As Geoffrey Parker’s Global Crisis shows, governments have waged war instead of helping citizens for centuries

Global Crisis by British historian Geoffrey Parker presents the 17th century as a case history of the devastation that climate change can wreck upon human societies.

The 1600s experienced an enormous number of droughts, lengthy winters, floods, major earthquakes and other extreme weather phenomena resulting from what scientists and historians call “The Little Ice Age.” The Little Ice Age hit human societies hard, leading to famines, plagues and other disasters in all the continents, which put pressure on the still forming nation states throughout the world to go to war to gain or protect their resources. An enormous number of civil wars also broke out, as nobles and/or peasants resisted higher taxes and confiscation of grain and land. The world population was much less in 1680 than it had been in 1600, with some regions losing perhaps a third of their population.

Parker isn’t saying that the sudden cooling of the earth in the 17th century caused all the mayhem of the period, but that sudden climate change combined with and exacerbated political instability to push the world into general disaster and decline. I’m only about a third through this 700+ page tome, but I’m already convinced that Parker gives us a roadmap to our future if we don’t slow down global warming: resource shortages, natural disasters and population displacements could plunge most of the world into a living hell of poverty, warfare, epidemics, famine and environmental degradation.

The topic of today’s OpEdge article is not, however, Global Crisis, but one paragraph on page 34 of the book.  The topic of the paragraph is what Parker calls “indirect” or “opportunity” costs, which refers to the lost opportunity to spend money on something because you have already spent the money on something else. In the paragraph in question, Parker refers to the many positive initiatives that 17th-century governments did not pursue because they had already spent so much fighting wars:

  • Philip IV of Spain, who spent £30 million to finance foreign wars between 1618 and 1648, claimed that he didn’t have the funds to set up a national banking system.
  • Charles I of Great Britain, whose wars between 1625 and 1630 cost £6 million, decided he could not afford to create public granaries for famine relief.
  • After Manchu raiders broke through the Great Wall in 1629, the emperor’s drastic reductions in non-defense spending included closure of one-third of all postal stations.

Parker suggests that these examples represent the tip of an iceberg of societal needs that went unfilled in the 17th because rulers were raising armies to grab or defend land.

La plus ça change, as the French say: The more things change, the more they remain the same.  The United States currently spends more than $680 billion a year on the formal military budget, or about 19% of all federal government spending and 28% of estimated tax revenue. That’s more than we spend on education, highways and bridges, research, job creation, safety inspectors, agencies such as the Center for Disease Control and the Federal Drug Administration and all other discretionary goods and services.  This enormous number—enough to build 340,000 new houses a year at $200,000 a pop or to cut the annual college tuition build by $10,000 for about 6 million people—does not include what we spend to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which for some reason Congress and the Bush II Administration decided to keep out of budgetary and deficit discussions.

By itself, the United States military budget accounts for 40% of global arms spending with a budget from 6-7 times that of China.

No wonder our roads are full of pot holes. No wonder federal aid to higher education has been slashed. No wonder our space exploration program is winding down instead of ratcheting up. No wonder there are more outbreaks of food poisoning and food recalls, which safety inspections help to prevent.

I’m not saying that we should do without military expenditures, but I’m fairly confident that if we swore off hegemonic foreign invasions, cut our nuclear force (which could destroy life as we know it on Earth many times over), cut research on new military weapons and significantly reduced our current armed forces, that we would be able to invest our tax revenues in more productive means.

Of course the dirty little non-secret of a capitalist system with few restraints on the market is that it needs war and military spending to provide enough jobs.  Of course, this dirty little secret has its own dirty little secret, which is that we would not harm a flourishing economy with a small military budget—but we would make a tremendous shift in wealth from military suppliers to suppliers of alternative energy and environmental protection equipment, social programs, highway builders and engineers and other segments of the economy that do not have as much lobbying clout as the military-industrial complex.

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