BREAKING! Importers Get Cost-Benefit Consideration, But You Don’t

The Department of Homeland Security just blew off a deadline, last Thursday, to scan all US-bound shipping containers.

The Department of Homeland Security was given until this month to ensure that 100 percent of inbound shipping containers are screened at foreign ports.

But the department’s secretary, Janet Napolitano, informed Congress in May that she was extending a two-year blanket exemption to foreign ports because the screening is proving too costly and cumbersome. She said it would cost $16 billion to implement scanning measures at the nearly 700 ports worldwide that ship to the United States.

Instead, the DHS relies on intelligence-gathering and analysis to identify “high-risk” containers, which are checked before being loaded onto ships. Under this system, fewer than half a percent of the roughly 10 million containers arriving at U.S. ports last year were scanned before departure. The DHS says that those checks turned up narcotics and other contraband but that there have been no public reports of smuggled nuclear material.

You’ll see discussions about this measuring the relative danger of shipping containers: the possibility terrorists could ship a nuke or weapons to the US using a shipping container. You’ll see Janet Napolitano’s purportedly prohibitive cost–$16B–as rationale not to implement 100% scanning.

But what you won’t see is a discussion of why you have to be scanned not only every time you return to the US from another country, but every time you get on a plane, while cheap plastic goods from China don’t have to be.

The underlying message, though, after spending $360B implementing security measures that inconvenience you, many of which have no real effect on security, $16B is suddenly too much to spend on security measures on shipping.

Of course that’s not the cost Napolitano’s concerned about. She’s concerned about the cost the time delay of scanning shipping containers has on imports. She’s worried that implementing security measures will raise the price of cheap plastic goods from China.

Perhaps that might make US-manufactured goods more competitive against imports?

Of course, the $360B Homeland Security has paid on security infrastructure–including things like $170,000 backscatter machines at every airport, for example–doesn’t pay for the extra time it takes you to get through an airport, the extra time it takes you to drive rather than fly on closer trips, the decline in airline travel because flying is a pain in the ass., the actual fees the airlines charge you for the privilege of undergoing security theater before you get on a plane.

You are being asked to pay the security costs of your plane travel, but importers are not asked to pay the security externalities of shipping cheap goods to the US that undercut American manufactured goods. If something does blow up at a port, we’ll all be paying that price because Napolitano and her predecessors refused to ask shippers to pay their fair share.

This is a good time to talk about scanning shipping containers for security reasons. But it’s also a good time to ask why you’re treated with less respect than importers are.

One more point: scanning shipping containers would not just help prevent terrorism. It would help fight the war on drugs, counterfeits, illegal immigration, all of which use shipping containers to violate the borders of the US too. Precisely the same “wars” the Administration has fought so ruthlessly elsewhere would benefit from scanning shipping containers too.

But still the importers’ concerns win out.

13 replies
  1. BSbafflesbrains says:

    Anything from China shipped to the U.S.A. has to be benign(poison pet food, jewelry, and toys notwithstanding) so no need to scan or even inspect; besides, we could use the savings to spend more time reading U.S. citizens e-mails and for capital punishment drone attacks of “suspected” terrorists. /s

  2. brian_damage says:

    If we weren’t importing stuff from outlaws we wouldn’t need cargo inspections. Since we do import from outlaws we ought to have a sustainable business model for properly inspecting all imports for all credible threats inherent in the product. This cost needs to be borne by the companies that determine that imports are a better answer than domestically produced goods. Food, perishables in particular, is a logistic chain that should be heavily scrutinized. Test it for heavy metals, organic solvents, radiation, salmonella, e-coli and anything else thatbecomes a threat like melamine. At least one out of every hundred peeled garlic cloves ought to be tested and determined safe before it is allowed to be distributed within the US.

    We would still not be 100% safe but we could be assured that America would have a sound financial basis for growing food for local consumption again.

