Military Keynesianism is an economic policy based on the position that government should raise military spending to boost economic growth. It is a fiscal stimulus policy as advocated by John Maynard Keynes. But where Keynes advocated increasing public spending on socially useful items (infrastructure in particular), additional public spending is allocated to the arms industry, the area of defense being that over which the executive exercises greater discretionary power. Typical examples of such policies are Nazi Germany, or the United States during and after World War II, during the presidencies of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman. This type of economy is linked to the interdependence between welfare and warfare states, in which the latter feeds the former, in a potentially unlimited spiral. The term is often used pejoratively to refer to politicians who apparently reject Keynesian economics, but use Keynesian arguments in support of excessive military spending.
Keynesian Economics and Application
Much of the Third Reich economy was oriented towards militarization, especially to prepare for a possible war with the Slavic nations, rather than in the production of consumer goods or towards commercial expansion. Nevertheless, the concentration of capital in the arms industry had favored a rapid expansion of German industrial capacity and helped to reduce unemployment rates.
In the United States this theory was applied during the Second World War, during the presidencies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman, the latter with the document NSC-68. The influence of Military Keynesianism on US economic policy choices lasted until the Vietnam War. Keynesians maintain that government spending should first be used for useful purposes such as infrastructure investment, but that even non-useful spending may be helpful during recessions. John Maynard Keynes advocated that government spending could be used "in the interests of peace and prosperity" instead of "war and destruction". An example of such policies are the Public Works Administration in the 1930s in the United States.
Keynes' 1933 letter to Roosevelt
In 1933, John Maynard Keynes wrote an open letter to President Franklin Roosevelt urging the new president to borrow money to be spent on public works programs.
Thus as the prime mover in the first stage of the technique of recovery I lay overwhelming emphasis on the increase of national purchasing power resulting from governmental expenditure which is financed by Loans and not by taxing present incomes. Nothing else counts in comparison with this. In a boom inflation can be caused by allowing unlimited credit to support the excited enthusiasm of business speculators. But in a slump governmental Loan expenditure is the only sure means of securing quickly a rising output at rising prices. That is why a war has always caused intense industrial activity. In the past orthodox finance has regarded a war as the only legitimate excuse for creating employment by governmental expenditure. You, Mr President, having cast off such fetters, are free to engage in the interests of peace and prosperity the technique which hitherto has only been allowed to serve the purposes of war and destruction.
These arguments will come from the very people who denied that the economic recovery plan created any jobs. We have a very odd economic philosophy in Washington: It’s called weaponized Keynesianism. It is the view that the government does not create jobs when it funds the building of bridges or important research or retrains workers, but when it builds airplanes that are never going to be used in combat, that is of course economic salvation.
The following forms of military Keynesianism may be differentiated:
- First, there is the differentiation between the use of military spending as 'pump primer', and efforts to achieve long term multiplier effects by the given spending. A government may opt to approve the purchases of fighter planes, warships or other military commodities so as to weather a recession. Alternatively, it may opt to approve the purchase of fighter planes, warships or other military commodities throughout all the years of a given business cycle. Since the construction of large armament systems requires extensive planning and research, capitalist states generally prefer to rely on arms' purchases or other military allocations for longer-term macro-economic policymaking and regulation.
- A second differentiation that needs to be made is between primary and secondary forms of military Keynesianism. In both cases, the state uses the multiplier mechanism in order to stimulate aggregate demand in society. But the primary form of military Keynesianism refers to a situation where the state uses its military allocations as the principal means to drive the business cycle. In case of a secondary form of military Keynesianism, the given allocations contribute towards generating additional demand, but not to the extent that the economy is fully, or primarily, driven by the military allocations.
- The third differentiation starts from the observation that modern capitalist economies do not function as closed systems but rely on foreign trade and exports as outlets for the sale of a part of their surplus. This general observation applies to the surplus generated in the military sector as well. As the vast amount of data regarding state promotion of arms' exports do confirm, capitalist states actively try to ensure that their armament corporations gain access to import orders from foreign states, and they do so amongst others in order to generate multiplier effects. Hence, there is a need to also differentiate between the two forms of domestic and 'externalized' military Keynesianism.
Many economists have attempted to estimate the multiplier effect of military expenditures with mixed results. A meta-analysis of 42 primary studies with 243 estimates concluded that military expenditures tended to increase the economy in developed countries with military exports but decrease the economy in less developed countries with generally higher level of political corruption.
Externalities are rarely if ever considered in estimating a multiplier effect. This can be a serious issue for military expenditures. For example, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) relies mostly on captured weapons. For example, in Mosul between 4 and 10 June 2014 a group of between 500 and 600 ISIL troops "were able to seize six divisions' worth of strategic weaponry, all of it US-supplied" from a force with a paper strength of 120,000 men. In considering the multiplier effect of military expenditures, the people killed and property destroyed are not considered. The only things that are considered are the increased weapon sales to replace those stolen and the costs associated with combatting ISIL. Those are considered as increasing the Gross Domestic Product of the United States, and that is assumed to be good.
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- Cheap Wars by Jonathan Nitzan, Ph.D. Associate Professor of Political Economy, and Shimshon Bichler, Lecturer of Political Economy
- Defense Doesn't Need Stimulus by Christopher Preble, Ph.D. History
- Doesn't all the war spending stimulate the economy? And shouldn't the Bush tax cuts do the same? So why are we falling into recession? Dollars & Sense magazine
- Military Keynesianism to the Rescue? by Robert Higgs, Ph.D. Professor Emeritus of Economics
- Rich Nation, Strong Army: National Security and the Technological Transformation of Japan by Richard J. Samuels, Ph.D. Professor of Political Science
- The economic disaster that is military Keynesianism: Why the US has really gone broke by Dr.Chalmers Johnson in the English edition of Le Monde Diplomatique
- High Tech, A Subsidiary Of Pentagon Inc. by Robert B. Reich
- Macroeconomic Consequences of Peace: American Radical Economists and the Problem of Military Keynesianism, 1938–1975