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Massive Defense Spending Leads to Job Loss

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Dean Baker
Truthout, November 10, 2009

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There is a major national ad campaign, funded by the oil industry and other usual suspects, to convince the public that measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) and slow global warming will result in massive job loss. This ad campaign warns of slower growth and the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs, possibly even millions of jobs, if some variation of the current proposals being debated by Congress get passed into law.

In fact, standard economic models do show that measures designed to reduce GHG by raising energy prices will lead to some cost in terms of slower economic growth. And slower economic growth implies fewer jobs, although the impact will almost certainly be less than indicated in these scare stories.

However, the oil industry’s scare stories about job loss are never put it in any context. In these models, any government measure that interferes with market outcomes almost by definition reduces efficiency, leading to less economic growth and fewer jobs. Efforts to slow global warming fall in this category, but so does almost everything else and many items in the everything else category have a much larger impact.

For example, defense spending means that the government is pulling away resources from the uses determined by the market and instead using them to buy weapons and supplies and to pay for soldiers and other military personnel. In standard economic models, defense spending is a direct drain on the economy, reducing efficiency, slowing growth and costing jobs.

A few years ago, the Center for Economic and Policy Research commissioned Global Insight, one of the leading economic modeling firms, to project the impact of a sustained increase in defense spending equal to 1.0 percentage point of GDP. This was roughly equal to the cost of the Iraq War.

Global Insight’s model projected that after 20 years the economy would be about 0.6 percentage points smaller as a result of the additional defense spending. Slower growth would imply a loss of almost 700,000 jobs compared to a situation in which defense spending had not been increased. Construction and manufacturing were especially big job losers in the projections, losing 210,000 and 90,000 jobs, respectively.

The scenario we asked Global Insight to model turned out to have vastly underestimated the increase in defense spending associated with current policy. In the most recent quarter, defense spending was equal to 5.6 percent of GDP. By comparison, before the September 11th attacks, the Congressional Budget Office projected that defense spending in 2009 would be equal to just 2.4 percent of GDP. Our post-September 11th build-up was equal to 3.2 percentage points of GDP compared to the pre-attack baseline. This means that the Global Insight projections of job loss are far too low.

The impact of higher spending will not be directly proportionate in these economic models. In fact, it should be somewhat more than proportionate, but if we just multiple the Global Insight projections by 3, we would see that the long-term impact of our increased defense spending will be a reduction in GDP of 1.8 percentage points. This would correspond to roughly $250 billion in the current economy, or about $800 in lost output for every person in the country.

The projected job loss from this increase in defense spending would be close to 2 million. In other words, the standard economic models that project job loss from efforts to stem global warming also project that the increase in defense spending since 2000 will cost the economy close to 2 million jobs in the long run.

For some reason, no one has chosen to highlight the job loss associated with higher defense spending. In fact, the job loss attributable to defense spending has probably never been mentioned in a single news story in the New York Times, Washington Post, National Public Radio, or any other major media outlet. It is difficult to find a good explanation for this omission.

If we want to have a serious discussion of the economic impact of efforts to reduce greenhouse gases then the economic impact must be put in context. We know that the oil industry is interested in preserving its profits, not informing voters. However, if the media discuss projections of job loss from efforts to contain global warming without putting them in any context, then the public would be right to question their motives as well.
Dean Baker is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). He is the author of Plunder and Blunder: The Rise and Fall of the Bubble Economy. He also has a blog on the American Prospect, "Beat the Press," where he discusses the media's coverage of economic issues.