The Brains of TSA
Lesley Stahl did a moderately good job on “60 Minutes” this evening in her story on the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Why good and why just moderate? Good for two reasons. First, she actually interviewed a critic who pointed out the basic fact of substitution: when you take away guns and knives, people substitute into box cutters. Etc. Second, she showed the creepy thing they’re starting to do with X-rays that essentially strip search people electronically.
Why moderate? For two reasons also. First, because after seeing the results of the X-rays, she said she expected to see something pornographic and didn’t. But what she looked at was a slender woman wearing a bra and she could see the bra. She didn’t ask the obvious question: what if the woman had been braless. Second, she didn’t challenge Kip Hawley, the head of TSA, when he said that we are at war with terrorists. A little numeracy would have helped here. The risk of dying from terrorism on airplanes is well below other low risks that we put few resources into preventing.
Here’s a quote from my book, co-authored with Charles Hooper, Making Great Decisions in Business and Life. You’ll wonder why I’m quoting it, but be patient. I wrote:
A few years ago, I volunteered to serve hamburgers, hot dogs, and veggie burgers at a barbecue held at my daughter’s high school. When it looked as if we were running out of any of the three items, one of the cooks would put more of those items on the grill. At one point, the line got long, with about 12 people suddenly waiting for their meal. That was the symptom of the problem. The cooks quickly put more burgers on the grill. That was their solution. But I looked down and saw that I had about four each of hot dogs and veggie burgers. I realized that the cooks were implicitly assuming that everyone wanted hamburgers. But, I wondered, what if some of them were in line for hot dogs and veggie burgers? There was a simple solution that addressed the real problem: ask them. So I announced, in my booming voice, “Anyone who’s in line for hot dogs or veggie burgers please come up here.” Immediately, six people came up, cutting the apparent hamburger line in half. Interestingly, the server who had made the panicked request to the cook for more hamburgers was a high-level manager at a logistics firm. He didn’t see any easy way around the problem.
When Charley and I tell a story of poor thinking, we almost never give the name of the person. But here I’ll make an exception. This high-level manager of a logistics firm? Well, his name is Kip Hawley and he’s now head of TSA.