The Case for an Apolcalyptic Death Toll

Bloggified by Jake on Friday, April 17, 2009

Would an asteroid hitting the earth and killing a 200 million people really be that bad? What if a new super virus swept across the globe killing one out of every 50 people? Could there be a plus side to coordinated terrorist attack involving multiple nuclear devices that kill 50 million people and leave another 100 million dying of radiation sickness?

Sure. The economy.

Arguments about what ended the Great Depression have been a hot topic for cable news shows that center themselves around two or more people yelling at each other for an hour. Until the election last year, the common belief was that President Roosevelt's New Deal programs expanded infrastructure while slowly rebuilding the economy until victory in World War II suddenly made everything all better and launched America to the top of the world economic ladder, largely due to the fact we didn't have to rebuild our country and everyone else did.

Now the right-wingers will tell you Roosevelt hurt the economy by putting people to work and building dams, roads, and electrical grids. If he'd given more tax cuts to the robber barons who collapsed the stock market in 1929, the Great Depression would have been over and everyone would have been doing the Lindy hop with Amelia Earhart and Joe Louis while drinking bathtub gin on the Hindenburg in a matter of weeks. Instead of the "Great Depression," we'd call it... well, we wouldn't call it anything. Our great-grandfathers, on the other hand, would call it "that time I got a hand job from Claudette Colbert."

The left-wingers, though, will tell you Roosevelt prolonged the Depression. By not spending even more money the country didn't have and building our foreign debts to even greater heights for projects like having a thousand men digging a hole while a thousand more filled it in as John Maynard Keynes insisted was the only remedy, the President succeeded only in preserving the separation of the haves and have-nots for the remainder of the decade. The only reason World War II aided in ending the Great Depression was because the government finally started spending Keynesian levels of money on the military.

There is something both sides overlook. No, I mean besides "a logical, balanced, well-thought-out perspective."

In 1940, the world's population was approximately 2.3 billion people. Between 1939 and 1945, around 59 million people died as a result of the war--which is to say beyond the people who died in car accidents or moose attacks or of heart attacks or old age or any of the other myriad ways people could die in an era where unfiltered cigarettes were endorsed by doctors, cocaine was available by prescription, asking for a "safe work environment" would get your head kicked in, and even the President had polio.

The United States alone sent 400,000 young men who otherwise would be standing in soup lines and selling apples on street corners to Europe and the South Pacific never to return. Another--admittedly callous--way to look at that is to say 3% of the unemployment problem went away and never returned.

Three percent is also the approximate amount of the world's population that was killed off during the war. Today's combined world economy is around $44 trillion. That means that in very rough numbers, a 3% drop in the world's population could mean $1.2 trillion freed up to address the world's financial woes.

Major bloodshed and death have a longstanding tradition of reviving economies. In the 14th century nearly half the world's population, as many as 200 million people, died of bubonic plague. Perhaps the most enduring outcome of the Black Death was the creation of the middle class. With half the world dead, the average person's net worth doubled. Where once there was a clearly divided line between aristocracy and peasantry, there were now large numbers of people who didn't have enough money to be rich, but had too much money to fairly be called poor.*

The Civil War killed off 600,000 Americans, or about two percent of the population of the United States in 1860. Unfortunately, much of the financial gains of those deaths were countered by the cost of reconstructing the South. If you count victims of the Spanish flu, World War I saw almost 60 million people die, or 3.3% of the world's population. Another way to say this would be "after sixty million people were killed by Spanish flu, trench warfare, mustard gas, and suicide missions to cross the no-man's-land of barbed wire, we got jazz, flappers, marathon dancing, Babe Ruth, F. Scott Fitzgerald, crossword puzzles, the Harlem Renaissance, pole-sitting, and a stock market boom that made millionaires by the dozens."

Until recently, war was a cure-all for a depressed economy. The Bush administration, however, attempted to conduct two wars without raising the taxes to pay for them. The conventional wisdom that victory would ensure financial prosperity failed to account for our ability to keep our troops alive. While thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans have died over the last six years, the more alarming statistic is the number of maimed who are returning home disabled and looking ahead to a decades of dealing with their injuries.

Consider the World War I story of new helmets the army purchased for its soldiers. The helmets were supposed to offer greater protection for the soldiers, but within weeks of their issuance, soldiers who'd been given the helmets were suffering three to four time more head injuries than before! Still, the new helmet was considered a miraculous success.

Why? Because most of those soldiers suffering head wounds would have been corpses with the old helmets. Similarly, advances in field medicine has kept thousands of American soldiers who would have died of similar injuries had they been suffered in Vietnam or on Iwo Jima. Unfortunately for a president relying on a war to boost an economy, an injured soldier who must be cared for over the course of the next fifty years is a drain on the economy, not the boon that a dead soldier is.

All current economic recovery plans being debated and implemented, right or left, are designed to solve our current problems in the years to come. But in the years to come, our problems will grow, leaving Republicans, Democrats, and Libertarians alike shooting behind the duck. For the American economy to tread water, we need to create around 120,000 new jobs each month. That's the net number of new entrants to the job market every thirty days. We've lost more than six million jobs, which means even if President Obama's recovery plan works perfectly and creates three million jobs, we'll still need to make up another three million plus another 120,000 per lunar cycle.

There is no way to do this painlessly. Higher taxes are a must. So is reduced spending. But the fastest road to recovery just might be an asteroid.

*Interestingly enough, this also gave rise to the advent of underwear, a garment that came to distinguish the middle class from the poor-as-dirt.

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