Friday, November 19, 2010

Airport Pat Downs and the TSA

Anyone who has traveled by air since October 2001 has had to deal with the petulant, bullying, undignified employees of the Transportation Security Administration or TSA. This agency, part of the Bush Administration's successful effort to increase the size of the Federal government by nearly 15 percent was established to make sure that there would be no more 9/11 like attacks on the United States.

It was a great goal and at the time a politically expedient goal. However as time has gone on and the invasive nature of TSA has become augered into the psyche of the traveling public more and more people are beginning to question the wisdom of how TSA does its job.

The most recent example is the frustration that is being vented by the traveling public now that TSA has, for no known reason other than they can, begun doing pat-downs of travelers who refuse to be subjected to full body screening by TSA employees at the security check points in airports.

One of the main arguments against the pat-downs is the feeling by many that individual rights to freedom from unreasonable search provided by the US Constitution. Curiously just after 9/11 more than 70 percent of the Americans surveyed on one poll agreed that it is acceptable to give up some basic freedoms if it means fighting terrorism. Now that the latest freedom has been taken away people don't like it. You can't have it both ways!

As much as I have absolutely ZERO respect for TSA and the buffoon's who work for it I have to defend this pat down practice. And I do so because of my experience going through the gauntlet known as trying to fly out of the Tel Aviv, Israel, international airport.

First on driving into the airport all travelers are stopped and checked over by Israeli security forces. Then as you walk into the terminal you are immediately patted down (I was patted down by a Jamaican security person once and when I asked her to do it again, more slowly, her male supervisor told me "sir, you need to move along now" but that was Montego Bay, not Tel Aviv). That is the first pat down.

The second pat down comes when you go to approach the ticket counter. You lay all your belongings on a table and two or three security people rifle through everything in your luggage before you give anything to the gate agent. You are also patted down as this inspection goes on.

After getting your boarding pass, and before getting on the escalator to take you to the departure gates you pass through a metal detector but not before you are patted down (for a third time) by other Israeli security forces.

At the top of the escalator you turn right to walk to your gate. There before entering the departure area you are patted down a fourth time. When the flight is called and you walk down the steps to the bus that transports you to the plane, but before getting on that bus, you are patted down a fifth time. Finally at the base of the plane, before walking up the steps (there are no departure walkways at Tel Aviv airport - all planes are parked remotely from the terminal) you are patted down a sixth time.

All the luggage is laid out on the ground by the plane (this is why you are supposed to arrive at the airport four hours early!) where those checking bags have to go personally identify their luggage and probably get patted down again (I had this happen in the Georgetown Guyana airport also). Luckily I only had carry on so I wasn't subjected to a seventh pat down like some people were.

Once you get on the plane you feel pretty damned sure that nothing bad is going to happen to you because everyone and their brother has been checked and checked again six times even before the pilot starts the engines.

Is the security at the Tel Aviv airport excessive? A tad. But you know what? There has never been a successful hijacking of a plane out of Tel Aviv airport. Ever.

We all scream and holler and wax poetic about the need to fight "terrorism" but when techniques are implemented to do that, such as patting down passengers who don't agree to a body screening, then we start objecting like crazy.

We can't have it both ways as much as we'd like it that way. As for me, I will gladly be patted down and delayed a few minutes before getting to the gate if it means there is that much less chance for something bad to happen on the plane. My only hope is that the person who pats me down is about 38 years old, a brunette, and has a body to die for. But that's just me.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Foolishness

Being a die-hard liberal I have absolutely no problem with using tax dollars to benefit the greater good of the public. Although I detest the Department of Defense budget for what it generates there are other aspects of the Federal budget that I whole heartedly support. Things like clean water to drink, food safety, air traffic controllers, the FBI, the construction and maintenance of highways and bridges, public television and radio, libraries and health care. Things that everyone takes for granted being provided by the government.

At the same time I enjoy knowing that my tax dollars are also being spent to help people less fortunate than I am. Like providing for the education of children, or providing safe shelters for homeless people, or providing for the feeding and proper nutrition of the less fortunate. One of the principal ways of accomplishing the latter is through the ages-old "Food Stamp" program managed by the US Department of Agriculture, and now largely outsourced (with dollars following it) to the States.

This ages-old program is now administered as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The apparent motto for SNAP, as indicated on their website is "We help put healthy food on the table for over 40 million people each month." Yesterday I saw an instance of someone using their SNAP (Food Stamps) benefits in direct contradiction of the motto of the program.

Near the end of my bicycle ride yesterday I stopped in at a 7-11 store to get my now-traditional peanut butter flavored energy and protein bar and another bottle of Zephyrhills water. Standing in front of me in the check out line was a morbidly obese woman whose entire stash of food she was purchasing included 1) a 12-pack of Miller lite beer, 2) a gargantuan bag of Lays potato chips, 3) a package of Oreo cookies, 4) a 2-liter bottle of Pepsi (no doubt dripping with high fructose corn syrup derivatives), 5) a container of nachos that were smothered in cheese, and 6) a pack of sugar-laden Doublemint gum. When her purchase was rung up this morbidly obese woman paid for her items with a Food Stamp card just like the one shown above.

WTF?? At least she chose Lite beer.

The United States Department of Agriculture sells this program as putting "...healthy food on the table..." Ah, excuse me USDA but NOTHING this woman purchased with Food Stamps comes even close to being healthy. Nothing. Still she was able to make this purchase and waddle out the front door of 7-11 with about 8 billion calories (and 1 gram of protein) in her arms.

Recently the US Department of Agriculture's SNAP program provided awards to various states for "exceptional nutrition assistance service and program integrity." The news release for these awards to the states begins with:
WASHINGTON, June 24, 2010 – Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today announced that USDA will award $30 million to selected states for their excellence in administering the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in Fiscal Year (FY) 2009. The national average level of program payment accuracy for FY 2009 is 95.64 percent, the sixth consecutive year the program has achieved a historically high rate. For the second straight year, the national negative error rate (a measure of denials, terminations and suspensions) also improved.

"Program integrity is critical as participation in SNAP continues to grow to meet the nutrition needs of the most vulnerable Americans, and these results deliver on President Obama's directive to decrease improper payments and protect taxpayer dollars," said Secretary Vilsack. "We are improving the accuracy and efficiency of program delivery while working to deliver on Obama administration efforts to reduce hunger and improve nutrition for people across the country."

Not surprisingly one of the states receiving award monies was Florida - to the tune of more than $11 million dollars.

It is an admirable goal of the Obama Administration to want to reduce hunger and improve nutrition. First Lady Michele Obama has gone out of her way to initiate and support efforts to reduce childhood obesity - her efforts are a many-fold increase in concern over the non-concern demonstrated by the Bush Administration in this area.

Still, people are able to walk into a 7-11 (and why is a 7-11 ANYWHERE considered a food store??) in Sarasota, Florida, and purchase non-nutritional fructose-laden "food" items and then pay for them with food stamps provided, ostensibly, to improve nutrition and reduce hunger. I can see how this person would not be hungry after stuffing her face with a pound of cheese-draped nachos, but how in hell is that nutritional?

Don't get me wrong. This morbidly obese woman has every right to keep herself morbidly obese and to eat and drink whatever she wants. However should the State of Florida (who administers the program) really allow scarce tax dollars to be used to accomplish this woman's nutritional "goals"? And remember if she is receiving public funds for "food" then whenever she goes to the doctor or lands in the hospital there is a very good chance that public funds are being used to pay for her doctor and hospital bills as well.

Neither is a very good use of public resources.