One of the big benefits of blogging for me is the chance to try out my ideas on an audience I couldn’t easily reach (or at least hear back from) in any other way. That’s particularly true when I’m writing a book, which is always a difficult process for me. My last post, on the opportunity cost of war produced a great comments thread. Particularly useful was a discussion, started by Chris Bertram at Crooked Timber, of the oft-heard claim that war stimulates scientific and technological progress. I’ve used my response, along with points appropriated from commenters to draft a new section for the book, pointing out how this claim ignores the problem of opportunity cost.
As always, comments of (nearly) all kinds are appreciated, and useful ones may be recycled.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the obvious waste and destruction of war, it’s often claimed that war has economic benefits, and even that it’s necessary to the successful functioning of the economy. One version of this argument, based on the idea of ‘military Keynesianism’ will be discussed later.
In this section, we’ll look at another popular argument, that war is a spur to research and development (R &D), and therefore to peacetime prosperity. This idea has some superficial appeal. Penicillin, nuclear energy, computers and jet aircraft are examples of technologies that were developed, or advanced rapidly, during World War II, and played a major role in postwar prosperity.
In all of these cases, the underlying research had been undertaken in the 1920s and 1930s. The outbreak of war led to a massive push to apply this research on an industrial scale, producing millions of doses of penicillin, hundreds of thousands of jet airplanes, and of course the atomic bomb. ENIAC, the first electronic general-purpose computer was commissioned to compute artillery tables, but did not appear until 1946, when it was used in computations to produce the first hydrogen bomb.
Opportunity cost reasoning leads us to ask what was foregone to release the resources. In large part, the answer is ‘research of the kind that made these developments possible’. War gives great urgency to the “D” part of R&D, at the expense of R. This can produce some impressive short run payoffs.
To be counted against that is the loss arising when scientists are shifted from fundamental research to activities more directly relevant to the war effort, much of it with very little value beyond the immediate needs of the military. The there are the vast numbers of young scientists whose careers were interrupted because of military service, and older scientists.
For quite a few scientists war service has been more than a career interruption. Harry Moseley, widely regarded as the greatest experimental physicist of the twentieth century, was killed at Gallipoli in 1915. [Bohr (I think) said that even if no one else had died, the death of Harry Moseley alone was enough to make the First World War an unbearable tragedy.]
The great theoretical physicist Karl Schwarzschild died the following year. Many more died before having any chance to contribute. one can think of the 50 fatality rate suffered by the class of 1914 at the École Normale Supérieure https://books.google.com.au/books?id=EjZHLXRKjtEC&pg=PA329&lpg=PA329&dq=ecole+nationale+superieure+casualties+world+war+i&source=bl&ots=asLFDx9V5p&sig=gr4l5-65JgNhXGRaCHkEz39xzmk&hl=en&sa=X&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=ecole%20nationale%20superieure%20casualties%20world%20war%20i&f=false.
A tragic and heroic story from World War II is that of the scientists of the Pavlovsk Experimental Station near Leningrad (now St Petersburg), twelve of whom starved to death while protecing the station’s seed bank during the siege of the city in 1941. Other losses include the mathematicians Jean Cavailles, shot by the Gestapo, and Wolfgang Doblin, one of thousands of Jewish scientists and doctors who perished in the Holocaust.
As this example shows, scientific projects themselves were not immune from the destruction. The first programmable computer to be built was not ENIAC, but the Z1 designed by German Konrad Zuse. This computer and its successors, the Z2 and Z3 were destroyed by Allied bombing raids, and Zuse’s work was not resumed for years.
Yet again, the idea of opportunity cost as ‘that which is not seen’ provides a corrective against any attempt to minimise the costs of destruction.