Economist warns against vague statements on security threats

Economist warns against vague statements on security threats
Economist warns against vague statements on security threats 

By Zack Phillips  
September 13, 2007  

The government appears to be fighting a data-free war on terror, instead 
of using data analysis to inform policy decisions, a Princeton economist 
said this week.

Government officials should avoid making vague statements about 
terrorism that have little empirical basis, said Alan Krueger, a 
professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton, at a Tuesday 
event at the Brookings Institution, a Washington nonprofit devoted to 
public policy research.

Krueger used as an example Homeland Security Secretary Michael 
Chertoff's July disclosure to the Chicago Tribune's editorial board that 
he had a "gut feeling" the country faced a heightened risk of terrorism 
during the summer. Chertoff said this feeling was based on past seasonal 
patterns of terrorist incidents, recent al Qaeda statements and 
intelligence he did not disclose.

Krueger, who served as the chief economist at the Labor Department from 
1994 to1995, said he decided to test that thesis with data on worldwide 
terrorist attacks from the National Counterterrorism Center, the federal 
agency responsible for compiling terrorism statistics. "I wouldn't draw 
too strong a gut feeling from this data," he said.

The economist found that, historically, attacks by al Qaeda and Sunni 
extremist groups have been no more frequent in the summer months. When 
all terrorist groups are counted, the number of attacks worldwide has 
been about 10 percent higher in July and August than in other months, he 
said. But he characterized this as a small difference, noting that other 
types of incidents such as boating accidents go up by much more than 10 
percent in the summer.

"Would you scare 300 million people on the basis of those tiny blips in 
those charts?" Krueger asked. "It didn't seem to me to be constructive."

Brookings hosted Tuesday's event as a discussion of separate findings in 
Krueger's new book, What Makes a Terrorist: Economics and the Roots of 
Terrorism. In it, the economist analyzed data from the NCTC and 
elsewhere, and came up with often counter-intuitive findings.

Most prominently, he found no evidence to support the notion that 
poverty and a lack of education breed terrorism. Although many 
terrorists come from impoverished parts of the world, on average 
terrorists are wealthier and better educated than their fellow citizens.

Individual studies had reached similar conclusions previously; Krueger's 
book collects comprehensive evidence.

Daniel Benjamin, a Brooking Institution senior fellow in foreign policy 
studies and a former National Security Council staff member, said 
terrorism scholars never believed the supposed link between terrorism 
and poverty or education. And Philip Gordon, another Brookings senior 
fellow in foreign policy studies and formerly the National Security 
Council's director for European affairs, said he thought it was obvious 
that poverty is not a significant cause of terrorism.

Gordon echoed the reasoning that Krueger used in the book. "If it were, 
we'd see terrorists teeming out of Chad, Haiti . . . and the poorest 
countries in the world," he said.

Still, the myth dies hard. One questioner heatedly pressed Krueger to 
explain his findings in light of the Gaza Strip, suggesting that an 
unemployment rate as high as 80 percent leaves the jobless susceptible 
to being recruited by terrorist organizations. Krueger said that over 
time, unemployment rates in the Gaza Strip and elsewhere have risen and 
fallen but the number of terrorist attacks has not changed accordingly.

"I guess I don't find it compelling to take one example and say 
unemployment is high and there's terrorism," Krueger said.

Gordon and Benjamin suggested that poverty could play an indirect role 
in causing terrorism, either by contributing to a sense of humiliation 
among inhabitants of poverty-stricken countries or by leading to more 
autocratic governments, a condition that seems to fuel terrorism.

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