignity heaped on travelers by the TSA.

Am I wrong in assuming McCain is a fan of the TSA?

John T. Kennedy writes:

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Raghav Aras writes:

"....the biggest danger terrorism poses to our society comes not from the direct harm inflicted, but from the wrong-headed responses it can inspire."

In other words, the dead bodies are not the greatest harm, but the response we conceive is. Perfectly collectivist thinking, because dead bodies are just numbers. If Krugman had lost a son or a daughter in the massacre, he would have known what the greatest harm inflicted is.

David R. Henderson writes:

@John T. Kennedy,
Am I wrong in assuming McCain is a fan of the TSA?
I don’t think you’re wrong. Weird, isn’t it?
@Raghav Aras,
In other words, the dead bodies are not the greatest harm, but the response we conceive is.
You’re writing as if you think that government’s responses have not caused many more people to die. But that’s not true. I think you and I can agree that TSA was a response to 9/11. Given the cost that TSA has imposed on air travel, and assuming a reasonable elasticity of demand for short flights, when we add the assumption that even 10% of short flights will instead be made by car, TSA has now caused more people to die than were murdered by the terrorists on 9/11.

John B writes:

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Nick writes:

I would not so quickly dismiss the idea that far fewer people would fly without an invasive TSA screening process. The short term flight/driving tradeoff likely pales in comparison to the overall reduction in flyers from returning to a pre-9/11 TSA. Under those assumptions, TSA actually saves lives. You may call a decision to fly without an invasive TSA irrational, it's another thing to say it wouldn't happen in the real world. Our collective "irrational" reaction terrorism still represents real costs in the world above and beyond the discrete event. Arguing that fear shouldn't exist is conceptually distinct from arguing that it doesn't exist and impose real costs on our economy.

Raghav Aras writes:

@David R. Henderson

The manner in which a death occurs is important. A death in an accident is one thing, a homicide quite another. The criminal aspect must be confronted, it's in our nature.

Secondly, those who die in plane accidents know they run a risk of dying in an accident. They voluntarily accept this risk. However, in Paris one does not expect to be machine gunned while attending a concert (neither would one accept the risk of being machine gunned inside a plane, so government's response of banning arms aboard is apt).

Government's duty is to protect one person from harm knowingly caused by another person, not the choices a person makes himself.

Jon Murphy writes:
Government's duty is to protect one person from harm knowingly caused by another person, not the choices a person makes himself.

But if the government's actions cause individuals to choose relatively more risky options (driving) vs relatively less risky ones (flying), isn't it failing in that duty? After all, my death in a car accident can be the result of other people's decisions (getting behind the wheel of a car drunk, for example).

Jon Murphy writes:

(Sorry for the spam comment, Raghav. I shouldn't have ended my previous comment so quickly)

Furthermore, if government action increases the risk of knowing homicide against an individual, couldn't one say it failed in that duty? For example, the war in Iraq has helped fuel the case for Islamic extremism (regardless of whether or not the invasion was justified). That, in turn, increased the change of being killed in a terrorist attack (however marginally). Therefore, one could argue the invasion of Iraq in the name of counterterrorism caused the government to fail in its duty to reduce a citizen's risk, no?

Raghav Aras writes:

@Jon Murphy

Well, this issue is not one of the number of deaths, as understood by Krugman. It is of government's measures against one particular source of death: homicide.

(otherwise, one can discuss any measure the govt takes that influences people's choices: flights vs car travel is but one example).

Suppose the French government does absolutely nothing in response to this carnage. Suppose another band of terrorists repeats this in 6 months in Paris, another 150 killed. Can the French President then say: "we estimated that any measure we could take would lead eventually to more deaths since they would influence people's choices, so we decided to do nothing"? I wouldn't think so.

The harm an individual brings upon himself is different from a harm one individual knowingly does to another.

My opinion about Islamic extremism is different: I think it is mainly a result of Islam's teachings. We don't see Vietnamese extremism, or Korean extremism exported to other countries. So personally I don't think US response to 9/11 had a major impact on Islamic extremism.

