The TSA: Mass Murderers

by Benjamin Studebaker

I happened upon an old article by the sage of Brooklyn himself, Nate Silver, about what Silver calls the hidden costs of airport security. Silver references a study out of Cornell University that indicates that the there were significant consequences to the increase in airport security post-9/11 that went unreported and unnoticed. These consequences were not merely financial–people died.

The economic hit is a rather simple one. As the Cornell study puts it:

Exploiting the phased introduction of security measures across air-ports, we found that baggage screening reduced passenger volume by about six percent on all flights, and by about nine percent on flights departing from the nation’s fifty busiest airports…We provide evidence that the reduction in demand was an unintended consequence of baggage screening and not the result of contemporaneous price changes, airport-speci fic shocks, schedule changes, or other factors. This decline in air travel had a substantial cost. “Back-of-the-envelope” calculations indicate that the airline industry lost about $1.1 billion, eleven percent of the loss attributed to 9/11 directly.

What this means is that the study found that, even accounting for the economic loss to the airline industry directly created by the fear surrounding 9/11, even accounting for a series of other extraneous factors, 6% of fliers decided directly on account of the increase in airport security not to fly. The airline industry lost $1.1 billion, but it doesn’t stop there.

Nate Silver offers up how this costs the wider economy money:

Teleconferences are often a poor substitute for person-to-person interaction, and when people are reluctant to travel, some business deals don’t get done that otherwise would have. Recreational travelers, meanwhile, may skip out on vacations that otherwise would have brought them pleasure and stress-relief (while improving revenues for tourism-dependent economies).

On top of all of these economic expenses, the TSA costs $8 billion per year to run. Supporters of airport security (of which there are many–54% of the American public think the TSA is doing a bang up job) may respond that most people approve of airport security, and the economic cost of the small number of people who are ticked off about it enough not to fly is a price worth paying for saving lives. This would be an arguable point, if this economic cost was saving lives. Alas, the evidence shows that the TSA is killing far more people than it is saving.

There is a second Cornell study, and it has this to say:

We find that driving fatalities increased significantly following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, an event which prompted many travelers to substitute less-safe surface transportation for safer air transportation. After controlling for time trends, weather, road conditions, and other factors, we attribute an increase of 242 driving fatalities per month to additional road travel undertaken in response to 9/11. In total, our results suggest that at least 1,200 additional driving deaths are attributable to the effect of 9/11.

This study was published in 2005. Who knows how many people have, in response to the addition of the full body scanners a couple years back (which have, to date, prevented zero terrorist attacks, according to TSA executive John Halinski), taken to the roads and come to bloody ends as a result?

Imagine you were approached with the opportunity to implement a policy that promises, at a cost of $8 billion a year, to  diminish the efficiency of your economy and to kill a couple hundred people each month. What sort of person would agree to such homicidal, wasteful madness? Someone who was terrified by terrorists and thought the scheme would keep them at bay, perhaps, but surely no one thinking rationally.

Too often arguments against the inconvenience of the TSA are dismissed on the basis that the inconvenience is a small price to pay for the safety produced. It is time we recognise that the inconvenience at the airport is only the beginning of the negative consequences. There are serious economic costs to the TSA over and beyond the expense of running the thing itself, and, rightly or wrongly, there’s a chunk of people who really hate airport security and are choosing to drive, getting a small number of themselves killed over it. So we have a policy that:

  1. Makes air travel less enjoyable
  2. Makes our economy less efficient and productive
  3. Kills people

Usually with policies we can argue “do the benefits outweigh the costs?” But, if the TSA kills people, and the evidence suggests it does, and, if the TSA doesn’t really save anyone, and the evidence suggests it does not, then there are no benefits to the TSA at all, full stop. There are only costs, only penalties, with no good reason to continue its funding. There is no argument to be had; it is simply a bad, loathsome policy that deserves to die.

If the TSA were a human being, we’d lock it up for mass murder, sexual harassment, theft,  and hate crimes (don’t forget about that racial profiling). Now sure, we certainly cannot blame the individual members of the TSA–they are just following orders, and the death and economic inefficiency are caused indirectly by the TSA rather than with deliberative prejudice. Perhaps it’s more like manslaughter than murder. The argument is one of semantics, the core point still stands. The TSA does no good for anyone (aside from the paychecks received by its employees), it does quite a bit of bad for everyone, and it should go away.

It is time we restore what George W. Bush derisively called the “September 10th attitude” to air travel, and perhaps not merely to air travel, but across the board. What we have done simply has not been cost effective in any sense of the phrase. And furthermore, what better way to send a message to what terrorists American drones haven’t already sent to an automated grave that we brush them off like flies and need not concern ourselves with their petty schemes than to roll back the whole apparatus. With Iraq, Afghanistan, and the costly security we’ve implemented, we have killed more of our own people and cost ourselves more money than the terrorists could ever hope to kill or cost us. They have had over a decade to pull off some kind of serious organised terrorist attack of some significance or importance on American soil, and they can’t do it. Our security isn’t that good, the terrorists are just that incompetent. They are pathetic losers hiding out in mountains living in fear of our buzzing drones. Have we not spent enough of our money and killed enough of our people to prove the point? Is it not enough already?


To bring home the silliness of all of this anti-terrorism infrastructure, here’s a look at where the risk of terrorism stands in comparison with a variety of other problems, most of which do not have in place special government organisations at a cost of billions of dollars for their prevention: