Politics & Policy

‘Mass Destruction of Capital’ as a Liberal Economic Panacea

Taking a break during the post-war boom, c. 1950 (Retrofile/Getty)
War is not healthy for children and other living things — despite what progressives say.

‘You will be a minister of death, praying for war.”

Who’d have thought that Gunnery Sergeant Hartman’s description of Marines in Full Metal Jacket would end up encapsulating the progressive economic agenda?

There is a poisonous and dangerous nostalgia in our political discourse, which out of the nearly two-and-one-half centuries of American history finds something close to perfection in only one period of less than 30 years, the highly unusual span from 1945 to 1973, from the end of World War II to the 1973 Arab oil embargo.

It is a strange sort of nostalgia, though, inasmuch as nobody really wants to return to a 1973 or 1950 standard of living. In 1950, most Americans did not have water heaters or simple kitchen appliances, 40 percent of families did not own a car, nearly a third of households had no running water, etc. The typical house was a little more than half the size of the typical house today. In paycheck terms, a school-bus driver in Houston with some seniority today earns around $44,000 a year, which is more in inflation-adjusted terms than the median household income in 1967 ($42,545 in 2015 dollars). There are flight attendants and long-haul truckers and librarians and subway operators who in 2015 can by themselves provide their families with a real standard of living far in excess of what the typical American family enjoyed during the so-called golden age.

If you really want a 1957 standard of living, you are welcome to it.

If you really want a 1957 standard of living, you are welcome to it. A good charity will be happy to take your iPhone, your computer, your extra shoes, your television, and the keys to your Honda Civic. You might miss your air-conditioning, meals out, vacations, etc., but you will be living the middle-class dream.

Our standard of living in the postwar years was low, but it was rising, and rising more quickly than it had during the experience of most of the young veterans manning the assembly lines. The postwar era was not, in fact, the strongest period of economic growth in the United States, or the period with the most dramatic increase in standards of living — that happened in the years between the end of the Civil War and World War I. (If you want to pray for something, pray for an era in which mankind does not demark its history from war to war to war.) Our real standard of living is still rising, but it is not rising as dramatically as it did during the postwar era, which is the root of our current anxiety.

The United States was a manufacturing powerhouse during that era, the other great making nations — Germany, the United Kingdom, Japan — having been bombed to smithereens and their work forces literally (literally, Mr. Vice President!) decimated in some cases. The numbers are horrifying: 9 million dead Germans, 3 million dead Japanese, more than 20 million dead Soviets. There were only — “only” — a half million dead Britons, but the country’s industrial infrastructure was ruined. Without failing to appreciate the sacrifice of those who gave their lives, the position of the United States — its cities unscathed, its dead amounting to less than three-tenths of 1 percent of the population — was enviable.

If you want to pray for something, pray for an era in which mankind does not demark its history from war to war to war.

One can look back at the immediate postwar era and cherry-pick whatever policy one likes, crediting it with the generally satisfactory state of affairs in those years: the relatively high tax rates and strong unions of the Eisenhower years if you’re a progressive, the relatively small public-sector footprint and stable families if you’re a conservative. The desire to return to that state of affairs is alluring for some. Writing in Salon this week, Conor Lynch is positively wistful: “The mass destruction of capital around the world created a much more even playing field than before, while also placing the United States at the forefront of the world economy.”

“Destruction of capital” is a cute way of describing the slaughter of some 80 million people and the burning of their cities. There were good policy decisions and bad policy decisions in the postwar era, but the fundamental fact of economic life on this planet during that time was that humanity was rebuilding after the single worst event in its history, a conflagration that killed more people than the Mongol conquests and the Chinese civil war combined.

When our old friend Frédéric Bastiat described the broken-window fallacy — the nonsensical belief that we can make ourselves richer by destroying wealth and thereby providing ourselves with the opportunity to replace it — he could not have imagined how many windows would be broken less than a century later. American involvement in that war was necessary, but it did not make us any better off in real terms, despite the persistent myth that the war led us out of the Depression. (Solve unemployment now — draft everybody!) Nobody understood this better than the commander of the Allied forces in Europe, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose subsequent presidency would be buoyed by the postwar boom. Wars do not create real wealth — they destroy it, a fact that he lamented in his famous “Cross of Iron” speech:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter with a half-million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. . . . This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.

An interesting turn of phrase from a man named Eisenhower (“iron-worker”). Eisenhower was more of an intellectual than he let on, and perhaps he had read Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, which contains many memorable lines:

That all the ground with purple bloud was sprent,

And all their armours staynd with bloudie gore,

Yet scarcely once to breath would they relent,

So mortall was their malice and so sore.

along with one very memorable coinage: “warmonger.” A “monger” is a trader, literal or metaphorical, in a particular commodity: fishmonger, woolmonger, gossipmonger, whoremonger, warmonger. “Warmonger” is an excellent description of those who believe that wars and their attendant destruction of life and property somehow, through the transmutative property of politics, leaves people better off. They are peddlers of destruction.

