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How Being a Lousy Journal Editor Nearly Ended Up Getting Me Sent to Guantanamo Bay

I am an editor at one of the top academic economic journals, the Journal of Political Economy. I handle between 150 and 200 manuscripts a year, deciding whether or not the journal should publish each of them. It takes a lot of time — something I’ve been short on lately. I’ve turned into a lousy journal editor as a consequence.

I used to be a good editor. And when I was good, I instituted a policy at the journal of having a report produced at the end of each month that detailed exactly how many overdue manuscripts each editor had. It turned out to be a very powerful social incentive for getting editors to do their jobs better. It is embarrassing when your colleagues see that you haven’t been doing your job.

A few days ago, with the end of the month approaching and my stack of JPE manuscripts threatening to reach to the ceiling, I decided I had no choice but to get up early and do some editorial work before catching an afternoon flight. I left the house at 4:30 AM. Much to the chagrin of my children who would wake up a few hours later, I grabbed the container that held what remained of the Entenmann’s cheese danish that we all like so much. Later at my office, as I polished off the last piece of danish, I noticed that someone had left a long, sharp knife in the tin that had contained the danish. We do that at my house so we don’t get a new knife dirty each time. So I threw the knife into the sack that had my JPE manuscripts to bring home.

Five hours later, I had only managed to finish half of my outstanding manuscripts — I would have to bring the remainder of them on the airplane with me if I wanted to finish them. I threw the sack of manuscripts into my suitcase and headed to the airport. Groggy from getting up so early, I cursed myself when I realized I had left my beloved iPod at home and would be without it for the trip.

I went through TSA screening without any problem. (Not like once in the past when I got into some trouble.) Standing on the tarmac, just as I was about to board my commuter plane, I remembered that I had my sack of manuscripts in my suitcase, which I had to leave on a luggage cart because the overhead bins are so small on these little planes. So I opened up the suitcase, grabbed, the sack of JPE manuscripts, and as I pulled it out, the long, sharp knife I had forgotten completely about went skittering across the ground. The knife hadn’t seemed so ominous in my office, but in this context, with a blade about six inches long, it looked pretty scary.

I looked around. Despite a lot of hustle and bustle, no one seemed to have noticed my knife. What next? I could just leave it there on the ground and scurry onto the plane. But when they found it,maybe they would do something crazy like stop the flight from leaving. I thought about kicking it under the luggage cart out of view. That didn’t seem like a great idea either. Finally, I nonchalantly ambled over to the knife, picked it up, stuffed it back into the suitcase, and got on the plane.

What could I have done with that knife? I probably could have hijacked the plane armed with that knife and a team of 15 commandos with assault weapons. Absent the commandos, I was thinking the knife might be useful for slitting my wrists over the despondency that accompanied not having my iPod.

I find it surprising that with all the resources that are poured into airport security these days, my knife went through the machines undetected. You might argue, well, it was only one case — of course they can’t catch everything. But, the thing is, this is the only time I’ve tried to bring a knife. They didn’t catch it. From the perspective of a Bayesian updater, that moves my beliefs about how likely they are to catch a random knife carrier quite a bit downwards.

I wonder what, if anything, would have happened had an airport employee been standing next to me when the knife fell out of my bag? At one level, I would hope the answer would be nothing. I’m obviously not a terrorist, just a sleep-deprived, bumbling academic. On the other hand, if you don’t intensively interrogate or punish people who successfully sneak through security with dangerous weapons, what is the point of the security in the first place?

I guess I’ll just have to smuggle another knife through next time, intentionally drop it on the tarmac this time when someone is looking, and then see what happens.