the new American jobs program

Via Ghost In The Machine, this astonishing bit of candor pops up in a PBS piece on the economic crash lurking in our massive wars:

An executive at a small defense contractor recently joked to me, “Afghanistan is our business plan.” I asked him what he would do if the war ended. He stared at me for a moment and said, “Well, then I hope we invade Libya.”

You don’t hear it that straight very often. The author of the piece, Joshua Foust, is quick to point out that

This executive wasn’t actually hoping to occupy Tripoli. But he was expressing a worry many in the defense industry have about how they will run their companies and employ their workers once the wars are over. Ten years of war have established a discrete class of entrepreneurs, mid-level workers and administrators who are completely reliant upon the U.S. being at war to stay employed.

Two things need to be teased apart here. First, Foust reminds us that the government has been floating the private sector a staggering number of jobs through the war contracting system, and that a whole swath of businesses will simply collapse if we actually clear our plate of major wars. Given that we were coming off a budget surplus and the dot-com boom when the wars started, and that we’re only now beginning to creep out of a major unemployment disaster, there’s probably a lesson to be learned here about the complex interplay of government and industry and how to create jobs through government spending.

Specifically: war is costly and is rarely an investment that pays strong dividends for the domestic economy. There’s an argument to be made that war is good for technical R&D, but so is money for basic scientific research. Meanwhile, U.S. infrastructure needs some work, and infrastructure projects are exactly the kind of flexible, ongoing work that a federal jobs program would be great at tackling. Using war as a stealth jobs program, on the other hand, runs into exactly this problem — you have to keep having wars or suffer a sudden drop in employment. But unlike, say, the Hoover Dam (another project approved during boom times that then provided employment during the lean years), the war isn’t contributing anything useful to our future economic growth.

(As an aside, I should note that war contracting jobs are an odd kind of work. The military-intelligence-contracting complex, in particular, is a magnet for the pool of people America has trouble using well: smart but often not college-educated, self-motivated, diligent and curious, but needing stability and a clearly marked path for success to really thrive. What do you do in America if you’re 20, not college-bound, and not an entrepreneur? You join the Army or the Air Force and, probably, work in intelligence. Analysts, of course, are not nearly the only people benefiting from the war boom, of course — truck drivers and mercenaries and logisticians are also among the soon-to-be-unemployed. But the people currently learning the science and craft of electronic signals interception, for example, are exactly the kind of people we could, with some creativity, engage in the massive project of bringing our communications infrastructure into the 21st century.)

So that’s point one. Point two is that when you hear the drumbeat to war, remember that many new jobs and businesses will be created, which means that many more people will have a vested interest in keeping wars going long after the American people are no longer interested in being at war.

There are those who worry that in darkened, smoky boardrooms the executives of Halliburton and KBR plan our country’s wars and then yank the strings of government to bring those wars into being. I am not one of those people. I am not even sure that most people would knowingly corrupt their judgement about when going to war is appropriate for the sake of profit. But defense contractors employ lobbyists in Washington and make campaign contributions to those who keep the money flowing. Everyone is just pursuing his own interest and livelihood, of course, and I don’t particularly blame people for that. But this is precisely the point — we should create incentives, whenever possible, that lead to constructive rather than destructive economic activity. We should not give people perverse incentives to agitate for wars being extended further and further into the future.

There is a moral aspect to this — creating temporary private-sector jobs that depend on killing and fighting probably puts people in an untenable moral position. If there’s an intelligible argument to be made for keeping a standing army in spite of our Founders’ suspicions about such a practice, it’s that the permanent military has less of an incentive to keep the war going than do private contractors, because the Army won’t cease to exist just because we bring it home. It has an ongoing place in our society, whether we are at war or not — whereas contractors have to keep inventing reasons for their continued existence. We shouldn’t put people in that position. But that means that we shouldn’t use contractors as a means of rapidly expanding our defense capabilities to pursue unnecessary wars.

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