The Great Antidote

Anne Bradley on the Political Economy of Terrorism

June 14, 2024 Juliette Sellgren
Anne Bradley on the Political Economy of Terrorism
The Great Antidote
More Info
The Great Antidote
Anne Bradley on the Political Economy of Terrorism
Jun 14, 2024
Juliette Sellgren

Send us a Text Message.

Anne Bradley is an economics professor at the Institute of World Politics and the Vice President of Academic Affairs at The Fund for American Studies. Today, we talk about the political economy of terrorism: what terrorism is, what makes a terrorist, and what the war on terror does to attempt to prevent terrorism. We talk about how economics is uniquely positioned to pose questions and find answers about this area usually dominated by those studying defense and international relations, and how the human element of economics informs her framing of the issue.

Want to explore more?

Never miss another AdamSmithWorks update.

Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Show Notes Transcript

Send us a Text Message.

Anne Bradley is an economics professor at the Institute of World Politics and the Vice President of Academic Affairs at The Fund for American Studies. Today, we talk about the political economy of terrorism: what terrorism is, what makes a terrorist, and what the war on terror does to attempt to prevent terrorism. We talk about how economics is uniquely positioned to pose questions and find answers about this area usually dominated by those studying defense and international relations, and how the human element of economics informs her framing of the issue.

Want to explore more?

Never miss another AdamSmithWorks update.

Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Juliette Sellgren 

Science is the great antidote to the poison of enthusiasm and superstition. Hi, I'm Juliette Sellgren and this is my podcast, the Great Antidote- named for Adam Smith, brought to you by Liberty Fund. To learn more, visit www Adam Smith

Welcome back. Do you ever get POed at the airport? I do constantly when they tell you to take your shoes off, but you know it's not your shoes that's making the metal detector go off, but you have to do it anyways because really otherwise you can't get to your flight and sometimes you try to wear heels and that doesn't work either. So then you ask your friends for hacks to stop setting off the fire alarm, the metal detector while you're walking through. Is this just me? I don't think this is just me. I hope it's not just me. Anyways, today on May 9th, 2024, I'm excited to welcome Dr. Anne Bradley onto the podcast to talk about the greater source, maybe the more troublesome source of all my minor TSA troubles. I guess a relatively mild annoyance, which is terrorism, specifically the political economy of terrorism, whether it's an effective prevention mechanism, TSA or not is an entirely different question of, but we might get into that. Dr. Bradley is an economics professor at the Institute of World Politics and the Vice President of Academic Affairs at the Fund for American Studies. She's super awesome and does like a million other things, so go check out her profile if you're interested. Welcome to the podcast,

Anne Bradley 

Juliette, thank you for having me. It is just a pleasure to be here. I'm excited about this conversation.

Juliette Sellgren 

So detour maybe age or in my generation should know that we don't…

Anne Bradley (1.56)

I love this question, especially given the way you framed it- your generation, young students that are in college, graduating from college. And I have kind of a two-part answer I believe to this one, I think is to realize that being smart is important, but I don't think it's always the most important thing. I think what really matters for life is wisdom. And of course that's something that is cultivated over time through experience and intellectual aptitude. But I think that what helps us cultivate that wisdom is really putting a premium on a word I like to use, which is grit. And another word I like to use here is being scrappy. And I don't always think that young people are encouraged to think about what that looks like for them.

Again, we understand what the cultural rewards and some of that is very good. I think we should all do our best in school and try to get into the best colleges we can. And if graduate school is something that is right for an individual, then they should pursue the best one that they can attend. All those things are important, but I think through those experiences, grit is what gets you later in life to a point where you can really be successful and where you get that wisdom. I think to have those attributes, we have to be vulnerable and we have to be willing to fail. I actually think as a parent myself, I think about parenting culture because I'm going to have kids that are where you are not too long from now. And so what is my goal as a parent to try to teach them and to try to have them experience?

And I do think shielding your kids, shielding young people from failure is doing them harm. I remember going to graduate school at George Mason University and when I was there, there were people that were recruited to be there. They had full scholarships. I was a local girl from Alexandria, not recruited to be there. I applied, I had good letters of recommendation from my faculty members, but I went in with no money actually. And I felt like the dumbest person in the room many, many times. And I remember sitting in math econ my first semester of my first year of my PhD program, seven to 10 at night, which is kind of an added, it's kind of horrible, I guess. Yes, that's the time we're in person. It's terrible. I'm ready to put my pajamas on and I'm in my math econ, and I just remember there were times where I thought, I have no idea what I'm listening to.

And kind of just that moment where you feel like the tears are coming in your throat almost and you can feel them. And I thought, I have to drop out. I cannot do this. I am not smart enough. I'm the dumbest person in the room and I didn't quit and I got a scholarship because I worked hard. And that's what has shaped me today to this day. And I think that's a really important part of my experience. It was probably really good for me that I wasn't the smartest person in my cohort. I was probably at the bottom of my cohort, but that really pushed me to work very hard. And I think it also pushed me to realize that I cannot take this for granted because if I mess this up and I say this is what I want to do, I'm going to ruin my ability to be a professor, which is what I thought I always wanted to do. So that's just kind of a personal story to explain what I mean. But I think we need to put a premium on grit, on being scrappy, on hanging on, not giving up the moment it gets hard. And I think that's a very hard thing to do.

