Remaking Our Economies with Wartime Analogies, Part 3

In Part 2, I looked at the shifts in U.S. household consumption that occurred during WWII. While aggregate consumption increased alongside massive government intervention, the qualitative mix of that consumption changed in some drastic ways. This analysis was intended to augment the analogy made by J.W. Mason and Mike Konczal between WWII and the prospects for a government-led post-pandemic economic boom. In this post, I will move the analogy from the U.S. to the U.K.

For several reasons, the U.K. is a better analog for our current situation.

While economies are recovering from the pandemic, the climate crisis continues to unfold, not mention other serious ecological issues, including dramatic declines in insect populations, the proliferation of ocean ‘dead zones’, soil degradation, and destruction of peat lands. Each of these crises is exacerbated by the climate crisis.

Our ecological dire straits are much more like living adjacent to a war zone that occasionally spills over onto us than it is like living across the ocean from one.

U.S. and U.K. Economies During WWII

The economic trajectories of the WWII allies were dramatically different before the war. Although both countries had significant economic downturns in the early 1930s, the decline of the U.K. was much smaller and shorter, as seen in the figure below.

Source: U.S.: Bureau of Economic Analysis, Gross Domestic Product; U.K.: Charles Feinstein, National Income, Output and Expenditure of the United Kingdom 1855-1965

Each set of bars is the cumulative change in nominal GDP beginning in 1929. By 1933, U.S. GDP was almost 50 percent below 1929. In the U.K. the decline was about 10 percent. While the U.S. began to recover in 1934, it has not returned to its pre-Great Depression level of GDP by 1939. Meanwhile, the U.K. had almost fully recovered by 1935. In 1939, GDP was more than 25 percent higher than 1929.

With the onset of the war, both countries saw sizeable increases in GDP. As mentioned in Part 2, it took the war for the U.S. to actually complete its recovery from the Great Depression. In 1940, U.S. nominal GDP remained two percent below 1929, although it had grown ten percent from 1939. By 1941, U.S. GDP had more than recovered and was 24 percent above 1929.

The U.K.’s GDP continued to outpace the U.S. during the early years of the war (see the next figure). This was entirely driven by government. By 1941, U.K. nominal household consumption was 12 percent above 1939, while for the U.S. it was 21 percent higher. Then, in 1942, U.S. GDP growth overtook the U.K. as its consumer expenditure continued to grow more and government expenditure jumped dramatically.

Source: U.S.: Bureau of Economic Analysis, Gross Domestic Product; U.K.: Charles Feinstein, National Income, Output and Expenditure of the United Kingdom 1855-1965.

During the war years, government expenditure became a much larger portion of both countries’ GDP, as seen in the next figure.

Although it is universally known among economists that government spending is a part of GDP, they generally neglect that fact when advocating for increased GDP as evidence of increased well-being. Belief in ‘crowding out’, which I discussed in Part 1, could be a reason why. Or, perhaps ‘crowding out’ offers a convenient theoretical justification for an ideological opposition to government.

Currently available data does not have values for U.K. government investment during the war years. Aggregate investment in “fixed capital formation” is available. However, comparisons between the U.S. and the U.K. suggest there may be accounting differences that affect the distribution of values between expenditure and investment. For the figure below, I imputed a value for U.K. government spending on assets using the U.S. government’s relative share of total investment in non-residential assets. Before and after the war, the government share of total investment was similar for the U.K. and the U.S., even if the investment share of GDP was quite different.

In the figure below, the full height of the black/gray bars is U.K. government spending on both consumption expenditures and investment, as a share of GDP. The investment segment is in gray. The red/pink bars are U.S. government spending. The pink segment is the spending categorized as investment. If there are accounting differences, then the two categories are not as meaningful as the total amount.

Source: U.S.: Bureau of Economic Analysis, Gross Domestic Product; U.K.: Charles Feinstein, National Income, Output and Expenditure of the United Kingdom 1855-1965; NOTE: Lighter coloured segments are ‘investment’. U.K. government investment is imputed from the U.S. government share of total U.S. non-residential investment.

In 1940, total U.K. government spending was already more than 40 percent of GDP. For 1942 until 1944, it was over 50 percent. Because the U.S. did not enter the war until 1941, the level of government spending as a share of GDP actually fell slightly in 1940. Nominal government spending increased, but because GDP increased more, the share fell.

U.S. government spending never broke the 50 percent mark, although it came close. Obviously, the U.K. and U.S. governments comprised so much economic activity because of the all-out war effort. Both governments were commanding enormous amounts of material and labour to equip and conduct the war.

U.S. national accounts have data on defence spending. In 1939, U.S. defence spending was $1.7 billion. In 1944, it was $97 billion! In 1941, the U.S. spent $15 billion on defence, which was more than the total amount spent from 1929 to 1939.

So, both the U.K. and the U.S. had growing economies, as measured by nominal GDP, with a substantial portion of that growth in the form of increased government spending. Importantly, that spending becomes some people’s income. The economist J.M. Keynes recognized this fiscal reality—a fact ignored, denied, or misunderstood by most of our prominent contemporary economists—and saw in it both opportunity and risk. The spending offered an opportunity to reduce inequality. The risk was that the money spent to fund the war effort could lead to destructive inflation, especially of goods needed to conduct the war.

Keynes offered his solution in a short pamphlet titled How to Pay for the War. He called for a mixture of taxes and forced saving, which would draw money out of circulation. I will discuss Keynes’ solution and its applicability to our present situation in the conclusion to this third, and final, part. However, for now it suffices to say that the U.S. and the U.K. were affected very differently by the war, not least in the domain of household consumption. These differences are important if we are going to look back at WWII as an analogy for dealing with the post-pandemic recovery in the context of the climate crisis.

