The military failure machine

by John Quiggin on December 27, 2010

Nicholas Kristof has a column in the NYT putting forward the heretical idea that the US should spend less on the military and more on diplomacy and education. The argument is obviously right as far as it goes, but it leaves one big question unasked. An obvious reason for the focus on military spending is that Americans have massive confidence in their military and much less in their education system, particularly the public school systems.

Yet judged by results, the opposite should surely be the case. Why is this so?

The US military has fought five large-scale wars in the past fifty years, resulting in a draw in Korea[1], a defeat in Vietnam, and three inconclusive outcomes in Iraq (twice) and Afghanistan. That’s a record that makes the worst inner-city public school look pretty good. At least the majority of students, even at the worst schools, end up more or less literate.

The US military does an excellent job in defeating anyone silly enough to put a conventional army in the field against it. But, as a result there aren’t many adversaries so silly (even Saddam didn’t expect war when he invaded Kuwait and did his best to avoid it in 2002-03). Potential opponents either try to acquire nukes or fight with IEDs and suicide bombers.

Kristof is right that even where the use of military power is successful in its own terms, it is unlikely to be cost-effective – his striking observation on this is that the cost of one US soldier in Afghanistan is the same as that of 20 schools. Similarly, Greg Mortensen observes that sending back 243 troops would be enough to finance the entire Afghan higher education system [2].

But the striking thing about military expenditure is that its failure rate is so high. More or less by definition, it’s impossible for both sides to win an armed conflict, but it’s certainly possible (and probably the par outcome) for both sides to lose. So, the US success rate since 1950 is probably about what would be expected. As I’ve mentioned previously, US experience of war (apart from the Civil War) before 1950 was by contrast exceptionally favorable – even the War of 1812 was claimed as a win

Moreover, in all sorts of respects the self-image of the US (as a land of opportunity and social mobility, a generous giver of foreign aid, a beacon of democracy in a generally undemocratic world and so on) seems in most respects to have been set in concrete by 1950. The failure to learn anything from a string of military failures and disappointments seems to fit with this.

I’m talking here mostly about the views of the American public, but these views are even more predominant among the policy elite and the Foreign Policy Community. I don’t think this is primarily because either the elite or the capitalist class they might be regarded as representing benefit from wars. It’s true that there is not much of a penalty for advocating disastrous wars, but as long as you steer clear of a handful of topics, there is not much of a penalty for anything in the US policy elite, once you are regarded as “serious”. And while some businesses obviously benefit from, and lobby for, war, there are plenty more who would prefer to make money trading with putative enemies like Iran and Iraq.

At least, the majority of Americans regard the Iraq and Afghan wars as mistakes where the costs have outweighed the benefits. If that (correct) judgement could be generalised into a recognition that military force rarely generates unequivocal victory, and is rarely worth the cost even when it does, arguments like those of Kristof might begin to prevail.

fn1. In fact, it would probably be more accurate to break the Korean War into two parts: a brief and victorious defensive war in 1950 in which the North’s invading army was thrown back across the border, and a counter-invasion of the North which resulted in a disastrous defeat, and three years of bloody struggle ending in the status quo ante. October 1950 marks the point when US military policy (at least as regards large-scale international conflicts) shifted from reluctant involvement in wars started by others to an increasing preference for pre-emptive military action.

fn2. I think this is an overestimate. Mortensen is estimating the cost of keeping a US soldier in the field at $1 million a year, but taking account of support costs and deferred costs, it’s probably closer to $5 million, which implies that withdrawing a single platoon would be enough.

{ 133 comments }

1

Nick 12.27.10 at 11:22 am

Interestingly once you control for demography, the us school system appears to do very well indeed: http://super-economy.blogspot.com/2010/12/amazing-truth-about-pisa-scores-usa.html

I’ve yet Tobermory convinced but it certainly chimes with how seriously the us seems to take it’s public education, almost like britains obsession with the national health service.

2

Nick 12.27.10 at 11:23 am

Sorry, don’t know how tobermorey came out of ‘to be totally’.

3

Steve Laniel 12.27.10 at 1:02 pm

I don’t know if this is interesting at all, but it occurs to me: the failure rate among small businesses is also, notoriously, very high. Yet I’m quite sure that, if you asked Americans whether they’d trust small businessmen to run their schools — or, maybe more broadly, whether they have more faith in small businesses than in schools — the answer would be overwhelmingly “yes.”

4

rea 12.27.10 at 1:14 pm

Why is this so? Because blowing up things makes better television than teaching reading to first graders.

5

Grimgrin 12.27.10 at 1:37 pm

Americans have confidence in their military because building that confidence is one of the long term goals of the American military, and they’ve been very successful at it.

Here’s an Al Jazeera program that explains how the Pentagon works with Hollywod. It describes how the Pentagon trades access to equipment and personnel for the right to review scripts, ensuring that media portrayals of the military are positive.

We know the Pentagon does the same thing with reporters using the embedding process and providing officially retired officers to give interviews to journalists, and is able to ensure the majority of coverage is positive.

6

MR Bill 12.27.10 at 1:41 pm

It is also true that the military industrial complex (in that rabid socialist D. W. Eisenhower’s phrase) is really profitable, and provides one of the last bulwarks of higher paying manufacturing jobs. I know folks who drive 3-4 hours commute a day to Lockheed Marietta..
The military has got great political support, is fetishized by a certain large number of folks, and is one of the only things done by the government approved of by ‘Conservatives/Libertarians’ (philosophically, as opposed to based on it’s results..)

7

Steve LaBonne 12.27.10 at 1:55 pm

The invincibility of the military is an article of faith, like the quaint belief that the US is always on the side of what is right and good. As such, it’s not susceptible to empirical refutation. And as already pointed out, this faith is sustained by a massive PR campaign conducted by the both military and the huge money-sucking machine that lives in symbiosis with it.

8

DonBoy 12.27.10 at 2:12 pm

I’d count Iraq/1990/1 as only “inconclusive” in the sense that the goal was not to remove SH from Iraq, just from Kuwait. In that one the military succeeded in their assigned task.

9

hardindr 12.27.10 at 2:20 pm

RE PISA scores, breakdown by race in US:

http://www.dailyhowler.com/dh122410.shtml#MINION

Also, I think it is very difficult to call the 1991 Gulf War as a failure for the US military.

10

CharleyCarp 12.27.10 at 2:53 pm

The gladiator invader of Grenada is rolling over in his grave.

11

hix 12.27.10 at 3:00 pm

Breakdown by race is exactly what everyone should think about. Its not like theres some other variable like that blacks are poor and the American poor are just much more screwed than other poor. Immigration, in particular immigration from poor countries with a different language make a good excuse for bad PISA scores. Race doesnt.

12

Roger Albin 12.27.10 at 3:18 pm

You’re overestimating the success of the American armed services. Name 1 unequivocal victory in a major conflict that the USA fought as the sole or predominant combatant since the Spanish-American War. Only Gulf War 1 comes close (and we got that paid for by others). Americans have a particularly unfortunate triumphalist view of WWII in which the crucial roles of the Soviet Union, Britain, and the important roles of smaller states like Australia simply don’t exist.

13

hardindr 12.27.10 at 3:26 pm

RE hix @11:

http://www.dailyhowler.com/dh122410.shtml#MINION

A quick note: For ourselves, we think it’s somewhat surprising that the U.S. scores this high in reading [on the PISA]. Within the American student population, we have a rapidly growing number of deserving, delightful immigrant children. Many of these deserving kids come from low-literacy, low-income backgrounds; they may not even speak English, presenting an educational challenge for their American schools. Beyond that, we have a uniquely American situation based on our brutal racial history. Uh-oh! Among those 34 OECD nations, only the United States spent centuries aggressively trying to stamp out literacy among a major part of its population. The legacy of that benighted history lives with us today, although our “reformers” work very hard to avoid such painful discussions.

[…]

Why don’t American students score better [on standardized testing like the PISA]? In large part, the answer is drawn from our brutal history, a history “reformers” don’t like to discuss. Beyond that, a brutal poverty stalks the land—a poverty of imagination and insight among our “reformers” and “journalists.” Few of them show the slightest sign of having set foot in a low-income school. (Rhee herself spent three years in such schools, then fled for Harvard and Gotham.) Few of them seem to have any ideas how to serve low-income kids from the first day they show up at kindergarten. Few of them discuss the need to intervene within low-income homes, long before these deserving children ever set foot in a school.

14

Anderson 12.27.10 at 3:47 pm

American taxpayers insist on spending little on schools and then complaining how poor the schools supposedly are.

Let’s try fighting our next war solely with the state national guards, and fund those by property taxes, and see how that goes down.

15

Anderson 12.27.10 at 3:49 pm

Name 1 unequivocal victory in a major conflict that the USA fought as the sole or predominant combatant since the Spanish-American War.

The 1941-45 war against Japan, which by an accident of history we refer to as if it were part of the 1939-45 war against Germany.

16

Tim Worstall 12.27.10 at 3:54 pm

“At least the majority of students, even at the worst schools, end up more or less literate.”

Not, perhaps, the apt comparison. “More or less” literacy can be achieved in a year or two, the school system has the kids for 12 years.

Fighting a war is, I would humbly submit, something rather more complex than that.

(I’d be prepared to argue, even if not too hard, that the majority of the population would become more or less literate in the complete absence of a public school system. Just the use of texts on mobile phones would get us a long way to that point over the 18 years before “graduation”.)

17

Chris E 12.27.10 at 3:58 pm

“Interestingly once you control for demography, the us school system appears to do very well indeed”

I’m not sure that this should give as much solace as the author takes from it. You educate the children you have, not an ideal set of children that you would have given a completely different set of circumstances. America’s relatively open borders are often lauded as adding dynamism to the economy, so it’s only fair to talk about the debit side. And as another poster points out above the failure based on race shows up other problems in the system.

The parallel with the military is easy to draw – there are a number of commentators who seem to draw success via benchmarks that would be historical anachronisms if read back into the situation in which they are supposed to apply – a little like those who claim that America won the Vietnam War based on bodycount.

18

kth 12.27.10 at 4:37 pm

I’m talking here mostly about the views of the American public

The bellicosity of the American public is at least somewhat exaggerated. If we were that warlike by inclination, all the chicanery and subterfuge (Gulf of Tonkin, WMDs) wouldn’t be necessary.

19

Theophylact 12.27.10 at 4:48 pm

Nick @ #2: I believe you’ve got what’s known as a cupertino.

20

Tim Wilkinson 12.27.10 at 4:55 pm

Bertie Russell was not particularly notable as a social and political thinker, but he was onto something when he observed that US society substitutes quite rigid social control for its absent formal and substantive legal control of the population. (Cheerleading, football and the weirdly rigid (and weirdly carnal) hierarchies of high schools, frat-houses complete with hazing, hyper-patriotic flag-worship, regification of Mr President, these look pretty primitive and ritualistic from over here). No doubt some yarn can be spun about settler communities and the Wild West or something, I dunno.

