David R. Henderson  

The Brains of TSA

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Lesley Stahl did a moderately good job on "60 Minutes" this evening in her story on the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Why good and why just moderate? Good for two reasons. First, she actually interviewed a critic who pointed out the basic fact of substitution: when you take away guns and knives, people substitute into box cutters. Etc. Second, she showed the creepy thing they're starting to do with X-rays that essentially strip search people electronically.

Why moderate? For two reasons also. First, because after seeing the results of the X-rays, she said she expected to see something pornographic and didn't. But what she looked at was a slender woman wearing a bra and she could see the bra. She didn't ask the obvious question: what if the woman had been braless. Second, she didn't challenge Kip Hawley, the head of TSA, when he said that we are at war with terrorists. A little numeracy would have helped here. The risk of dying from terrorism on airplanes is well below other low risks that we put few resources into preventing.

Here's a quote from my book, co-authored with Charles Hooper, Making Great Decisions in Business and Life. You'll wonder why I'm quoting it, but be patient. I wrote:

A few years ago, I volunteered to serve hamburgers, hot dogs, and veggie burgers at a barbecue held at my daughter's high school. When it looked as if we were running out of any of the three items, one of the cooks would put more of those items on the grill. At one point, the line got long, with about 12 people suddenly waiting for their meal. That was the symptom of the problem. The cooks quickly put more burgers on the grill. That was their solution. But I looked down and saw that I had about four each of hot dogs and veggie burgers. I realized that the cooks were implicitly assuming that everyone wanted hamburgers. But, I wondered, what if some of them were in line for hot dogs and veggie burgers? There was a simple solution that addressed the real problem: ask them. So I announced, in my booming voice, "Anyone who's in line for hot dogs or veggie burgers please come up here." Immediately, six people came up, cutting the apparent hamburger line in half. Interestingly, the server who had made the panicked request to the cook for more hamburgers was a high-level manager at a logistics firm. He didn't see any easy way around the problem.

When Charley and I tell a story of poor thinking, we almost never give the name of the person. But here I'll make an exception. This high-level manager of a logistics firm? Well, his name is Kip Hawley and he's now head of TSA.


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CATEGORIES: Regulation , Terrorism



COMMENTS (8 to date)
Jacob Oost writes:

Ha, priceless!

Wait, aren't we at war with terrorists? Or, to put it another way, weren't we at war with terrorists until we kicked their butts and now we're in a cold war with terrorists? Well, how would you describe the terrorist threat?

Anyway, I think your story is a perfect illustration of the Hayekian point about central planning--central planners can't possibly know about what things are in demand and by how much. Even private firms face the same difficulty (of course, they have entirely different incentives due to the profit motive and competition, which streamlines operations, something governments don't have).

Vincent Clement writes:

Security theatre. Enough said.

Instead of tightening up the rules for what can and be carried on a plane, the US nationalizes and grows the airline security sector, and makes people take off their shoes and belts, put liquids in 3 oz bottles in see-through and wait in long lines.

The TSA says they are 'fighting the war on terrorism'. Oh really, remember when the computers went down at LAX and thousands upon thousands of people were waiting at the airport. What target rich environment for a terrorist.

Security theatre.

mjh writes:

I wonder how many people who moved ahead in line to get hot dogs and veggie burgers actually wanted hamburgers, but given the opportunity to decrease their wait time, were willing to switch to an alternative.

David R. Henderson writes:

Dear mjh,
Interesting thought. Notice, though, that it doesn't matter. They were given a new choice and they took it.
Best,
David

Brad Hutchings writes:

There's always something to be said for revealed preferences. But the problem here isn't Kip Hawley, Dilbert manager. The government sector is not good at rewarding entrepreneurial thinking. There is only a small portion of people who are good at it anyway, and they are far more compatible with the private sector. Government is inertia and momentum, not experimentation and natural selection. And most voters and most of their elected representatives couldn't tell you this difference.

Cute story though!

Nick writes:

As a physicist, the first thing I thought when I saw the X-ray machine was "How can x-rays differentiate between bra material and clothing?" The answer, which occurred to me only later, is that it can't. The only way that the x-ray machine "sees" a bra rather than a nude is when the bra is made out of silk rather than cotton, which is the material the x-ray machine is probably programmed to filter out. The journalist was intentionally shown a rare case when a woman was was wearing a silk, rather than cotton, bra.

Jacob Oost writes:

mlh's point pretty much demonstrates opportunity costs, and how time can be thought of as a price. If the "waiting price" for hot dogs and veggie burgers hits the floor, then some people's marginal preferences could make them go for the substitute lunch.

Dan writes:

The Whole Body Imager does not use x-rays.

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