Why Banning Laptops From Airplane Cabins Doesn’t Make Sense

By Cassandra Burke Robertson, Case Western Reserve University and Irina D. Manta, Hofstra University

Recent reports suggest that terrorists can now create bombs so thin that they cannot be detected by the current X-ray screening that our carry-on bags undergo. The Conversation

In an effort to protect against such threats, the U.S is considering banning laptops and other large electronic devices in the passenger cabins of airplanes flying between Europe and the United States. This would extend a ban already in place on flights from eight Middle Eastern countries.

Given the significant disruption such a policy would cause tens of thousands of passengers a day, a logical question any economist might ask is: Is it worth it?

It is tempting to think that any level of cost and inconvenience is sensible if it reduces the risk of an attack even a little. But risks, inherent in flying and even driving, can never be avoided entirely.

So when weighing policies that are designed to make us safer, it is important to consider both their costs and potential effectiveness.

Unfortunately, whether the benefits justify the costs is too often not the yardstick used by officials determining whether to pursue these types of policies. Instead, as law professors who have researched how the government?s travel policies affect civil liberties, we have found that it is more likely that political considerations motivate the adoption of restrictive policies, which in the end actually do little to protect citizens? security.

Expanding a ban

The current laptop policy regarding some flights from the Middle East was put in place in March apparently as a result of intelligence that ISIS militants were training to get laptop bombs past security screeners and onto planes. The U.K. adopted a similar rule.

The Department of Homeland Security wants to extend that ban to transatlantic flights. This would cause major disruption and ?logistical chaos.? Approximately 65 million people a year fly between Europe and the United States.

Business travelers are concerned about the loss of productivity and the risk that a checked laptop with sensitive information could be damaged, stolen or subjected to intrusive search. Families worry about traveling without electronic distractions to soothe tired and uncomfortable children. Airlines expect a loss of business as people opt out of transatlantic travel altogether.

Past policies such as limiting the liquids that can be carried on and requiring passengers to remove shoes are a case in point. They have increased burdens on both travelers ? who must pay to check baggage and face added inconvenience ? and taxpayers ? who bear the costs of every policy change ? while likely doing little to nothing to improve security.

Benefits and costs

Regulators throughout the government typically must rely on a cost-benefit analysis to determine levels of acceptable risk, weighing the potential safety gain of a new policy against its costs and added risks.

But when dealing with a fear of terrorism, it is common to find policies that are not cost effective. And if we subjected the laptop bans (the original and expansion) to a cost-benefit analysis, they would likely fail. The costs are high, the potential security gains are small, and the policy adds hazards of its own.

To make its case, the government seems to be relying on several purported benefits of stowing laptops in the luggage hold. First, checked bags undergo additional screening for the presence of explosives. Second, it is possible that luggage in the cargo area could provide some insulation from an explosion. Finally, bombs placed in the cargo area require a sophisticated timing device, unlike simpler explosives that could be set off manually.

But these benefits appear dubious as support for a laptop ban. Carry-on luggage could go through expanded screening, for example, while the notion that checked luggage might make an explosion more survivable is speculative ? and such gains might in any case be offset by the dangerous greater vibration found in cargo cabin. Lithium batteries have, after all, been forbidden from the cargo compartment for a reason ? and must instead be carried on ? to avoid the risk of fire.

And of course, this does little to protect against the risk of an explosive device in the cargo cabin. It just moves the risk to an isolated area of the plane.

Moving the devices to the hold could actually make such devices harder to detect if they slip past airport screening. The exploding lithium batteries in Samsung devices, for example, show how even ordinary fire risks can be greater when passengers are not there to notice a smoking battery in a bag in the overhead compartment.

Similarly, the presence of observant passengers can help thwart terrorist activity when it does occur, as happened with the underwear bomber. One should keep in mind that one of the greatest airline tragedies of all times, the attack on Pan Am flight 103 that exploded over Lockerbie and claimed 270 lives, was caused by a bomb that went off in a suitcase in the cargo hold.

