Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Beltway liberalism in 24 words

"From a Keynesian standpoint, I believe that with the economy depressed it’s better to spend the money in Afghanistan than not to spend it."
-- Matt Yglesias, Center for American Progress
The above excerpt comes from a post noting the inconsistency of self-styled deficit hawks complaining about the relative pittance spent on social programs and its contribution to the national debt even as they vote in lockstep to drop another $37 billion on a failing nation-building exercise in Afghanistan. And as far as the point goes, it's a good one: there has long been a glaringly obvious inconsistency in conservatives railing against totalitarian "Big Government" while pledging undying allegiance to growing a military-industrial complex that sucks away more and more of their tax money while helping chisel away at the remainder of their civil liberties.

But there's something wrong -- something sick, really -- with Ygelsias' war-as-stimulus argument that strikes me as far more offensive than the fact that some fiscal conservatives are hypocrites when it comes to the National Security State. If you believe the war in Afghanistan is vital to protecting America, well, go ahead and make your case. Explain why pushing the couple dozen or so members of al-Qaeda allegedly still in the country over to Pakistan, while creating new enemies with each errant air strike, actually makes us safer.

What you shouldn't do in a debate over war, at least if you want to maintain your status as a Non-Despicable Person, is argue that bombing and occupying a foreign nation makes good economic sense. Even if it were true as an academic point, it's grotesquely out of place in a discussion of matters of life and death. War, if it can ever be justified -- and I have my doubts -- can only be so on the grounds that it is absolutely necessary to protecting human life: there is no other choice, it's a last resort. Yet Yglesias discusses the continuation of a major, bloody armed conflict as if it were just another jobs program; perhaps not the most effective one to his mind, but hey, it's better that the federal government spend money on a pointless war than do nothing at all (like actually save money by ending said pointless war). Read the line again: "I believe that with the economy depressed it’s better to spend the money in Afghanistan than not to spend it." Sorry, but someone truly familiar with all the horrors of war, someone who could actually empathize with an Afghan mother or father losing their child to an American smart bomb -- or a child watching their parents die in a botched night raid by U.S. marines -- could never write that.

On Twitter I brashly argued that Yglesias' statement demonstrated that he was in fact a "truly awful human being" -- an assertion I regret because I don't actually think Matt Yglesias is"awful" in the sense that he would, say, shoot an Afghan child in the head if he thought it'd boost U.S. Treasury bonds. As I've argued before, Yglesias and other war supporters likely wouldn't dare countenance violence in their personal lives, and are probably perfectly nice people who spend their weekends doing perfectly normal, nice people things. And these very people who wouldn't think of kicking a dog much less killing a person are capable of cooly endorsing monstrously awful actions overseas, the distance -- and their safety behind a MacBook screen in a DC think tank -- removing them from the ugly reality of the killing be carried out in their name. War to the Beltway wonk essentially becomes just another intellectual exercise, something to be endlessly debated, a game of dueling white papers and comment threads, and not so much a matter of life and death, of newlyweds killed and children's limbs blown off by some guy pulling a 9-to-5 in a Nevada control room. No, wars and the merits of launching new ones become something you debate on BloggingHeads.TV before getting drunk at the local hipster bar's trivia night.

Yet despite the self-evident horribleness of defending war spending on the basis that not spending the money on a military occupation would harm your 401k, Yglesias acted surprised anyone could be offended by his post when challenged on it. "Is Paul Krugman also awful for raising this point," he asked me, "or is economic illiteracy necessary for goodness?"

But of course the issue isn't who knows more about economics. The issue is the fact that economics is irrelevant to the question of whether the U.S. ought to be in Afghanistan, and that it is deeply disturbing to frame a war supplemental as if it were a less-than-ideal second stimulus package -- and to bolster your argument by pointing to the fact that the illegal Iraq war, too, was ultimately good for your bank account. Invading Norway might stimulate certain sectors of the economy and perhaps even bring the unemployment rate comfortably below double-digits for a time, but does anyone outside of a Weekly Standard editorial meeting think that's a morally defensible argument for dropping some bombs?

