Which is the more significant danger to your family’s safety — foreign terror or Ebola?
If you’re like most Americans, your answer is, well, both.
This fear is almost surely misplaced. The chances you or your family will be hurt in a terror attack or by a rare virus are minuscule when compared with other calamities like a car accident or a more common illness.
At the same time, we live in a dangerous world, and one of the government’s first duties is to protect its citizens. And in this case, it appears the government believes one threat is far more significant than the other.
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The U.S. military budget for 2015 is roughly $630 billion, including ongoing operations in the Middle East. That’s about 16 percent of all federal spending.
The government will spend about $32 billion on health research this year. That’s less than 1 percent of the federal budget.
Like all figures, these examples can be misleading. The military budget addresses more than just the terror threat — it funds military operations across the globe, including forces in Europe and the Far East. And the private sector spends around $100 billion a year on health research, boosting the nation’s investment in curing and preventing disease.
Moreover, we spend almost $3 trillion in public and private funds treating illness. It isn’t as if we ignore health issues.
But the government’s spending priorities have seemed clear for decades: When choosing between tanks and test tubes, the military generally prevails.
The Ebola outbreak may bring this issue into sharper focus. It seems far more likely that you or a family member will succumb to cancer or heart disease, for example — or even another deadly virus from West Africa — than from a terror attack or foreign invasion.
Yet we spend tax money as if the reverse is the case.
Critics of health research spending point out the potential for waste is high. America could spend $100 billion or $200 billion to find a cure for cancer, they say, and still might not find one.
Sickness and disease are stubborn opponents, more difficult than even the Islamic State or al-Qaida.
But the threat from a mutating virus seems real, particularly in a global environment with a changing climate. You might argue fighting Ebola-like diseases is a matter of national security — imagine the breakdown in social order if any deadly illness runs unchecked.
To govern is to choose. Our elected leaders may soon face a choice between guns and gowns — and increasing public pressure to pick the latter.