May 13

(To read the entire “Quotes Behaving Badly” series, click here.)

Our readers could (somewhat fairly) accuse us of picking on conservatives on this blog. Many people--looking at our tagline of a veteran and a pacifist--assume we’re a conservative and a liberal, when we’re actually a moderate and socialist-liberal. We try not to espouse knee jerk liberal politics, but if we do talk politics, usually we debunk conservative rhetoric as it relates to the military.

But today we’re taking on the left wing of the political spectrum. Conservatives don’t have a monopoly on misusing quotes; liberals may abuse quotes more. While I was researching a Bertrand Russell misquote last week, I found Antiwar.com’s “Quote Page

And it’s a big ‘ol mess, the ultimate example of “Quotes Behaving Badly”.

If you know of any knee jerk anti-war quotes, they’re probably there. Want some examples?

Wisdom is better than weapons of war.” - Ecclesiastes 9:18.

The actual quote is “Wisdom is better than weapons of war: but one sinner can destroy much that is good.” They literally cut off half of the quote. And the quote comes from a passage about a poor, wise man failing to save a city from an attacking conquerer. Very disingenuous use of a quote. It literally means the opposite of what they quoted. Another example:

The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.” - Albert Einstein.

Three problems with this one. First, it is a paraphrase of this actual quote, “the world is in greater peril from those who tolerate or encourage evil than from those who actually commit it." Second, Einstein said it referencing the thoughts of Pablo Casal, from whom he got the idea. The entire quote reads “He [Cassal] perceives very clearly that the world is in greater peril from those who tolerate or encourage evil than from those who actually commit it.” Finally, we’ve debunked this sentiment before.

Nothing good ever comes of violence.” - Martin Luther King, Jr.

Google says Martin Luther said it (You know the ex-Catholic priest who founded Lutheranism. Don’t feel bad; they get confused all the time.) instead of Martin Luther King Jr. Wikiquote has neither saying it.

After victory, you have more enemies.” - Cicero.

We couldn’t find a source for it anywhere...which makes us think it doesn’t exist.

Remember that a government big enough to give you everything you want is also big enough to take away everything you have.” - Davy Crockett

Actually, Gerald Ford said this, though according to Wikiquote, similar things were said by Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater. And if Davy Crockett has said this, at the time, he’d probably be opposing a standing (permanent) military, not business regulations.

When people speak to you about a preventive war, you tell them to go and fight it. After my experience, I have come to hate war.” - Dwight D. Eisenhower

War settles nothing.” - Dwight D. Eisenhower

Both of these quotes are a bastardization of a much longer, nuanced response Eisenhower made at a news conference, simplified to the point of absurdity. This also personally offends Michael C because he idolizes General/President Eisenhower’s nuanced and persuasive view of national security.

I could do this all day. But I’ll close with these two:

In war, truth is the first casualty.” - Aeschylus

The first casualty when war comes is the truth.” - Sen. Hiram Johnson

As we wrote here, this quote is all wrong. “The actual award goes to Sherwood Eddy and Kirby Page in The Abolition of War (1924). Second place goes to Samuel Johnson, who wrote “Among the calamities of war may be justly numbered the diminution of the love of truth, by the falsehoods which interest dictates and credulity encourages.” This phrasing is not very quotable; neither is Samuel Johnson.

But more amazingly, they misquoted and misattributed the same quote on the same page twice. Twice! Twice! How is that even possible? And it’s a quote about truth! They literally misquoted a quote about truth twice on the same page. Gathering hundreds of anti-war quotes together on one page created a critical mass of inaccuracy.

This site illustrates the problem with collecting quotes as “proof” of something. They confirm knee jerk opinions that we already maintain. I read a few years ago about a study that said, answering the question of whether the internet is making people smarter or dumber, is that the answer is both. Some people are getting smarter, by researching, fact checking and visiting a variety of websites. Others are getting dumber, only looking for views that confirm what they already believe. Ideologists won’t fact check something they agree with.

Especially quotes.

