Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Alexander J. Field's "The Economic Consequences of U.S. Mobilization for the Second World War"

Alexander J. Field is the Michel and Mary Orradre Professor of Economics at Santa Clara University. He is the author of A Great Leap Forward: 1930s Depression and U.S. Economic Growth and served as Executive Director of the Economic History Association from 2004 to 2012.

Field applied the Page 99 Test to his new book, The Economic Consequences of U.S. Mobilization for the Second World War, and reported the following:
Page 99 of my book contains a statistical table which documents the respective performance of synthetic rubber plants producing butadiene from different feedstocks. Butadiene was needed along with styrene to produce synthetic rubber, a task forced upon the United States by the Japanese conquest of Singapore and the cutoff of 95 percent of U.S supplies of natural rubber. Suffice it to say that looking only at this page would give readers a very incomplete sense of what they can expect in the book. To be sure, some tables, but a great deal more, written, at least according to the blurbers, in a way that makes often technical material accessible to the general reader. The intent of the book is to overturn a view of the economic consequences of the war shared by economists, many historians, and the general public.

Aside from the claims that mobilization closed the negative output gap still prevailing in December 1941, and that the U.S. produced an enormous amount between 1941 and 1945 (both true), the conventional wisdom focuses heavily on learning by doing making military durables: Kaiser’s Liberty ships and Ford’s B-24 plant (Willow Run) often figure prominently in these narratives. Many argue that the learning resulted in big increases in industrial productivity across the war years with persisting benefits that helped lay the supply side foundation for the golden age of U.S. economic growth (1948-73).

These latter claims are, at best, misleading. They reflect the degree to which a celebratory imperative, along with wartime efforts at persuasion, have clouded our vision. We have lost sight of the chaos and waste involved in mobilization, the competitive expediting and endemic shortages and producer hoarding that contributed to production intermittency, idle capital, and priorities unemployment. All of this was aggravated by supply shocks visited on the country by the Japanese (see synthetic rubber) and the Germans, whose U-boats almost completely cut off tanker deliveries of petroleum and petroleum products to the Eastern seaboard.

The simple arithmetic is this: military (and total output) went up, but combined inputs went up more, which is to say productivity declined. The sudden, radical and ultimately temporary changes in the product fix caused both output and output per unit input (productivity) to plummet during transition periods as manufacturers shifted from making goods in which they were experienced to those in which they were not. Eventual gains from learning were a partial and temporary counterbalance; most of the goods were never made again after the war. The central empirical finding is that industrial productivity declined dramatically between 1941 and 1945, and grew anemically thereafter, compared to what had been true during the interwar period. Manufacturing productivity was lower in 1948 than it had been in 1941. The broader argument is that the supply side foundations, not just for production success during the war, but also for the golden age, were already largely in place by 1941, a thesis initially advanced in my 2011 book, A Great Leap Forward: 1930s Depression and U.S. Economic Growth.
Learn more about The Economic Consequences of U.S. Mobilization for the Second World War at the Yale University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: A Great Leap Forward.

--Marshal Zeringue