The Strauss/Orwell doctrine of permanent war is surely part of that. WWI, Cold War I, WWII, Cold War II, (War on Drugs), War on Terror. ‘Emergency’ powers, a moratorium on criticism of the government, all the other benefits of using patriotism to appeal to atavistic tribal tendencies are obvious. Not that each generation of rulers has to gather in a smoky room and draw up blueprints for a nation-wide psyop. It’s how things are done – some understand it implicitly, some openly theorise about it, others accept it as standard or even buy into the belligerent attitude.

Not the only consideration, but an important one, surely?

BTW: Saddam didn’t expect war when he invaded Kuwait
…and correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s because US appears to have given him the impression – on the eve of invasion with troops massing on the border – that his excursion would be unopposed (with the predictable consequence that the US were invited to establish what became, also predictably, a permanent military presence in both Kuwait and Saudi Arabia). And though that fact tends to be glossed over as some kind of misunderstanding when it isn’t politely ignored, that’s really n0t plausible, is it.

21

geo 12.27.10 at 5:09 pm

OP: while some businesses obviously benefit from, and lobby for, war, there are plenty more who would prefer to make money trading with putative enemies like Iran and Iraq

Right, and if they would only get busy bringing equivalent pressure to bear on politicians, policy would shift. John, politicians do not calculate global benefits from policies; they respond to pressures. It’s not impossible that business opposition to the costs of war or the defense establishment could affect policy — it clearly did in the case of Vietnam, when growing business opposition to the war convinced LBJ that open-ended escalation was unsustainable.

Even more important, it’s not merely war that’s profitable but the permanent defense establishment, which is a staggeringly large percentage of the economy. To take on the defense lobby would require all-out mobilization on the part of large parts of the rest of the business class, and sustained (and very costly) internecine conflict. As I remarked in a recent comment (currently in moderation) on the “Kissinger and Realism” thread, “live and let live” normally works best among criminals and capitalists.

22

More Dogs, Less Crime 12.27.10 at 5:09 pm

Anderson, from what I’ve heard American per-pupil expenditure is either the highest in the world or close to it.

The Daily Howler link was good, but I don’t actually recall many people visiting Finland to try and figure out their education secret. It’s usually those studious asians who are going to eat our lunch (just ask Tom Friedman!). And speaking of international comparisons, are there other countries which do a better job with comparable immigrant populations?

23

hardindr 12.27.10 at 5:51 pm

RE MD,LC @ 22:

http://www.google.com/custom?hl=en&domains=dailyhowler.com&sitesearch=dailyhowler.com&ei=QtEYTbHdDIWBlAeVt-XGCw&q=Finland&start=0&sa=N

I think Finland’s education success has to do with the fact that it is a small, ethnically homogenous nation with a large middle class. http://www.dailyhowler.com/dh052405.shtml

I can’t think of another country that is like the US in terms of immigration, either voluntary or otherwise.

24

Matt McGrattan 12.27.10 at 5:58 pm

hardindr, that’s one of those myths.

Last time it came up on another site I looked up the immigration rates to various European countries and they are broadly similar to the US. The US has a somewhat higher percentage of immigratns than the UK, say, but it’s about the same as Germany or Sweden and it’s only a little higher than France, and Spain, and the Netherlands, and any number of other “1st World” nations.

25

bianca steele 12.27.10 at 6:09 pm

the permanent defense establishment, which is a staggeringly large percentage of the economy

In terms of employment or in terms of % GDP? Airplanes are expensive, and you need lots of people to build one, but not in proportion to how much they cost. “Percentage of the economy” doesn’t mean “percentage of people and resources engaged in economic activity.”

26

hardindr 12.27.10 at 6:12 pm

RE Matt McGrattan:

I would be interested in the figures, if you have them. Interesting questions are immigration to European Union countries: what percentage decide to stay, where are the emigrating from, do European countries attempt to educate the children of immigrants through (mandatory) high school attendance, etc?

27

bianca steele 12.27.10 at 6:17 pm

There seems to be a widespread belief, among people who finished high school before 1963 or so, that public schools in America used to be pretty good and now are bad, and that the cause is the failure of young people to acquire that strenuous culture which made America great in the 1950s. This is the old left-right argument from the 1960s and doesn’t stand up to serious scrutiny.

28

ScentOfViolets 12.27.10 at 6:20 pm

I don’t know if the premise of this post is correct. From my own recollections, people seem to prefer cutting military spending over cutting spending on education or conversely, increasing spending on education. (Googles) . . . hmmmm, here’s something from earlier in the year with a halfway decent graphic, a poll showing that cutting defense spending is more popular than cutting education or Social Security. Eyeballing suggests the split is approximately 23/13.

As in so many other propositions that have come up recently, when someone says that “Americans believe X”, you’ve got to ask “Which Americans?” The answer to that one seems to be when fully parsed, “The Americans who count.”

29

Tom Hurka 12.27.10 at 6:24 pm

Surely it’s a stretch to call the 1991 Gulf War “inconclusive.”

If its aim was just to expel the Iraqis from Kuwait — as was said at the time, and was evidenced by the decision to stop at the Iraqi border — it was a clear and unqualified success.

Only if you think its aim was to remove Saddam from power can you call it inconclusive. But had the US and its allies pursued that aim, by crossing the Iraqi border (as Gen. Schwartzkopf on the ground wanted to do), I’m sure JQ would have howled in protest.

30

Matt McGrattan 12.27.10 at 6:29 pm

hardindr, they are in wiki. US is a little over 12% immigrants, UK is about 9, most other large European countries are in the 10 – 12% range.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_foreign-born_population_in_2005

The US has the largest total number of immigrants, but as a per capita % the US is solidly in the middle of the stats.

31

piglet 12.27.10 at 6:47 pm

Questioning the cost-effectiveness of the military is Unamerican, Unpatriotic, and probably Against the Bible. How dare you? Oh he’s a foreigner.

32

MMT Proselyte 12.27.10 at 6:48 pm

To the extent that they would actually concede any military defeats, I expect most Conservatives (even amongst the elite?) would blame this on the Dolschloss from the liberal media etc.

33

MMT Proselyte 12.27.10 at 6:59 pm

hardindr, is it likely that immigration can explain low educational standards in the US, when so many immigrants are driven by the aspiration of bettering themselves, acutely aware of their advantages vs their relatives back home.

Surely poverty is much more relevant. Finland just doesn’t have much poverty, relative or absolute – presumably this is pretty much sufficient to explain their super PISA scores. I don’t have the data, but I suspect that low educational attainment in the US would be found most notably in those states/cities with entrenched poverty and low immigration (eg cities like Newark?)

34

Aulus Gellius 12.27.10 at 7:14 pm

“The US military does an excellent job in defeating anyone silly enough to put a conventional army in the field against it. But, as a result there aren’t many adversaries so silly”

To be fair, you really have to count this as one of the benefits of a strong military, yes? It is a good thing that not many adversaries want to send conventional armies against us.

35

Bob 12.27.10 at 8:07 pm

Although I generally agree with this post, I would point out that Korea was also a victory. President Truman, the CiC, stated our goal as the expulsion of all North Korean troops from South Korea. That was acomplished.

36

Steve LaBonne 12.27.10 at 8:22 pm

Aulus, I don’t think that a military force as big as the next several (I forget the exact number) combined is really necessary for that. Would you seriously maintain that it is?

37

spyder 12.27.10 at 8:23 pm

that public schools in America used to be pretty good and now are bad

That may have something to do with the US in the 50s and 60s where the effective tax rates were no less than twice, and in some cases three times, as high than they are now. With high tax rates, we could afford new public schools that opened with fully staffed and supplied labs and vocational components beginning in grade six. Try to find an auto shop on a public high school or a print shop in a middle school today. Try to find art teachers and music teachers. It would be nostalgic, if it were not so.

38

DFC 12.27.10 at 8:30 pm

I have heard once the phrase: “the dollar float in a see of oil”, and that is true, and it is the reason US can be printing money like hell without sink its own economy; as M. Friedman said “our debts are in dollars, not in yens, pounds or marks…and we have the printer”

The dollar as global currency is based alone in the multiple security agreements between the US and Saudi Arabia dating from Roosvelt presidency in the WWII, due to the paranoid of the royal saudi family. The military power is the base for that agreements and as consequence, the reason for the unique situation of the US economy

39

DFC 12.27.10 at 8:30 pm

I have heard once the phrase: “the dollar float in a see of oil”, and that is true, and it is the reason US can be printing money like hell without sink its own economy; as M. Friedman said “our debts are in dollars, not in yens, pounds or marks…and we have the printer”

The dollar as global currency is based alone in the multiple security agreements between the US and Saudi Arabia dating from Roosvelt presidency in the WWII, due to the paranoid of the royal saudi family. The military power is the base for that agreements and as consequence, the reason for the unique situation of the US economy

40

Tim Wilkinson 12.27.10 at 8:52 pm

Relevant to the previous and quite diverting, if not exactly definitive: Rob Newman’s History of Oil

41

Omega Centauri 12.27.10 at 9:07 pm

Steve@7 “And as already pointed out, this faith is sustained by a massive PR campaign conducted by the both military and the huge money-sucking machine that lives in symbiosis with it.”
And it has its own TV station. I don’t think Discovery and TLC added together count for a hill of beans influence wise.

And we’ve certainly created the meme, that attacking high military spending is dissing those who serve or those who served in the past. A politician who cuts military expenditure opens himself up to attacks along the lines of him not caring about soldiers lives (by supplying the best possible equipment etc.). Irrational those attacks may be, but are they politically successful nevertheless?

Bianca, I think you overstate your point about percentage of economy not being the same as percentage of employment. Much of the excess spending supports other industries, so it creates indirect employment. Of course with our several hundred overseas bases, and two ongoing foreign wars, a lot of this spending bleeds over our national borders into other economies.

42

chris 12.27.10 at 9:21 pm

Bertie Russell was not particularly notable as a social and political thinker, but he was onto something when he observed that US society substitutes quite rigid social control for its absent formal and substantive legal control of the population. No doubt some yarn can be spun about settler communities and the Wild West or something, I dunno.

I think it can be expressed even more simply: you can take the ape out of the savannah, but you can’t take the savannah out of the ape. (Most of) our species is obsessed with that kind of status-seeking bullshit — so many that they literally diagnose failure to pay “sufficient” attention to social status as a mental disorder — and if it isn’t expressed through official channels it will come out through unofficial ones. Democracy is a great idea, for a species slightly saner than ours and more concerned with truth than trendiness. Otherwise we just keep screwing it up.

