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When did you become passionate about the conversion project, from a military to civilian economy?
Around 1980 or so, a number of colleagues and I decided that the militarization of the economy was going full tilt, and that it was going to create very great difficulties for people finishing with military service. People who were spending their lives in military production were in for a very big letdown with the end of the war in Vietnam. And so, a group of us decided that we ought to form a National Commission For Economic Conversion and Disarmament. While it’s obviously true that pieces of technology, like ball and roller bearings, are going to be used not only in military technologies but in civilian stuff as well, the fact is that major new technologies were not foreseeable as having the property of being useful for both military and civil society. As a war economy deinindustrializes, part of the work goes into more military stuff, but the major part of the deindustrialization is simply the shutdown of civilian work in this country and its transfer elsewhere - mainly to countries that pay low wages and, very importantly, discourage the formation and operation of trade unions. The militarization of the economy then has two sides: the continuation and the expansion of the militarization in the U.S. and the cessation of all manner of civilian work and its transfer of the investments for this work, especially to China.
What does it mean to be in a permanent war economy?
The economy that served the military was large, diverse, elaborately equipped, well financed, and was being made a continuing part of the American economy, and a continuing interest of the federal government. The military economy has become a very durable part of the economy of the United States. But I wonder these days if it ever can be truly permanent. In a book I’m writing now (Wars Unlimited), I give special attention to the idea of previously understood durability of the war economy. I don’t think it’s going to be that durable. I think it’s going to be forced to give way.
Why was it conventional wisdom at one time that military spending was good for the economy?
This idea has its origin in the middle of the first Roosevelt administration. The history was approximately as follows. Roosevelt entered the White House in 1933. That was clearly at the bottom of the Great Depression. There were about ten million unemployed. There were bread lines in every major city. The Roosevelt administration tried a series of civilian public works, some of them emergency measures. The emergency measures started with food distribution, but it extended on to devices like the Civilian Conservation Corps, which invited young men to show up for an enlistment, so to speak, and were put to work on environmental conservation jobs, that were organized in detail by the Army. But these previously unemployed young men were suddenly full-time occupied and the military made available decent food and clothing. So the work in combination with the food and clothing and medical care that became available was a big boost in the level of living for hundreds of thousands of young men who were enlisted. As you reach the end of the 1930s, starting with late 1937 and then into 1938, there was a heating up of the military political temperatures, notably in Europe. One of the earliest things that was undertaken were programs to expand the U.S. Navy. As this was done, the economists in the United States seemed to make a discovery. The discovery was that the U.S. economy could make considerable expenditures, certainly enlarging the expenditures for the military, and it didn’t detract from anything else. (more…)