Having spent yesterday engaged in an agonzing day of a round-trip flight to New York and back, Anne Applebaum's column today calling for the most minimal assessment of cost-benefit analysis in airport security seems right on target. From Airport Security's Grand Illusion:
If you happen to be reading this while standing in one of those disturbingly slow, zigzag lines at airport security -- looking repeatedly at your watch, wondering if this time you really will miss the plane -- here's something to make you feel worse: Almost none of the agony you are experiencing is making you safer, at least not to any statistically significant or economically rational degree. Certainly any logical analysis of the money that has been spent on the airport security system since Sept. 11, 2001, and the security that the system has created, must lead to that conclusion.
Yet this mass ceremonial sacrifice of toenail clippers on the altar of security comes at an extraordinarily high price. The annual budget of the federal Transportation Security Administration hovers around $5.5 billion -- just about the same price as the entire FBI -- a figure that doesn't include the cost of wasted time. De Rugy reckons that if 624 million passengers each spend two hours every year waiting in line, the annual loss to the economy comes to $32 billion. There has also been a price to pay in waste, since when that much money is rubbed into a problem with that kind of speed -- remember, the TSA had only 13 employees in January 2002 -- a lot of it gets misspent. In the case of the TSA, that waste includes $350,000 for a gym, $500,000 for artwork and silk plants at the agency's new operations center, and $461,000 for its first-birthday party. More to the point, the agency has spent millions, even billions, on technology that is inappropriate or outdated.
In fact, better security didn't have to cost that much. Probably the most significant measure taken in the past four years was one funded not by the government but by the airline industry, which put bulletproof doors on its cockpits at the relatively low price of $300 million to $500 million over 10 years. In extremely blunt terms, that means that while it may still be possible to blow up a plane (and murder 150 people), it is now virtually impossible to drive a plane into an office building (and murder thousands). By even the crudest cost-benefit risk analysis, bulletproof cockpit doors, which nobody notices, have the potential to save far more lives, at a far lower cost per life, than the screeners who open your child's backpack and your grandmother's purse while you stand around in your socks waiting for them to finish.