David R. Henderson  

The Wall Street Journal's Innumeracy

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"Obama frequently reminds his staff that terrorism takes far fewer lives in America than handguns, car accidents and falls in bathtubs do," reports Jeffrey Goldberg in a lengthy profile of the President's national-security thinking in the Atlantic magazine. Islamic State, Mr. Obama is quoted as telling adviser Valerie Jarrett, is "not coming here to chop our heads off."
This is a quote from an unsigned editorial by the Wall Street Journal's editors, "An Inordinate Fear of Terrorism?", WSJ, March 22, 2016 (print edition is March 23.) Hat tip to Richard Reinsch of our sister site Library of Law and Liberty. Somehow I had missed it at the time.

In making this point, Obama is being numerate, making the same point that Ohio State University political scientist John Mueller made in his modern classic, "A False Sense of Insecurity," Regulation, Fall 2004. Here's the key passage from Mueller that's similar to Obama's point:

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.

The Journal's editors didn't challenge these numbers. They pointed out, citing the Global Terrorism Index published by the Institute for Economics and Peace, that the number of terrorist deaths worldwide in 2015 was a whopping 32,685. What they didn't point out, from the same study they cited, was this:
Over the last 15 years there have been a number of large and devastating terrorist attacks in Western countries. This includes the September 11 attacks which killed 2,996 people, the Madrid train bombings which killed 191, the Norwegian massacre which killed 77 and the London bombings which killed 56. However, it is important to compare these significant events with the more persistent and severe impacts of terrorism occurring in the rest of the world.

Attacks in Western countries accounted for a small percentage incidents, representing 4.4 per cent of terrorist incidents and 2.6 per cent of deaths over the last 15 years. The four large attacks listed above make up 91 percent of deaths from terrorism in the West during this period.


In other words, Obama's sense of the numbers is basically correct.

I am not defending Obama's actions. He often talks a way better game than he plays. I am defending his numeracy.

But the Journal's editors seem to think they have administered the coup de grace with these two sentences:

The economic cost, the IEP adds, is somewhere north of $52 billion, plus another $114 billion that various countries budget for counterterrorism efforts. Last we checked, nobody was spending that kind of money on bathtub safety.

Exactly. But that doesn't cause the Journal's editors to reconsider their views on counterterrorism. Should be look forward to a future WSJ editorial entitled "An Inordinate Fear of Bathtubs?"


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COMMENTS (23 to date)
Jon Murphy writes:

*Sarcastically* Darn, I didn't realize bathtubs were so dangerous! Perhaps we should implement some kind of ban on bathtubs.

MikeP writes:

A comment of mine a couple months ago fits perfectly with this post just by changing "Paris" to "Orlando"....

Overlay the death rate from automobiles on this graph and you'll see how minor the problem of terrorism is -- the graphs showing that it's even more minor today than yesterday. Yet we cope with the risk of car accidents all the time, suffering only minor inconveniences such as seatbelts, a couple thousand dollars per car in mandated safety, and harsher traffic laws that decrease that risk by perhaps half. The reaction to terrorism is not only an order of magnitude more disruptive: disruption is exactly the reaction the terrorists are looking for!

Look at 9/11. $25 billion of physical capital lost. About the same in human capital. Trillions of dollars lost in the reaction, and an outcome in the Middle East that is more conducive to exported terrorism, not less.

It was indeed sad that news media thought they had to move their anchors to Paris after the attacks there. We should all treat terrorism on the ground as a crime perpetrated by asses, not as a change in the way we have to live.

David R. Henderson writes:

@MikeP,
Change “asses” to “evil people” and I completely agree with you.

gwern writes:

Jon: public health researchers are always pointing out that governments (and societies in general) spend disproportionately on risk by threat of death, and yes, household accidents are under-invested in as major causes of QALY loss in the western world. You could just as easily mock concern about elder falling. As always, one man's modus tollens is another man's modus ponens...

Thomas writes:

There are three problems with a Mueller-like view of terrorism. First, terrorism is an additional threat to life, limb, and property.

Second, unlike bathtubs and cars (except where road-rage is involved), terrorists actively seek victims. Terrorists come after people in ways that bathtubs and cars (usually) don't.

Third, I don't know what the alternative is supposed to be. Don't take preventive measures, including the active pursuit of terrorists? Passivity strikes me as an invitation to terrorists to wreak havoc with impunity.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Thomas,
There are three problems with a Mueller-like view of terrorism. First, terrorism is an additional threat to life, limb, and property.
True that it’s additional, but he doesn’t deny that. I don’t see what follows from that.
Second, unlike bathtubs and cars (except where road-rage is involved), terrorists actively seek victims. Terrorists come after people in ways that bathtubs and cars (usually) don't.
That is different, but the point is that the numbers put the size of the threat in perspective, wherever the threat comes from.
Third, I don't know what the alternative is supposed to be. Don't take preventive measures, including the active pursuit of terrorists? Passivity strikes me as an invitation to terrorists to wreak havoc with impunity.
I was not suggesting passivity. If you read this blog site much, you probably know that I’m not passive. I actively want the government to quit destroying our freedom. See what I’ve written, for example, about the TSA. And I certainly think terrorists should actively be pursued. I would even like for people to be allowed to defend themselves with guns against terrorists in bars, as those people in Orlando were not allowed to.

