Individual Vs Collective Interests

Paul KrugmanTomorrow’s Paul Krugman column is a little unusual, Why We Fight Wars. It is based on some economics: namely that for advanced economies, wars are always a loser. It reminds me of my days in graduate school. We were looking carbon dioxide emissions throughout the 20th century. And we were all surprised that they went way down during World War II. But soon enough, we realized: even though there was a lot of war going on, the amount of commerce actually went way down. Bottom line: wars are bad for the economy.

Krugman’s interest is mainly in why we continue to fight wars when it isn’t in our national interests. Think about Hitler for a moment. He had a very strong economy and he could have kept the Rhineland and consolidated his power. It’s not like Poland was that great a prize. But as Krugman noted, wars are usually good for the leaders of countries:

And the fact is that nations almost always rally around their leaders in times of war, no matter how foolish the war or how awful the leaders. Argentina’s junta briefly became extremely popular during the Falklands war. For a time, the “war on terror” took President George W. Bush’s approval to dizzying heights, and Iraq probably won him the 2004 election. True to form, Mr. Putin’s approval ratings have soared since the Ukraine crisis began.

But I think the issue is more general, and it isn’t limited to war. It is often in the best economic interests of some part of the population to harm the economy. For example, war is very good for weapons manufacturers. In his film Fahrenheit 9/11, Michael Moore presented a nice sequence about all the money to made in the aftermath of 9/11 as well as before, during, and after the Iraq War. So even though the Iraq War cost our country at least a trillion dollars, it worked out really well for some people.

Last week, Krugman’s column was on a related issue, Inequality Is a Drag. It was about the Standard & Poor’s report, How Increasing Income Inequality Is Dampening US Economic Growth, and Possible Ways To Change the Tide. But neither the article nor the report made the obvious point about the reason we have ever rising inequality: it is great for a small group of very powerful people: the oligarchs and those who do their bidding.

The issue that we will eventually need to deal with is the power of these oligarchs. They don’t have the interests of the country in mind. And it simply isn’t true that by distorting the political system to benefit themselves they make everyone richer. It’s even possible that their own long term interests are harmed by this behavior. This kind of short term thinking without regard to its effects has led to historically low taxes on the rich, extremely high inequality, and a crumbling middle class. But at the same time, the rich seem to think that they are excessively put upon. As I wrote the other day in StarPower: the Game That Shows We’re All Doomed, over the last three decades “we have gotten a class of [rich people] who have convinced themselves, not that the game is fair, but that it is unfair—to them.”

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

3 thoughts on “Individual Vs Collective Interests

  1. It’s commonly thought that Hitler invading Russia was insane. Of course, Hitler was murderously insane, but from a geopolitical standpoint invading Russia made some sense. Russia had/has oil. To join the ranks of international colonial powers, Germany needed oil. And since the brain trust, such as it was, had rabid anti-socialist leanings, perhaps they thought the Russians would be too demoralized by decades of socialism to fight back. This was not a bright calculation. The Russian people may tolerate all manners of repressive governments (tzars, Stalin, deregulated free-market mayhem) but you really shouldn’t start wars with them. Maybe if the Nazi leadership spent less time reading crap like “The Passing Of The Great Race” and more time reading Tolstoy, they would have grasped this and bought off the corrupt royals in Saudi Arabia instead. Score: FDR 1, Hitler 0.

    War does seem to be a short con. Ultimately empires cost more than they steal. It can sometimes take a while for these things to bite the aggressors on the ass, and in the interim some people make out like absolute bandits; generally, it is absolute bandits who do so. I really liked that Krugman column.

    Tolstoy was crazy in a lot of ways, but his concept of war as a thing generals and power brokers can’t control might be correct. The Alamo is a shrine to Texans stealing land from Mexico, and Mexicans are taking over Texas (not fast enough for my wishes.) Foreign powers have waged war in Afghanistan since Alexander The Famously Nasty, and that never goes well for anyone involved.

    Last Tuesday I visited a battlefield site where, 150 years ago, some desperate Sioux guys shot up some poor white guys whose commanders didn’t buy the right size of bullets (the US soldiers had to whittle down the bullets to fit into their muskets, I’m not making that up.) Needing to sleep, I found a motel two miles away and gave the Sioux $60 for a very nice room and free spa. We fucking slaughtered those people and guess what? They’re still here. What we did to them will have rotten repercussion for many generations to come . . . but they’re still here. The Armenians are still around; the Irish, the Mayans, Kurds, Haitians, European Jews, Palestinians, Aborigines, every measure of African person whose country owned the misfortune of having lucrative diggible-up stuff. (Or lucrative chainable-up persons.) I feel horrid NOT naming the people who’ve undergone genocide and survived; there are so many that taking a few minutes to mention some off the top of my head leaves so many others out. Clearly our species is very good at demonizing and throwing large rocks at those whom we have arbitrarily determined to be Not One Of Us. Also very good at sticking around.

    And absolute bandits quite good at taking advantage of our species’ rather colossal short-term stupidity to make out like absolute bandits; but what else is new.

    • Check it out: threaded comments!

      Your comment about empires being a bad deal is a good one. I remember reading Paul Johnson making an apologia for imperialism with the same observation. But to him, that meant the British were just trying to help out the poor Indians, rather than simply being shortsighted.

      People are good at surviving. It reminds me of the old man in Catch-22 who cheers whatever invading army comes. And Nately just doesn’t understand. I feel very close to Nately because he has that same American idealism and optimism that I had at that age. Of course, Nately never makes it to his 20th birthday.

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