Saturday, January 22, 2011


People who work in operations research tend to believe that governments (and everyone else, but especially governments) would benefit from making more and better use of it. At the heart of operations research is logical, dispassionate analysis of how a system works, and how it can work better, quantifying options and possible outcomes using hard data where possible.

One of the most challenging areas in operations research is risk analysis. The challenges are many, and frequently the most difficult aspects are not algorithmic but rather in assessing probabilities using scant or messy data (how likely is a nuclear power plant to release radiation? we happily lack a large sample of incidents) and in attaching values to outcomes. Particularly problematic is assigning a value to a human life. It is done all the time, by insurers, by juries and, consciously or not, by government agencies. Adding to the difficulty is that mathematical analysis may produce results we as people find uncomfortable.

An example I've heard more than once (for which I have no citation) is whether government (here the Federal Aviation Administration) should require that infants on airline flights be parked in some version of a car seat. I imagine most people, at least before hearing the arguments, would say yes. The picture of an infant turning into a projectile during turbulence or a hard landing is very discomfiting. Against that, the analyst weighs the facts that (a) requiring the infant to be in a conveyor most likely imposes on the parents the requirement to buy another ticket, (b) the cost of an extra ticket will, at the margin, impel some number of families to drive rather than to fly and (c) on a per-mile basis, commercial flight is safer than driving. So requiring a safety seat for infants on flights might, paradoxically, lead to more injuries or deaths to infants during long trips, rather than fewer. (I'm restraining myself from saying something about "throwing the baby out with the bathwater".) (Apparently, I was not successful.)

Enter your friendly federal, state or local government representatives. They are locked into a perpetual (re)election cycle, so making decisions that would at first blush seem insensitive or uncaring is bad for business. When it comes to national security, the worst thing they can do is appear to do nothing. The guiding principle seems to be that good theater trumps good analysis.

Thus, after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in 2001, the federal government instituted a variety of security procedures at airports that many fliers view as cosmetic at best. Some of the perpetrators were in the U.S. on expired student visas, so the federal government made student visas harder to get (and, in the process, scared off a significant number of international students, costing U.S. universities a fair bit of money.) In the aftermath of an attempt to smuggle explosive devices into the U.S. on cargo flights, the Transportation Safety Administration has moved up its target date for screening of 100% of air cargo, a move that was already in the works. What is unclear is the extent to which any rigorous analysis of costs and benefits went into any of these decisions. At least some of the new policies likely have helped avert additional attacks. Some may have created new jobs. Some assuredly imposed new costs on businesses, and some make air travel (already less than a thrilling prospect for those of us in sardine class) even less comfortable.

Whenever another event triggers a panicky reaction (and I'm waiting to see what the Tucson shootings yield), I think back to what my English relatives lived through during the Blitz, and the "duck-and-cover" drills of my childhood. (I lived about midway between New York City and Brookhaven National Laboratory, so I figured no matter which way the wind blew I was going to be in the radiation's path.) Back then people seemed a bit more accepting of risk, and the fact that Bad Things Happen and sometimes they just cannot be prevented, and elected officials were less concerned about theatrics.

In there era of sound-bite politics and tweet-length policy discussions, though, I'm afraid that OR is trumped by the political credo CYA. Better to be seen doing something pointless than to be perceived as doing nothing.

(The preceding rant was motivated by the INFORM blog challenge for January: O.R. and Politics.)

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