Tag Archives: Cato Institute

Whom Should We Fear?

Among the piles of literature I get, both via snail-mail and online (one of the perks–or perhaps the banes–of being an academic) are the periodic Policy Analysis publications issued by the Cato Institute. Cato, as most of you know, is a libertarian think-tank headquartered in Washington, D.C.

I have my disagreements with their economic policy perspective, but they tend to be very good on civil liberties and their scholars, by and large, are intellectually honest.

The most recent issue I received was fascinating. Titled “Terrorists by Immigration Status and Nationality: A Risk Analysis, 1975-2017, it was a thorough compendium showing which terrorists did what and why during those years. (It appears that people who enter on different visa categories pose different risks, which was something I wouldn’t have guessed.)

Terrorism, for purposes of the study, was defined as “the threatened use or actual use of illegal force and violence by a non-state actor to attain a political, economic, religious or social goal through fear, coercion or intimidation.”

Here are some illuminating calculations from the Executive Summary:

  •  Including those murdered on 9/11, the chances of perishing in a terrorist attack committed by a foreigner on American soil is 1 in 3.8 million per year.
  • The chance of an American being murdered by a refugee is 1 in 3.86 billion.
  • Despite the rantings of our bigot-in-chief, the chance of an American being murdered by a terrorist who is an illegal immigrant is zero. You read that right: zero.
  • But watch out for tourists on B visas (the most common tourist visa). The odds of being killed by one of those guys is 1 in 4.1 million per year.
  • The chance of being murdered by one of our very own, home-grown wackos is 1 in 28 million.

No matter what the category, we really don’t have to fear that terrorists are lurking around every corner. We’re far more likely to be killed by a texting driver or even falling furniture.

Per the Executive Summary:

There were 192 foreign-born terrorists who planned, attempted or carried out attacks on U.S. soil from 1975 through 2017. Of those, 65 percent were Islamists, 18 percent were foreign nationalists, 6 percent were non-Islamic religious terrorists, 3 percent were left-wingers and the rest were separatists or adherents of other or unknown ideologies. By comparison, there were 788 native-born terrorists who planned, attempted or carried out attacks on U.S. soil from 1975 through 2017. Of those, 24 percent were right-wingers, 22 percent were white supremacists, 16 percent were left-wingers, 14 percent were Islamists, 11 percent were anti-abortion, and 6 percent were other.

What really impressed me about the analysis–which contained much more information than I have shared here–were the appendices: Table 12, which listed foreign-born terrorists, fatalities and injuries by the nation of origin, and Appendix 1, which listed every person–foreign or native born– who attempted or committed terrorism on U.S. soil between 1975-2017, and their ideologies.

A scan of those ideologies strongly supports Cato’s conclusion that religion, white supremacy and nationalism drive a hugely disproportionate number of these attacks.

Color me unsurprised.

And watch out for falling furniture.

Ideology versus Scholarship

One of the most irritating aspects of contemporary policy debates is the lack of respect for evidence, and the willingness–even eagerness– to cherry-pick information. (This intellectual dishonesty can be treacherous for academic researchers who are increasingly approached by ideologically-motivated funders wanting to buy specific results rather than honest analyses.)

In Indianapolis, we are seeing an example of this tactic in connection with the proposal to improve our public transportation system, beginning with a bus rapid-transit project called the Red Line.

Let me be clear: people who oppose the project may have perfectly good reasons for that opposition. I happen to support the Red Line, but I am certainly not suggesting that all opposition is dishonest or disingenuous.

Some, however, is.

The Indianapolis Star reports that opponents of the Red Line commissioned a “study” from Randal O’Toole of the Cato Institute. Cato, of course, is a libertarian think-tank opposed to much of what governments do. I find them congenial on issues of civil liberties, but disagree with their resistance to virtually all regulatory efforts and social welfare programs. (I might note that the largest financial supporters of Cato have been the Koch Brothers.)

Mr. O’Toole comes with a “point of view” and a reputation as an opponent of mass transit; he makes his living speaking and writing as an “anti-transit expert.” That wouldn’t disqualify his argument if he had tendered an accurate report, but apparently this was a “cut and paste” job. It certainly displays a lack of familiarity with Indianapolis.