May 09

(To read the entire “Quotes Behaving Badly” series, click here.)

So we go nearly two years without a “Quotes Behaving Badly” post because we couldn’t find enough quotes. Then, we find enough for three, so expect more quote debunking in the next few weeks. Without further ado, more “Quotes Behaving Badly”:

“A soldier will fight long and hard for a piece of ribbon.” - Napoleon

How has On Violence not tackled this mother of all quotes? I mean, we even used it way back in the day (while cautioning that we thought it was a “Quote Behaving Badly”). So has the Economist, The Marines Corps Gazette and countless other quote generators. Unfortunately, the closest we have seen to a reference is one book which places Napoleon on the H.M.S. Bellerophon on his way to exile. (Though, it doesn’t have a source for any of that. Wikiquote currently has it as unsourced.)

Most likely, Napoleon didn’t say this quote, but it would require a lot more research to find the first instance in popular language. It also captures why we dislike “Quotes Behaving Badly” so much. Sure, soldiers love to get ribbons and recognition. I don’t know an infantryman who doesn’t want a CIB. At the same time, soldiers fight even harder and longer for the men and women on their left and right.        

(We also want to give props to our favorite source for management thinking, Manager-Tools.com, for identifying a “quote behaving badly”. Mark Horstman has spent years quoting Napoleon saying, “Never prohibit that which you cannot prevent.” (This comes from his “Things I Think I Think” newsletter.) However, he rightly pointed out that, “Upon searching, I have discovered that the only [places] Google cites to this quote being from Napoleon relate back to...me. So I might be wrong.”)

“War is much too serious a thing to be left to military men.” - Talleyrand

More precisely, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, the foreign minister of France who survived from the Ancien Regime to the Restoration, allegedly said this. I recently heard this in a class where a professor (rightfully) sang Talleyrand’s praises. However, the professor also included this quote, and as I do now whenever I hear any quote, I looked it up. Turns out, the quote comes from another diplomat, Clemenceau from after World War I. And the actual translation should be “to the military” instead of “military men”.

Remember the old Napoleon saying, “Don’t quote that which you can’t verify.” (Not a quote.)   

“Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it.” - Adolph Hitler

The above quote also goes by the variants “The great masses of people will more easily fall victim to a big lie than to a small one. Especially if it is repeated again and again.” and “The bigger/more blatant a lie, the more people will believe it.” Variously attributed to Hitler or Goebbels, this quote is wrong on a number of levels.

First, both sides of the aisle regularly accuse the other party of using the big lie. For example, Glenn Beck, responding to Democrat accusations that Republicans were using the “big lie”, responded by saying that political tactics used by progressives were taken from the Nazi playbook. Awesome.

Second, it’s a misquote, a bastardization of what Hitler actually wrote. Like most quotes behaving badly, the mis-quote simplifies a much more complex thought. Read this full paragraph to understand Hitler’s true meaning:

“But it remained for the Jews, with their unqualified capacity for falsehood, and their fighting comrades, the Marxists, to impute responsibility for the downfall precisely to the man who alone had shown a superhuman will and energy in his effort to prevent the catastrophe which he had foreseen and to save the nation from that hour of complete overthrow and shame. By placing responsibility for the loss of the world war on the shoulders of Ludendorff they took away the weapon of moral right from the only adversary dangerous enough to be likely to succeed in bringing the betrayers of the Fatherland to Justice. All this was inspired by the principle--which is quite true within itself--that in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods. It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously. Even though the facts which prove this to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation. For the grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down, a fact which is known to all expert liars in this world and to all who conspire together in the art of lying.”

To clarify, Hitler is not endorsing the “Big Lie”, as I think most people assume when they read or repeat the quote above. He doesn’t believe that the big lie works; he thinks that the Jews fed Germans a big lie, but he (Hitler) saw through it. He’s not offering a blueprint for dictatorship; he’s justifying his anti-semitism. He’s justifying the mass extermination of the Jews.

