War spending and the economy: You say boom, I say ka-boom!

Paul Krugman argues that WWII spending bought America out of the Great Depression. But what about the other side? What happened with military spending in Japan?

By , Guest blogger

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    Japanese war plane during WWII. Japan, like America, had experienced a depression in the 1930s, and their military spending for their wars made them the first nation to escape the global slump. By 1941, Japan was producing 10,000 planes a year.
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The Nobel Prize committee has never withdrawn a prize. It might want to consider it. In Tuesday’s New York Times, prizewinner in economics, Paul Krugman reveals either that he knows nothing about economics…or that there is nothing worth knowing in it. We’re beginning to think it’s the latter.

“From an economic point of view,” he writes, “World War II was, above all, a burst of deficit-financed government spending, on a scale that would never have been approved otherwise. Deficit spending created an economic boom – and the boom laid the foundation for long-run prosperity….”

In the 1938 US elections, voters showed what they thought of the New Deal; Democrats lost 70 seats in the House. Then as now, the public had lost faith in public spending, says Krugman. Nearly two out of three of those polled said they were opposed to stimulus efforts. Roosevelt buckled under the pressure; he drew back from further spending to fight the slump.

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Thank God for WWII! No one opposes military spending in time of war. Krugman made his position clear in 2008 in his New York Times blog.

“The fact is that war is, in general, expansionary for the economy, at least in the short run. World War II, remember, ended the Great Depression.”

According to this line of thinking, the best form of stimulus spending is money spent on the military. It creates consumer demand without creating consumer supply. Consumer prices rise; people spend. The slump is soon over.

But if WWII helped the US economy, think what it must have done for Japan; proportionally, its stimulus efforts dwarfed those of the US…and began much earlier. Just this week, Ichiro Ozawa, running for prime minister of Japan, vowed to take “every measure” to lower the yen and promised a stimulus package more than twice as big as the current program. He was just following in the footsteps of Japan’s leaders from the ’30s. It was “economic security” they said they were after. And they thought they could get it by central planning and government spending. Military spending rose from 31% of the budget in the early ’30s to nearly 50% five years later. By the early ’40s it was around 70% and nearly 100% later on. Deficits and debt soared.

Did that create a boom? You bet it did. Japan was the first nation to get out of the global slump. It boomed…and boomed…and ka-boomed. When it came to warships, planes, and soldiers, Japan was soon among the richest nations in the world. Yes, Americans had more electric fans, automobiles, central heating, aspirin, ice cream, and the rest of the paraphernalia of civilized life at the time. In the mid-’30s, the US produced 40 times as many autos per person as did Japan. Even during the Great Depression, the US out-produced Japan by a factor of 7 and its workers earned 10-times as much money.

Economists can’t even measure real prosperity, let alone fiddle it. So they put on the GDP and employment numbers the way a bald man puts on a cheap wig. It makes him look ridiculous and fraudulent, but it’s the best he can do. Unemployment disappears in a war economy. Japan put a million men in uniform. Two million more were part-time reservists. Those who weren’t in the army were put to work building tanks and planes. By 1941, Japan could produce 10,000 planes a year. If you were a swallow you wouldn’t want to build your nest in Japan’s factory chimneys; they belched smoke night and day.

And talk about fiscal stimulus! Krugman would have loved it – stimulus unfettered by real money or even a casual regard for real prosperity. Takahashi Korekiyo was known as the “Japanese Keynes.” Gillian Tett notes in The Financial Times that he was assassinated in 1936 after he came to his senses and tried to bring state finances under control. He was done in by army officers who did not want the stimulus to stop. Not that we’re being judgmental about it. As far as we know, the quality of central banking could probably be improved by an occasional assassination.

Takahashi wasn’t the first. Before him Junnosuke Inoue had held out for the gold standard and balanced budgets. He was out of office by 1931 and out of luck in 1932, when he was murdered. The gold-backed yen was abolished the day he left office. Then, public spending, deficits, central planning, debt, and inflation ran wild. By 1939, the Japanese were spending $5 million a day on their war with China – a huge sum for the Japanese at the time.

Was the economy improved by all this spending? No, it was perverted…hammered into a grotesque imposter – a parody of a real economy. Most of the nation’s resources were put to work building things almost no one wanted. Then, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the stimulus efforts were redoubled. Rations were reduced further. Working hours were extended. What few consumer items were available were three times as expensive at the end of the war as they had been when it began. Men were conscripted into factories and the army. Women were expected not only to make the tanks, but to join the home-guard and prepare themselves to repulse the American invaders with sharpened bamboo sticks. What a marvelous economy – operating at full capacity and full employment until General MacArthur finally put it out of its misery.

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