Juliette Sellgren (5.59)

Yeah, I've been feeling this tension personally because especially looking forward at maybe grad school or even getting a job- GPA and your transcript matters, but it's more than just what the number is. I've realized it's what is attached to the number. So the context ensures sometimes people aren't going to understand that the math class you took is this relatively very impossible class and that you struggled every night for many hours. And the number, the GPA points attached to that do and don't reflect that in a way. But there's kind of this tension where because we live in a world where these institutions at the university level, and even before, I guess it affects high school because it affects college, because it affects grad school because it affects jobs. There's this tension between the fact that because we measure it that way and because we idolize almost success and intelligence in this way, that it actually pushes people who I don't know, maybe can develop or are willing to develop that grit. That's part of why I work super hard sometimes, right? It is an incentive in a way because you want to have a higher GPA, even if it can only be so high, but then on the other hand, that's not putting a premium on it. So I guess as a professor, as someone who administers grades, how do you deal with that? The fact that the reason why some people develop grit is because of grades, and yet maybe it's not the best incentive structure for that?

Anne Bradley (7.54)

This is really true in the classroom. I think you have to recognize that you have a lot of different types of learners. And in the programs in which I teach both at the Fund for American Studies and at the Institute of Politics, those are non-traditional academic environments in the sense that they may never take another economics class again. And at the Fund for American Studies, they’re degree fulfilling courses. But many of our students are not economics majors. And so I think my philosophy in my unique setting where I find myself, which I love by the way, is that you have to meet the students where they are. And I think you have to treat this class as perhaps the last economics class they will ever take. And if you treat it that way, and I think all economics professors should do that, even if you're teaching economics.

So they've had a lot of economics, they're going to have more. I think if we come into the classroom with, this may be the last time they ever hear economics, what do I want them to leave with? That forces you to think about your approach as a teacher. And I think if we are really careful about our approach and realize that there's different types of learners in our classroom, and what you said about GPA is so important. Yes, in some ways it does reflect the struggle that's beneath that, but not always. So we're doing a podcast, it's so amazing. We live in this world where there's so many opportunities to hear people talk for 45 minutes to an hour on a podcast. So we should put that into our curriculums. I think where we can. So I think there's a lot of different ways that we can help our students.

And I also think just as a teacher, we need to be available for 'em. I think as a teacher, both if this goes all the way through primary to graduate to and everything in between, but most students aren't like that in the sense that everything is easy for them all the time. And so I think we need to pay attention to the students who are struggling, and I think we need to draw them into conversation and offer ourselves outside of the classroom for discussion with them. And in that way, you are not just teaching them about some chapter in a textbook that they might never remember, but you're building a relationship for them to do what we call the economic way of thinking. And we want that to last them a lifetime. That is my goal. If they walk away with anything, how do I understand the basics of the economic way of thinking? And I can apply that to so many things across my life. And if we can do that, I think in the long run, that's the most important thing we can do.

Juliette Sellgren 

Yeah, I totally agree. That's awesome. Now it's time for a hard pivot except maybe this conversation will fold in as we continue talking, but maybe an easy question, what is terrorism? How do we measure it? When did it start? Was the TSA always existing? Maybe paint us a picture of what this landscape has looked like and how it's changed over time a little bit.

Anne Bradley (11.13)

This is a pivot, but I do think it's a pivot from the last thing we were just talking about, which is the economic way of thinking. And that's why I've spent so much time writing about terrorism because I think economics offers a lot for us to understand. To your question, terrorism in some way, shape or form has always been part of the human experience, I think if you're alive today. So we think about terrorism in the most modern sense of what we have experienced and what is most recent to us. But that is, I would say 9/11 is an innovation in what terrorists were doing. But terrorism has just kind of always been with us, especially the means of terrorism. And so one of the things that it's really important to do as an economist when you're doing this type of research is to define your terms of course.

Because I think one of the problems from a policy perspective can be that we define terrorism is everything I don't like, which could include if I break into somebody's house and steal their wallet, is that terrorism? No. Is it theft? Is it bad? Is it criminal? Is it awful? Should we try to put a stop to it? Yes, but I don't think it's terrorism. So I think some of the key elements of terrorism in my own research has been articulating what's unique to it. And so some of those things are the use of violence, and in particular mass destruction, often targeting. And so this means this is just a person. And if you think about 9/11 people got up in the morning and they went to work like they did every single day, and they did nothing to the 9/11 hijackers who are members of Al-Qaeda.