U.K. Household Consumption

The inspiration for this series of posts was a pair of articles; one written by Peter Coy, the other by J.W. Mason and Mike Konczal. The latter made the point that price-adjusted U.S. household consumption rose throughout WWII, even as the U.S. government spent heavily. This inspired Coy to check the fact and determine that Mason and Konczal were correct. However, the situation was markedly different in the U.K.

Source: U.S.: Bureau of Economic Analysis, Real Personal Consumption Expenditures by Type of Product, Quantity Indexes; U.K.: Charles Feinstein, National Income, Output and Expenditure of the United Kingdom 1855-1965. Values are the percentage change relative to 1939.

Consumption by U.K. households fell every year for the first four years of the war. Although it increased in 1944 and 1945, it would not fully recover until 1946. As we will see below, even in 1946 many categories of household consumption remained well below their pre-war levels.

Unlike the U.S. economy, the U.K. economy was unable to provide simultaneously more goods and services tohouseholds and the war effort.

Changes in U.K. Household Consumption

Unfortunately, the detail available in U.S. national accounting is not available for the U.K. And the disaggregate categories are not the same as the U.S. data. That means I cannot directly compare shifts in household purchases of durable goods, non-durable goods, and services. Nonetheless, the disaggregated data highlights some important qualitative shifts in household consumption that accompanied the aggregate decline.

‘Essential’ Goods

First, the data shows that the war required a decline in several categories of goods that we can consider ‘essential’: fuel & lighting, food, and clothing.

Charles Feinstein, National Income, Output and Expenditure of the United Kingdom 1855-1965.

Food consumption fell by 21 percent. It is worth noting that in 1943 almost 20 percent of the working-age population was in the armed forces. That means a significant portion of food consumption would have shifted from a household expense to a government expense.

Additionally, we know about the ‘Victory Gardens‘, which produced food for consumption but was excluded from the national accounts. This points at a standard criticism of GDP: it only includes most activities once they are monetized, which excludes a lot of activities that are nonetheless valuable. The classic example is the exclusion of housework, which is heavily performed by women. If a stay-at-home mother cares for her children and cleans her home, it contributes nothing to the national accounts. However, if she goes back to work, and hires a nanny and house cleaner to perform those tasks, that expense is added to GDP.

The reduction of fuel & light likely meant, on the one hand, more discomfort due to cooler homes in winter, and more inconvenience from reduced lighting. On the other hand, it also meant more diligent conservation, which can offer its own rewards. Anyone who has We cannot assume that a reduction in household purchases automatically means deprivation.

Similarly, the reduced spending on clothing likely brought disappointment to many. Those who enjoy wearing the latest fashions undoubtedly had to forego that luxury. However, it also meant people got more use out of their clothing by wearing it for longer. Additionally, as with food, a large portion of the population were provided a portion of their clothing by the government.

The two figure above—aggregate consumption and consumption of ‘essentials’—both overstate how much consumption by the U.K. population actually declined. At the same time, figures of aggregate U.S. household consumption understate how much consumption by the U.S. population actually increased. A similar portion of the U.S. working age population ended up in the armed forces during WWII, although, as noted in Part 2, “food furnished to employees (including military)” is a subcategory of household consumption in U.S. national accounts.

Other Goods & Services

In the U.K. data, five categories of goods are combined into a single annual value during the war years. It includes several types of goods that saw declines in the U.S., such as furniture. The aggregated category saw a 44 percent decline. Vehicle purchases dropped to nothing in 1943 and 1944. Expenditures on vehicle operations declined by 78 percent. A broad category of ‘other services’ fell by nine percent.

In fact, other than housing, which had a minor increase, only two categories of U.K. household consumption expenditure increased between 1939 and 1943: tobacco and public travel & communication.

Charles Feinstein, National Income, Output and Expenditure of the United Kingdom 1855-1965.

These two categories correspond to some highlighted in my analysis of shifts in U.S. household consumption during the war. I discussed how increased consumption is not necessarily a sign that people are better off. Tobacco is the perfect example. While smoking can be an enjoyable activity, it is also physically harmful and addictive. Also, consumption is exacerbated by stress. In actual pounds, tobacco expenditure rose as high as 8.9 percent of total household expenditures during the war.

However, the increase in public travel & communication was mostly a good thing. People were connecting with friends and family more. It is likely a healthier way to manage stress. This greater connection was part-and-parcel of the social cohesion and solidarity that those who lived through the war described as a highlight among all the stress and terror.

Post-war Household Consumption

By 1946, aggregate U.K. household price-adjusted purchases exceeded the pre-war level. However, several categories of goods remained much lower. For the following, I am comparing 1946 to 1938. That allows me to compare some of the categories that were combined during the war years. It also accounts for the fact that some categories of consumption had already declined by 1939.

First, it is worth noting that a comparison with 1938 shows that the purchase of books, which is not reported for the war years, was 46 percent higher in 1946 (not shown). Perhaps this is due to a dramatic recovery from wartime decline. Paper use was restricted during the war. However, U.K. consumers may have paralleled U.S. consumers, who bought more books during the war, as seen in Part 2.

Charles Feinstein, National Income, Output and Expenditure of the United Kingdom 1855-1965.

The categories that were higher in 1946 than 1938, apart from tobacco, public travel & communications, and books, included food and fuel & light. However, clothing remained 21 percent below 1938. All the categories that might be considered ‘durable goods’ remained well below pre-war levels. Household purchases of vehicles would not achieve pre-war levels until the early 1950s. The same was true of furniture and household appliances.


