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War Spending and Paul Krugman

When you are the New York Times, or in this case, one of the only real liberal columnists working for the Times anymore, there are apparently some things you just cannot mention.

How else to explain how a seemingly intelligent economist like Paul Krugman can scorch the Republicans in Congress and President Obama for failing to deal with the crisis of joblessness and deepening economic collapse in the U.S., but never once mention the endless and pointless wars into which the country is pouring hundreds of billions of dollars a year?

“I don’t mean to dismiss concerns about the long-run U.S. budget picture. If you look at fiscal prospects over, say, the next 20 years, they are indeed deeply worrying, largely because of rising healthcare costs. But the experience of the past two years has overwhelmingly confirmed what some of us tried to argue from the beginning: The deficits we’re running right now–deficits we should be running, because deficit spending helps support a depressed economy — are no threat at all.”

What planet is Prof. Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, living on?

The U.S. has over the past decade spent some two trillion dollars on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and on the so-called “War” on Terror.  The actual spending has been much higher (as the honest Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz has explained), because only about 50% of the U.S. budget each year, including expenditures for “intelligence” and the military, is covered by tax collections from individuals, corporations, import duties and other federal fees and collections. The rest is financed with borrowed money, all of which has to be repaid in later years with interest.  This country has spent another $5 trillion or so on the bloated military budget over the last decade, to finance a military complex that costs as much as the rest of the world combined spends on war and preparing for war. And again, only half of that amount was actual tax revenues. The rest has to be paid back over coming years with interest, because it’s all been borrowed.

Hey Krugman! Why don’t you tell people the real reason why the U.S. has a “deeply worrying” fiscal problem looming over the next couple of decades?  Isn’t it really because we’ve got to pay for all these wars and all the militarism that we’ve been buying on credit? Be honest. It’s not future health care spending that’s the problem. It’s current and future military spending.

But that’s only half of it.

Krugman also says that the deficits we’re currently running in the U.S. are deficits “we should be running,” because, as he says, “deficit spending helps support a depressed economy.”

Geez professor.

Even in the ivied halls of Princeton, you surely taught your undergrad economics students the simple concept that there are different kinds of deficit spending.  Deficit spending on job creation — for example hiring teachers who would otherwise be unemployed or flipping burgers if they’re lucky–is an almost perfect stimulus. Virtually all the money paid to those otherwise furloughed teachers goes straight back into the economy to pay for goods and services, to make down payments, to pay mortgages and rents, and it also educates kids, a not insignificant long-term economic stimulus. Money paid to put construction workers back to work building highways or levies or schools also goes for the most part right back into the economy.  But money spent on wars is mostly wasted. Much of it is spent buying fuel (from foreign countries) for weapons systems, building bombs, ships, tanks and aircraft that employ minimal numbers of workers (many of them foreigners working abroad), hiring mercenary forces (also foreign), and bribing allies to go along with American aggression. Very little of the money gets recycled back into the civilian economy.

Years ago, as a journalism graduate student at Columbia University, I had the good fortune to be able to take a course on Pentagon Capitalism and the Permanent War Economy offered by the late Seymour Melman, who laid out clearly not only how wasteful military spending is, but also how little such spending does for the economy in terms of the famous multiplier effect of wages contributing to more economic activity.

President Obama, if he really wanted to snap the U.S. out of recession rather than just enrich his banking industry campaign financiers, would immediately end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, shut down the 800-1000 overseas U.S. military bases, call for passage of a generous new GI Bill that would pay for all the returning troops to get college educations, or vocational training, and that would allow them to buy houses for their families, and he would slash military spending by half and use some of the savings to begin a program of economic conversion of military contractors.  The savings from ending the wars and cutting defense spending by half — about $375 billion a year beginning with the 2012 budget year–could be used to hire teachers, park rangers, health care workers for underserved areas, lifeguards for public pools and beaches, etc., etc.

Now that’s deficit spending that actually would “help support a depressed economy.”

Does Paul Krugman know this? Of course he does. Can he write such a thing in the New York Timesthough?  It seems not.

Some things, like questioning military spending and permanent war, are just too outlandish for discrete and civilized discourse.

Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, the new independent, collectively-owned, journalist-run, reader-supported online alternative newspaper.

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Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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