Friday, June 30, 2006

The Precautionary Principle: Terrorism, Global Warming, and Health Care



(From the Centers for Disease Control, pdf.)

Over at DovBear, et al., my esteemed JAJC colleague Nephtuli refers to what's known as the Precautionary Principle, which is based on a statement by Dick Cheney:

We have to deal with this new type of threat in a way we haven’t yet defined... With a low-probability, high-impact event like this... If there’s a one percent chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response.


Nephtuli goes on to argue that because the potential harm of nuclear terrorism is so great, we must take it much more seriously than a more probable but less damaging event.

This of course makes perfect sense. What's curious here is not the form of Cheney's argument, but its application. Or, more specifically, what's curious is not that he applies it to nuclear terrorism, which I think is appropriate, but that he does not apply it to other situations.

In the comments, Conservative Apikorus points out this discrepancy:

I find it amusing that the right-wingers are now advocating the Precautionary Principle when it can be used to justify their "war on terror," but they totally oppose the principle when it is used to justify strict environmental and safety regulations.


What a great point! What could the Precautionary Principle be more relevant to than the environmental debate? Even the most die-hard skeptic must admit that there's at least a 1% chance of at least a million deaths sometime in the next century if we don't curb global warming! By Cheney's logic, we must treat devastating global warming as a certainty! Why isn't Cheney campaigning for drastic environmental measures?

Similarly, if one looks at the causes of death for Americans, (see above table) some interesting things pop out:

More than 4% of people die from "accidents" each year. Therefore, every single decade, a million Americans die in accidents. Why isn't Cheney doing public service announcements and campaigning for safer cars and highways? Why isn't he fighting for greater OSHA regulations?

And what about heart and respiratory diseases? How many of those are preventable?

During 1995-1999, smoking caused approximately 440,000 premature deaths in the United States annually, leading to 13.2 years of potential life lost for male smokers, and 14.5 years lost for female smokers. (about.com)


Cheney believes that currently illegal drugs should remain illegal. Why isn't he campaigning against tobacco?

And let's not forget about health care! According to Americans for Healthcare, there were 45,000,000 uninsured Americans in 2003, including 8,000,000 children.

How many lives could be saved with universal health care? It's got to be more than a million in the next few decades -- probably much more.

So, Mr. Vice-President, I agree with your logic. Now why don't you please apply it to problems other than terrorism?

I'll leave you with one final thought. We've spent a couple hundred billion dollars in the War in Iraq. Was that the single most efficient way we could have spent that money to prevent preventable American deaths?

29 Comments:

Blogger Ezzie said...

I think the examples you use, at least, are quite weak.

We can campaign for safer driving all we want, but there are still jerks who will cause accidents just as much as there are people who will make innocent mistakes and cause them.

Re: the environment, I'd love to hear a good, solid proposal that is actually cost-effective that should be done. The biggest flaw with the Gore movie is simply that it offered no real solutions.

Furthermore, we generally respect people's rights to choose how they live, so long as they don't affect others. [Please don't go off on a tangent of all the cases where you don't think this is true - the point is we do strive for this.] People choose to smoke, foolishly. Would a ban on smoking accomplish anything, or would it be another Prohibition? I'm guessing the latter.

Meanwhile, while complaining about the costs of the Iraq War, which was clearly voted on by Congress, you ignore the incredible amounts of money wasted on political campaigns and other places. We can always argue that money could be better spent. How about revamping Social Security, so we save trillions over the next few decades?

The simple answer to your post is that the devastation that could be wrought by a single terror attack hurts the country more than the normal day-to-day debates we already have about money. It's also more directly the responsibility of the federal government to worry about national security than to allocate all the nation's funds - we are in a democracy, not a socialistic beauracracy.

6/30/2006 2:03 PM  
Blogger Shlomo said...

'Cost-effectiveness'? Effective to whom? The oil barons? OPEC? GM? It's all about money to some. That's sad. I hope the quality of your life never becomes subject to 'cost effectiveness'. Do you also believe that every human being who is not producing is not 'cost effective' to maintain, thus making him or her redundant?

The purpose of the Gore movie was to inform on the issue, and not necessarily to offer a solution. Did you even see the film?

Revamping (your word for destroying SSI)would NOT save money. In fact, it would cost billions of dollars to make the changes, not to mention that our benefits would become subject to the vagaries of Wall St. with no back up benefit in place. The SSI scam of GW Asshole Bush is nothing more than a round about way to divert public money into private hands so Wall St. has more money to play with. This is exactly what GW did when he ripped off the Texas taxpayer over the Rangers.

Stop being so gullible.

JA makes a good point. "Alarmism" seems to only apply when corporate criminals are worried their empires won't be able to expand as they wish. Environmentnal dangers never seem to worry the corporations because having to care about the world around them is not 'cost effective'.

What other behaviors are cost effective and therefore should be pursued?