The sacrifice of U.K. households during wartime is the less surprising outcome compared to the increased household consumption in the U.S. The latter might hold out a promise that we can recover from the pandemic and confront the climate crisis and not sacrifice our well-being. However, we also need to be prepared to give up some things. The mix of things we purchase is going to change.


We need to acknowledge that an aggregate measure of household consumption is an extremely problematic indicator of well-being, for many reasons. First, there is the issue of distribution. All measures examined in this analysis were for consumption by the entire population. If consumption at the top of the income/wealth hierarchy grows by more than it falls at the bottom, then aggregate consumption would increase.

Second, increased consumption of certain goods and services does not necessarily mean we are actually better off. If we are consuming more of certain ‘bads’ in order to manage stress or other disorders, that is hardly evidence we are better off. Additionally, if households are increasing their spending on goods and services that would be more effectively, efficiently, and fairly distributed via public institutions, that is not necessarily evidence of improved well-being.

Third, the concept of ‘consumption’ is itself problematic, as David Graeber, among others, has written. The issue was touched on above, in a different context: government consumption vs. investment. As mentioned, the U.S. and U.K. data seems to differ in terms of how government purchases were classified as either ‘consumption’ or ‘investment’. The dividing line is hardly clear-cut.

We never think of household purchases as an investment unless it is for a business, at which point the buyer ceases to be considered a household, although even this categorical distinction is not as clear-cut at the margins. Household purchases, sometimes labelled “final consumption expenditures” because they are considered the endpoint of our economy, do not become assets that generate income. Yet, as Graeber notes, much of what we buy is not actually ‘consumed’.

When a teenager buys a guitar and begins to learn to play, that is more an investment than consumption. This is obviously true if the teenager goes on to become a paid musician. However, it is also true if it just contributes to building the skills of a lifelong hobby that is never monetized. While the concept of durable goods somewhat compensates, using the term ‘consumption’ to describe the relationship between the household and those goods is misleading.

Finally, focus on increased ‘consumption’ means that more purchases of ‘goods’ is axiomatically better, even if these increases are due to faster obsolescence or break-down. As our household objects become more complicated, we lose our ability to repair them, either ourselves or through the service of a local repairperson. The sellers of these goods have little interest in making them more durable or more easily repaired. Quite the opposite.

Much of the obsolecense of durable household goods diverts resources from sytems of production into waste sinks. Increased ‘consumption’ of durable goods is likely making us worse-off in the long-run.

Constrained Planning and Plenty

Mason and Konczal analogy is important and useful to combat mounting calls for austerity. But there is an extended debate to be had about how we use our resources. The post-pandemic recovery offers an opportunity to begin doing what needs to be done to manage our multiple ecological crises.

Government spent heavily during the pandemic to support economies and households when other sources of income disappeared. Taxes did not rise to match that spending, so the amount of money in the economy increased. Many of our usual spending outlets, such as restaurants and entertainment, were greatly reduced. This led to record household savings rates in many countries.

It also has economists anticipating a major boom in household spending as pandemic restrictions are lifted. While it is a hopeful sign in terms of creating jobs, it is worrisome in terms of the potential ecological impact. What are we going to ‘consume’? How disposable will those things be?

The pandemic is a reminder of the need for government to participate in economic management during times of crisis. It was a lesson learned intensively during WWII. Yet, almost everyone in government, as well as media, is ignoring the lesson as we stumble along, trying to do as little as possible to deal with the climate crisis.

Keynes recognized that spending on WWII would add money to the economy, but that this was a mixed blessing. While it would ensure continued income for workers, increased spending power meant they would compete for resources needed to fight the war. We face a similar problem now, even if our leaders have failed to recognize the necessity to spend huge. Just as Keynes recommended, we will likely need a combination of taxes and forced savings.

We need material budgeting, as was done during WWII. What materials are available? What is needed for a just transition? What is left over? We cannot expect markets and prices to achieve a sustainable outcome.

The qualitative mix of goods and services will change, as it did in the U.S. and the U.K. during WWII. Our absolute consumption of material goods will likely also decline. At the very least, just as fighting the war was prioritized when distributing resources, achieving a just transition must be prioritized. However, this need not mean absolute deprivation. We need to plan our economies within the material constraints of the Earth, but th

At the very least, we can likely have more leisure time. We can also have more public provision. Even in our sacrifices, we can find pleasure, knowing that we are doing so as part of ensuring a just, sustainable future for humanity. Key to appreciation of sacrifice is that it be shared. That is why Keynes thought the economic management needed to fight WWII offered an opportunity to reduce inequality. We should grab the same opportunity that exists now.

After WWII, many economies had significant, sustained booms. Unfortunately, those booms had ecological consequences, many of which we are only acknowledging now. Further, many of those ecological consequences were borne by marginalized communities, especially Indigenous peoples who were displaced by extraction. We cannot have the same sort of boom following a just transition.

We will need continued management of many resources and that management must include the people most affected by extraction and disposal. However, that does not mean we cannot have richer, more satisfying lives, with plenty of consumptive opportunities within those constraints. While our material resources have opportunity costs—using rare earth minerals for an MRI machine means those minerals are not available as inputs to iPhones—they can be combined and recombined with emergent effects that serve ‘consumers’ in vastly different ways. While our resources are constrained, their potential becomings are infinite. We must acknowledge constraints while denying scarcity.