They didn't have any relationship with them. They didn't maybe even know that they existed yet they were victims of Al-Qaeda. So non-combatant targets, and that's part of the goal of terrorism, which is to spread fear and panic about what's coming next. And this is an important part of the definition of what terrorism is, is that they are seeking some end and that end is some form of social change, broadly speaking. So this could be they want legal changes, they want religious changes, they want, I'm talking broadly in the sense of institutions. They want political changes, they want cultural changes. They might want all of the above, but they're not waking up deciding to strap a bomb on their chest and go blow up a building for its own sake. They're doing it to try to obtain some changed state of the world. And I'm really interested in non-government actors. So it's one thing for a government to fund or support a terrorist group, and it is certainly the case that many terrorist groups might get some support or aid or even just shelter the ability to occupy some territory from a government. But I wanted to think about terrorist groups that were formed outside of a state in my own research because I think that this can help us understand why they do it, what they want, and to stop terrorism, we have to be able to answer those first two questions.

Juliette Sellgren (15.02)

So you said that people don't just wake up wanting to do that. And I guess in a sense, I see that very easily. If you really just wanted to strap a bomb on your chest, you could do it in the privacy of your home. I mean, maybe there would be other debris, but it's not about killing yourself necessarily because there are other ways to do that, however unfortunate that outcome is. But how do we know really that people won't just do that? There's not a type of person that will become a terrorist that is more inclined to do that sort of thing?

Anne Bradley (15.43)

This is a really important question, especially over the last 20 years. I think it's become, because this is the war on terrorism is a phrase that everybody's very familiar with, and it has taken up a lot of real estate in our foreign policy and our spending initiatives and things like this. And so I think it's a really important distinction. And going back to what we were talking about before, this is why we need economists at the table for this discussion. And really that's why I started writing about terrorism because I thought lots of people in the days, early days after 9/11 are going to be called on. And their instinct is not going to say, let me pick up the phone and call an economist. I think that's a mistake. Obviously I'm biased because I'm an economist. I want people to pick up the phone and call us.

But I do think there's something really fundamental here, which is that terrorists are people, and that's very obvious. But when you listen to the rhetoric, it's not when you listen to the way people talk about terrorism, they act as if it's kind of almost a unique grouping of species of people in some ways that are kind of uniquely deranged and don't possess human reason or human agency. And the problem with that is if this is true, then somehow they're kind of different from everybody else. And we would want to understand that. And I think that would be really hard to explain. But I think the other issue is that that would explain what you just said, then you're going to walk around and you're going to do crazy things. And the problem was that is that it means that if this is true for terrorists, then terrorists don't respond to incentives.

And I just knew this is wrong. This is wrong to talk about terrorists this way, it's going to lead us down policy roads that are probably going to not only not work, but cause harm. So there's going to be kind of this whole host of consequences, which certainly has been the case. And so I think we need to get grounded in reality, which is terrorists are human beings, they possess human reason and they desire certain outcomes. And so then it becomes a question of means and ends, right? And then it's like, well, the way you framed it was so appropriate. If I just wanted to kill myself, I could strap a bomb and I wanted to do it with kind of a bomb. I could do that in the privacy of my own home with very little collateral. But that's the opposite of what they do.

They do it in public. It's theater. They want every news station to report on it. They want it to be on the front page of every newspaper. They want American presidents and prime ministers across the world to be talking about it; that fuels what they're trying to do. And so I think that the economic way of thinking can really help us understand, okay, if it's true that they possess reason, they engage in cost benefit analysis, that does not mean we agree with their end. So I always have to be clear when I'm saying this, I'm not saying I agree with the terrorists or that they're good or that they're ethical, but we have to say they're engaging in cost benefit analysis, which means that it's possible that there could be a world where terrorism is just on the margin, too expensive to engage in, and therefore fewer people will do it. So that's just kind of the framing I think of economics and in very simple economics really, this is just basic micro, right, that we're applying to this problem. And I think what that can do is help us ask different types of questions and perhaps get better policy.

Juliette Sellgren (19.34)

And hearing you talk about it this way, it makes a lot of sense. I really liked what you said about how if we don't treat them like any other human being, especially in light of the fact that we can't actually identify what really makes a terrorist along certain grounds, you can't really prevent it if you can't identify what circumstances give rise to terrorism. And given that things other than economics don't really explain what makes it happen, how on earth are you going to fight it? The war on terrorism just basically becomes a money pit, which I think we've seen, but we'll talk about that. But first, something that I think about it makes sense when you talk about it, but it probably to an IR person doesn't sound crazy, but the fact that they would even listen to an economist on this issue doesn't seem probable. You probably got a lot of pushback, especially initially with these ideas and with this approach. So how did you deal with that, and how difficult was it for you to actually get heard and explain this to people who just wanted to, well, to erect a war on terror immediately,

Anne Bradley (21.05)

That's a really important question because I really speak into the world of really pressing important policy problems and not just sit over in academia writing papers about the supply and the demand for terrorism, which I think is very much real. But again, I think you're exactly right, which is maybe it doesn't sound crazy to people, but I don't think it immediately changes their worldview. It's like, oh, I never thought about it that way. Although I do get that a lot. I have never really thought about the fact that there's a flipping supply curve and that maybe thinking about it that way, although it's very messy, I mean, we're not talking about the market for Blue Jeans or pizza, which is just easier to understand and measure. But I think if we can, when I get the pushback, I just say, okay, I'm not even offering a policy proposition right now.

