Thursday, 15 December 2011

War (what is it good for?)

Here's a  dramatic1940's colour photo of some workers helping to build a Liberator bomber. I love the tight composition and the old-master-style chiaroscuro effect (photo courtesy of The Library of Congress).

It's a small reminder of the vast amount of material and labour diverted from productively satisfying everyday human needs and desires into the destructive business of war. Writing in post-war austerity Britain, George Orwell lamented the waste in his fictionalised account of a nation inured to total war:
The essential act of war is destruction, not necessarily of human lives, but of the products of human labour. War is a way of shattering to pieces, or pouring into the stratosphere, or sinking in the depths of the sea, materials which might otherwise be used to make the masses too comfortable, and hence, in the long run, too intelligent.


There are contrasting views, and they don't come more contrasting than this:
But it was not until government spending soared in preparation for global war that America started to emerge from the Depression. It is important to grasp this simple truth: it was government spending—a Keynesian stimulus, not any correction of monetary policy or any revival of the banking system—that brought about recovery.

Joseph Stiglitz, in an essay for Vanity Fair

 I know it's supposed to be a text-book example of Keynsian economics, but still find it quite mind-boggling that such a vast material effort, diverted to ends that weren't just unproductive,* but were actively destructive, could apparently bring about economic recovery. It makes me realise that I need to find a clear economic history of the period that explains what was going on in language accessible to a non-economist.** Such a book ought (assuming Stiglitz and other kindred economic historians are right about cause and effect) to be required reading for policymakers in these post-bust times.

Maybe what the world needs now is war, sweet war (preferably a toned-down version, with none of that unpleasant killing people business).

*I'm talking in purely economic terms here, without any reference to the morality of the conflict.

** Any suggestions gratefully received