More than 40 years ago, long before anyone had ever heard of Barack Obama, before the collapse of Bear Stearns, and before contemporary debates about bailouts and debt ceilings, two authors, Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy, considered a tricky problem. In times of downturn, the government must spend to stimulate the economy. Yet getting the political establishment to agree on one particular program of spending seemed nearly impossible.
Baran and Sweezy phrased the conundrum as a question: "On what could the government spend enough to keep the system from sinking into the mire of stagnation?"
After assessing the political realities that steer America's power elite, they could find only one response. It was not what typically comes to mind when we think of economic stimulus or government-led job creation.
Their answer: "On arms, more arms, and ever more arms."
The authors did not approve of military spending as a strategy of economic development. But, even at the very outset of the Cold War, they saw the deep hold that it had on decision-makers in Washington, DC.
We can see the continuing hold it has today. This fall, responding to high and persistent unemployment, President Obama called for a federal jobs act. Among its measures, the act proposed investment in schools and infrastructure. Conservative opponents responded with cries of derision. The critics charged that the plan "doubles down on a failed government stimulus strategy." It means "adding more money to the same broken system" they said. Finally, they insisted, “It comes to a point that you can’t keep borrowing in a futile attempt to stimulate the economy when the increased debt itself is weakening the economy.”
Obama's proposals were considered political non-starters, certain to be stonewalled by the Republican Congressional majority. But for all the right-wing insistence that government should end stimulus spending, cut federal budgets in order to reduce the deficit, and generally leave the market to its own devices, our country already has a massive spending program, and it enjoys strong bipartisan support. America's jobs program is its military—and the immense industry that provides the military with services and armaments.
Our country's existing jobs program goes by many names: The Permanent War Economy, Military Keynesianism, The Iron Triangle, Perpetual War. The real question it raises is not whether the government should spend. It is whether the government has been spending well.