I just want us to, can we agree on these points? Can we agree that terrorists are human beings? Can we agree that they're just not crazy? Right? So rational choice, can we agree on that? Can we agree if we can agree on those two things? And then can we say, okay, it is possible that you can change the amount of terrorism. And I think that's where you can pull in IR and other types of policy folks, because that's what the War on Terror is, at least presumably about. If you listen to what George Bush said that the president at the time of the terrorist attacks, which I don't envy that position at all, but kind of shortly after 9/11, he went to ground zero and basically said, not only are we never going to stop, but we're not going to stop at Al-Qaeda. We're just going to do anything and everything and throw it against the wall and see what sticks.

And so I think that now it's less pushback than when I started because I was writing about this in graduate school right after 9/11, and everybody was terrified and everybody thought it was the end of the United States, and we didn't know what was going to happen next. And so I think there was no head space for this type of conversation, which seemed utterly theoretical. I think there's a lot more openness to these ideas. And so I lead with the economics, the very basic economics, and I think that allows me to get buy-in from people who don't think like economists, because if you lead with the policy, if I lead with the war on terrorism is basically an abysmal failure, we need to stop. It's making certain people very wealthy, et cetera. I think that that is offensive to people. So I think we need to lead with what is the economic way of thinking. If I can show you that it's useful to what you say you want to accomplish, then I think people buy in a lot quicker.

Juliette Sellgren (23.58)

Yeah, because the thing is, if you say it beginning with the policy, it comes across as I don't care about your safety. Yes. And that's not what you're saying. You're saying it doesn't make you safer.

Anne Bradley 

Right, exactly.

Juliette Sellgren 

Which is funny because I think this happens a lot in economics and also just non-intuitive trains of thought that the conclusion seems absurd. I mean, I guess that's what makes it unintuitive is that the train of thought seems absurd if you come at it from the wrong angle. If you don't go from the same starting point, the conclusion doesn't make any sense. And I think it's been hitting me over and over, and I guess the episode that was released last week, we talked about how the way that we communicate our ideas are so important, is so important because the conclusions otherwise would seem insulting and absurd. So this maybe is an extreme example of that because an entire country and individual's safety is maybe one of the most important things. Feeling secure is so important to human beings. So we have to be really careful about how to communicate that it is for your safety. And I'm kind of wondering how you do that, right? Because in order to even communicate it, you have to know what ideas to ask to get to that conclusion. So you have to take people from point A to Z, but you yourself have to do that. So how do you ask those questions? What leads you to ask the questions that you do? And then how do you bring people with you in that journey? You kind of talked about that a little bit already, but…

Anne Bradley (25.51)

Yeah, I think it is. So some of my answer to your question is going to be, it sounds like it could come from your mom or your grandmother where it's be nice to people, don't be a jerk. I mean, these are kind of lessons that we learn as children, but it's so important when we're speaking to other people about something that is volatile, sensitive that they're really passionate about and worried about. And so I think we have to be winsome in the way we speak to others. And I think I would like to use the word magnanimous. I think we need to do that. And it's hard, and maybe economists are not always great at this. I think we can be better. I think we should try that. We need to think about something other than terrorism, which seems less, oh my gosh, if we get this wrong, we're going to die.

That's how people feel about terrorism. But something you and I have talked briefly about before, which is just this idea of the minimum wage, which has just been tons and tons of research over decades on the minimum wage. If I'm talking to somebody that is kind of on the progressive left and I lead with the minimum wage is stupid and it hurts people that it claims to help and we should eliminate it, I've shut a door with that person. And it kind of sounds arrogant, right? It's like, I know this, I'm an economist. You don't know what you're talking about. I'm going to school you in 30 seconds and then you're going to learn and do a 180. This is not how people operate. And so I really think it's a much different approach, which is what do we agree on with the minimum wage?

Well, I think we agree that we want to help people that are living at the bottom of the income distribution. And even in a very wealthy country like America, that can be really hard. So if you're a single mom and you have three kids and you're living in an apartment complex in Baltimore, a crime ridden city, and you're working for minimum wage and you're trying to take care of those kids, I think we both care about her. I think we care about her future. I think we care about her kids. Why don't we lead with that and then just say, does minimum wage help get her what we want for her? And have we ever asked her what she wants? So I just think there's ways that we can inject new questions in our approach with people who we disagree with. So I think you have to do the same with terrorism.

I'm always worried when I'm giving talks about this, not kind of in my classroom, because in my classroom I have a semester and we build slowly over time. So we don't kind of come out the gates, okay, let's solve terrorism on day one. We get there. But when you're doing a public lecture or when you're doing a podcast or when you're even kind of communicating on Twitter, you have a very limited amount of time with that other person. So the presentation of your ideas and your winsomeness is what is first going to get them to stop and listen. And then if you kind of say, let's have a dialogue about this, let's figure out what we agree. I think you can make a lot of inroads. And one last thing I'll say on this, I was very moved years ago.

