Jack the Ripper got more headlines than infant mortality in his heyday. But I'm willing to bet the latter took more lives than Red Jack did over the course of his career.
Action is more vivid and memorable than its opposite. Whatever else an obscenely bloated weapons budget does, it provides lots of action when its purchases get used, and, even when they're dormant, their potential is vivid and omnipresent due to all the violet entertainment that dominates print, video and gaming.
In contrast, the prevention of disease, poverty and decay dosen't provide either good visual or dramatic narratives for TV (ER and House being notable exceptions, and even they are watched as much for the characters as the subject matter).
The vividness of evidence skews its perceived weight. So, when we judge the relative seriousness of threats to our society, we tend to spend our limited resources on the attention-grabbers, which, while the most dramatically violent, may not be the most damaging.
We lose more opportunities, property and human lives due to what we foolishly ignore than we do to what we raptly watch. This is understandable, we've survived for 300,000 years by getting out the most obvious trouble at hand.
But overspecialization is the doom of species. We can run from lions like champions, but lions are no longer a threat to us. The threats we face now, many of them the result of our success at getting rid of past dangers, require some serious rethinking of how we appeal to our own instincts.
Those of us who see more security in actively improving our society to meet real challenges than we do in defending its deterioration in the face of nonexistent threats need to learn to make our cases.
The human instinct to respond to vivid danger is not going to change. It's carved into the DNA of every cell.
But please notice my choice of words. I said "carved" instead of "written" or "coded" in the last sentence. For me, and I think for many, that word is most vivid choice.
The right understands the use of compelling imagery and anecdote. Further, they have the advantage of promoting policies that deal with vivid, yet fake, threats to the US. Saddam Hussein's nonexistent attack on America, and his unstoppable military, which was stopped in about week, come to mind.
The left needs to learn how to be compelling as well. We need to make the consequences of inaction as vivid as the promise of action. Fortunately, this is easily done due to human risk and loss aversion.
We hate losing one dollar more than we like finding two; there is a mountain of experimental evidence that proves this (I chose "mountain" which has an associated image, rather than "plethora" which doesn't).
This explains a lot. It's why every commercial you see for any sale tells you "don't miss this opportunity" instead of "come see this opportunity". The appeal is to potential loss, not potential gain.
So when we talk about poverty, pollution, disease, and infrastructure, our stories need to blaze with pictures of the death and destruction these plagues promise.
We can't miss the opportunity.