(Of course there’s a more hopeful school of thought that we can make ourselves smarter and stop following every strongman whose plan of action amounts to “rah, rah, ingroup!”, which is a pleasant-sounding ideal, but if it worked in practice, why would we have this thread? In practice, even the supposedly pro-reason side of the political spectrum psychologically needs an authority figure to rally behind and define their cause with a false impression of unity, and usually the first thing they do to create the impression of unity is find an outgroup to denounce.)

43

Theophylact 12.27.10 at 9:32 pm

Tim Wilkinson @ #20: If you’re correct that Saddam Hussein was deliberately misled about American intentions with respect to Kuwait, one might have expected that April Glaspie‘s subsequent diplomatic career would have been more brilliant than it was. (Or perhaps she was simply a sacrificed rook, of course.)

44

chris y 12.27.10 at 9:38 pm

Name 1 unequivocal victory in a major conflict that the USA fought as the sole or predominant combatant since the Spanish-American War.

The 1941-45 war against Japan, which by an accident of history we refer to as if it were part of the 1939-45 war against Germany.

Field Marshal Slim and a fair few ANZACs call bullshit. Maybe predominant in numbers overall, but neither the first in the field nor visible on several important fronts.

45

roac 12.27.10 at 9:52 pm

No. Slim was probably the best general on the Allied side, and certainly the most attractive human being among the possible candidates on any side, but the Burma campaign was a sideshow, and ultimately futile, inasmuch as its strategic objective was to reclaim the British Empire in Southeast Asia.. The ANZACs made an important contribution to MacArthur’s efforts in the Southwest Pacific, but that was also a sideshow, though on a much larger scale. The US Navy won the war with its drive across the Central Pacific.

46

Tim Wilkinson 12.27.10 at 10:08 pm

Theophylact @43:

Yeah, possibly sacrificial, possibly preselected by someone who didn’t want her around; who knows what was going on. I don’t really know whether she was punished, treated normally, (secretly) rewarded or what. If she was actually punished or dispreferred (and if the transcript is accurate), then for all I know the punishment was for explicitly distancing herself from the message (or blaming it on Baker, pick your transcript).

But Saddam was not a moron, and basically a mix up about such a basic, well-deliberated and high-stakes matter has to be a very low probability event.

+ as is often the case, I think all the explanations and the stuff people ‘remember’ afterwards is pretty much worthless since the elephant is already in the room by then. (‘Fog of war’ just says that local testimony is testimony only of local events – it doesn’lt say that some subsequent tidying-up exercise trumps the untainted, unguarded evidence of first-hand witnesses (or, as here, transcribers).

Suggesting that it does is a surprisingly common and effective move; ‘we must wait until all the facts are in’ as a cover for ‘we must wait until we’ve had time to agree on a single dominant narrative that suits us and can be made to accommodate at least some of the more irrepressible bits of evidence’.

47

Tim Wilkinson 12.27.10 at 10:21 pm

Not to say the transcript was necessarily untainted, nor rpresentative of all the communications made – in which case there is almost no direct evidence to go on, just the circumstantial, which to my eye looks fairly damning. To historians I think the prospect of trying to come to any conclusion without reliance on documents or testimony is almost too daunting to contemplate and the uncontroversial victors’ account goes through by default. (Which incidentally is why I think destruction of evidence should be treated much more harshly than it is, and far stronger presumptions instituted against the destroyers.)

48

Anderson 12.27.10 at 10:23 pm

Concur of course with Roac. Whatever the importance of Burma 0r the ANZAC’s efforts, there was nothing the Allies did in the Pacific to qualify the “predominance” of the U.S., which basically whipped Japan with one arm tied behind its back.

(That testifies as much to the folly of the Japanese as to the excellence of American arms, but still, that’s what happened.)

49

CharleyCarp 12.27.10 at 10:33 pm

And code-breaking.

50

bianca steele 12.27.10 at 10:40 pm

@roac
That’s a lot of sideshows. Is it usual to try to determine which single combatant was responsible for an alliance’s victory?

@OC
There may be some wires crossed here; I’m not sure we’re talking about the same thing. George S. implied that the defense establishment has a lot of influence because it makes up “a large percentage of the economy.” If big enough, it could saturate every aspect of American culture throughout the continent. I’m not sure that’s the case. Even given your version of the argument, how do you want to define your terms–include the supermarkets and gas stations that serve Boeing’s assembly line workers, the semiconductor manufacturers that provide the components for their onboard computers, the longshoremen who take the steel off the ships from Japan?

51

Anderson 12.27.10 at 10:41 pm

Arms, code-breaking, industrial hyperactivity ….

52

PHB 12.27.10 at 11:33 pm

I think it is rather interesting to see the convergence of thought here. It is not just a small number of Democrats who want to take a bite out of the military budget.

During the DADT negotiations, Reid took the rather strange decision to take DADT out of the military procurement budget. Which was generally considered to be dooming its chances.

It appears that the GOP agreed to allow this maneuver because they recognized that it would give the Senate much greater bargaining power in stripping the second fighter engine out of the military budget which the House wanted but a majority in the Senate opposed.

It appears that more than a few of the Tea Party house members are thinking along similar lines. As newly elected members they have no seniority and so won’t be sharing in the spoils in any case.

53

JP Stormcrow 12.27.10 at 11:41 pm

Arms, code-breaking, industrial hyperactivity ….

I want to say one word to you. Just one word.

Logistics.

54

Zebbidie 12.27.10 at 11:48 pm

Australia has 19 % foreign born and ranks in the top 10 so, yes it is possible to educate an immigrant population well – the US just isn’t doing as well as it should

55

J. Otto Pohl 12.27.10 at 11:52 pm

I am surprised it has not been mentioned here, but the failures in Vietnam, Iraq and most recently in Afghanistan are not due to military incompetence, but rather bad political decisions. Absent an effective political solution the military can not ultimately win wars like Vietnam or Afghanistan no matter how many battles it wins. It may in fact be the case that in Afghanistan that the US can not enforce a successful political solution and hence the war is unwinnable despite having the best military in the world. Given the political rather than military problems the US has faced in Iraq I am surprised that things have turned out as well as they did. The military is good at doing military things, but ultimately most conflicts require a political solution.

56

someguy 12.28.10 at 12:17 am

Actually the military and educational system are very similar in that we spend a lot but don’t get value for our dollar.

Nick’s link captures it very well.

http://super-economy.blogspot.com/2010/12/amazing-truth-about-pisa-scores-usa.html

We really spend a lot and after correcting for demographics we do all right, above average. But we really aren’t getting value for the dollar.

Same thing with the military only more so. We really spend a ton. And aside from nation building efforts our military really performs well. But again we could probably spend 10o billion or more less and get the same results.

And that really is the story for public goods and services in the US. Enormously expensive and mediocre results.

57

someguy 12.28.10 at 12:28 am

Probably above average results but poor dollar return.

58

stubydoo 12.28.10 at 12:31 am

re footnote #2: is there a source and/or methodology for the $5 million per soldier per year. I’d perhaps buy the $1 million figure, but $5 million certainly sounds like a lot. If my ‘rithmatic fails me not, at $5 million per, deployment of >150K troops in Afghanistan and Iraq comes out to more than the total defense budget of any given year so far, so there’d have to be a whole lot of deferred costs involved.

Even so, we can all agree that it is pretty darn expensive.

Other notes:
– I think the Korean war deserves a more generous assessment than you gave it. If you know someone from South Korea, ask them what they think.

- Of course you’re right about Vietnam being a failure, but then again everyone in America agrees, and it’s not as if people have forgotten about it or avoid mentioning it – which they would if they were trying to hold onto an idea of American invincibility.

- School funding in the US being a local rather than a national decision, some districts choose to prioritize education, spend a lot and get good results. Some districts do not or cannot. Some spend a lot without good results. It is commonly assumed that the bad schools dragging down the national average are in the big cities (I’m not sure how true that is). But the big cities often spend lavishly – New York City is around $20K per student per year (there’s some dispute as to how to measure that spend, but nobody with any knowledge on the topic claims less than ~$14K). How does that compare with other countries?

59

Myles SG 12.28.10 at 12:32 am

Australia has 19 % foreign born and ranks in the top 10 so, yes it is possible to educate an immigrant population well – the US just isn’t doing as well as it should

The Oz immigrants are already well-educated when they are let into the country. It’s part of the selection process.

The U.S., on the other hand, is indiscriminate (not by choice or design) in this respect because its immigrant population is largely illegal.

60

Myles SG 12.28.10 at 12:42 am

Sorry, don’t know how tobermorey came out of ‘to be totally’.

Well, if Tobermory were convinced, it should surely be totally convincing. After all, he is a wise cat.

61

Myles SG 12.28.10 at 12:59 am

I’ve yet Tobermory convinced but it certainly chimes with how seriously the us seems to take it’s public education, almost like britains obsession with the national health service.

I have actually taken an OECD assessment myself, and the fact gives me doubts. We were told, when taking the assessment, that it was supposed to reflect the mean; however, the actual people (about 20, for a school of about one and half thousand) who took the assessment were, on average, at least one and half standard deviations above the mean of the school (it was a quite inferior inner-suburban public).

In any case, the reason the “good” parts of the public education in the U.S. are so good is because of local control over finances and capital investment (which is also the reason it is unequal). The really superb suburban schools are funded with unbelievable generosity, willingly, by municipal property taxes, which can be high. When California tried to do away with that aspect of fiscal autonomy, what you naturally expect to happen, which is decreased investment overall, happened.

Yet I’m quite sure that, if you asked Americans whether they’d trust small businessmen to run their schools—or, maybe more broadly, whether they have more faith in small businesses than in schools—the answer would be overwhelmingly “yes.”

I should like you to pose that question to the residents of Brookline, MA, or indeed any suburb with a superb high school, because I think you will get a surprising answer.

62

Myles SG 12.28.10 at 12:59 am

By the way, I better clarify: I took my OECD assessment, whatever it was, in a Canadian school, not an American one. I wasn’t trying to make a point about the reliability of American scores.

63

John Quiggin 12.28.10 at 2:25 am

@58 Here’s my rough reasoning. Let’s suppose that, under the indefinite war conditions that have prevailed for the last decade or so, half of the defence budget reflects the wars that are actually being fought, while the other half reflects continuing costs of past wars or preparation for possible future wars. Then assume deferred costs of war are about as much as current costs. Taken together, its reasonable to assume that the annual costs of the present wars are about equal to the annual defence budget. Taking the number of troops in the field at 150K, and the budget at $750 billion gives you $5million/soldier/year.

As an aside, deployment in Afghanistan is apparently much more costly than in Iraq, so I can afford a little slack in the first part of the analysis.

64

Nick 12.28.10 at 2:44 am

‘American taxpayers insist on spending little on schools and then complaining how poor the schools supposedly are.’

