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Let Me Be CLEAR

Private security screening isn’t the problem with our airports, it’s merely a response to those problems.

Passengers wait in line to go through security at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport on November 21, 2023, in Arlington, Virginia. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

One of the things that gets people all torqued up about air travel is that it is one of the few places in American life where we are forced to be open and honest about the one thing that everybody pursues and nobody talks about: status. At the airport, there are aristocrats and there are peons, and no doubt is left about who’s who.

Hence, the very carefully manicured outrage directed at CLEAR, the security-expediting service.

CLEAR has some fancy high-tech hoo-haw on the front end—biometric scanners and whatnot—but what it really offers is an officially sanctioned way to cut in line. CLEAR customers check in with an agent who then escorts them to the front of the security line, where the usual TSA procedures take over. Once TSA PreCheck really started to take off, the emergence of services such as CLEAR was inevitable: In airports ranging from DCA to DFA to LAX, there are so many TSA PreCheck flyers now that the PreCheck line is often longer than the standard one. This is the opposite of a network effect: Whereas things such as email and social media become more useful as more people sign up for them, services such as CLEAR become marginally less valuable every time a new client signs up. The ideal number of CLEAR users is the same as the ideal number of passengers on an airplane: Whatever the number is that keeps everybody else out of my way. If CLEAR gets popular enough, there will be some kind of bigger, better, more expensive super-CLEAR for those who want to avoid standing in line—and I’ll probably sign up for it, if I can afford it. 

Flying is cheap, but flying in a way that is reasonably comfortable and dignified—in a way in which you are treated like something other than livestock—can get stupid expensive pretty quickly. DFW to Hong Kong is a long, long flight, and you don’t want to do it in economy—but it’s about $8,000 for business class and $25,000 for first. That’s not chump change—that’s fightin’-over money.

Like every other upcharge in air travel, CLEAR is simply a way to exchange money for a better experience. Air travelers already pay for better seats, early boarding, food and drink, Wi-Fi, expedited handling of checked baggage, and many other conveniences and comforts. TSA PreCheck is a way of doing the same thing when it comes to the security line, and so is CLEAR: If TSA PreCheck is economy-plus, then CLEAR is as close to first-class as the security-screening process gets. Other than the nifty security screening offered to Virgin’s first-class passengers at Heathrow (you pass through a discreet little passageway into a private chamber that makes you feel like James Bond), it’s the best option on offer. People standing in line will sometimes scowl when a CLEAR customer swans past them, and a few will mutter under their breath about liquidating the kulaks as a class, but the fact is that CLEAR will sell a membership to anybody. And CLEAR isn’t a little club for rich guys—the basic service is $189 a year (or effectively free with an American Express platinum card, which is $695 a year), a relatively small investment for people who travel a great deal. It is a heck of a lot less than choosing business or first over economy on a single long flight. 

Sure, there are some people who can’t afford $189 a year to avoid the security line. Being poor is inconvenient, and always has been. I remember those $79 Southwest flights between Austin and Amarillo. It is tempting to write that you get what you pay for, but, very often where air travel is concerned, you don’t: If there is an American airline (or an American Airline) that can keep a schedule, I haven’t discovered it. I had a flight out of Washington a couple of months ago delayed by six hours because American Airlines couldn’t get a crew to the airport—like I was on one of those “surprise!” flights that nobody can plan ahead for. 

A profit-seeking entity has no place in a federally mandated process,” thunders some Slate headline writer who has apparently never been to an airport, without ever really bothering to explain why. Of course, profit-seeking entities participate in all sorts of government processes, including the most mandatory of all: The IRS routinely uses private collection agencies to help collect unpaid taxes. Police, military, and intelligence agencies rely on private-sector support ranging from contractors who drive trucks to sophisticated services such as Palantir Technologies, Peter Thiel’s spooky data-analysis outfit. Slate’s David Zipper complains that CLEAR pays commissions to airports where it is allowed to operate, but these payments are a way (one way among many) in which relatively well-off travelers subsidize other flyers: Without CLEAR fees, that revenue would have to be made up somehow, almost certainly through fees charged to all travelers or to airlines that will pass these expenses along to customers—and probably not to their favorite frequent flyers!—or to their employees, vendors, and other business partners. There’s a pretty well-trod product-development path by which high-income consumers end up subsidizing the consumption of lower-income people, as things that begin as millionaires’ extravagances, once production at scale is up and running, work their way down the price tiers to become ordinary items of consumption, some of them regarded as necessities. There was a time when people scoffed at air-conditioning in cars (and in houses) as a practically Neronian extravagance. The same with electric lights—and, more to the point, with air travel, the formerly exclusive character of which still survives in the English expression “jet set,” two words that must sound very funny indeed to somebody who has only flown Spirit. 

