Alien Stimulus

If hostile aliens invade the planet, “this slump would be over in 18 months,” according to New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. It’s a bizarre way to express a bizarre idea: that war is good for the economy.

He draws an analogy with World War II, where the massive military buildup — conscription is left unmentioned — reduced unemployment and caused GDP to skyrocket.

The Independent Institute’s Mary Theroux points out:

The World War II years were a time of shared privation, with virtually every item that we take for granted today either rationed: e.g., meat, gasoline, sugar, clothing; or not available at any cost: e.g., new cars, appliances, etc. The American standard of living throughout World War II remained at an excruciatingly low level that no 21st century American would accept.

War does not create. It can only destroy. True, aggregate numbers like GDP can thrive during such troubled times. Workers were cranking out munitions like nobody’s business. But those workers’ actual standard of living was not high; everyday essentials were being rationed.

That’s the peril of relying on GDP as an economic barometer. It certainly has its uses. But over-reliance on it has made Krugman ignore other, harsher aspects of war. The fighting. The dying. The separated families, in some cases made smaller by the economic stimulus. The privation at home. The lost opportunities, economic and otherwise.

Krugman’s claim that an alien invasion would stimulate the economy is as alien to the economic way of thinking as our new overlords are to us.

Fortunately, not everyone is taking him seriously. A satirical Twitter account, @KrugmanAliens, is poking devastating fun.

Some readers might also be interested in this working paper I wrote a few years ago about the economics of war.