Risk, Overreaction, and Control

11-M_El_How many people died because of the September 11 attacks? The answer depends on what you are trying to measure. The official estimate is around 3,000 deaths as a direct result of hijacked aircraft and at the World Trade Center, Pentagon, and in Pennsylvania. Those attacks were tragic, but the effect was compounded by overreaction to terrorism. Specifically, enough Americans substituted driving for flying in the remaining months of 2001 to cause 350 additional deaths from accidents.

David Myers was the first to raise this possibility in a December, 2001, essay. In 2004, Gerd Gigerenzer collected data and estimated the 350 deaths figure, resulting from what he called “dread risk”:

People tend to fear dread risks, that is, low-probability, high-consequence events, such as the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001. If Americans avoided the dread risk of flying after the attack and instead drove some of the unflown miles, one would expect an increase in traffic fatalities. This hypothesis was tested by analyzing data from the U.S. Department of Transportation for the 3 months following September 11. The analysis suggests that the number of Americans who lost their lives on the road by avoiding the risk of flying was higher than the total number of passengers killed on the four fatal flights. I conclude that informing the public about psychological research concerning dread risks could possibly save lives.

Does the same effect carry over to other countries and attacks? Alejandro López-Rousseau looked at how Spaniards responded to the March 11, 2004, train bombings in Madrid. He found that activity across all forms of transportation decreased–travelers did not substitute driving for riding the train.

What could explain these differences? One could be that Americans are less willing to forego travel than Spaniards. Perhaps more travel is for business reasons and cannot be delayed. Another possibility is that Spanish citizens are more accustomed to terrorist attacks and understand that substituting driving is more risky than continuing to take the train. There are many other differences that we have not considered here–the magnitude of the two attacks, feelings of being “in control” while driving, varying cultural attitudes.

This post is simply meant to make three points. First, reactions to terrorism can cause additional deaths if relative risks are not taken into account. Cultures also respond to terrorism in different ways, perhaps depending on their previous exposure to violent extremism. Finally, the task of explaining differences is far more difficult than establishing patterns of facts.

(For more on the final point check out Explaining Social Behavior: More Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences, which motivated this post.)

Leadership Targeting and Perverse Incentives

Enrique Pena Nieto with supporters. Photograph: Daniel Aguilar/Getty Images

Enrique Pena Nieto with supporters. Photograph: Daniel Aguilar/Getty Images

If targeting of Drug Trafficking Organization (DTO) leaders in Mexico has contributed to high levels of violence, as I argue in a working paper, then why hasn’t the Mexican government stopped the policy? Under former president Felipe Calderon there were a number of possible answers, included the fact that his get-tough policy toward crime was a major part of his campaign strategy in 2006. But that does not explain why the policy has persisted under the new president.

When Enrique Pena Nieto won the 2012 election he promised that his crime fighting policy would aim to “reduce violence and above all protect the lives of all Mexicans.” The new administration acknowledges that leadership targeting led to increased violence, and a number of experts seem to agree. So why hasn’t the policy been changed?

The answer comes down to cold hard cash, and lots of it. US officials have been strongly supportive of DTO leadership targeting, echoing as it does the American policy of targeting terrorist leaders. And they have backed up that rhetoric with generous funding for Mexican security forces:

On Monday, Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong said the strategy caused a fragmentation of criminal groups that had made them “more violent and much more dangerous,” as they branched out into homicide, extortion, robbery and kidnapping.

The next day, Jesus Murillo Karam, the new attorney general, said in a radio interview that the strategy was responsible for spawning 60 to 80 small and medium-sized organized crime groups.

But just because the strategy has taken some hits doesn’t mean it’s dead. And Peña Nieto, who took office Dec. 1, is unlikely to kill it….

Peña Nieto is also unlikely to jeopardize the generous security assistance provided by the United States, which helped design the kingpin strategy. The U.S. is intimately involved in carrying it out, providing intelligence on drug leaders’ whereabouts and spending millions to strengthen the Mexican security forces who act on that intelligence.

All of which probably explains why, shortly after the ministers’ criticism of kingpin, a top presidential advisor told The Times that the new government had no plans to abandon it.

“That will not stop at all,” said the advisor, who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak on the record.

One can appreciate the rock and hard place between which Pena Nieto finds himself. His party has been criticized for being in the pocket of the cartels, so he cannot afford to look weak. There are also the entrenched interests of the military and police to keep in mind–they have no interest in giving up power. Unfortunately for the tens of thousands of Mexicans who have lost their lives or loved ones to violence over the last seven years, their voice in the government has not kept his word.

DTO Leadership Targeting Increased Violence, Multiplied Cartels

mexico-troopsNow that President Felipe Calderon is out of office, the new administration is attributing the rise in violence to his hardline policies:

With the capture of dozens of drug capos, an achievement trumpeted by Calderon, “we have moved from a scheme of vertical leadership to a horizontal one that has made them more violent and much more dangerous,” Osorio told the heads of the military and the governors of Mexico’s 31 states…

Calderon repeatedly said before leaving office that his forces had captured 25 of Mexico’s 37 most-wanted drug lords, a strategy backed by the U.S. government with hundreds of millions in funding and close cooperation with American law-enforcement, military and intelligence agencies.

