Thursday, July 05, 2007

Deprived or depraved?

A character in Westside Story sings that he's depraved because he's deprived. There may have been some intended irony but this has been a staple of elite opinion for some time.

The WSJ's David Wessel ("Princeton Economist Says Lack of Civil Liberties, Not Poverty, Breeds Terrorism," excerpted below) cites Alan Krueger's research on terrorists which finds that most terrorists are not at all poor.

Casual newspaper readers of the last few days may have reached the same conclusion. The story ends on a limp note, however, quoting Krueger this way. "When nonviolent means of protest are curtailed, malcontents are more likely to turn to terrorist tactics."

I had thought that the UK is a pretty good place to be if you want to speak your mind. Perhaps one liberal piety has simply been replaced by another. Perhaps the bombers are simply sociopaths and misanthropes.

Occam, where are you?

When Princeton economist Alan Krueger saw reports that seven
of eight people arrested in the unsuccessful car bombings in Britain were
doctors, he wasn't shocked. He wasn't even surprised.

"Each time we have one of these attacks and the backgrounds of
the attackers are revealed, this should put to rest the myth that terrorists are
attacking us because they are desperately poor," he says. "But this
misconception doesn't die."

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

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

Princeton's Alan Krueger says social scientific research turns
up little support for the conventional wisdom that poverty and lack of education
breed terrorism.

"There is no evidence of a general tendency for impoverished
or uneducated people to be more likely to support terrorism or join terrorist
organizations than their higher-income, better-educated countrymen," he said.
The Sept. 11 attackers were relatively well-off men from a rich country, Saudi
Arabia. ...

... Among the statistical pieces of the puzzle a small band of
academics have assembled since are these:
• Backgrounds of 148
Palestinian suicide bombers show they were less likely to come from families
living in poverty and were more likely to have finished high school than the
general population. Biographies of 129 Hezbollah shahids (martyrs) reveal they,
too, are less likely to be from poor families than the Lebanese population from
which they come. The same goes for available data about an Israeli terrorist
organization, Gush Emunim, active in the 1980s. • Terrorism doesn't
increase in the Middle East when economic conditions worsen; indeed, there seems
no link. One study finds the number of terrorist incidents is actually higher in
countries that spend more on social-welfare programs. Slicing and dicing data
finds no discernible pattern that countries that are poorer or more illiterate
produce more terrorists. Examining 781 terrorist events classified by the U.S.
State Department as "significant" reveals terrorists tend to come from countries
distinguished by political oppression, not poverty or
inequality. • Public-opinion polls from Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan and
Turkey find people with more education are more likely to say suicide attacks
against Westerners in Iraq are justified. Polls of Palestinians find no clear
difference in support for terrorism as a means to achieve political ends between
the most and least educated.

Data on which all this relies are hardly perfect: Terrorists
don't fill out elaborate questionnaires. Better-off, better-educated individuals
could be motivated if not by their own circumstances, then by the conditions of
their impoverished countrymen. Interviews of terrorists in Pakistan by Harvard
terrorism scholar Jessica Stern reveal recruiters there found the poorest
neighborhoods to be the most fertile ground, particularly among those who feel
Muslims are humiliated by the West. She says Mr. Krueger and like-minded
scholars don't yet have enough evidence to prove anything. "We are only just
beginning to do really serious large studies in terrorism," she

But the conventional wisdom that poverty breeds terrorism is
backed by surprisingly little hard evidence. "The evidence is nearly unanimous
in rejecting either material deprivation or inadequate education as an important
cause of support for terrorism or of participation in terrorist activities," Mr.
Krueger asserts. The 9/11 Commission stated flatly: Terrorism is not caused by

So what is the cause? Suppression of civil liberties and
political rights, Mr. Krueger hypothesizes. "When nonviolent means of protest
are curtailed," he says, "malcontents appear to be more likely to turn to
terrorist tactics."

Which -- ironically, given that Mr. Krueger is no fan of the
president's actual policies at home or abroad -- is close to Mr. Bush's
rhetoric: "Liberty has got the capacity to change enemies into