On the economic side, the financial costs of the policy change would likely be very high. Based on statistics from the U.S. Department of Commerce, travel industry professionals estimate that the cost of lost productivity alone for business travelers unable to work on flights between the U.S. and Europe is estimated to be as great as $500 million a year.

The potential loss of tourism revenue may be even greater, as families avoid vacationing in the United States and business travelers choose to meet by teleconference instead of in person.

Questionable politics

So if the laptop ban would be ineffective ? or worse yet, even make airline travel less safe ? and be very costly, why would the government consider it?

The answer is likely politics. And that is because people overestimate the likelihood of being harmed by a terrorist attack, which lends extreme actions like the laptop ban public support, while they underestimate the risks of more ordinary occurrences like car accidents or defective batteries.

From 1975 to 2015, fewer than 84 Americans a year died due to terrorism, and that includes the attacks on 9/11. Meanwhile, in 2015 alone a total of 38,300 people died in traffic-related accidents in the U.S. And lithium batteries have been blamed for dozens of aircraft fires and may have been what brought down Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which disappeared in 2014 with more than 200 passengers and crew.

At the same time, officials on whose watch an attack or other disaster occurs receive disproportionate blame, something that does not carry over to more ordinary risks. People fear terror attacks more than the common threats that are actually more likely to cause them harm. Politicians may respond to their voters? concerns, and may even share the same cognitive biases.

As a result, government decision makers have an incentive to overvalue measures taken to prevent terror attacks, even at the expense of increasing more ordinary ? yet more likely ? safety risks.

While there may not be much we can do about Americans? misconceptions about the risk of terrorism, public policy on an issue as important as airline safety should not blindly follow them.

Cassandra Burke Robertson, Professor of Law and Director of the Center for Professional Ethics,Case Western Reserve University and Irina D. Manta, Professor of Law and Director of the Center for Intellectual Property Law, Hofstra University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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The Republican Plan To Cover Sick People Might Sort Of Work, But Nobody Really Knows

WASHINGTON ? Republicans think they have a better way to organize the individual health insurance market and deal with people who are already sick: throwing them a sad pool party.  

The health care bill Republicans passed in the House earlier this month would allow states to opt out of the protections that the Affordable Care Act, or ?Obamacare,? established for people with pre-existing medical conditions, but only if they set up so-called ?high-risk pools? instead. These pools would accept people who are considered ?risky? to insurance companies because their health histories suggest their future medical claims will cost the companies a lot of money.

It?s not a new concept. High-risk pools have existed since the 1970s and were in operation in 35 states when the Affordable Care Act became law in 2010. They?ve never had a ton of funding, and only insured about 220,000 people when they were phased out ? which is far fewer than the estimated 25 million with pre-existing conditions and no insurance.  

House Speaker Paul Ryan touted his state?s version as an example earlier this month. ?In Wisconsin, we had a really successful high-risk pool,? said Ryan, adding that 10 percent of Wisconsinites on the individual insurance market bought plans from the pool, which was called the Wisconsin Health Insurance Risk Sharing Plan.

?They could go to any doctor or any hospital they wanted. And their premiums and co-pays were cheaper than they are under Obamacare today.?

The Wisconsin pool covered about 20,000 people each year before it folded as the Affordable Care Act?s subsidies and protections for individual health insurance consumers took effect in 2014. The typical enrollee in the Wisconsin pool had a $5,000 deductible ? the amount they would have to pay before their plan would begin to cover claims ? and lifetime benefits were capped at $2 million, according to the National Association of State Comprehensive Plans. Wisconsin, like many other states with these high-risk pools, required new enrollees to wait six months before the program paid claims relating to pre-existing conditions, as a way to limit expenses.

Sue and Dan Wilson of Appleton, Wisconsin, had to use the state?s high-risk pool in 2011, after Dan retired from his job as a journalist at a local paper. Dan has high blood pressure, and Sue has diabetes. They searched for an affordable plan on the private market, but were rejected ? even for policies charging as much as $1,200 a month. They found they could get coverage through the Wisconsin Health Insurance Risk Sharing Plan for about $800 a month.

