All you frequent flyers out there know the drill. Take off your shoes, because of Richard Reid, the shoe bomber. Remove the hair gel from your backpack, because of the would-be bombers who targeted Heathrow using liquid hydrogen peroxide. When you get on the plane, you must also, from now on, be prepared to remove blankets from your lap before landing—too bad if you're asleep!—because of the Christmas Day underwear bomber.
When someone invents a way to hide explosive powder inside a toothbrush case, prepare to remove your toothbrushes, too. And while you're at it, throw a pinch of salt over your left shoulder as you walk onto the plane. But never, at any moment, imagine that the rigmarole of airport security is guaranteed to make you safer, for no one knows which of these measures, if any, is necessary.
Worse, no one has any financial or political incentive to find out. Since their hurried and heavily politicized creation, the fact is that neither the priorities nor the spending patterns of the Department of Homeland Security and its junior partner, the Transportation Security Administration, has ever been subject to serious scrutiny. They have never been forced to make hard choices. On the contrary, both have been encouraged, by their congressional funders, to spend money on more elaborate equipment every year in reaction to every perceived new threat, real or otherwise. So full-body scanners, unacceptable as recently as last summer, will now be rushed into use. In just a few years—under a Republican administration and mostly Republican congresses—these institutions thus grew into vast, unruly bureaucracies, some of whose activities bear only a distant relationship to public safety.
So customary has it become to repeat old, familiar lists of ludicrous public projects that readers who cannot bear to read the litany one more time are allowed to skip to the next paragraph. For, yes, it is true: Having started with 13 employees in January 2002, the TSA now employs 60,000, and in the process of its lavish expansion, the organization found it had money for all kinds of extras. As I wrote in 2005, some $350,000 of its $6 billion budget once got spent on a gym; $500,000 went toward artwork and silk plants; and untold millions are spent every year in overhiring, since the determination of when there will be long security lines at an airport has never really been the sort of thing at which the federal government excels. As for the Department of Homeland Security, its 2010 budget came in at $55 billion, some of which (according to economist Veronique de Rugy, writing in 2006) will invariably be spent on things like the $63,000 decontamination unit in rural Washington, where no one was trained to use it; more biochemical suits for Grand Forks County, N.D., than the town has police officers to wear them; and $557,400 worth of rescue and communications equipment apparently needed for some 1,500 residents of the town of North Pole, Alaska. Not to mention what is spent on the "needs" of the constituents of other important members of Congress.
But it is not the employees of the DHS and TSA who are at fault for these kinds of decisions. From the very beginning, security experts and even their own inspectors have been pointing to the absurdity of TSA's and DHS's spending patterns, many of which are driven by the latest scare story. (I wish I'd been at the celebratory New Year's party undoubtedly thrown by the manufacturers of those full-body scanners.) And from the very beginning, Congress has fought back against the critics, repeatedly allocating money to unnecessary local projects, reacting to sensational news stories, spending money in ways that suit its members, and then declaring itself shocked—shocked!—to discover that our multibillion-dollar homeland-security apparatus was unable to stop a clearly disturbed Nigerian from boarding a Detroit-bound plane.
Imagine, instead, that the TSA's vast budgets were dedicated to the creation of a cutting-edge computer network, one that could have made the security officers in Amsterdam instantly aware of the warning from the underwear bomber's father. Imagine that, instead of full-body X-ray scanners or long-haul-flight blanket deprivation, we had highly paid and trained consular officers in places like Nigeria. Even then, security would not be perfect. (I'm not even sure that airborne terrorism is the worst thing we have to worry about.) But it would make sense to have a smaller, less expensive, and less wasteful system. It would make sense to have a system based on real risks and priorities instead of the stories featured on cable news. It would make sense to fight the next battle, for once, instead of the last one. Sense, though, is not the criteria by which public money is spent in this country—and it hasn't been for a long time.