Not true at all. The us spends loads more on public education than most other western countries. The more interesting thing is that they seem, to some extent, to be getting what you pay for. Better results once you consider the demographic and cultural challenges in the us. I was a bit surprised but it kinda makes sense since I always wondered how a school system with huge local autonomy was apparently not doing well.

65

marcel 12.28.10 at 2:48 am

Myles SG:

By the way, I better clarify: I took my OECD assessment, whatever it was, in a Canadian school, not an American one. I wasn’t trying to make a point about the reliability of American scores.

So we shouldn’t hold you tobermory responsible for poor US scores?

66

roac 12.28.10 at 2:53 am

Bianca Steele: The word under discussion is “predominant,” which is quantitative. I don’t have numbers and wouldn’t know where to find them, but without doubt, over 90% of the resources that went into the Pacific war, in manpower, industrial production, and everything else, was contributed by the US.

I have no intention of denigrating the British and Commonwealth contribution, but if you counterfactualize it out of the equation, you can’t seriously argue that the end result would have been any different. Superior brains and willpower can overcome significant resource disparities, but the mismatch in industrial capability between the US and Japan was obviously insuperable from the beginning — obvious to everybody but the Japanese leadership, with their groupthink samurai ideology of mind over matter.

(And when I characterize the Southwest Pacific as a stupid waste of effort, the stupidity was American. Or not stupidity, but inability to rein in MacArthur because of his (loathsome) political base.)

67

Anderson 12.28.10 at 3:07 am

Or not stupidity, but inability to rein in MacArthur because of his (loathsome) political base

Yes. The Aussies were hugely wasted in utterly wretched conditions for struggles that contributed little or nothing to the victory.

68

logern 12.28.10 at 3:13 am

If you define military success as being able to kill 10 to 1, 20- 1 more of your adversary than taking losses. Well, the modern U.S. military has become more successful. And unless or until it faces a similar war machine, probably will continue that success in the future.

69

mclaren 12.28.10 at 3:59 am

The actual cost of the U.S. military is 1.35 trillion dollars per year. Naturally the Pentagon denies this. That comes to around 12% of the actual current U.S. GDP, which runs around 11 trillion (not 14 trillion as claimed).

Do the simple arithmetic:
725 billion 2011 Pentagon outlay
50 billion Department of Homeland Security
50 billion Blackwater (Xe) which has been revealed as a CIA front
70 billion VA
73 billion annual military retirement
50 billion Pentagon “black” projects
22 billion classified air force space program
50 billion NRO (military satellites)
50 billion NSA
50 billion CIA (they now field assassination teams worldwide & run drones)

That’s 1.25 trillion. Add in miscellaneous minor expenses like DOE, which is esentially entirely devoted to military R&D, etc., and you get 1.35 trillion.

Incidentally, the U.S. GDP is currently claimed as 14 trillion, which is another obvious lie. Notice that prior to the global financial meltdown in 2007 U.S. GDP was claimedas 14 trillion and therefore we must conclude U.S. GDP hasn’t dropped in the last 3 years. This is obviously implausible. We know for a fact that some 9 trillion of wealth evaporated in subprime home mortgages and house prices haven’t bottomed yet. Assume by the time house prices do bottom out the total comes to 12 trillion worth of wealth lost. We also know that the commercial real estate market has lost as much value as the housing market, and the commercial real estate market is roughly twice the value of the personal housing market. That makes 36 trillion of value total lost. Now do the basic math and with current interest rates you find that bank profit on a typical mortgage runs about 12% per annum. Common sense therefore tells us that the banking sector must have lost 12% per annumof 36 trillion, which comes to slightly more than 4 trillion. Round down to 4 trillion and subtract from 14 trillion and you get a current actual GDP for America of approximately 10 trillion.

1.35 trillion per annum out of 10 trillion actual U.S. GDP comes to 13.5% of GDP pissed away on U.S. military expenditures per annum. That’s a near-Soviet level of expenditure. And it’s going up at 8% per annum with a core PCE deflator of zero (as of lsat month), so that’s a real, not nominal, rate of increase. That gives a doubling time of 8.5 years.

For comparison, U.S. total health care expenditures come to 22 trillion per annum. Those are rising at 4% to 6% per annum (it varies from one year to the next).

The obvious conclusion is that current U.S. military expenditures are unsustainable.

Incidentally, these numbers remain conservative. I have sources which cite 1.45 trillion as the actual total U.S. military budget per annum. But I prefer to underestimate to be on the safe side.

70

Jack Strocchi 12.28.10 at 4:37 am

Pr Q said:

The US military has fought five large-scale wars in the past fifty years, resulting in a draw in Korea[1], a defeat in Vietnam, and three inconclusive outcomes in Iraq (twice) and Afghanistan.

Come come now, that looks like dodgy score-keeping. You aren’t going to convince anyone when you load the scales of history to suit your case.

In Korea the US repelled the North Korean attack, which should surely count as a win – no one calls Britain’s repulsion of the Argentinian invasion of the Falklands a “draw”. Sure they did not achieve a rollback with the invasion of North Korea, but they got close. South Korea is a hugely important strategic ally.

In Vietnam the US suffered strategic defeat, but not on account of military failure in the field. The US military soundly defeated the VietCong which never recovered from the combination of the failed Tet Offensive, Phoenix Program and the destruction of Cambodian sanctuaries. Vietnamization and Operation Line backer I & II worked up until the Democrat Congress withdrew support for the Thieu government.

In Iraq the US has achieved two conclusive victories, expelling Iraq from Kuwait and the Baathist party from Iraq. A friendly government now more or less sits in Baghdad. No doubt one can argue about the merits of these military operations, but not the outcome.

In Afghanistan, well I agree the outcome is “inconclusive”. In fact you would have to count Al Quaeda as ahead in this conflict since the US has not achieved a smashing success comparable to the WTC bombings. But “inconclusive” is situation normal for Afghanistan a big pile of rocks and drugs whose strategic importance escapes me. Maybe Obama will pull something out of the hat.

Then there is the US victory in Kosovo, admittedly another pile of rocks but at least they did not take any casualties so I suppose it was worth fighting. And ETimor, where US military provided critical military assistance to prevent the TNI from assisting the militias. And US military support of Israel which has been critical in maintaining IDF hegemony over the region.

Finally and most importantly, Pr Q is overlooking the US’s most important military victory over the past fifty years: the Cold War. The US military-industrial complex proved superior in the production and distribution of arms which eventually forced the USSR’s military-industrial complex into receivership.

More generally, one does not have to fight and win wars to obtain the strategic advantage that comes from having a dominant military. Whether that strategic advantage is worth the cost in the great utilitarian scheme of things is another matter. Most Americans like the idea of being No One when it comes to Guns.

71

Myles SG 12.28.10 at 4:57 am

So we shouldn’t hold you tobermory responsible for poor US scores?

It wouldn’t make tobermory sense to do so, no.

72

Jack Strocchi 12.28.10 at 5:04 am

Pr Q said:

Moreover, in all sorts of respects the self-image of the US (as a land of opportunity and social mobility, a generous giver of foreign aid, a beacon of democracy in a generally undemocratic world and so on) seems in most respects to have been set in concrete by 1950. The failure to learn anything from a string of military failures and disappointments seems to fit with this. I’m talking here mostly about the views of the American public, but these views are even more predominant among the policy elite and the Foreign Policy Community.

There is no real mystery why the US military still retains high prestige amongst US political leaders. It is still trading on the political capital accumulated through its victory in the Cold War. And it has not suffered a USS Missouri or Saigon Embassy moment in the Global War on Terror.

Most of the US foreign policy community and pundits have spent most of their professional lives from, say mid-eighties through mid-noughties, savouring the fruits of US military dominance. Its really only in the past five years or so that things have gone sour. That is apparently too little time for the anti-militarist message to sink in.

The main thing that Pr Q is missing here in US history from 1950-90 is the prestige the US military achieved through its ultimate prevalence over the USSR’s military in both the Space Race and Arms Race, culminating in victory in the Cold War. That is what sticks in most policy makers minds.

Sure the US government suffered a massive set-back in Vietnam. But the extraordinary success the USAF achieved in winning the first Iraq war at trifling cost seems to have more or less balanced that ledger.

Now after its expensive misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan the US military is “back in the red” so to speak. But the set-backs and disappointments of the GWOT have not been reinforced by a humiliating surrender or rout, as occurred in Vietnam. Just as the economic set-back of the GFC was not reinforced by nationalisation and bankers doing the perp walk.

To really learn a lesson one needs to hit rock bottom and be humiliated by one’s enemies. It hasn’t happened to the US – yet. Meanwhile US leaders enjoy the kudos of talking loudly and carrying a big stick. With the PRC picking up the tab for the time being.

Of course one day, and that day may not come for some time, there will be a day of reckoning. The US will get into a confrontation with the PRC where its lawyers, guns and money will not count for much and it will be forced into a humiliating back-down. That will be the day that the calls for retrenching bases and beating swords into public schools are heeded.

73

Jack Strocchi 12.28.10 at 5:23 am

One big problem with the US political economy is that it is so big and money-oriented that most of its major social institutions have tentacles that stretch from the private to the public sector. Which makes them pretty difficult to reform given the lobbying dollars they can throw at politicians desperate to buy media time.

The financial-industrial complex can pretty much write its own laws. It includes the FRB and GSEs who control trillions of dollars in resource flow. Just look at Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac they spent $200 million on lobbying over the noughties.

For sure other public-private organizations, like the medical-industrial complex spend comparable sums. That why heath care is so hard to reform.

So its no wonder that the military-industrial complex is proving difficult to reform. And don’t forget that the South loves the military, bases, guns & wars you name it. So politicians of both sides go out of their way to appease Southern militarists.

Things only change when catastrophe hits. It hasn’t hit yet, or not hard enough. Give it time.

74

stubydoo 12.28.10 at 5:51 am

mclaren,

Several flaws with your numbers. I’ll tackle here the $4 trillion decrease in GDP idea:
– average mortgage rates were never remotely close to 12% (in the relevant timeframe)
– not all mortgage interest is net bank profit – they face funding costs
– no reason why mortgage payments have to decrease by the full amount of the decrease in the underlying
– what about the losses suffered by foreign investors?

GDP really is still $14 trillion. The average American has not suffered a 30% decrease in income.

Regarding military expenditures: have you been careful to avoid double-counting throughout? Are you confident your categories do not overlap?

75

Dr. Hilarius 12.28.10 at 5:51 am

My purely anecdotal belief is that great deal of the “Support Our Troops” enthusiasm and for the military in general is a backlash against criticism of the military in the Vietnam era. Post-Korea/pre-Vietnam the military was often an object of ridicule in popular American culture: Sgt. Bilko and Beetle Bailey come to mind immediately. Veterans were not identical with the military.

