Money  /  Argument

It Doesn't Have to Be a War

The Trump administration appears ready to invoke the Defense Production Act to speed manufacture of essential goods like face masks.

... cheery reassurance tells us less about history and more about the interest our bipartisan defense establishment has in perpetuating its own power (relatedly, Baker’s old boss, Obama Defense Secretary Ash Carter, proudly shared the 2016 Ronald Reagan Peace Through Strength Award with Dick Cheney).

... cheery reassurance tells us less about history and more about the interest our bipartisan defense establishment has in perpetuating its own power (relatedly, Baker’s old boss, Obama Defense Secretary Ash Carter, proudly shared the 2016 Ronald Reagan Peace Through Strength Award with Dick Cheney).

It may well be that the DPA is the quickest way to get the masks we need (though the details of Trump’s actual execution of the procurement remain unclear). But we shouldn’t take the word of former Pentagon officials that there’s nothing untoward in the fact that our vital civilian economic policies must be routed through the rationale of national security. The defense justification is either disingenuous (we all know this isn’t a war, but we know that’s how we unlock money in our militarized society) or worse (we actually treat this as a war, with all the attendant implications for immigration and policy toward China). Instead of indulging these rationalizations, it is time—seventy years after the beginning of the Korean War—to motivate our economic planning in terms of solidarity and compassion, not defense against shadowy enemies.

And instead of the Cold War model that, O’Mara writes, “boosted the fortunes of contractors like Kaiser, Boeing and Lockheed,” this planning should be truly public. Private industry is not capable of mobilizing the needed resources. But even if it were, it would be a disaster for decisions that affect every aspect of our life to remain severed from democratic politics. In his response to the 2008 crisis, Barack Obama promised to make sure that “private capital” would fulfill “the core investment needs of this country.” The resulting policies stabilized the economy, but far from generating a New Deal–style constituency, the deference to private interests fed increasing public discontent with the establishment and laid the groundwork for political disasters, including the election of Trump.

The alternative we need today might look more like the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which began in 1935, outside of a war context, as part of the New Deal. In its eight years of existence, the WPA employed 8.5 million workers on useful public works. At first it was specifically forbidden from assigning workers to “munitions, warships, or military or naval materiel.” (The WPA was also forbidden from employing prisoners and discouraged from building or repairing prisons, a relevant precedent given New York State’s recent use of prison labor to produce a public option for hand sanitizer.) The regulations on munitions were understandably relaxed as the war ramped up in Europe. By October 1941, one in three WPA workers was in defense work, and the dream of full employment without an arms industry faded away. But with the Second World War even longer over than the Cold War, a return to the widespread anti-militarism of the 1930s is overdue.

We can also look to a more radical current of New Deal thought, characterized by the slogan “production for use.” In these proposals, the government would put unemployed people and industrial plants to work to produce consumer goods, which would then be provided cheaply or for free to those in ...