Dic White writes:

Assume for a moment there was no invasion of Iraq. Bush, like Reagan at Beirut, chose words over bullets. Do the commentators on this site believe that the events/bombings of Khobar Towers, the Cole and other such acts of tangible unrest were simply random events akin to severe allergic reactions, lighting and auto accidents?
Is the message here that this is an imperfect world and such events should be viewed as examples of random albeit unfortunate ones?
BTW, this post is not sarcasm but a genuine effort at understanding not only of what this unusual (and terrifying) behavior is but also on what, if anything, people, communities and nations should do about it.

Jesse C writes:

As early as five days after 9/11, Krugman effectively blamed the attacks on a lack of TSA. Since all we need to do to prevent attacks is federalized airport security, we really do have little to fear - we've taken care of the problem. Indeed, he insinuated (nearly asserted) that the attacks would not have been possible with government-run airport security.

Apparently the security staff at concert venues in France need to be trained by and provided by the government as well.

JK Brown writes:

The greatest threat of terrorism is to government, hence the often outsized government reactions and the incitement of the population to distract it from government's failure.

We call the social apparatus of compulsion and coercion that induces people to abide by the rules of life in society, the state; the rules according to which the state proceeds, law; and the organs charged with the responsibility of administering the apparatus of compulsion, government. --Mises, Ludwig von, Liberalism (pp. 35-36).

A government that cannot protect itself or the people who granted it the monopoly on violence is headed for illegitimacy. This goes double when those charged with overseeing the government refuse or deny the threat.

When lightening strikes, deer run into traffic or bees sting the allergic, no one see that as a failure of government, but when terrorist kill hundreds with impunity and are shown to have arrived via programs run by governing politicians, that puts the government, or in these modern times, the administrations, on crumbling ground.

Striking in Syria, etc., will be the bumbling behemoth striking out to circumvent the more logical reactions by the populations of carrying arms to stop terrorists when they reveal themselves and the irrational acts of striking out at those who resemble the terrorists in ethnicity or religion.

Harvey Cody writes:

So much smoke without noticing the fire!

Whether or not Henderson, Krugman, et. al. are correct, there is a problem which is mentioned, but ignored by these people – human nature. These people are saying human nature is flawed because statistics show that human responses to various threats are irrational. No kidding! It is irrational to assume that he irrationality of humans can be ignored.

The real world demonstrates the human response to terrorism leads to a diminution of liberty via several routes. That is the primary damage terrorism inflicts. Though the topic is ignored by Henderson, Krugman, et. al., their prescription to dealing with the terrorism’s primary problem is to try to instill rational thinking on an irrational populous – a populous which not listening.

The remedy for the danger of terrorism prescribed by Henderson, Krugman, et. al. will lead to less liberty.

Levi writes:

I agree on the wrong-headed responses.

A right-headed response is to learn more about armed self-defense. Learn how to shoot a pistol and get a license to carry one.

Plucky writes:

The analogy to lightning is a telling one. "Struck by lightning" is usually almost always meant in the sense of something that is truly, utterly, completely random. The classic example of the extremely rare, extremely negative tail risk that one just has to accept as the price of living.

Except that it's not. "Struck by lightning" is only fully random to an actuary. To any normal person with actual everyday decisions to make, there is an obvious cue that affects the probability of getting struck by lightning: Storms. When the sky is clear, the risk of being killed by lighting is zero. When you see a flashing thunderhead 20 minutes away, you become distinctly aware that risk, while still extremely small, is also definitely not zero.

Most importantly, we do use that knowledge to inform our behavior. If there's lightning in the distance, or we think a thunderstorm is imminent, we alter our plans. Most obviously, we suspend sports events. Doing so is explicitly written into the rules (http://www.littleleague.org/learn/programs/asap/lightning.htm http://www.littleleague.org/Assets/forms_pubs/asap/WeatherItsSafeToPlay.pdf). I am sure it is possible to come up with a model in which this decision is sub-optimal, but if that were done all it would do is prove that the model is stupid. When 7-year olds whine to their parents about being kept out of open fields during a thunderstorm, it's not the parents behaving irrationally. The rate of death due to lightning strikes has a selection bias built in. It is partially dependent on the fact that people alter their behavior in response to (broadly accurate, if imprecise and subject to bias) changes in perception of the risks of getting struck.

Having clarified what actually happens with lightning, what does this mean for the terrorism analogy? Is terrorism actually like lightning? If so, then it would be rational (in the economic sense of behaving consistently) to respond to it like lightning- go through most of life knowing that risk is zero, and intentionally alter our behavior in the circumstances we know it is uncomfortably larger than zero.

