The Corner

If Only It Were World War II Again?

Paul Krugman has written yet another piece warning us that we have not borrowed enough (after we took his advice to borrow massively and got little results). We are facing a 1938-like downturn, he says, and so we need to borrow massively as if we were in something like World War II — the assumption being that, in the 1940s, the economy was jump-started by the war, got into high gear, and created the sort of revenues that make massive debt manageable.

I’m not an economist, but as an historian, I consider this an abject misreading of the postwar period, at least through the early 1950s. The war years were characterized by frenetic hyperactivity: Americans worked long hours, women were brought into the work force, new towns and manufacturing centers sprang up, and people gave up necessities — all on the assurance that this furious pace and consumer scarcity would be short-lived. 

As WWII ended and the clean-up began, there was an enormous amount of pent-up global demand for goods. Given the wreckage in Europe, Japan, and Russia and the underdevelopment of India, Asia, and South America, we were about the only ones with the industrial and commercial wherewithal to supply the world rebound — often receiving cheap oil, gas, minerals, and interest in exchange, which supplemented our own vast supplies of comparatively cheap and easily recoverable resources. Nor should we forget the psychological element: Americans, after winning two wars, were enormously confident about their newfound international stature and influence.

At home, four years of consumer deprivation during the war and the weak demography of the 1930s had combined to create huge demand, all while society was increasingly leaving the farm for good and becoming suburbanized. The result was that in the late 1940s and 1950s, the birth rate soared and consumers enthusiastically made first-time purchases of washers, dryers, fridges, cars, etc. Thus, the American economy grew by leaps and bounds.

Today’s situation is not comparable: We are in hock to foreign creditors for trillions and have not been a net creditor since the 1980s. A China, Brazil, South Korea, Taiwan, or India is as or more likely to supply recovering demand for food, steel, or electronics. One can read Krugman-like arguments in Greek newspapers today — that only more massive borrowing can stimulate Greek demand, provide jobs, and grow Greece out of its recession. As if present-day deficits and aggregate debt with soon-to-be-rising interest payments don’t really matter.


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