1)Pimping: girl does all the work, pimp collects money, customer gets off, no taxes, and no regulations. Also OK in Bible.

2)Slavery: slave does all the work, master collects wealth, customer saves money, no regulations, and no law suits. Also OK in Bible.

3)shall I go on?


As Al Gore so aptly quoted from Upton Sinclair in the film "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on him not understanding it."

6/30/2006 2:50 PM  
Blogger Jewish Atheist said...

Ezzie:

The biggest flaw with the Gore movie is simply that it offered no real solutions.

That's completely untrue! Did you see the movie? At the end, he offers the solutions. He provides a graph with different measures we can take and how much they can all contribute to the solution. I just spent the last 20 minutes trying to find a screenshot, but I failed.

Are you saying that global warming is real, but it will cost too much to fix, so we should continue to ignore it? I'm confused.


SLA,

Hey, try to tone down the rhetoric. :-) We're trying to keep this a civil place.

6/30/2006 3:21 PM  
Blogger Shlomo said...

If you're planning to ban me for speaking my piece, then just do it already.

6/30/2006 4:32 PM  
Blogger Jewish Atheist said...

I don't ban, SLA, or censor. Just asking nicely.

6/30/2006 4:36 PM  
Blogger Ezzie said...

SLA, I think JA's point (thanks) is that you're essentially going against the basic rules and desire of this blog, which is to have intelligent discussion without hateful and disgusting rhetoric.

I have no time now to actually respond. Ya know, Shabbos... :)

6/30/2006 5:24 PM  
Blogger shlemazl said...

Good point. One thing that is missing from your argument is the timeline.

Terrorism is already happening. Terrorist countries are already aquiring nuclear weapons.

Global warming is a threat, but we do have a bit of time to do something about it. In fact, the Bush administration is working on it - promoting nuclear power and CO2 sequestation are but two examples.

7/01/2006 1:50 PM  
Blogger Classmate-Wearing-Yarmulka said...

SL- this is a place for normal, civil interaction. You're more than welcome write like a sailor on your own blog, but please tone it down over here.

7/01/2006 10:46 PM  
Blogger Ezzie said...

JA - No, though I liked the trailer. I was basing my comments on the reviews and critiques I'd read, including by people who actually liked the movie. I apologize - that's what happens when we rely on others for information...

SLA - Our lives are ALL about cost-effectiveness. If there were unlimited resources in the world, I don't think we'd need political parties or government. But we *don't*, so we do.

Re: Social Security, I'm hoping to post a paper I contributed to at some point. Suffice it to say you have no clue what you're talking about other than talking points from the left.

Stop being so full of empty rhetoric. "GW" doesn't gain from Wall St. helping people manage their money - PEOPLE do. Did you know that we'd all make more money if we invested in T-bills than Social Security? That's 0% risk T-Bills (assuming the country doesn't collapse, as SS requires as well). So why should we all be forced to put our money in SS?

Why are corporations "criminals"? What "empires" are you referring to?

The reason the things we pursue must be "cost-effective" is because otherwise, we can't pursue much of anything. My friend working in cancer research was dicussing the very same thing tonight: They're limited in what they can do, simply because the money isn't there. The government puts plenty of money into their research, which actually has been producing incredible results. But that doesn't mean there's enough money to pursue all their lines all the time - just as is true of any lab doing cancer research.

Hmm... I have another idea for a post now. Cost-effectiveness of spending government money. I'll work on this when I have some more time...

7/02/2006 3:51 AM  
Blogger Jewish Atheist said...

Ezzie:

It's a very well-done movie. He stays pretty far away from partisanship and relies on numbers, before-and-after photos, and projections to make his points. He wraps it all up with an itemized list of things we (i.e. humanity) can do to solve it if we start soon. ("No, it's not too late. But it's too late to be sitting around.") He also lists things individuals can do to do their share -- nothing too surprising there -- better lightbulbs, getting an energy audit of your home, efficient transportation, etc.

7/02/2006 11:32 AM  
Blogger Charlie Hall said...

'I'd love to hear a good, solid proposal that is actually cost-effective that should be done'

Raising taxes on tobacco products seems to have done wonders to reduce the smoking rates.

Free university tuition has done wonders in some other countries such as Ireland to boost their economies.

'we generally respect people's rights to choose how they live, so long as they don't affect others'

Oh, come on, Ezzie! You know quite well that is hyperbole. Why were conservatives so upset by Lawrence vs. Texas? And other than Barry Goldwater and William Buckley, what conservatives have supported legalizing marijuana (which doesn't seem to have killed anybody).

'promoting nuclear power '

The Bush administration has done nothing to promote nuclear power other than talk about it. No commercial nuclear power plant has been started in the US since the Carter administration.

'Did you know that we'd all make more money if we invested in T-bills than Social Security?'

The problem of course is that Social Security is not an investment vehicle but a wealth transfer program from the working to the retired. Any program to "fix" it would need to deal with the fact that all those retired and soon-to-be retired folks will still need to be paid their promised benefits that they relied upon.

