On Rethinking Homeland Security, Or, Let’s Invest In These Defense Technologies

It has been a pattern in these discussions to begin with a proposition, and today is no exception.

Specifically, I propose that the current Administration, as well as others before it, have misunderstood what investments are needed to create real National Security for this country.

That war fought, and weapons used, don’t create the real security all Americans desire.

In order to properly consider what investments are really needed, we need to identify our most important Homeland Security risks. With that in mind, let’s create a short list, in no particular order.

Public Health and Safety. Disasters happen every year. Avian flu is on the way. The possibility of biological or chemical attacks, by Americans and non-Americans alike, cannot be ignored. The only way to control such events is to contain them, which requires a population willing to go to the doctor, and a stockpile of supplies handy. If you have a portion of the population who are afraid of the bill, you have a problem. If you inadequately fund stockpiling initiatives, you have bigger problems. In an emergency, this could be fatal for entire communities.

Ignorance. In “The Fog Of War” Robert McNamara reminds us: “Belief and seeing are both often wrong.”. If you have not seen the film, do so now. Note with particular interest the discussion of the misunderstandings on both sides regarding each other’s intentions and motivations during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Ignorance is dangerous, and investments in education and understanding of the world equal more security for everyone.

Climate Change. Nothing threatens our peace and stability in this century more than the prospect of hundreds of millions of displaced refugees-millions of them citizens of our own country. Not to mention the changes in agriculture and the loss of real estate investments. For that matter, what about the industrial complexes along the Mississippi River and the Intercoastal Waterway? Ports across the nation? Investing in solutions now is much, much cheaper than responding to the disaster later.

Loss Of Respect. The Cold War was as much a victory of international perception and economics as it was a military confrontation. Our ability to be accepted as an “honest broker” is worth more in international dispute resolution situations than an air wing, a carrier battle group, a Marine Expeditionary Force, and two Army Divisions combined.

Having created a list, let’s now address the question of how we might frugally invest in each area to really be more secure.

Public Health. There are several areas for investment that cry out for attention.

For starters, we need national health care for all citizens. Whether a single-payer, or Government operated, or somehow privately financed system is your preference, there’s no doubt that, simply from a National Security/ability to respond in an emergency point of view we must be able to quickly offer the access to care to every American. It is just not reasonable to expect that we will somehow be able to quarantine and serve all the affected citizens in an “attacked” (or avian flu infected, or “disastered”) area. There’s even an argument to be made that a generally healthier public is in itself a sort of Civil Defense issue.

Can we afford it? We spent $1.7 trillion on health care in the US in 2004. Divide by a population of 300 million; you get $5600 per citizen. That’s twice what it costs per month for Washington State’s Basic Health Plan (pick any county when you get to the page-the price is the same).

FEMA and the CDC have a role here as well, and we should be stockpiling the things today that Katrina has taught us we are lacking. Basic things, like tarps and water and radios, and antibiotics. This practice is expensive, and wasteful; after all you risk buying some supplies over and over (antibiotics and batteries, for example), but we’re engaged in much more wasteful practices today in the name of National Security.

Ignorance is not bliss. Our national Security situation today would be far, far better if we simply had a better educated public, and a Nation that better understood the cultures and motivations of the other Nations that see us, for better or worse, as The Superpower.

There have to be ways to inexpensively communicate these facts to our citizens. Perhaps a character like Smokey the Bear could be created to advance knowledge about others (“Only you can prevent international ignorance”). Maybe a game show-a sort of “Jeopardy” meets “American Idol” of international culture, geography, and general knowledge. It seems reasonable that if there’s a million dollars to be won, Americans will pay attention to the rest of the planet. (George Soros-are you listening?)

Crime is also damaging to National Security, and far more Americans are victims of this form of terrorism than any other. Crime is also, I submit, something that can be reduced through education. Education equals employability, and having a job you enjoy makes you much less likely to go out at night and rob someone. Education also advances equality for all citizens-and that’s real National Security.

Education isn’t cheap, you’re probably thinking, but consider this: According to the Administrative Office of the United States Courts and the California Postsecondary Education Commission you could send a student to any of 16 major colleges for a year for much less than the annual cost of incarceration in a Federal prison. College graduates (read: taxpayers) versus criminals? Cost savings to boot? Which one looks like a better National Security investment to you?

Climate Change is the big one, as we said. Interested in some numbers? Consider the effect of $150 billion a year in insurance claim payouts on your premiums. Consider that Katrina, which displaced at least a million people, cost over $120 billion in the first year of recovery alone, with much, much more to be spent. The 2005 population of Florida is estimated at just a bit under 18,000,000. Suppose one-third were displaced by the rise of sea level. That suggests $720 billion of current dollars just to assist a small subset of all potentially displaced Americans.

I propose a Manhattan Project sort of initiative to retrofit, invent, refine, and prevent our way out of this change.

Half a trillion dollars spent today will seem cheap later.

Which brings us to respect. The strategic value of reputation to the Nation cannot be underestimated. When we act in a manner consistent with our own highest ideals, it is a substitute for occupation forces, it bonds other nations to us, and it is the most cost-effective way to ensure we remain secure. Why? Because reputation is earned in inexpensive ways, like foreign aid, or granting more education visas-sometimes even with bribery. Maybe even a Peace Ship

Compare just this $12 billion or so spent by the Department of Homeland Security to the $359 million Peace Corps budget in the 2004 fiscal year. In terms of increasing National Security, when examining these two expenses, what cost-benefit analysis might you infer? (By the way-in 2004 210,000 enlistees joined the military, 4,800 joined the Peace Corps. Imagine if those numbers were more equal?)

So let’s boil all this down to a few talking points:

Fighting wars doesn’t always make you more secure as a Nation.

On the other hand, spending money making America healthier, making America smarter, and making America more engaged in the world will make us more secure as a Nation.

The more the world respects America, the more secure America will be.

The best part: all of this can be done for about the same money we’re spending now-or less.

Candidates, are you listening?