Posts tagged ‘tsa’

Spying on the Press

Well, the silver lining of this story is that the press, who until now have generally yawned at libertarian concerns about warrantless searches and national security letters, particularly since that power has been held by a Democrat rather than a Republican, will now likely go nuts.

You have probably seen it by now, but here is the basic story

The Justice Department secretly obtained two months of telephone records of reporters and editors for The Associated Press in what the news cooperative's top executive called a "massive and unprecedented intrusion" into how news organizations gather the news.

The records obtained by the Justice Department listed incoming and outgoing calls, and the duration of each call, for the work and personal phone numbers of individual reporters, general AP office numbers in New York, Washington and Hartford, Conn., and the main number for AP reporters in the House of Representatives press gallery, according to attorneys for the AP.

In all, the government seized those records for more than 20 separate telephone lines assigned to AP and its journalists in April and May of 2012. The exact number of journalists who used the phone lines during that period is unknown but more than 100 journalists work in the offices whose phone records were targeted on a wide array of stories about government and other matters.

The AP believes this is an investigation into sources of a story on May 7, 2012 about a foiled terror attack.  This bit was interesting to me for two reasons:

The May 7, 2012, AP story that disclosed details of the CIA operation in Yemen to stop an airliner bomb plot occurred around the one-year anniversary of the May 2, 2011, killing of Osama bin Laden.

The plot was significant because the White House had told the public it had "no credible information that terrorist organizations, including al-Qaida, are plotting attacks in the U.S. to coincide with the (May 2) anniversary of bin Laden's death."

The AP delayed reporting the story at the request of government officials who said it would jeopardize national security. Once government officials said those concerns were allayed, the AP disclosed the plot because officials said it no longer endangered national security. The Obama administration, however, continued to request that the story be held until the administration could make an official announcement.

First, it seems to fit in with the White House cover-up over Benghazi, in the sense that it is another example of the Administration trying to downplay, in fact hide, acts of organized terrorism.  I have criticized the Administration for throwing free speech under the bus in its Benghazi response, but I must say their reasons for doing so were never that clear to me.  This story seems to create a pattern of almost irrational White House sensitivity to any admission of terrorist threats to the US.

Second, note from the last sentence that the White House is bending over backwards to investigate the AP basically for stealing its thunder before a press conference.  Wow.  Well if that were suddenly illegal, just about everyone in DC would be in jail.

Update:  Some thoughts from Glenn Greenwald

how media reactions to civil liberties assaults are shaped almost entirely by who the victims are. For years, the Obama administration has been engaged in pervasive spying on American Muslim communities and dissident groups. It demanded a reform-free renewal of the Patriot Act and the Fisa Amendments Act of 2008, both of which codify immense powers of warrantless eavesdropping, including ones that can be used against journalists. It has prosecuted double the number of whistleblowers under espionage statutes as all previous administrations combined, threatened to criminalize WikiLeaks, and abused Bradley Manning to the point that a formal UN investigation denounced his treatment as "cruel and inhuman".

But, with a few noble exceptions, most major media outlets said little about any of this, except in those cases when they supported it. It took a direct and blatant attack on them for them to really get worked up, denounce these assaults, and acknowledge this administration's true character. That is redolent of how the general public reacted with rage over privacy invasions only when new TSA airport searches targeted not just Muslims but themselves: what they perceive as "regular Americans". Or how former Democratic Rep. Jane Harman -- once the most vocal defender of Bush's vast warrantless eavesdropping programs -- suddenly began sounding like a shrill and outraged privacy advocate once it was revealed that her own conversations with Aipac representatives were recorded by the government.

I Guess This Needs to be Said

I had thought that post-9/11 and with the very visible object lesson of TSA security theater that this would have already been understood, but I will repeat it:  There are no security steps that we are willing to tolerate as a free society that would make it impossible, or even substantially more difficult, for a motivated deranged person to shoot up an elementary school.

Promises by politicians up to and including the President to take "steps" to improve safety are illusory.  What we will get, if anything, will be incremental steps that will hassle law-abiding citizens (think: taking your shoes off at the airport and not using your iPad during takeoffs) without doing anything to deter actual criminals.  In particular, any honest and knowledgeable security person will tell you that there is no realistic way, short perhaps of turning ourselves into North Korea, of stopping a killer who is determined to die as part of his crime.

Is There Not One Single Operations Engineer in the TSA?

I go nuts when I see a bad process.  It bothers me so much I had to stop going to the local bagel outlet because their process behind the counter was so frustratingly awful it made my teeth hurt  (take order here, walk all the way to other end to get bagel, walk all the way back to toaster, then cross back over to get spread, all while nobody is able to pay because the only cashier also seems to be the only one assigned to fulfilling complicated coffee orders).

