So the rumored travel ban came into effect last night, and has led to considerable outcry. Here’s what it does:
- Bans travel for 90 days from citizens of seven countries, including those with green cards: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen
- Bans refugees for 120 days from above countries, and Syria indefinitely
- Lowers the number of refugees to be settled in the US from 110,000/year to 50,000/year
The purported reason for the ban is to give the administration time to develop a better system of screening, Trump’s ‘extreme vetting,’ to identify and prevent radicalized persons from entering the country and causing harm. Despite invoking 9/11 in its justification, the order does not ban anyone from the countries where the 9/11 attackers actually came from: primarily Saudi Arabia, with Egypt and the UAE. So even if a blanket travel ban were effective in preventing terrorism, the absence of the actual countries where actual terrorists who killed Americans is puzzling; as is the coincidence that these same absent countries also happen to be ones in which the Trump Organization has business.
It is a legitimate for a government and a citizenry to take reasonable precautions to prevent those who would do harm from entering a country. But under what circumstances would such a blanket travel ban, temporary or otherwise, make sense?
I would imagine if we were at war with a country, it would be reasonable to restrict travel. Of course, we are not currently at war with any nation.
We could imagine a scenario in which intelligence agencies had information that an attack was imminent. This could potentially justify a sudden travel ban, but a scenario where there is knowledge of an attack but no specifics regarding persons beyond ‘anyone from these seven countries’ seems very unlikely.
If there is not knowledge of an imminent attack, a justifiable travel ban would need there to be an extremely high likelihood that restricted persons would engage in violent activity in the next 90-120 days. This would be a world where the United States was experiencing regular acts of terrorism, and where there was clear evidence existing protocols were inadequate and responsible for allowing said terrorists into the country. In this world, a travel ban along the lines of the one implemented yesterday could be justified.
But that is not the world we live in.
Since 9/11, there have been only a handful of what could be considered terrorist attacks, and fewer still clearly motivated by any sort of religious ideology. In the last 16 years, only 154 deaths are directly attributable to ‘Muslim extremism’. Tens of thousands more people die in car or gun accidents every year.
Refugees in particular are already subject to high scrutiny: in many cases, it can take up to three years for a refugee to be admitted into the country. As such, the idea that ISIS or some other organized terror group would attempt to sneak in through the refugee program is simply bizarre.
For any action, we must not only consider benefits, but also the costs. Yes, banning entry citizens of particular countries will lower the risk that we will experience terrorism from those people. But if that probability is already very low, then the expected benefit will also be low.
Some quick back of the envelope calculations. Let’s say this ban will totally reduce the probability of being killed in an immigrant terrorist attack to zero from the estimate of about 1 in 3.6 million per year. For the individual benefit, we multiply this probability by the value of a statistical life (VSL), which is commonly cited around $7 million dollars.
Benefit = P(death)*VSL = 3X10^-7 * $7X10^6 = $2
Roughly speaking, the average American gains a benefit of around $2 per year from this restriction. For the national as a whole, with 320 million people, that’s a benefit of:
Let’s say we just restrict the costs to the lost economic activity of refugees who will no longer be arriving, which will now be 60,000 less persons. Let’s generously say only half of them end up working, at the average salary of $30,000/year. The lost economic activity is, at minimum:
3X10^4 * $3X10^4 = $9X10^8 or $900,000,000.
Benefit-Cost = $640,000,000 – $900,000,000 = -$260,000,000
A utility loss of nearly $300 million.
Already, this policy does not pass a simple cost benefit test. And this figure does not account for any additional enforcement costs. It does not account for the costs to green card holders who are now unable to return to their jobs and families. It does not account for the cost to refugees with visas who were in flight when the order was signed have been detained upon landing, their legal status in limbo. It does not account for the lost productivity of the next Steve Jobs, a child of a Syrian refugee. It does not account for the lives that will be lost in war torn countries as people have nowhere to flee to. And it does not account for the moral stain on America that will damage our reputation across the world and lead to further radicalization as we play into the hands of extremist propaganda.
As a legitimate counter terrorism measure, this executive order does not pass any test of reasonableness. I think it obvious this was not the intention. I will close with a quote from Ben Sasse, a Republican Senator from Nebraska and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee:
“The President is right to focus attention on the obvious fact that borders matter. At the same time, while not technically a Muslim ban, this order is too broad. There are two ways to lose our generational battle against jihadism by losing touch with reality. The first is to keep pretending that jihadi terrorism has no connection to Islam or to certain countries. That’s been a disaster. And here’s the second way to fail: If we send a signal to the Middle East that the U.S. sees all Muslims as jihadis, the terrorist recruiters win by telling kids that America is banning Muslims and that this is America versus one religion. Both approaches are wrong, and both will make us less safe. Our generational fight against jihadism requires wisdom.”