Delivering Information

Timothy B. Clark

Risk management and the Pursuit of Happiness.

Sometimes you have to wonder just what possesses the people who plan and execute the policies the federal government pursues. Why do they do what they do? How can they possibly believe the data they peddle to support the actions they want to take-or decline to take? How can they, with straight faces, pretend that what they are selling will actually solve the problems we encounter?

Well, one answer is that these officials are trying to make people happy by doing as much or as little as needed to make them think that government is protecting their interests.

The Pursuit of Happiness is one of our inalienable rights. People are not happy if they don't feel safe, and now that we're so preoccupied with terrorism (not to mention bird flu), government is trying to make us feel that way. There isn't enough money (or wisdom) to protect us against all the bad stuff that could come our way (chemical plants blowing up, for instance), so officials spread the paltry wealth, a little here and a little there. Perhaps people will feel safer, and happier, if they think something is being done.

But you begin to think that a lot of wool-pulling is going on when you examine, as Zack Phillips does this month, how government decides how much to spend, and where to spend it, for programs such as grants to local governments for terrorism preparedness. Who says $2 billion is the right number? How have officials reached the view that we needed 25 million doses of anthrax vaccine, not the 75 million they first said were required?

What makes Gen. David Petraeus think that 160,000 troops will do the job now in Iraq? Why are the military and Congress in cahoots to tolerate huge cost overruns on virtually every major weapons system? Where do all these big round numbers come from?

What's up at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which according to Katherine McIntire Peters' account is stuck in the dark ages in terms of facilities, technology and people it needs to cope with an expected surge of demand for licensing? How can NRC recruit the whizzes in science and engineering when it can't even offer them the Microsoft Office or BlackBerry systems everyone in the private sector uses? Are we heading for meltdown at the Census Bureau, by placing complex technology into the hands of 525,000 untechnocratic enumerators who are expected to visit 108 million homes in 2010? What if these hand-held GPS-dependent devices don't work? (Answer: no backup plan.) Why, Allan Holmes wonders this month, were basic principles of risk management so casually ignored?

Why are we rushing into expensive and subsidized ethanol production at the cost of higher prices for corn-based food products? Do we really need to be spending huge amounts of money (we don't have) to subsidize prescription drugs for millions of seniors, regardless of their ability to pay? Oh, well, who's counting?

And now to the central question: Is everybody happy?

Tim Signature
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