War as Stimulus

Like most progressives, I find it extremely annoying that Beltway conventional wisdom exempts military-related expenditures from the normal rules of budgeting.

At the same time, in these days of recession it does occur to me that to some extent this is a two-way street. I’ve been inclined to complain that most of these more ambitious visions for Afghanistan, for example, don’t seem to meet any kind of reasonable cost-benefit test. After all, they could use better security, a Provincial Reconstruction Team, and a “civilian surge” in Newark, New Jersey. But if you take the hypocrisy of the political system as a given, this looks a bit different. At the end of the day, war expenditures don’t trade off with domestic expenditures, they trade off with increased levels of public debt. Under normal circumstances, that still means that military operations should be (though they generally aren’t) subject to real cost-benefit scrutiny, since higher debt levels has real social costs. But the basic progressive analysis of the current economic situation is that higher short-term debt levels are socially beneficial, right? The story is that World War II — at least from the perspective of the American economy — wasn’t a huge economically wasteful use of resources. Sure it was more wasteful (in economic terms, obviously the “beating Hitler” benefits were quite real) than some other possible projects, but it still on balance was helpful in ending the Depression.

ADDITION! Just after I finished writing this post, but right before I put it up, I saw Christopher Drew’s NYT story “High Costs Weigh on Troop Debate for Afghan War”:

While President Obama’s decision about sending more troops to Afghanistan is primarily a military one, it also has substantial budget implications that are adding pressure to limit the commitment, senior administration officials say. […] Senior members of the House Appropriations Committee have already expressed reservations about the potential long-term costs of expanding the war in Afghanistan. And Mr. Obama could find it difficult to win approval for the additional spending in Congress, where he would have to depend on Republicans to counter defections from liberal Democrats.


I think that to an extent invalidates my musings above. I assume the reference to “senior members of the House Appropriations Committee” refers primarily to David Obey who’s expressed concerns about this.