No fly list – a cost/benefit analysis

by scotslawstudent

Marcus Holmes has done a fascinating piece of economic research for the United States no-fly list. He uses a very effective US Government cost/benefit model for the project to see if the tangible costs can compare to the intangible and tangible benefits. While it is very easy to find the results of the list breaking in real life online it is very much harder to find an accurate breakdown of the costs involved in this huge project.

It turns out that this is a deliberate difficulty because the cost of the no-fly list is literally classified material and therefore it was only possible for Holmes while compiling his break down to ask sources inside the project who could not tell him any more than the barest details before coming into the realm of classified secrets. Area-51 is classified, the US Army budget has to survive with its only protection from prying eyes being the fact that it is long and a bit dry. Why is this level of secrecy required? Holmes suggests this could be to leave the terrorists guessing about the exact state of intelligence that the West has. The author sadly admits that, on examining the administration’s record on other national security projects, that this is unusual behaviour. The administration never the less claims that the list does work and is helping to prevent several  dangerous people from flying every week. Quietly.

While the law in this field is difficult, in flux and highly specialised the economics is not — although it is skillfully applied by the author and while the article is long I heartily encourage readers to give it a careful look — and is highly accessible to even my introductory level of economics. Through the use of publicly available data and some logical and carefully decided estimations he comes to the conclusion that the list has a burn rate of $100 million/year. This is vast but not a problem if it serves the taxpayer more than this in a combination of tangible (money saved) and intangible (life saved, attacks averted) benefits and it is this part of the analysis which is most important. To bring the focus on a topic closer to home — the problem is not that the Scottish Parliament building cost a large amount of money, the problem was that people thought it cost more than was reasonable for the benefits it would pro-vide when it was completed.

While law matters to the world as a whole, another pillar is economics — the tool to describe the world in highly objective and quantified terms — while leaving law to be its occasionally enigmatic, discretionary and most importantly human, self.