Sunday, November 28, 2010

Ahhh, modern travel...

As we all know, the physical infrastructure of the U.S. is in pretty poor shape. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave it a D in its latest report card. Unfortunately, the policy dimension of that infrastructure is not doing much better. Exhibit B: reactions to real and perceived terrorist threats in aviation.

Wielding a little power is a dangerous thing, as I mentioned in an earlier post on the DMV. It should not be a surprise that the TSA is similarly vulnerable to the temptation to abuse its own power, as is shown in this striking video of TSA agents in Phoenix (mis-)handling a woman's request that her breastmilk not be X-rayed. Even when the TSA simply implements its own rules, ludicrous situations ensue, such as the random selection of toddlers for more detailed screening. James Fallows has several good posts on this here, here and here (with internal links to several others).

The bigger issue, of course, is whether any of these policies actually increase safety and, if they do (which remains unclear), whether the marginal increase in safety is worth the marginal cost of the safety measures. In other words: how much do the added safety measures cost, and how many lives do they save? (a related musing on this by Sam Savage here).

The TSA's annual budget is about $7 billion, but there are additional costs in terms of the time lost going through the ever more invasive process, which are much harder to estimate. (Interestingly, in a New York Times debate on the issue of body scanners a few days ago, only one contributor, Bruce Schneier, even hinted at the cost-benefit question.)

Over at Salon.com, Patrick Smith, on his "Ask the Pilot" blog, offers some valuable context, noting that "Deadly terrorism existed before 9/11," and that, moreover, we reacted to it in much saner ways in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Jeffrey Goldberg already argued 2 years ago in the Atlantic monthly that "Airport security in America is a sham — 'security theater' designed to make travelers feel better and catch stupid terrorists." Of course, there are plenty of stupid terrorists around, so security measures that catch only stupid terrorists are not worthless. But are they really worth as much as they cost? At this point, I suspect that the resources allocated to catching stupid would-be terrorists could be used more productively to try to catch smart and stupid terrorists alike.

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