Economic explanations for terrorism don’t hold water

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David Wessel’s column in the WSJ today is about Alan Krueger‘s research into the economic determinants of terrorism. The nice people at the Journal have put the piece outside the pay wall, but here’s an excerpt anyway:

Less than a year after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, President Bush said, “We fight against poverty because hope is an answer to terror.” A couple of months later, his wife, Laura, said, “Educated children are much more likely to embrace the values that defeat terror.” Former World Bank President James Wolfensohn has argued, “The war on terrorism will not be won until we have come to grips with the problem of poverty, and thus the sources of discontent.”

The analysis is plausible. It’s appealing because it bolsters the case for the worthy goals of fighting poverty and ignorance. But systematic study — to the extent possible — suggests it’s wrong.

“As a group, terrorists are better educated and from wealthier families than the typical person in the same age group in the societies from which they originate,” Mr. Krueger said at the London School of Economics last year in a lecture soon to be published as a book, “What Makes a Terrorist?”

I just got a galley of the book in the mail and was thinking of writing a column about it, but now that Wessel has beat me to it I guess I’ll leave it at a blog post. Since about Sept. 13, 2001 there’s been ample anecdotal evidence that the people most committed to blowing up the West are well-educated products of countries that the World Bank would rank as middle-income or higher, and since Krueger first published on the topic in the Journal of Economic Perspectives in 2003 (you can download the article here) there’s been readily available empirical evidence of the same. Not to mention decades of James Bond movies in which the evil masterminds out to wreak havoc around the world are always unspeakably wealthy.

And yet, people keep linking terror to poverty. At least, I’ve heard people make the link. Mostly well-meaning sorts at well-meaning conferences. While just searching on the google, though, I found hardly any recent examples. So maybe the work of Krueger and kindred spirits like Alberto Abadie is having an impact.

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