Critical views of science in the news

Prominent Economist Touts Benefits of War in New York Times. Really.


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.

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

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