Perverse Incentives

2010 December 5
by Dave

I know that the whole TSA naked picture backscatter x-ray scanner post thing is so two weeks ago, but I do have something to say about them that seems to not be a part of the discourse that so recently consumed much media attention.  Thus I beg you to indulge me in returning to an overreported story that was much more mole hill than mountain.

TSA is a part of the federal government and as such failures eventually end up on the doorstep of elected or appointed officials. Because of this TSA is stuck with two goals rather than one. One goal is to minimize the likelihood of an attack on an airliner. The other is to minimize the political fallout should an attack occur.

The second charge is what has landed us where we are today. No attack is more damaging than one that could have been foreseen. No attack is more foreseeable than one that has already been attempted. Thus a successful underpants bomber would be much worse than someone innovative.

If a terrorist attacks a plane in a way that no one expected, then how can we blame the TSA for not doing enough. If a terrorist attacks a plane in the same way another terrorist did a year or two ago I would expect the howls of congressional rage to be deafening.

This leads to a bias on the part of the TSA towards spending resources on hermetically sealing the barn door after the horse has escaped rather than expending the same effort to slightly decrease the overall likelihood of an attack. So we are now stuck with taking off our shoes, throwing away our shampoo and proving that our undergarments are bomb free because those types of attack are unacceptable.

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