Thursday, December 31, 2009

Proportionate Response

Over at Slate, William Saletan shows once again why he's not to be taken seriously.

In his breathless, tough-guy prose, he lays out why we should all be happy to let TSA do full-body scans. Terrorists can hide bombs anywhere! We're not checking people's crotches, so that's what they'll do! Won't someone think of the children? This is keeping us safe! OK, sure, the TSA said they wouldn't use this on everyone and they've already shown that to be a lie, but hey, the TSA is keeping us safe! It's for our own good! If you're one of those mamby-pamby privacy types, then you just don't understand what a scary dangerous world it is, like tough-guy Saletan!

Okay, so I'm paraphrasing. A bit.

Do the numbers. Fly 20 times a year and your chances of being directly involved in a terrorist incident is about the same as getting hit by lightning that year. Fly daily for the rest of your life, and the risk goes up to almost a tenth of one percent. The marginal utility of forcing everyone to be scanned simply isn't worth it. (There's also the problem of false positives, which Saletan, conveniently, disregards, simply assuming 100% accuracy and 100% discrimination on the part of the technology and the operators.)

The Detroit incident doesn't show the failure of the scanners, it shows the failure of intelligence coordination. If they're already at the airport with explosives, it's already too late. This is theater, not security. But it's easier to install scanners and make it look like you're doing something than it is to actually do something. Particularly when it's something as hard to do and to get right as security. But the full-body scanners are analogous to searching for lost keys by looking under the streetlight because the light's better there.

Yes, there are bad people who want to do us harm. But Saletan has let himself be terrorized (which is, after all, the point of terrorism) into falling for the Yes, Minister fallacy: We must do something. This is something. Therefore we must do this. Instead of recognizing that there are risks, we have to bear them, such is life, he's cowering under the bed and begging TSA to make him feel secure, whether there's any basis for that feeling in reality or not.

Road accidents kill almost 40,000 people per year. That's about one 9/11 per month. But we haven't declared a "war on cars."

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Renting Vs Buying

Megan McArdle on ownership vs renting a house:

For a long time, I didn't care so much about this. I liked the freedom renting gave me. But once you're committed to a city, and another person, that freedom starts looking overrated.
Most of her column is spot-on, and matches with my own experience.. For years I said that owning a house may be part of the American Dream, but isn't part of my dream, and happily rented. And then at some point, something changed. I can't point to a specific incident that pushed me over the edge, though the loud upstairs neighbors certainly helped. Likewise the hassles to get minor stuff fixed that was more important to me than to the landlord, and the inability to make serious modifications, no matter how heartily sick I was of white walls and beige carpet.

And of course I have no idea what Ms. McArdle's thought processes are, or were. But in my case, it wasn't that the freedom to pick up and move at the end of my lease was suddenly overrated; it was that it was no longer as salient. It had been an important factor in my renting for quite a while, but my situation changed; and with those changes, other factors came to the fore as higher priorities. I hadn't been mistaken in valuing that freedom before; but it was no longer as important as it had been.

I resisted the urge to jump in during the boom--running out to buy something because the price has been skyrocketing lately doesn't strike me as too smart--and besides, it took a while to get my finances in order for the down payment and so forth. And I didn't see it as an investment; if it turns into that, great, but mostly it's for a place to live. (Taxes & insurance push the cost up, but the payment on just my note is lower than I was paying in monthly rent.)

And another advantage of owning: my apartment had electric heat, because electric furnaces are cheap to buy & maintain. Which is what the landlord is looking for, since the electric bill is my problem. My utility costs have dropped.

I'm thinking about the home-ownership thing a lot lately, as I just paid my first round of property taxes and ordered some things online for the house. Are there hidden costs? Of course. There are also hidden benefits--I understand the economic argument against the mortgage interest deduction, and broadly agree with it, but as long as it's on the books I'm going to take it all the same.

[and reading back through, this post is particularly living up to the "random musings" title... oh well, i'm on semester break, I'm taking the morning off before going in & working on next semester's coursework.]

Monday, December 28, 2009

Quote of the Day

Nate Silver notes that from October 1999 through September 2009 there has been one terrorist incident per 16,553,385 airplane departures.

Furthermore, "the odds of being on given departure which is the subject of a terrorist incident have been 1 in 10,408,947 over the past decade. By contrast, the odds of being struck by lightning in a given year are about 1 in 500,000. This means that you could board 20 flights per year and still be less likely to be the subject of an attempted terrorist attack than to be struck by lightning."

With a large tip of the hat to Paddy at The Political Carnival.