In a tacit admission that the left is out of ideas on how to fix the economy, economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman recently proposed a new stimulus program in the form a military buildup to ward off an invasion by extraterrestrial aliens. Drawing upon the history of the Great Depression and an episode of “the Twilight Zone,” Krugman postulated on CNN that government spending on military hardware to combat aliens would revitalize the U.S. economy in short order. Krugman subscribes to the Keynesian belief that World War II and the debt-financed military buildup that followed finally ended the Great Depression after ten years of FDR’s debt-financed social programs failed to restart the economy.
In reality, the military buildup of the 1940’s and the New Deal stimulus programs were very similar. The military draft that removed hundreds of thousands of workers from unemployment rolls had civilian equivalents in the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Works Progress Administration and other New Deal government organizations that hired workers for make-work projects. Similarly, government orders for military hardware that busied factories were akin to New Deal construction projects commissioned by the Public Works Administration and the Civil Works Administration.
Krugman doesn’t actually believe that an alien attack is imminent. He merely favors a hoax to provide a rationale for spending:
“If we discovered that space aliens were planning to attack and we needed a massive buildup to counter the space alien threat – and really inflation and budget deficits took secondary place to that – this slump would be over in 18 months. And then if we discovered, oops, we made a mistake there aren’t actually any space aliens.”
“There was a Twilight Zone episode like this, which scientists fake an alien threat in order to achieve world peace. Well, this time we need it in order to get some fiscal stimulus.”
Krugman, a Nobel Prize winning economist, misses several important points here. The most obvious is that the U.S. is already at war. We don’t have to invent an extraterrestrial enemy because we have a very real terrestrial enemy in the form of Islamic terrorist groups. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have caused wear and tear on military equipment. The government could spend money to replace and refurbish our existing military hardware, as well as purchasing more F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II advanced technology fighters that would ensure air superiority against a new generation of high-tech Chinese and Russian fighters. The F-22 is a built by Lockheed Martin at its plant in Marietta, Ga. Presumably real world military spending is not large enough in Krugman’s eyes.
The second point that Krugman misses is that spending on WWII did not actually jumpstart the economy. The problem is that removing hundreds of thousands of idle workers from the economy and purchasing millions of dollars of tanks, aircraft, and other equipment is not a change that could be sustained indefinitely. When the war was over, as the armed forces demobilized these workers would likely return to the unemployment line and the factories would go idle if the government did not fund new New Deal programs to provide jobs and demand for material goods. In reality, this is not what happened.
In the Wall Street Journal, Burt Folsom, author of “New Deal or Raw Deal,” notes that Congress, led by Georgia Senator Walter F. George, rejected President Truman’s attempts to revive New Deal policies after the war. According to Folsom’s research, Congress reduced income tax rates across the board, cut the corporate tax rate, and repealed the Excess Profits Tax. According to tax.org, the tax reforms and reductions began even before the war ended with the Tax Adjustment Act and the Revenue Act of 1945. The Revenue Act of 1948 was smaller, but included more comprehensive and controversial reforms.
Senator George, a resident of Vienna, Ga. who served on the Senate Finance Committee at the time, is quoted by Folsom as saying that if the tax reform “has the effect which it is hoped it will have, it will so stimulate the expansion of business as to bring in a greater total revenue.” As a chart on USgovernmentrevenue.com shows, federal revenues increased dramatically in the 1950’s even though tax rates were lower than they had been during the New Deal and war years.
Finally, Krugman ignores the fact that federal debt levels today are much higher than they were at the onset of WWII. Data from USgovernmentspending.com reveals that the federal debt as a percentage of GDP is almost as high today as it was at the end of WWII, not the beginning. The government could afford to spend billions on tanks and armies in 1941 because, even after a decade of New Deal spending, the federal debt was less of a burden than it is today. If the U.S. tried to engage in another massive military buildup today, the debt would shortly become unmanageable and the result would either be a default or inflation (which Krugman also advocates).
Krugman’s idea of an anti-alien buildup is simply a sci-fi twist on the same old Keynesian policies that have failed to work for President Obama in the past. President Obama should instead follow Senator George’s example and enact broad-based, permanent tax reforms that would encourage businesses to invest.