Along comes Vietnam. The reality is unimportant; many Americans believe that the US could have won (whatever that means) Vietnam if the military’s hands hadn’t been tied by politicians and the national will sapped by protesters. The largely apocryphal stories of soldiers being spit on and attacked by protesters fed this backlash. Both political parties equated criticism of foreign policy as an attack upon the troops.( The lack of a draft helps as well. It’s easier to support the military when you aren’t compelled to serve.)

Strong support for the military reflects insecurity about the limitations of military power.

76

anon/portly 12.28.10 at 6:04 am

“An obvious reason for the focus on military spending is that Americans have massive confidence in their military and much less in their education system, particularly the public school systems.

Yet judged by results, the opposite should surely be the case. Why is this so?”

This neglected question actually has a simple answer. Everyone (virtually everyone) in America spends 13 years in the public school system. Plus (virtually) every parent has kids in the system. Relatively few Americans have direct experience with the military, and even if they do, it’s as employees, not as consumers of the end product.

77

Andrew Brown 12.28.10 at 8:26 am

Matt, Sweden and Finland are very different countries. I wouldn’t myself ascribe the failure of the Swedish educational system to large numbers of immigrants. For one thing, the single largest immigrant group there are still the Finns. But it really isn’t true that Finns are coping successfully with a large immigrant population. They don’t have one. What they do still have is a sense of fierce social discipline, and its necessity in te face of a hostile world.

78

Matt McGrattan 12.28.10 at 9:52 am

Oh yeah, I didn’t mean to imply that Finland was like the US. Just that the US isn’t a massive outlier compared to much of Europe when it comes to both rates of immigration and total numbers of existing immigrants [which a lot of Americans still believe]. It was once true, of course, it just isn’t true now.

79

John Quiggin 12.28.10 at 9:58 am

@78 As I said in the original post, this kind of adherence to an outdated self-image is very characteristic of the US – more so than elsewhere I think. An Australian example would be a self-image based on rural workers like shearers, which survived well into the period when Australia became one of the world’s most urbanised nations. But that was abandoned 50 years ago or more.

80

Alex 12.28.10 at 11:13 am

I wouldn’t myself ascribe the failure of the Swedish educational system to large numbers of immigrants

You’d want to demonstrate that the failure existed first, surely? As Moe Tkacik would say, is that a thing!?

81

Tim Worstall 12.28.10 at 11:23 am

@ 37.

“That may have something to do with the US in the 50s and 60s where the effective tax rates were no less than twice, and in some cases three times, as high than they are now. With high tax rates, we could afford new public schools “

Interesting point, but you’re talking about Federal tax rates there. And Federal taxes, until very recently indeed, were not used to finance the High School (or even K-12) education system. Property taxes have been doing that all these years.

And I would be very surprised if property tax rates were two or three times higher back then.

82

PHB 12.28.10 at 11:35 am

@Jack 72

I think that Vietnam actually have the reverse effect on the elites.

Rather than conclude that military power was of limited utility, Bush, Cheney and fellow chickenhawks were set on erasing the memory of the defeat.

That is the reason they could not tollerate the fact that Saddam survived the end of the first Iraq war, it sent the wrong message as far as they were concerned. So they were looking to start a new war from the moment Bush took office.

It is now very clear that the current rate of military spending is increasing, not decreasing the risk of war. As long as the US appears to be so strong compared to possible adversaries there will always be some group of idiots looking to use the military power.

During the buildup to the Iraq war, the US was being told two claims that should have been realized as utterly incompatible. The first being that the US is weak, so weak that it risks imminent destruction if it does not start a new war. The second being the exact opposite, that the US is so strong that success is guaranteed.

The US needs to reduce its military spending to less than a quarter of its current rate. There is absolutely no national security justification for the current level of spending.

83

Ralph Hitchens 12.28.10 at 1:51 pm

I certainly quibble with your overall scorecard. If Korea was a draw, it nevertheless achieved its stated objective, and a thriving South Korea is the proof. No argument about Vietnam, of course, but the First Gulf War was certainly a success, recovering Kuwait and de-fanging Saddam Hussein. He lost far too much military equipment (e.g., his entire Air Force, 40% of his modern tanks, a higher percentage of his artillery, etc.) to subsequently pose any threat to his neighbors. The only thing one might construe as a unsuccessful in that war might be our failure to establish a protected Shi’ia zone in southern Iraq analagous to what we established (and maintain) in Kurdish northern Iraq. In any case, the success in that war obviated any need for a second Iraq War, surely for America the most catastrophic strategic miscalculation of the 21st century. Afghanistan? Well, mixed results to be sure, but I predict that the final outcome (years from now) will be something considerably short of an all-out victory for the Taliban. To echo the late Robert A. Heinlein, “good enough, by the sloppy standards of the Empire.”

What America has these days is “escalation dominance.” How much good it will do us in the future is the real question. Nobody will challenge us at the level of modern mechanized warfare; all we will see will be some flavor of what the military scholars call “4GW.”

84

LFC 12.28.10 at 2:59 pm

J. Strocchi @70:
The US military soundly defeated the VietCong which never recovered from the combination of the failed Tet Offensive…

The Tet Offensive was a military defeat for the N.Vietnamese/Viet Cong but a psychological victory. And that was what mattered.
The US dropped more bombs on N Vietnam than were dropped in all theaters during the entirety of the Second World War. It’s hard to claim that Rolling Thunder and most of the other bombing ops were military successes. It’s one thing to claim that the war could have been ‘won’ if the US had done X Y or Z, e.g. a ground invasion of N Vietnam. But you can’t write revisionist history through counterfactuals, and the Vietnam revisionists have not persuaded me of their line that ‘the US really won, it was just all those demonstrators and congressional Democrats’ fault that the outcome was defeat’. This gives too little credit to the tenacity of the N Vietnamese and their ability to absorb extremely high losses.

85

dsquared 12.28.10 at 3:26 pm

Interestingly once you control for demography, the us school system appears to do very well indeed

the idea that the richest country in the world should be given a mulligan for its demographics seems curious to me.

86

someguy 12.28.10 at 3:40 pm

Spending 60% more on education than Germany and getting worse demographically adjusted results is not a good return on your dollar. Spending the second most and getting the 7th best demographically adjusted results is not good return on your dollar.

87

Zamfir 12.28.10 at 3:51 pm

What does this “demographically adjusted” mean anyway? All countries have their socially disadvantaged groups whose kids score on average low on tests. If you are going to “adjust” results based on the groups that do badly in the US, the adjusted result will of course look better for the US.

I bet there are social groups in Finland that score low on tests. If you adjust for those groups, Finland will look better.

88

Anderson 12.28.10 at 3:58 pm

And it has not suffered a USS Missouri or Saigon Embassy moment

USS Maine?

89

ejh 12.28.10 at 4:03 pm

If Korea was a draw, it nevertheless achieved its stated objective

Provided we’re not bothered about an extrardinary rate of death and destruction. Well, all in a good cause.

and a thriving South Korea is the proof

Provided we don’t take into account the thirty years following the war. Well, it all turned out….

90

Norwegian Guy 12.28.10 at 4:45 pm

and a thriving South Korea is the proof

But then there is the non-thriving North Korea. Perhaps, without the war, a communist-ruled Korea wouldn’t be as horrible as it currently is. It still wouldn’t be great, but it would have be quite an improvement if the DPRK had been more like China or Vietnam. So if the gain for the South Koreans have been offset by the loss for the North Koreans, it’s not obvious that there’s any net gain.

91

MarkUp 12.28.10 at 4:59 pm

@pre84
“And that was what mattered.”

The latest Indian communication satellite was a success too, as it did get off the ground and will provide somewhere between 1.66 and 2.7x the orig thought employment/economic benefit. Mission accomplished.

Somewhere I’ve a nice lenticular postcard of Dr Henry K where he can be seen winking at me. Me! It used to cause upset because I thought it was a tasteless attempt at a pass, but I know better now esp in light of the music of protest being also the music of car sales and imitation butter flavored popcorn.

Dangnabit, now Sarah’s winking at me again… sorry gotta go power up the Friedman Unit.

92

Gene O'Grady 12.28.10 at 5:02 pm

Tim Worstall,

I’m mostly familiar with California, but I can assure you that for most property, and almost all commercial property, property tax rates in the 50’s and 60’s were many more times what they are now. Matter of freezing the assessed value in 1978 (allowing only 1% annual increases) as property values, maybe I should say costs, increased 10-15% in most years. When my parents died their house (bought for $16,000) sold for a million and half, while their property taxes were less than half of what I was paying on a place worth well less than a third of that only a mile away.

93

mactheknife 12.28.10 at 5:40 pm

As a Korean Vet…
No war after the ww2 has been worth the pain and expense.
Hey Ralph H, we never tried anything else, did we??? So your Korean comment can’t hold water and about that TET offensive that won the war… If we had let dien bein foo or however it’s spelled and the French loss of Vietnam et.al. end the matter! Then we should have started cultural exchanges and trade for what ever instead of shooting all the people who wanted no foriegners in their country anymore! How many foriegners do you want here? With guns and war planes and billions of dollars worth of bombs! Think about this in the light of survival! We were the most honored nation in the world 50 years ago before all of these police actions & weapons of mass …
Are you mad at Mad at Iran?
Who overthrew their legally elected gov. in ’53 and put the Shah into power, and helped him stay in power with a terrior campaign! Till the people of Iran wanted nothing to do with the USA and Palavi! Was it Iranian oil Ike was trying to assure?
Did Iraqi oil have anything to do with Bush’s absurd invasion? By all calculations it’s cheaper to buy or look for Green workarounds like solar, and geothermal, and wind power to run our energy hungry country. So how many of our own people did we kill by either or both of those Iraq wars and how much will it cost to get the radioactive waste off those battlefields? and the mines dug up so farmers and grazers won’t get blown up just doing their daily thing? War never pays unless you have to actually defend yourself against a bully! And right now America’s military is looking very much like that bully!

94

Myles SG 12.28.10 at 6:09 pm

Matter of freezing the assessed value in 1978 (allowing only 1% annual increases) as property values, maybe I should say costs, increased 10-15% in most years.

And the cause of this is incidentally related to schools themselves. When the state government mandated that school districts spend no more than a certain amount of money per pupil, whatever their revenue, and give the resultant surplus up to other districts, the natural result, which is agitation for lower tax rates until they matched expenditure, happened.

95

Jake 12.28.10 at 6:27 pm

@Gene O’Grady – Proposition 13 is California-unique, and applies very unevenly – only to people who have owned their house a long time, and to companies who have owned their real estate a long time. Movie studios and such.

@Myles SG – is that really what the origin of Prop 13 was? Caps on school spending?

96

Randy McDonald 12.28.10 at 7:02 pm

Norwegian Guy:

“Perhaps, without the war, a communist-ruled Korea wouldn’t be as horrible as it currently is. It still wouldn’t be great, but it would have be quite an improvement if the DPRK had been more like China or Vietnam. So if the gain for the South Koreans have been offset by the loss for the North Koreans, it’s not obvious that there’s any net gain.”

