Saul Eslake was speaking in Hobart the other night and I happened to go along. For a long time Saul was the Chief Economist for the ANZ Bank and is now the Chief Economist for Bank of America Merril Lynch. He was talking about productivity and why it matters for Tasmania (the state of Australia in which I’ve lived for 26 years).
It was a very interesting talk, but one thing in particular caught my attention.
Saul Eslake contends that one of the reasons productivity growth has declined in recent years is because there’s an obsession with security. He says that governments (of whatever persuasion) seem to want to remove all risk and so put in place policies that, without the ‘security’ tag, would be deemed ‘bad’ policies. He’s written that I’ve come to believe over the years that the easiest way to gain acceptance or endorsement for ‘bad’ policy ideas – that is, policies which impose unnecessary costs on consumers, unnecessarily restrict international trade, entrench monopoly privileges, or detract from productivity – [is] to wrap them in a ‘security blanket’.
He’s also said: Sometimes I feel like I’m one of a tiny handful of people who question this.
And here I was thinking that I was the only person who questions particular kinds of security measures!
Take airport security for example. When I check my bags in at an airport, I can feel my steps slowing as I head towards the security check area. My face hardens and I cannot, ever, stop myself sighing heavily and grumbling (possibly loudly) about the waste of time and money this is.
You see men of all ages taking off their belts, their trousers sagging dangerously; and removing their shoes … then walking through the device. The alarm sounds. They return through – holding the rest of us up – and go through their pockets. (Gosh men keep a lot of junk in their pockets!) They take another stroll through the device and again they beep. Oh yeah, that’s right, I need to put all my loose change on the tray as well, he says, smiling awkwardly at the rest of us tapping our feet in unison (and impatience).
Meanwhile, the queue has extended through the food court, down the escalator, through the door and into the taxi queue.
All this waiting around in airports, the extended periods of time we must now spend preparing for a one hour plane flight (we spend more time in the security line than we do on the plane) is not good for productivity growth. It’s slowing us down.
I flew out of Frankfurt Airport two weeks ago. I beeped as I went through the security device and a woman indicated that I needed to stand to the side – in a little booth. I waited while she went over another woman with expert hands. A few minutes later she came toward me and asked if I spoke German. I said no. It didn’t stop her getting very personal with me. I’d been away from home for two weeks and let me tell you, she patted places that no other person, apart from perhaps my husband, should pat! It was a very (very) thorough job.
I wondered what her previous work experience had been – what had prepared her for this job? What sort of qualities does an airport security person have to have? They don’t have to have a sense of humour (in fact it’s best if they don’t), they don’t exhibit any sort of care or compassion, they don’t keep their hands to themselves, they have no problem crossing personal boundaries, they are not good at chit chat or engaging in small talk … what work experience prepares you for this? What do you need to learn in school to prepare you to be a patter-downer of the security kind?
It was the same story in Malaysia – except this time I didn’t beep, but other people did. Old ladies being pushed in wheelchairs are forced to stand up out of their chairs so they can be patted down. Old men strip down, almost to their underwear, before they are allowed through. Shoes are taken off with wild abandon; hats, glasses, belts, jackets … all placed on the security belt while the rest of us wait like cattle in a line stretching the length of the concourse.
What madness is this?
I went from France to Italy on a train. No security, no removal of clothing, no pat downs. I wasn’t even sure when I’d crossed from one country to another. I went from Italy to Austria on a train. Same story. And then from Austria to Germany. I arrived at the train stations about 20 minutes before the train left but could have turned up five minutes before if I’d been confident that I knew which platform the train left from. It was effortless and easy and there was no waiting in long lines for hundreds of people to take their laptops from their bags, and remember that they had a water bottle hidden about their person, and they possibly shouldn’t have put their brand new $70 bottle of Crabtree and Evelyn moisturiser (that they used for the first time that morning) in their hand luggage because they’ve just lost it and they stand in the path of everyone else because of the devastation they feel at losing something they wouldn’t have purchased if they hadn’t been travelling out of the country for the first time … and we all shuffle forward one inch at a time with as much joy as if we’re on our way to a torture chamber.
If I’d flown from France to Italy to Germany I would have spent hours waiting in lines, lost even more water bottles, removed my shoes more times than is strictly necessary in front of strangers, and been felt up by more women than I care to talk about in this sort of blog.
Will it ever stop or are we so compliant, so entrenched in thinking that this is the way it is, that we don’t/won’t question it and we’ll live with this invasive, unnecessary, expensive, unproductive practice that ultimately doesn’t make us any safer for ever and a day?
What do you think?