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Prominent Economist Touts Benefits of War in The New York Times–Really

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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I was hoping to chill out on Father’s Day, perhaps see the latest Tom Cruise sci-fi blockbuster, or stroll along the Hudson with my girlfriend. But then I read a New York Times essay so repugnant that I had to respond.

The Lack of Major Wars May Be Hurting Economic Growth,” by economist Tyler Cowen, is muddled, crammed with confusing caveats. But its central thesis is that the recent economic stagnation of affluent nations might be a consequence of too much peace.

The “possibility of war,” Cowen explains, “focuses the attention of governments on getting some basic decisions right–whether investing in science or simply liberalizing the economy. Such focus ends up improving a nation’s longer-run prospects.”

Cowen worries that a recent downturn in war—at least compared to the apocalyptic first half of the 20th century–has led to economic “laziness”; he calls us “slacker-oriented.” This rhetoric comes close to that of warmongering social Darwinists like Teddy Roosevelt, who once declared, “All the great masterful races have been fighting races.”

Costs of War Project:


Cowen tries to distinguish between preparation for war—or what I would call militarization–and war itself. But of course this distinction yields an absurdly one-sided analysis. You could construct a similar argument for the benefits of cancer by pointing to all the terrific research and innovation and high-end jobs resulting from cancer and neglecting to mention the death and suffering it causes.

All told, humanity’s militaristic “focus” during the 20th century led to the deaths of 231 million people, according to one authoritative estimate. Among the “innovations” resulting from military spending in the 20th century are not only “nuclear power, the computer and the modern aircraft”—Cowen’s examples–but also thermonuclear weapons, which still exist in numbers great enough to destroy civilization.

Did the militaristic “focus” of the European powers prior to World War I improve their “long term prospects?” Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany were especially “focused”; how did things turn out for them? Cowen might respond by pointing to the current economic health of Germany and Japan and arguing, Hey, all’s well that ends well. Of course, modern Germany and Japan have arguably become economic powerhouses because they have shunned militarism since their catastrophic defeats.

Conversely, the recent economic woes of the U.S.—contrary to Cowen’s thesis–may stem from its prodigious rate of military spending since 2001. Let’s take a quick look at some of the consequences of our post-9/11 conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. These statistics come from the Costs of War Project, a self-described “nonpartisan, nonprofit, scholarly initiative based at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies.”

*I’ll start with non-economic “costs.” Since 2001, more than 6,800 U.S. soldiers have been killed in these conflicts—and almost as many contractors–and more than 970,000 troops have filed disability claims.

*More than 350,000 people, including 220,000 civilians, have died “due to direct war violence.” Many more have died of disease, exposure, malnutrition and other “indirect” consequences of the conflicts. 7.4 million people in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan have been displaced and are living in “grossly inadequate conditions.”

*The post-9/11 conflicts have cost U.S. taxpayers more than $3 trillion dollars, a figure that will probably more than double because of future disability and debt payments.

*Cowen might argue that all this money has created lots of jobs and cool new weaponry. But war is an inefficient producer of jobs. Costs of War calculates that “8.3 jobs are created by every $1 million in military spending,” compared to 15.5 jobs in public education, 14.3 jobs in healthcare, or 12 jobs in the renewable-energy industry. The money that the U.S. has spent on its recent wars could have produced “a net increase of jobs in other sectors:  for example, more than 300,000 jobs in construction, or 900,000 jobs in education or about 780,000 jobs in healthcare.”

Contra Cowen, what President Dwight Eisenhower said in 1953 still holds: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed… The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals.”

Perhaps Cowen didn’t want us to take him seriously; he intended to be merely provocative, titillating. At the end of his essay, he acknowledges: “Living in a largely peaceful world with 2 percent G.D.P. growth has some big advantages that you don’t get with 4 percent growth and many more war deaths.”

I am not titillated. I am repulsed by the spectacle of a prominent scholar—a citizen of the U.S., by far the biggest arms producer, dealer and deployer in the world—arguing for the practical benefits of militarism. And shame on The New York Times–which helped the Bush administration make the case for the U.S. invasion of Iraq–for publishing Cowen’s awful essay.

John Horgan About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. curiouswavefunction 8:40 pm 06/15/2014

    What I find both amusing and loathsome about Cowen’s article is that he is stating the bleedingly obvious and yet fails to see how transparently silly he is being. Sure we developed some really cool technology and shored up the economy because of the Cold War and sure we created lots of jobs when we declared war on Japan and Germany, but so what? Only a fool would argue that this means that war is either “good” or the best way to achieve these goals.

    It’s a bit like saying that the 1918 influenza epidemic was really good for humanity because it checked population growth and reduced pollution. Silly Cowen and silly NYT.