This is where the lightning analogy gets ridiculous, and Mueller's argument goes bad. No one takes seriously the guy who says, "If you don't send the kids out into the thunderstorm, then Zeus has won!" We don't lionize people who, as a matter of principle, intentionally expose themselves to lighting risk and get themselves struck; we call them idiots who (we think but don't say because its impolite) asked for it. If (more accurately, "when") we respond to terrorism in this way, we do take seriously the "...then the terrorists have won" argument. And yet, this is exactly what Mueller recommends, despite his earlier proposition that we not worry about terrorism because over 40 years the risk of death to Americans is on the same order of magnitude as lightning.

If death-by-terrorism and death-by-lightning-strike have similar statistical profiles, and yet we recommend starkly different strategies to deal with that risk, what does that say? It says that we all understand that there are important differences in the nature of the risk, and that we know that the solution involves group behavior.

In econ/game-theory-speak, what terrorist are doing is trying to create a repeated-game prisoner's-dilemma problem. If individuals cannot coordinate, then the rational response is as described above- avoid the situations in which the risk of death-by-terrorism gets uncomfortably large. That is what "terrorists win" looks like. Now, as any economist would know, the key in a repeated-game prisoner's dilemma problem is coordination. If every individual can be convinced that the coordination strategy is superior to the everyone-fend-for-themselves strategy, then it can stick and will indeed actually be superior. That is what "we don't let the terrorists win" looks like. Organizing and promoting such a coordination strategy is exactly what political and intellectual leaders are supposed to do, so in that sense Obama, Krugman, and McCain are doing what they ought.

However, also as any economist knows, coordination strategies in game-theory settings are extremely fragile and borderline impossible to recreate once they fail. They are particularly difficult when coordination must take place in the absence of any explicit enforcement mechanism. "Enforcement mechanism" in the context of this terrorism game theory problem entails things that are all fundamentally incompatible with a free society. Thus, there the coordination strategy must be based on trust and goodwill.

Furthermore, any economist should also know that as soon as any randomness is admitted into the model, the odds that a coordination strategy succeeds plummets when the repeated-game is open-ended rather than closed-ended. Here is where the Obama/Krugman-line of thought is not only wrong but deeply irresponsible given their positions. Anyone organizing a coordination strategy must as part of that strategy organize it from a closed-ended perspective. In ordinary English that means treating terrorism as a problem to be "defeated" rather than "managed". As soon as the organizer admits that the problem is open-ended, then failure becomes vastly more likely. Thus, the organizer must describe the problem as closed-ended even if he privately disagrees. Because of the "trust and goodwill" that is also necessary for the strategy to work, the organizers not only have to say the right things but also act in ways that are consistent with them in order to maintain credibility. If you aren't capable of doing that, then you have no business being a leader.

James writes:

'accident-causing deer'

Sure. But we accept the risk that deer will cause accidents because there is a benefit to having deer around the place (they look nice, and you can eat them).

Remind me how many wolves there are in Europe these days? I live in the UK and we decided that the risk posed to humans by wolves in a densely populated island outweighed the benefits (they look nice). So we eradicated the wolves.

I accept there may be some benefits to some muslim (and non muslim) immigration (we have quite a few muslim doctors, for instance, because we don't seem to have bothered to train enough of our own), but I have yet to have it explained to me what are the benefits to me and my family and my people of allowing any islamist terrorists into my country.

I also have yet to have explained to me the way in which one identifies the few suicidal homicidal maniacs in the general herd of nice muslims, and for that reason, and until we establish such methods, I don't want any more muslims coming to the UK. I know there are Americans who feel the same way vis a vis the USA, and I side with them.

Lawrence D'Anna writes:

"dignify it with the name of war"

That phrase really rubs me the wrong way. War may sometimes be a necessary activity but it is never a dignified one.

Chris Wegener writes:

I'm late to this party but...

It always amuses me when people complain about the TSA or other security activities that are put in place because, surprise, there are people that try and blow up or hijack planes. The TSA is not the problem but the people that would destroy planes or hijack the passengers.

Would the people that complain about the TSA be okay with eliminating airport security and occasionally have planes blow up or be hijacked as they once were? Would they still fly?

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