03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Underwear Bombers and the Politics of Invisibility

It's easy to criticize the Obama administration, isn't it?

Look at the unemployment rate. Or, have you heard about the tax hikes that some say we will need to pay to cover health care reform? Oh yeah, and the administration did a great job with Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab didn't it? His dad told us he was going rogue, and then when he buys a ticket with cash and doesn't check in any luggage, we are still caught off guard. Time to say this in unison now, folks, with your most sarcastic tone of voice: "Great work President Obama!"

Is it too soon for such sarcasm?

Folks, before we start blaming the government for all these terrible insufficiencies, we need to remember that hindsight is not even close to 20/20, and that we cannot accurately judge what our government is doing (or not doing) for us until we pay attention to what I call "the Politics of Invisibility."

You see, there is some invisible stuff that must be paid attention.

Let's start with the country's unemployment rate. I live in Michigan, and I'm one degree of separation away from a hell of a lot of unemployment. I am not at all happy with the state of our nation's economy. And I would have liked to have seen us make more progress over the past year in addressing our economic woes. But before we criticize Obama's economic stimulus plan--on the grounds that it has not ended unemployment as we know it--take a moment to ponder the invisible: ask yourself what the employment rate would have been if Obama hadn't pushed his stimulus plan through a reluctant Congress. Don't know the answer? Welcome to the Politics of Invisibility.

How about the taxes some say we will pay to fund healthcare reform. At first glance, it seems that there's nothing invisible there. But take a closer look. Do you have any idea how much of your current income has been funneled into the healthcare industry? Consider that "free" healthcare benefit your employer gives you. That benefit comes out of your income. Many middle-salary wages, in fact, have stagnated in recent decades in the U.S., largely because employers have been taking what would be salary increases and pushing them over to cover the spiraling cost of healthcare benefits. And that tax break we get for our employer-based health insurance? That's not free either. That contributes to government deficits, and ultimately forces the government to raise taxes. Nothing is free. But because of the Politics of Invisibility, we find ourselves whining about healthcare taxes at the same time we overlook the way healthcare insurance has already shrunk the size of our paychecks.

Finally, let's revisit the TSA's performance in the recent underwear bomber fiasco. I admit to being shocked, with the rest of the nation, at how many clues the Feds overlooked in allowing this man to board a plane with a bomb strapped to his crotch. But a moment's reflection on the Politics of Invisibility forces us to take a more cautious view of the TSA. Consider one of the smoking guns that critics of TSA have been discussing vehemently in the blogosphere--that this terrorist stepped onto the plane WITHOUT CHECKING ANY LUGGAGE.

Ummmm, I think he means he placed his luggage into the overhead bin. You know, like half of his fellow passengers!

Now I understand that most of those other passengers' fathers hadn't recently told the CIA that their son was becoming radicalized. And that most of them hadn't paid for their tickets in cash. But I don't know, as an ordinary citizen, just how many people would have fit the underwear bomber's profile. How many young men have come under the influence of passionately radical Imams and then boarded planes after paying for tickets with cash? I don't know that number. I expect the number is in the tens of thousands, if not more. (And is paying in cash really that significant? If we started scrutinizing cash payments, wouldn't terrorists simply start using credit cards? For that matter, wouldn't they start checking luggage, if that turned out to be a security red flag?)

What's invisible here is the denominator--how many people, if they try to blow up a plane tomorrow, would have a string of "clues" that would have made the bombing attempt look inevitable? It may very well be that very few people were as risky-looking as the Underwear Bomber. But frankly, that information is invisible to me, as it is to most of the general public.

Before we get all high-and-mighty about the terrible job that security experts are doing, we need to ponder the Politics of Invisibility, and remember that it's easy to criticize what we see, even as we ignore what we can't.

Peter Ubel is George Dock Collegiate Professor of Medicine at the University of Michigan, and author of Free Market Madness: Why Human Nature is at Odds with Economics--and Why it Matters (Harvard Business Press, 2009). Visit for more blogs and research updates.