Finally, I’m not sure whether this quote reflects reality or not. I mean, we once ran a post on how 40% of Americans believe Saddam didn’t have WMDs, another 30% believe he did and 25% don’t know. 9/11 conspiracy theorists still dominate corners of the internet. Maybe if you repeat something long enough, some people will believe it.

“War does not determine who is right--only who is left.” - Bertrand Russell

At some point, researching an On Violence post, I came across this perfect candidate for a “Quote Behaving Badly”. Instinctively, I knew Russell didn’t say this. He might have, but it just seems too simple a thought for one of the twentieth century’s greatest thinkers. No war actually kills every single person in a country, at least not since the Middle Ages.

According to Wikiquote--and some light On Violence research-- the accuracy of this quote is in dispute. As Wikiquote writes, “This has often been published as a quotation of Russell, when an author is given (e.g. in Quote Unquote — A HandBook of Quotation, 2005, p. 291), but without any sourced citations, and seems to have circulated as an anonymous proverb as early as 1932.”

Remember, if you can’t cite where or when the author said something, they probably didn’t say it. More importantly, journalism and academia only succeed if we can cite who said what (along with where and when they said it). Using quotations by citing some robo-site that says, “Einstein said it this,” is terrible reportage/scholarship.

What’s more interesting is where I found it, on Anti-war.com’s list of quotes.

This led to a whole rabbit hole we’ll go down next week...

May 07

Today marks the five year anniversary of On Violence. We feel like, on an occasion like this, it’s a moment for self-reflection, but we’re, oddly, not in a self-reflective mood. Despite how good this year has been for us in terms of traffic and exposure, we don’t feel like looking back.

We’re always charging away on a number of projects, always busy, always looking for more time. So instead of looking back, we’re looking forward.

All that said, this last year has been a huge for us, mainly off the residual energy of Lone Survivor, including an article in Slate. We’re really proud of the work we did, as one of a few resources compiling the facts on the most popular war film and memoir since 9/11. We’re also proud of the other posts we did, on COIN media, on Syria, on quotes, on everything.

So look forward to another year of writing. We’re going to keep charging away until we run out of ideas. We haven’t run out of them yet. They keep multiplying like rabbits.

Stay tuned.

May 02

One of the curious sociological trends of the last twenty years has been the continuous drop in violent crime across America. Even during the economic downturn, crime didn't increase, as some pundits predicted. (My favorite prediction came from trained-sociologist/NFL linebacker Ray Lewis, who predicted a crime wave if the NFL didn’t return. Unfortunately, we couldn’t test his prediction.)

Sociologists point to a number of factors to explain the decrease: harsher sentencing guidelines, stricter penalties for lesser crimes, demographics, gun control laws, and even abortion or lead paint. Because of the complicated subject matter, we’ll probably never be able to link the decline to one specific cause.

Some of the credit, as well, must go to the police forces across America. Solving and preventing crimes has to have some effect. If the police helped lower the crime rate, American politicians could argue the American people got a good return on their investment.

Of course, not all police funding is created equal. Following 9/11, in an effort to defeat Al Qaeda, police departments across America purchased gobs of vehicles, weapons and gear under the guise of “counter-terrorism protection”, including up-armored vehicles, automatic weapons, CCTV cameras and basically anything they wanted. Some of this counter-terrorism spending might have had the unintended consequence of helping police fight ordinary, non-terrorist crime.

But a lot of it probably did nothing except waste money. For example, the NYPD’s Intelligence Unit, and their controversial, “Demographics” unit, which made the news last year in two different investigative reports. Today, I want to run the numbers to see the opportunity costs--in other words, other ways we could have spent the money that might have been effective--for the NYPD Demographics Unit.

First, let’s understand the scale of the organization. According to the AP, the NYPD Intelligence Unit had a budget of $62 million in 2012, of which the Demographics Unit was a major part. It also doesn’t get audited by the New York City Comptroller Office. Apparently, the NYPD Intelligence Unit operates in eleven foreign cities, and countless geographies within the U.S. outside of New York City.

