Sunday, April 08, 2012

Spin Off Benefits

DND apparently argued that one reason to support the F-35  contract was regional economic benefits. This is an argument that I hear periodically by those in favour of military spending. I'm not opposed to military spending, btw, but I am opposed to arguments that don't make  sense. Periodically, people in favour of military spending argue that there are a bunch of ancillary benefits that accrue to militarization. I get what they are trying to do. They are trying to make the strongest argument they can for their case.  Fair enough. I suppose we all do this.  The problem with this type of argument regarding the military, however, is that it is wrong. Let me be clear, I have no doubt that those who make the case for a stronger military firmly believe what they are saying. Firm belief, however, does not equal fact.

I can see why other might believe the advocates of militarization, too. They often sound good. They are smartly dressed when interviewed on TV. They sound remarkably reasonable and logical. And, they speak a sort of insider code, as if they were insiders in the capitals of the world, that assures us of this "you may not think this way but other governments do." What I want to do is to explain why we should resist this kind of argument and this kind of PR packaging of militarization.  Let's use regional economic spin offs as an example.

When we investigate any subject, we also need to investigate the witnesses. I tell my students to do this with me. I'm about to tell you something but why should you believe me? Well, on some things there is good reason to believe. I've spent a long time investigating certain subjects, I've read more, perhaps been to more conferences, talked to more people, perhaps even insiders. On other things ... not so much. This is the first question we have to ask about regional spin off benefits. Doe the people making the case have any reason to know something more then we do. Do civil servants in DND or military officials (however much we respect them for what they do) have any reason to know anything more about regional economic development then we do? If not... why would we take their word for it?

The second thing we need to ask "what are those benefits and to whom to they accrue?" If you read the linked story, you'll discover that there are a set of code words in it (my favourite is "traditionally"). Here is  a quote: "Traditionally, regional benefits on major military contracts in Canada have been equal to the purchase price. For example, a company that received a contract of $1-billion had to guarantee that it would spend that same amount in Canada, either on the actual contract or on other projects, subject to approval by Industry Canada."

Note, no sources are cited and the example given is purely hypothetical. No specific examples are listed. And, what does the word "traditionally" mean? Does it mean normally? Does it mean: this is a rule? Is this an average over time or does every contract function that way? There is an amazing lack of information in this piece.

And, you will notice this about most arguments for the spin off  benefits of militarization.  As another example, I recently had my students read an old piece by a number of noted scholars arguing that mlitarization won respect. They never specified from whom? In what context? How that respect translated into the realization of foreign policy goals? The implication is there: if people respect you, you will more easily get what you want. But, since no examples are given, we can never check this out. We have a vague promise delivered by serious-sounding individuals without a shred of evidence supporting it (excepting that vague "we are insiders so trust us" tone).

I am old enough to remember that these types of arguments were used by those who advocated maintaining fairly large infantry and air forces in Europe on a permanent basis. The Europeans won't trade with us, a very intelligent looking man dress properly in a three piece suit, told us night after night on TV.  Well, it turned out, of course, that European trade with Canada had nothing to do with the military and everything to do with economics. It is hardly shocking but business leaders base exchange decisions on the bottom line. They don't take a loss because of an air force base. Mercedes does not suddenly say "gee, if Canada keeps some interceptors in Europe, we'll lower the price of cars that Canadians buy." If anyone doubts me, go ask a business person on what they base their decisions. I'll wait.

But, we could take this further, did Canada's remilitarization and hard power hard line discourse win Canada respect at the UN? Gee. .. how did that get on the Security Council vote go again?   

Finally, spin off benefits are not a good way to promote regional development. Regional development is not the military's job; they won't be good at it because they have other jobs to do.They protect citizens, engage in disaster relief, provide expertise in developing countries, etc. Looking to military spending to stimulate the regional economy is like saying that you will improve the furniture in your bedroom by hiring someone to protect your shed. Having a safe shed might put you in a good mood and so you buy new furniture ... or, it might not. There is no connection between the two.

Any good economist will tell you that there "spin off benefits" to any public spending. (We can debate how much they are another day.) That is not the issue; the issue is the volume and the targeting of effects. If you want regional development, spend your money on that. If you spend it on something else and hope for regional development, you are adding another step in the process , another step that can create uncertainty, and another link in a chain as a place for something to go wrong. Because of these extra steps, it is, in fact, more then likely that military spending is less valuable for regional development than spending directed solely for that purpose.

If there are serious problems with the "spin offs to military spending" argument, why do people make it? Are they just trying to trick us into spending money on something that we would otherwise not spend money on. Perhaps. I think the advocates of military spending think their argument is weaker then they let on and so do indeed try to fortify it by drawing in other points (economics, international respect). I also think that some of these advocates talk about things that they do not really understand and so make mistakes. The fact that someone knows a lot about the military (the point I made above) does not mean that they know a lot about the economy or international relations.

But, more importantly, I think there is a will to believe. I think this is the same will that said things like "if you don't support the war in Afghanistan you are not supporting the troops." I think the advocates of military spending want this to be true. I think they desperately want to believe that increased military spending solves IR and economic problems and so they state confidently that it does ... all the while never actually investigating whether what they said was true. There is, after all, a reason why these claims are not documented.
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