This latter point is part of the anti-scarcity narrative offered by the humanities wing of modern monetary theory. It was also given a fascinating examination by Alex Williams, which I summarized via George Monbiot’s aphorism: private sufficiency, and the luxuries of many publics. Other words we might use for publics are communes or communities or collectives or institutions.

We need to supercede the naive—and destructive—individualism of both mainstream economic theory and American right-wing populist rhetoric. Our lives are lived within many commons. We can acknowledge our intractable interdependence without denying the individual, whose individuality is both output and input of the different publics in which they participate. The Earth is materially fixed. But that materiality can express itself as both a wasteland devoid of life or a thriving cornucopia of ecological and cultural diversity.

Getting from here to there will require much effort, including the sacrifice of things that many of us currently take for granted. Thankfully, we have the resources, expertise, and creative capacity to not only do it, but to do it joyfully.

Remaking Our Economies with Wartime Analogies, Part 2

In Part 1, I explained the motivation for this series.

I want to use the analogy of WWII, as invoked by economists JW Mason and Mike Konczal in an NYT op-ed, to consider how we ought to manage a potential post-pandemic economic boom. In this post, I will look at the qualitative transformations that took place in U.S. household consumption during WWII. These transformations occurred, in part, because of government control of material resources.

While the aggregate level of household consumption only fell for a single year—1942—the mix of goods and services shifted dramatically, and some categories of consumption dropped for several years. The best known example are private automobiles. The productive capacity, and material inputs, of the automaking industry were turned over to wartime production and the sale of new automobiles dropped to just over one percent its 1941 high-water mark.

At this point, it is worth noting that when WWII began, U.S. consumption had not yet recovered from the Great Depression. Nominal sales of new automobiles in 1941 were barely half a percent higher than they had been in 1929. In 1940, nominal consumption was still almost 10 percent lower than 1929, while the population was almost nine percent higher.

It is widely recognized that although the New Deal helped to support people suffering through the Great Depression, it was insufficient for kickstarting the U.S. economy. It took WWII to get production back on track. That is an important lesson for those of us that advocate a Green New Deal.

What we actually need is a Green WWII, although perhaps a wartime metaphor is not ideal for the collective, cooperative global effort required. For more on the WWII analogy for achieving a just transition, see Seth Klein’s book A Good War, which describes how Canada’s economy was reshaped for the war effort. Klein argues that a just transition requires a similar scope and scale of transformation.

The chart below shows the change in U.S. household consumption of goods and services from 1941 to 1944.

Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis, Real Personal Consumption Expenditures by Type of Product, Quantity Indexes

Goods and services are the two broadest categories of consumption in the U.S. national accounts. While the purchase of services increased by 20 percent, goods purchased fell by 8 percent.

Goods are further disaggregated into 1) durable, and 2) non-durable. Services are disaggregated into 1) household expenditures on services, and 2) expenditures on services of non-profits serving households. Each of the categories, except the last, have at least two more levels of disaggregation.

The fall in goods consumption was entirely a fall in the purchase of durable goods, as seen in the next figure.

Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis, Real Personal Consumption Expenditures by Type of Product, Quantity Indexes

In aggregate, the purchase of non-durable goods increased modestly, while certain sub-categories fell. The purchase of durable goods fell every single year from 1941 to 1944. It had fully recovered by 1946.

Durable Goods

As already noted, a large portion of the decline in durable goods was automobiles, which were about one-quarter of all durable goods purchased in 1941. Household appliance purchases fell by 89 percent. Two other categories that saw declines of more than 50 percent were audio and photographic equipment, and musical equipment. Notably, the purchase of books increased by almost 60 percent!

Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis, Real Personal Consumption Expenditures by Type of Product, Quantity Indexes

The chart above also shows that in 1944 the purchase of ‘Jewelry and Watches’ was 28 percent higher than in 1941. This understates just how much these purchases increased during the war, since they fell slightly in 1944.

I used data on the purchase of ‘Jewelry and Watches’ as part of the research and analysis for my dissertation, which was about the De Beers diamond cartel during WWII. I argued that the increase in purchases was evidence of the company’s success in conjoining diamonds with engagement. However, the war was a vital context.

At a time when Americans were foregoing luxuries, such as automobiles, appliances, cameras, and radios, they dramatically increased their purchase of jewelry, perhaps the most luxurious of luxuries. Why? During WWII the number of U.S. marriages increased dramatically. Men and women were getting engaged and married before the men went overseas. This led to a dramatic increase in the sale of diamonds rings. For more on this, you can read the dissertation, or read the presentation I gave at my doctoral defence, or watch this video of a presentation from early in my research and analysis.

The reasons for consumption changes are always many. I suspect that multiple dissertations could be written about every category of household consumption expenditure.

The fall in durable goods was not because the population could not afford them. It was because the materials needed to produce many of them were diverted to the war effort. Obviously the steel needed for private automobiles was required for military transportation and weaponry. It also required large amounts of optical materials, rubber, fine copper wire, and much more. This left much less of these essential inputs available to provide durable goods to households.

Non-durable Goods

For non-durable goods, almost every sub-category saw an increase, except those associated with automobiles and those associated with recreational activities.

Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis, Real Personal Consumption Expenditures by Type of Product, Quantity Indexes

However, an examination of the categories raises an important question about the meaning of consumption.

Economists and policy-makers take for granted that greater consumption means greater well-being. Of course, they will acknowledge that the reality is messier than this. But that acknowledgement does little to alter the reflexive use of national accounting measures as measures of well-being. Indeed, many of the goods and services we consume are a response to a harm.