Next, let’s try to define the best possible benefits of this program, as unrealistic as they may be. As I did last time, I am giving the Demographics Unit a huge benefit of the doubt. According to New York City, the NYPD Demographics unit helped break up 14 different terror attacks since 9/11. The closest anyone came to success was Faisel Shahzad attempting to use a car bomb in Time Square. So let’s make these assumptions:

    Number of attacks prevented since 9/11: 14

    Average dead per attack: 50

    Average life years lost per victim: 40

This means that the NYPD Demographics Unit saved--at the upper bounds of unrealistic optimism--potentially 700 citizens, or 32,000 life years (life years is the expected number of years a citizen is expected to live; or average life expectancy minus current age; I’ve estimated forty years per victim) in terror attacks since 9/11. For this analysis--this is what I mean by benefit of the doubt--we are going to assume the NYPD Demographics Unit helped avert every single terror attack.

Knowing that the NYPD Intelligence Unit had a budget of $62 million, and estimating that the demographics unit is only about half of that budget--a guess on my part--by my calculations, New York City has spent roughly $300 million on the Demographics unit alone since 9/11. If the unit saved 700 people as I calculated, that means it spent roughly $400,000 per life saved, or $10,000 per life year saved.

So what are the opportunity costs of the NYPD Demographics Unit? Well, the time of the officers serving and the costs to run its operations. Even though the NYPD has fantastic resources, it still has limits. So what if, instead of establishing the Demographics Unit, the NYPD focused on discouraging open air drug markets, establishing community policing programs, and conducting increased gang intervention? What if the NYPD focused on organized crime or financial wrong doing? What if they had simply put more cops on the street to go on patrol? Those different uses of men and money are the foregone opportunity costs of setting up the NYPD Demographics Unit.

The biggest opportunity is clearly preventing homicides. Since 9/11, New York City has seen 6,500 murders. Imagine if, instead of combating the relatively rare phenomenon of terrorism, New York City had plowed that $300 million into solving and preventing murders. If New York had prevented about 12% of all the murders since 9/11, then it shouldn’t have spent the money on counter-terrorism.

Or imagine if New York City plowed that $300 million into true rehabilitation efforts. One of the sad facts of American “justice” is that recidivism--committing a crime after you’ve already been convicted and released--is extraordinarily high, at 67%. Why? Most Americans shun the Christian virtue of forgiveness and refuse to hire or support criminals who have paid their debt to society. Imagine if that $300 million had gone into supporting and helping lower the recidivism rate in New York City, through training and job aid programs. You might actually save money...

But here’s the thing: neither of those two opportunity costs really matter. In reality, the NYPD Demographics Unit hasn’t been credited with helping to stop a single terror attack since 9/11.

Not. A. Single. One.

Many of the cases the NYPD cited above never even approached feasibility. For instance, one terrorist wanted to cut the cables of the Brooklyn Bridge. How he planned to attach enough explosives without attracting attention is unclear. Indeed, the likelihood he would have even made it to the bridge is doubtful.

So the break-even isn’t 12% of murders prevented...its simply saving one. If the NYPD could have saved even one additional life by not having the Intelligence Unit, than it would have been better to spend the money on stopping crime. That’s right, all that money and time spent on the demographics unit is almost completely wasted.

Apr 29

(Today's guest post is by John Mikolajczyk. If you would like to guest write for us, please check out our guest post guidelines.

Quick note: The views of guest writers are not necessarily the view of Michael C or Eric C. For our take, please check out the comments below.)

Everyone has an opinion on mass shootings, their causes, and their solutions. Among the endless sea of opinions on the subject, the belief that mass shootings are a common occurrence, increasing in frequency, and becoming more deadly, is perhaps one of the most widely held. Despite, as oft cited criminologist Dr. James Alan Fox (who specializes in mass murder) has said on multiple occasions, it not being true.

(For the purposes of this article, I will be defining a mass shooting as an incident in which four or more fatalities occur, although multiple definitions for “mass shooting” exist, most articles referenced here seem to use to this criteria.)

