TSA Follies and The Death of Common Sense

I hear the TSA is seeking public suggestions.

imagesRecently at airport “Security” we almost missed a flight because TSA thought a boarding pass didn’t look quite right. They might have simply checked with the airline. But that would be too sensible. This is government, remember.

UnknownWhat is TSA’s mission? To prevent hijackings and bombings? Maybe in theory; but that’s not how TSA actually functions on the ground. For its employees, the real mission is to follow procedures and tick off the bureaucratic boxes. So your boarding pass must look a certain way. (Some think the true purpose of TSA is “security theater” — to make travelers believe flying is safe.)

But anyway, two seconds thought shows that the whole rigmarole of officiously checking boarding passes and IDs makes no sense. Faking them would be the easiest part of the plot for a would-be hijacker. Nor does x-raying every bag and person make much sense – especially with TSA personnel being (forgive my bluntness) low-paid drones proven unable to spot true problems.

Unknown-2I’m reminded of Philip Howard’s enlightening 1994 book, The Death of Common Sense. In his latest, The Rule of Nobody, he relates that after some nasty scandals, Australia scrapped hundreds of detailed rules governing nursing homes. Regulatory experts were aghast. Yet, with facilities now enjoined simply to provide a “homelike environment” with “privacy and dignity” – freeing them to think creatively rather than blindly following checklists – they measurably improved.

Howard’s point is that we tend to impose complex regulatory schemes because we don’t trust their targets – be it governmental arms, or businesses – to behave reasonably and fairly otherwise. It’s a big mistake, as evidenced by Australia’s experience. And by TSA.

images-1Before my next flight folks on the security line were told that “if your boarding pass says ‘TSA Pre’” you go on a different (shorter) queue. I’d thought one had to register and pay $85 for that preclearance program. Yet on my return flight, I was surprised to see “TSA Pre” on my own pass. So I was waved through with shoes on, no body scan, no pat-down, nothing. Inquiring, I was informed that “TSA Pre” is now put on some boarding passes strictly at random!

images-2When I told my wife, it took her, yes, exactly two seconds to realize, “Well, if a terrorist just buys multiple tickets . . . .” (Or he could just pay the $85 fee!) What’s the logic of “TSA Pre” when they still insist on otherwise x-raying toddlers and centenarians in wheelchairs? If it’s okay for a few people, some at random, to go unscreened, why not most people?

My next flight: TSA busted me for carrying knives. Lest you think I’m a moron, they were ancient Chinese “knife money”–somewhat knife-shaped, but for use as currency, not cutting, hence without sharp edges, generally encrusted with green corrosion product, and quite fragile to boot. It had never occurred to me, but in TSA’s inane bureaucratized mentality, a “knife” is a “knife,” and there was no arguing. (Fortunately, I was permitted to spend $5.60 to mail them home.)

Chinese knife money

Chinese knife money

If I were in charge of TSA, instead of having an army of drones uselessly torturing travelers by scrutinizing every ID and bag, I would hire a third of the number at three times the pay – highly trained professionals who’d simply eyeball passengers passing (mostly) unmolested through a gate, with discretion to stop for intensive screening anyone who, for any reason, they deem suspect, or at random. (This is pretty much how U.S. Customs operates. Most travelers just walk right through.) And normally innocent items like hand cream or scissors (or Chinese knife money) would be subject to exclusion – but not required to be excluded.

Wouldn’t this make a thousand times more sense?

Unknown-1My wife constantly mocks my supposed belief in human rationality. What I actually believe is that people are capable of rationality, and act rationally most of the time. But not, alas, always. True rationality might abolish the TSA altogether. We might lose some planes and lives, but many more lives could be saved if the billions lavished on TSA were spent instead on, say, auto safety, or public health.

And if you really love to hate the TSA, take a look at this!

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2 Responses to “TSA Follies and The Death of Common Sense”

  1. Mathew Says:

    Given the absurd costs of actually and thoroughly investigating each person boarding a plane, the best the TSA can do is random security checks on small details. Definitely in agreement that a lot of it is for show (which there is some value in – lack of confidence in flying would be bad for the global economy). The random “TSA Pre” status is likely a marketing gimmick to get more people to sign up for it (which involves a small background check and fingerprinting, I think). Great post!

  2. Peter Parsons Says:

    I believe returning Vets would do a much better job that the current crop of ‘Too Stupid Agency’ drones

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