In a back-and-forth debate on Twitter, though, Yglesias stuck to his argument. "I think you don't understand how stimulus works. See the Krugman item," he told me, adding that he didn't see why "a factual dispute make[s] me 'immoral.'"

The Krugman item, as it happens, doesn't really help Yglesias' case as much he thinks. Yes the esteemed Nobel Laureate argues that "war is, in general, expansionary for the economy," but he's not so cynical as to argue that countries should therefore prolong military quagmires to promote such an expansion, which is Yglesias' implicit argument. And there is still a major flaw in Krugman's analysis: he doesn't even begin to consider the potential downsides to creating entrenched economic interests whose well-being depends on there being a perpetual state of war, nor the economic impact on the people in Iraq and elsewhere who are being bombed. We are all cosmopolitans now, right? So if we're going to weigh the economic impacts of war, one would think a good liberal would not be so parochial as to focus just on one party -- their party -- in a conflict.

It's also unclear to me how spending loads of money on missiles and Predator drones actually benefits society as a whole, rather than just a select few politically connected military contractors; sure, it might boost GDP temporarily, but only because the government is borrowing money from China -- itself an act of dubious morality given the Chinese government's human rights record -- to build a bunch of weapons that serve no purpose other than killing people. So I sound like Cindy Sheehan: it's true.

As for the confusion as to how taking one side in a "factual dispute" could make someone "immoral", well, again: I don't consider it so much a dispute over facts because my fundamental criticism is not that Yglesias is wrong that spending another $37 billion on the war in Afghanistan will benefit the U.S. economy, but that it doesn't matter, and that by acting as if it does he is displaying a rather unfortunate and ugly nationalistic bias. True or not, I don't see why anyone with a functioning conscience should care if the Afghan war boosts consumer demand for iPhones and DVD players at home, and it's frankly a bit disconcerting that he can't understand why some would consider his an immoral (amoral?) line of argument. All this doesn't make Yglesias an awful person, per se, but it does certainly demonstrate an awful callousness on his part toward those who will undoubtedly die as a result of his and George Bush's brand of economic stimulus.

(h/t toombzie)

UPDATE: IOZ weighs in.


  1. watou8:28 PM

    Submitting oneself to and explaining away the moral bankruptcy of one's political party is one of the ugliest traits in a person. In these people, tribal loyalty fills the hole where the humanity should go.

    Evil isn't banal, but it does get its drink on at the Wonderland now and again.

  2. Yep, these people - Krugman included - just don't get it - morality I mean.

    And as you point out they are completely oblivious to the many dis-economies encouraged by the war.

    It is bracing to realize that those guys are considered 'fringe left' by many.

  3. unless a war is fought entirely with nerf weapons(and maybe not even the)n, there is no way to fight a war with the intention of preserving human life. as the saying goes, it's like screwing for virginity.

  4. What's kind of funny, in the awful funny sense, by which I mean it's awful and awful funny, is that they don't even get the economics either.

    Keynesians have generally completely misinterpreted WW2 spending as what got us out of the Depression. The actual spending did little. However, the "make work" program for a few million soldiers sent overseas and their significant others who remained, as well helped a lot, along with the wartime rationing which forced people to save via liberty bonds, completely fixed the finances of the people ruined by the debt-deflation of the 1930s.

    Economists were perplexed when in 1947, the US only suffered a mild recession rather than falling back into another Depression. Why, when $800 billion of spending was taken away, did we not collapse? The 1920 recession was much worse than 1947.

    One reason was that these soldiers, who had only been able to spend money on hookers and cigarettes, and their families, which had been limited to 1 pound of meat a week, had build up a lot of pent up demand. They also had a debt to income level we would never see again.

    Another reason was that much of wartime production carried over. The US was THE empire now, with most of Europe and Asia blown up and America unscathed. The wartime suppliers didn't see the structural shift in production after the war ended -- We had an empire to run -- and many (like the automakers, which had consolidated down to a handful), could just retool to take advantage of the consumer boom.