Because of this, going through TSA screening makes me completely nuts.  Screening is a classic assembly line process with steps that include putting shoes in bin, putting toiletries in bin, putting laptop in bin, shoving bin through x-ray, walking through scanner, retrieving items from x-ray, putting on shoes, putting items back in luggage, stacking bins and returning them to the front.  In many airports, I have observed that the long lines for screening are due to a simple bottleneck that could easily be removed if anyone in the TSA actually cared about service performance.

For example, I was in the San Jose airport the other day.  They had a really large area in front of the scanners with really long tables leading to the x-ray.  I thought to myself that this was smart - give people plenty of time in the line to be organizing their stuff into bins so one of the key potential bottlenecks, the x-ray machine, is always fed with items and is never waiting.

But then I got to the end of the process.  The landing area for stuff out of the x-ray was incredibly short.  When just one person tries to put their shoes on while their bag was still on the line, the whole x-ray conveyor gets jammed.  In fact, when I was there, the x-ray guy had to sit and wait for long periods of time for the discharge end to clear, so he could x-ray more bags.  One might have blamed this on clueless passengers who held up the line trying to put on shoes when they should step out of line and find a bench, but there were just two tiny benches for five screening lines.  The only place to get your stuff organized and get dressed was at the discharge of the x-ray, guaranteeing the x-ray gets held up constantly.

I can almost picture what happened here, but since I don't fly to San Jose much I haven't observed it over time.  But I bet some well-meaning but clueless person thought he saw a bottleneck in the entry to the x-ray, shifted everything to dedicate a ton of space to the entry, and thus created an enormous new bottleneck at the back end.  This kind of thing is stupid.  We are, what, 11 years into this screening?  Can you imagine Texas Instruments tolerating such a mess on their calculator assembly line for 11 years?

You Are In the Best of Hands

Rampant theft at the TSA

A former Transportation Security Administration agent who spent three years in jail for stealing from passenger luggage told ABC News that the practice “was very commonplace.” Pythias Brown, who worked at Newark International Airport, said he stole more than $800,000 worth of goods from luggage and security checkpoints. He was finally caught when he tried to sell a stolen CNN camera on eBay but forgot to take off all the stickers that tied the camera to the news network.

"It became so easy, I got complacent," Brown said. Almost 400 TSA officers have been fired for stealing from passengers over the past decade.

My assumption is that if they caught 400 with enough evidence to survive civil service grievance procedures, at least 4000 must be stealing. It's like Goodfella's II.

Dictator of Their Immediate Area

I have argued before that police often behave as if they are legally dictator of their immediate area, and frequently assume they can issue orders, however asinine, to anyone in their visual range.  Of course this is legally not true (though I suppose it is legally true if you take into account that courts and the minimal accountability processes that exist for cops never punish them for such behavior).

Here is a great example.  The 2-minute TSA freeze drill, with the TSA yelling at people -- already through security -- within their visual range for moving.  I think they are ripping off Heinlein - was this in Starship Troopers?

When the Media Loses Its Skepticism - High Speed Rail Edition

I have said for a long time that I don't really think there is a lot of outright media bias in the sense of conspiring to bury or promote certain memes.   But there are real issues with the leftish monoculture of the media losing its skepticism on certain topics.

For example, high speed rail is one of those things we are just supposed to do, from the Leftish view.  Harry Reid's justification for a high speed rail line is typical:  he wants to see  "America catch up with the rest of the world".  Everyone else has these things, so it must be some failing of ours that we don't.  For the left, the benefits of high speed rail are a given, they are part of the liturgy and not to be questioned.  Which means that it is up to outsiders to do the media's work of applying some degree of skepticism whenever a high speed rail project is proposed.

Thus we get to this article on high speed rail about a supposedly "private" rail line from LA to Las Vegas.  As is usual in the media, none of the assumptions are questioned.

Greg Pollowitz gets at some of the more obvious problems.  First, it is fairly heroic spin to call a line that currently is getting $4.9 billion in public subsidies "privately funded."  Second, he points out that, like the proposed California high speed rail line, this is a train to nowhere as well

And second of all, having grown up in Los Angeles — and having lied to my parents to drive to Vegas since the time I was 16 years old — I consider myself somewhat of an expert on the Los Angeles to Vegas drive. (CNN, Fox, MSDNC — call me!) I remember Victorville fondly as the place where we’d make our food-stop and pick up some In-N-Out burgers for the final half of the journey. And I can tell you this: There is no way anybody would ever drive through L.A.’s notorious traffic only to stop halfway and hop on a train on the other side of the El Cajon Pass and in doing so give up their personal transportation once they actually get to Vegas.

I want to reality-check their usage numbers.

DesertXpress estimates that it will carry around five million round trip passengers in the first full year of operation,with the company charging fares of around $50 for a one-way trip.

OK, right now there are about 3.7 annual air passengers between Las Vegas and the southern California airports, according to rail supporters.  It is hard to get at drivers, but the Las Vegas tourism folks believe that 25% of 36 million annual visitors to Vegas come from Southern California, so that would mean about 9 million total or about 5 million driving.

