The Excess Burden of Entry into the USA
by Fred E. Foldvary, Senior Editor
I returned to the USA from a trip to Israel, and the first phenomenon I experienced upon arrival in US soil was a long, long, line for passport control. I estimated that there were about 500 people at the Newark airport who had just arrived and were waiting either as a foreigner or as a US citizen to have their passports checked and marked.
In the US-citizen line there was only one booth checking the passports, with a huge line, and there was a similar long line for non-US citizens. Folks were grumbling about this. Is this long and unnecessary wait the first impression that the US government wishes to make about the United States of America?
What was the social cost of this line? If we use a conservative figure of $10 per hour as the value of people's time, 500 persons waiting an average of a half hour in line (the last person in line waiting one hour) has a social cost of $2500. Another social cost is the consequence of losing an hour. Some people may have had connecting flights which they missed. Some may have had people waiting to meet the arrivals. But let's conservatively ignore such consequences, and just use the $2500 value of lost time.
There were empty booths available for processing passports, so the only cost to the government to have faster service is labor. Suppose there were two more passport controllers, which would have reduced the average waiting time to 12 minutes. Let's put the government's cost of this labor at $50 per hour. The extra labor would have cost $100, and would have reduced the social cost of waiting to $5000/5 = $1000, with a net gain of $1400.
To further reduce the deadweight loss of waiting, suppose there were 5 available booths and 5 government workers, reducing the average waiting time to 6 minutes. These workers need not be employed only at the passport booths. They could do other jobs, and be shifted to passport controls when airplanes arrive. So let's keep the extra labor cost at $100. The excess burden of waiting is now only $2500/10 = $250, reducing the social cost by $2250, less the extra labor cost, for a net gain of $2150.
If this is the typical situation at the airport, the annual social cost of excess waiting could be $2150 times 16 (hours per day) times 7 times 52, or more than $1.25 million per year. Multiply that by the number of passport controls at all US airports; for 100 airports, we get an overall social cost of perhaps $125 million per year, and most likely much higher.
Analyzing this, there are two possibilities. One is that this long line is a deliberately chosen policy. Perhaps US officials wish to impress people with the power of government. Perhaps they think we will be impressed by their effort to prevent terrorism. But in fact nobody was impressed by anything other than governmental incompetence and indifference.
More likely, this is simply normal bureaucratic inefficiency. The wage of an immigration-control bureaucrat does not depend on how much or how little is the social cost imposed by excessive waiting time. Indeed, immigration bureaucrat chiefs benefit from there being an excess waiting time, since they can use this as an excuse to request a higher budget next time. The extra funds are then used for more urgent purposes, such as important conferences in Hawaii, and the agency requests an even higher budget next time.
Given today's structure of government, there is absolutely nothing that can be done to reduce this social cost. A letter to the bureaucracy will result in a form letter "thank you for your comment" and no action. A Congressman's letter will lead to a request for more funding for the agency which can always use more labor, equipment, and office space. Only a radical change in the structure of government to a more decentralized and bottom-up voting process can change this typical politico-genetic defect of mass democracy.
Think of how the impression of America, especially to foreign visitors, would change with a swift passport approval process. Folks would be impressed by that American know-how. Instead, they are presented with bureaucratic social waste.
Well, maybe that's OK after all. It reflects the overall political reality. But most folks don't go beyond complaining to reflect on why this happens and how to cure it. Ultimately, in a democracy, citizens have only themselves to blame, but they don't know this and don't know that they don't know it, a deep ignorance which is extremely difficult to overcome.
-- Fred Foldvary
Copyright 2005 by Fred E. Foldvary. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieval system, without giving full credit to Fred Foldvary and The Progress Report.
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