The anti-CLEAR stuff is pure Kulturkampf, but it is being gussied up as an issue of safety and efficiency. 

CLEAR executives have been hauled into Congress because a couple of would-be flyers managed to sneak past the velvet rope with false identification. But CLEAR doesn’t do the actual security screening—that is done by the esteemed ladies and gentlemen of the TSA, who, when they are not busy stealing from flyers’ carry-on bags, have a failure rate of about 80 percent when their security protocols are put to the test by undercover examiners. For CLEAR critics such as Democratic Rep. Wiley Nickel of North Carolina, this is nothing but class war. “We’ve got a real problem with wealth and income inequality in America,” he tells Slate. “Airport security is an essential government function, funded by taxpayers. We should level the field to let everyone travel as quickly as possible, regardless of whether you have the extra money to push to the front of the line.” Another way of saying that is: A hypothetical system that works halfway decently would be better for everybody—hypothetically. 

But it wasn’t CLEAR that made air travel in the United States the ghastly mess it is—that was the TSA, the FAA, the local airport authorities, Congress, state legislatures, and a host of other malefactors, whose collective incompetence (and, at times, corruption) created the market for CLEAR. Rep. Nickel and other critics get the direction of causality exactly backward: You can’t fix the airports by getting rid of CLEAR—but, if you fixed the airports, services such as CLEAR would be a lot less attractive, and might not be viable at all. 

But we’ll never find out, because Rep. Nickel and his fellow geniuses in government are not going to fix the airports. 

CLEAR is yet another enterprising private-sector firm used as a whipping boy by progressives discomfited by the predictable systemic failures of the public-sector model they want to force people to rely on for everything from travel to health care. Rather than dealing with the real problem, progressives would rather kneecap one of the companies that is trying to make things a little bit better at the airport—and, amazingly enough, doing so while turning a profit rather than operating as a bottomless pit for subsidies. 

Heaven forbid the TSA and the airport operators take the opportunity to learn a thing or two from a company that has figured out how to give travelers something they want at a price they are willing to pay.

I don’t expect that there will be a bespoke political party set up to attend to the priorities of Kevin D. Williamson, but I have to imagine that a lot of the non-obviously-hot-button issues that interest me—traffic congestion in the cities, housing regulation, air travel, etc.—might be of some interest to a fair number of voters and potential voters.

Economics for English Majors

With reference to the section above, the economics of mass production is pretty interesting—and a very big part of how we have managed to achieve a standard of living under which guys who work at 7-Eleven have better shoes, food, and dental care than Renaissance princes typically did. 

A thing I learned in the daily newspaper business: It costs something like $10,000 to print one copy of a newspaper. The 55,410th copy, on the other hand, costs about 2 cents. (I haven’t worked in a press-facing capacity in a while, so I am sure my numbers are out-of-date, but you get the idea.) To print one copy, you’ve got to set up the press, make the press plates, and do a lot of labor-intensive stuff (even with the marvels of modern technology) to get things up and rolling. But, after that (assuming no one runs in and yells, “Stop the presses!”), you don’t have to do very much, at least as far as the press is concerned. Those of you who are print newspaper readers may notice that there sometimes are little stars at the top of some of your pages—these indicate that a page has been “remade,” i.e., that something has been changed and a new plate put on the press. Every time a page is changed (this was the custom, anyway) another star goes on, supposedly a remnant of a time when a lot of press operators couldn’t actually read the matter they were printing. Some newspapers still do multiple editions, meaning a substantial overhaul of the newspaper from one printing to the next. In ye olden days, a rushed-out first edition was known as the bulldog, as in, “Well, hooray for the bulldog.” The evening Princess Diana was killed in that car crash, we stayed up remaking the front page six or seven times, putting the last one to bed around 7 a.m., as I recall. In our digital era, there is a lot less reason to do that. 