What this means is that to make this work, they are counting on more than half of all visitors from Southern California (and remember this includes San Diego) taking the train.  Is this reasonable?

  • The train is supposedly $50 (I will believe that when I see it).  Currently JetBlue flies from Burbank to Las Vegas for $56 in a flight that takes 69 minutes (vs. 84 for the train and remember that is from Victorville).   The standard rate from LAX, Burbank, or Long Beach seems to be around $74-77.
  • Airplanes leave for Las Vegas from airports all around LA and in San Diego.  Let's take a couple of locations.  Say you live near downtown LA, not because that is likely but it is relatively central and does not feel like cherry picking.  Victorville is a 84 mile 90 minute drive AT BEST, with no traffic.  The Burbank airport is a 15 mile, 18 minute drive from LA.  LAX is just a bit further.  Victorville is 82 miles and 90 minutes from Irvine and 146 miles/144 minutes from San Diego.  Both of these Southern California towns are just a few minutes from an airport with $70-ish flights to Vegas

So are drivers going to stop half way to Vegas, once they have completed the hard part of the drive, to get on a train?  Are flyers going to drive 1-2 hours further to get to the rail terminal to say $20?  Some will.  But will more than half?  No way.

Postscript:  If you really want to promote the train, forget shoveling tax money at it and pass a law that the TSA may not set up screening operations at its terminus.  That might get a few customers, though the odds this would happen, or that it would stick over time, are minuscule.

Using Copyrights and Trademarks to Duck Accountability and Criticism

There is an ever-present effort among corporations, government officials, and public figures to suppress criticism.  A new tool in this war on speech is the trademark or copyright, where folks argue that criticism that uses even their name is somehow in violation of intellectual property protections.

Of course, this is all so much BS, and courts have been pretty good about protecting speech in these circumstances, but the need for vigilance never goes away.  Example

There's plenty of genuine trademark and copyright piracy out there: people trying to make money off of other people's work, or enjoy it for free. But increasingly, copyrights and trademarks are used by their owners, with the assistance of thuggish lawyers, as weapons to suppress satire, criticism, and comment. We've discussed the trend here before — Forever 21's embarrassing attack on a humor site,Ralph Lauren threatening lawsuits against people who comment on its freakish photoshops of models,Meghan McCain's attempt to use the California "right of publicity" to suppress parody of her awful writing, the TSA attempting to criminalize use of its logo,scummy telemarketers arguing that people criticizing them are violating the trademark in their name, andthe Guinness World Records people reacting to a hilarious screenshot with trademark threats. [Now that I look at it, I think we need a tag for this.] Sometimes the copyright and trademark thuggery goes meta, as whenjackass attorneys send cease-and-desist letters, claim copyright in the letters, and threaten suit if they are released and discussed.

The rest is worth reading, written in Ken's, uh,  trademark style that is both informative and enjoyable.  Like Ken, I have to confess to a deep befuddlement as to the appeal of Louis Vuitton gear, which generally look like brown Hefty bags with a pattern printed on it.  Why someone would go to the effort of copying them seems as odd to me as building a replica of the Peabody Terrace apartments where I used to live in Boston.

 

Contempt of TSA

I have written frequently of the non-crime called "contempt of cop" which seems to be at the heart of so many bad arrests and harassment incidents.  Well, you will be happy to know that the helpful folks at the TSA want the same power, to be able to arrest anyone who does not show them proper respect and deference.

Postscript:  Thinking about this more, I have to add a personal angle.  As my company privately operates public parks, our employees are often taking over from state park rangers who have law enforcement credentials.  When we propose our services, we often get pushback on this issue -- how are we going to live without all these law enforcement officers with arrest powers and guns and badges in the parks?

The answer I give is:  Things will be better.  It is an enormous mistake to handle customer service problems with a badge and gun and hard-ass attitude, but that is often what happens in parks.  You don't see McDonald's issuing citations to their customers, but state parks organizations do it all the time.

It turns out that the reason there are so many law enforcement officers in parks has nothing to do with demand -- with very few exceptions, the parks we operate all require fractions of an FTE of law enforcement.  Maybe 20 hours a year per park.  But there are huge incentives for state workers to get a law enforcement license.  Beyond the psychic advantages of having a gun and badge, they typically qualify for a much richer law enforcement pension plan.   Park supervisors don't care -- the extra benefits don't come out of their budgets.

The Terrorists Have Won

Victory courtesy of the freaking TSA.  Making a mockery of the Fourth Amendment for nearly 10 years now.

I Am Sure We Will Be Seeing These Civil Rights Suits Any Day Now

I try not to get into the voting rules arguments between Republicans and Democrats because at their heart, most of these are totally political.  However, I am fascinated by the claim by Democrats that producing an ID to vote discriminates against blacks, presumably because obtaining such ID puts an undue asymmetric burden on African-Americans vs. whites.

