Behold! The astonishing mental gymnastics of TSA apologists explaining why rich people don't need to be screened

The project of making planes secure from terrorist attacks is an inescapable nonsense: nonsense because there's no way to screen millions of people to prevent a few dedicated ones from bringing down a plane (no, really); inescapable because no lawmaker or policymaker will ever have the courage to remove a measure that has previously been described as "essential for fighting terrorism" even if it was only ever security theater intended to assuage low-information voters.

That's generally OK, since terrorism is very rare and flying is very safe, and improving its safety involves some obvious, easy-to-attain goals like paying pilots more and making sure all crew are given adequate rest and benefits; tying executive compensation to long term safety; also re-onshoring maintenance instead of sending jets to unqualified, ununionized maintenance teams on another continent who are unable to read and understand the maintenance manuals.

But there's another problem with airplane hell: aviation is disproportionately the province of wealthy people with political influence (if you fly even once or twice a year and don't consider yourself wealthy, that's OK, but remember that a sizable fraction of Americans live in food poverty and precarious housing and will never fly, not even once in their lives). When government policies inconvenience people who vote, have disposable income, donate to political campaigns, and/or command a sizable microphone, those policies become untenable.

That puts policymakers in a bind. Having solemnly assured us that keeping our shoes on is an existential threat to the homeland, they can't announce that our shoes have suddenly become safe for the skies and let us keep them on again -- first, to save face, and second, because any kind of aviation disaster in the future will inevitably be hung around the neck of the last person to have relaxed any kind of security measure, no matter how absurd and ineffective it was in the first place.

But you can't make rich people take their shoes off forever. A certain fraction of the one percent will buy their way out of the system with private aviation, but the price differential between chartering or owning a jet and flying (even in first class) is so large that there will always be a sizable cohort of politically influential people clamoring for some way to keep their water bottles, shoes, and the sanctity of their unfondled genitals.

Enter "extreme vetting." If you are the kind of person who gets a Platinum Amex, or if you can save up two months' worth of Paul Ryan tax-savings units, you can buy your way out of the worst of the system, gaining access to a near-total bypass of the TSA system (shell out another couple Ryans and you can buy Clear, and jump to the front of the line of people who've paid to jump to the front of the line) (give it a year and I'm sure you'll be able to pay for "Clearer," the service that lets you jump ahead of the Clear people who are jumping ahead of the Precheck people who are jumping ahead of the Priority people).

In A Value Measure for Public-Sector Enterprise Risk Management: A TSA Case Study, a new paper in Risk Analysis (nonpaywalled Sci-Hub onion link), former TSA chief risk officer Kenneth Fletcher and USC professor of industrial and systems engineering Ali Abbas dance around this situation in a fascinating case-study of denialism, security theater apologism, and economic realism.

Fletcher and Abbas find that, more than anything, fliers value skipping the TSA checkpoints and will do almost anything to avoid them. Given that TSA checkpoints have no nexus with safety -- that they exist solely to perform a security theater dumbshow that satisfies the security syllogism ("something must be done; there, I've done something"), this is OK, because letting everyone skip the TSA checkpoints would have no meaningful impact on aviation safety.

But Fletcher and Abbas can't say this, so instead they say that, by subjecting these fliers to the kinds of (useless, pointless) vetting employed by Precheck and Clear (and next year's "Clearer"), they can be safely removed from the TSA's tender ministrations. This is totally true, but it's just as true to say that just letting rich people sail through security without background checks would make no meaningful difference to security and would relieve the political pressure that spoils the moods of empire-building civil servants whose jobs depend on the pretense that spending billions on TSA checkpoints makes the skies safer.

Even better, the deployment of increased "vetting" would deliver even more money -- and thus, power -- to the bureaucrats whose careers are made on security theater, making such a policy extremely politically palatable.

Not reflected in this analysis is what happens to everyone who doesn't buy their way out of the TSA: as people with political agency are stripped out of the system, the sadistic, high-handed and authoritarian urges of TSA inquistors can run riot, with no political force to check them. Thus, the way that the bottom 60% of fliers experience aviation will get much, much worse.

Implementing effective risk management pro- grams and ERM techniques at the government level is in many respects more challenging than in the private sector for several reasons. First, the nature of the problems addressed by government is exceed- ingly complex with high levels of uncertainty. Decision making under uncertainty needs to consider the whole distribution over time, and not just negative outcomes and short-term gains. This change in vision requires a government decision culture of decision-making processes supported by careful analysis of the impact on public value instead of a mere judgment by the outcome. Because no method of decision making guarantees the outcome when uncertainty is present, there is more of a need to rely on sound decision-making processes supported by robust analysis. Fo- cusing only on the negative outcomes leads to suboptimal, risk-averse behavior and missed opportunities.

A second challenge is the incentive structure by which leaders or senior managers operate. The focus on short-term gain versus long-term benefit could also detract from long-term investments that yield much larger value to the public in the long term. This challenge is aggravated by frequent changes in political leadership with ideas and initiatives that may differ sharply from their predecessors’.

A third challenge is consistency and trans- parency in the tradeoffs among multiple attributes, and how political leaders understand risk and what they consider public value. Frequently, arbitrary attributes and weights are assigned in a multiattribute setting, without proper justification for the weights, or even the nature of the objective function that is used.

A Value Measure for Public-Sector Enterprise Risk Management: A TSA Case Study (nonpaywalled Sci-Hub onion link) [Fletcher and Abbas/Risk Analysis]

What airline passengers want most—to get through security quickly [Ian Chaffee/Phys.org]

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