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WorstCase Scenarios [Hardcover]

Cass R Sunstein

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Book Description

6 Nov 2007
Nuclear bombs in suitcases, anthrax bacilli in ventilators, tsunamis and meteors, avian flu, scorchingly hot temperatures: nightmares that were once the plot of Hollywood movies are now frighteningly real possibilities. How can we steer a path between willful inaction and reckless overreaction?Cass Sunstein explores these and other worst-case scenarios and how we might best prevent them in this vivid, illuminating, and highly original analysis. Singling out the problems of terrorism and climate change, Sunstein explores our susceptibility to two opposite and unhelpful reactions: panic and utter neglect. He shows how private individuals and public officials might best respond to low-probability risks of disaster - emphasizing the need to know what we will lose from precautions as well as from inaction. Finally, he offers an understanding of the uses and limits of cost-benefit analysis, especially when current generations are imposing risks on future generations.Throughout, Sunstein uses climate change as a defining case, because it dramatically illustrates the underlying principles. But he also discusses terrorism, depletion of the ozone layer, genetic modification of food, hurricanes, and worst-case scenarios faced in our ordinary lives. Sunstein concludes that if we can avoid the twin dangers of over-reaction and apathy, we will be able to ameliorate if not avoid future catastrophes, retaining our sanity as well as scarce resources that can be devoted to more constructive ends.

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"Worst-Case Scenarios" is a rich analysis, both explanatory and normative, of societal responses to catastrophic risks such as terrorism and global warming. Sunstein occupies the fertile middle ground between the proponents of traditional rational-actor models and cost-benefit analysis, and those who reject these approaches entirely.--Matthew D. Adler, University of Pennsylvania Law School

About the Author

Cass R. Sunstein is Karl N. Llewellyn Distinguished Service Professor, Law and Political Science, University of Chicago.

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When I was a child, and facing some difficult situation, my mother would often ask, "What's the worst that could happen?" Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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Amazon.com: 4.0 out of 5 stars  2 reviews
4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb discussion of cost benefit analysis applied to extreme situations 6 July 2008
By Kenneth Anderson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Cass Sunstein has written a superb analysis of how cost benefit analysis can usefully be applied to extreme situations - worst case scenarios. He takes up two - mostly climate change, but then compares it to counterterrorism. My comments below focus on the application of cost benefit analysis in responses to terrorism; I admire Sunstein's analysis, but think it has limitations in its application to terrorism.

Regnant approaches to terrorism are driven not just by narrow cost benefit analysis, but by a still narrower focus on something we might call "event-specific catastrophism": preventing the next attack. This is as true of the Bush administration as of its leading opponents. What has the Bush administration focused upon, in speech after speech to the public? The imminence of the next attack, and the need to prevent it. One hopes this is mobilizing rhetoric for larger policies against jihadist terrorism, but in considerable part, the uncertain next attack is the focus of policy - a long-term strategy, if one can call it that, even after seven years, of just trying to make it to the next day unscathed.

Despite much discursive rhetoric about long-term policy and the war on terror, much US policy is what, in a strategically informed plan, might well be considered the very last defensive perimeters. Airport security, daily monitoring of cell phone traffic, internet analysis in hopes of seeing spikes that might indicate imminent terrorist action, watch lists, and many, many cement barriers. Presumably no one in Britain is reassured by the fact that the Glasgow attack was prevented not by perceptive police work, nimble intelligence agents, deep penetration of homegrown terrorist cells - but simply by a physical barrier at the airport. But perhaps people are comforted; the cement barrier worked, after all, effectively and cost-effectively, while the rest of the counterterrorism apparatus, at enormous absolute and relative cost, did not. Still, these are fundamentally defensive measures aimed at preventing the next attack, counterterrorism in a vital but stiflingly narrow sense. The cost benefit analysis underlying such planning, shaped toward event-specific catastrophism, is necessary and fruitful, but bears little resemblance to planning or conducting a "war" on terrorism or, really, any strategic conceptual response to jihad that goes beyond preventing particular events of uncertain probability and magnitude.

Yet the Bush administration's legion critics ridicule US counterterrorism policy in great measure within the same narrow framework that the administration has used. Sometimes the cost benefit analysis would scarcely past muster in an undergraduate economics class - political scientist John Mueller, in his bestselling Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats and Why We Believe Them, or journalist James Fallows, each breezily announcing that the chances of getting killed in a terrorist attack are less than getting struck by lightning, or that 9-11 killed 3,000 people but 40,000 Americans die a year in automobile accidents and, ergo, well what? Cost benefit comparison of opportunity costs makes sense only if comparing genuinely apposite, available opportunities.

Serious cost benefit analyses are offered in criticism of US policy, and Sunstein's Worst Case Scenarios is the best of them. It calmly and restrainedly demolishes, for example, the so-called "One Percent Doctrine" - Vice-President Cheney's assertion that even a one percent chance of a catastrophic terrorist event requires a response as though it were a complete, 100% certainty.