This seems like a crock to me -- I am not sure why obtaining an ID is harder for blacks than whites, though I will observe that the highest profile black man in the country had trouble producing his birth certificate so maybe there is some racial thing here I don't understand.

But if we take the claim at face value, why aren't the TSA and airports being sued by the NAACP?  After all, there is an ID entry requirement and if that is discriminatory for voting, isn't it also discriminatory for flying.  Why isn't the DMV, or the highway department being sued of its ID requirement?  Ditto the federal government, which required ID to enter a federal building.

Update: James Taranto has similar thoughts.  He thought of several I missed, including requirements to show ID (part of the I-9 form) in order to get a job.

Another Problem With TSA Body Scanners

I can't go anywhere without analyzing operations and workflow -- there used to be a bagel store near my house whose work flow was so awful and inefficient it almost caused me physical pain just to be in the store.  In large part I owe my marriage to operations analysis, as I started going out with my wife when I was tutoring her on cycle times and other basic concepts.

So beyond the obvious privacy and invidual rights problems, TSA screening areas have always driven me nuts because they are so inefficient.  Yesterday I was putting on my shoes and belt after another run-in with the visible hand of the state, and it gave me time to watch the full body x-ray scanners for a while.  They had been bought in sufficient quantity to replace the metal detectors one for one, but there seemed to be a problem.

While people flowed through the metal detectors, at a rate of at least 15-20 per minute, the full body scanner seemed really slow.  In fact, I sat down and timed it for a while.  The scanner was working at a rate of 3 people per minute. This was with a queue at the front end so there was no waiting time for a new person to enter when the scanner was ready.  A couple of times it did 3.5 per minute, but never did it do 4 in a minute.    This seems like a real problem -- that capacity per lane has been reduced by a factor of 5 or so from the metal detectors.  Of course, it is a bit more complicated than that, because a parallel process of scanning the luggage in the x-ray machine has to complete simultaneously, and before the new scanners the x-ray was definitely the bottleneck.  But each time I went through this week my luggage sat complete on the x-ray machine before I finished being scanned, which suggests to me that the bottleneck has shifted, and we have spent a lot of money to slow down an already time consuming process.   That is why most airports have kept their metal detectors --they need them for overflow capacity.

Here is a second issue with the scanners -- they appear to take 3 times as much manpower.  The old metal detectors required one person.  The new machines appear to require 3 -- one person is at the machine, giving instructions; a second person watches you in a sort of holding area downstream of the machine as you wait for the scan results; and third person is somewhere out of site, on a radio, presumably looking at monitors and calling in results to the second person.  No wonder the TSA loves this technology - 3 times more staffing!

Never Waste a Crisis

If you had told me last week that half the media would be blaming Sarah Palin for the actions of a leftish nutcase, or that Keith Olberman would be accusing, well, anybody, of being too immoderate in their rhetoric, I would have said you were crazy.  Seldom have I found the tone and tenor of the media coverage of any event to be less satisfactory than with the Giffords shooting this weekend.  So of course, I have joined the fray with my own column on Forbes.

We libertarians cringe when presented with a “national tragedy” like the shooting of Gabriella Giffords.  Not because we are somehow more or less sensitive to vilence and loss of life, but because we begin bracing for the immediate, badly thought-out expansion of state power that nearly always follows any such tragedy, whether it be 9/11 or Columbine or Oklahoma City or even Pearl Harbor.  Those looking to expand the power of the state, and of state officials, make their greatest progress in the emotional aftermath of a such a tragedy.  These tragedies are the political equivilent of the power play in ice hockey, when defenders of liberty find themselves temporarily shorthanded, and those wishing to expand state power rush to take advantage.

Here is one example from later in the piece:

After 9/11, Republicans argued that it was time to put away political differences to rally around the President in a time of war.  They implied that criticizing the President in such a time was somehow unpatriotic and counter-productive.   Was this true?  I thought the opposite — that the momentous decisions to be made post-9/11 demanded more rather than less debate.  America would eventually wake up from this celebration of unity with a hangover in the form of the TSA, the Patriot Act, detention at Guantanamo Bay, and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The fact is that politicians, particularly those in power, find every excuse to ask Americans to “moderate their public discourse,” in large part because this request translates in the real world to “reduce the criticisms of those in power.”    So it should not be surprising that many of those who represent our current ruling party blamed the Giffords shooting on the hate-filled rhetoric of the opposition party, even before we knew the name of the killer,.

From a larger historical perspective, I would argue that current political discourse is really rather tame.   Even the wackiest cable opinion show pales in comparison to the fire-breathing political attacks that could be found in nearly any 19th century newspaper.  In the 1960’s, political discourse became so heated that it spilled out into the streets in the form of urban riots.  In fact, what we should fear far more than our rhetoric is the current threats by politicians like Jim Clyburn of South Carolina to use this tragedy as an excuse to put new restrictions on speech.  A number of high-profile comentators have spent more time blaming this shooting on Sarah Palin than on the shooter himself.   Given the complete lack of evidence for any such connection, such efforts can only be viewed as an effort by those on power to silence a prominent opposition leader.

