“From a Keynesian standpoint, I believe that with the economy depressed it’s better to spend the money in Afghanistan than not to spend it.”
The above excerpt comes from a post noting the inconsistency of self-styled deficit hawks complaining about the relative pittance spent on social programs and its contribution to the national debt even as they vote in lockstep to drop another $37 billion on a failing nation-building exercise in Afghanistan. And as far as the point goes, it’s a good one: there has long been a glaringly obvious inconsistency in conservatives railing against totalitarian “Big Government” while pledging undying allegiance to growing a military-industrial complex that sucks away more and more of their tax money while helping chisel away at the remainder of their civil liberties.
But there’s something wrong — something sick, really — with Ygelsias’ war-as-stimulus argument that strikes me as far more offensive than the fact that some fiscal conservatives are hypocrites when it comes to the National Security State. If you believe the war in Afghanistan is vital to protecting America, well, go ahead and make your case. Explain why pushing the couple dozen or so members of al-Qaeda allegedly still in the country over to Pakistan, while creating new enemies with each errant air strike, actually makes us safer.
What you shouldn’t do in a debate over war, at least if you want to maintain your status as a Non-Despicable Person, is argue that bombing and occupying a foreign nation makes good economic sense. Even if it were true as an academic point, it’s grotesquely out of place in a discussion of matters of life and death. War, if it can ever be justified — and I have my doubts — can only be so on the grounds that it is absolutely necessary to protecting human life: there is no other choice, it’s a last resort. Yet Yglesias discusses the continuation of a major, bloody armed conflict as if it were just another jobs program; perhaps not the most effective one to his mind, but hey, it’s better that the federal government spend money on a pointless war than do nothing at all (like actually save money by ending said pointless war). Read the line again: “I believe that with the economy depressed it’s better to spend the money in Afghanistan than not to spend it.” Sorry, but someone truly familiar with all the horrors of war, someone who could actually empathize with an Afghan mother or father losing their child to an American smart bomb — or a child watching their parents die in a botched night raid by U.S. marines — could never write that.
On Twitter I brashly argued that Yglesias’ statement demonstrated that he was in fact a “truly awful human being” — an assertion I regret because I don’t actually think Matt Yglesias is”awful” in the sense that he would, say, shoot an Afghan child in the head if he thought it’d boost U.S. Treasury bonds. As I’ve argued before, Yglesias and other war supporters likely wouldn’t dare countenance violence in their personal lives, and are probably perfectly nice people who spend their weekends doing perfectly normal, nice people things. And these very people who wouldn’t think of kicking a dog much less killing a person are capable of cooly endorsing monstrously awful actions overseas, the distance — and their safety behind a MacBook screen in a DC think tank — removing them from the ugly reality of the killing be carried out in their name. War to the Beltway wonk essentially becomes just another intellectual exercise, something to be endlessly debated, a game of dueling white papers and comment threads, and not so much a matter of life and death, of newlyweds killed and children’s limbs blown off by some guy pulling a 9-to-5 in a Nevada control room. No, wars and the merits of launching new ones become something you debate on BloggingHeads.TV before getting drunk at the local hipster bar’s trivia night.
Yet despite the self-evident horribleness of defending war spending on the basis that not spending the money on a military occupation would harm your 401k, Yglesias acted surprised anyone could be offended by his post when challenged on it. “Is Paul Krugman also awful for raising this point,” he asked me, “or is economic illiteracy necessary for goodness?”
But of course the issue isn’t who knows more about economics. The issue is the fact that economics is irrelevant to the question of whether the U.S. ought to be in Afghanistan, and that it is deeply disturbing to frame a war supplemental as if it were a less-than-ideal second stimulus package — and to bolster your argument by pointing to the fact that the illegal Iraq war, too, was ultimately good for your bank account. Invading Norway might stimulate certain sectors of the economy and perhaps even bring the unemployment rate comfortably below double-digits for a time, but does anyone outside of a Weekly Standard editorial meeting think that’s a morally defensible argument for dropping some bombs?
In a back-and-forth debate on Twitter, though, Yglesias stuck to his argument. “I think you don’t understand how stimulus works. See the Krugman item,” he told me, adding that he didn’t see why “a factual dispute make[s] me ‘immoral.'”
The Krugman item, as it happens, doesn’t really help Yglesias’ case as much he thinks. Yes the esteemed Nobel Laureate argues that “war is, in general, expansionary for the economy,” but he’s not so cynical as to argue that countries should therefore prolong military quagmires to promote such an expansion, which is Yglesias’ implicit argument. And there is still a major flaw in Krugman’s analysis: he doesn’t even begin to consider the potential downsides to creating entrenched economic interests whose well-being depends on there being a perpetual state of war, nor the economic impact on the people in Iraq and elsewhere who are being bombed. We are all cosmopolitans now, right? So if we’re going to weigh the economic impacts of war, one would think a good liberal would not be so parochial as to focus just on one party — their party — in a conflict.
It’s also unclear to me how spending loads of money on missiles and Predator drones actually benefits society as a whole, rather than just a select few politically connected military contractors; sure, it might boost GDP temporarily, but only because the government is borrowing money from China — itself an act of dubious morality given the Chinese government’s human rights record — to build a bunch of weapons that serve no purpose other than killing people. So I sound like Cindy Sheehan: it’s true.
As for the confusion as to how taking one side in a “factual dispute” could make someone “immoral”, well, again: I don’t consider it so much a dispute over facts because my fundamental criticism is not that Yglesias is wrong that spending another $37 billion on the war in Afghanistan will benefit the U.S. economy, but that it doesn’t matter, and that by acting as if it does he is displaying a rather unfortunate and ugly nationalistic bias. True or not, I don’t see why anyone with a functioning conscience should care if the Afghan war boosts consumer demand for iPhones and DVD players at home, and it’s frankly a bit disconcerting that he can’t understand why some would consider his an immoral (amoral?) line of argument. All this doesn’t make Yglesias an awful person, per se, but it does certainly demonstrate an awful callousness on his part toward those who will undoubtedly die as a result of his and George Bush’s brand of economic stimulus.
UPDATE: IOZ weighs in.