A Red-Blue Terror Alert


As recriminations fly over Operation Predicted Cakewalk, some commentators look back wistfully to the early post-Sept. 11 era, when or so they imagine the nation stood united against the terrorist threat. On my beat, that era was brief indeed: less than 48 hours after the atrocity, Congressional Republicans tried to exploit the event to pass a cut in the capital gains tax. But on national security issues, there was at first some real bipartisanship.

What happened to that bipartisanship? It fell prey to two enduring prejudices of the right: its deep hostility to nonmilitary government spending, and its exaltation of the "heartland" over the great urban states.

You might have expected the events of Sept. 11 to temper the right's opposition to some kinds of domestic spending. After thousands of Americans were killed by men armed only with box cutters, surely everyone would acknowledge that national security involves more than mere military might. But you would have been wrong. In a remarkable recent article titled "The 9/10 President," Jonathan Chait of The New Republic documents how the Bush administration has systematically neglected homeland security since 9/11. In its effort to keep spending down, the administration has repeatedly blocked proposals to enhance security at potential domestic targets like ports and nuclear plants.

What Mr. Chait doesn't point out is the extent to which already inadequate antiterrorism spending has been focused on the parts of the country that need it least.

I've written before about the myth of the heartland roughly speaking, the "red states," which voted for George W. Bush in the 2000 election, as opposed to the "blue states," which voted for Al Gore. The nation's interior is supposedly a place of rugged individualists, unlike the spongers and whiners along the coasts. In reality, of course, rural states are heavily subsidized by urban states. New Jersey pays about $1.50 in federal taxes for every dollar it gets in return; Montana receives about $1.75 in federal spending for every dollar it pays in taxes.

Any sensible program of spending on homeland security would at least partly redress this balance. The most natural targets for terrorism lie in or near great metropolitan areas; surely protecting those areas is the highest priority, right?

Apparently not. Even in the first months after Sept. 11, Republican lawmakers made it clear that they would not support any major effort to rebuild or even secure New York. And now that anti-urban prejudice has taken statistical form: under the formula the Department of Homeland Security has adopted for handing out money, it spends 7 times as much protecting each resident of Wyoming as it does protecting each resident of New York.

Here's how it works. In its main grant programs, the department makes no attempt to assess needs. Instead, each state receives a base of 0.75 percent of the total, regardless of its population; the rest is then allocated in proportion to population. This is a very good deal for states with small populations, like Wyoming or Montana. It's a very bad deal for states like California or New York, which receives only 4.7 percent of the money. And since New York and other big urban states remain the most likely targets of another major attack, it's a very bad deal for the country.

Why adopt such a strange formula? Well, maybe it's not that strange: what it most resembles is the Electoral College, which also gives disproportionate weight (though not that disproportionate) to states with small populations. And with a few exceptions, small-population states are red states indeed, the small-state bias of the Electoral College is what allowed Mr. Bush to claim the White House despite losing the popular vote. It's hard not to suspect that the formula which makes absolutely no sense in terms of national security was adopted precisely because it caters to that same constituency. (To be fair, there's one big "red state" loser from the formula: Texas. But one of these days, sooner than most people think, Texas may well turn blue.)

In other words, the allocation of money confirms Mr. Chait's point: even in a time of war a war that seems oddly unrelated to the terrorist threat the Bush administration isn't serious about protecting the homeland. Instead, it continues to subordinate U.S. security needs to its unchanged political agenda.

Originally published in The New York Times, 4.1.03