We had Russ Roberts speak to some of our interns, and he said, when you're talking to people about ideas, it's like drops of water on a rock. The rock doesn't change after one drop of water. The rock changes over time after thousands of drops of water. And I think that's a really important lesson about how we communicate with people. Even if you only have one podcast, your approach is really important and you hope that if you have one podcast and do it well, you have more. Right? And those are the drops of water, but nobody's going to do a 180 in 30 seconds or an hour or even in a semester. So how do we think of ourselves as if I'm just the one drop of water for a person? What does that look like? And I think that's really informed how I talk about it,

Juliette Sellgren (29.56)

And that's so moving. Have we ever asked her what she wants? Have we ever asked what terrorists want? I think that's the question that economics lets you ask that I don't think you're allowed to ask in other disciplines. It's not that you can't, we just don't.

Anne Bradley 

I could not agree with that more. If you say, have we ever asked the terrorists what they want? Then immediately you'll be booed off stage as somehow a terrorist sympathizer.

Juliette Sellgren (30.21)

And yet, how are you? And I realize this, right? Especially when we talk about people who are more oriented towards the left or even in certain cases towards the right, depending on what you're talking about, asking people what they want is really important because no one wants the people around them to become, I'm thinking about things that are relevant and attached. No one wants someone in their life to become a school shooter or a terrorist. I'm just thinking like American examples, you're probably more likely to become school shooter, which I guess we could classify as a terrorist in certain ways, but being able to get in the shoes of the other person, being able to empathize and sympathize with other people is a fundamental value that I think no matter what you believe politically, that it's a valuable skill. And I don't know, it's odd that in policy, maybe because it's supposed to be, well, we're being calculated and rational, but it's a human element that we need, right? They're humans too. How are you supposed to deal with humans without facing their humanity?

Anne Bradley (31.35)

Yes. So well, well, I think bringing the human into economics, which of course George Mason University does incredibly well, is quite important. And as you say it, it opens doors for conversations that are hard, that are tricky. I think sometimes too, we lump people into categories, and that's kind of not the way economists think, right? We think about our unit of analysis is the person. So we need to understand people pretty well as well as we can so we can understand why they do things and why they don't do things. And so to say something like this, people in Afghanistan are terrorists and they don't want democracy, and so therefore they're never going to be free. They're never going to be a liberal democracy. They're never going to have economic freedom or something like this. It's just kind of lumping 'em into a category that I think is kind of inherently inhumane of us to do and not fair.

Do the people of Afghanistan have a model of democracy for themselves? They do not. So to say they don't want it or they're not capable of it, I don't think is right. We have to think deep more deeply about institutions and economists we're supposed to be good at that. And so I think really that's what we can bring to the table. I think that you see this in conversations with China today, for example, when people say, China does this, no, China doesn't do anything. China is a geographical place on a map. And usually what people mean when they are kind of saying things about China that are hostile is they're directed towards the Chinese government, which is frankly a very small percentage of that overall population. So what about the Chinese people? You know what I'm saying? And so I think when we just lump people into categories like that, well, China's bad, America's good. And then you go from there, you miss a lot. Not only do you miss a lot, but I think you really, your policy actions are going to be harmful.

Juliette Sellgren 

And listeners to actually, funny enough, hear more about the public choice and how to think about China, listen to my episode with Ryan Yonk on the China dilemma, where we actually get into the economics of this. It's super interesting, very relevant,

Anne Bradley 

And he's great.

Juliette Sellgren (34.00)

Yeah. So what has the War on Terror done? What have our approaches been? And how would you be skeptical, given everything we've talked about so far, the human element of things, what has the result been and why?

Anne Bradley 

The result has been that we have erected a lot of new government agencies. We have spent an enormous amount of money, actually $8 trillion.

Juliette Sellgren 

Wow. Imagine one single person trying to pay that off. Impossible.

Anne Bradley (34.42)

Impossible. And I just did a little, I like analogies. So I just did a little research, quick research, and I like to use this with my students to have them think about it. If the War on Terror was a country, it would be the third largest country by GDP in the world. So it'd be the United States, China, the War on Terror. And the point of that analogy is that this is a lot of resources that have alternative uses. And so when we're going to do things like this, as I pointed out after 9/11, and I think any American president is in a very tough position in that moment. And so public choice is really important as we think about what to do and how to do it. That American president under something kind of a catastrophic act like that is under enormous pressure to really just do something.

It almost doesn't matter in the moment if it works or not, you have to appease voters. I mean, I remember 9/11, I was in grad school and I had a public choice class with Gordon Tullock. Amazingly, yes, that morning. And it was a morning class, which of course was canceled, and George Mason was shut down for a week. I was supposed to fly to a Liberty Fund conference- canceled flights were canceled. Everybody kind of was sheltering in place almost. And so it was a very scary time. And so as you say, I mean, voters get scared and they want us to do something. And so the War on Terror is born out of fear, just paralyzing fear and almost a blank check. And I think that's a real problem. I mean, if you look at the Patriot Act, this comes up almost at the snap of two fingers, which means it's not well thought out, it's not debated, it's not deliberated.

