Recently, Paul Krugman claimed that the threat of an invasion by space aliens could bring the US economy out of recession in eighteen months. I expect many readers of this site found that both funny and worrying. It reminded me of an excellent science fiction novel I read years ago, “The Forever War” by Joe Haldeman.
Most political movements try to present themselves as positive about humanity. But privately their supporters often admit to seeing “noble lies” and social engineering more positively than they would publicly say. I don’t think libertarians or classical liberals are completely immune to this. In “The Forever War” a leftist author criticises conservatives, but also allows himself to think through the consequences of the ideas of American leftists.
Novels about interstellar war are often quite macho and conservative. “The Forever War” was seen as a response to one of those books, “Starship Troopers” by Robert Heinlein. It begins with an attack by aliens on starships travelling from earth to colonize other planets. It then follows a soldier, Private Mandella, through the ensuing war against the aliens. It becomes clear much later that the start of the war had been a mistake by jumpy humans, not a hostile alien attack. That is rather like the “Gulf of Tonkin Incident” in the Vietnam war. Haldeman wrote “The Forever War” in the early 70s after his own service in Vietnam; the interstellar war he describes is eerily similar to the Vietnam war and clearly a commentary on it.
When the soldiers first return to earth an army captain comes to meet them, he says:
“I’m twenty-three, so I was still in diapers when you people left for Aleph … to begin with, how many of you are homosexual?” Nobody. “That doesn’t really surprise me. I am, of course. I guess about a third of everybody in Europe and America is.
“Most governments encourage homosexuality – the United Nations is neutral, leaves it up to the individual countries – they encourage homolife because it’s the one sure method of birth control.”
Over the course of the book that policy becomes stricter and heterosexuality comes to be seen as a mental illness. It’s interesting to consider if future governments will try strategies like this. As the story progresses it hints that governments have encouraged recreational drug use too for the same reason.
The captain continues:
“… the population of the world is nine billion. It’s more than doubled since you were drafted. And nearly two-thirds of those people get out of school only to go on relief”.
“Relief”, it turns out, is the dole. Here we have the “Gloomy Keynesian” idea that as technology progresses unemployment becomes much greater. It turns out that jobs are rationed and only certain people are eligible so there is a thriving black market in faking this eligibility. Haldeman supposes that the war provides the Keynesian solution to this problem: producing the technology to fight the war creates employment and stimulates output.
The main effect of the war on the home front was economic, unemotional – more taxes but more jobs as well. After twenty-two years, only twenty-seven returned veterans, not enough to make a decent parade. The most important fact about the war to most people was that if it ended suddenly, Earth’s economy would collapse.
And at the very end of the book when some ancient history is discussed:
… the old soldiers were still around, and many of them were in positions of power. They virtually ran the United Nations Exploratory an Colonization Group, that was taking advantage of the newly discovered Collapsar jump to explore interstellar space.
Many of the early ships met with accidents and disappeared. The ex-military men were suspicious. They armed the colonizing vessels, and the first time they met a Tauran ship they blasted it.
They dusted off their medals and the rest was going to be history.
You couldn’t blame it all on the military though. The evidence they presented for the Taurans having been responsible for the early causalities was laughably thin. The few people who pointed this out were ignored.
The fact was, Earth’s economy needed a war, and this one was ideal. It gave a nice hole to throw buckets of money into, but would unify humanity rather than dividing it.
Here we see the problems many leftists have with their own ideas. If Keynes is right about economics or if Malthus is right about population  then that has dark implications. Of course there’s nothing wrong with an idea that leads us to a dark place if that idea is right, but there’s no need to worry if it’s wrong.
Writing about the recent earthquake in Virginia, Steve Horwitz gave a very clear criticism of this kind of thinking:
… the problem with the ‘disasters are good for the economy’ nonsense, and GDP more generally, is that it confuses a flow with a stock. GDP measures a flow of activity, not a stock of wealth. Destroying things and then rebuilding them might increase economic activity in the area affected (by drawing resources from elsewhere), but leaves us with less wealth than we would have had without the disaster. That is the real meaning of the Broken Window Fallacy.
It’s a mistake to think that Keynesians want to waste resources in order to increase employment. Their argument is that it isn’t very important how efficient a spending project is during a recession. They would prefer it if the output of a project were useful because if it were, that would clearly be beneficial. But, they don’t require a project to be efficient; their view is that if no good spending projects are politically feasible, then bad ones will do. They believe that during a recession there are great spin-off benefits to spending on output. They believe that it will stimulate production and employment and make society wealthier in the long run.
Keynesian commentators often seem to believe that the level of GDP output proves that a certain amount of capital wealth exists to be used, so when GDP increases that means society is richer. GDP is certainly an indicator of wealth; output can only be produced because capital and labour exist to produce it. But, many different levels of output are possible with the same capital. The amount of existing stocks of goods that are processed into new outputs depends on the demand for those new outputs.
In the recent controversy over the Virginia earthquake some Keynesian commentators I’ve read have expressed the view that it’s all about “crowding out”. Crowding out is a macroeconomic idea often put forward by critics of the Keynesians. In its simplest form, the argument is that every pound the government tax from someone, or borrow from someone, is a pound that would have been spent on private sector output. So, according to this argument “stimulus” policies will have no beneficial effect. I agree with this idea to some extent. The problem with it is that the private sector doesn’t only sell GDP output; existing assets are also for sale, including financial assets such as bonds and share. That means a person may receive income and spend it on things that aren’t output. Also, once the seller of an asset receives the proceeds he may not spend them on output either; he may buy another asset. Eventually somebody in the chain will spend on output, though that may take a long time. This means a government could increase output by taxing people who are likely to spend their money on assets and using the proceeds to buy output goods.
I don’t think the crowding out explanation helps us very much. As Horwitz says, the important issue isn’t whether output falls, everybody know output falls during a recession. The important question is: what does a fall in output mean?
One possibility is that investors and businesses are being irrationally cautious. Instead of investing in new projects which could earn profits in the future for them and increase output to the benefit of everyone they rush into relatively secure investments such as money, bonds, blue chip stocks and gold. Keynesians are fond of the idea of the irrationality of the market because it supports this view (they aren’t particularly interested in disputing Austrian Business Cycle Theory as a cause of recessions). I think this possibility is a distraction; to the degree that markets can be irrational it’s close to impossible to say in which direction they’re being irrational .
There is an alternative view, though: investors may be making a sensible decision to avoid investing in new projects because the risk/reward ratio is too poor to make it worth their while. That decision may certainly reduce employment in the short-run, but that doesn’t show that it reduces society’s overall wealth. It may well be that this decision isn’t only sensible for investors. The processing of existing resources into new goods doesn’t necessarily add value from anyone’s point of view. Keynesian economists often assume that it’s always worthwhile to convert existing resources into output at the same rate that prevailed before a recession. There is no reason to think this is true.
 – Those interested in the history of economic thought will notice the influence of Malthus. Thomas Malthus was good at coming to unsettling conclusions. He suggested that real wages will fall in the long-run to the minimum necessary for subsistence, consigning the human race to poverty in the long term. Malthus also proposed a macroeconomic theory similar to Keynes’s, long before him.
 – This is the weakest form of the Efficient Markets Hypothesis.