Three of the categories of goods—alcohol, tobacco, pharmaceuticals—are at least partially coping mechanisms. The war was a stressful time. Almost everyone would have known someone serving overseas; most would have known someone who was killed. In the early years, when Germany, Italy, and Japan were swiftly claiming territories, there was incredible uncertainty about the war’s outcome. Understandably, people would have medicated that stress.

Examination of the make-up of household consumption in post-war years hammers home that increased expenditure need not mean greater well-being.

In nominal terms, total personal consumption expenditure has grown at an annualized rate of 6.5 percent per year. Certain categories have grown much more and now comprise a much larger share of people’s spending. The relationship between greater spending on these items and well-being is ambiguous, to say the least.

Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis, Personal Consumption Expenditures

The above shows five categories of spending that have variable relationships with well-being. For example, greater spending on doctors is partially about greater access to more and better kinds of treatment. However, it is also about more maladies. The same is true of ambulances and hospital fees. A greater share being spent on nursing homes is partially about longer life spans. But it is also about less intra-family care for our elders, which has mixed consequences. Greater shares spent on financial services is partially about more people having wealth that needs to be managed, but also about the wealthy spending more to manage wealth in ways that avoid taxes.

Beyond the above contradictions, the majority of medical services should not be paid for by individuals. They should be free at the point-of-service, and funded by the government as a public good. The fact that hospitals now comprise eight percent of American consumer spending is outrageous when combined with the scale of medical debt. Medical care should be a right, not a growing expense. And increased household consumption that includes increased spending on medical care cannot unambiguously be claimed to express greater well-being.


As with non-durable goods, almost every sub-category, other than those associated with automobiles and recreational activities, saw an increase in consumption.

The largest increase was in the category of “food furnished to employees (including military)”. This is the only category where the military build up had obviously bled over into the data for household consumption. In 1939, it was less than one percent of all service spending. By 1945, it was 5.3 percent. However, that misleading boost to personal consumption expenditure is not sufficient to change the overall image that Mason and Konczal deploy.

Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis, Real Personal Consumption Expenditures by Type of Product, Quantity Indexes

Because fuel costs had risen, and fewer cars were being purchased, there was much more use of public transit. In fact, this would be a high for public ground transportation (as a share of total consumption) for as long as the U.S. has kept national accounts. In 1943, public ground transportation was over 80 percent of all transportation services, which includes automobile service and repair. By 2019, it was barely 12 percent, having been displaced by automobile service and air travel.

Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis, Personal Consumption Expenditures

When we look at the increases in the purchase of services, we see that people were eating out more and they were communicating more. Both largely express positives for people’s well-being. However, the large increase in gambling is less ambiguously good. While gambling is benign entertainment for many, it is also a problematic, even destructive, habit for others.

Perhaps the most interesting increase is in the purchase of social and/or religious services. On the one hand, this could be another expression of the undercurrent of anxiety that comes with living in wartime. On the other hand, much of the spending on these kinds of services is not for oneself; it is charitable spending.

In my research on De Beers, one of the things that jumped out from first person descriptions of life in the United States during WWII was the feeling of unity. The government very deliberately sought to create this sentiment. It wanted the entire population to feel like they were part of the war effort, even if they were not on the frontline.

In The Good War, Seth Klein writes about the Canadian government’s effort at creating public unity. It reflected on the experience of the First World War and a perceived lack of unity that hampered the war effort. Part of the failure came from a widespread sense that the burden of the war was disproportionately falling on the working class. That was part of the motive for extremely high top marginal income tax rates, and excess profits taxes.

We can debate how fairly the costs of the war were actually distributed. We debate how inclusive U.S. and Canadian societies actually became. Racial and ethnic divisions certainly did not disappear. However, many reported feeling a greater sense of solidarity. In such a setting, people likely felt feel giving.

One of the few services that did decline during the war was household maintenance, which fell by 13 percent. Conversely, purchases of tools were among the few durable goods with a stable level of expenditure. This suggests that people substituted their own labour for the the purchase of repair services. All other things being equal, this would have reduced GDP, since expenditure of our own labour is not included in national accounts, while spending for third-party labour is.


In Mason and Konczal’s op-ed, they mobilized the fact that price-adusted personal consumption expenditures in the U.S. continued to rise, except for 1942, even though the government massively intervened in the economy. They used the fact to argue that government can and should spend to support a post-pandemic boom. I concur with this assessment. However, I want to call attention to the qualitative shifts that occurred in consumption patterns. Aggregate consumption—a very problematic measure when adjusted for price-changes—might have continued to increase, but there were substantial differences across the categories of household consumption.

The end of the pandemic is likely to reinvigorate household consumption. Since the climate crisis continues, we must acknowledge both the necessity and the possibility of qualitative transformation. During WWII, public transportation, as a share of personal consumption expenditure, jumped by more than one percentage point. At the same time, purchases of private automobiles collapsed. The purchase of goods to service private automobiles also dropped significantly.

While there were undoubtedly certain hardships associated with this collapse, it was necessary for the war effort. For similar—and additional—reasons we need to confront the likelihood that current private automobile ownership must be drastically reduced. However, this does not have to mean that we are necessarily worse off. This will be discussed more in the conclusion to Part 3.

Remaking Our Economies with Wartime Analogies, Part 1

Economist JW Mason recently tweeted the following:

Bloomberg writer Peter Coy was motived to perform this research by an NYT op-ed from Mason and Mike Konczal. Mason and Konczal’s primary argument is that we can have a post-pandemic economic boom, but that it needs to be properly managed. They are trying to pre-empt the hand-wringing about ‘over-heating’ the economy and creating runaway inflation. Mason and Konczal point to the experience of WWII, when U.S. household consumption increased even as large amounts of labour and material resources were diverted to the war effort.