There's people brought in to say, well, what about this? What about the unintended consequences? And so you asked me about the War on Terror. I think that this is a war that we will never stop funding it. If you look at the data, while we have not had another transnational terrorist attack on US soil, terrorism is alive and well in the rest of the world, and in some cases it's more prevalent in countries post 9/11 than prior. And so those are some pretty significant unintended consequences that we really have to think about. I think there's a moral culpability there, but I think there's just a kind of economic culpability, which is this working? And that's back to our conversation we were having a few moments ago. I think this is why economics allows us to ask hard questions. I think that's the way you said it, and it does.

It's not that we say, just pack up your bags and go home, do nothing. It's that we've spent a lot of money in Afghanistan, for example, and a lot of American lives have been dedicated to fight in Afghanistan and lost in that fight, as well as Afghan citizens who are not terrorists. So lots of death, lots of money, and the Taliban is still in control. They were in control 20 years ago. They're in control today. These are just obvious problems. This is not a problem that's hard to identify. It's an obvious problem, but I think there's just real resistance to changing things. You mentioned the TSA in your opening comments, and they're kind of my favorite bureaucracy to pick on. Me too. You can't tell them all the time. And number two, it's just very clear that it's poorly run. It doesn't mean that the people that work there are evil or they're very nice, some their fault, some are, sometimes they're not nice, some are nicer than others.

But the idea here is that they're just people who are working for a living and they want to take care of their families. And that's the human side we just talked about. We don't have to presume that they're evil, but we should look at whether they're competent. And I think that audits, both internal and external, have showed that they have a 95% failure rate. So when I talk about this with my students, I say, if you were failing at that level in your class, there would be a serious conversation had between you and your professor and probably your parents. This is not good. And so I think to TSA is basically a job creation program that hasn't really made us safer at all. In fact, in some ways, it's certainly raised the cost of travel, the liquids thing, the shoe thing. They're all very reactive.

And I think there's reasonable solutions for how you could change this. One would be you let the carriers engage in airport security, and then you have competition built into that model. So United has their procedures, and American has their procedures and Southwest and Frontier and Spirit, and they're all competing to make you as safe as you can, but also in a pleasant way. And so there's fixable solutions here. But back to your primary question, I think that this has, the war on terror has just been really problematic. It has not reduced terrorism and 940,000 deaths related in some way to the war on terror, 38 million refugees and $8 trillion. And those are just some of the high level numbers. So again, I think economists say, whoa, it's time to stop and reevaluate.

Juliette Sellgren 

Yeah. Well, so there's so much there. I want to just keep ragging on the TSA, but I'm going to put that aside. How does economics help us to understand though the increase in terrorism abroad post 9/11? That's something that you would think doesn't quite make sense. I mean, it's an indication that maybe the War on Terror doesn't really work, but it's not in the US. So should we care? What are we to make of that?

Anne Bradley (40.49)

I think this is where the rubber kind of meets the road. I think as an American, it's easier to lay your head on your pillow at night and say, well, the Pentagon hasn't been attacked again, and New York City hasn't been attacked. And I feel safer and feeling safe is what I care about. And therefore, the War on Terror is kind of good. And we talked about this again a moment ago. I think economics is a humanitarian discipline because humans are at the heart of what we're talking about. So I think it's really important for us to say, well, what about everybody else? We can lay our head down on our pillow and maybe we're safer, maybe we're not. But if you live in Nigeria right now, you are much less safe than if you live in Afghanistan right now, you're run by a narco-terrorist state.

And there's of course, so many other examples, Syria. So terrorism has increased across the world. And I think one of the reasons that that happens, which you're right, maybe it's not intuitive, why would it be in a different places, is the way we respond to terrorism. So if we put boots on the ground in another country, we have to realize that while we can maybe feel good about that, the good guys are going to go get the bad guys. Think about how you feel if you're a citizen of Syria who's not a terrorist, but the American military is there now, and what are they doing? Are they helping you? Are they hurting you? Who are their alliances? What is their position? What are they doing? And so I think we oversimplify this in our minds. It's just like the good guys are going to go out there and get the bad guys.

And so it's okay, and you have to crack some eggs to make an omelet or whatever that saying is. But in reality, the push against Al-Qaeda has led to other terrorist groups that really didn't exist before. And so you have to look at the seen and the unseen to really get that bigger picture. And so the way I talk about this when people ask me policy-related questions is, what I don't want us to do, which I think we are doing, is play. And if you have ever been to an arcade, I mean, this is a fun game. You have a soft mallet. You know what I'm talking about, right? Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's great. And so these little moles pop up and then you whack them and then they go away. But the problem is the game isn't over. Then they keep coming up in other spots and they come up faster.

