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Underwear Bomber illustrates limit of “Do Something” approach to public policy, with aid application

One of the celebrities once said about global poverty, “just do something, even if it’s wrong.”

This approach is deeply appealing to politicians. Politicians love to show off to the public they are addressing a tragic problem by “doing something,” without having to bother with all that crap about “whether it actually works.”

The latest terrorism scare provoked by the Underwear Bomber prompted these profound insights into political economy. The New York Times reported a forceful  response: the TSA is now doing full-body pat-downs of 5-year-old girls.

I have been waiting forever to vent about airport security as incompetent and useless, as well as killing off the airline industry. I might have been afraid the TSA would put me on a watch list for such a rant, but no worries: according to recent reports, they can’t check their own watch lists.

I failed to speak out for a more basic reason: I know nothing about the topic. I had limited myself to reading the occasional newspaper article on chainsaws getting through security. Fortunately, Chris Blattman came to my rescue by finding a real security expert, Bruce Schneier. A quick scan of his work shows his expertise on the limits of “do something.”

Before the underwear bomber, Schneier had already said airport security is “a show designed to make people feel better.”  He has repeatedly said “Only two things have made flying safer [since 9/11]: the reinforcement of cockpit doors, and the fact that passengers know now to resist hijackers”. (The latter just worked on the Underwear Bomber.)

Being a sensible but ignored critic usually stimulates a snarky edge (don’t ask me how I know this). Schneier on his post-Underwear Bomber blog:

What sort of magical thinking is behind the rumored TSA rule about keeping passengers seated during the last hour of flight? Do we really think the terrorist won’t think of blowing up their improvised explosive devices during the first hour of flight?

I wish that, just once, some terrorist would try something that you can only foil by upgrading the passengers to first class and giving them free drinks.

The prescribed response for useless or harmful “do something”  is democratic accountability (just like in aid!). It’s a bit harder to enforce accountability when Homeland Security can use the partially justified cover of secrecy to hide their incompetence. (Is this why aid agencies also resist disclosing information?)

So thank goodness for Mr. Schneier! And let’s have lots and lots of Schneiers on the “do somethings” in foreign aid and global poverty as well!

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  1. Douglas Barnes wrote:

    Glad you discovered Bruce’s work — the two of you have a lot in common.

    I think it’s harder though to make the democratic accountability argument with respect to the TSA . To my way of thinking the connection lies more in the political economy of emotion — pity, in the case of aid, and fear, in the case of security. In both cases the politics of emotion make it hard for even competent, well-intentioned policymakers to engage in sensible policy. And many of our policymakers are neither…

    Posted December 30, 2009 at 8:03 am | Permalink
  2. Rashad wrote:

    You often satirize yourself for not being listened to; if aid is not changing to be more effective in response to your work, in what ways do you change your own methods to be more effective?

    Either way I love your blog. Thanks Dr. Easterly!

    Posted December 30, 2009 at 10:02 am | Permalink
  3. Ennis wrote:

    Much as I agree with Schneier on many things, he misses the logic behind keeping people in their seats for the last hour of an *international* flight.

    That’s usually when the plane enters US airspace, and yes that’s when a terrorist wants to attack.

    Do we really think that they wouldn’t attack in the first hour of the flight? Yes, again, and Schneier knows so. There would have been little propaganda gain from blowing off a plane over West Africa. They’re trying to terrorize Americans and so they want to wait to attack until they’re in or right outside US airspace.

    The 1 hour no pee rule is fading away already; it’s not tenable. But it’s empty snark to pretend that terrorists are just as happy to blow up planes over Abuja and New York City. We all know it’s not true, and it stops a discerning reader from following the argument any further.

    Posted December 30, 2009 at 10:56 am | Permalink
  4. J. wrote:

    @Ennis: Actually, I think you’ve missed the larger logic of Schneier’s argument. Which, as I see it, is that keeping people in their seats with laps uncovered (like most other airport/airline security measures) is pure placebo. Or maybe propoganda. It creates the illusion that something is being done; it weeds out the ‘casual’ or ‘opportunistic’ terrorists, so that only the really smart, determined ones can find ways to blow up planes; it gives airlines a bit of legal CYA; it manufactures more apparent relevance for the TSA; it gives Homeland Security more scope for justifying it’s own existence. But it sure as hell does not make me less likely to die in a plane crash caused by a terrorist. If a terrorist already has a bomb in the cabin, I’m willing to bet that some lame rule about not having a blanket on his (or her) lap will prevent him (or her) from detonating it.