A few observations:

  • He says there are only 73,000 downtown jobs, and a population density of 2,100/per square mile. The Public Policy Institute at IUPUI, which tracks these numbers, finds that in just the 2.8 square miles around the Circle, there are more than 120,000 workers  (an employment density of 42,000 per square mile). The total number of downtown workers is actually 137,000.
  • He says that IndyGo has “not made any effort” to determine the feasibility of this effort or the possible alternatives. Had he done even a cursory investigation, he’d have found that this proposal is the end result of decades of study–including a 2013 analysis of alternatives.
  • He asserts that “Transit is largely irrelevant to most Indianapolis residents.” That would come as a shock to the thousands of people who depend upon IndyGo now, and the additional thousands who are flocking to new housing options in the urban core (in contradiction to his assertion that there is “little demand” for urban living). Ten percent of those moving into the booming downtown housing market do not own cars, and have expressed a preference for public transportation.
  • His blithe comment also ignores the growing number of seniors throughout the metropolitan area who can no longer drive, and the people with disabilities who rely on transit or would if it was more convenient. (As with most of his assertions, he cites no surveys or other authority  supporting this facile dismissal.)
  • He says the reason transit is “so little used” in Indianapolis is because “nearly everyone has access to a car.” (If you don’t happen to be one of those lucky folks, well, tough. File that one under “let them eat cake.”) Actual scholarship supports a rather different thesis: current routes and too-long headways discourage use by people who would opt for transit if it was more frequent and dependable.
  • He calls electric buses an “environmental disaster” because electricity is generated by coal. He has only been in Indianapolis twice in 30 years, so perhaps he didn’t hear that IPL’s Harding Street plant recently switched from coal to natural gas. Or that IndyGo has access to solar arrays to power its electric fleet.) It’s just more of those pesky facts about Indianapolis that are inconvenient for his “analysis.”

I could go on. And on.

Suffice it to say that Mr. O’Toole is a propagandist, not a researcher. (Interestingly, O’Toole recently argued against light rail with a commentary titled “Rapid-Bus Systems a Smarter Investment Than Light Rail in U.S.” Blatant inconsistencies were easier to hide before Google.)

What O’Toole does provide is an example–as if we needed another one–of today’s “spin it to win it” approach to policy argumentation. It’s an approach that can be particularly effective when, as here, an honest debate requires accurate data and background information that most citizens are unlikely to have.

What was that famous line from Pat Moynahan? We’re all entitled to our own opinions, but we aren’t entitled to our own facts. Someone should tell Mr. O’Toole.




TIFS as Crony Capitalism?

I’m on the mailing list of the libertarian Cato Institute (and the Republican and Democratic parties, among other strange bedfellows). I am fond of Cato–not because I agree with them on very many issues, but because–unlike the Republican Party–they are intellectually consistent. So I was very interested to receive a (snail mail–no link) report titled “Crony Capitalism and Social Engineering: the Case against Tax-Increment Financing.”

For those of you unfamiliar with TIFs, the concept is fairly simple. In order to induce development of projects that would not otherwise be economically viable (sometimes called the “but for” test, as in “but for the economic assistance, the project wouldn’t be built), the municipality caps the property taxes at the rate being paid prior to the new development, and plows the added taxes into the development for a period of time, in order to bridge the gap.

The Executive Summary makes several points:

1) By diverting the “extra” tax dollars generated to the project, those dollars are lost to the schools, libraries, fire departments and other urban services. In a sense, those services are also subsidizing the development. (To which proponents of TIF financing would respond, yes, but if the project would not otherwise get built, and if the abatement ends after a reasonable period of time–after which those urban services do receive the extra income–everyone benefits.)

2) Studies have shown that cities are not really applying the “but for” test. Many of these projects would have been built without the extra help. (Whoops!)

3) The new developments impose added costs on schools, fire departments, etc., so other taxpayers are either subsidizing the added burden imposed by the development until such time as the abatement ends, or getting reduced services during that time.

4) No matter how well-intended these programs, officials will often give in to the temptation to use TIFs as a vehicle for crony capitalism, providing subsidies for developers who in turn provide campaign funds to those same officials.

The Cato report has other problems with TIF financing, primarily because it is often used to support denser in-city developments over suburban low-density ones. In my opinion, that’s an argument FOR rather than an argument AGAINST–as the techies might say, that’s a feature, not a bug. But it is hard to argue with their other criticisms.

This is what makes policymaking so difficult. If  TIFs are used as originally intended–and used selectively–they can be a very useful tool.  When I was in city hall, in the early days of their use, I was a proponent. But at that time, TIFs were being used by urban governments to level the playing field–to compete with the lower costs of suburban development. Over the years, the tool has been adopted by smaller bedroom communities like Carmel and Greenwood–and developers have learned to play “let’s make a deal,” in essence turning TIFs into bargaining chips. One result has been that the “but for” test is history. And when the “but for” test was gone, so was the original justification for the program.

Unfortunately, selective use of TIFs has gone the way of the “but for” test. Here in Indianapolis, if news stories are to be believed, the Ballard Administration is proposing to turn the whole urban core into TIFs. (Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a bit. But not much.)

It’s just further evidence that the Cato report is correct when it notes that TIFs have “become a way for city governments to capture taxes that would otherwise go to rival tax entities such as school or library districts.”