And I think that's what happens when you don't distinguish in your policy, in your military strategy, what are we trying to do? Are we trying to simply stunt the supply of terrorism or are we trying to curb the demand? And my argument has been that I think we overly focus on the supply of terrorism, which is part of what the TSA is doing, right? It's just trying to make terrorism via airplane hijackings marginally more expensive. I'm not saying that's a bad thing. We probably should have always been dead bolting the pilots into the cockpit kind of thing. This seems like a $20 solution though to me, but we have to think about the demand for terrorism. So Steve Horowitz used to always say, supply is demand in disguise. And I love this phrase, and I use it with my students all the time. Supply is demand in disguise.

That's an economic insight. So if we are just focusing on the supply curve and we're not dealing with the demand curve, we're never going to stop terrorism. We're just going to move it around. We're going to play. So I think we ultimately need to stop playing Whack-a-Mole as much as possible. What that forces us to do is realize we're never going to get zero terrorism. So when politicians promise a world with zero poverty, zero drugs, zero crimes, zero terrorism, zero, yeah, zero covid, right? We can't get zero of the bad stuff, but we can change the policies to maybe change marginal decisions. And I think that doesn't sound great. I'm never going to be the president and say, let's shift that demand curve back so we get less. That doesn't sound good to voters. That sounds like you're crazy. But I think all of that gets wrapped up in these policy responses.

Juliette Sellgren (45.16)

And kind of building off of that, what are the things I'm thinking, particularly institutions, the cultural and political laws and norms in a country or an area or in someone's life, the environment they operate within. What are the things that give rise to wanting to be a terrorist or not even wanting to be a terrorist, because that sounds like it's something desirable, but feeling like that's what needs to happen in order to make change that you see as necessary. What makes a terrorist in the end?

Anne Bradley (45.51)

Yeah, this is great because I think right after 9/11, not only policy makers were asking these questions, but academics were. I mean, if you look at the academic research in the post 9/11 world, just a proliferation of academic articles on what is terrorism, what causes terrorism from economists and others, and I think that's a great thing. I think we need to keep doing that. But it's not as easy as, okay, there's a terrorist, is these things. They are from a certain country, they're from a certain income bracket, they're members of a certain religion. And if we can pinpoint those kind of four or five things, then we could run around and target terrorists, right? And of course, it's not that easy. So your question is precisely the right one. What is the institutional environment which leads the marginal person to say, this is the only way, this is what I'd have to do.

If you look at Al-Qaeda, which is the focus of a lot of my research, which is formed by Osama Bin Laden in the eighties, what he was upset about, and he spoke a lot, which is very helpful because we just have tons and tons of transcripts of his speeches. So you kind of know what he was going to say, and you can kind of analyze it. And he said things like he was mad about the Westernization of Saudi Arabia. He was mad about the United States forming alliances, Saudi Arabia primarily over oil production and oil interests. And I think that's kind of really interesting, right? Because in the post war, excuse me, in the post World War II era, oil becomes highly politicized and leads to lots of political conflicts. And so if you look at why Bin Laden started, Al-Qaeda kind of different from the average recruit.

And so it's really important to understand those differences. It's like the person who's the CEO of a company like Walmart cares a lot more about Walmart than the janitor that works at the Walmart down the street from you. But what is the job of the firm? Well, it's to try to align those incentives as much as you possibly can. And of course, that's what terrorist organizations are doing. They have marketing campaigns, Al-Qaeda has a flag, they have a banner. They have meetings about what they're going to say, they fundraise. All of these types of things, first of all, proves they're highly rational in calculating, but it also helps us understand that they have to recruit and woo people to be members. And I think if those same people that get recruited to join a terrorist group have different economic opportunities, if they truly could experience something like the rule of law, all of these types of things that economists look at that changed institutional environment, I think is ultimately what's going to change that demand curve.

So one of the things I did is I just looked at some of the countries where terrorism is most prolific, like Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Syria, Yemen, and just looked at their economic freedom scores. And it's really not a surprise that those are countries that don't have a lot of economic freedom. They don't have a lot of robust commerce and growing markets. They don't have civil liberties, they don't have political freedoms. And so I think all of those things work together or work against each other. And so to me, this is the heart of the matter. This is the heart of the question. I do think we have to do some of the tactical things to fight the war on terror, to stop attacks. We know that are on the horizon, but ultimately that's not going to reduce the demand curve. Reducing the demand curve is about institutional change.

Juliette Sellgren 

So what should our main takeaways be? There's something about especially this issue where I think the more, once you've engaged with these ideas, then you go out into the world, you realize it applies to more than just terrorism. But what should the average person take away from this conversation? Because it might not be as easily applicable or relevant to just any old Joe.

Anne Bradley (50.25)

I think most people don't spend a ton of time thinking about terrorism. And I think that's, but it's a cool topic. It's a cool topic, but I'm glad about that. And in the sense that I don't want people walking around being worried about terrorism because I think it's a rare event for an American. I do think we should get our policy in order. Here's what I would say the takeaway is that I think talking about terrorism is an incredible opportunity to teach people economics. And then we can pivot from that and talk about all sorts of other issues as well, like the minimum wage. What are we going to do about poverty? Humanizing the people that choose to become terrorists does not mean we agree with them. So I'm very influenced by Gary Becker's work on crime. It's not that we're saying crime is good, it's that we're saying we're trying to understand it from a human perspective.