But they could only afford one policy ? two was too expensive. Sue enrolled, while Dan went without insurance for about a year ? and even then, they had to dip into their savings to pay for it until they both were able to qualify for Medicare in 2012.

?It was better than nothing,? said Sue Wilson in an interview. ?I had insurance and my husband had no insurance. It was scary.?

Wisconsin?s high-risk pool brought in $104 million in revenue from premiums in 2011 and paid out $178 million, which was typical for these programs more broadly ? losses in state pools across the country amounted to $1.2 billion that year, even with premiums that could be twice as high as market rates. States tried to make up the difference by imposing fees on insurance companies, and Congress chipped in with millions of dollars through occasional grants over the years, according to the Congressional Research Service.

I had insurance and my husband had no insurance. It was scary.
Sue Wilson

The details of the GOP?s American Health Care Act are still sketchy, even after the House voted to send the legislation to the Senate. But its basic idea is to funnel an unprecedented amount of federal money into new state high-risk pools ? as much as $138 billion over 10 years ? though the legislation doesn?t say that states actually have to use that cash for the pools. Just last year, Ryan proposed only $25 billion for the policy.

During a hearing in February ? one of only a few hearings held on what eventually became the House legislation ? Wisconsin?s deputy insurance commissioner testified that when the state?s high-risk pool closed, premiums for everybody else in the state went up because the pool?s 20,000 enrollees were put on the state?s individual insurance market with healthier people.

?Wisconsin insurers were quickly faced with an uncertain influx of individuals with serious health conditions,? deputy insurance commissioner J.P. Wieske said in his written testimony.

The Republican bill would allow states to resegregate those sicker customers in pools, though it?s unclear if $138 billion in federal funds would be enough to subsidize states? costs. The liberal Center for American Progress estimated that Republicans would need to throw another $200 billion into the state pools over 10 years just to cover 3 percent of the 31 million people currently insured in small group and individual markets. A 2014 study said creating a national high-risk pool that covered 15 million people would cost $178 billion per year.

Both those estimates reflect what it would cost for high-risk pools to be effective in every state; Republicans say this is unfair because their legislation merely gives states the choice of creating such pools in lieu of Obamacare?s requirement to cover people with pre-existing conditions without charging them higher premiums. It?s not clear how many states would seek a waiver from Obamacare in order to do so.  

?I think they?re going to be under tremendous pressure from their insurance industry to get one of these waivers,? Sabrina Corlette, an expert with Georgetown University?s Center on Health Insurance Reforms, said in an interview. She pointed out that the Republican bill would also remove the Obamacare requirement that everyone either buy insurance or pay a penalty ? meaning insurance companies would probably lose some of their healthier, less expensive customers.

Given the uncertain funding, Corlette said states that do set up pools would probably look for ways to control costs through measures like imposing lifetime limits on benefit payouts and waiting periods for people with pre-existing conditions.

?It?s just an incredibly inefficient way and frankly fiscally irresponsible if the goal is truly to provide a safety net for people with pre-existing conditions,? Corlette said.

Congress tried to do high-risk pools on a large scale once before ? when it passed the Affordable Care Act in 2010 ? and the example isn?t encouraging. The Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan, as it was known, operated in every state, even in states that already had their own pools. Democrats intended the program to serve as a stopgap measure for sick people before Obamacare?s insurance reforms took effect in 2014. It also served as the clearest demonstration of how hard it is to predict what will happen with a high-risk pool.

The $5 billion plan didn?t exclude coverage for pre-existing conditions, but it only accepted applicants who?d been uninsured for at least six months. The Obama administration figured a few hundred thousand would enroll, but only about 100,000 did ? and their claims were so expensive that the administration closed the program to new enrollment a year early.

For the people who do get insurance from high-risk pools, though, the programs can be lifesavers.

Jill Morin of Raleigh, North Carolina, spent about six months uninsured after her husband?s company, which provided insurance for their family of four, went out of business in 2011. Morin, a real estate agent, has heart disease and had suffered cardiac arrest in 2009. She assumed nobody would sell her a policy they could afford on her commissions.

