Rumors of War

War is widely thought to be linked to economic good times. World War II is often said to have brought the world out of the Great Depression, and war has since enhanced its reputation as a spur to economic growth. Some even suggest that capitalism needs wars, that without them, recession would always lurk on the horizon.

Today, we know that these propositions are nonsense. The 1990s boom showed that peace is economically far better than war. The Gulf War of 1991 demonstrated that wars can actually be bad for an economy. That conflict contributed mightily to the onset of the recession of 1991 (which, it should be remembered, was probably the key factor in denying the first President Bush re-election in 1992).

The current situation is far more akin to the Gulf War than to wars that may have contributed to economic growth. Indeed, the economic effects of a second war against Iraq would probably be far more adverse. WWII called for total mobilization, and it was that total mobilization, requiring a country's total resources, that wiped out unemployment. Total war means total employment.

By contrast, the direct costs of a military attack on Saddam Hussein's regime will be minuscule in terms of total US government spending. Most analysts put the total costs of the war at less than 0.1% of GDP, the highest at 0.2% of GDP. Much of that, moreover, includes the usage of munitions that already exist, implying that little or no stimulus will be provided to today's economy.