Ticket Scalping

I have never really understand all the hatred directed at ticket scalpers.  They only make money because the original sellers of a scarce resource  (e.g. tickets to a concert) under-price their product.  Scalpers live on the difference between the list price of the ticket and the true market clearing price.  So they buy the tickets when they first come out for $80 and resell them for, say, $200.

Scalpers will never go away.  Even if there were not a mispricing problem, there is always going to be a secondary market for date/time specific products that are non-refundable  (just think how great it would be if there were a secondary market for airline tickets you could no longer use, though alas TSA and airline rules pretty much make this impossible).

But scalping would be a lot, lot smaller if concerts just sold the tickets originally at the market clearing price, or held some sort of auction for them.  Then the original price would be $200, not $80, and the margin for flipping the tickets goes away.

Which then presents us this irony for those consumers who whine about scalped ticket prices.  The fact is the higher market clearing price never goes away, even if it is achieved in some sort of black market.  In fact, what eliminating scalping really means is that instead of some people paying $80 and some paying a higher price, everybody pays a higher price.  There is no mystical low price, larger supply solution to the problem.  In fact, the lower price with scalping model really is a gift from bands and concert promoters -- the scalping margin really could be theirs if they wanted it.

I am reminded of all this by this notice to fans posted by the White Stripes' Jack White and linked by TJIC.  The subject in question is limited edition vinyl but the discussion is exactly similar.  White took some small steps as publisher to capture some of the scalper's margin discussed above, and apparently some fans freaked.

The Usual Suspects

The new food-safety bill, soon to be law, features all the usual suspects of the regulatory state

  • Strong support from large corporations, who know the regulations will kill off their smaller rivals and make it harder for new entrants to compete with them
  • Regulations nominally aimed at fixing a recent "crisis" (e.g. last year's salmonella outbreak) with no actual logic of how the new regulations would have prevented the past crisis.  In fact, they very likely would not have  (just as TSA new x-ray machines sold as a way to stop future underwear bombers likely would not have detected the original underwear bomber)
  • Numerous special exemptions, subsidies, etc. for narrow, favored constituencies
  • Pious statements from the priests of statism, who define small government per se as a problem.  Example from Tom Harkin, "It's shocking to think that the last comprehensive overhaul of the food-safety system was in 1938."  Why is the lack of new legislation a better indicator of a problem than, say, incidence or death rates which have fallen consistently for years.

For an extra bonus, those who most vocally support the law are also politically among those who most support the local food movement, which one can pretty much write off unless they get exemptions from this law.  And if they do, what's the point?  Do I really fear the operating safety of Nestle more than Joe who has a farm 30 miles away?  Remember the toy safety law -- it was spurred by a series of recall of mostly Matel toys, but in the actual law Matel became exempt from Federal inspection while the regulations have become a crushing burden for small toy makers.

More here.

Missing the Point

One aspect of the TSA debate I find hilarious as a libertarian is that we get to see yet another example of partisans switching sides on an issues based on whose team is in the White House.  Since when have Republicans had this deeply held concern about liberty and privacy vs. security against terrorism.  And now leftie Kevin Drum steps up to say that all the extract screening makes sense (to my college roommate Brink Lindsey:  Sorry, but the whole liberaltarian thing is a myth.  When in power, they seem to act just as authoritarian on social and civil rights issues as Conservatives).

Anyway, Drum is certainly not full-bore backing the TSA, but he does write

I hate the TSA screening process. Everyone hates the TSA screening process. You'd be crazy not to. It's intrusive, annoying, and time-wasting. It treats us all like common criminals even though most of us are just ordinary schlubs trying to get on a plane and go somewhere.

But guess what? The fact that you personally are annoyed "” you! an educated white-collar professional! "” doesn't mean that the process is idiotic. I've heard it called "security theater" so many times I'd be rich if I had a nickel for each time it popped up in my browser, but although the anti-TSA rants are often cathartic and amusing, they've never made much sense to me. All the crap that TSA goes through actually seems pretty clearly directed at improving the security of air travel.

The point is not, as implied by Drum, that current TSA screening isn't protection against certain types of threats. Let's be generous and assume that the TSA's screening, generally concocted in a barn-door approach after someone tries a particular approach, is effective at catching the threats it is designed to catch.

The point is that nearly anyone with a room temperature IQ can think of 20 ways to attack an airplane that is not covered by the screening. If there are, say, a hundred imaginable threats, how much privacy do you want to give up to protect yourself from 35 of them?

For example, you know what is in the cargo hold below your seat? The US Mail. You know how much screening is performed on the US Mail? Zero. How hard would it be to wire up a package with a bomb and an altimeter, or perhaps just a noise sensor, and send it off airmail.  They screen the crap out of your bags and body and then throw them on the plane right next to a bunch of anonymous, unscrutinized cargo.  And that is just one example.

