$200,000,000 per arrest
The 4,000 air marshals who have been put in place on the ridiculously insignificant chance that they will be in a position to stop a hijacking or other significant event make about 4 arrests a year altogether, a fact that was brought to light last year by Rep. John Duncan and mentioned more recently by analyst Bruce Schneier. As Rep. Duncan explained it on the floor back then:
Actually, there have been many more arrests of Federal air marshals than that story reported, quite a few for felony offenses. In fact, more air marshals have been arrested than the number of people arrested by air marshals.
We now have approximately 4,000 in the Federal Air Marshals Service, yet they have made an average of just 4.2 arrests a year since 2001. This comes out to an average of about one arrest a year per 1,000 employees.
Now, let me make that clear. Their thousands of employees are not making one arrest per year each. They are averaging slightly over four arrests each year by the entire agency. In other words, we are spending approximately $200 million per arrest. Let me repeat that: we are spending approximately $200 million per arrest.
Obviously, there are a number of situations in which one can point to a cost and make it appear to outweigh the benefits by way of some calculus that doesn’t really take everything into account, but this doesn’t seem like one of them, regardless of whether the number of arrests is really the metric we should be looking at. It would be hard to make the case that this is the best use of that money, whether in the realm of security or the dozens of other areas in which it could have been spent (or not spent).