More Airport Security Tradeoffs

Last week, I wrote about several underappreciated tradeoffs in airport security policy. Here’s another one: TSA screeners, like the rest of us, have only limited time and attention span. The more these finite resources are devoted to “security theater” procedures that have little or no value, the less of it there is available to focus on genuine potential threats. Jonathan Adler recounts that the TSA failed to check some liquids that he brought on board on a recent flight. This doesn’t surprise me. Both anecdotal and systematic evidence show that TSA personnel often miss much more dangerous prohibited items such as knives and boxcutters, even in cases where the passenger in question was not deliberately trying to hide them. This is at least in part a result of the diversion of time and effort to security theater tasks, such as ensuring that every passenger takes off their shoes and the like. A screener who is checking up on people’s shoes can’t simultaneously focus on genuine dangers, or at least can’t do it as effectively as he could if his attention were undivided. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem that the TSA is giving such tradeoffs the attention they deserve or that its political masters in Congress and the administration are putting much pressure on the agency to do so. I suspect that perverse political incentives are at least a part of the reason for these failures.

On a tangentially related note, I thought I’d point out that Hollywood screenwriter David Steinberg, whose op ed on airport security Jonathan links, is a former clerk for Fifth Circuit Judge Jerry E. Smith – the same judge that co-blogger Todd Zywicki and I clerked for (as did guest-blogger Hanah Volokh). No other blog gives you as much Smith clerk-authored material as the VC! It’s also interesting to note that Judge Smith has at least eight former clerks who have become lawprofs (counting Colorado Supreme Court Justice Allison Eid, who is the former Dean of the University of Colorado Law School [correction: actually just a former professor]), which is a high number for a right of center judge who is not an academic himself.