Finger on the Pulse of America

Yeah, I can see the Administration has its finger on the pulse of what all Americans feel to be the real, burning issue confronting the TSA.  Specifically:

"It is no secret that the morale of the TSO workforce is terrible as a result of favoritism, a lack of fair and respectful treatment from many managers, poor and unhealthy conditions in some airports, poor training and testing protocols and a poor pay system," said AFGE President John Gage. "The morale problems are documented by the government's own surveys. TSOs need a recognized union voice at work, and the important decision of the FLRA finally sets the process in motion to make that right a reality."

At every airport I have been to lately, there are probably two TSA workers standing around doing nothing for every one working.  Obviously this is a brutal productivity standard, and TSA workers long for the conditions that obtain, say, among municipal road workers where five or six workers stand around doing nothing for every one working.

Information and Incentives

I tell folks all the time that  99% of the time the problem with bad governance is not bad people in the government (or at least not bad before they entered government) but bad incentives and information.

Take the recent public reaction against the new TSA search procedures.  Its not that everyone in the TSA aspired for a job where they could grope stranger's nads.  Its that the incentives in government make risk management impossible.

Let's look first at the cost side.  How much do internal TSA evaluation and incentive systems value

  • protection of individual rights and privacy
  • stewardship of taxpayers money

Can we safely say close to zero?  I don't think anyone at the TSA is being denied promotion because they were insufficiently concerned with the fourth amendment.

So what is it that does matter in their incentive system?  I would argue that they have one single, overriding concern -- to avoid an incident for which they can be retroactively blamed as being insufficiently diligent.   If you are confused about how this incentive might arise, Conservatives need only look at themselves.  How many of you have pounded Janey Napolitano for being insufficiently diligent, for example in her "the system worked as it was supposed to" comments.

I spent a lot of time at HBS, in consulting at McKinsey, and in corporate life worrying about incentive systems.  And the absolute first rule, in my mind, is to ignore the official incentive system and explore what really drives behavior.  For example, a company might have a finely balanced set of published performance measures, but if the last three promotions all went to the person who sucked up the most to the boss, the latter will likely influence behavior much more than the published system.

The same is true at the TSA.  I have no idea what their official performance metrics are.  But to a large extent these metrics are irrelevant anyway in an environment where it's impossible to be fired and salaries and promotions have more to do with seniority than performance.   In this environment, unofficial incentives are going to be very powerful, and I am virtually positive the overriding such incentive is avoiding blame due to lack of diligence.

So we should not be surprised if the TSA runs out of control with its diligence in a way that is unchecked by any considerations of cost, privacy, or risk management.  This incentive is so powerful that the only way to override it is either through executive leadership or legislative action.  We'll see if we get either, but trashing privacy and the fourth amendment tend to be bipartisan hobbies so I am not wildly confident much will change.

One (Of Many) Problems with the TSA

One substantial problem with the TSA that is seldom discussed is that in the switch from using private security to government agents to screen passengers, there was always going to be a temptation by the Feds to expand the airport screening from narrowly a search for weapons that might endanger an airplane to a catch-all crime search point.  Here is an example of the latter:

That same screener started emptying her wallet. "He was taking out the receipts and looking at them," she said.

"I understand that TSA is tasked with strengthening national security but [it] surely does not need to know what I purchased at Kohl's or Wal-Mart," she wrote in her complaint, which she sent me last week.

She says she asked what he was looking for and he replied, "Razor blades." She wondered, "Wouldn't that have shown up on the metal detector?"

In a side pocket she had tucked a deposit slip and seven checks made out to her and her husband, worth about $8,000.

Her thought: "Oh, my God, this is none of his business."

Two Philadelphia police officers joined at least four TSA officers who had gathered around her. After conferring with the TSA screeners, one of the Philadelphia officers told her he was there because her checks were numbered sequentially, which she says they were not.

"It's an indication you've embezzled these checks," she says the police officer told her. He also told her she appeared nervous. She hadn't before that moment, she says.

She protested when the officer started to walk away with the checks. "That's my money," she remembers saying. The officer's reply? "It's not your money."

At this point she told the officers that she had a good explanation for the checks, but questioned whether she had to tell them.

"The police officer said if you don't tell me, you can tell the D.A."

Great Moments in Government Process Innovation

I have noticed recently that the TSA has created split lines at many airport security screening posts - one for experienced travelers and one for "casual" travelers - i.e. noobs.

I have no problem with the basic idea.  Long ago I began advocating special lines for public electronic devices (airport boarding pass machines, supermarket self-checkout, ATM's) for people with IQ's over 90 because I always seemed to get behind the person who had never even seen a keyboard in their life.