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  2. 2. brodix 9:11 pm 06/15/2014

    What gets conveniently overlooked in this analysis is that when we have a financial circulation system based on public debt and private wealth accumulation, the money pools in the private sector and has to be borrowed back again by the public sector, to keep it circulating.
    For example, Paul Volcker is credited with curing inflation by the early eighties, by raising interest rates. The problem is that this raises the cost of capital, which hurts demand and rewards supply and that is the opposite of what is needed.
    The method of actually drawing excess money out of the system is to sell the bonds bought to create the money in the first place. Yet by 1982, when Volcker finally started lowering rates, Reagan had run the deficit up to 200 billion a year, which has real money in those days.
    There isn’t much difference between the Fed selling debt it is holding and the Treasury issuing fresh debt, though the treasury was selling much more than the Fed. While both draw down excess supply, the money the treasury borrows is spent back into the economy in ways which further economic activity, which at the time was largely extra money to the military industrial complex.
    So either we have wars and start over again, or the debt bubble pops and those at the top find a large hole in their pockets.

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  3. 3. ankank 5:39 am 06/16/2014

    It doesn’t matter whether the thesis is correct or not. All that matters is talk of war becomes natural, and that to contemplate it is a valid preoccupation of our times. Once this step is taken then the progress to war is pretty inevitable. It is certainly true that war on a reasonably global scale would sort out the debt inbalances created in the last decade although whether it would rescue the petrodollar from its terminal decline is not at all sure. Even so, the ambience for war has already begun. Think of the glorious celebration of the D-Day landings, the worship of the those who made sacrifices so that we could ‘be free’. Our minds are being prepared for the wars to come, in just the same way that they were ‘prepared’ for the First World War, the trend to which was talked up a decade beforehand, and the participation in it ‘forced’ by public revelling in notions of bravery and duty and the higher calling of warrior defence, while the rich work behind the scenes to protect assets through the militarisation of their economy.

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  4. 4. MapelLeafGal 7:08 am 06/16/2014

    So the takeaway here is … what? That the NYT retains its position as the premier, East Coast, opinion-influencing broadsheet?

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  5. 5. brodix 12:51 pm 06/16/2014

    That is the pattern and model, but quite a few things are different this time. In the first part of the 20th century, the US was very much on the ascent and now is on a plateau. Control requires direction and the strongest pull is down.

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  6. 6. rshoff2 1:07 pm 06/16/2014

    Ok, Laziness = less war? I vote for laziness then.

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  7. 7. Watman 2:28 pm 06/16/2014

    I agree, his argument is unoriginal, This has been a standard argument since the Civil War. But recently, let’ see:

    1. Vietnam War; steadily growing inflation and then stagflation lasting well beyond the war’s end,
    2. Iraq 1; too short for an economic effect, and
    3. Iraq 2 and Afghanistan (2003-present); half of the war years in economic collapse with very slow improvement.
    good professor

    From where I come from, this is an existence proof that war per se is hardly helpful to the economy, though it may benefit certain industrial sectors.

    Kenneth Watman

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  8. 8. LarryMoniz 2:38 pm 06/16/2014

    Sadly, much of what the economist says is true. We fought in Vietnam to boost the U.S. military-industrial complex. In Iraq it was to ensure stable prices for oil. The U.S. stole America from the Indians because of its huge unpopulated areas for growth and it’s massive potential to pilfer natural resources. In fact, Europeans used ongoing genocide, first by disease, then by treaties that cheated the Indians. When that wasn’t enough we wiped them out in military massacres and kidnapped their children and raised them in boarding schools while they were scrubbed clean of their heritages and tribal memories.

    In addition, Mr. Horgan is a sports writer and sports are simply a representative alternative to war. When we pay athletes they become sports mercenaries rather than just people enjoying a game of baseball, football, etc. Hockey is widely regarded as a violent sport. Football is resulting in numerous players being injured for life or facing early death as a result of skirmishes on the field.

    Expansionist greed and religious hatred have been responsible for an amazingly high percentage of the earth’s deaths due to warfare. It shows no sign of ending or even lessening.

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  9. 9. Watman 2:39 pm 06/16/2014

    I have two arguments against the ostensible economic benefits of preparing for war.

    1. Preparations for war, at least in the US, usually presage the outbreak of war. We are fortunate that proved untrue in the Cold War. Had war occurred, all economic benefits of he preparations would have been…obviated. Indeed, the costs of war tend to eliminate the net benefits of preparing.
    2. Defense spending is simply a form of government expenditure into the US economy, like infrastructure spending, education, environmental amelioration, etc. The dollars end up in the hands of consumers who spend them. There is no convincing evidence that the multiplier effect is any stronger with defense spending than with any other form of government spending.

    So the overall impact of the US economy as a whole is more-or-less the same regardless of where the government money goes, with some exceptions. Defense has no privileged place.

    Kenneth Watman

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  10. 10. rshoff2 1:50 pm 06/25/2014

    You know, economists are full of garbage. They’ve filled their head up studying theory and draw it all out on paper as thought that makes it so. If they had to go through the rigors of science, most of them would be shut down before publishing a word. They also believe that their theories provide a place for their own economic lives. Fools, they are.

    And know, these economic theorists are posed to take over Congress?! Trickle-down economics was a nail in the coffin. We’ve not recovered from it and may never. I’m afraid this new crap may be the last nail in the coffin. At least for the United States. China will be at the top of the pyramid scheme soon if they aren’t already.

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  11. 11. rshoff2 1:51 pm 06/25/2014

    Happy belated father’s day…..

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