Capitalizing on this misguided belief, Attorney General Eric Holder was proud to announce during a lecture to a group of police chiefs in December of 2013, that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had “prevented” 148 mass shootings and “other violent attacks” from January through November of that year and “hundreds” of attacks had been disrupted since the inception of it’s Behavioral Threat Assessment Center in 2011.

That is quite the claim, considering the same man practically debunked his own statement a month earlier when in another speech to police chiefs he said there were an average of five “active shooting” incidents per year from 2000 to 2008. Adding that the annual average of “active shooting” incidents had tripled since then. An “active shooting,” as defined by the Department of Homeland Security, is a mass shooting or an attempted mass shooting (i.e. the Clackamas Town Center incident).

So before the FBI’s “Behavioral Threat Assessment Center” program began in 2011, there were five incidents a year, with no outside intervention taking place. Now, with FBI intervention stepping in, there are three times as many incidents a year in addition to 148 thwarted attacks in just 11 months? These numbers don’t reconcile.

How exactly does the Behavioral Threat Assessment Center prevent scores of mass shootings?

First, cases of “troubling behavior” (e.g. “bizarre behavior” coupled with an interest in firearms) are referred to the center by “federal, state, local and campus law enforcement, schools, businesses, and houses of worship.” Then center staff, composed of government law enforcement personnel and psychiatrists, evaluate the potential threat and sanction a course of action for how to proceed. However, Andre Simmons, the unit chief of the center, admits that most often the recommendation is merely a referral for mental health treatment.

Essentially, the FBI runs a mental health treatment referral center, distinguishable from the countless volunteer and state-run referral centers around the country only in that it is funded and staffed by US government personnel.

Also consider that we live in the age of “zero tolerance policies” in the American school system, where a doodle drawn by a bored tween can attract local law enforcement attention. In light of this and the current climate of fear (over the erroneous belief in mass shooting frequency mentioned earlier), it is easy to see how the FBI’s assessment center has been getting three new cases to consider every week.

Then again, all things considered, 148 mass shootings prevented sounds much better for the government law enforcement community than 148 mentally ill persons referred for treatment, right? But most likely this isn’t true.

John Mikolajczyk is currently an office administrator with a government healthcare agency and a part-time bookseller. He graduated in the top 10% of his class from Kean University with degrees in criminology and history. While at Kean, he was a standout Air Force ROTC cadet and student activist. He also received an award for “best undergraduate term paper” for his treatise on the theoretical costs of the Trojan War. In his spare time he enjoys reading, playing video games, creative writing, hiking, and walking his golden labrador.

Apr 25

Today, I’m going to defend Donald Rumsfeld.

Not as a politician, Secretary of Defense, or one of his many other job titles he has held since the 1970’s. Rumsfeld failed as a Secretary of Defense. If he were a Democrat, Republicans would have launched million Benghazi-type congressional hearings investigating how he mismanaged two wars and the military.

Instead, I’d like to defend a philosophical notion he thrust into the public sphere, the most (in)famous thing Rumsfeld ever said. On 12 February, 2002, Rumsfeld, answering a question at a Department of Defense news briefing, said…

“Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.”

And cue the media, particularly liberals, using this quote as a talking-point-punchline. For the next couple of years, this became one of those far-left liberal memes, an example of the corruption and stupidity of the Bush administration. At the time, I was well-connected to liberal anti-war activists at my college, and I heard people mock this quote often.

Not that Rumsfeld ran from it. He titled his memoir Known and Unknown: A Memoir. Errol Morris, who I really respect as a documentarian, just released The Unknown Known, a documentary about Rumsfeld. I’m sure the documentary itself is terrific and informative, but Errol Morris, on the Colbert Report, had this exchange with Stephen Colbert:   

Colbert: “Your new film is called The Unknown Known, about former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. What the hell does that mean? The unknown known? What is that?

Errol Morris: “Can I be completely honest with you?”

Colbert: “I hope you will”

Errol Morris: “I don’t know”

Really?