For some products, such as software or e-books or digital music, the cost of production falls nearly to $0.00 after the first unit is produced. For some more physically rooted products, there is a long drawdown of a sort. When Tesla started making cars, the company basically started from scratch (not entirely, but I’m simplifying), having to build whole new factories, assembly lines, etc. When Ford comes out with a new car, it doesn’t have all those same expenses, but it will have to acquire or reconfigure machinery to make the new model, a long and expensive process which is one of the reasons most “new” car models have so many parts and pieces in common with their predecessors. 

Even when advertised as “the all-new” Mustang or Buick Enclave or whatever, it is rare for a car to be, in fact, all-new. From light switches to engine parts, there are common components between car models because of the same economics that describes the production of cars themselves: Once somebody has figured out how to make a good windshield-wiper engine, there isn’t any reason to invent a new one from scratch every time you come out with a new model of Honda Civic. 

Understanding the relationship between investments in productive assets (including intangible assets) and the value of the things produced are part of what we try to accomplish with the accounting concepts of capitalization, amortization, and depreciation. If a company buys a case of Champagne for the Christmas party and drinks it, that’s an expense; but if a company spends $100 million on a new factory from which it expects to derive economic benefits for many years in the future, that is a capitalized cost. Amortization and depreciation help a company spread out expenses related to a productive asset over time for accounting and tax purposes, so that the books don’t have to take the hit for the upfront costs of a 20-year project all at once. This is important because while it is a lot cheaper to manufacture the 1 millionth widget than it was to manufacture the first—or, rather, because the per-unit costs of the widget will tend to decrease as more of them are made—firms have to be able to commit to making a whole lot of widgets without incurring prohibitive initial expenses. People who scoff at the financialization of the U.S. economy don’t really understand how things get made: You don’t get those wrench-turning jobs without the guys on Wall Street and in the CFO’s office doing their part. 

Words About Words

Bespoke doesn’t mean nice, refined, or expensive—it means made to specifications. Bespeak, from the Old English besprecan (speak about or against, complain) has had a variety of connotations over the years, some of them near-opposites, as you might expect from the root: to request vs. to oppose. Bespoke being used to refer to custom-made suits and shoes dates back to at least the 19th  century, and, from that meaning, bespoke took on a more general sense of custom-made or special ordered. Because bespoke clothes tend to be expensive and of good quality, the word bespoke sometimes is used simply to mean that, e.g., this guy explaining that a certain piece of photographic gear feels “very bespoke.” Very bespoke is illiterate—as with the related word unique, something either is bespoke or it isn’t—there is no middle ground. 

Elsewhere

Check out my video series, “How the World Works,” here. Recent guests include Klon Kitchen, George Weigel, Bryan Caplan, and, coming soon, some cranky guy named Jonah. “How the World Works,” a project I’m doing in my capacity as a writer-(occasionally)-in-residence at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, is, broadly speaking, about jobs and working. If you have somebody with an interesting job who might like to sit for an interview in Washington and talk about what he or she does all day, hook us up.

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Oh, Is That What He’s Doing?

Breaking news: 

Putin to Seek Another Term as Russian President, State News Agencies Say: The announcement was long expected after Russia’s Constitution was amended in 2020, effectively allowing Vladimir Putin to stay in power until 2036.

In the same way that we should avoid using the euphemisms of totalitarians and murderers—“ethnic cleansing,” etc.—we should not pretend that Vladimir Putin is just a workaday politician seeking another term in office, like he’s Dwight Eisenhower in 1956. 

In Closing

Here is a real headline from our time: “Tomato lost in space by history-making astronaut has been found.” As stupid as our politics can be, don’t let anybody tell you that we do not live in an age of wonders.

Kevin D. Williamson is national correspondent at The Dispatch and is based in Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 15 years as a writer and editor at National Review, worked as the theater critic at the New Criterion, and had a long career in local newspapers. He is also a writer in residence at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. When Kevin is not reporting on the world outside Washington for his Wanderland newsletter, you can find him at the rifle range or reading a book about literally almost anything other than politics.