Love in a TSA Line

An allegory for you today, Fellow Reckoner. A story within a story. This one was inspired by a presentation your editor saw last week while attending the inaugural Rancho Santana Sessions. The speaker was Douglas Clayton, founder of Leopard Capital. His topic, as we reported from Nicaragua at the time, was Frontier Markets.

Since hearing Mr. Clayton talk, we’ve conversed with many a casual acquaintance — and even a few serious investors — on the explosive potential of frontier investing. Many are intrigued by the idea…even excited. But the following responses, or similar, remain stubbornly pervasive: “Yes, but what about the political risk?” or “Well, it’s just so difficult doing business in those types of countries.” The term “those types” is, you’ll not be surprised to discover, invariably pregnant with the implied hardship and backwardness of “lesser evolved states.”

We’ll get to all this in a second. First, our little story:

Returning from Managua to Buenos Aires, your editor suffered the distinct misfortune of having to connect through Miami International Airport — appropriately coded “MIA,” presumably a reference to the absent state of the attending security agencies’ sense of dignity and humanity. An OECD nation had, in other words, perforated our blissful sojourn between two frontier markets.

Now, American passport holders might not yet be aware that the United States is today the only country with the dubious distinction of requiring all passengers — even those in transit — to run the gruesome gauntlet of customs lines, security checks and generally demeaning immigration interrogation sessions usually reserved for those aspiring to enter the so-labeled “Homeland” land, not simply pass through it. There is no such thing as “transit” in the U.S.A. anymore. It’s a “post-9/11” thing, we’re told. If you’re on US soil, you are required to pass through backscatter radiation baths and/or (VERY!) intimate pat downs along with the rest of the largely questionless herd.

And so it went. We had a five hour layover between flights; plenty of time, we thought, to get through the nasty cattle dip processes and into the comfortable seat awaiting us by the bar on the other side. Ha!

After an hour and a half waiting in a queue that seemed to inhabit most of the arrival wing’s floor space, we were interviewed by a man whose angry-suspicious gaze had actually seared itself into his facial template. He was, to coin a word, perma-spicious. (You’ve seen this type before…they’re almost always wearing a badge.) We tried to imagine him asking something that was not a rudely invasive, double-edged question, but could not. Instead, we fielded, among others:

“What were you doing in Nicaragua? What kind of business? Where are you going next? For how long? What do you do? Where do you actually live?”

Remember, we’re simply passing through the place, not looking to relocate there and open a puppy mill across from the local church. Alas, it’s guilty until proven innocent when it comes to dealing with the morally threadbare individuals populating the ranks of the nation’s “first line of defense.”

Next up was the security gate. We’d already gone through the escalated security process at the other end, a process required by the various US security agencies of all planes entering the Homeland. Never mind all that — it’s Department of Homeland Security Land now…where no issue is so small that it can’t be made into a national security-sized, near-disaster.

We then waited another hour, along with a friend, to enter a certain wing of the MIA complex. Having not been to this particular airport in some time, but to many others since (they do tend to look alike after a while), we asked one of the mirthless badges whether we could, with our ticket (which we dutifully displayed) enter departures through this particular insecurity gate. In other words, could we, with our plane departing from another terminal, still get to where we needed to be once on the other side of the shoeless, beltless, laptop-in-separate-container, no-liquids-over-3-ounces, step-this-way-please-sir, now-touch-your-toes Orwellian nightmare ahead of us?

“Yes. You can,” the woman replied, marshaling all the syllables her brain would allow her to cram into each word.

“Okay. Well, thank you for your vigilance and service. Your country is a much safer place now,” we wanted (but dared not) to say.

Alas, what we discovered on the other side of the gate did not corroborate the woman’s claim. We would not be able to simply amble over to the correct wing, as was our plan. We would have to go out through security, walk to the other side of the airport, and repeat the process. And so, without recourse to reason nor appeal to sanity, we did just that.

This second go around was slightly more eventful in that we were “selected” for a full body imaging session. Lucky us. We opted out, of course, which inspired the next series of events…

The attending TSA goon was nice enough to ask us whether we’d like to have the “procedure” performed in front of everyone in the (mile long) line behind us, or whether we’d prefer a private room. “A private room,” we remember thinking, “just how intimate is this ‘procedure’ going to get? Should I have picked up a dinner tab first? Should I have brought some one dollar bills along? Should my doctor and/or fianceé be present?”

“No. You can do whatever it is that you’re paid to do in front of all the witnesses here,” we (wished we’d) said. In reality, we said nothing but simply walked over to the spot and assumed the position in silence. (They might treat you like a dog, we thought, but you don’t have to bark like one.)

And so the “procedure” proceeded. Now, as Fellow Opt Outers already know, this is an intensely intimate experience, one step shy of its “rubber-glove-and-cough” cousin. As you’re standing there, with a stranger performing acts on you that would earn them a snap-reflex punch in the face in almost any other situation, you develop a new and special dislike for Opt Inners. Watching them acquiesce so willingly to the thugs’ demands, you almost feel betrayed, like your friends have turned into comrades and gone over to the dark side. You feel yourself giving them the evil eye. And they feel it, too, finding any excuse to avoid eye contact with you while you’re pressed up against the back of the agent’s wandering hand. Then, when the hand wanders a little further, you’re promptly, rudely, reminded who the real enemy is.

“Yes, yes, yes,” we hear the reader gripe, “TSA bad. But what does this have to do with investing in frontier markets?”

A second longer, we implore.

After all was said and done — and searched and felt — we found ourselves running to the gate. [Note to international transiters: When budgeting for layover time Stateside, project and factor in all conceivable inconveniences. Then, when you have a number, double it.]

Eight hours of planesleep later and we had reached Guarulhos International Airport in São Paolo, largest city in the not-quite-frontier-but-still-very-much-emerging country of Brazil.

We had four more hours to wait before the next and final leg to Buenos Aires.

“¿Donde están las puertas para las conexiones?” we inquired. (Most Brazilians understand Spanish — even poor Spanish compromised by an Australian accent.)

The cheerful gentleman pointed us through a door…a single door…a single door without metal detectors or guards with guns. Just. One. Door. We marched through, happily, as if returning to a warm, dry home after having been caught in a blizzard outside. Seeing that there were a number of TAM-operated flights heading to Buenos Aires before our own was due, we approached that gate from which the next one was scheduled to depart and, perhaps pushing our luck a tad, asked whether we would be able to hop an earlier flight. The chipper woman took a look at our ticket, a look at the screen, and smiled. We were on the plane five minutes later and bound for home.

Now, ask yourself, do you want to invest in a country where the tax authorities operate with the ruthless, reasonless disposition of the TSA? Or one in which you (and your investment) are welcomed with open arms?

To those who feel inspired to write in in defense of the eternally patriotic squadron of grandma-fondling border troops with a witless “if you don’t like it, then don’t come here” rant, allow us to save you some time. We won’t.

Joel Bowman
for The Daily Reckoning

The Daily Reckoning