Archive for July, 2011

The Airport Security Dilemma

Posted July 19, 2011 By Steve

“TSA. You are supposed to be protecting us, but at this point you are… terrorizing us.” — Elie Mystal

TSA Security Checkpoint This week I’m in my first doctoral residency at Northeastern University, and while I’m writing about that elsewhere, I did want to share the experience I had getting there in the first place.

Northeastern University is in Boston and I live in Northern Virginia, meaning I first had to get there. It’s about a ten hour drive, and at first I considered taking my car, but then when I considered gas, tolls, and mileage, and checked out how little the flight would cost, I decided to fly. It helps that I’ve taken public transportation in Boston once before, when I flew up to speak at the Free Culture National Conference a few years ago, so I knew that getting from the airport to the place on campus where I was staying would be fairly easy.

Of course, this is the brave new twenty-first century, and that means when flying one gets a choice. No, not a choice of sodas, those cost extra now. I mean when going through security one can either go through the porn-o-matic scanner, or one can be groped. Now, while I don’t believe any of this actually makes travelers significantly safer, and don’t believe that those with delicate sensibilities should have to suffer these sorts of indignities and violations of privacy to fly on an airplane, I personally don’t really care if some random person sees a black and white scan of my junk. So you probably expect that means I went through the porn-o-matic, right?

Nope, I went for the groping instead. I know I’m not a medical doctor or anything, but I’ve read enough about the millimeter waves used by the porno scanners not to want to go anywhere near them. Yes, it’s possible that the sources of information that question the safety of these scanners may be suspect, but if there’s anything one can learn from history, it’s to disbelieve anything a government official says until proven otherwise — and they’re desperate to make people believe those scanners are perfectly safe.

So, how bad was the procedure? Well, I don’t believe he went to school for homeland security, but, to give credit where it’s due, the guy who patted me down at Reagan National Airport was extremely professional about it, telling me everything he was going to do ahead of time. It didn’t take very long, and while it was thorough, it wasn’t the end of the world. Of course, I’m a mentally healthy adult who’s never been abused, adopted religious sensibilities, or anything like that which might lead me to be sensitive about this sort of thing. And I could definitely see why people in those situations might feel extremely uncomfortable, even violated, by this procedure.

The other thing was that I was surprised I didn’t have to go through a metal detector. My bags went through the x-ray machines, as usual, but the pat down was the only procedure for everything on my person between the street and the airplane. Maybe it’s because I’ve worked in information security, but whenever I see a security measure I think of it (intellectually, of course) as a challenge to be defeated. I couldn’t help but wonder whether someone determined couldn’t figure out some means of getting dangerous items. There was a scan for chemical residue, but that wouldn’t pick up any metal objects I might have cleverly concealed on my person.

I know I sound dismissive of security, but that’s not really my objective. When I get on an airplane, I want to land at my destination and live my life, I don’t want to be on a plane that gets hijacked and flown into an office building or shot down by an F-16. But I also don’t think that sort of 9/11 scenario is as likely today as it was in 2001, for two main reasons. First, cockpits are inaccessible, so hijackers might take over the cabin, but they’re not going to gain control of the plane. Second, before 9/11 passengers were told to comply with hijacker demands. Does anyone think hijackers will be obeyed by a plane full of Americans from the “Let’s roll!” generation?

Homeland Security spokespeople and others often say that any security measures, no matter how intrusive, are acceptable in part because no one is forced to fly on an airplane. But someone who needs to fly somewhere for work is hardly in a position to resist in a time of double digit unemployment. More to the point, however, is that “You’re not forced to fly” works both ways — why can’t it be the easily terrorized, who demand unreasonable security measures to feel safer, be the ones who take the bus?

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The Great Depression, Obsolescence, And You

Posted July 11, 2011 By Steve

“Around ’75 when the recession hit, club owners started going to disco because it was cheaper for them to just buy a sound system than it was to hire a band.” — Tommy Shaw

Artist Captures Recession Times...
I’m a radical libertarian and my Mom is a sort of old school liberal, so as you can imagine political conversations around the dinner table can end up being pretty exciting. It also means we occasionally email each other opinion pieces from whatever newspapers we read, usually that support our point of view but sometimes just that we think are generally interesting. For example, today she sent me a link to an opinion piece by Robert S. McElvaine about the Great Depression. He’s a history professor at Millsaps College who’s written a book on the subject, and his central idea seems to be government didn’t spend enough in the 1930′s.