It’s not a simple thought, I’ll grant you that. But it is a true one. Trying to re-explain it, I can’t really shorten it any better than Rumsfeld did, except for maybe adding examples. So…

- “...there are known knowns; there are things we know we know.” For example, most Americans know that America holds prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.

- “We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.” For example, we know America used torture, but until the Senate report comes out, we really don’t know how far America or its allies went, or what concrete information it gave us. Another example: until last year, we knew the Intelligence Community had a budget; we just didn’t know the specific numbers.

- “But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know.” Until last year, most Americans were completely unaware about most of the NSA activities, like spying on heads of state in foreign countries (including allies) and collecting meta-data on telephone and internet usage.

Makes sense? Especially for liberals and small government activists, the last point illustrates this concept perfectly, and why it matters: we didn’t know what we didn’t know about the NSA and its massive surveillance of Americans. But because it was Rumsfeld (mistakenly) arguing for Iraq’s connection to terrorists, this concept--not the argument itself--got the blame.

Errol Morris should have been able to answer Colbert’s question; he wrote a whole essay on the topic for the The New York Times in June 2010:

“I found myself still puzzled by the unknown unknowns. Finally, I came up with an explanation.  Using the expressions “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns” is just a fancy — even pretentious — way of talking about questions and answers. A “known unknown” is a known question with an unknown answer.  I can ask the question: what is the melting point of beryllium?  I may not know the answer, but I can look it up. I can do some research. It may even be a question which no one knows the answer to. With an “unknown unknown,” I don’t even know what questions to ask, let alone how to answer those questions.”

Clearly, he’s thought a lot about it. (And the title to his film isn’t actually something Rumsfeld said; it’s something Morris made up.)

There’s a larger problem, an inconsistency in what the general public wants from our politicians versus what happens when they get that thing. We want politicians to be more honest, less guarded and, frankly, more intelligent. We want them to be more human. But if they do something human, like Scott Brown, on the podium during his victory speech, telling the crowd his daughters were single, the other side of the political spectrum calls it creepy. If they do something interesting, like going on Between Two Ferns to talk about healthcare, it’s not presidential. And if they say something intelligent, like Rumsfeld did, it’s mocked.

So we end up with politicians hiding behind rote, memorized talking points, saying nothing unique, original, authentic or insightful. And we only have ourselves to blame.

Apr 24

Michael C argued last Wednesday that we could use the world’s largest supercomputer better. As he wrote:

”So, I ask you, what would be a better use of the world's largest supercomputer, trying to prevent a handful of attacks a year by terrorists or the medical innovations that could come by feeding the world's fastest supercomputer human genome data?”

Reading an early draft of the post, I responded, “That’s not the only way we could use one of the world’s greatest supercomputers.” Instead of wasting all of that technology on recording Americans phone calls and internet usage, we could use it to...

...Model Global Warming. I’m not even saying that we have to use it to support the theories of liberals. We can use it to run as many scenarios as possible. Run as much data and as many variations as you can. The government does have a supercomputer running these scenarios...and it’s only the twentieth largest supercomputer in the world. Oh, and according to research I found on Wikipedia, its memory is smaller by a factor of thousands.

...Predict the Course of Natural Disasters. The National Center for Atmospheric Research actually has a supercomputer that, in addition to modeling climate change, studies “tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, droughts, and other natural disasters”, helping to improve our predictions. If it works, let’s make it bigger, instead of spying on Americans’ phone calls and internet searches.

...Model the Economy. According to Nate Silver, modeling and predicting the economy is a fool’s errand,. And he’s probably right. But imagine if this computer at Moody’s were the size of the government’s supercomputer. We’d probably get a hell of a lot closer to reality.

...Recreate the Big Bang. No life saving achievement here, but it does add to our knowledge of the world...and it would keep America on the forefront of scientific innovation.

...Figure Out the Human Body. Like Michael C described in his last post, supercomputers can help us save lives by improving medicine, folding proteins and mapping the human bloodstream in ways humans never could, two innovations that could save lives.

