Trade-Offs and Revealed Preferences, Republican Leadership edition

Even more than Digby on CalPERS, the one piece everyone should read today is Charlie Stross on International Travel. Since this is an economics blog, let’s pull a key section:

Here’s the rub: security is a state of mind, not a procedure. Procedures can’t cope with attackers, because they’re inflexible. If you search passengers for guns, someone will carry a knife. If you search for knives, someone will sew themselves a set of underwear full of PETN. And so on. To deal with a threat — say, someone who wants to attack your air travel infrastructure — you must look for the attacker, not their tools, because they can change their tools at will to exploit weaknesses in your procedure for identifying tools.

JFK is wide open to terrorists intent on causing mass casualties….

Schiphol — Amsterdam airport — gets the security screening right, or at least less wrong than JFK and most other airports. Rather than having a hideous bottleneck between check-in and the departure area, security screening is carried out at each depature gate, with a separate metal detector and X-ray belt; no huge crowds form in unsecured areas. On US-bound flights, someone who clearly isn’t a minimum-wage drone checks ID documents and asks a couple of questions that seem to me to the aimed at flushing out anyone who is disturbed or tense — a crude form of profiling.[italics his; boldfacing mine]

South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint preferred to let the TSA remain leaderless for the past year in fear of unionization of the workers. As he explained to CNN:

Or, as quoted by Mark “neither Ernest nor earnest” Hemingway the Washington Examiner, in a piece oh-so-sensibly entitled Napolitano wants to unionize TSA employees despite safety concerns:

The administration is intent in on unionizing and submitting our airport security to union bosses [and] collective bargaining, and this is at a time, as Senator Lieberman says, we’ve got to use our imagination we’ve got to be constantly flexible. We have to out think the terrorists. When we formed the airport security system we realize we could not use collective bargaining and unionization because of that need to be flexible. Yet that appears to be the top priority of the administration.

But DeMint was much clearer on the Senate floor, and speaking to Fox:

It makes absolutely no sense to submit the security of our airports and the passengers here in this country to collective bargaining with unions.

Which, of course, is why police and fire departments are all non-union as well.

The people you attract to any job—by your deliberate practices, not “unintended consequence”—are those who cannot get a job that they know to be more stable, pays better, has better benefits, or provide a more friendly work atmosphere. By your policies and procedures, you reveal the type of worker you prefer. This is as true of the TSA as it is of Goldman Sachs.

In the case of the TSA, though, the combination produces the natural hire as the people who couldn’t get a job at Applebee’s, The Olive Garden, or Ruby Tuesday’s.

As Paul Kedrosky recently noted, it’s more “security theater” than security. So when DeMint compares the TSA to the FBI, he’s neglecting that the average staring salary at the FBI eight years ago was over $43,000—with an increase of at least $10,000 upon completion of training. This is $20,000-$30,000 a year more than the $12/hour my neighbor made when he started with the TSA. (He quit quickly, finding restaurant work more profitable.)

If you want security, you pay for people who know how to do security. If you want theater, you depend on Jim DeMint to ensure that the TSA remains leaderless, and then have no right to be surprised when a British novelist points out that your security isn’t secure. Even when he says:

Suppose I wanted to attack the US air travel infrastructure….I can kill lots of passengers! All I need to do is to buy a maximum-size carry on bag (US dimensions: 7″ x 13″ x 20″) and build the biggest, heaviest bomb into it that I can wheel behind me….

All I would have to do then is buy a ticket…and go queue. Then, when I get to the middle of the crowd, detonate the device. (For added horrors: have an accomplice with a similar device hang back, to detonate their bomb amidst the fleeing survivors.)

[S]ecurity checkpoints are a target, too, because they slow down travellers and cause crowds to form, and another term for “crowd” is “convenient target”. And because the attacker has not been separated from their weapon at the point when they reach such a target, it’s the logical weak point for causing maximum damage.

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