Monday, November 22, 2010

3 Lessons from the TSA Horror Stories



The stories have gone viral, and we hardly have to repeat what has been covered by every major news channel: The pleas of Thomas Sawyer, a 61-year old Bladder Cancer survivor with a Urostomy (an external bag collecting urine), are ignored by TSA agents who break his bag and leave him in tears and covered in his own urine. Cathy Bossy, a 32-year old Breast Cancer survivor, is forced to remove her prosthetic breast. A three year old is subjected to a full-body pat down because she cried when Agents attempted to take her teddy bear away from her to go through the metal detector. Gurdeep Bawa, a religious Sikh, is forced to remove his turban and watch it manhandled, even though he had passed both a metal detector and a detectives trace detection test.

In an effort to prevent terrorism on the airlines, the 'experience' of airline travel has clearly changed in the last decade...and the public debate between those who would preserve privacy, and those who would insist on security, is at fever pitch. Now, to be 100% honest, I have a perverse desire to wear some type of leather-and-metal masochistic contraption on my 'junk' just to watch some TSA agent have to deal with it. But many Americans (more Normal than me) have called for a massive protest on Wednesday ("National Opt-Out Day"), to overwhelm the government security operations on one of the busiest travel days of the year. As expected, the TSA, and some news commentators, are warning against such an action.

We draw 3 conclusions from this entire episode:

1) American officials need a lesson in Marginal Analysis (Microeconomics 101).

On the first day of Micro class, I ask my students if they think that protecting children is important. Of course, they respond in the affirmative. Then I ask them if ski slopes that permit children to ski should be forced to bubble-wrap all the trees on the slope...after all, if children's lives are important, shouldn't we do everything in our power to make it safer...even just a little bit? Eventually, students come around to reconciling their concern for children with their recognition of the innate, if unstated, concept of Marginal Analysis: the question is NOT "Don't you want children to be safe?," but rather, "What are the costs and benefits of the next proposed action?"

This applies to *every* public policy debate. Yes, children's education is important...that doesn't mean every school should have a 1:1 teacher-student ratio. Yes, fire protection is important...that doesn't mean there should be a firehouse on every block. Yes, rescuing fishermen whose boats have gone down is important...that doesn't mean the Coast Guard should be searching 6 months later.

And the same reasoning applies to Airline Security. The question is NOT, "Is airline security important?" (Of course it is). The question is, "What are the costs and benefits associated with this additional step." People who defend the TSA's actions based on the broad concept of "the importance of security" are simply not thinking this through.

According to the TSA, only 3% of airline passengers are subjected to "enhanced" security searches. How much additional safety do we all experience as a result of a process that is only used on 3% of passengers?! The fact is, the additional benefits are dwarfed by the additional costs associated by this procedure: costs in equipment, personnel, delays, and public outrage. Standard Marginal Analysis would suggest that the TSA's efforts are a sure loser (and while children are being stripped at the gates, al qaeda is circumventing this process entirely by planting bombs in cargo holds).

2) The Terrorists have Won. Beginning with waterboarding and continuing through Guantanamo Bay, the suspending of habaeus corpus, and the Patriot Act, from Bush through Obama, constitutional guarantees have been shredded.

The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution reads as follows:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Patting down a 3-year old is now "reasonable?" Removing a prosthetic breast is "reasonable?" Breaking an American's Urostomy bag is consistent with being "secure in their persons?"

In the name of Security, the Fourth Amendment has been rendered 'voidable' by our federal government. The Terrorists, who have a deep-seated hatred for American civil liberties, have succeeded in eliminating one of our most important rights...and sadly, many Americans go along in the name of 'security.'

3) Obama is Clueless. President Obama's detached, passionless leadership style has hurt both his Presidency and the Democratic Party. The high-falutin,' tortured, bureaucratic gobbledy-gook emanating from the White House in response to the public outcry is remarkable for its total lack of any hint of empathy. The President should have immediately joined in the outrage over the abuse to cancer survivors and children named above, and declared that he was ordering changes to TSA policy...instead, what we received was an into-the-air comment about 'evolving policy.'

Sigh.....Where is the sign up sheet for "Hillary in 2012?" A

And in the meantime, dammit - if you're flying on Wednesday - get there early, stand up for reason and for your rights as an American, and join the National Opt-Out Day

1 comment:

Michael said...

I think the outcry about this situation is warranted, but the outrage is ridiculous. This isn't waterboarding here. It's a genuine attempt to keep American's safe. The TSA is misguided, not malicious. And while protection against illegal search and seizure is a right, flying is not. The most important thing I've learned in economics so far is the power of the market. Instead of creating a frustrating and potentially dangerous situation with this "opt out day," those who wish to send a message should do something that will really work: Don't fly. There is a potential to cause airlines to lose millions of dollars a day. If the government won't listen to us, the damn sure will listen to airline companies who are standing on shaky financial ground as it is. The airline industry will convince the government to change procedures in 2 days flat with losses of just a couple million a day. Problem solved.