Worst-Case Scenarios is not primarily about terrorism; it is mostly a discussion of cost benefit analysis applied to climate change and the limitations of the `precautionary principle' (of which the One Percent Doctrine is a variety). Sunstein uses terrorism as a striking, but adjunct, case study in order to illustrate, among other things, what the behavioral economists call `salience' - the contrast between the Bush administration's all-in commitment against terror, even on a one-percent threat basis, but its unwillingness to adopt similarly drastic principles with respect to the possibility of another kind of catastrophe, one that is not, however, as immediately visible and `salient' to the general public.

In using this splendid book here, in a discussion strictly limited to terrorism, I want to be clear that its arguments over the nature of cost benefit analysis, its critique of the precautionary principle, and its careful application of them to climate change bear close, repeated reading on their own terms and the intellectual ends to which Sunstein puts them. Solely with respect to countering terrorism, however, Worst-Case Scenarios correctly points out that not even `all the instruments of the national will' (what President Bush solemnly committed to the fight against terrorism after 9-11) are unlimited. They never are. Choices still have to be made and priorities established and, as Sunstein acutely observes, preventative actions bring risks of their own. Countering every one percent risk as though it were a 100% certainty creates many more one percent risks of their own, and countering all those one percent risks will preclude many, if not all, of the others. The One Percent Doctrine, and the precautionary principle which it instantiates, is finally "incoherent," as Sunstein says. It induces simultaneously a demand for actions of many contradictory kinds, and yet precludes them at the same time: paralysis in every direction, demands for action and inaction. It cannot serve as a universal basis for policy, and no one, to my knowledge, has made this argument better.

Nonetheless, even sophisticated cost benefit analysis of the kind found in Worst Case Scenarios tends to take the prevention of particular events as the fundamental analytic objective. There is, to be sure, an important political reason for this. The American public has been gradually downgrading terrorism as a political priority, even while continuing to say (in the fine democratic tradition of wanting your cake and eating it too) that it supports serious measures against it.

American elites, for their part, have been sliding to a dismissively contemptuous view that questions the whole idea of counterterrorism as a serious, large-scale necessity. The threat is downgraded, deploying cost benefit style arguments to call the administration's counterterrorism programs trumped up and exaggerated, and to suggest that the terrorist threat is quite capable of management without special military or intelligence measures. Leaving aside the frequent starting assumption that the Bush administration has illegitimately grabbed executive power and that this, rather than terrorism, is the primary thing against which to protect, the fundamental factual claim is that the probability of a successful attack has been seriously exaggerated.

How to interpret, in other words, the fact that the US has not been hit on its territory since 9-11: evidence of the effectiveness of the anti-terrorism efforts, or evidence that it was always more chimerical than real? Ultimately that is what Sunstein's very fine book, at least as applied to terrorism, seeks to answer and to say, in the absence of being able definitively to answer, how to respond. Still, this is ever a relentlessly tactical approach, and the most important criticism of it is that over the long term, we seek something more comprehensive. Even when not event-specific - even when it takes, for example, "Islamist terrorism" as the whole scenario for consideration - it is by its very nature reactive. Cost benefit analysis does not propose solutions; it evaluates proposed solutions offered by other processes. It is not finally a strategic form of thinking. And that is a problem.
5 of 18 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good read, good insights, but makes leaps of faith that fall short 29 Feb 2008
By aaron - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I recommend reading this book. Dr. Sunstein considers many modes of thought and the book should get you thinking.

Throughout the book Dr. Sunstein uses two main narratives to examine how people react to uncertainty, Terrorism and Global Warming. He provides a very PC perspective, probably to better reach a broad audience and get them thinking about how we deal with what we don't know. The book is an exercise to get the lay person thinking about uncertainty rather than an objective analysis of how to deal uncertainties. It should get the reader to consider how we over and under react and how costly it is.

Sunstein makes the very good point that people have over-reacted to the historic risk level of terrorism (with much unnecessary cost in life and resources) and explores why. He also makes the point that probabilities alone are not enough to make decisions. Context is also important. That said, he possibly over emphasizes the fact that people over-react to more highly salient risks and he fails to thoroughly consider why people react strongly to risks involving justice and intent (especially that there is also a signaling component).

While most of us make the mistake of over-reacting to highly salient risks, Sunstein does the opposite. He makes the mistake of greatly exaggerating the risks of Global Warming. For the sake of argument, he makes up numbers. But the numbers are absurdly high, even when considering them as the likelihood that a risk will increase rather than the likelihood of an actual event happening or not.

When dealing with the uncertainty created by human actions, Sunstein also neglects uncertainty that already exists. The human component of global warming is small (and the greenhouse gas component of that is less than half). A large amount of uncertainty exists whether we reduce CO2 emissions or not. Building a particle accelerator creates a small, immeasurable risk of catastrophe. But Earth is surrounded by many particle accelerators which bombard the Earth and even produce collisions. Building one doesn't significantly affect the level of risk we face (and may provide us with knowledge that will help us avoid other risks).

The biggest qualm I have is that Sunstein advocates a policy of generational neutrality. He makes a good rhetorical argument, but logic is not on his side. He notes the consensus among economists that future lives should be discounted is unraveling. And unraveling is an apt term. The principle was long considered obvious to economists for the reason that it is obvious. When Sunstein asks whether the life a 10 year old today is worth more than the life of a 10 year in 2040, he quickly answers, as many would like to, "No." But he fails to consider the obvious; that a 10 year old now will have 10 year olds of his own in 2040.
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