This ran a while ago but I forgot to blog about it. Half of my piece is just the standard case against World War II “prosperity,” with a link to Steve Horwitz’s co-authored piece drawing on primary sources to show how tough things were on the homefront.
However, after that I take Krugman et al. head-on. I’m not saying I am the first to advance this particular argument, but I don’t think it gets stressed much when people like me typically take on the myth of wartime prosperity:
Yet the Keynesian case is weaker still. Suppose we accept, for the sake of argument, that $1 million of government spending is just as economically significant as $1 million of private investment or private consumer spending. Even so, the World War II era still doesn’t present a model for dealing with an economic depression.
Look again at the figure above. Even on the Keynesians’ own terms, private GDP—the share of the economy devoted to civilian purposes—was lower during the height of the war than during 1933, the very worst year of the Great Depression. When we take into account the increase in population during the decade in between, the impact on the homefront is even more astounding.
Let us suppose, then, that the government today did exactly what Paul Krugman recommends, and engaged in massive government purchases comparable to those during World War II. Yet rather than build tanks and bombers, instead the government today buys socially useful things (in Krugman’s vision) such as roads, bridges, parks, the services of additional police and firefighters, etc. If things turned out today the way they did during the war years, would Americans be happy with the result?
I suggest they would not; they would reject the bargain, even on Krugman’s own terms. Suppose people took today as equivalent to 1941, and then the country proceeded to have similar government spending and economic performance as the official statistics show happened during World War II. That means private economic output would fall a total of 55 percent between now and 2015, or at an annualized rate of about 24 percent per year. Does the average American household right now want to suffer a 24 percent annual drop in their private standard of living, for three years in a row? This would put their standard of living back to around 1984 levels (and again, I’m not even accounting for population changes). Would the average household’s answer be affected if we told them about how many potholes would be filled, and how many new schools would be built during those three years?
But wait, it gets worse. It’s not merely that there would be a 3-year period of extreme penury (in terms of private goods and services), in exchange for those things the government provides. After this burst of Keynesianism—again using World War II as the model, now by comparing 1941 to 1946—the federal government’s gross debt held by the public would have grown by a factor of five. Since the federal debt held by the public right now is about $10 trillion, that means mimicking the World War II experience would yield a federal debt of $50 trillion by 2017. This new fact is on top of the reversion to 1984 levels of private GDP. Again I ask: Is there any amount of new schoolteachers and bridges that would compensate for these two trends?