If the TSA ain't broke, why privatize it?

By Ambrose Clancy

The Daily Record Newswire

When I showed my boarding pass and driver's license to the Transportation Security Administration officer, he looked at me before checking my mug shot.

"Everything all right this morning, sir?" he asked, politely, but without a smile.

He isn't looking, I thought. He's studying.

I realized I'd been scowling like a man hell-bent on the irrational since entering the terminal. So I said, with a smile, something about needing a second cup of coffee.

"I know the feeling," the TSA man said, and passed me on to the shoeless, beltless, everything-into-the-bin routine.

I don't fly often, but every time I have, I've been impressed by TSA personnel. Granted, the experience can be plain awful. The lines are eternal even before being shunted into the switchback corrals, and it's embarrassing at times. But the people have, by and large, been crisply professional, thorough and polite.

I recently polled a few colleagues who travel all the time -- when asked where he was working these days, one said, "Row 11, seat A" -- and all agreed, with just a couple of glitches, the TSA acquits itself well.

Complaints about the organization range from searching passengers in wheelchairs to morons getting off on virtual body scans. Just last week some guy, when questioned closely at Portland International Airport, protested. He took off all his clothes, claiming the sight of his birthday suit in the crowded terminal was speaking naked truth to overbearing power.

Cheers to the TSA for questioning this loon. Imagine him as your seatmate when the flight attendant is late with the extra bag of honey-roasted nuts.

Our nude voyager isn't the only one complaining. U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., refused a pat-down at Nashville International Airport in January in a case of, "Do you know who I am?"

But the main complaint is government runs airport security -- with the exception of 16 of 450 U.S. commercial airports -- and therefore it's too costly, built to fail and easily corrupted.

Privatization is the answer to this, we're told. Corporations do everything cheaper and better, right? But the model of privatizing government services took a hit this week when Florida-based Geo Group, the second-largest prison company -- with profits of nearly $300 million in 2011 -- pulled out of managing a Mississippi youth prison after a federal judge called it a "cesspool" of "inhuman acts."

A U.S Justice Department official reported the hell hole -- incarcerating inmates aged 13 to 22 -- is "chaotic, poorly run, dangerous, highly sexualized and highly violent." Minimally trained and paid guards have sex with inmates and some guards are gang bangers in the same gang as inmates.

Geo Group also pulled out of another Mississippi institution housing inmates with mental illness because, the CEO said, it was "financially underperforming."

Leading the choir damning the TSA and praising privatization is Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Over the years, Mica has received close to $80,000 from security companies, companies with subsidiaries in security or executives who run the companies. (Overall, Mica has raised $700,149 for this election cycle, 99 percent from non-Floridians.)

The chairman's spokesman, Justin Harclerode, has stated the donations have no effect on Mica's decision making.

Bob Mann, an aviation consultant with his own firm in Port Washington, RW Mann & Co., noted that we had a private security system before 9/11. "And it didn't work very well," he understated. "We had minimum-wage people, trained to a minimum standard, hired out of the prevailing wage market like Burger King or Kentucky Fried Chicken employees," Mann said. "And they didn't even get the free meal."

Even with privatization, security will be overseen by the TSA, Mann said. "When Mica pushes on this, I ask, 'If there's the same standards, same equipment, same protocols, is the wage rate going to be the only difference? Are they going to be trained better? Are they going to be trained as well?' There's no evidence I can point to that would suggest [privatization] ought to be less expensive."

Giving weight to the privatization argument is the rise of libertarianism, which has moved from keeping company with anti-fluoridationists to a central position in Republican Party strategy. Social Security and Medicare, two of the most successful government programs, are now under assault, as Congress battles to sustain them in the coming decades.

But the problem isn't just government inefficiency, but a large pool of retirees coming on all at once along with a plunging birth rate. Fix the tax structure and you fix the programs 20 years up the road.

If privatized, will Wall Street do better than current administrative costs of under 5 percent of total expenditures?

To see libertarianism's long reach, remember the sign from a tea party rally in Washington: "Keep your government hands off my Social Security."

Privatizing our nation's safety is a solution looking for a problem. According to Mann, the security of travelers is "inherently a government function."

Even with TSA oversight, low bidders and/or deep-pocket lobbyists win contracts. Using an unregulated market's invisible hand, will finding invisible threats be the highest priority?

Published: Fri, May 4, 2012

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