Why Is Ezra Klein's Vox Parroting Right-Wing Talking Points About Privatizing the TSA?

Between 2011 and 2012, despite aggressive and sustained opposition from right-wing politicians and pundits, 45,000 transportation security officers at the Transportation Security Administration won their first-ever labor contract, thanks to a hardened organizing drve by the American Federation of Government Employees.

It’s no surprise that the agency soon came under intense attack from Republicans and D.C. lobbyists who normally utter nary a word about civil liberties. These Republicans, like Rep. John Mica (R-FL), whose campaign coffers are lined with cash from private security contractors who want to displace the TSA, made clear that their goal was to privatize the agency – meaning they were okay with security procedures some viewed as intrusive, but they wanted profit-making, non-unionized corporations to be the ones doing these searches, not one of America’s newest unionized public workforces.

Earlier this week, Vox.com – a new website run by wunderkind Ezra Klein that promises to “explain the news” in an objective manner setting itself apart from supposedly more ideological media on the left and right – piled onto this campaign by publishing an article called “The Case for Abolishing The TSA.”

To the piece’s author, Dylan Matthews, abolishing the TSA isn’t a tough call – rather, it’s just a matter of objective data that shows the agency is virtually a waste of resources, and that the responsibility of airline security should be privatized and carried out by the airlines themselves. “It’s worth remembering that the inconvenience and injustice of the TSA’s activities exists for literally no reason,” he writes. “Airline security is, so far as we can tell, totally useless.”

To defend reaching this conclusion, Matthews cites a variety of sources. First, he points to Bruce Schneier, a cryptographer who he refers to as a security expert. The source Matthews links to is not a peer-reviewed paper or journal article, but rather a statement Schneier made in a debate. The debate is not over abolishing the TSA, persay, but rather about TSA’s post-9/11 security measures. While Schneier argues that the TSA has not apprehended any terrorists since 9/11, he does not argue for the agency’s abolition. On the contrary, he writes that “aircraft require a special level of security for several reasons: they are a favoured terrorist target; their failure characteristics mean more deaths than a comparable bomb on a bus or train; they tend ot be national symbols; and they often fly to foreign countries where terrorists can operate with more impunity. But all that can be handled with pre-9/11 security.”

The next set of sources Matthews uses is a literature review by professors Cynthia Lum and Leslie Kennedy, of George Mason University and Rutgers, respectively. Matthews writes that these professors studied the research on airport security and found that while the TSA has prevented hijackings, it “didn’t reduce attacks, but encouraged would-be hijackers to attack through other means.” He concludes, “Additional research done after the review has similarly concluded that the screenings are, in effect, a wash.”

Actually, that’s not what Lum and Kennedy conclude. I know this because I emailed them and asked. Here’s what Kennedy had to say about Matthews’s article:

"We did not argue for abolishing the TSA.   That is the reporter's conclusion not ours.  We simply reported on the effectiveness of airport screening which we found, based on the research, was quite high.  Our research was not focused on the TSA per se but, obviously, based on our findings, it would make no sense to get rid of airport screening." 

And here is what Lum had to say: “I agree with Prof Kennedy. This is an incorrect interpretation of our research.”

In other words, none of the researchers Matthews cited actually agree with him that the TSA is useless or should be abolished – even as he is basing his conclusion almost entirely on the idea that the research shows that he is right.

Well, not entirely. Towards the end of his piece, Matthews cites some odd political figures to validate his idea that abolishing the TSA isn’t outside of mainstream political thought:

What to do, then? Simple: just abolish the agency. This is hardly an extreme proposal; members of Congress, including influential figures like Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) and Congressman John Mica (R-Florida), have endorsed it. The Cato Institute's Chris Edwards wants to privatize the TSA and devolve its responsibilities to airports, but that preserves far too much of the status quo. Better would be to make security the responsibility of individual airlines, so as to allow competition on that dimension.

It’s mind-boggling how Matthews can view a proposal as not extreme because the Cato Institute – which publishes tracts opposing child labor laws – endorses it. The same goes for Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), a right-libertarian who once questioned the Civil Rights Act on national television. And as was noted above, Mica is a close ally of private security firms whose behavior is just as intrusive as any government agency, and is hardly a champion of civil liberties (he recently voted for an NSA bill that liberties proponents decried as “fake reform”).

Lastly, asking that individual airlines compete to provide security runs afoul of the basic history of private corporations and public safety. Yes, competition is a powerful motivation that has driven real innovation in the market – firms want business, and will often seek better products in order to win over the public.

The problem is, this incentive doesn’t really work out with respect to safety. Private firms see their top motivation as making the most money as possible – even if that means compromising safety. Yes, a bomb exploded on an airplane can be very bad for business. But corporate accountants have often been caught weighing the odds of a public safety disaster versus the cost of making safety improvements.

In the 1970’s, it was revealed that Ford Motor Company was aware of a design flaw in its Ford Pinto cars that could result in people burning to death. It refused to pay for a redesign of the cars, deciding that it’d be cheaper to pay off lawsuits that resulted from potential deaths. This cost-benefit analysis is completely different from what the TSA and other public safety agencies do – their goal is zero deaths, not whatever is cheaper for shareholders.

Just imagine American Airlines deciding that it’s cheaper to withstand a few hijackings a decade than install proper security measures. That’s exactly the sort of scenario that could very well be created by abolishing the TSA and leaving safety to the airlines.

None of this is to argue that Dylan Matthews and Vox do not have a right to make an argument for abolishing the TSA. But it does speak to a deeper truth about Vox and what it claims to do. The site portrays itself as speaking objective truths, driven by data and intense research. It has an air of trying to be non-ideological, and above the fray of both progressive and conservative blogs. What this article – and others, like a recent piece arguing you don’t really have to wear bike helmets – shows, is that Vox really isn’t at all above the fray. Its writers are as opinionated and ideological as anywhere else and most of them do not have backgrounds in econometrics or quantitative research or statistics that would really place them above most other political bloggers in the data writing space.

And in an America with a First Amendment, it’s absolutely their right to pretend to be otherwise, but with articles such as the TSA hit piece, readers should be skeptical.


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