The price America paid for the September 11 attacks

5th September, 2009

When the planes hit the twin towers eight years ago this week, I wasn’t a journalist at all, but a business economist living in London. It was my job to look at what was happening to the economy and figure out what it might imply and what might happen next. Alongside the shock experienced by anyone watching the television coverage, I felt bewilderment. It seemed that the sheer physical destruction and the deaths of so many highly skilled people would have to disrupt the running of the US economy – one of Osama bin Laden’s declared objectives. But with no close precedents, it was hard to say by how much.

Early estimates suggested that the economic cost alone might be grievous. The International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook, published three months after the attacks, thought that losses to the US economy could total $75bn. Others thought the economic damage would be greater. Robert E. Looney, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, estimated in 2002 that direct costs exceeded $27bn but the effect of the disruption might total $500bn. A study by the New York City Comptroller’s Office estimated that the city alone would lose a cumulative $58bn between 2001 and 2004 as a result of the attacks.

Some attempts to untangle the question were ingenious. Alberto Abadie of Harvard and Sofia Dermisi of Roosevelt University looked not at New York but at Chicago to estimate one consequence of the attacks. Chicago, after all, suffered no damage and enjoyed no reconstruction boom. But as the home of the Sears Tower, the tallest building in the US, Chicago might have suffered a psychological blow as a possible target for a future attack. Sure enough, vacancy rates in and near the Sears Tower and two other famous Chicago skyscrapers rose sharply relative to rates elsewhere in the city.

With the luxury of hindsight, a new issue of Peace Economics, Peace Science and Public Policy attempts to work out the economic impact of the September 11 attacks, publishing a range of studies that approach the problem from two directions. One approach is to look at the entire economy and try to figure out what damage was done by the attacks – no easy task given the fact that the dotcom bubble had been deflating and the economy was entering recession at about the time the terrorists struck. The other approach is narrower, looking at – for example – the impact on New York City rents and wages.

Both approaches struggle to deal with the echoes of the attack. Air travel suffered, for instance, but teleconferencing, holidays at home and road transport might well have prospered. Then there is the problem of the policy response: President Bush quickly pledged $20bn to rebuild New York City. That reconstruction spending would act as a counterweight to the attack. No wonder the journal’s editors write of “unscrambling the eggs”.

Reading the full range of studies, I have concluded that the direct physical effects of such a horrific attack had been smaller than most people expected. Perhaps $25bn of buildings were destroyed; the lifetime wages of the victims would have been about $10bn, which is a crude way of calculating the narrow economic impact of a mass murder. But beyond that, there seem to have been few immediate economic consequences for New York City. The additional costs to the country as a whole were largely psychological: job losses because of a loss of confidence, for instance. There is a reason such acts are called terrorism.

The polity of the US was placed under severe strain by al-Qaeda’s attack. Its economy was more resilient than most observers expected.

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