?I couldn?t sleep at night,? Morin, 46, said in an interview. ?I was so scared of what might happen to me it also affected my performance in my job.?

When she found out North Carolina had a risk pool that offered premium subsidies for people with low incomes, she signed up immediately. At first, she was thrilled, but after paying about $600 in premiums per month, and not coming close to meeting her deductible, she was less thrilled.

?It just didn?t make sense,? she said. (Morin?s husband has since obtained a new job that provided health insurance.)  

Jeanette Hauser, 60, also heard about the North Carolina pool, which she thought sounded pretty good. There was just one problem: She lived in Arizona. 

She had previously had insurance through a statewide business association that allowed her to buy into a costly group plan, but the association announced it was going to stop offering it in 2013. She had a seizure disorder she controlled with medication, the result of a rare autoimmune disease, and knew she wasn?t going to have an easy time finding private insurance in Arizona.  

?I spent approximately 60 days putting together a spreadsheet, trying to figure out which state would allow me to get insurance by one technique or another,? Hauser said.

She and her husband decided to move to Raleigh, where she could apply for the state?s high-risk pool. Once she established residency, she applied for private insurance ? a prerequisite so she could then show pool administrators a rejection letter. But to her surprise, a North Carolina company actually accepted her application and offered several plans ? and she?s still covered by that company today.  

Hauser, a retired administrator for an accounting firm, said she and her husband are happy with their new home, even though they only moved there for the insurance. She?s not sorry she didn?t even have to use the state pool. At the time she moved, after all, state pools were facing upheaval from the Affordable Care Act, which itself has faced constant threats from Republicans in Congress.

?I was much more comfortable with taking a regular insurance plan,? she said.

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Outraged Democrats Call For Strong Response After Comey Bombshell

Democratic and independent members of Congress were alarmed after allegations surfaced that President Donald Trump pressed former FBI Director James Comey to abandon an investigation of Michael Flynn?s contact with Russian officials.  

Lawmakers suggested on Tuesday that Trump had obstructed justice, an impeachable offense, for encouraging Comey to scrap an investigation targeting Flynn, the former national security adviser who lied about his interactions with Russia?s ambassador to the U.S.

The revelations prompted Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) to say that it may soon be time to impeach Trump for interfering with the FBI?s probe of the president?s associates. ?Obstruction of justice is such a serious offense,? King said to CNN?s Wolf Blitzer. He had agreed with Blitzer when asked if ?we?re getting closer and closer to the possibility of yet another impeachment process.?

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and other House Democrats echoed that concern by saying Trump could be removed from office if the reports about his interaction with Comey prove true. 

Trump had said to Comey that ?I hope you can let this go? the day after Flynn resigned in February, according to a memo the former FBI director reportedly wrote. The New York Times first reported about the memo Tuesday. White House officials denied that Trump meddled with Comey?s investigation. 

?At best, President Trump has committed a grave abuse of executive power,? said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). ?At worst, he has obstructed justice.?

Pelosi added that Democrats would introduce legislation to create an independent counsel ?to get the facts free of President Trump?s meddling.?

Many members of Congress were already alarmed about Trump?s firing of Comey last week. Suggesting that a crisis is brewing in Washington, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) tweeted that ?the country is being tested in unprecedented ways? and that ?history is watching.?

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said that Trump?s action ?again appears to cross the line.? He expressed disappointment that Republican colleagues in the Senate have not called for the appointment of an independent counsel. 

?When will a Republican senator step out of the shadows and join us in calling for the appointment of a Special Prosecutor to bring clear-eyed, non-partisan justice to this tangled web of deception,? Durbin said in a statement

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said that ?the burden is on The New York Times? to produce Comey?s memo.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said that Comey should testify in Congress about his conversations with Trump.

A group of Democrats on the House Judiciary and Oversight committees, meanwhile, called for a joint investigation into whether Trump and administration officials ?are engaged in an ongoing conspiracy to obstruct? inquiries by the FBI, Department of Justice and congressional committees into ties between his presidential campaign and Russian officials.

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