  3. posaune says:

    Hmmm.. wonder how much bullion is being shipped that way? You know, the bullion covered by the fake US bonds?

  4. BSbafflesbrains says:

    @brian_damage: Very good suggestion that you should send to the Democratic Party and the Green Party to add as a plank in their platforms. Guess who you will get a positive response from?

  5. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Calling Sam Walton. Calling Mr. Walton, Dr. Howard, Dr. Fine, Dr. Howard. Timely article. Thanks.

    Wal-Mart, of course, is only one of the US’s many great importers. It is its greatest “employer” (in quotes because of how it manipulates the traditional employment relationship), as well as being one of the most anti-union, anti-worker companies in the world.

    Other massive importers include automotive manufacturers, assemblers and their systems and parts suppliers. Others include fruit, grain and produce importers; printing and packaging; metals, timber and other raw materials, and the semi-finished goods containing them. The list is virtually endless because importing for final sale (or assembly and sale) is the pervasive business model for those who want access to the US market while keeping most of their activities and profits offshore.

    Little wonder, therefore, that the BushCheney and Obama administrations continue to subsidize America’s largest businesses by not policing how goods pass our borders. That achieves several things. It avoids the considerable the cost of people and machinery needed for automated and manual inspections. It avoids the delays inherent in using them. As we know, delay of any kind is anathema to everything from “just in time” inventory systems to financial models, though it’s considered just routine to impale real people on its horns.

    Not inspecting goods relieves the US from cataloging what it finds and doing anything about the flow of goods, in source, kind and quality, that ought not to be coming in. It relieves the public from more intimate knowledge of the disparity between goods imported and goods exported.

    It relieves the government of liability for losses due to accident, pilferage, negligence and theft, and the administrative burden of administering such claims. Given what the mob has done over the years at JFK, imagine what it could do on waterfronts and airports nationwide if physical inspections were more widespread

    Not inspecting goods is like running flood water over an earthen dam. Sooner or later the dam gives way – St. Francis, Johnstown. Sooner or later, some uninspected cargo will become extraordinary perilous to American life and limb. But no subsidy to America’s largest companies seems too costly or self-harming.

  6. jerryy says:

    DHS does not have time and resources to meet deadlines like this… they are still getting it together to meet that court order (via the EPIC lawsuit about the airport porno scanners around a year or so ago) whereby they have to meet the requirement government agencies must meet regarding public comment submissions before policy implementation.

    If they cannot manage to collect public comments, it would seem holding them to protecting citizens rather than harrassing citizens is too much to ask.

  7. BSbafflesbrains says:

    I wonder if TEPCO has figured a way to dispose of the spent fuel rods in reactor #4. Let’s check those containers coming in from Japan as well.

  8. thatvisionthing says:

    Remember the guy who Cuba arrested for smuggling in…

    12 iPods, 11 BlackBerry Curve smartphones, three MacBooks, six 500-gigabyte external drives, three Internet satellite phones known as BGANs, three routers, three controllers, 18 wireless access points, 13 memory sticks, three phones to make calls over the Internet, and networking switches.

    and a…

    “discreet” SIM card — or subscriber identity module card — intended to keep satellite phone transmissions from being pinpointed within 250 miles (400 kilometers), if they were detected at all.

    The type of SIM card used by Gross is not available on the open market and is distributed only to governments, according to an official at a satellite telephone company familiar with the technology and a former U.S. intelligence official who has used such a chip. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the technology, said the chips are provided most frequently to the Defense Department and the CIA, but also can be obtained by the State Department, which oversees USAID.

    So Cuba arrested him.

    So the White House complained about the injustice of it.

  9. earlofhuntingdon says:

    @emptywheel: Yes, possibly even more damage than our overreacting to terrorists attacks by spending hundreds of billions of dollars to empower the surveillance state and enrich and protect its purveyors, while leaving real people at risk from criminals, the government and its private sector contractors.

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