The title of McElvaine’s piece is “Want to avoid another Depression? Try understanding the first one.” Given his prescription, however, I couldn’t help but think that perhaps he should follow his own advice. One of the problems with understanding the Depression is that too many on the left think that the U.S. had an entirely free market economy in 1929. That’s not the case — there were a number of big changes made in the 1910′s (institution of an income tax, start of the Federal Reserve System, etc.) that led to the bubble of the ’20s and the resulting downfall. And most of what federal decision makers did in the ’30s was ineffective or counterproductive, e.g., confiscate gold, raise tariff rates, or attempt Keynesianism.

Of course, this isn’t 1930, and what bedeviled them is not the same as what plagues us. I don’t have the stats to back this up, but I suspect as technology keeps accelerating, the market for unskilled and semi-skilled labor will just get softer and softer, no matter how much GDP rises or how well those who already own stuff may do.

For example, one of Google’s projects is to automate driving — institute a system where vehicles can safely drive themselves long distances without a human involved. They’re actually getting pretty close to succeeding at this, they’re doing test runs in Nevada and that sort of thing. So what? Well, driverless vehicles it will be good for some businesses, but at the cost of putting every long haul trucker and bus driver out of a job.

I think if one takes a twenty year view that this sort of thing is a big concern. Right now we have millions of people who simply aren’t good enough at anything other people actually need to make enough money to support themselves. I’m not blaming them, or calling them lazy, I’m just calling it like I see it. What happens when that number reaches 30% of the population? Even if you’re morally copacetic with saying “screw you” to unemployable people, if you try that with one third of your population it won’t end well for you. (Ask wealthy Venezuelans, because they did this and the result was a decade and counting of Hugo Chavez.)

So assuming my gloomy scenario is at all likely, is there anything to do about it? I’m not sure. I do know that stopping the advance of technology isn’t very practical, and wouldn’t be desirable if it were. Perhaps the best thing to do would be to make sure that entrepreneurship is integrated in every school curriculum one into which one can possible fit it. If employment as we’ve known it will only get more and more difficult to find, but there’s still affluence in the overall society, that’s a recipe for people to get into the mindset that there are ways they can take control of their own futures.

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European and American Mentalities

Posted July 10, 2011 By Steve

“[W]hen you see that in order to produce, you need to obtain permission from men who produce nothing; when you see that money is flowing to those who deal not in goods, but in favors; when you see that men get rich more easily by graft than by work, and your laws no longer protect you against them, but protect them against you… you may know that your society is doomed.” — Ayn Rand

Europe Day 2008 in Foreign Ministry
I often read University World News to learn what’s happening with different systems of higher education in different countries. Usually I’m more attracted to articles about what’s happening in regions of the world that are up and coming rather than those that have already peaked, but for some reason I was drawn to this article about research in the EU, and within the first sentence I was reminded why I have so little enthusiasm for Europe as a whole:

European Union Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn is planning to create one million jobs in research and innovation in Horizon 2020, the next seven-year research programme.

Why did I consider that so eye-catching? Because I believe that it reveals the European mentality when it comes to how the world works — specifically, it suggests that how the world really works is something that decision makers in Europe don’t understand at all.

Why the harsh assessment? Most importantly, because EU Commissioners do not create jobs. Entrepreneurs create jobs. Those who run established businesses create jobs. But politicians and bureaucrats, whether at the local, country, or Euro-superstate level, do not create anything, all they can do is get in the way. Now, you might expect someone who’s an EU Commissioner to praise herself at the expensive of the truth, fair enough, but that doesn’t excuse the media coverage of her statements, which accepted this view of the world at face value, rather than challenge it in any way.

Now, I’m aware that there are larger, established corporations that do cooperate with government officials, and that they do this to their own benefit and that it may lead them to hire more people as a result of this favor. But those corporations do this because they are protected by government from competition, not from any intrinsic efficiency or other virtue. Corporatism is not a path to prosperity for all, it’s simply a means by which different powerful factions collude to retain their illegitimate hold on political and economic power.

But corporatism is more of an American mentality, one that neither the American left nor right talks about often enough. Perhaps that’s because those on the left seem very reluctant to criticize government, even when government decision makers clearly deserve it, and those on the right seem very reluctant to criticize business, even when corporate decision makers are just as deserving.

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