Thursday, August 16, 2012

Reviving "WWII Spirit" will harm, not help Climate Change Abatement -Alex Field

WWII was PLANE expensive
Review: "Impact of WWII on US Productivity Growth". Now Alexander J Field never brought up Climate Change at all in this 2008 article debunking/debating the reputed rise in American productivity thrown off by WWII military spending. But he probably won't disagree with the general drift of our headline.

Where to begin ? Well, you all know - and probably believe - the yarn:
"The Great Depression left the American industrial ship dead in the water for 12 years, but then WWII's magnificent American production boom not only revived it but also created a postwar global boom economy, that sailed on at full speed for almost 35 straight years, until the oil and inflation shock of late 1973."
This myth is so self-flattering to America that no amount of careful research among the facts is likely going to deflate it --- though God Knows, any number of economic historians have tried.

First up were the historians who pointed out that in terms of absolute production of  just about anything and everything, from oil to wheat to weapons, America was first in class.

But in terms of a relative rise in production, from start of war to end, the USA didn't do well at all - not even needing to break a sweat, to produce what it did.

By contrast, many other nations mobilized far more of their human capabilities during WWII - and under truly terrible war time conditions that most American factory owners only read about.

Now Alex Field is looking at the period of the Great Depression versus the period of the War years with a more sceptical gaze : and by pure instinct, not by anything I would call systematic study, I am already behind his thesis 110%.

As part of my research on the wartime penicillin story, I had dipped many times into other areas of supposed "wartime" scientific  breakthroughs.

WWII no scientific breakout zone...

Time and time again, I had seen that the heavy lifting had already been done, as far back as the late days of WWI in some cases, and all that WWII had provided was a "at-almost-any-price" market for a product that was (a) too expensive in peacetime to build factories around and (b) to sell profitably in any case ---  if it was made.

I was also aware - from business magazines like Fortune and any number of consumer magazines, that new technology and new products hardly stood still during the Depression : the poor was very poor indeed but lots of people sailed through the decade doing just fine, thank you.

Field's thesis is that war gives a "double shock" .

First disrupting normal activities that are slowly but steadily improving technology efficiencies. Now all resources must be re-trained, on the job, posthaste, into a few narrow military oriented activities .

Then  just as rapidly, they are all pushed back on Civvy Street again where few of these hastily half-learned wartime lessons really have much application.

In some cases, vast - and I do mean too big to be Hollywood credible vast - munitions plants were built and then closed, after only a month or two of production.

How useful is that sort of "hurry up and wait" waste going to be in peacetime ?

Yes, sewing machine factories were indeed making shell casings in six months but the managers and workers were too busy trying to learn new techniques, read and obey hundreds of new government regulations, deal with shortages and delays in raw materials to even think of improving efficiencies.

Productivity was well below what any government arsenal was capable of, but something was better than nothing in the government eyes and it paid top price for second rate productivity.

By March 1945 the sewing plant probably was making shell casings at a commendable level of efficiency - learned day by day over four long years - when - bang - no more orders : learn to make sewing machines again, and PS , you won't get any new machine tools or a bigger mild steel quota for about 12 months....

Good night - and good luck !

A crash - command - program to avert further climate warming and reverse it is better than nothing (a new variant  on "or would you prefer Hitler rather than FDR ran things ?") but it will be very expensive and make lots of big mistakes.

Better for all of us, if every government at every level in every nation encouraged pilot projects in all areas of energy use reduction and substitution and let the winners spread themselves globally, on their own.

Crash programs have their uses in absolutely dire circumstances but only when the populace is in a speed-at-any-cost mood - and that isn't happening now and can't be simply reved up by government spin-masters.

Even Germany, Britain, Japan and Russia delayed raising their output to miracle levels until their backs were literally up against
wall ,at the eleventh hour : even a 'life or death war' wasn't enough to focus their efforts until then.

And it will be the same with us , I am afraid, on the disaster of global warming....

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