Osorio Chong and President Enrique Pena Nieto have promised to adjust Calderon’s strategy in order to move away from a focus on killing and capturing cartel leaders and toward a focus on reducing crimes against ordinary citizens, most important homicides, kidnappings and extortion.

During Calderon’s term Mexico witnessed over 50,000 murders and 25 high-level drug trafficking organization (DTO) leaders were arrested or killed. In the latest draft of a working paper I estimate that this policy was responsible for about 900 additional murders, although this estimate is on the conservative side.

Another new administration official, Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam blamed the leadership targeting strategy for fracturing the cartel:

Murillo Karam told MVS Radio that officials are working to identify all the country’s 60-80 small- and mid-size drug trafficking organizations. In its last public evaluation of the strength of Mexico’s cartels, the Calderon administration issued an August report naming only eight large drug organizations. It had, however, said that at least one cartel, the Beltran Leyva group, had split into smaller fragments after a government offensive that killed its leader.

Murillo elaborated on the new administration’s critique of the Calderon strategy, holding it directly responsible for a rise in kidnappings and related crimes over the last six years.

“It led to the seconds-in-command, generally the most violent, the most capable of killing … starting to be empowered and generating their own groups, generating another type of crime – spawning kidnapping, extortion and protection rackets,” he said.

Dan Trombly points out that more but fewer DTOs may allow the new administration to treat counter-narcotics as a law enforcement issue rather than a military problem. Although this development occurred after the period examined in my paper, it is an interesting development that deserves further study.

The Politics of Beards: Syrian Rebels Edition

Almost all the [Syrian] rebel fighters sport similar facial hair….

Some beards do indeed signify religiosity, especially the bushy Salafist type with only the shadow of a moustache, a style believed by followers to have been favoured by the Prophet Muhammad.

In addition to their religious significance, the beards also have practical and political implications:

Yet many fighters, like Abu Azzam, have beards for other reasons: to seem more devout so as to attract cash from rich conservative donors; to appear more authoritative; to satisfy a personal taste; or simply because their wives like it. “We have no time to shave!” laughs a skinny fighter, bringing up the topic spontaneously.

Despite such jokes, moderate fighters worry that beards may give Westerners a bad impression. Abu Adnan, who leads a small band of fighters in the hills above Latakia, the Assads’ homeland, refuses to be interviewed until he has shaved. Abu Samer, who runs a local revolutionary police station, agrees to meet only after checking that I work for a newspaper rather than a television station. “I know people will interpret my beard the wrong way,” he says. “It’s a bad image to give the revolution.”

From the Economist.

There are some things that just do not fit neatly into existing models of civil war. Nevertheless, bearded rebels are in good company–in their appearance if not their politics. Interestingly enough few American Revolutionaries wore beards and thankfully wigs have fallen out of favor since then.

Fidel Castro

Fidel Castro

Che Guevara

Che Guevara

Ruhollah Khomeini

Ruhollah Khomeini

Do Targeted Killings Work?

Micah Zenko at the Council on Foreign Relations rounds up answers from Daniel Byman (sometimes), Joshua Foust (maybe), Sarah Holewinski (probably not), Patrick Johnston (yes, if targeted selectively), and Pir Zubair Shah (probably, at least in Pakistan).

I have explored this question myself, as it pertained to Osama bin Laden (both before and after his death) and the removal of cartel leaders in Mexico. The latter question–whether leadership removals in Mexican drug-trafficking organizations leads to more or less violence–is the topic of one of my current working papers (somewhat outdated draft).

Work on Important Problems

Late last week, I tweeted a quote from Jeff Hammerbacher that I found through a talk by Shane Becker:

The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.

This reminded me of the now-famous motto of Peter Thiel’s VC firm (often attributed to Thiel himself):

We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.

I see two reasonable reactions: continue with the current flow, or try to re-orient your efforts to make important contributions. No matter what field you are in, who you work for, or where you live, you can contribute to a better world. It starts with asking yourself the questions:

What is the most important thing you could be working on right now? What is the most important thing you are working on?

For most of us, the answers to those two questions will not be the same. And of course, even being able to answer the questions accurately is a huge first step. (Feel free to stop here and go answer them.)

If you are an academic struggling with this step–I feel scarcely qualified to share answers beyond that small part of the world–you might consider some of the grand scientific challenges recently published in Physics and Society by Dirk Helbing. Here are the challenges for my field:

1. How to reach a balance of power in a multi-polar world (between different countries and economic centers, between the worlds of business and politics, between individual and collective rights)?
2. How to promote security and peace (e.g. avoid organized crime, terrorism, social unrest)?
3. What are the contributing factors and dynamics of conflict? How to avoid, overcome or moderate conflict, or turn it into a creative force? How to facilitate a peaceful interaction of people with incompatible values and diverse cultural back- grounds?
4. What contributes to the spreading of crime and corruption, and how to counteract it?
5. What is the origin of social and economic inequality? How can poverty and precarious living conditions be reduced? How much inequality is beneficial for socio-economic progress, and how can it be stabilized?
6. How to increase the quality of life, satisfaction, and well-being of people? How to reduce suicide rates?
7. How to promote public health (increase food safety; reduce the spreading of epidemics, obesity, smoking, or unhealthy diets…)?

