The TSA's Insane Budget And Woeful Track Record

This infographic makes you wonder: Why are we paying for this agency? Then again, would you really be willing to drop it?

It’s easy to loathe the TSA. They slow down our travel. They cost us money. They scan past the privacy of our clothing. And their screeners tend to have the same perpetually aggravated disposition of the average DMV employee. (Not to mention, their very presence seems to overshadow the multitude of other, simpler destructive options for your average terrorist.)

Any loathing you may have will only be fueled when you look through this infographic. The numbers are infuriating if you trust them all. 70% of weapons make it past TSA screeners? It costs us $6 million to find each gun? We spend more than double on the TSA than we do clean energy?

And don’t even look at the salaries they’re making.

But, in the interest of fairness, we do know that infographics can bend information in interesting ways. And the constructs of this one are remarkably easy to spot. Namely, it lacks context.

Where, for instance, is the listing of what another targeted plane crash would cost Americans? If it costs us $6 million to catch one gun, that seems outrageous. But imagine the flipside. If we keep in mind that the Twin Towers cost about $1 billion apiece to build, and the cleanup and rebuilding after 9/11 cost quite a bit on top of that, then the price of spotting that one devastating weapon, and indeed, the entire $7 billion TSA budget, appears to be supported by some semblance of reason—especially if you start considering the greater costs of human life.

There’s a greater story here, even in the cold, hard numbers sense, that’s not being told. It’s upsetting at a gut level to see what the TSA is costing us, in our taxes, our time and, maybe most importantly, our personal space. But to consider this infographic informing, it really needs proper context: what the price would be if, even once, history repeated itself?

Then again, you can also ask the question of whether the TSA is actually well-placed to prevent terrorism. As many people have pointed out, if the TSA is even put in the position of catching a terrorist, then scores and scores of people from the FBI to the local police have failed their jobs. So does the TSA make us safer? Maybe not, but it’s clearly a political necessity: As much as people complain about pat downs and body scans, imagine how much they’d complain if anything—anything—ever happened again. That’s a risk that no politician is willing to take—which might be the truest rationale behind the TSA.


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  • Joe Lopez

    If you wanted to say- the total economic cost of 9/11 was much higher than the TSA budget, that might be a more valid argument.  But it's still all negated when you admit that they are a useless failsafe for other agencies like the FBI.  Why not save that 60 bill for a rainy day when the next attack comes?

  • Joe Lopez

    Wow, so the TSA costs 60 billion and the twin towers only cost 2 billion...  Even if we had another 9/11 we saved 58 billion.  What about the 3000 vicitms?  Our 58 billion dollar saving leaves 20 million dollars per life we could pay to the victims families- even the best insurance companies wouldn't value a person that highly.  Also, considering the fact that the TSA has never stopped a terror attack and they violate our rights, they don't even have a fake reason to exist.

    Sir-  you should just stick to graphic design or what ever the fuck it is you do as a day job because you suck at logic AND math. 

  • D. Harvey

    Everyday our government asks our young men and women to put their lives on the line for our freedom only so they can take it away every time we need to travel.  If military troops have to risk their lives every day, the least we can do is to match their sacrifice by being vigilant of our fellow travelers.  Unlike the TSA, it has been and will continue to be regular travelers that have thwarted every terrorist plot since 9-11 without the help of "trained" terrorist spotters. The TSA is simply redundant and unnecessary.

  • Al

    This is lame and doesn't belong on a site that is supposed to showcase the best. There's loads of great material they could have worked with, but this does nothing with it. 

    I skimmed over the design a couple of times and forced myself to read it in case there was some interesting idea or graphical device that deserves attention. Nothing. As others have said, it's just a poorly formed bullet list of dubious facts with a naked agenda and cliched, stylistically inappropriate clipart. 

    On first reading I stopped at "devices to blow air on travellers". It insults the intelligence of the reader, expecting them to believe there was no reason at all these things (whatever they are) were ever made, and it wastes the main benefit of an infographic. They could have shown whatever it was these devices were actually supposed to do without wasting more space than they already did, without complicating or weakening the message. A fun schematic diagram that works both as a passive illustration for people reading inattentively, and as a humorous answer to the question  "What were they thinking?" for people who ask it.

    There are only three places here that achieve any benefit at all from being a graphic: the "1 in 30 million" figures being side by side, the cyclops ninja guy (?) illustrating the weapons by the sides thing, and the timeline. 

  • M

    So what about that luggage and freight? No need for that to go through the same "pat-downs" as the people? I guess Lockerbie was so long ago and after all we didn't really change things after that.

  • Anthony Giardini

    I agree with other commenters that this is not information graphics, its an illustrated bullet list, and an obnoxious one at that. I don't mind just reading a well reasoned and informed article. Silly drawings and "word art" aren't necessary to keep my attention, but good journalism is.

    I would also ask that you please stop publishing illustrated lists of facts devoid of context and without any kind of substantial argument.

    I appreciate the fact that I am getting this information basically for free, but just ask that the space is used for the good stuff.

  • ken nohe

    The worst is that the TSA is viral, it is spreading its sick logic to promote false security around the world!  There should be a bio-hazard sign warning somewhere!

  • class factotum

    Have you ever seen that parlor trick where you jam a soda straw through a raw potato? I have done it and I am a 48 yr old woman who is in decent, but not splendid, shape.

    What's to keep a terrorist from improvising a tool from a straw? Or the arm of his glasses? Or the knitting needles that are allowed to be carried on?

  • Jeff Pierce

    First, there is no price worth it to destroy the 4th Amendment of our Constitution.

