Monday, January 18, 2010

On making people stupider

Posting has been sparse of late, because (inter alia) Your Editor is holed up and trying to get some stuff about the press and the public perception of terrorism into presentable form, but every now and then something just yanks the old chain. Today, it's the mind-bendingly toolish Jonah Goldberg, holding forth at the National Review Online (the "he" is Tom Friedman, whose Sunday NYT column is quoted in the inset):

In column after column it goes like this: China's awesome. America's not, but it could be if it became more like China and bossed around its citizens and businesses without paying heed to their wishes. Dick Cheney's wrong. ...You'd at least think he'd grow weary of telling us how envious he is of China's leaders. He at least waters down the sycophancy with a mention of Taiwan this week:

Am I going isolationist? No, but visiting the greater China region always leaves me envious of the leaders of Hong Kong, Taiwan and China, who surely get to spend more of their time focusing on how to build their nations than my president, whose agenda can be derailed at any moment by a jihadist death cult using exploding underpants.

Oh, foul democracy! How easily distracted you are by murderous terrorist conspiracies! If only we could have a system where such deaths could be written-off as the cost of doing business and kept out of the papers.

News flash. That's exactly the system we have. Death is one of the costs of doing business, and that's what keeps most deaths out of the papers. If you start counting at Christmas, as it turns out, theft prevention at Wal-Mart has cost more lives in the Detroit metro area than jihadist terrorism. Of course it was "kept out of the papers" where Jonah Goldberg lives. No doubt those papers were asking whether the president was spineless or just cowardly.

If you add them all up, we had half a dozen theft/auto/stupidity deaths last week alone -- six more people, not to put too fine a point on it, than died at the hands of the Pantybomber. By any rational standard, you're a lot safer on the plane from Amsterdam. As soon as you pick up your bags, leave the parking deck, and swing onto I-94 for the eastern burbs, you risk running into the "cost of doing business" coming the other way at 90 mph with $50 worth of stolen products from the drugstore.

Six deaths, of course, is a small fraction of the monthly traffic death toll* across the country, but it would be huge in terrorism terms. That's because very, very, very few Americans die from terrorism. Those deaths aren't, and almost certainly never will be, "written off as the cost of doing business" and ignored in the press. Three drunks being put off a plane in London wouldn't have been headlined as a "terror case" in the Freep if "the papers" didn't have a finger permanently poised over the panic button.

Terrorism is a risk that reflects the cost of doing business in the modern world --- like driving, or living near a coal-fired power plant, or working in the area that coined the term "going postal" for workplace violence. The risk of terrorism can't be eliminated, but it can be mitigated.

Mitigation is a fairly boring part of the risk equation. It doesn't have the bring-'em-on appeal of an old-fashioned ass-kicking; it's likely to involve stuff like construction codes** and passive restraints. And it's often difficult to see a linear relationship between mitigation efforts and concrete outcomes. If a national high-speed rail system actually cuts the amount of money going to rentier states in the Middle East, we may never be able to measure a change in the risk of terrorism. That doesn't mean it isn't a good idea.

Which is the problem with Jonah Goldberg's brand of clueless yapping. Goldberg and the NRO gang essentially want the "national agenda," such as it is, held hostage to the Global War on Terror. Not the part of global war that involves, you know, ration stamps or anything unpleasant -- the part where nobody gets to move until the president says the magic words in the right order and admits that Dick Cheney was right all along. That's a stupid way to run government, and it's not a very good way of running counterterrorism either.

Why do the experts at the National Review prefer it when the public is scared and stupid? Don't know. Perhaps someone should ask them.

* Which has dropped dramatically in recent years, due in part to the sort of evil commie bossing-around that brought us airbags and a more-or-less national standard for DUI that's about twice as strict it was 30 years ago. Damn government.
** Meddling bureaucrats!


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home