And if we don't understand it, we can't change it. So I think I want people to think kind of in a more fundamental way about terrorism, but we haven't talked too much about this. I really want people to understand kind of the ugly underbelly of terrorism. There are people that have a vested interest in the war on terror lasting forever because they get enormous sums of money from the federal government to fight terrorism, and they're private corporations. And so I think that is, we talk about this as cronyism. I think it spills over into a lot of other parts of daily life like regulations and occupational licensing and zoning and things like that. But I think from a terrorist perspective, it strikes people differently. When you think about the fact that, and I'm just giving an example again, the people that work at Lockheed Martin are not evil.

They're not unique in that way. They're just human beings. But Lockheed Martin gets like $36 billion a year from the federal government to fight terrorism. They don't want that subsidy to be eliminated. So in some weird way, their incentive is to always be fighting the war on terrorism. When you think about it that way, I think that's kind of chilling. Let's not reward people for lining their pockets at the expense of other people. And of course, this means that resources are allocated away from other really productive things that Lockheed would do, or Boeing. Boeing is an interesting example. They've had a lot of problems recently, and maybe an argument for that is if they focus not so much on their rent seeking to the federal government for their war on terrorism activities, but rather making airplanes that are safe, that would be a good thing. And so I don't think people really think about that. And so when I say those things to people, hopefully that changes the way they changes their perspective. And that's really what I'm after using economics to shine a light.

Juliette Sellgren (53.43)

And there is fundamentally, I'm going to make a comparison, which is not at all in terms of magnitude of damage done a worthy one. That's not what I'm talking about necessarily. But realizing that the way that Lockheed Martin has an incentive to keep the war on terror going because it's profitable, is the same thing as the incentives that drive terrorist groups to recruit. It's the same mechanism. It's a different end. And profit is not as deadly as sending a plane into a building, very obviously. But it's the same economics flows throughout, no matter how good or bad or what situation you're talking about, which I think is chilling when you think about it because it turns anyone arbitrary people into people that do things that are better or worse. And that's just how it works. Agreed. And that really struck me when you were talking about that. I was like, wait, we were literally talking about this two seconds ago with Al-Qaeda. And that is also why I wish we had more time. Yes. But I have one last question for you. Okay. What is one thing that you believed at one time in your life that you later changed your position on and why?

Anne Bradley (55.20)

So I think there's a lot of things I could say here, but it's so interesting. In light of our conversation, I thought for a long time, especially when I was in high school and even in college, that politics was the way you changed the world. I really believed that. I remember in high school, so this dates me of course, but I remember in high school having to write a paper called Where Will You Be in 2003? And of course, 2003 was far away when I was in high school or far enough away that we were writing about it. Where do you project that you'll be? What will you be doing? And I just remember thinking and writing about the fact that I was going to be in the Senate. This is how I was going to change the world. I was kind of raised in a house of Reagan loving conservatives.

The Cold War ultimately comes to an end. It seems like a victory for freedom. So I was kind of raised in that environment. I thought, okay, this is how you change the world. This is what you do. This is where I'm going to put my energy. This is going to dedicate my life and my career. And I now have come so far from that opinion. I have absolutely changed my mind that politics is the least important part of my life. Perhaps I have two children, a husband and a dog. We don't ever have the news on in our house. And my husband and I don't watch the news at all. He doesn't watch it. I don't watch it. We read the news, but it's not that we want our children to be in some kind of bubble where they never hear about bad things. But everything is so politicized all the time that I just think politics is not the way you've changed the world.

Now, do we need good people running for office? Yes, because we're not going to change the political structure of the United States. So more power to good people whose comparative advantage is to do that. But I really believe part of this is just maybe a comparative advantage story, but I really believe I can change the world in my classroom. But I also think I can change the world in my church. I can change the world in my neighborhood. The way that I communicate with people, the way that I spend my time in my volunteer activities, to me on the margin is very important. I'm never going to be on the cover of Time Magazine for any of that. Maybe I would if I had become a senator at a young age, but I don't think that's what matters as much anymore. I think that there's a lot of avenues that the average person has in their life to really influence people to change the world. And for me, I just absolutely will die on the hill of fighting for freedom. I will. But I have just changed my mind that I do that in the political space. So for me now, I'm going to do it by trying to be a great teacher and an effective communicator. And so that's kind of where I am and I think where I'll be for the rest of my career. And so my job then is just do it the best that I can and learn and have intellectual humility along the way, all those things.

Juliette Sellgren 

Once again, I'd like to thank my guests for their time and insight. I'd also like to thank you for listening to the Great Antidote Podcast. It means a lot. The Great Antidote is sound engineered by Rich Goyette. If you have any questions, any guests or topic recommendations, please feel free to reach out to me at Great Thank you.

Podcasts we love