But the actual execution of this concept in airports is laughable.  In the last 4 airports I have been in, the split between passengers who know what they are doing and those who don't is only through the screener who checks ID.  Even the lamest travel noobs are generally able to cough up an ID and boarding pass without too much trouble (though I will say I always seem to get behind the guy traveling on some bizarre 1930's-era League of Nations passport that seems to take forever to process).  However, after this ID screening the two lines come back together and everyone is mixed again.  Just in time to hit the x-ray screening station, where inexperienced travelers can hold up the line for hours.

What Government is Good At

The TSA may be unable to successfully seize explosives before they get on an airplane, but they are able to successfully seize the laptops of bloggers who are critical of their organization.

Good News at the TSA

Via Popehat:

The new rules, issued in September and October, tell officers "screening may not be conducted to detect evidence of crimes unrelated to transportation security" and that large amounts of cash don't qualify as suspicious for purposes of safety.

NFL players - its safe now to carry your Whizzinator.

Saturday Links

I almost never publish links posts.  But I was really stuck when I read Radley Balko's Saturday Morning Links post because every one was awesome.  Balko is not only one of the best bloggers out there, but a great journalist as well in a field of us pundits who put on pretensions of being pajama-clad investigators.  So here are all of his morning links:

Why there are 60 minutes in an hour

Bloomberg takes the next step down the road toward anti-tobacco hysteria.

Zimbabwean newspaper prints billboards on paper made from the country's worthless currency.

Legless frogs epidemic probably not caused by pollution, but by dragonfly nymphs with a jones for frogs' legs.

Obama administration will support indefinite detention of terror suspects without a trial; drops the news late in the evening on a summer Friday.

TSA detains man for comic book script. Kicker: Scropt was about a guy who gets wrongfully harassed by the government for writing fiction about terror attacks that came true.

Security Theater

Anyone who flies regularly and has not thought of at least five ways they could easily beat airport security isn't really trying.  Jeffrey Goldberg actually tries a few:

Suspicious that the measures put in place after the attacks of September 11 to prevent further such attacks are almost entirely for show"”security theater is the term of art"”I have for some time now been testing, in modest ways, their effectiveness. Because the TSA's security regimen seems to be mainly thing-based"”most of its 44,500 airport officers are assigned to truffle through carry-on bags for things like guns, bombs, three-ounce tubes of anthrax, Crest toothpaste, nail clippers, Snapple, and so on"”I focused my efforts on bringing bad things through security in many different airports, primarily my home airport, Washington's Reagan National, the one situated approximately 17 feet from the Pentagon, but also in Los Angeles, New York, Miami, Chicago, and at the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport...

Schnei­er and I walked to the security checkpoint. "Counter­terrorism in the airport is a show designed to make people feel better," he said. "Only two things have made flying safer: the reinforcement of cockpit doors, and the fact that passengers know now to resist hijackers." This assumes, of course, that al-Qaeda will target airplanes for hijacking, or target aviation at all. "We defend against what the terrorists did last week," Schnei­er said. He believes that the country would be just as safe as it is today if airport security were rolled back to pre-9/11
levels. "Spend the rest of your money on intelligence, investigations, and emergency response."

Though I have to give props to the TSA for supporting first Amendment rights, I am not sure their concern over free speech and privacy was driving this encounter:

On another occasion, at LaGuardia, in New York, the
transportation-security officer in charge of my secondary screening
emptied my carry-on bag of nearly everything it contained, including a
yellow, three-foot-by-four-foot Hezbollah flag, purchased at a
Hezbollah gift shop in south Lebanon. The flag features, as its
charming main image, an upraised fist clutching an AK-47 automatic
rifle. Atop the rifle is a line of Arabic writing that reads Then surely the party of God are they who will be triumphant.
The officer took the flag and spread it out on the inspection table.
She finished her inspection, gave me back my flag, and told me I could
go. I said, "That's a Hezbollah flag." She said, "Uh-huh." Not "Uh-huh,
I've been trained to recognize the symbols of anti-American terror
groups, but after careful inspection of your physical person, your
behavior, and your last name, I've come to the conclusion that you are
not a Bekaa Valley"“trained threat to the United States commercial
aviation system," but "Uh-huh, I'm going on break, why are you talking
to me?"

It turns out, incredibly, that most airport employees are not screened.  Because, you know, it would be grossly unfair to subject airport staff to the same sort of time-wasting indignities to which we all must acquiesce.  Also, many commercial flights have a belly-full of US mail which I am pretty sure is not inspected in any way.

In Case You Thought Homeland Security Knows What it is Doing

I am on my way to a few days of skiing in Utah, but I thought I would leave you with this travel story.  A few weeks ago I was traveling and was at the airport really early.  I had forgotten to remove the toothpaste from my stuff, and I was flagged for extra screening because they saw it on X-ray (I remember the good old days when they were X-raying for guns and stuff rather than toothpaste, but I digress). 

