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.
Visit the InfoSec News Bookstore