A few weeks ago, my wife passed through a security checkpoint at a San Francisco Bay Area courthouse. The first time she went through without a hitch. The second time, one of the three police officers manning the X-Ray machine noticed the massive nine-inch chef’s knife she’d forgotten was in her bag.
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Of course, that’s just one data point. But I doubt if judges and district attorneys who’ve sent hundreds of violent criminals to prison would sleep well at night thinking their courtroom security system has a 50% failure rate.
Turns out, that’s way better than what passes for security at the nation’s airports, where undercover investigators were able to slip weapons and fake bombs past security checkpoints 95% of the time, according to a report that was leaked to the media a couple of weeks ago.
Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is investigating how information from a classified report ended up on a reporter’s desk. Am I the only one who sees the irony in that? How is DHS going to keep all of us secure when they can’t even keep their own information under wraps?
The incident of course started the usual Congressional hearings, accusations and finger pointing. Some say the Transportation and Safety Administration (TSA) has been a ginormous flop since 9/11 and should be privatized. Others say the security failures are the result of budget cuts. And everyone agreed on the fall guy: acting TSA administrator Melvin Carraway was reassigned after the news broke.
Do you think any of that would have happened if the report hadn’t been leaked to the public? Nah. As I see it, nobody’s ever held accountable in Washington. And therein lies the rub.
This is how our government works – or doesn’t work – these days. Everything’s status quo until news gets out. Then all the bureaucrats and politicians scramble to cover their butts. And as long as airport security is in any way part of the bureaucratic apparatus in Washington, it will always spend way more than it should and do a lousy job because nobody’s held accountable.
Let’s break this down. First let’s talk about the claims that the agency’s been starved of funds. TSA has 55,000 employees and a budget of $7.4 billion. Since I couldn’t come up with any exact comparisons in the private sector, I compiled a few data-points from service-based companies:
- Nordstrom has 73,000 employees and spent $4.6 billion (combined capital and operating expense) last year.
- Yum! Brands has 70,000 employees and spent $3 billion.
- JCPenney has 114,000 employees and spent $4.8 billion.
- ADT has 18,000 employees and spent $1.4 billion.
If you normalize the data, these companies spent between $42,000 and $77,000 – an average of $56,000 per employee (including managers and executives), compared with $134,000 per employee at TSA. That’s right; TSA spends two and a half times more per employee.
Now, I think we can all agree that we don’t want airport security run like a retail store or a restaurant. Nevertheless, you would think that nearly triple the compensation should result in way better job performance than a 95% failure rate. And you’d be right; it should. There’s simply no excuse for it. Clearly, the agency is not starved for funds.
And that comparison sort of leads us to the obvious question many have asked: why don’t we just privatize TSA so it can operate more efficiently, like a private company? While I’m all for that – I think most government agencies should be privatized – there’s still one big problem: Washington.
No matter who’s doing the work, TSA reports to HSA, HSA reports to the executive branch, and they’re all supposed to be overseen by Congress. And how well has that been working for us lately? That’s right, not very. There’s way too much bureaucracy, politics, political correctness, cronyism and corruption, and no real accountability.
If you’ve ever flown out of Tel Aviv or London’s Heathrow and been grilled by their security profilers and screeners, you know why Israel and the U.K. have stellar track records dealing with terrorists. Those people are held accountable so they do it right. Our political leaders don’t hold anyone accountable – least of all themselves – so they do it wrong. It’s a top-down issue.
Look, this is not rocket science. Israel and the U.K. are our allies. I’m sure they’ve shared strategies that have worked for them in the past. After all, they’ve been dealing with this problem far longer than we have. Unfortunately, when you fly those techniques across the Atlantic and land them inside the beltway, it’s like a switch flips and they suddenly become dysfunctional.
I’m not trying to be cynical, there’s just no way to sugarcoat this. It’s a disaster. And yet, it’s just one after another, these days. This is what our government has become. If it was a company and I was called in to consult on a turnaround, I’d have to say, fire everyone and start with a clean slate – the Constitution.