We all want to believe in the economics of victory: that military triumph will trigger economic revival. The theory seems plausible.
War traumatized the economy. As fighting ebbs, confidence rises and uncertainty declines. Oil prices drop. Consumers return to the mall. Companies proceed with (suspended) plans to hire and invest. This could happen. But the odds -- unfortunately -- seem against it. The connections between military and economic success are emotionally strong and intellectually weak.
Last week the International Monetary Fund issued a new economic forecast: not good. The IMF predicted that the U.S. economy will grow 2.2 percent in 2003, which is slightly less than in 2002 and leads to higher unemployment (6.2 percent). The European Union and Japan do worse. They grow only 1.3 percent and 0.8 percent. The IMF is not famous for preaching pessimism; the forecast could turn out to be too optimistic.
What's wrong with the "victory is salvation" theory is that it minimizes the economy's prewar problems. Here's a partial list: the burst stock-market "bubble" (and not just in the United States -- through April 11, the London market is down 45 percent from its peak, the Frankfurt market has fallen 66 percent and the Tokyo market is down 80 percent); global surplus capacity in many industries; and hefty debt loads by companies and consumers. There are reinforcing relationships. Heavily indebted households and companies are reluctant spenders. The intersection of their caution and surplus industrial capacity weakens profits, stock prices and global trade. All this (assuming it occurs) hurts confidence; the flush of victory fades.
The theory's other big flaw is that it ignores history. Wars usually bring disappointments in their wake. A harsh depression -- one of the nation's worst, says historian John McCusker of Trinity University in San Antonio -- followed the American Revolution. Trade with Britain had shriveled. Hard money (meaning silver and gold coins) was scarce. The government, operating under the Articles of Confederation, couldn't cure the country's commercial problems. The Constitutional Convention was one consequence.
The war left the country "in a condition that people couldn't deal with and hadn't planned for," McCusker says. This was no fluke; wars often do that. Gradual deflation followed the Civil War. World War I fostered inflation, which led to a deep recession (1920-21). Vietnam helped cause rising inflation in the late 1960s and '70s. Only after World War II has the economy escaped war's curse.
In some ways, the Iraqi war can't be compared to these others. It has lasted weeks, not years. Combat deaths total hundreds, not thousands (about 600,000 in the Civil War, 400,000 in World War II). The direct cost, though tens of billions, is a tiny fraction of national income (almost $11 trillion) or the federal budget ($2.2 trillion). This pales against, say, the Civil War, whose cost -- including property damage -- totaled about 115 percent of the national income in 1860. By usual measures, the Iraqi war is a blip.
But it is also true that war's defining economic characteristic is often that it separates the future from the past. By their vast appetite for guns and soldiers and their huge impact on commerce, wars cause permanent changes. The Civil War led to a new banking system; World War I ultimately doomed the gold standard. In this respect, the Iraqi war may more resemble its predecessors.
It symbolizes a breakdown of confidence in a prosperous and harmonious world order. Of course, there are other causes, too: 9/11, slumping stock markets. But the war intensified suspicion of America's motives and might. It weakened multilateral institutions (the United Nations, NATO) on which the old global order had, to some extent, been based. All this contrasts vividly with the passionate belief in "globalization" of the 1990s. Countries were coalescing commercially. Peace would accompany prosperity. The future seemed ensured. Now the vision is blurred; there is less conviction about where the world is headed.
Compared with what might have been -- a long war, destroyed oil fields -- the swift military triumph aids the American and world economies. But compared with what once existed -- a genuine, if naive, faith in globalization -- the world is a more dangerous and contentious place. Commerce and investment are now increasingly global. But investment and trade require confidence, which is eroding. Victory hasn't restored it. Businesses are more timid, because they recognize new hazards. The future diverges from the past.
All this is suggestive, not conclusive. It doesn't prove that a vigorous recovery can't occur. Perhaps a successful reconstruction of Iraq will enhance support for American leadership. At a minimum, victory ought to provide some economic bounce; the latest survey of consumer confidence improved slightly. But there is a powerful suggestion that victory alone isn't a panacea and that something else is needed. It's unsettling that no one knows quite what.