Body Scanners Are Not a ‘Junk’ Budget Issue

Posted November 29, 2010 at 5:17pm

In much the same way that a cardiologist always seems to think first about heart-related issues when a health problem is presented, I’m a budget person whose first reaction is to see the fiscal implications of whatever is discussed.

So please forgive me for noticing the federal budget inconsistency of those who have been complaining about the high-tech body scans conducted by the Transportation Security Administration because, in their words, someone might see their “junk.”

Until the body scanner issue came along, the best example of this type of budget inconsistency was the religious-like fury from conservatives whenever red-light cameras were installed or proposed by a local government. Even though conservatives persistently demand that governments be efficient, eliminate waste, provide services for less money, spend what they collect wisely and cut taxes, many have complained loudly when local governments have used red-light cameras to catch people running through an intersection or speeding.

In other words, they have been complaining about getting exactly what they demanded. Instead of applauding better government service at a lower cost, they’ve said the cameras are just another example of Big Brother.

They say the fines on drivers caught by the cameras amount to a tax increase even though the revenue they produce reduces the need to raise money from taxes. In addition, the fines can be avoided simply by not driving through an intersection when the traffic light is red. Rather than being a tax, the fines are completely voluntary.

From a budget and tax minimization perspective, we all should insist that red-light cameras be used everywhere because they make it possible for a local government to do more with less. The city, town or county might be able to catch the same number of speeders or red-light violators by assigning police officers to stake out an intersection 24 hours a day. But the cost would be much higher than the cameras or personnel would have to be taken away from other, potentially higher priority, law enforcement activities.

Rather than getting angry because red-light cameras are proposed, taxpayers should be furious when a local government refuses to use them. The anger should be directed at those who, in effect, are demanding that government operate in a way that is more likely to keep spending and taxes higher than they otherwise would be.

Body scanners present exactly the same issue for the federal government as the red-light cameras do for local governments because they make it possible for the TSA to do its job more efficiently and at a lower cost than it could otherwise.

From virtually every federal budget perspective — keeping taxes lower, reducing domestic spending, making government more efficient, keeping the deficit and borrowing as low as possible — scanners are the kind of initiative that should be rewarded and encouraged rather than condemned. The United States is better protected at a lower cost because the TSA is getting better information faster without having to hire additional people.

Those who tried to organize a protest against the body scanners by advising travelers to opt for pat-downs instead of scans showed they understood this. They knew that if travelers refused the scans, the TSA would have to use the slower, more labor-intensive and costly pat-downs to provide the same level of security. They were counting on that inefficiency to anger holiday fliers (and, therefore, Representatives and Senators) and to force the TSA to back down. And if the TSA eventually had to request more money to pay for the additional employees and overtime needed to address long airport security lines, so much the better.

For the record, I fly frequently and I’m anything but a happy camper when I have to go through airport security. As my Beautiful and Talented Wife (the BTW) will tell you, I dislike having to do everything I’m asked to do and bristle whenever I have to do it. I’m especially unhappy when I have to take off my shoes, think in advance about the amount of liquids I’m carrying and remember to take the liquids out of my bag for screening.

But in exactly the same way that local governments have the responsibility to keep their roads safe for drivers and pedestrians, I understand there’s a need to keep the country safe and the air transportation system functioning. As a budget person and a taxpayer, I want it done as comprehensively, effectively and inexpensively as possible. That’s why it’s easy to say that the only junk seen from the body scanners was the credibility of the protesters’ argument.

Stan Collender is a partner at Qorvis Communications and founder of the blog Capital Gains and Games. He is also the author of “The Guide to the Federal Budget.”