    Posted December 30, 2009 at 12:34 pm | Permalink
  5. The next time I have to fly somplace, I am going to go through airport security in just a jock-strap. It’s my contribution to speeding up the security process and contributing to the safety of my fellow passengers. I’ll make sure I smile at the news cameras and wave as they lead me away in handcuffs. I’ll also be sure to shout out a plug for the Aid Watchers blog.

    Happy New Year Bill. Keep up the great work!

    Posted December 30, 2009 at 3:06 pm | Permalink
  6. Ennis wrote:

    J: I get it, and I’ve made the same argument about security theater myself, in print, many times. The problem is that Schneier picked a poor example. Furthermore, if there are measures which weed out the less determined terrorists, then Schneier would say that they’re not security theater, they actually are effective.

    So much of what the TSA does has little to no purpose other than to make citizens feel like something is being done. The sit in your seats for the last hour, while a bad idea, actually did have a tactical logic to it and as is poor theater to boot.

    As Bill would say, you have to keep the people you agree with honest as well as the people you disagree with.

    Posted December 30, 2009 at 5:23 pm | Permalink
  7. Zeynep wrote:

    There is no doubt that the latest incident has exposed serious and unforgivable gaps in the system and made US appear incompetent.

    If I may point the obvious though, airlines don’t constitute the sole venue for terrorist plots. The concept of suicide bombing with improvised devices and cyber-attacks render hotspots in the US and across the globe vulnerable to terrorism.

    Airline attacks may automatically guarantee a high death toll but the reality of the matter is that it is very difficult to implement safety without truly cracking down on people (even then the question of total safety is not guaranteed).

    In short, safety is costly, never absolute and often underappreciated until a horrible event occurs. Therefore, from a pragmatic and cost-benefit standpoint, creating an illusion of safety may make more sense (or at least made more sense until GAO investigators made a big dent in that illusion long before the underwear bomber)

    Posted December 30, 2009 at 5:29 pm | Permalink
  8. Doodie wrote:

    Have you seen the pics of the actual burned bikini underwear that the crotch bomber was wearing? Ridiculous

    Posted December 30, 2009 at 8:08 pm | Permalink
  9. E Aboyeji wrote:

    “They’re trying to terrorize Americans and so they want to wait to attack until they’re in or right outside US airspace. [..] But it’s empty snark to pretend that terrorists are just as happy to blow up planes over Abuja and New York City. ”

    I find a lot of Americans believe this and it is unfortunately not necessarily true. Frankly, just in case the generality of self absorbed Americans who see themselves as terrorisms only target don’t know, this exact tactic was first tried in Somalia. Terrorists are just raving lunatics after everybody. To assume that their only interest is American airspace seems rather naive to me and it is not a conclusion that is supported by the evidence. Furthermore it belittles the sacrifice of so many more moslems and non American citizens who have lost their lives in the war against terror.

    Funnily, enough, I wrote about this sentiment Americans have in my paper today. You may view it here:

    Posted December 30, 2009 at 8:22 pm | Permalink
  10. Akshay wrote:

    I think it’s more than just airport security– if you look at the staff that guards that American embassies in foreign countries, or even American libraries, you’ll find an attitude that depends largely on intimidation and harassment. The obsession with creating an image of strong security and macho power doesn’t help America here at home or abroad.

    Posted December 30, 2009 at 10:25 pm | Permalink
  11. Matt wrote:

    Is there a specific quote/celebrity you were referring to in your opening sentence?

    Posted December 31, 2009 at 12:56 am | Permalink
  12. Chris wrote:

    Perhaps its time to tell our “leaders” to do something useful… perhaps a look at howIsrael does security?

    Posted January 2, 2010 at 4:11 am | Permalink
  • About Aid Watch

    The Aid Watch blog is a project of New York University's Development Research Institute (DRI). This blog is principally written by William Easterly, author of "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics" and "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good," and Professor of Economics at NYU. It is co-written by Laura Freschi and by occasional guest bloggers. Our work is based on the idea that more aid will reach the poor the more people are watching aid.

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