Thomas Piketty, the French economist whose data on worsening inequality in advanced economies has captivated the public, makes a compelling—if not original—argument that economic disparities in the Middle East are a key motivation for terror attacks, including the recent ISIL murders in Paris.“It is obvious that terrorism feeds on the Middle Eastern powder keg of inequality we have largely contributed to create, ” Piketty wrote in Le Monde on Nov. 24, building on his research into inequality in the region. His thinking wouldn’t be out of line with what then - US president George W. Bush told the United Nations in 2002, that “we fight against poverty because hope is an answer to terror. ” Such a conclusion affirms a basic intuition we have about people who would perform abhorrent suicide missions in the name of a cause—that they must be desperate—and our hope that throwing money at this problem can solve it. But empirical studies suggest that poverty and inequality aren’t behind terror attacks. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Alan Krueger, the Princeton economist and future Obama administration official, examined databases of terror attacks to identify trends among the participants. Surprisingly, he found most were well - educated and not poor. A quick summary:
- Studies of lynchings in the United States from 1882 to 1938 show no correlation between economic conditions and where these crimes occurred; contemporary studies of hate crimes in the United States and Germany show no correlation between violence against minorities and economic conditions
- A study of Hezbollah fighters in the 1980s and 1990s found that they were likely to be wealthier and better educated than the general Shi’a population of Lebanon at the time.
- An analysis of Palestinian terror attacks in Israel and the West Bank between 1987 and 2002 found that the poverty rate among suicide bombers was half that of the general population(15% versus 30%) and they were far more educated than average. A study of Israeli terrorists active in the 1970s and ’80s found that they, too, were wealthier and better educated than their peers.
- Finally, Krueger and his co - author assembled a data set of major terrorist attacks from 1997 to 2001, and found no correlation between poor economic performance and terrorism: “Once one accounts for the fact that poorer countries are less likely to have basic civil liberties, there is no difference in the number of terrorists springing from the poorest or the richest countries. ”