The post mistermix linked to at The League includes my desire to A) abolish the TSA and B) implement Israeli-style profiling if we are going to focus so much on our security. Personally, I find the focus on airtight security to be more than a little silly. That we should spend so much time and money on an illusion strikes me as rather…unfortunate. But if we’re going to do it, we should do it right. To back me up, here’s mistermix from the other day:
The oldest cliche in the pundit arsenal is to say “let’s do it like the Israelis do it”, and it is true that the Israelis do an excellent job with airport security. They use a combination of profiling and screening implemented by multiple layers of highly-trained security personnel to implement a high-quality, fast security process. That’s because they take it seriously. We don’t.
If we took airport security seriously, the Democrats wouldn’t have used it as an opportunity to hire an army oflow-paid, soon-to-be-unionized federal employees who are more likely to vote Democratic. The Republicans wouldn’t use every terrorist scare as an opportunity for a big contract for some donor that makes screening equipment of dubious value.
If by some miracle we decided to start taking airport security seriously, we’d have to perform an massive unfucking of a decade of bad decisions. We’d have to fire some of the TSA agents we’ve hired, because they can’t be trained to the level of skill required by the Israeli model. We’d also have to throw away a lot of the useless equipment we’ve purchased, and cancel lucrative contracts for upgrades. That kind of change is far too risky, so instead we just have to listen to snotty Israelis telling us how fucking dumb we are.
Now on to the concept of privatization.
Airport security used to be handled by private firms. There is nothing inherently wrong with having private security manage airports. It’s been done, and it’s worked. Security is never going to be 100%, so there’s no way we can say that it was our lack of a naked-scanning, genital-groping TSA that made us so vulnerable on 9/11. Far more likely it was our lack of knowledge about the lengths that the terrorists would go and the lack of a locked cabin that made us easy targets. Now cabins are locked and passengers are fully aware of the horrors these particular terrorists are willing to inflict. The next hijackers will need to get past a much fiercer group of passengers before they make it to a locked cabin where an armed pilot will be waiting for them. No simple task.
I’d rather have a firm that can be fired if they overstep or do a lousy job handle security than the TSA which, so far as I can tell, is accountable to nobody. I’ve said plenty about the limits of privatization in the past. Often as not government contracts to private companies are not actually privatization, but rather the creation of a monopolistic entity, protected from competition and the vote. But demanding that private organizations (the airlines) hire private security is not the same thing as giving a previously government-run operation over to a private company. The TSA is the outlier here, not the other way around.
But I’ll go ahead and take each of mistermix’s points one by one:
Quality. One of the major complaints against the TSA is that fields an army of low-paid, poorly-educated agents to do its work. There is no magic by which a private company, which needs to make a profit, will hire better employees than the TSA. Since they’ll need to pay even lower salaries, they’ll probably hire even less qualified, less educated employees.
Two problems with this: First, the TSA has not measured up to any conceivable standard of quality. No, there is no magic by which a private company will perform any better except that a private company can be replaced. That’s important. Nor is there any magic by which a public bureaucracy will do any better than that private company or that private firms will pay lower salaries. This is just speculation. The TSA is a huge, burgeoning bureaucracy and a lot of the costs associated with it are not wages. Expensive equipment, lots of red tape, administrative costs, etc. A smaller, more professional organization could probably hire fewer people, pay them more, and do away with a lot of the capital expenses (such as naked scanners) all while increasing efficiency.
Economy. A key issues with our huge airline security structure is that we need it to follow the same procedures everywhere, otherwise terrorists will board airplanes at the weakest airport in the system. In order to coordinate hundreds of private contractors, the TSA will still have to exist as a rule-making and coordinating body. But, instead of transmitting those rules directly from TSA headquarters to agents in the field, the TSA will have to promulgate rules which will be transmitted to every contractor. Each contractor will need to be educated by theTSA, and inspected by the TSA. So we’ll have a large TSA bureaucracy checking up on the private contractors at each airport. I don’t see how this will be much cheaper than the system we have.
Efficency. It’s not only more expensive to transmit rules and procedures from a central bureaucracy to hundreds of independent contractors, it’s also less efficient. As it stands now, the TSA has a hell of a time educating its large, low-paid workforce to apply its baroque rules uniformly. Imagine the patchwork hodgepodge that will result when the TSA tries to get a hundred different organizations to apply its ever-changing standards with some modicum of consistency.
These are wound pretty closely together so I’ll address them both at once.
We have uniform rules and procedures in all sorts of industries that are not federal bureaucracies. Whenever the federal government comes up with new regulations governing this or that private (or state, or local government) institution, these institutions adapt. One huge advantage of having security standards that are met through bottom-up methods rather than implemented top-down is that you get some degree of experimentation, innovation, and diversity. This is not only good for efficiency as best-practices are developed from the ground up and adopted and adapted throughout the system, it also works to undermine terrorists who, in a top-down system, can exploit the entire system by exposing one flaw.
In a bottom-up system there may not be quite as much uniformity, but that lack of uniformity can actually serve as a security benefit creating uncertainty and a shifting security landscape. Similarly, the weak link effect is no more true of a bottom-up system than a top-down system. Just because there is a central authority governing how security ought to be handled does not ensure that the security in each airport is handled the same even by the same agency. And a weak link in a top-down system is much more likely to create systemic failure rather than isolated failure.
Accountability. Local contractors will be accountable to the entity that hires them, and these entities may well be less accountable than Homeland Security. In large urban areas, airports are under control of the patronage machines of city government. It’s likely that contracts will be sweetheart deals used to reward friends of the machine, which is a road to less accountability, not more, since there’s almost no chance that the machine favorite will lose the contract over anything but a regime change.
This is a good point. I’m honestly not sure how the breakdown of power between airlines and airports works, but I would think the airport would hire its own security firm and the airlines would then hire security on top of that for individual gates. It could be that one firm was hired by the airport to manage each airline as well. Certainly sweetheart deals are a possibility when it comes to government contracting (think trash collection, for instance). Now, whether this makes private firms less accountable than the TSA is another question entirely, and I’m not sure anyone is looking at any relevant data on the matter to do any more than speculate at this point. However, I imagine transparency regulations could be implemented on a federal level making this sort of practice much harder.
Privatizing is no silver bullet to the real problems at the TSA. The stupidity of the rules and mission of the TSA will still be around no matter if we use government employees or private employees to implement them, and it’s likely that we’d pay more to get less under a privatization scheme. That’s unless ED is using “private contractor” as a code-word for “lax oversight”. If so, we’d have an even bigger problem on our hands if we followed his prescription.
No – privatization is not a silver bullet. When it comes to many government functions I think we should avoid privatization at all costs. I have come out strongly against privatized prisons and the use of mercenaries in war, for instance. But the inconvenient fact of the matter is that private firms are traditionally in charge of airport security – when we talk about this subject calling it a ‘privatization scheme’ is simply misleading. I don’t want the government to contract out with private firms – I want airlines to contract out with private firms. The TSA is the scheme here. Private security firms generally handle private-sector security and there’s no reason airports should be any different.
We should abolish the TSA entirely. After that, we should abolish the Department of Homeland Security also, and repeal the Patriot Act, and bring home all the troops we have in Iraq and Afghanistan, and ban all combat-related private military contractors, and quit getting into stupid wars which only make us less secure in the long run by provoking new generations of terrorists to attack us down the road. In the end, the TSA is just a symptom of a cultural shift toward a more militaristic, paranoid society. If only we could repeal that mentality itself.