A Gargantuan Gift to the Unions

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After his decisive defeat in the recent congressional elections, President Obama is now trying to portray himself as a born-again centrist, verbalizing vague sympathies for small business and lighter regulation, not to mention capitulating to the Republicans’ demands to renew the Bush tax cuts for two more years. He is even feigning admiration for President Reagan.

But Obama is one of the most artful deceivers in the history of an office well known for attracting deceivers. As I have urged before (“Obamalaise,” Liberty, May 2010), you have to look at what he does, not merely at what he says. And what he is actually doing is continuing to advance his leftist agenda.

A particularly disgusting illustration is his recent decision, almost completely ignored in the mainstream media, to allow TSA employees (the airport screeners) to unionize.

When the TSA was set up, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the TSA administrator was given the authority to choose whether to give the employees the right to collective bargaining. Until now, the TSA has not done so. But Obama’s choice to head the TSA, John Pistole, changed that policy. Now the TSA’s 40,000 airport screeners — those paragons of efficiency and decorum, so eager to guard our privacy rights — join the ranks of public employees who are already in unions. The TSA employees will vote in March between representation by the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) and the National Treasury Employees Union.

John Gage, president of the AFGE, crowed, “Today marks the recognition of a fundamental human right for 40,000 patriotic federal employees who have been disenfranchised since the inception of the agency.” Well he might crow, since these events will add 40,000 new employees to the public employee unions, which saw a drop of about 250,000 members in 2010. They will thus add an enormous amount to union dues, which will be spent on (among other things) electing Democrats in the next election cycle. In line to get the lion’s share of those union dues will be Pistole’s boss, Obama. It is very convenient.

Pistole says that the TSA workers won’t have the right to strike or engage in work slowdowns — as if we could tell whether these people are staging a slowdown or not. He also says that the workers won’t have a say in any matter that concerns airport security.

The devil is in the details.

In any case, if Obama is reelected, you can bet that these presumed restrictions will be loosened or eliminated. In the meantime, after the TSA workers unionize, we can expect their wages and benefits to skyrocket, adding significantly to our national deficit. Worse, disciplining lazy or inefficient workers will soon become incredibly difficult, rather like trying to fire incompetent tenured teachers, with the obvious effects on our collective security.

Let us now praise moderate men.




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Terror at 30,000 Feet

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The old joke about the statistician who drowned in a lake with an average depth of one foot is a reminder that while the mathematics of probability theory are rock solid (er, within a certain range of error), the questions that the numbers attempt to illuminate are a bit more slippery. To put this in another way, a statistic is only as valid as the manner in which the question it tries to answer is framed. And there’s the rub: a question can be spun in such a way that the answer will confirm any sophistry.

This insight was recently brought home to me by Tyler Cowen’s wonderful Discover Your Inner Economist: Use Incentives to Fall in Love, Survive Your Next Meeting and Motivate Your Dentist. But even libertarian economists can fall prey to their inner biases. (I haven’t discovered whether Cowen calls himself a libertarian or not, but following Rush Limbaugh’s opinion that all economists worth their salt are libertarian, I suspect he is.)

At one point, Cowen briefly discusses fear of flying, citing various statistics that “prove” that flying is, hands down, much safer than driving a car. When one compares mortality rates per mile traveled and per passengers involved, the conventional figures decisively prove their point.

So why am I not scared of driving? As Ayn Rand famously stated, “Check your premises!”

Having taken flying lessons (and having had to land a single-engine plane that lost power), I have a slightly different take on the matter. A Cessna 150 with a perfectly centered dead engine practically lands itself, slowly gliding down at the proper angle, needing only a steady hand to keep it from diving into a stall. By comparison, a multi-engine jet with the reduced glide ratio that results from swept-back wings, and the out-of-balance weight and thrust from an off-center, suddenly faulty engine, almost requires a miracle to land safely.

Cowen, along with many others, believes that fear of flying is irrational. Now, I consider myself a rational empiricist, but when facing a flight, I gird my loins and make sure my affairs are in order. And I don’t think my fear is irrational. Yet I had never really tried to work out the problem until I read Tyler Cowen, who skewers popular fallacies as only a libertarian economist can. My conclusion is that he may have embraced a popular fallacy himself.

A stalled car engine is an inconvenience for, perhaps, half a dozen people at the most, while a stalled jet engine is a likely death sentence for hundreds of passengers. Having a pigeon fly into a car’s grille is startling, but it has far from the same consequences as having a pigeon fly into the cowling of a Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engine.

The questions I would pose to determine the safety of flying vs. driving would be: What percentage of mechanical malfunctions in cars result in fatalities? And how many fatalities? But what percentage in planes? I’m willing to bet that mechanical malfunctions (or operator errors) in an airplane cause way more fatalities than the same problems in a car. Different premise, different conclusion.




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