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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