New Feature: Reading Lists

Several colleagues have recently asked me to curate reading lists for them, either to brush up on an unfamiliar subject or as the basis for part of a survey course. I have decided to include these lists on a new page, and to generate new lists from time to time.

To kick off this feature, I have included two lists. The first is a basic overview of economics and economic history. This list is intended for someone who already has a basic familiarity with the topic, but wants to refresh their knowledge or consider some other perspectives. The second is a brief survey of the security studies literature, with multiple options in each sub-category. It is intended as an introduction to the topic at the undergraduate level. Graduate students or professors who use this list should note that many of the works on the list are controversial.

Suggestions for amending the existing lists or topics for future lists are welcome in the comments section.

The Future of Checkpoint Security

Those who know me in person follow me on Twitter are probably aware of my disdain for current TSA procedures. However, there is a glimmer of hope in this article from USA Today. The article describes new technology to be deployed at Dallas’s Love Field over the next few years.

Here’s the problem:

The Federal Aviation Administration projects the number of passengers flying inside the USA will nearly double in the next 20 years, to 1.2 billion. Security has slowed since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Before then, about 350 people passed through checkpoints each hour, the IATA says. A November survey at 142 airports found processing times fell to 149 an hour, with the worst at 60, Dunlap says.

The proposed solution will involve implementing technology to identify the “riskiest” passengers and expose them to additional scrutiny, while letting most passengers move through much more quickly and conveniently than they can today. I have some privacy concerns, but benefits are tangible:

Passengers would walk with their carry-ons through a screening tunnel, where they’d undergo electronic scrutiny — replacing what now happens at as many as three different stops as they’re scanned for metal objects, non-metallic items and explosives.

Passengers would no longer have to empty carry-ons of liquids and laptops before putting them on conveyor belts for X-ray scans. They could keep their belts and shoes on. They could avoid a backlog at full-body scanners and a finger swab for explosive residue.

Additional scrutiny since 9/11 has indeed stopped several attempts by amateur terrorists hapless idiots, but the unseen cost of increased travel time is immense. This effort to speed up the process is much-needed.

Update: Scientific American says, “Outdated screening rules aren’t making for safer skies—just longer lines.”

Wednesday Nerd Fun: The Setup

The Setup is a cool new site with interviews from all kinds of nerd heroes: designers, photographers, engineers, programmers, and so on. The interviews are all structured basically the same. First, the interviewee is asked about what they do, and they usually answer by describing both their professional and personal lives (note how many of them mention their home office). Second, what hardware do they use? In the interviews I’ve read, this often means a list of 3-4 key devices. Finally, the interviewee mentions the software they use most often. This is where I’ve seen the most variation between interviews.

XKCD on Computer Problems

Here are some fun ones:

Kellan O’Connor, SpaceX

Drew Conway, NYU

James Freeman, Blue Bottle Coffee

Paul Graham, essayist and YCombinator chief

Benjamin Mako Hill, MIT

Paula Pell, NBC (she includes coffee as hardware)

Eric Raymond, open source developer

why, Internet rodent (and author of the Poignant Guide to Ruby)

Stephen Wolfram

The full list is here. Enjoy!

Peru Claims Shining Path ‘Defeated’

The capture of Peruvian terrorists, brought to you by Gatorade

From the BBC:

[Peruvian President] Humala said the capture of Shining Path leader Freddy Arenas this week signalled the end of the Maoist guerrillas in the Alto Huallaga Valley.

The Shining Path posed a major challenge to the Peruvian state in the 1980s but has since dwindled.

Small gangs remain in the south-east, where they run much of the drug trade.

The announcement came a day after Peruvian security forces made public the arrest of Mr Arenas in the Alto Huallaga Valley….

The security forces said Mr Arenas, better known as Braulio, took over the leadership of the Shining Path in the region after the arrests earlier this year of previous leaders Comrade Artemio and Walter Diaz.

“Not only have we caught the last of the historic leaders, Artemio, but also those leaders who took over from him, totally defeating them,” President Humala told TV Peru.

Readers familiar with Sendero Luminoso will recall that similar remarks were made in the early 1990’s when the organizations founder Guzman was captured. In a May 19, 1993, article in The Guardian, then-president Fujimori was quoted as saying: “The people are convinced terrorism will be overcome and they’re replying by going to work. If we continue like this, Sendero will soon be defeated.”

In December, 1994, the mayor of Ayacucho (the city where Sendero was founded) said “without reservation that the Shining Path no longer exists in the place where it was born,” according to the New York Times. Maybe this time the politicians are right.