In 1951, the federal government created the emergency broadcast system, CONELRAD, to warn us in the event of a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union.
It made me feel safer. However, I was only 4.
The FEMA website says the Emergency Warning System "is designed for the President to speak to the American People within 10 minutes."
Such government action almost always seems right. In times of threat, we want "leaders" to tell us what to do.
But as I explain here, We need to get over this!
Our Emergency Broadcast System is a good example of why our instinct is usually wrong.
The warning system, mandatory for all TV and radio stations and cell phone services, costs hundreds of millions (they won't give us the exact number-but "modernizing" it for cell phones alone cost $106 million). Yet the emergency warning has never been activated nationwide. Two times it was tested; both were failures:
In 1971, they issued a false alarm. The teletype radio operator accidently played the "wrong tape."
In 2011, the Emergency Alert System (EAS) test worked on only some TV and radio stations. And some people heard Lady Gaga music.
On 9/11, the EAS wasn't even activated.
Did this put Americans in extra danger? No, because fortunately, we still have a private sector. After the World Trade Center was hit, a thousand radio and TV stations broadcast information about the attack with speed and thoroughness that federal bureaucrats could never match.
Did the Feds then sheepishly apologize, and announce that there was no longer a need for an expensive government warning system, given our myriad of radio and TV stations, not to mention Facebook, twitter, and other miracles of the internet? No, of course not! The bureaucracy never shrinks.
During Hurricane Sandy, twelve hours after the storm began, and long after everyone in my house was hunkered down to ride it out, some people received an emergency alert text from the government on their cell phones. It looked like this:
As Ira Stoll, from the Future of Capitalism blog, asked on my FBN show,
What did you do during the storm, John? You were not waiting for Barack Obama to tell you what was going on. You were refreshing Twitter probably, or the Drudge Report, or listening to the radio, or looking at the Weather Channel, like everybody else.
... We don't need a top-down system to suddenly tell us what we already learned an hour and a half ago.
We don't. But we pay for it anyway.