The screener pulled it out and said - sorry, this is more than three ounces.  So, as an engineer with no sense of self-preservation, I asked, "Weight or volume?"  The screener asked what I meant.  I said that an "ounce" is a unit of both weight and volume, which did he mean?  (The TSA site is no help, it just says ounces).  He said "volume."  Still being stupid, I said "but the 3.5oz on that toothpaste is weight -- you can tell by the 'net Wt.' in front of it and the number in grams behind it.  He looked at it for a minute, and then gives me an answer right out of Spinal Tap:  "But its over 3 ounces"  [but this one goes to 11].  Anyway, I gave up and surrendered my Crest to government authorities, and the world was that much safer.

I am told by an airline exec that the policy was originally volume, but after many complaints, the government realized that an ounce was also a unit of weight and they have informally changed the policy to "3 ounces weight or volume" but they never really communicated this change fully because it's too, you know, embarrassing that they operated so long not knowing the difference.

Have a good week -- I will probably post a bit but it will be light.

At the Superbowl

Yesterday, I had what will likely (given ticket prices) be a once in a lifetime experience for me -- I got to take my son to the Superbowl.  Our ability to afford this event really was a result of our living in the same city as the Superbowl.  The obvious reason for this is that we did not incur any significant travel costs and did not have to pay peak demand level hotel pricing.  The less obvious, but ultimately more important, reason was because we could afford to watch the ticket prices on the secondary market up until the absolute last minute.  If your were bringing a group from New York, waiting until Friday or Saturday to buy tickets might have been a bit uncomfortable, given other sunk costs. 

As it turned out, Superbowl ticket prices this year on the secondary market  (e.g. TickCo, Stubhub, et al) followed a parabola.  They were below their peak early-on, particularly since sellers did not have the tickets in hand.  You can buy tickets weeks before the Superbowl, but they will be listed as "for this general area."  You could end up in the front row or the back -- it is a bit of a crap shoot.  So they are cheaper because of this.  The peak pricing came the week before the AFC and NFC championship games when many sellers had tickets in hand and could advertise specific seats.  All along, I was looking for a ticket to just get in the door, so I was looking for the cheapest seats (likely upper deck end zone).  At their peak, there was nothing gong for less than about $3800 (when you included the seller commission or transaction fees, typically 10-20% for this type of ticket).  Beginning the Monday before the game, prices started falling  -first 10%, then 20-30%, and finally as much as 50%.  I jumped in towards the end of the week because a pretty good (or at least better than the worst) seat came up for a good price.  I am told by a friend who showed up on game day at the ticket company office that he got in for less than $1500.

Anyway, here is the stadium - yes it is kind of odd looking.  This was taken about halfway through our walk from the car to the stadium.  We just barely parked in the same county.  We showed up about 6 hours before game time and were in the last half of arrivals:
Sb8_2

The stadium is a taxpayer-funded boondoggle that is a good hour away (on the complete opposite side of a very large city) from old Scottsdale where most of the parties and social activities and player hotels were. 

The security included a ban on any bag over 12x12x12 inches, a pat down, and a metal detector.  And the NFL did a MUCH better job than the TSA.  MUCH.  It is hard to see, but the tent on the left is about 1/4 of the length of the full security screening area.   They had  at least 25 lanes open in parallel.  Despite thousands of people, we had no wait at all (the lines below are all moving briskly and continuously).
Sb7

And look!  We must be in the front row!  Well, of the upper deck, but these turned out to be great seats and, having watched prices for weeks, a very good price-value point (in context).  My son braves the wrath of all the surrounding Giants fans by wearing his Cowboys jersey.
Sb6

I thought the fast set up and takedown of the stages was pretty amazing, and something you miss on TV.  Here is Tom Petty's stage going out (or in, I can't remember).  The funniest part was the crew of NFL guys who followed along with rags and buckets to dust off the grass after the equipment passed to make sure it looked good for TV.
Sb2

Sb10

We had a decent view of Tom Petty's back, which once I saw his scraggly beard was probably a good thing.  The crew of screaming fans at the stage was pretty funny.  They ran these folks out for Alicia Keyes, then kicked them out of the stadium, then ran them back in for Tom Petty, and then back out again.  I saw one show on TV last night, and the audience looked young, but to my eye the great mass of the crowd was middle aged women, which I thought was kind of funny.
Sb3

And here is the last play and confetti burst:

It was a great, perhaps historic game, and we loved the whole experience.  Now back to work to pay those bills.

So, here are the [sports-related] events on my must-see list I have tackled:

Baseball all-star game, Superbowl, game at Fenway, game at Yankee stadium, 16th hole at the Phoenix Open, center court at Wimbledon, BCS Championship game, Daytona 500, personally playing golf at St. Andrews, Big 10 home football game, Rose Bowl, Cowboys home game [update: and an original 90s-vintage American Gladiators filming live]

Yet to be tackled:

the Masters, Packers home game, game at Wrigley, NCAA final four, SEC home football game (maybe Tennessee or the cocktail party), maybe at World Series, maybe a World Cup

What else?