Interesting counterfactual. Did North Korea become more whatever it is as a consequence of its non-conquest of the South? Or would the conquest of the South just have extended its regime to all Koreans? I’m skeptical of the first thesis.

97

Martin Bento 12.28.10 at 7:19 pm

A great deal of EU immigration is between member countries or close allies., Doesn’t that still show up in the statistics as immigration? Someone raised in Germany immigrating to Holland is a much easier transition than someone from Mexico, who may not even be literate in their native language, coming to the US. The East Europeans too, though poorer than the West, are well-educated. The equivalent for the US would be immigrants from Canada, but I think that’s a much smaller percentage than immigration within Europe.

98

Myles SG 12.28.10 at 7:38 pm

@Myles SG – is that really what the origin of Prop 13 was? Caps on school spending?

Not all of it, but yeah. From Wikipedia, the first paragraph under “Background”, in the article for Prop 13:

“Proposition 13 drew its impetus from 1971 and 1976 California Supreme Court rulings in Serrano v. Priest, […] that a property-tax based finance system for public schools was unconstitutional…the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution…required that all states provide to all citizens equal protection of the law. The court ruled that the amount of funding going to different districts was disproportionately favoring the wealthy. Previously, local property taxes went directly to the local school system, which minimized state government’s involvement in the distribution of revenue…The Court ruled that the state had to make the distribution of revenue more equitable. The state legislature responded by capping the rate of local revenue that a school district could receive and distributing excess amounts among the poorer districts.

Note that it is the California Supreme Court, rather than a federal court, which made the ruling, in case you wonder why this didn’t apply outside California. The article goes on to talk about rising property values and inaccurate assessments.

I don’t think the judges quite intended to defund Californian schools when they made the ruling, but unintended consequences et al. Of course, we are really engaging in Monday-morning quarterbacking.

99

Myles SG 12.28.10 at 7:46 pm

The problem was quite simply an erroneous perception of the part of the California Supreme Court. They correctly read that the “California Constitution required the legislature to provide a free public school system for each district,”[fn1] but did not take into account the historical and cultural norms in the U.S. that the provisioning and funding of of primary and secondary education had been local; at most, regional.

fn1: Wikipedia.

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chris 12.28.10 at 9:35 pm

@Myles, various: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the CA SC’s reasoning — the previous system DID provide very unequal governmental services to students living in different areas for no good reason.

They just failed to anticipate that California conservatives (a) would prefer to sabotage the school system rather than see it become more egalitarian, and (b) would succeed in doing so.

I bet there are social groups in Finland that score low on tests. If you adjust for those groups, Finland will look better.

Yes, but the US has more poor people relative to its total population and they are poorer than Finland’s poor. Thus they drag down the average score more. (I don’t know what a median-to-median comparison between the US and Finland looks like.)

Note that because of how averages work and the distribution of US incomes, a *large* majority of the US population has below average income. (I wonder if there’s any systematic study of that particular metric — e.g. comparing nations or time periods — or if it’s considered not useful compared to more sophisticated ways of measuring the income distribution.)

The super-rich don’t skew the US’s average educational outcome upward the way they skew its average income for two reasons: (1) the best education money can buy isn’t really THAT much better in outcome terms than a merely quite good education, so the megawealth of the US rich doesn’t provide any added value in educational terms because most or all falls after the saturation point, and (2) the children of the super-rich can’t score better than perfect in any event. Essentially, in the US you can be 1000x richer than the guy who mows your lawn, but your kids can’t be 1000x smarter than his (the egos of US CEOs notwithstanding).

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Myles SG 12.28.10 at 10:12 pm

@Myles, various: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the CA SC’s reasoning—the previous system DID provide very unequal governmental services to students living in different areas for no good reason.

Oh. I wasn’t making that point, no. Historically, in the U.S., the provisioning of schooling has been a local responsibility. On a local level they were equal. Since a) the state gov’t, despite the stipulation of the state constitution, didn’t provide the services anyhow and b) money for schools was raised from local and not state taxation, it in fact imposed a new duty on the state government that it had ignored out of respect for custom and convention.

The question was whether the provisioning of education should be a local or state responsibility, rather than whether it was unequal (if it were a local responsibility then inequalities across localities are not unconstitutional). Now, given that a) the CA Constitution indeed does deem schooling a state responsibility but b) conventional American practice has been to regard schools a local responsibility, the right thing to do would have been to accept the ruling and then quickly amend the anomalous article in the CA Constitution to recognize existing realities. This way the customary arrangement could be preserved, and the question of changing the customary arrangement (which is what the court decision did) could be left to the politicians.

All a long way of saying that the CA Constitution was badly written and imputed responsibilities to the state government that neither it nor the electorate wanted for it to have.

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Jack Strocchi 12.28.10 at 10:16 pm

ejh @ #89 said:

Provided we’re not bothered about an extrardinary rate of death and destruction. Well, all in a good cause.

Provided we don’t take into account the thirty years following the war. Well, it all turned out….

The Korean war, at least in its critical first half, was a successful war in that it saved S Korea from N Korea’s subsequent fate. Its a pity Macarthur, in its inconclusive second half, failed to save N Korea from N Korea’s subsequent fate. Some might say it was worth a shot.

Any other interpretation is just Stalinist apologetics. And a despicable betrayal of our troops sacrifices.

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Myles SG 12.28.10 at 10:26 pm

Screw it, I am starting to get confused by the whole Prop 13/schools issue myself. There are a few angles which are somewhat orthogonal to the original question, but might be relevant (such is that they were trying to equalize the classically municipal property tax revenue rather than general revenue); in any case, I’m not the expert, so screw it. Feel free to disregard my previous arguments.

104

someguy 12.28.10 at 11:22 pm

Norwegian Guy,

“But then there is the non-thriving North Korea. Perhaps, without the war, a communist-ruled Korea wouldn’t be as horrible as it currently is. It still wouldn’t be great, but it would have be quite an improvement if the DPRK had been more like China or Vietnam.”

Maybe or maybe it would have been worse. How many did Mao kill in China? Tawain for all it’s faults seems like a better deal. And the aftermath of the Vietnamese liberation was mass exodus, mass murder, and mass re-education.

Any counterfactual is possible but based on what actually happened in N Korea, China, and Vietnam it looks very much like the effort was very much worth it for S Koreans.

105

Dr Stuart Jeanne Bramhall 12.28.10 at 11:52 pm

Interesting post, but it overlooks the “strategic” accomplishments of US military interventions. As Noam Chomsky points out, although technically we lost in Vietnam, we succeeded in totally destroying the economic infrastructure of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. All are countries that would have been powerful economic and military allies of Communist China if we hadn’t intervened. The main “strategic” accomplishments in Iraq: effectively voiding Sadam Hussein’s contracts with Europe and China to develop Iraqi oil fields – and even more importantly to market oil from these fields in euros rather than dollars.

Afghanistan is somewhat more complicated, but we are a clearly shifting the battlefield from Afghanistan to Pakistan – which many Pakistani analysts feel is the real target. Unfortunately neither Obama nor the mainstream media are telling the truth about the real reasons for this war, either – namely fierce US competition with their main economic rival (China) over Middle East oil and gas resources. And about the Pentagon fostering the secession of energy and mineral rich Balochistan from Pakistan to become a US client state – just like energy and mineral rich Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and the other former Soviet republics. And about CIA support for the Baloch separatist movement and their efforts to disrupt operations at the Chinese-built port (to create an energy transit route for Iranian oil and natural gas direct to China )in Gwadar, Pakistan. Including the fact that the CIA is training young Baloch separatists in bomb-making and other terrorist activities. I blog about this at http://stuartbramhall.aegauthorblogs.com/2010/11/28/afghanistan-and-the-road-runner/

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MarkUp 12.29.10 at 12:02 am

101 – “Any other interpretation is just Stalinist apologetics. And a despicable betrayal of our troops sacrifices.”

103 – “And the aftermath of the Vietnamese liberation was mass exodus, mass murder, and mass re-education.”

So in another manner of speaking our use of WMD’s and back to the stone age bombings were not only productive, but the right thing to do in that peremptory kinda way.

“War is hell” ~ Col Mike Kirby

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subdoxastic 12.29.10 at 4:51 am

People generally take umbrage with standardised tests psychometrics– excluding or marginalizing from the get go. Rarely, do they argue that instead test takers are ‘selected.’

I’m sure P.I.S.A. has its troubles, but it is fairly stringent in its methods. I’m sorry to hear M.S.G. had a bad experience. One can only hope that the other 4,380-9,980 participants in the sample were more representative of ‘ordinary folk.’ A brief review of the website suggests that the mandatory 2 year waiting period before being tested, and the attention to proper sample distribution (no errors for Canada in 2000, 2003, 2006, 2009) would help eliminate most of the egregious behaviour M.S.G. mentioned.

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jack strocchi 12.29.10 at 7:07 am

Pr Q said:

That’s a record that makes the worst inner-city public school look pretty good. At least the majority of students, even at the worst schools, end up more or less literate….Kristof is right that even where the use of military power is successful in its own terms, it is unlikely to be cost-effective – his striking observation on this is that the cost of one US soldier in Afghanistan is the same as that of 20 schools.

Shorter Quiggin: the utilitarian opportunity cost of military expenditure in terms of health and education spending foregone is huge, probably orders of magnitude in difference. And military expenditure on wars are generally “disutilitarian”, that is generates negative returns.

When you boil it down, its difficult to calculate the RoI on military expenditure. The social benefits of global force projection power are not all that obvious.

Further to upthread, the US’s policy makers and public are biased in their estimate of the value of military expenditure because they have reaped most of the benefits of victory big conflicts of the 20thC (victories in WWI, WWII and Cold War) without having to pay for the major cost, which is a foreign army marching across your land.

Of course its nice to be King of the World. But even if one is committed to being the global hegemon it might still make sense to cut defence spending and use the money saved for bribes and aid. A good comparison would be JAP, which since the end of WWII has been spending about 1% of its national income on defence. Up until the rise of the PRC it seemed that JAP was on the road to global economic hegemony.

And the US has managed to rise to the top despite, or because, it has had long periods when it did not spend all that much on defence. This graph tracks the US’s per capita defence spending over the period 1792-2015. Obviously major expenditure spikes during periods of heightened conflict – Civil War, WWI, WWII, various Cold War episodes and now the GWOT. But otherwise the default level of expenditure is not extraordinary, and trending down sharply since the end of the Cold War until 911.

My prediction is that the US’s defence expenditure ratio will begin to fall by mid-way through the tennies, particularly as the lower USD begins to bite. And the futility of waging guerilla warfare right the way across Southern Eurasia finally penetrates certain skulls.  Especially whilst the PRC keeps its powder dry and bides its time. Thats when the call will go up to retrench bases and cancel expensive weapons programs.

