Refugees and Non-Zero Risk Choices

Twitter and the world (I guess they are one in the same now days) descended on all sorts of crazy last week when Donald Trump Jr. compared refugees to poisonous Skittles. The Guardian had a good round up of the brouhaha (HT Chris Blattman). Even people whose job isn’t necessarily to make smart political commentary have been speaking up. Here is music star, John Legend:


But the best, from what I’ve read at least, commentary on this comes from Adam Ozimek, an economics writer for He considers the whole issue as an issue of food safety. Here’s Adam in a short but sweet article, “I would Eat the Poisoned Skittles“:

The real issue here clearly is food safety, and acceptable levels of risk. Donald Jr’s comparison embraces a zero tolerance for risk when it comes to choices, be they food consumption or the entry of refugees. But we don’t embrace zero risk in our food consumption choices, so why should we with immigration?

Skittles may not be poisoned very often, but many foods carry a risk of intense sickness. According to the NOAA Fisheries division, Americans consume an average of one seafood meal a week. With 324 million people in the U.S., that amounts to 16.8 billion seafood meals a year consumed in the U.S. Each of these instances was a non-zero risk choice. The CDC estimates that 589,310 people are sickened from seafood every year due to bacterial, chemical, parasitic, and viral agents. That means each meal has a 0.0035% chance of becoming sick. Does Donald Trump Jr eat seafood?

This raises the question of how much riskier refugees are than seafood. According to the Cato Institute, of the 859,629 refugees who have come to the U.S. since 2001, only three have been convicted for planning a terrorist attack, and none of those attacks was in the U.S. Let’s say that the marginal refugee is 10x riskier than the average refugee, because they are coming from Syria or something. How do the odds stack up? That’s a 0.0035% chance that they are a terrorist, the exact same odds as seafood poisoning.

Here’s the thing, admitting refugees into our country does come with some risk. That risk, however, is remarkably low (even with a ridiculous multiplier through in) and for every family of refugees resettled at least one (probably more) dying child survives. This sort of non-zero risk choice is not only a choice I would make every time, it is a choice we all already make anytime we eat fish or beef or even buy food at a local farmers market.

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