    Spending money for its own sake sayd nothing. What that money is spent on is rather important. If it is funneled in extended unemployment benefits to people who are guaranteed to spend it, this will have much more of an effect than funneling it to war profiteers who buy $100,000 belt buckles or misplace $9 billion in the desert.

    The same is true for investment. Infrastructure investment, while necessary, is not stimulative. This is why the Obama stimulus failed so badly. It doesn't lead to more production through capital accumulation. Once you've made sure the bridge won't fall down, the contractors need another project to work on.

    Krugman is not a macro guy. He's a trade guy. He's actually a pretty bad macro guy, largely because he's cast his lot with a pretty worthless macro theory.

    And Yglesias? Well, IOZ is lampooning him on a daily basis now. He's becoming the poster child for blog buffoonery.

  5. almostinfamous,

    I agree: the idea of a "just war" to me seems an oxymoron. I suppose maybe if my country was being invaded by Nazi-Stalinist-Transformers I could see taking up arms. In the real world, though...

  6. Mike in Phoenix9:08 AM

    Was Auschwitz good for the German economy? At least the personnel had jobs - right?

  7. Brian Drake10:16 AM

    Though you may regret calling Yglesias a "truly awful human being", I'm not convinced your retraction is called for.

    Evil doesn't have a mustache, a Persian cat to stroke, and a maniacal laugh. Actual evil is much more commonplace and mundane. I'd submit that proffering detached, "amoral", "economic" argument in support of murder (weighing the killing of innocents vs. financial gain) is a fairly accurate signpost of a "truly awful human being". Anyone who engages in a cost/benefit analysis when the cost is murder is a murderer in their heart. No, they may not have the balls to pull the trigger themselves, and they probably are nice to old ladies and don't abuse animals (i.e., "[they] likely wouldn't dare countenance violence in their personal lives"). But their detached indifference to the death and suffering caused by the very actions they advocate is, I would think, the very indicator of an awful and evil person.

    Morality considered, Yglesias is a rotten person. But he's also wrong in his analysis, which makes his haughtiness a further indicator of his decrepit character. As you rightly suspect, Krugman and Yglesias demonstrate their economic illiteracy by proffering their version of "war is good for the economy", which is just another horrible (from a morality standpoint) rehash of the broken window fallacy. Yeah, forcibly taking money from the productive (via taxation) and using it to blow stuff up and kill people is really a productive activity. Think about it.

    All the complex math and convoluted argumentation of Keynes (or any other statist "economist") still can't make 2+2=5. Voluntary exchange (made possible by production/saving) is the only method of true increase in wealth. Anything else is simply wealth redistribution - stealing. Unlike voluntary trade, where both parties expect benefit, theft is always one sided. The war-makers benefit at the expense of everyone else. That's only "good for the economy" if by the "economy" you mean those who steal from the productive. The political class, in other words.

  8. Anonymous10:54 AM

    But...but...KRUGMAN! Krugman sez! So, you know, KRUGMAN!

    The ritual incantation of that name is supposed to produce an awed silence, is the part that makes me laugh right the fuck out loud.

  9. The Medium Lobster over in IOZ's comment section on this subject said it better than I (or pretty much anyone else) could:

    "ll tell you exactly why we find you so "outrageous," Matty: because as soon as it became clear that management of multiple, ongoing wars was passing from Republican to Democratic hands, you passed from an outspoken and repeated preference for withdrawal to murmured deference to pained hairsplitting to blithe insouciance to outright sociopathy; because where you once maintained that George Bush was a war criminal, you now maintain that present war crimes are necessary to boost our GDP; because you are an empty, soulless, amoral hack, whose sole function appears to be to spread a thin veneer of managerial competence over a massive, world-historical, imperial clusterfuck which has already consumed countless lives."

  10. While the forced savings endured by the US citizens during WWII was important for fueling both postwar investment and consumer demand, don't forget the minor detail that post WWII US was the only industrialized economy not bombed into oblivion.

    It is not the case that the US economy is improved through war spending. All economies would be far richer without war. (see the "broken window fallacy")
    Ever dollar spent in war is diverted from peaceful ends after being stolen from its productive owner.