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jack strocchi 12.29.10 at 7:49 am

Mark Up @ #104 said:

So in another manner of speaking our use of WMD’s and back to the stone age bombings were not only productive, but the right thing to do in that peremptory kinda way.

If, as appears to be the case, the most probable alternative to refraining from area bombing was a boot stamping on a human face forever then yes.

The good end justifies the bad means, in extremis.

And please spare us the rehash of communist propaganda claims about the US’s alleged biological warfare attacks during the Korean War. Shades of “Stalinist apologetics”.

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Plutonium Blonde 12.29.10 at 2:36 pm

We often compare the US to earlier world powers like the British Empire, but I’ve always thought that we are more like Switzerland with nuclear weapons. We’ve never really had fun running the world the way the British or the French did. Like the Swiss we mostly just want to make a lot of money and be left the hell alone. It makes us impatient and testy because we just don’t enjoy the job we’re doing. War is fast, diplomacy is slow, so let’s just forget all that talking blow some stuff up. Maybe it will work this time and then we can get back to business.

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piglet 12.29.10 at 9:12 pm

Did North Korea become more whatever it is as a consequence of its non-conquest of the South?

Perhaps it did so because of having been bombed more badly than any other place of comparable size ever has been in history? Could that have had an effect on subsequent North Korean history?

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MarkUp 12.29.10 at 9:57 pm

108#Jack
“If, as appears to be the case […] the rehash of communist propaganda …”

Thank you Jack, for setting me straight. No more fantasy for me.

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Harold 12.29.10 at 9:59 pm

The U.S. spends enormous amounts educating the severely handicapped in the public schools as mandated by law. This raises the amount spent per child in the statistics in areas like Washington DC., where regular students are severely shortchanged compared to the pampered offspring of the suburbs, who “get what their parents pay for” — weight rooms, enormous libraries, sports fields.

I went to a not very high income public Jr. high in NYC in the 1950s, with a largely immigrant (Caribbean and Ethiopian) and we had art, music, home ec (cooking), sewing, dancing (in gym), and there was shop, in addition to the regular classes. The school was very well appointed. There was nothing like that when my children went to school here in the 1980s and 90s. Their report cards had spaces for grades in art and music, but it wasn’t offered.

Something is haywire.

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Zamfir 12.29.10 at 10:01 pm

I’ve always thought that we are more like Switzerland with nuclear weapons.

Trust me on this: in the last half-century, no one outside of the US has thought the US was like Switzerland with nuclear weapons.

Switzerland itself on the other hand has seriously considered to develop nuclear weapons, but considered it expensive for the benefits.

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Plutonium Blonde 12.29.10 at 10:27 pm

Trust me on this: in the last half-century, no one outside of the US has thought the US was like Switzerland with nuclear weapons.

I don’t mean that we’ve behaved like Switzerland of course – very much the opposite. I just meant that we’re too inward looking to really be suited to the role of world leader. It makes us impatient and we try to rush things with quick fixes.

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zamfir 12.29.10 at 11:23 pm

I don’t think that is really true. The us military has command structures for all parts of the globe, and there are permanent bases on all continents and carrier groups permanently assigned to distant oceans.

The us spends fortunes on control of the oil of the middle east, which it does not need in peacetime. Europe after all has no problem getting oil and gas in peacetime, even from Russia. Control of the middle east is mostly relevant to give the us a preemptive upper hand in a large conflict of a kind that might not be in the picture for decades.

I’d say that ever since ww2, us military policy is based on the principle that the us dominates as of the globe as it can, and that it will continue to do so for at least another generation. The quick fixes are temporary conflicts within a much larger frame.

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L2P 12.29.10 at 11:43 pm

“The U.S. spends enormous amounts educating the severely handicapped in the public schools as mandated by law. This raises the amount spent per child in the statistics in areas like Washington DC., where regular students are severely shortchanged compared to the pampered offspring of the suburbs, who “get what their parents pay for”—weight rooms, enormous libraries, sports fields.”

If that’s true, it’s in very isolated cases. In most districts, the cost of educating the “severely handicapped” (whatever that is) is at best a rounding error. Look at the actual budgets for your school district, not at what they say the costing is.

My daughter goes to a school for the hearing impaired (she isn’t – she’s a mainstream kid) and I can tell you the cost of the extra aides and treatment classes is a blip on the budget. Once you add up the regular facilities, other labor, admin, supplies, well, a couple extra teachers at $70k and a dozen aides at $40k isn’t even noticeable. And this is an entire school dedicated this.

Don’t get distracted by shadows – the issues in our schools are management, teaching practices, and parent/family involvement. And money.

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Harold 12.30.10 at 1:11 am

I am not knocking special ed. My own child was in special ed in public school and it did wonders for him. The special ed. teachers are well trained and dedicated and I am grateful to them. It was a lot better than my having to pay $50.oo a week for him out of my own pocket, which we nevertheless did willingly when he was too young for public school.

The fact remains that the average spent per student in the prosperous white suburbs was $15,000 and up, approaching what is spent for a private school. Conservatives, however, will tell you that in “inner” DC they also spend $15,000 per child (my figures may be somewhat dated here), when the cost of special ed is included in arriving this figure. However, the figure for non-special ed in D.C is really $7,000. Inner city schools don’t have the tax base or parental know-how to come up with more money from local sources, whereas in the suburbs parents gladly shell out $10,000 or more in local real estate taxes and can afford both special ed and luxuries for non-special ed.

Everyone knows these disparities are unacceptable. But now they want to remedy the situation not by investing more money in educating poorer children but by removing due process and pensions from teachers in order to spend even less on them.

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Jack Strocchi 12.30.10 at 1:46 am

Zamir @ #115 said:

I’d say that ever since ww2, us military policy is based on the principle that the us dominates as of the globe as it can, and that it will continue to do so for at least another generation. The quick fixes are temporary conflicts within a much larger frame.

Thats sort of in the ball park, but too much Left-field. It puts too much emphasis on the US’s positive role as a friendly power-seeker, rather than its negative role as a hostile power-deterrer. The US wants global military hegemony so that it can channel the competition for global power into civil spheres where it has a greater comparative advantage: financial, industrial, cultural.

Ever since Pearl Harbour US strategic policy has been committed to preventing an illiberal and hostile global power from getting decisive control over strategic sectors of the world. And of course preventing that hostile power from getting the jump on the US in armaments.

This negative strategy, to deter hostile hegemons, explains the US’s wars in the Euro-Atlantic and Asia-Pacific during the 40s. It also explains the US’s Cold War against the USSR over E Europe and its hot war against the PRC in NE Asia. The US was largely successful in these conflicts, which added immensely to the prestige of the US military.

Obviously the US’s intervention in the Vietnam War is kind of odd man out in this scenario, hence the division in US ruling circles about getting into and out of Vietnam. The US military lost prestige in that one.

The US’s constant interventions in Southern Asia over the past generation largely boil down to preventing one or another hostile (possibly nuclear) powers – either Iran or Iraq or maybe Pakistan – from becoming a regional hegemon. US policy makers do not want a totalitarian power armed with nukes controlling half the worlds energy supplies.

This strategic posture is intelligible to me, although I don’t say they are going the right way about it. But the idea of a nuclear armed Baathist or Islamist state getting a choke hold over ME oil supplies is not reassuring. They would probably get into a fight with Israel and wind up in Armageddon, for starters. Then the US would be drawn in and all hell would break loose.

I just hate the whole ME political set-up and wish to God that they could find more sensible ways to occupy themselves than blowing each other up. Lets face it, the region has caused no end of bother to the RoW over the past two millenia, what with zealots, jihadists, assassins and now martyrdom operators. The whole region needs to be put through an anger management course.

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Jack Strocchi 12.30.10 at 2:56 am

A big problem with comparing investment on military versus civil industries is that civil industries don’t always have a Kodak moment. And politicians thrive on media oxygen.

The exception that proves the rule are roads, bridges and dams. Politicians love to claim credit for those – they get to appear at the opening and get a nice plaque on the wall commemorating their ribbon cut. But of course infrastructure is nation building and frequently justified on national security grounds.

Military affairs are much more media-friendly, if they go well. One has soldiers hoisting the flag, the defeated enemy being rounded up and marched through the streets, or a conference where one can sign a treaty and declare victory. At least one can point to a shiny new weapons system which makes a loud and satisfying bang, such as a rocket that goes to the Moon. Just look at the way Nixon was all over the astronauts like a rash.

But school programs…don’t get a medal award ceremony. Nixon spent a huge amount of money and political capital administering desegregation of Southern schools. But did anyone notice, let alone give him any credit for it? Not on your nellie.

In fact every single liberal on the face of the Earth has spent the past 40 years yelling at the top of their voice that Nixon was the worst kind of racist, because of a few off-color remarks he made off the record. It didn’t even stop when he died, in fact it got worse.

So its little wonder that some politicians devote more resources to military rather than civil programs. At least they get to have some fun with guns whilst they have the whip-hand.

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MarkUp 12.30.10 at 4:11 am

“In fact every single liberal on the face of the Earth has spent the past 40 years yelling at the top of their voice that Nixon was the worst kind of racist, because of a few off-color remarks he made off the record. It didn’t even stop when he died, in fact it got worse.”

Hmm, interesting in a uh, propagandistic kinda way. Of course that worsening only seems that way relative to the lack of access to all that off record stuff more contemporaneous to the uttering of. But at least we get a 60 foot Reagan for the Rose Parade complete with high lite vignettes, but short the IOU. Every single one huh? Man…

122

The Creator 12.30.10 at 10:55 am

It’s very difficult to gauge what a military failure is.

For instance, the Korean War was initially a success in protecting the appalling government of South Korea against the appalling government of North Korea, but the attempt to conquer North Korea was a total failure (and, yes, probably did provide immense legitimacy for the Kim dictatorship into the bargain). In the broadest sense of the word, Korea also provided a strong cement for American imperialism in the East and in Europe (legitimating massive increases in military spending in Britain, for instance, and thus basically wrecking the Labour government). So, globally a victory even if doubtfully a victory in Korea itself.

The Vietnam War was a partial success in doing immense damage to the North Vietnamese state and preventing the South Vietnamese rebels against the appalling government there from overthrowing it — although that appalling government did eventually prove incapable of defending itself after the Americans cut their losses. However, I don’t think the American government’s image has ever recovered from Vietnam. It was, in international terms, a kind of Bay of Pigs lasting for eight years. Hence, while one can argue that the Americans partially won the war (Noam Chomsky does, for instance) it was politically disastrous.

The First and Second Gulf Wars were very interesting episodes. In both cases the United States provoked a war with a very weak state in order to intimidate the world. In the former case, I think it’s clear that they succeeded; American intimidatory capacity was enormously enhanced by the Baghdad bloodbath. On the other hand, Americans were not admired or liked as a result of demonstrating the capacity to slaughter weakly-armed forces of a fairly insignificant state.