Coy was able to affirm the evidentiary basis of Mason and Konczal analogy between the present era and WWII-era production.

The pair argue that the demand driven by military need led to increased supply capacity. Importantly, that increased capacity benefited the broader populace, hence the increased household consumption. Although Coy is receptive, he tempers their argument, citing an article by economist Price Fishman, who argued that the national accounting data “does not account for the declines in quality of goods, the extra costs of obtaining rationed goods, and the complete absence of other goods.”

Fishman is opening a huge can of worms. The construction of “price-adjusted” or “inflation-adjusted” measures of output—called “real” measures in many national accounts—is extremely fraught, not least because of changes in quality, and changes in the qualitative mix of goods and services. Fishman suggests that “better estimates of the true prices” of consumer goods and services show that individuals consumed less during the war years.

This notion of “true prices” is downright ridiculous. It exposes economists’ lack of ontological thinking, their worship of the price mechanism as something that could express the true value of a good or service, and their confidence that economists trained in equilibrium thinking know how nominal prices should be adjusted to express real value.

There are better and worse prices, but there are no true prices. Better and worse is an inherently normative assessment, while economists consider themselves predominantly positive analysts of the economy as it is.

Fishman is privileging other estimates that are still just estimates, while infusing them with a veneer of objectivity. Economists constructing the estimates preferred by Fishman must make numerous assumptions to justify whatever adjustments are being made to actual, recorded prices. This is true of the reported “real” figures and the ones that support Fishman’s argument.

Nominal prices, the one that consumers actually paid, the ones that informed input and output choices, the ones that are supposedly clearing markets by balancing supply and demand, are deemed unsuitable by those whom Fishman claims are creating “better estimates of the true prices”. For all their valorization of “the market”, economists frequently grant themselves the soothsaying ability to understand what a price ought to be.

Attacking the notion of “true prices” or “real measures” of output is not the purpose of these post. For more on that, check out the research of economist Blair Fix [pdf], including his work with economists Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler.

Rather, I want to examine the WWII analogy to develop more insights on proper management of a post-pandemic economic boom. Greater management is necessary if we do not want a post-pandemic boom to pour fuel onto the fire of the climate crisis, as well as numerous other ecological crises.

Mason and Konczal’s op-ed offers not one word on our our multiple ecological crises. On the one hand, Mason and Konczal can be forgiven, since they are fending off a more immediate threat, in the form of rising austerity rhetoric, and they are writing in the limited space of an op-ed. On the other hand, economists writing about macroeconomic matters need to adopt the habit of always situating the economy within the environment.

Current levels of production are already unsustainable in terms of resource use. Increases in productive output have always had commensurate increases in material inputs and waste production. A boom risks worsening the situation.

Somehow the same people who lectured us that “there’s no such thing as a free lunch” also told us that we could have indefinite economic growth. The latter message has been useful for obfuscating how environmentally destructive “growth” has been. However, it is the former message that has economists of the Larry Summers ilk adopting the latest version of their condescending “I know you don’t want to hear this but” tone and lecturing us that governments must rein in spending… or else.

Their story is that government spending crowds out investment by the private sector. It is private sector investment, we are told, that makes endless growth possible. While they will give a nod to Keynes, and admit a role for government to smooth out the vicissitudes of the market, they remain market evangelists, preaching the good word of competition, profit maximization, and the price mechanism.

Mason and Konczal reject this story. Although they do not discuss our ecological crises, dealing with these crises will be much more difficult if the austerians win the argument.

Coy notes that private sector investment did fall during the war. However, to claim “crowding out” as the reason requires heroic assumptions disconnected from reality. The concept of crowding out assumes that if the public sector had not spent this money, then the money would have been available to the private sector, which would have used those funds in other productive ways. Not only is this fiscally and financially illiterate, it demonstrates a lack of understanding of industrial investment.

It was wartime. There was incredible uncertainty. Memories of depressed household demand and persistent stagnation were palpable. Of course business pulled back its own investment. Not only did the government not crowd out the private sector, investment by the latter would likely have fallen more if the government had not spent as it did.

The analogy with WWII is important for both our economic recovery from the pandemic and the economic transformation needed to deal with on-going ecological crisis. At the same time, the analogy has limits, although these too are illuminating. Not least, we cannot treat quantitative increases in household consumption as unambiguously good. In parts 2 and 3, I will develop the analogy with WWII further, and see what else it can tell us, and where it falls short.

Part 2 will look at the qualitative shifts in U.S. household consumption that took place during the war. Part 3 will move from the U.S. as the analogic country to the U.K. While the bulk of both Parts 1 and 2 is heavily empirical—perhaps mind-numbing so—the conclusion is much more speculative.

I argue that our ecological crises requires planning if our economies are to function within the Earth’s material constraints. However, this does not mean we must deprive ourselves and live lives of meagre subsistence. Far from it.

Bankruptcy is the endpoint of an oil and gas business strategy

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has asked the Canadian government for financial assistance to clean-up abandoned oil and gas wells in the province. It has been estimated that cleaning up these wells could cost as much as $70 billion.

The existence of 77,000 abandoned wells across Alberta is the result of a financial strategy by the oil and gas business. Billions of dollars in profits and salaries reaped by oil executives are being subsidized by the public that is being asked to foot the bill.

Recently, the confusingly named Houston Oil & Gas declared bankruptcy. The company is abandoning over 1,000 oil wells.

