Economics Disregarded

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A reporter on a TV talk show asked Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta whether a 70-year-old white woman from Florida would receive the same level of airport security scrutiny as a Muslim young man from Jersey City. According to Dorothy Rabinowitz in the Dec. 7 Wall Street Journal, the secretary said he hoped so. He expressed faith in the FAA’s profile system, which leaves out race, ethnicity, and religion and focuses instead on the passenger’s travel history, FBI and CIA reports, and such facts as whether the ticket covered a round trip or one way only and had been bought with cash or a credit card.

Such thinking, if meant seriously, disregards three key economic concepts: scarcity, marginalism, and diminishing marginal returns. The more scarce resources are spent combing through the clothes and bags of feeble old women, the fewer remain for more suspicious-looking travelers. Efficient use of resources requires that per unit of cost, equal results be expected at all relevant margins. The resources already devoted to screening old women would have to be few indeed relative to those devoted to Arab-looking young men to reach margins such that an additional unit of attention would yield as much additional expected security devoted to the women as devoted to the men. The facts of reality and insights of economics are not always pleasant.

Even recognizing that infringement of nondiscrimination counts among the costs of security screening, one still gets a whiff of political correctness in the reported positions of Secretary Mineta and the FAA. Here and in other examples one might mention, people are falling into a reverse naturalistic fallacy. The (ordinary) naturalistic fallacy, is that of trying to derive a value judgment from facts and logic alone – trying to get an “ought” from an “is.” Equally fallacious is trying to get an “is” from an”ought” – judging something true because one thinks it ought to be true. It would be nice indeed if disregard of ethnicity, age, and sex did not impair the efficiency of security screening. Unfortunately, wishes do not make reality.

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