    The post WWII recovery was a function of the forced savings and the global industrial competition having been obliterated. (UK,Germany,Japan,Italy,France, etc...)

    I am sickened by the Yglesias quote and Keynesianism in general.

    Even Keynes noted that his prescription is most easily carried out in a totalitarian regime. No wonder we see the rise of Totalitarianism in lockstep with continued Keynesian policy.

  11. RLaing1:59 PM

    As a practical matter, war is justified any time the decision making class thinks that there is something to be gained from violence.

    Somewhat obliquely in Yglesia's defense, I have to say that we do not have wars because of empty soulless amoral hackery. This reverses cause and effect, to my mind.

    Defending Krugman in the same spirit, I am not surprised he does not 'get' morality; the topic is exceedingly complex, involving among other issues the imperfect resolution of conflicts that arise between emotional and factual 'truth' (hence hypocrisy and ignorance, nowhere near as widely condemned as practised). There is a good deal more to it than the emotional responses of any one individual.

  12. Minor Player7:11 PM

    The purpose of the Afghanistan project is not nation building, as I am sure you are aware. The purpose is to prepare the ground for future profitable private US investment in fuel corridors and mining concessions. The US public investment in military construction there is focussed on the corridors and will probably later be focussed on the important mineral ore areas.

    This is the dance that is always performed and is, in effect, an indirect transfer from the taxpayers in the US to the US corporate sector (non-US corporate participants serving as fig leaves). Future profits will be repatriated to the Cayman's and Zurich in the case that the US tax structure shifts so as to bite into them.

    In the short term there is immediate profit for the various services providers.

    When Obama announced (or was it just a 'running it up the flagpole to see if anyone saluted') the civilian expeditionary force for Afghanistan, I wondered if there might also be an actual colonization effort in the USA's future. That would would certainly ease our unemployment difficulties!

  13. Anonymous1:06 PM

    Charles, John T. Flynn laid out your points almost 70 years ago in As We Go Marching. A polemic, but a scholarly one, and amazing relevant to today.

  14. "It's also unclear to me how spending loads of money on missiles and Predator drones actually benefits society as a whole, rather than just a select few politically connected military contractors"

    Not to defend the pig Yglesias, but this quote means you have some pretty remedial learning to do. Try to think it through, based on actual facts and explanations...

  15. Michael,

    So basically your thing is to go blog-to-blog in a vain attempt to show everyone how much smarter you are than they through nothing more than the sheer, unbridled power of condescension, huh? Speaking on behalf of the Internet, we're all Very Impressed.

  16. I would really like to know just what MD has been smoking lately. I'm growing concerned.

  17. Michael M.9:43 AM

    I have something to say here that most people will probably not get. I agree with the write that Iglesias is probably not "an awful human being," because "an awful human being" means 'being awful as far as human beings go.' I think that the problem is that, contrary to our notion that human beings in general are basically all right, in act they aren't. In other words, what Iglesias said - the careless callousness and brutality of it - is something characteristic of human beings, whose general first instinct is that as long as something is good for their own group (e.g., here meaning Americans), it is easy to forget about its consequences for other people, or play them down. In other words, I think the average for our species as a whole is pretty poor. So it's true, Iglesias is not "an awful human being" because the standard for being all right as a human being is pretty low already.
    In fact, the writer is right that what iglesias said is awful, and he was awful when he said it - this just doesn't make him an awful human being - unfortunately.

  18. Anonymous9:47 PM

    The trouble with contemporary globalist liberals is that they make Utility the supreme moral.

    As long as they can convince themselves that they are maximizing Utility (which assumes a consummate foreknowledge), there's nothing they wouldn't be willing to do.


  19. Anonymous12:43 PM

    Yglesias doesn't actually favor making decisions about whether to engage in war on the basis of domestic economic effects. If he did your post would be right. He meant that, since he already favors a limited Afghan engagement for other reasons, it is worth mentioning that this money could have beneficial economic effects and might as well be added to the effort. He does not thereby favor using the money in any random callous way the worst war supporter might conceive of.