This was not just the unfortunate outcome of a risky business operation. This type of company, and its eventual bankruptcy, is part of the financial ecosystem of the oil and gas business.

Returning Wells to Profitability

Houston’s stated purpose was to “rejuvenate legacy assets into profitable and beneficial operations.”

Over time, the amount of oil coming out of a well decreases. Eventually, the revenue earned from a well falls below the well’s operating costs. Companies like Houston can only return a well to profitability by cutting costs. If the company cannot get costs across its wells below the revenue the wells generate, then they will go bankrupt.

The Supreme Court ruled that bankruptcy does not absolve a company of its responsibility for the clean-up of unproductive wells. That means the assets of a bankrupt company can be seized by the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) to contribute to well clean-up costs. However, often the sale of assets will not generate enough to cover all the costs. This is why companies like Houston are so useful to the broader oil and gas business.

Passing the Clean-up Liability

Imagine a big, established oil extraction company—we can call it Old MacDonald’s Oil & Gas Co.—has a bunch of wells approaching the limits of profitability; operating costs are close to revenues. They face a large future cost: cleaning up the well. Old MacDonald’s cannot just abandon the unprofitable wells. The AER can come after them. The company has lots of profitable wells and is generating returns for its investors and paying handsome salaries to its executives. It does not want to go bankrupt and disrupt this positive financial flow. But it also does not want to incur the costs associated with well clean-up. That’s where the sale to a company like Houston is useful.

If Old MacDonald’s sells the wells with waning profits to a company like Houston, then it eliminates the liability of future clean-up costs. Those liabilities shift to the buyer, which can try to cut the costs of operating the wells to squeeze more profits from them. If the buyer fails to return enough wells to profitability and goes bankrupt, then the limit of the AER cost-coverage is the assets of the bankrupt company. Neither the owners nor the executives, which may have enjoyed years of dividends and bonuses, will bear any of the liability. Old MacDonald’s will also bear no liability for the wells, since it sold them.

As the price of oil drops, well revenues will drop, meaning many more wells will cease to be profitable. This means many more wells are likely to shift to cost-cutters like Houston. Many of those are likely to be abandoned, with the costs ultimately borne by the public.

Profiting Off the Cheap Disposal of Plastics, or Microplastics are Raining Down from the Sky

Microplastics are raining down from the sky.”

That is a sentence that should only exist in science fiction.

This is just one more externality associated with profit-driven production. The quest for profit will always drive cost-cutting and externalization is one of the most effective means of cutting costs. The entire price landscape would be different if we had to pay for the clean-up and proper disposal of these microplastics. In a sustainable economy they would be returned as an input to production. The high cost associated with properly managing their recirculation would provoke substitutions and innovations.

There are beneficiaries of this destructive and unjust externalization of costs. Many of those beneficiaries undoubtedly claim personal virtue – thrift, hard-work, foresight – as the reason for their financial success. The truth is that others subsidize their gains. The profitability of any plastic-using product depends on our ability to cheaply – or freely – dispose of plastic products where they get widely distributed into the global environment.

Dealing with our multi-faceted ecological catastrophe does not mean killing the economy. It means transforming the economy. Those who claim measures to address ecological destruction will produce economic harm are actually saying they benefit from the destructive status quo. They are not willing to sacrifice their own lifestyles to ensure basic liveability for others, including future generations.

Airbnb Caters to Tourists and Harms Residents

Airbnb is making city life worse by catering to worsening social inequality.

Thomas Piketty’s monumental Capital in the Twenty-First Century came out in the wake of the Occupy movement. Both sounded the alarm over rising wealth and income inequality. Piketty put numbers to a reality that Occupiers understood and opposed.

Financial inequality has a plethora of material expressions. The poorest of the poor suffer abject deprivation. This comes along with mental health challenges that compound the effects of the structural causes of poverty. Meanwhile, the wealthiest of the wealthy have lavish lifestyles, which also contributes to mental illness. Between the two extremes the majority experience myriad socio-economic transformations as businesses chase dollars trickling upward to the already-rich. Increasingly, businesses look to cater to those with disposable income or those going into debt trying to consume like the wealthy. Systems of production and consumption are shaped by our one-dollar, one-vote economy.

It is in this context that Airbnb has become socially harmful. When it first came to public attention, Airbnb exemplified the promise of the so-called ‘sharing economy.’ The idea was that some people have spare rooms and other people need access to cheap, short-term accommodations. It seemed like a win-win. It also seemed like a tick in favour of the good, old-fashioned market, as well as new-fangled platform capitalism. Airbnb was supposedly facilitating the law of supply and demand to more completely fulfill its potential. For just a small slice of the price charged to the renters, Airbnb provided the means for people to rent their own homes when they were travelling elsewhere or to make some money renting a room in their home. The reality has been much different.

A Toronto Star / Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy investigation found that Airbnb has facilitated the rise of “ghost hotels”. These are short term accommodations for tourists in what would otherwise be lived in by owners or long-term renters. Tourist accommodation is displacing housing. UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing Leilani Farha says the reason is that this is “simply more profitable.”

Airbnb approached the issue of the accommodation market as simply a technical matter. It completely ignored the social context into which that technology was entering. Many of its effects now seem predictable. Perhaps they would have been if the company had social scientists on staff.

The effects of Airbnb are externalities to the markets in which it operates. Some of these are positive externalities. Many businesses cater to tourists. With more rental options more tourists will come to a city. If accommodations are cheaper then tourists can spend their dollars elsewhere. However, the effects on long-term rentals are a negative externality. The consequences will compound and cascade. As people are priced out of a housing market they move further away. Many will leave the local labour market. The same businesses that benefit from more tourists will have more difficulty finding workers. Businesses frequented by lower wage workers will lose their customer base and close.

