In this country, if you want to spend trillions of dollars on an aspect of social life that you dislike, while not solving the problem, then the best thing to do is have the federal government declare a “war” on it. For example, lots of people are commemorating the 50th anniversary of LBJ’s “War on Poverty.” But even by the defenders’ own logic, the underlying problem has gotten worse.
To pick just one prominent example, the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers issued a report that contained the following chart:
Sure, we can quibble with the calculations, but let’s take the chart at face value. What it shows is that the percentage of people in poverty before we look at government measures (i.e. the green) has gone up since 1967, and that this can’t even be blamed on the recent recession (or depression to be more accurate); the number bounced around, but showed no trend toward improvement over the whole period of the “War on Poverty.”
The way the White House (and other defenders of the welfare state, such as Paul Krugman) are trying to spin the above stats, is to look at the black area of the chart, showing that after government taxes and transfer programs, the percentage of people falling below the “poverty line” has gone down. Thus, they declare, the United States government is waging a successful war on poverty.
Yet hang on a second: Surely to actually “win” the War on Poverty would mean that the government could stop spending money, because every household were self-sufficient. The criterion can’t be, “After you account for how much money we’re still throwing at it, the net result is better.”
Switch to an actual military context to see my point. Suppose after Pearl Harbor, the federal government declared war on Japan. Further suppose that 50 years later, U.S. and Japanese forces were still engaged in massive naval battles in the Pacific, and in fact the Japanese had more ships and aircraft than at the start, though they had been pushed back about a third of the distance toward Japan and away from Hawaii. Wouldn’t it be time to declare, “This is not at all working” and sue for peace?