...Advance solar power technology. Cause, you know, that’s what the Chinese are doing with their supercomputer. Sigh.

...Something we haven’t thought of yet.

Anyway, we could do all these things. Or none of them, and spy on Americans to prevent the terrorist attacks that rarely happen.

Apr 16

(Click here to read the entire “The (Opportunity) Costs of Security” series.)

Quick question: who, in the whole world, has the most powerful supercomputer?

Answer: The U.S. Government.

Second question: What do they do with it?

Answer: Collect, store and analyze internet traffic.

For details, read this prescient Wired article by author James Bamford that describes how the NSA is building a gigantic facility in Utah to track, store, crack and read a huge chunk of the communications passing through the U.S interwebs. To help decrypt and understand all this information, the NSA is trying to build the world's most powerful supercomputer. (If you had read this article pre-Snowden leaks, well, Prism and XKeyscore weren’t stunning revelations. Those leaks, though, confirmed what many of us suspected but couldn’t prove.)

As I said in the intro to this series, I don’t want to frame the NSA’s meta-data collection in terms of privacy and civil liberties, but in the terms of economics...and loss. The computing power purchased and harnessed by the NSA has opportunity costs. By using the world’s most powerful computer to track terrorist communications, we’re not using it on other things. Things that could save more lives.

For instance, when the NSA and Congress choose to spend billions on designing and building supercomputers for eavesdropping on our phone calls and emails, we choose to not use it on cracking the human genome. Genetics scientists have become much better at decoding individual human genomes. However, doing extensive analysis requires--you guessed it--massive amounts of computing power.

(For the sake of total honesty, the U.S. may not currently hold the title of “World’s Fastest Supercomputer”. The super-computer rankings are constantly shifting. Either way, the U.S. still has several very, very powerful super-computer systems dedicated to stopping terrorism.)

So I ask you, what would be a better use of the world's largest supercomputer, trying to prevent a handful of attacks a year by terrorists, or developing medical innovations that could come by feeding the world's fastest supercomputer human genome data?

To be safe, let's run the numbers.

Assume that without the supercomputer, Al Qaeda would have the ability to conduct three 9/11-sized attacks every year. (This is, of course, a ridiculous exaggeration.) That's around 9,000 people a year saved by the supercomputer. (Again, this is a ridiculously high figure, approximately twice as many people as the actual number of Americans who have died by international terrorism since 1969 or roughly 44 times more than the average number of people who have died of terrorism since 1969). The average age in the U.S. is 36.8. The life is expectancy is around 77. That means that the computer saved around 361,000 U.S. life years. (I mean, it didn’t, but go with us here.) Go NSA supercomputer!

Let’s assume that instead of stopping terror attacks, we use all that computing power on decoding the human genome. Let’s say we target it at breast cancer alone. Let’s say this develops a cure for one form of breast cancer, or approximately 12% of the 232,000 newly diagnosed cases every year. The average person lives 5 years after a breast cancer diagnosis. Let’s say this adds on an additional 12 years. This would assume the average diagnosis age is 60, and the average survival is now normal life expectancy. (It’s a cure, remember?) This supercomputer, on a very limited and conservative estimate, just saved 334,000 U.S. life years.

Don’t think too hard; these are just rough back of the envelope calculations, filled with assumptions. Just kicking the tires a tiny, tiny bit, though, shows my thesis holds up: we are wasting computing power on stopping terrorism. That assumption of 9,000 U.S. lives saved by terrorism is ridiculously high. Ludicrously high. If the government’s computer could save even a fraction of lives by decoding the human genome (the break-even in life years), then we should use it for that purpose.

(And I just used it for breast cancer, not other cancers, or heart disease or diabetes or infectious diseases or a host of other illnesses where genetics play a part. We didn’t even mention unfolding proteins, which is both medically useful and the perfect task for a supercomputer.)

The moral? Don’t let counter-terrorism advocates fool you into thinking spending money stopping terrorism saves your life. Wasting money on supercomputers to stop terrorism is killing you.