Whatever ‘sharing economy’ ideals may have motivated the company’s founders, Airbnb is now emblematic of the significant damage a tech company can do outside the digital world.


Cheap Goods Come at a Cost

The fascinating chart below tells a tale of ever cheaper consumption. It can be read as verification of one of capitalism’s promise: pursuit of profit results in productivity gains that lower costs and prices. The other profit promise is it leads to innovations that will become widespread as they enter the cycle of cheapness. Continue reading

There is No Such Thing as the Free Market

Two popular turns of phrase among those who support unfettered free markets are ‘leave it to the market’ and ‘let the market work.’

The phrases are deployed as solutions for a wide range of issues, such as environmental regulation, government subsidies, unionization, minimum wage, rent control and education funding. However, ‘the market’ invoked by these phrases does not—and could not—exist. At best, these vocal free market advocates are utopianists, believing in a system that could never exist. At worst, they are rhetorically advocating something they know is impossible to obfuscate self-serving purposes.

Basic economic theory claims that markets allow an ‘invisible hand’ to balance supply and demand, which maximizes well-being. Although economics has grown intimidatingly complex, this remains the foundation of mainstream theory. When pundits, politicians, businesspeople, and others tell us to ‘leave it to the market,’ they are implying that actual markets function like this theoretical market. However, actual markets have nothing in common with the abstract markets of economic theory.

Constructing a theoretical market

To construct the efficient market of economic theory, economists perform two separations.

First, they separate markets from the rest of society. Governments, religions, cultural practices, families, laws and every other social institution are deemed ‘exogenous’ in the economists’ parlance. Similarly, the individual’s desires are deemed exogenous. In this fantastical market, functioning out of time and space, we enter to make our exchanges, uninfluenced by the rest of our social life. And, when we leave the market, we are unaffected by the exchange, with no impact on anyone or anything else.

Second, they separate producers from consumers. In order for theoretical markets to produce a single, stable equilibrium, economists adopt a few assumptions. The independence of supply and demand is one such assumption. If supply and demand are not independent, then there is no single equilibrium and no basis for claiming a given combination of price and quantity is fair and efficient. Yet, the assumption of supply and demand independence is patently at odds with one of the most visible aspects of market societies: marketing.

The entire purpose of marketing—from ubiquitous advertising to meticulously designed packaging to the charming salesperson—is the influence of demand. Businesses spend enormous sums of money trying to understand consumer decision-making in order to entice the purchase of their products. Advertisements are painstakingly created, with every word and image detail scrutinized. Store layouts are continuously tinkered with to increase the attention a customer gives to the goods. Even sellers at farmers’ markets will agonize over their displays. Would so much money and effort be devoted to marketing if it were completely worthless? Indeed, if marketing were a useless undertaking, it would undermine another basic assumption of mainstream economic theory, which is that individuals are perfectly informed, rational decision-makers.

Markets are historical

While theoretical markets are asocial and ahistorical, actual markets are both social and historical.

The functioning of markets is throughly mixed up with culture and politics.

Consider the car market. Demand for cars is not driven solely by the desires of isolated individuals. The car is an indelible part of American culture. Many people express themselves through their cars and the companies design advertising that plays on that relationship. Design trends connect the appearance of cars to certain periods of time. The car companies create, facilitate and respond to these trends. There are technological innovations that come both from inside and outside the R&D facilities of the manufacturers. Car sales are greatly affected by the price at the pump, which is itself affected by events in the Middle East. The car, and the market for cars, cannot be separated from the rest of society.

Or, consider the pipeline debate currently raging in Canada. What would it mean to leave pipeline decisions to ‘the market’? Constructing new pipelines would facilitate the export of bitumen from the Alberta oilsands, allowing production facilities to increase output. However, the pipelines must cut through other people’s communities, bringing the risks of spills with them. It is owing to this risk that so many people beyond the buyers and sellers of pipeline capacity, and beyond the buyers and sellers of oil, are weighing in. Some supporters of pipelines are suggesting that construction of them is a ‘nation building’ exercise akin to the railroad. Both sides of the debate are connecting pipelines to other social institutions. Pipelines are political, whether free market advocates want to admit it or not. 


Pipelines and cars are not the exception. They are the rule. Every market emerges from the interactions of numerous people and institutions. And, every market affects people and institutions outside those responsible for supply and demand. Fruit and vegetables rely on migrant workers, which tend to be drawn from precarious racialized communities. Construction is affected by housing demand that is further affected by interest rates set not by dispassionate markets, but by a committee of central bankers who pretend to mimic the theoretical market. Long-distance transportation costs are affected by the capacities of global ports, the building of which affect neighbouring communities. Coffee markets require inspection mechanisms so companies can ensure their brand is associated with reliable quality.

Another favourite phrase among economists is ‘there’s no such thing as a free lunch.’ Yet, they seem to have convinced themselves that the functioning of markets is precisely that. The reality is, far from being free, markets require a great deal of time and effort just to exist. But, all that work disappears as a ‘free lunch’ in the theory of supply and demand and in the rhetoric of free marketeers.

There is no free market that things can just be left to or we can simply let work. The invisible hand exists nowhere outside the utopian fantasies of free marketeers. By obfuscating the difficult work needed to make a market, mainstream economic theory and market utopianists make it more difficult to understanding how real markets actually work.