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Friday, May 15, 2015

War! What is it Good For? A Lot, Apparently.

Take the long view. The world of the Stone Age, for instance, was a rough place; 10,000 years ago, if someone used force to settle an argument, he or she faced few constraints. Killing was normally on a small scale, in homicides, vendettas and raids, but because populations were tiny, the steady drip of low-level killing took an appalling toll. By many estimates, 10 to 20 percent of all Stone Age humans died at the hands of other people. 
This puts the past 100 years in perspective. Since 1914, we have endured world wars, genocides and government-sponsored famines, not to mention civil strife, riots and murders. Altogether, we have killed a staggering 100 million to 200 million of our own kind. But over the century, about 10 billion lives were lived — which means that just 1 to 2 percent of the world’s population died violently. Those lucky enough to be born in the 20th century were on average 10 times less likely to come to a grisly end than those born in the Stone Age. And since 2000, the United Nations tells us, the risk of violent death has fallen even further, to 0.7 percent.
Most people fall into what Thomas Sowell called "stage 1 thinking." What he believed was that most people react to what is in front of them and never asked the question "And then what?"

When I was an undergraduate studying economics under Professor Arthur Smithies of Harvard, he asked me in class one day what policy I favored on a particular issue of the times. Since I had strong feelings on that issue, I proceeded to answer him with enthusiasm, explaining what beneficial consequences I expected from the policy I advocated.

“And then what will happen?” he asked.

The question caught me off guard. However, as I thought about it, it became clear that the situation I described would lead to other economic consequences, which I then began to consider and to spell out.

“And what will happen after that?” Professor Smithies asked.

As I analyzed how the further economic reactions to the policy would unfold, I began to realize that these reactions would lead to consequences much less desirable than those at the first stage, and I began to waver somewhat.

“And then what will happen?” Smithies persisted.

By now I was beginning to see that the economic reverberations of the policy I advocated were likely to be pretty disastrous — and, in fact, much worse than the initial situation that it was designed to improve.

Simple as this little exercise may sound, it goes further than most economic discussions about policies on a wide range of issues. Most thinking stops at stage one.
Most people look at war and see the deaths on the battlefield at that time, and little else. Hindsight has made us rethink some wars, especially WWII. Even Vietnam is being looked at more critically, with the realization that short term thinking made us lose a war we were actually winning.

I've always thought of war like surgery. Let's say your appendix or gall bladder needs to be removed. You are getting by. You are working but have pain. Eventually if you continue without surgery, you will probably die or at the very least, do a whole lot of damage to your body. But in the short term, you are doing reasonably ok. When you get surgery, you're down. You're laid up in the hospital. You have done new damage to your body that wasn't there before.

But you heal, you're back up in a few days, and you end up far better off in the long term than you were before. War is like that. We finished up WWII in less than 4 years, at for America. We didn't mess around and it got VERY messy. Hell we killed a ton of our own men in accidents. Tons of people died. But within a decade after the war, the Japanese were making Godzilla movies. Things were better very quickly.

Contrast that to the very constrained war we wage against terror. The press and the people were so very concerned with civilian and troop casualties. We had to run nearly every mission by a legal committee. It's going on 14 years and Islamic terror is as bad as ever. We are dragging this thing on instead of being definitive, decisive, and yes, dare I say it, indiscriminate regarding casualties. Maybe if we were a little more brutal, this thing might have been over years ago.

Maybe War, waged decisively and with purpose, can make things better in the long run, even for the losers. Ask Germany, Italy, and Japan.

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