    For details (too exhaustive to show here) on security, legal, and abuse issues, please download our INFORMATION KIT at (Freedom To Travel USA) for well-reasoned explanations of why strip searches of Americans not under arrest or in prison and sexual assault (as in touching genitals and breasts) pat downs of us and our children don't quite fit into the idea of American liberty.

    FOR Mark Wilson: TO ANSWER THE QUESTION ON LIVES LOST: There is an ROI measurement that basically shows a $1 Million to $10 Million dollar cost per life saved as a typical range for government safety programs. A study published in the Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management evaluated the strip-search scanners:

    THE STUDY CONCLUDED: "It was found that, based on mean results, more
    than one attack every two years would need to originate from U.S. airports for AITs to pass a cost-benefit analysis. However, the attack probability needs to exceed 160-330% per year to be 90% certain that full body scanners are cost-effective"

    To be 90% certain that the spending has an acceptable ROI, there would have to be 1.6 to 3.3 attacks EVERY YEAR by suicidal airline passengers with working non-metallic bombs - something that has not caused a fatality in the US in HALF A CENTURY. The risk is nearly non-existent. The palpable fear of some, unfortunately, does exist.

    You can't defend the TSA based on risk.
    You can't defend the TSA based on America's liberty.

  • Phil Allsopp

    TSA is most definitely a case of prescriptive government regulations gone mad. I don't mind outcomes-based regulations at all - in fact we need a lot more than exist today. But so long as the US remains fixated on prescribing process rather than allowing creativity to achieve desired outcomes, the bigger, less effective, more inhumane and more costly organizations like TSA will become. I suspect the same sort of thing happened in Germany in the 1930s when brown shirts, professing to have the law on their side, accosted citizens on the streets because they ddnt like the look of them.

  • Hoonanaman

    Mark, loved your write up, you make a lot of good points. One thing that stuck out to me: if the TSA is as inefficient as the graphic points out, are they really preventing a terrorist attack from happening? I don't know that it's relevant to compare the cost of another attack if the TSA isn't prepared to actually prevent one in the first place.

  • brian

    giant waste. terrorists don't need to hijack planes to cause terror, they aren't going to strike anyway in which anyone is expecting, thats the nature of terrorism. unexpected events of violence, organized to cause fear and strife, to achieve ulterior political ends. we'd save a lot of money minding our own business.

  • Glorie DeJure

    TSA exists because Big Brother must control us For Our Own Good. It makes us feel safe and it keeps them in control.

  • Rich

    US airport security should be the job of the US Army.  Think about how good they are at training up thousands of people in a very short amount of time to do a specific job.  In addition, they'd be great at rotating "employees" (soldiers) through the scanning positions, which I think is key to successful screening.  I don't see how someone can remain diligent in that job long-term.

  • Wize Adz

    It's even worse than that.

    The first person that greets a passenger on their way to the plane is often a TSA agent.  This makes the TSA the airline's front-line customer service.

    The last time I took a commercial flight, the TSA agent grabbed my wallet out of my hands and went through its contents.  I already refuse to travel by air for pleasure (because it isn't a pleasure), and now I will be refusing to travel by air for work.  My refusal is for the simple pragmatic reason that I'm not likely to be able to keep my cool when my wallet is grabbed, regardless of whether the person who does it has "the law" on their side.  (The TSA agent who grabbed my wallet assured me that the law was on his side, after I pointed out that my wallet was my private property.)

    How many lost fares does this generate?  I can tell you it's going to lose a fare from me for some business travel that my boss is trying to talk me in to next month.  And my wife has a conference the month after that, which we'll be driving to with our son.  That's about 4 lost fares, right out of the gate.  And then there are all of the other trips that my boss *might* want to send me on during the rest of the year -- and the year after that, and the year after that...

    Also, the lost career opportunities that I suffer from not "voluntarily" giving up my 4th-amendment rights when my boss says jump will be far smaller than the lost career opportunities that would be generated by an encounter with the TSA where I can't keep my cool when someone decides to examine the personal contents of my wallet... Nevermind the risks of identity theft and regular theft.

  • Joshua Kaiser

    A friend of mine flying across the country to attend a formal event forgot that she had a lighter and a fairly large (although not illegally large) pocket knife in her coat pocket.  She didn't realize this until she had returned.  She was given a hard time by the TSA for the contents of her makeup bag on both the flight out and on her return. Nobody made any mention of the actually dangerous objects that she had unknowingly brought on board.

    Do I think the TSA works?  Not even a little bit.

  • Wtravel

    What is missing is the amount of time and productivity that are lost because the TSA is so messed up. 

  • Scooter

    Consider that you can still buy a Glass Bottle of Beer in most airports after you leave security and could easily bring it on the plane with you.  Likewise there are similar objects and containers available in most of the stores in the larger airports.  We are a long way from common sense when it comes to this issue and the TSA does not seem like the solution.

  • nosybear

    Here's another way of considering human life:  The time spent removing and putting on shoes at airports each year is equivalent to about 16 human lifetimes, in other words, that one little action integrated over everyone that flies is the equivalent of sixteen casualties per year caused by the TSA.  The scans take about the same time as removal and putting on shoes - we're up to 32 lives per year taken directly by TSA scanning processes.  The time spent in lines is many multiples of the scanning process - TSA's casualties are now in the hundreds if not thousands.  So if we count lives spent instead of lives taken, the TSA is far more deadly than terrorists, it's just the TSA takes lives minutes at a time rather than all at once.

  • GuyIncognito26

     Notably, though, masturbation is not mandated by the government.  If people voluntarily wile away their lives in self-induced bliss, that's their problem.  When the government is forcing them to do so, it's another issue entirely.