Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The Issue of Safety and Security is an Economic Policy Issue

Sorry about my absence on the blogsphere recently. I'm currently swamped with work. I did manage to write this piece last Friday and I am hoping it is published in the Badger Herald. This weekend I will be writing an article advocating open borders for the US.

Last week, the Student Service Finance Committee had to make a hard decision on whether the SAFEwalk service was overall beneficial to campus given its steep costs per walker. The service maintains that the two central components of transportation and safety. With regards to the transportation service, SAFEwalk does not perform well in terms of serving a large percentage of the student body where the SAFEride and SAFEbus have shown to be much more widely used. No one on the committee was vouching for the service to be saved on efficiency or transportation use grounds.
The main premise then in opposition to cutting the SAFEwalk program was the component of safety. Without clear evidence and statistics to backup the claim of SAFE officials, employees, and supporters that SAFE is making the campus more safe, it is hard for me as a committee member to assert these claims as being fully valid. That being said, the main argument to support the SAFEwalk service on the basis of safety then is that safety is priceless and if we could only save one woman from being assaulted or raped, it would be worth it. This illogical assertion needs to be addressed because in full in order to be able to make wise policy decisions.
Within the realm of economics, there are a number of tools used to justify or make public policy decisions. Two specific tools are particularly pertinent when evaluating a safety or security decision. The first is the precautionary principle, a tool often used in environmental economics when determining what level of a specific pollutant is deemed to be both safety conscious and economically viable being based partially on science and partially on opinion. According to definition, it is supposed to be used when there is a “reasonable suspicion of harm, lack of scientific certainty or consensus must not be used to postpone preventative action”. In applying it to SAFEwalk, what is the adequate level of safety and crime for how many walkers are needed in a specific area to be the “eyes and ears” of campus and prevent crime in a given area. Government or SAFE itself would then make the decision based on the crime level that keeps people and property relatively safe. Even by setting a precautionary principle in place, crime will still occur and low-level pollutants will hurt particular people and the particular level and therefore costs and benefits should be calculated and used in the analysis even if costs and benefits are not the main criteria. The precautionary principle is designed however then to lower the likelihood of harm to the public.
The second tool is cost-benefit analysis which weights the cost and the benefits of an action while accounting for time through discounting. Cost-benefit analysis is particularly popular in the financial world but it is also used when making individual purchasing decision, environmental policy decisions, and is applicable in many decisions a particular individual makes. Applying the tool to security, one would need to weight out the costs of patrol officers or security officials with the overhead of the program and then designate the benefits of prevention. The costs are easy to evaluate. The benefits are not. In order to define the distinct benefits of SAFE, we would need to evaluate the benefits a SAFE employee stopping people from damaging property (possibly $200 for a street sign) or the benefits of ending an assault which clearly is very difficult (maybe $500,000, $1,000,000 or any particular number that the department or government chooses to value it). The fact is that if you do not put a value on stopping even an abhorrent act like rape, then you cannot evaluate the opportunity costs of the decision. For instance, if we put all of society’s taxes and stock into stopping rape/assault with security and technology, then we will have no money in this hypothetical “police state” of ours to regulate environmental quality, provide social services, carry out government, fund national defense, and do all the other things that make society run.
The argument I am merely trying to make is that in public policy, officials cannot try to view certain aspects of people’s lives or even an individual’s life itself as “priceless”. With any policy, government needs to put a price on the cost and benefits of the service being provided whether it be police protection, transportation infrastructure, or pollution controls. Right now actuaries have already determined what your life is worth in the case you want to buy life insurance. Homeland Security officials quite possibly could be taking this actuarial data into account when determining where to place specific security measures. The quality of your health might be being evaluated at this current moment by the Environmental Protection Agency Staff when deciding air quality laws and the fact there are coal power plants on or near your place of residence. If we cannot put even place high numbers of dollars on safety, government and public officials have no way of evaluating many important policy decisions. As a committee member of SSFC, one of the main points I had to consider is whether SAFEwalk as a safety service is worth over forty dollars per walk (to the students). I had to evaluate whether this money could be better used elsewhere in the name of transportation and safety and also had to determine whether SAFE indeed does make the campus a safer place. The committee made the decision and I stand by it.


  • I think it was the right decision, no matter how much flak is raised. It was not fiscally responsible or necessary.

    By Blogger Jenna, at 4:24 PM  

  • I find it interesting that the University touts safety as this "priceless" value, and yet has a very poor track record with it. Cutting SAFE cab service is the tip of the iceberg. How many bluelights are there on this campus, and where are they? I've never noticed one. I'm sure that this partly has to do with the fact that I consider Madison to be very safe, especially compared to places I've been in my past experience. It also has to do with the low number of them on campus, however. Especially on such a large campus, where some students, whether because of late classes, involvement on campus, or living arrangements not conducive to studying, have to go long distances at night. Other campuses I have been on are arranged so that literally, a bluelight or similar safety phone is visible from ANY spot on campus (except inside campus buildings). Perhaps if that were the case, the cost of a SAFE Walk could be evaluated as that, not as the cost of eyes and ears for campus. Every student should have the resources to feel as if they are their own lookout, with backup available, for their own safety. They should also feel like the people they're walking by could provide some help short of physically intervening in a situation. This campus CREATES the necessity for extra, expensive "eyes and ears of campus." Also, during their presentation, I asked SAFE about the number of incident reports they fill out. The representatives told me they'd look into and get back to me. The next week, when they spoke during open forum, their answer was the same "I've never really figured it out on a weekly, daily, yearly or other basis. But I have a whole binder full of them that you could see some time if you wanted." This shows two things. First of all, the group, knowing the kind of questions we were going to ask, should have been able to come with the answers. The fact that they weren't suggests to me that perhaps they knew that whatever their answer, it would be insufficient. Second, if no statitstics were ready on the eyes and ears of campus (despite numerous statistics about everything else SAFE does), perhaps the eyes and ears of campus is something THEY don't even believe in. It was never really dwelled upon until we asked specific questions about the responsibility of such a high per walk cost. If this was truly a priority, why hasn't the effectiveness been evaluated BEFORE the walkers came into question?

    The University repeatedly flip-flopped in this issue. All three services are vital, and work together. But the next week, the cab is dispensible. Campus safety is a priority, but we'll let you look for the bluelights.

    Get a grip, Trans Services, ODOS, and everyone else on Bascom. Campus safety is a priority that you can't deal with in words alone. Let your actions live up to your words. The rhetoric surrounding the SAFE decision opened a can of worms I don't think Lance Lunsway or anyone else in this administration is going to be happy about opening.

    By Blogger BadgerZach, at 10:10 PM  

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