'things individuals can do to do their share '

Nothing is quite so effective as higher energy prices.

7/02/2006 8:02 PM  
Blogger Classmate-Wearing-Yarmulka said...

Wealth transfers are gonna be really hard when there aren't enough workers to support the retired. Low birthrates+ retiring baby boomers= disaster.

Conservatives weren't upset at lawrence v. texas because they approve of anti-sodomy statutes. They disaprove of the judiciary deciding for them that such laws are wrong.

7/02/2006 9:50 PM  
Blogger Charlie Hall said...

'because they approve of anti-sodomy statutes'

Had they really disapproved of such, they would have led the fight for repeal. In what state did conservatives do such?

7/03/2006 7:30 AM  
Blogger Classmate-Wearing-Yarmulka said...

Probably none, considering that sodomy statutes are silly, and in almost all cases, unenforceable.

7/03/2006 8:38 AM  
Blogger Charlie Hall said...

'and in almost all cases, unenforceable'

There was a conviction in Virginia a few years ago for consensual sodomy.

In addtion, Virginia's courts used to use the state's sodomy and fornication laws as excuses deny child custody, and as a defense in employment wrongful discharge lawsuits. Furthermore, the laws complicated divorce proceedings, as spouses could refuse to testify on self-incrimination grounds. Note that unlike Texas' law that was overturned in Lawrence, Virginia's laws applied to heterosexuals (and technically, even to married couples).

Finally, because sodomy was considered in some states a common law crime, even a legislature's repeal of a sodomy statute would not automatically prevent prosecutions or the Virginia excesses described above. Only a Supreme Court decision could do that. It was the right decision, it was consistent with the law in the majority of states, and it frees us from the government worrying about what we do in the bedroom.

7/03/2006 9:58 AM  
Blogger Charlie Hall said...

'They disaprove of the judiciary deciding for them that such laws are wrong.'

Conservatives are inconsistent. Why did they get so upset at the Supreme Court's keeping out of the New London eminent domain case? Allowing eminent domain for economic development or sports stadia may be bad policy, but by your logic, courts should stay out of things like that.

7/03/2006 10:00 AM  
Blogger Ezzie said...

Oh, come on, Ezzie! You know quite well that is hyperbole. Why were conservatives so upset by Lawrence vs. Texas? And other than Barry Goldwater and William Buckley, what conservatives have supported legalizing marijuana (which doesn't seem to have killed anybody).

I kind of figured someone would mention those two. Regarding Lawrence, I agree with CWY. I can't give you a good reason people shouldn't be for legalizing marijuana; I'd assume that most politicians simply know it's unpopular with voters.

The problem of course is that Social Security is not an investment vehicle but a wealth transfer program from the working to the retired. Any program to "fix" it would need to deal with the fact that all those retired and soon-to-be retired folks will still need to be paid their promised benefits that they relied upon.

It's a terrible "wealth transfer" program. As CWY said, it's headed for disaster. In reality, it should be an investment program to ensure that people can actually retire at a certain point in their lives if they so choose.

Raising taxes on tobacco products seems to have done wonders to reduce the smoking rates.

I'm actually not against "sin" taxes. I think they are wise but fair: Giving people more incentive to quit doing actions that are unhealthy but still giving them the option of doing as they please. Were marijuana to become legalized, it could use a similar tax; perhaps alcohol should get one as well. I'm not against *all* taxes; I'm against ones that seem unfair or hurt the economy.

7/03/2006 8:39 PM  
Blogger Classmate-Wearing-Yarmulka said...

Conservatives are inconsistent. Why did they get so upset at the Supreme Court's keeping out of the New London eminent domain case? Allowing eminent domain for economic development or sports stadia may be bad policy, but by your logic, courts should stay out of things like that.

Huh? The Constitution says that "nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation."

Conservatives believe that public use has to have some sort of meaning, otherwise anything can be taken away.

I fail to see the inconsistencies. Eminent domain isn't a social policy is a Constitutional issue. Sodomy isn't.

7/03/2006 9:13 PM  
Blogger Charlie Hall said...

'In reality, it should be an investment program to ensure that people can actually retire at a certain point in their lives if they so choose.'

In principle, no argument. But how do you get from here to there without some combination of (1) a massive tax increase to replace the Social Security Tax that currently funds that wealth transfer, (2) massive borrowing, or (3) huge cuts in benefits to those expecting them?

7/05/2006 6:08 AM  
Blogger Ezzie said...

The plan that the Bush administration put forward pretty much covered that. I believe there would be a huge loss in the first couple of years, but that would quickly be made up in future savings.

Personally, I'm in favor of a gradual (but not too gradual) switch, giving those of us who are just starting to work the ability to not get stuck in this ridiculous system. Anyone who isn't too close to 65 should be in favor of switching over all their money now, even if that means a small cut in what they currently have in the system.

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