In the latter case, they totally failed. U.S. intimidatory capacity was not at all enhanced by rolling into Baghdad and taking over Saddam Hussein’s job, and it led to the complete collapse of the U.S.’s declining image (outside the US) as a country which could be trusted with any political responsibility at all. The reason why feeble countries like Russia and Brazil punch above their weight in global politics is because the rest of the world thinks, with excellent reason, that the U.S. government are a bunch of seriously deluded psychopaths.

This would not at all be altered by declaring victory in Baghdad, Kabul, Mogadiscio or anywhere else the American diplodocus drops its gigantic dung.

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PHB 12.30.10 at 12:02 pm

Shouldn’t the real test of the military failure machine be whether its existence brings concrete benefits to the US?

Does the military prevent foreign invasion?

Given the difficulty that the US has in its military adventures, I think we are forced to conclude that the idea of the USSR being poised to invade the US or Western Europe was always a ridiculous, self-serving fantasy.

Does the military machine enhance US influence?

It seems to be counter-productive. The US managed to dominate the Americas in the 60s through the mid 80s, but any marginal benefit that the US might have gained in that period is more than offset by the justified suspicion towards the US of the democratic successors to the pentagon installed dictators.

Does the military machine reduce the chance of war?

Of course not. The exact opposite is true. Bush II would never have invaded Iraq had he thought that there was a possibility of defeat. The militarists want a machine for war, they have absolutely no interest in peace. They can’t even be bothered to finish the war they started in Iraq or the war in Afghanistan before they start another war in Iran. They are bloodthirsty fools and the only way to mitigate the damage is to minimize the military capability.

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PHB 12.30.10 at 12:34 pm

What size of military machine does the US require?

The US should reduce the size of the military budget until fools like John Bolton are no longer clamoring for another war believing that the US cannot possibly lose.

Reducing the military budget by 5% of the current expenditure per year would be a good start. There is really no reason that the US needs to spend even half of what it currently spends on the military.

Even with Putin slowly turning the country back into a police state, Russia would have to roll through the ex-USSR satellites and Eastern Europe before he got to the cold war era borders. Why would Russia even try when they know that the Soviet occupation failed?

125

chris 12.30.10 at 3:18 pm

Given the difficulty that the US has in its military adventures, I think we are forced to conclude that the idea of the USSR being poised to invade the US or Western Europe was always a ridiculous, self-serving fantasy.

Hold on — that only proves that the USSR couldn’t have invaded Western Europe *to its net benefit*. I’m perfectly willing to stipulate that, but what about the USSR invading Western Europe because of the delusions of its own warmonger faction? The US, after all, demonstrates that militaristic nations are perfectly willing to launch invasions that are objectively stupid and doomed to devolve into bloody quagmires.

It’s possible, at least, that the degree to which the US military enables and emboldens the US’s warmaking faction (increasing the risk of wars started by the US) is offset, or even more than offset, by the degree to which it deters the warmaking factions of other countries (decreasing the risk of wars started by those countries — note that Saddam Hussein, for example, only started a war based on his belief that the US would not interfere). IOW, that the US military failure machine crowds out other nations’ military failure machines, to the net benefit of the world.

I think that on balance that is probably not true, but IMO the question deserves factual examination and not just dismissiveness.

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Jack Strocchi 12.30.10 at 4:08 pm

PHB @ #123 said:

Given the difficulty that the US has in its military adventures, I think we are forced to conclude that the idea of the USSR being poised to invade the US or Western Europe was always a ridiculous, self-serving fantasy.

By that logic we must also be “forced to conclude that the idea of the USSR poised to invade” Eastern Europe ”was a always a ridiculous self-serving fantasy”. Oh, wait a minute…

The fact that some countries have experienced “difficulty…in military adventures” has not stopped other countries, still less the USSR, from having a go from time to time.

In military affairs one judges capabilities first. The fact is that the Red Army started as a party militia in 1917 and within 40 years had defeated the Tsarist Army, the Wermacht, was in control of pretty much all Northern Eurasia, developed nuclear weapons and put a man into orbit. I am impressed and NATO planners would be derelict in their duty if they did not have the same impression.

And by the mid-seventies, sure, the USSR’s ideological generator had run out of steam. But they still packed a pretty impressive military punch. So just to be on the safe side, it made sense to stick with the containment strategy.

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James Wetterau 12.31.10 at 5:23 am

Matt McGrattan @30:
“The US has the largest total number of immigrants, but as a per capita % the US is solidly in the middle of the stats.”

I just did an eyeball count, and the US came 40th out of 192 (hope I counted correctly). That is not “solidly in the middle” — it’s at the very top of the second quintile, almost reaching the first — it’s the 79th percentile.

Moreover, the list includes a lot of tiny countries where obviously the huge fraction of immigrants is part of the way the country functions in a manner that can never happen in a country of moderate size. The most extreme example is Vatican city, with its 100% foreign born population. If one excluded the atypical cases of very tiny countries with a single powerful industry that lures a large proportione to immigrate, possibly a quite short distance, the US would rise into the top quintile.

The US is not a world leader in immigration per capita, but neither is it at the middle of the pack.

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LFC 12.31.10 at 1:47 pm

The First and Second Gulf Wars were very interesting episodes. In both cases the United States provoked a war with a very weak state in order to intimidate the world.

The first and second Gulf Wars were actually quite different. The US did not “provoke” the first one in any recognizable sense of “provoke”, regardless of what the US ambassador at the time said or did not say to Saddam Hussein. The first Gulf War was a genuine coalitional effort with widespread international support and legitimacy. The second (the invasion of Iraq in 2003) was not. (The US undoubtedly did some stupid things in between the two Gulf Wars, such as leaving US troops stationed in Saudi Arabia. But that’s a different issue.)

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Henri Vieuxtemps 12.31.10 at 2:30 pm

@127 The first Gulf War was a genuine coalitional effort with widespread international support and legitimacy.

Well, a big problem with this assessment is that the effort wasn’t consistent with the way other similar situations are treated. Selective application of principle can’t be legitimate.

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LFC 12.31.10 at 4:26 pm

the effort wasn’t consistent with the way other similar situations are treated

There haven’t been that many similar situations in recent years. Operation Desert Storm was launched under UN authorization (SC Res 678 of 29 November 1990). There are lots of questions one could raise about how the war was conducted (scale of civilian casualties and suffering, ‘the highway of death,’ etc.), but the decision to initiate the first Gulf War, as distinct from how the war was conducted, seems to have been “as near to a legitimate and lawful [one] as any war of the twentieth century” (R. Jackson, The Global Covenant, p.216).

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PHB 12.31.10 at 5:57 pm

Jack Strocchi @ 125

The Soviet Union was not ‘poised’ to invade Eastern Europe either any more than the UK and US were ‘poised’ to invade France and Germany. Both invasions occurred to roll back the NAZI war machine.

Back in the 1980s we had generals turning up at my school to tell the 6th form that the NATO forces would last less than a week if the Soviets invaded.

It was total and utter crap. The Soviets were already failing in Afghanistan against a bunch of tribesmen whose skills were cleaning an AK47 and milking a goat. If the British army couldn’t put up as good a show then we should stop paying for the useless blighters.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 12.31.10 at 5:59 pm

No, what I meant is the I/P situation; military occupation being tolerated indefinitely in that case, for some reason.

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mclaren 01.01.11 at 12:28 am

Stubydoo incorrectly claimed:

Several flaws with your numbers. I’ll tackle here the $4 trillion decrease in GDP idea: – average mortgage rates were never remotely close to 12% (in the relevant timeframe) – not all mortgage interest is net bank profit – they face funding costs – no reason why mortgage payments have to decrease by the full amount of the decrease in the underlying – what about the losses suffered by foreign investors?

GDP really is still $14 trillion. The average American has not suffered a 30% decrease in income.

Stubydoo gets it so badly wrong it’s hard to know where to start on correcting him. First, a catastrophic decrease in income to the banking sector does not translate to the average American suffering a 30% decrease in income. What happens when the American banking sector loses 4 trillion per year of income is that the U.S. banking system becomes insolvent since their net cash inflows can’t cover their outflows. That’s where we are today. All American banks are effectively insolvent today and mostof them are “zombie banks” of the kind common in Japan after their financial meltdown in the late 80s/early 90s. This is why American banks keep going belly up even though the U.S. taxpayer has shoveled trillions into bailing them out. The income stream from all those non-performing home mortgage loans and commercial real estate loans is simply no longer there. It’s gone, and it’s gone forever. Neither home prices nor commercial real estate values are coming back to their bubble values in your lifetime or mine.

So obviously Stubydoo is spouting nonsense when he talks about the average American’s income dropping by 30%. What has happened is that the U.S. banking sector has seen its income drop catastrophically. The banking sector makes up 30% of the U.S. economy, so you might think it isn’t that serious. But finance accounts for up to 70% of the profit of many American corporations — GE’s predatory loan finance operations used to account for 70% of GE’s total profit. That profit has now gone away. So it’s a double whammy: corporations like GE which had maintained profit by turning into loan shark operations are now seeing their bottom lines hit badly.

But once again, this is corporate income getting hit, not the income of the average American. Corporations have compensated by moving more of their operations overseas.

The 12% figure comes only partly from the direct income from home mortgage loans. Banks make points on a mortgage (a fee they charge the homeowner for originating the loan) and even more importantly, banks turn around the sell the mortgage as part of a tranch of CDOs. Banks make much more than just the standard 5.5% or 6%; they make another percent or two on point, then they make another couple of percent by slicing the mortgages up, repackaging them, and selling them as securitized financial instruments.

Add it all up, and you get 6% + 1.5% +2.5% or thereabouts, which comes to 10% to 12% profit on the mortgage all told, depending on how many “points” the bank gets and depending on how many crappy junk-grade mortgages it could slice up and repackage and sell for a huge premium. Reselling those mortgages was tremendously profitable. 2.5% on reselling a garbage mortgage repackaged as a AAA-rated CDO is almost certainly far too low.

So Stubydoo is wrong across the board. Everything he said is just flat-out false. The banks made tremendous profits on mortgages until the whole game collapsed, and banks really have seen their income stream collapse catastrophically, to at least the tune of 4 trillion per year, since the financial meltdown.

And last but not least, common sense tells us that when 36 trillion dollars in assets blows up and goes away, the income from those assets must also have vanished. That’s just basic. The claim that U.S. GDP hasn’t dropped from the 14 trillion dollar figure bandied about in 2007 doesn’t even pass the straight-face test. U.S. GDP must have dropped between 2006 and 2010, but according to the bogus official numbers, it hasn’t. That’s so absurd we know immediately something is wrong with those official numbers, thus the need to do a little arithmetic.

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