Thomas Lee writes:

Bad (or missing) numeracy leads to disastrous thinking. Look at the presidential candidates' response to Orlando in Justin Raimondo's excellent analysis of the fallout.

http://original.antiwar.com/justin/2016/06/14/candidates-orlando-study-contrasts/

ThaomasH writes:

Whatever the policy issue, there is no substitute for cost-benefit analysis.

All for privatizing the TSA, say, "The net benefit would be ...."

Blackstone writes:

Fully agree with MikeP above.

That said, I don't take Obama's quote, or David, or MikeP to be suggesting that terrorism is not an important concern, just that people need not have an inordinate concern. The size of the threat is not comparable by the numbers, but the mostly unseen efforts of tens of thousands of public and private individuals go to make sure that high-casualty catastrophic events have that exceedingly low likelihood of happening.

So don't have an inordinate fear of terrorism. But that's not to say that the current level of vigilance in guarding against terrorist events is too high--I take the post as saying that your level of vigilance is not too low.

john writes:

You admirably point out that our overseas interventions have unintended and potentially far-reaching consequences ("agree with @MikeP"). And the observed costs associated with those actions are spectacularly high.

But why does in-action not have the same potential for unintended consequence? This is your burden of proof since the status quo has favored intervention and arguably it is an unknowable counterfactual. Obviously the observed costs would be lower and thats a plus in the cost-benefit column. I'd still appreciate to hear your thinking as to why doing nothing would preserve the current terrorist attack levels, or if it would change the rate of terrorism--how much and why so little?

Phil writes:

Thomas asked about the alternative, passivity. It is somewhat illuminating to note that ISIS did not strike a Western target until after Western nations started striking them.

What was the compelling national interest that made us intervene?

What actions by the West (the USA in particular) created the conditions for an ISIS to exist?

Floccina writes:

I am not very pro-gun but Obama seems innumerate about rifles.

Weir writes:

Replace the word "terrorism" with "torture." Is torture a bigger deal than bathtubs? Not even close. Of the three people who were waterboarded, not even one was killed. So bathtubs aren't just thousands of times more dangerous than torture. You could graph it: Bathtub fatalities for the past 15 years going up and up, and waterboarding doesn't nudge above zero.

Dick White writes:

Because the predicate in this discussion is "heads chopped off" or "killed", my observation may be unfair.
Aren't we missing the opportunity cost of the population's anxiety and behavior resulting from the increasing frequency and extent of these international terrorism acts. One's perceived control, as opposed to the statistical reality, of actions like driving vs flying (I'm a good automobile driver but I don't know about the airline pilot) or taking baths (unlike others, I'm careful in the tub) allow us to engage in these statistically dangerous activities enjoying ourselves.
Obama/Mueller may be numerate but it seems like they are
partial-counting here.

Angelo DePalma writes:

You can't avoid terror by installing a handrail, forgoing peanut products, or driving extra carefully. Victims have no control over the outcome, even if they never leave their homes. That's why it's called terror and why it's so effective. I would applaud Obama's numeracy were he to apply it to other policy issues, like guns and global warming. He quotes statistics like the devil quotes scripture, to his own purposes -- not to promote logic and sanity in public policy but to promote his agenda.

Jules Levin writes:

Pearl Harbor took fewer lives than 9/11, and proportional to population, less than 20% of one day's loss at Antietam. So why did we immediately go to war against Japan, at the cost of many more lives and cost? If we had simply persuaded Japan to promise never do it again....?

David R. Henderson writes:

@Jules Levin,
Pearl Harbor took fewer lives than 9/11, and proportional to population, less than 20% of one day's loss at Antietam.
True.
So why did we immediately go to war against Japan, at the cost of many more lives and cost?
Good question.
If we had simply persuaded Japan to promise never do it again....?
There were other options. Take a look at this article I wrote in 2006.

Darwin Throne writes:

An even more staggering comparison is to the 250,000 deaths per year due to medical errors as reported in the Washington Post on May 3rd. Yet no one is calling for an investigation of hospitals or proposing a congressional committee to recommend changes in procedure (thank goodness).

Appealing to citizens fear of the unknown, as in terrorist attacks, is one of the best ways to ramp up government interference in our lives and spend our money to eliminate relatively low risk events. TSA comes to mind.

Zeke5123 writes:

The one problem with comparing automobile deaths with terrorist deaths is that from a probabilistic perspective expected bathtub deaths don't have a fat tail; terrorism does (i.e., nuclear).

With that said, I do generally agree with your statement. We largely over-fear terrorism.

Peter Gordon writes:

We have have made our peace with risks that have been with us for years (driving, walking, flying, etc.) We have no clue about the risks of a terror attack. Every event changes the "ball game."

Brian writes:

What Floccina said. Every time there's a shooting of this kind, Obama goes off on so-called assault rifles, even though rifles as a whole are involved in fewer than 300 deaths per year, and assault rifles even less. Beside being unconstitutional, Obama's obsession with banning so-called assault rifles is far more innumerate than anything the WSJ said about terrorism.

TMC writes:

Cars and bathtubs have an upside we enjoy, and take a risk to continue enjoying. Not so much for the terrorists. I do agree with David, and Obama, on the oversized fear of terror though.

MikeP writes:

The upside that is lost by overreacting to terrorism is freedom and peace of mind.

For the patriotic, I'll even throw in confidence in the moral clarity of one's government.

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