We are having an interesting political moment just now, with Republicans and the White House teaming up in support of a new trade accord, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, that would liberalize the exchange of goods and services among twelve signatory nations, mainly high-income, trade-oriented countries that already do a great deal of business with one another: the United States, Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam. With the exception of those under White House discipline, progressives are almost uniformly hostile to TPP, as indeed the Left is generally hostile to all international trade deals. They are not trademongers — but what is it that they are selling?

EDITORIAL: The Trans-Pacific Partnership Deserves a Hearing

The 28-year postwar boom is long gone. The Germans and the Japanese reminded the world that they are very good at building things, and the Chinese, the Indians, the Koreans, and many others have shown themselves to be capable producers. And though there is a tension in writing it while ISIS and al-Qaeda continue their depredations around the world, this has been an era of remarkable peace among nations. The result is that the world — including our little corner of it — is in material terms better off than it ever has been. The United States has not fallen behind — our manufacturing output is in real terms much higher today than it was in 1950 or 1960 — but the rest of the world has caught up. Only a monster could resent that, given the alternative — hunger, privation, misery, disease, human stagnation, and their inevitable companion: war.

The anti-capitalist progressives have made clear what they do not want: free trade, free exchange, nasty foreigners and their nasty cheap goods, international exchange with fewer bosses declaring who may buy and sell and under what conditions, etc.

The United States can, and should, and generally does embrace that. Our best companies are global, our best industries are global, and our best domestic products have been made immeasurably better through global competition. (Would you want to rely on a 1973 General Motors product to get you to work — or to get your child to an emergency room?) And we are as a nation at our best when we meet the world with generosity rather than resentment: Fighting HIV in Africa, helping to end famine in India and elsewhere, working to provide clean water to people around the world who lack that most essential commodity. Those are not the actions of a nation that cannot handle open trade with Canada or Singapore.

RELATED: Zero Inflation Is Holding the Economy Together: Free Trade Will Give It a Strong Boost

The Left wants to withdraw from international trade and detests globalization. Progressives lament an almost entirely mythical “race to the bottom” in global commerce. (Weird that they’re still making Mercedes in Stuttgart and not in Haiti, right?) In reality, global investment does not flow to low-wage economies, but to high-productivity economies; look at the top ten destinations for foreign direct investment and you’ll see precisely one lower-income country — China, in fourth place — while the rest are high-wage countries: the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Spain, etc. Tiny, prosperous Switzerland gets three times as much foreign direct investment as India; strangely, nobody is in a fever about losing out to the Swiss.

But if we move away from globalization, what are we moving toward? Autarky, for one thing, the belief that any given society should try to produce what it consumes and consume what it produces rather than engage in trade. That generally works out poorly — North Korea being the world’s preeminent practitioner of contemporary autarky — which makes perfect sense: If you want to discover the real value of trade, try growing your own food for a year, or ginning cotton and sewing your own clothes. The division of labor — among people and among peoples — is the essence of civilization.

RELATED: Congressional Democrats and the Return of the Yellow Peril

The TPP fight captures in miniature a number of disturbing trends: The Left’s open hostility toward cooperative economic relations with other countries, which is accompanied by an increasingly open and nasty xenophobia, especially as regards Asians; a specifically anti-Chinese prejudice in economic questions, with anti-TPP Democrats insisting on anti-Chinese provisions in the pact — to which China is not even a party; progressives’ calls for increasing centralization and nationalization of the economy, from health care to finance; an eschaton-immanentizing desire for a playing field freshly leveled through the “destruction of capital,” etc., and all of that against a cultural backdrop of misplaced nostalgia for a postwar economic order that was predicated on the wholesale destruction of European and East Asian economies, cities, and human beings — which is to say, warmongering in search of a war.

Capitalism is cooperation, within and among nations. There are alternatives to trade among nations: A nation might declare itself the Middle Kingdom and surround itself with a wall, for one thing, historically a poor policy, or it could order its relations with the rest of the world on a hostile, narrow, zero-sum understanding of human flourishing — every time a poor Indian earns a decent paycheck, an American is a little worse off — which is always and everywhere the overture to war.

TPP is not the beginning or the end of globalization, a word that is in slightly bad odor but simply denotes increasing worldwide cooperation in the production of goods and services as supply chains and markets transcend national boundaries like T. H. White’s freewheeling libertarian geese. But it is nonetheless an interesting episode. The anti-capitalist progressives have made clear what they do not want: free trade, free exchange, nasty foreigners and their nasty cheap goods, international exchange with fewer bosses declaring who may buy and sell and under what conditions, etc. What is it they do want? You cannot have 1953 without 1943, President Eisenhower without General Eisenhower. There is only one precedent to a postwar order. And despite the shocking ineptitude of the American ruling class of the postwar years — in government, in the labor unions, in the corporate boardrooms, and in intellectual life — neither the United States nor any other nation is entitled to wallow in multi-generational, consequence-free stagnation just because we liked things the way they were. The postwar economy was deeply abnormal, and our great national failure was to put off preparing ourselves for what would come next, a dereliction of duty for which we are still paying the price.

A final question: Wasn’t it conservatives who were supposed to be obsessed with living in 1957?


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